How to put your ideas to work in a time of uncertainty

A guide towards frugal innovation for corporations

We learned in the past that companies who have invested in innovation during uncertain times delivered superior growth and performance post-crisis. 2020 showed us that the COVID-19 situation is not different. Some organisations have already understood and adapted to the new emerging spaces, such as contactless payments (which have increased by 40%), crowd control solutions, digital health, etc.

Responding quickly to customer needs requires a good knowledge of your clients’ “job to be done” and their changing behaviour. And who has more of this knowledge and proximity to your clients than your employees? We believe that bottom-up innovation succeeds only by its ability to create customer-driven value.

This article shares four key criteria for success in our bottom-up innovation approach, illustrated through a practical example: our NEXT Innovation hackathon held in 2020. At this event led by Samuel Meskimen, the Thales inflight entertainment business empowered its employees to find new solutions to strategic challenges and uncover new growth opportunities.

The NEXT Innovation event in numbers

#1. The importance of an innovation champion

It might seem strange to talk about management as the first key criterion for success, but the role is fundamental in bottom-up innovation. As an executive sponsor, the innovation champion is the warrant of a fine balance between sharing a global corporate vision and promoting open culture and ideas coming from customers and employees.

To nuance these expectations, the innovation champion has many missions, among others: fostering and promoting a culture of innovation, defining the evaluation process, and coaching employees.

Developing new ideas requires taking risks, accepting failures and learning from mistakes in order to improve over time. Spreading this mindset among employees and executives promotes a receptive and constructive environment for change and the emergence of disruptive ideas.

“Innovation is not the responsibility of an individual; it’s the inspiration from a community. NEXT Innovation isn’t about management pushing an innovation agenda, but rather to provide a platform to inspire and showcase innovation that already existed within our teams.”

Samuel Meskimen, Research and Technology Leader at Thales

For the NEXT Innovation event, Samuel established specific hackathon challenges aligned with the company’s strategic priorities. He framed the tools and processes to evaluate the propositions, giving direction to employee creativity. These guidelines helped increase the number of generated ideas while maintaining many new possibilities for the employees to build on.

Finally, as a role model, Samuel acted as a coach for his teams. By advising and supporting them in their initiatives, the innovation champion is present to encourage employees to ideate, collaborate and further push their ideas.

#2. Foster creativity and perspectives: Partner up with seasoned innovators

According to a PWC report, 60% of companies cite that internal employees are the most critical partners for innovation, though, “Roughly two-thirds of innovating companies say that bringing in employees with fresh thinking and establishing innovative behaviours and culture are the most critical success factors for innovation.” So, what is the best way to bring new perspectives into the enterprise? Ask someone for help, ideally someone who can bring new light into your industry all the while considering your constraints.

Samuel Meskimen’s response was to ask for support from the Québec-based Thales Design Center, which offers a team of creative designers specialized in problem solving and user experience. As a partner in the organization of the event, the designers brought two key elements:

  • Design Thinking methods and tools to manage complexity and uncertainty of innovation; and
  • Content to inspire the employees to unconventional thinking (webinars with startups and thought leaders, videos, articles, etc.)

“We saw that the conferences had huge impacts on the emergence of new ideas and innovation.”

Catherine Roy, Design Leader of the Thales Design Center in Québec

Coupled with the stimulating content, the Design Thinking methodology allowed everyone to be creative and helped generate actionable ideas. Using the human-centered Design Thinking approach to problem solving, the designers brought new perspectives on three key points: business, technology and user desirability. With canvas such as the lean startups business model, the designers were able to encourage and challenge the value of ideas put forward by employees.

#3. Make remote innovation work — everywhere

In order to enable collaboration and ensure productivity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hackathon pivoted from an on-site event to accommodate an international audience hailing from North America, Europe and Asia. With coaching sessions and conferences, this broad virtual collaboration required organization and tools to facilitate the interactions especially with many people working from home.

In addition to their role as a design and innovation facilitator, the Thales Design Center helped Samuel design the event’s logistics for an optimized employee experience. Even if glitches are inherently part of an event, especially a virtual one, the right tools can make all the difference. For example, the use of Miro (an online visual collaboration platform) and Webex for webinars and breakout rooms helped employees work together, almost as if they were working side by side.

NEXT Innovation event — Miro Board

#4. The most important thing is to take action

While bottom-up innovation is a powerful way to mobilize the brain force of one’s organization, it should not only be seen as a one-off reenergizing or team building event.

Innovation is a combination of curiosity and persistence. It doesn’t happen overnight as we see in the movies — that flash of genius, followed by immediate impact and widespread adoption. Innovation champions and executive sponsors need to be committed enough to bring the right resources and environment for employees to solve a problem and support them throughout this journey.

As the design branch of Thales Digital Solutions Inc., the Design Center assisted Samuel in matching the best ideas to the right partners, technological assets or investors among the 80,000-strong employee population and the partner ecosystem (startups, academia, public innovation programs). Crafting small communities of innovation sharing the same goal can mutualize resources for frugal and impactful innovation that deliver results at scale.

1. Nominate a bottom-up innovation champion to implement and foster a culture of innovation, define the evaluation processes, and coach and challenge the employees.

2. Foster creativity and push ideas to the fullest of their value capacities with a problem solving and user-centred approach.

3. Harness the power of new technologies and ways of working to extend your event outside of your frontiers and secure a rich collaboration. Do not be afraid to experiment.

4. Take action.

The business landscape is changing quickly, and established innovation methodologies are reaching their limits in most industries. New approaches are needed.

In the search for solutions, technology plays an increasingly prominent role — allowing for new approaches such as Design Foresight or Design 4 AI.

These approaches are for executives looking for a hands-on and pragmatic approach to turn employees into their best innovation engine:

  • C-suite
  • Product/Marketing
  • Technology and Research
  • Engineering and Operations
  • HR and Learning

Our experts are available to support your innovation journey; contact us: dcquebec@thalesgroup.com

We wish you good luck with your future innovations!

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We’re investing in digital and “deep tech” innovations to build a future we can all trust, vital to our societies’ development. thalesgroup.com