DNA of a Connected Innovator: Nurture eight characteristics to spark connected innovation
Originally published: 2012 (PDMA Visions Magazine • Issue 1, 2013 • Vol 37 • No 1)
Read time: 10 minutes
Nurture eight characteristics to spark connected innovation
In my role overseeing the open innovation strategy at General Mills, I’m well aware that achieving true innovation success takes a number of distinct roles and personalities, each of which brings something unique and equally important to the process. However, when you look at Open Innovation (OI) in particular, I believe that one personality type becomes critically important to the innovation process—that of a connector or a connected innovator.
A connected innovator is someone who builds relationships and seeks solutions from others with ease, whether connecting with the colleague at the next desk, a trusted mentor from early in his or her career or a brand new external partner who possesses the right expertise to help get the job done. Beyond the interpersonal level, a great connected innovator also excels at connecting the dots between challenges and solutions, seeing ideas through from an initial vision to a tangible outcome.
I’m continuously inspired by the many great connected innovators on our team at General Mills. By taking a connected approach to innovation, our scientists and food technologists have led and contributed to countless successful OI projects, from Yoplait Smoothies to Fiber OneTM 90-Calorie BrowniesTM to PillsburyTM Grands!TM Biscuit Sandwiches.
The distinct personality traits of each member of our team, as well as how his or her diverse professional background helped develop those attributes over time, offer an interesting glimpse at what it takes to become a great connected innovator.
From what I’ve witnessed since launching our OI platform, the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN), six years ago, there are certain standout traits shared by some of our best and most successful connected innovators. To help spark connected innovation at your organization, encourage your team—and yourself—to nurture the following eight characteristics, or the “DNA of a Connected Innovator.”
No. 1: Perseverance
Believe that if you set your mind to some-thing, you can do it. You must maintain that tenacity against all odds. Think of perseverance as energy multiplied by time.
For one member of our team, this meant 16-hour days spent working as a pastry chef while also attending night school to become a food scientist. It can also mean dedicating weeks or months or even years of trial after trial before finally perfecting a breakthrough product formulation. Whatever the case, the best connected innovators refuse to give up until success is achieved.
Overcome “no” and “we’ve tried that before” by having the fortitude to pursue something that you hold out as promising. Timing is also critical. You need the right idea or solution at the right time, and you must also know when to push and when to idle. Losing a battle is inconsequential if you win the war.
No. 2: Curiosity
Great innovators are born with it, but it can be fed and nurtured. As you build your innovation team, look for those who have an innate desire to explore and learn. People who are naturally curious will continually explore their own fields as well as a diverse set of other technical and non-technical areas. Be a lifelong learner. Try to read anything and everything that interests you. Expose yourself to diversity by occasionally picking up a magazine or journal that appears totally random or attend a trade show in a loosely aligned business sector or academic discipline. It’s hard to find time to do some of these things, but those who are passionately curious will make it a priority.
No. 3: Creativity
No matter what your field, a true innovator must have the vision to see and articulate ideas that are possible but do not yet exist. Be ambitious with your creativity and set aside time to think and engage in the act of creation as part of your daily routine. Put yourself in new environments. Establish new idea goals and quotas and capture your new ideas in some format.
Stretch your organization’s thinking and propose bold new opportunities and solutions. For example, a team of General Mills innovators had the vision to find a way to incorporate fiber into foods like cereal and snacks without compromising taste. Led by a diverse team of our food scientists, the project brought together several external partners, from ingredient suppliers to fiber experts, and eventually resulted in our tremendously successful line of Fiber One bars and brownies.
No. 4: Ability to Lead or Follow, as Appropriate
Innovation is a team sport. It’s important to know when to lead, when to follow and when to support in order to advance a new idea and convince others to see the possibilities. Most companies have organizational “antibodies” that attack innovative ideas and approaches. Combatting the naysayers requires a leader who can build alliances, work within the organization’s culture and allow others to be successful.
Get to know the unwritten rules of your organization and build personal relationships with key influencers. Seek input early in the process and be open to advice, suggestions and concerns along the way.
No. 5: Ability to Connect Many Dots
Really, this is the heart of innovation: connecting those seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive idea or solution.
Over time, an innovator is faced with different technical problems that span different areas, even within his or her specific field or industry. For example, within food technology, you will come across challenges related to everything from ingredients to equipment, packaging and processing. The great thing about this diversity is that as you explore and develop possible solutions for those various challenges, you will quickly accumulate a versatile toolbox of many potential solutions for future problems.
The trick is learning to connect the dots, or apply the right tools to the right problems at the right time, even when the solution isn’t readily obvious or intuitive. This is something our team does extremely well. For instance, an extrusion technology used to enable high-capacity production lines in the plastics industry initially seemed impractical for the food industry. However, by taking another look and thinking outside the box, our team of extrusion experts led a project that allowed the same basic principles to be applied to cereal production lines, doubling their capacity and resulting in significant cost savings.
No. 6: Judgment
While connecting the dots is important, you must also show sound judgment when comparing possible solutions to know which will work and which won’t. Apply different lenses to thoroughly vet ideas. Think about the novelty, obviousness, potential hurdles and commercial aspects of every possibility. There is no substitute for a deep and thorough knowledge of your technical area, paired with a broader understanding of your organization’s business goals to allow you to consider ideas from other stakeholders’ shoes.
No. 7: Diverse Professional Network
Diverse experience is the key to finding new solutions; however, this doesn’t have to rest on the shoulders of just one person. Diversity comes from the various backgrounds of a team of people, which is why it’s important to work with people who don’t all think the same way.
Most big technical challenges are only solvable by a team of both internal experts and external partners. In fact, this was the catalyst for establishing our OI strategy at General Mills. We need to constantly grow and nurture our network of trusted external partners that can help us build technical capabilities and enable us to develop new food solutions effectively and efficiently.
Actively collect and nurture interesting new contacts to continuously grow your professional network. Invest time in developing relationships and helping those in your network succeed. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your network for help at any stage of your career. It’s worth the risk of exposing your vulnerability.
No. 8: Multilateral Thinking
When approaching a technical challenge, look for solutions down various paths both deeply and broadly. Dive deep into the patent landscape, prior art and current technical journals to reframe the challenge and build new solution paths. Invite fresh perspectives from other academic disciplines or outside your company to provide input and share insights as you explore broad opportunity areas.
When collaborating with others, look inside and out, remembering to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. When communicating a new idea, look up and down to consider all perspectives—your scientists will have different questions than your CEO. Last but not least, always look at the macro and micro view. It’s easy to get caught up in the details, but you must not forget the big picture.
To learn more about General Mills’ OI platform, the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN), visit www.generalmills.com/en/Company/Innovation/G-WIN.
Jeff Bellairs is the director of general MillsWorldwide Innovation network.
Case Study: PillsburyTM Grands!TM Biscuit Sandwiches
Within a large company like General Mills, there are countless relationships formed, built and maintained each and every day. From the company’s customers to its employees, from its investors to its suppliers, vendors and other external partners, General Mills prides itself on its commitment to making those relationships not only work but last for the long haul.
One way the company has demonstrated that commitment in recent years is through its increased focus on external partner development. This sometimes means seeking new partnerships to solve specific problems or develop specific products, such as the partnerships sought through General Mills’ Open Innovation (OI) platform G-WIN. Other times, the best solution is to revisit past relationships and embark on new projects that are mutually beneficial to both parties. That scenario proved to be the catalyst for the development of Pillsbury™ Grands!™ Biscuit Sandwiches, a new breakfast product.
In June 2010, the Pillsbury team began seeking an OI partner to help create and assemble a homemade-style biscuit sandwich that would offer consumers a quick and easy way to enjoy a hot breakfast at home. While the Pillsbury research and development team certainly had the expertise to make superior biscuit dough, General Mills’ own plants had limited capacity available at that time to bake and assemble the biscuit sandwiches. Additionally, the company wanted a partner with the capabilities to help develop and successfully assemble the biscuit toppings, in order to save time and reduce the cost of the project.
Pillsbury principal scientist Peeyush Maheshwari suggested that the project team visit Pennsylvania-based Better Baked Foods to see the company’s capabilities and gauge its interest in collaborating on the biscuit sandwich concept.
Prior to working on the Pillsbury team, Maheshwari had previously supported innovation on the Totino’s® brand at General Mills. In that role, Maheshwari had formed a relationship with Better Baked Foods to help Totino’s develop a new pizza product. As things often go with new product development, the project they were working on at that time did not come to fruition; however, Maheshwari and Better Baked Foods maintained their relationship over the years with both parties hoping for a future opportunity to work together again.
That opportunity presented itself in September 2010, when General Mills was ready to move forward with developing its biscuit sandwiches. Because of the existing relationship between the two companies, Better Baked Foods was ready, willing and able to get to work on the project in a matter of 10 days, and it brought a number of assets to the project with its extensive baking technology and expertise.
When Better Baked Foods’ technical capabilities were paired with General Mills’ internal expertise, the result was a sandwich that couldn’t have been achieved as quickly or successfully had the Pillsbury team not enlisted an external partner to help with the project.
Throughout the project, both companies came together to meld their strengths and meet an aggressive timeline.
“The phrase ‘teamwork’ gets overused and at times under appreciated; however, in this case it was neither,” said Joe Pacinelli, president and COO of Better Baked Foods. “Partnerships are created through actions not words, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a production line sorting product, collecting data, moving material and even fetching supplies for the associates is the true meaning of partnering.”
In the end, General Mills’ partnership with Better Baked Foods resulted in a successful first-entry into frozen breakfast foods for Pillsbury.