John Epars, Head of Strategy & Innovation at Romande Energie, will be presenting at the HYPE Innovation Managers Forum, in May. We sat down with him to discuss his innovation program, and find out about his talk.
What are the main challenges you faced as an Innovation Manager when you started your innovation program at Romande Energie?
There are two crucial elements: Middle management engagement and credibility of the program.
Middle management involvement in the programis an absolute necessity for its sustainability. By supporting it, the managers ensure to provide the resources to implement the innovation projects. If they understand the benefit of innovation for themselves, they will encourage their direct reports to participate to the innovation program, and make them understand that it is legitimate to do so on working hours. For this to happen, it requires a strong change in the management process.Three years ago, when we launched the innovation program, we were aware of this challenge as this topic is often discussed during the HYPE webinars. My team and I knew that we had to explain to the middle management what innovation means for our company, what it implies for them, what we expect from them, and what an innovation program is. When you are starting out and you have no results to show, no tangible proof of the benefits for the company, it is hard to convince them.
At the HYPE Forum, I’ll present how we have managed to engage them during the last two years. In late 2015, for example, we took the management team and a hundred of our managers for a day to an old unused oil power station called “Chavalon”. There, we asked them to design the best practices that will help to foster innovation.
We went there for two reasons. First, if we want to evolve the company culture, we have to explain why we change is necessary, and what change actually means. Without any good reason, nobody would have followed me. This abandoned building was a great physical illustration to show where we will be in 10 years if we don’t evolve and innovate. Secondly, I wanted my managers to step outside their comfort zone to design the future. This cold building in which nobody came during the last 20 years, was the perfect place to help them think differently. The best and the cheapest conference room!
In the power station, they ran ten “workshops”/activities where they could understand what innovation means. They experimented with what collaboration brings to innovation, how employees feel about being more involved and what could be their fears. They also designed their own role of innovation facilitator, and helped me to adjust the innovation strategy. Last but not least, I also showed how the HYPE platform could help them in their daily business activities.
After each activity, we asked them to write down their impressions. Once the seminar was completed, they had to vote for the strongest take away they got from their experiments. Those became the best practices they have defined themselves from what they saw, for innovation to really come alive. Now, they all have the innovation best practice’s booklet on their desks.
How did you keep the momentum going after the workshops?
I knew that if I stopped there, everything could be forgotten in a couple of weeks. So my CEO and I asked them to form into groups to design actions that will directly contribute to one of the best practices. We gathered them together again mid-2016, six months later, to vote one more time for the best actions. Right now, at beginning of 2017, I am happy to announce that the first two actions are implemented.
That is how the middle management actively participated in designing an innovation program that aims to answer real business needs. They realized that this was not just an online corporate program, but rather something tangible and important, which can help them in their business. All of that activity contributed to providing credibility to the program, which is the second main challenge I had to face. Making a program legitimate, so everybody is convinced of the importance of participating, is a hard task.
At the HYPE Forum, I will also present how we solved this issue by running a campaign asking how we could make our innovation program more interesting and easier to understand. Thanks to this campaign, we quickly realized that the lack of awareness about what other departments were doing, was an obstacle for participation and it was impacting the quality of the ideas. The typical “silos” issue.
At the end of that campaign, we organized a one-day innovation workshop to develop a concept out of 4 selected ideas. They all aimed to solve this issue of awareness and understanding by increasing the communication around our projects, products and services. After validating the concept with the board of directors, an innovation and collaboration space has been created in our cafeteria where people can touch the product we sell, discover our services, our projects, exchange between the different services, grab some materials about the innovation program, check on tablets what the other departments are doing, and drink a perfect latte macchiato from the last prototype of Nespresso coffee machine!
What convinced you to be a speaker at the HYPE Innovation Managers Forum?
This event is a real source of inspiration because most of the speakers are not consultants, but people like me “getting their hands dirty”, facing the same challenges. It is not a conference with long theoretical presentations; it is an interactive event with people exposing concrete experiences and solutions, showing you literally what they did from a pragmatic point of view, so it could inspire you to enrich your own program.
After two years as a participant and three years of experience as an Innovation Manager in my company, I see the value of the event in designing my innovation program. I learn from other companies what works, what does not work, and why. Charles Leadbeater said “You are what you share”. I think it is time for me to share now. This will give me the opportunity to challenge my program, receive direct feedbacks to improve it and grow its popularity and eventually, I hope, to inspire others.
Another aspect is the auto-evaluation of your work. I often hear and feel that as an innovation manager, you feel alone, without many points of reference or results that directly comes from your own work. In this condition, it is hard to evaluate your work. The forum allows me to compare what I am doing with others.
Finally, the fun aspect of the event is also why I feel I am part of a community. Coming back every year is like coming back home. It is a convivial event with a schedule that allows the participants to attend presentations, get practical information in workshops and have free time to network around social activities.