Middle managers: The forgotten heroes of innovation

The importance of building a support network to implement promising ideas
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For many organisations, the biggest challenge of innovation is not coming up with good ideas, it’s making sure those good ideas are noticed and acted upon. This is a particular challenge for multinationals, such as global pharmaceutical and health company Bayer, which have thousands of staff spread across numerous departments, countries and regions – all with the potential to create good ideas.

The answer for Bayer was to build a framework to integrate and nurture innovation. This structure helped middle managers facilitate a culture of innovation throughout the company.

A blueprint for innovation

These observations were made during research for my book Built to Innovate. The book’s aim is to map out a proven system for embedding constant innovation, which I define as an innovation engine, into an organisation’s DNA. At its heart, this system identifies three key processes: creation, reframing and integration.

As I’ve explored in a previous article, creation is about giving employees the tools and motivation to generate ideas. Reframing is about challenging assumptions that may hinder innovation by encouraging team members to change their mindsets and reimagine their ways of working.

Speaking at a webinar, Monika Lessl, SVP, Bayer’s Head of Corporate R&D, Social Innovation and the Bayer Foundation, agreed that creation needs to take place across the company: “Innovation is often just defined as R&D. But that’s not enough, we realised it’s important to involve everyone in the innovation process and make it accessible across the company.”

Integration is the process by which the dispersed innovating capabilities and resources within a firm are brought together into a corporate-wide innovating capability. Put another way, the integration process encompasses two main elements: “connecting the dots” between all the new ideas that are springing up from around the organisation; and selecting, channeling and testing those ideas and deciding whether they are worthy of implementation.

As Lessl put it in an interview for the book: “We’ve learned creation is not enough … The idea is critical, but the translation to bring it to life and our understanding of the underlying problem is where we often fail.”

The need for an innovation network

This perhaps explains why Bayer, a 150-year-old company with a long and illustrious pedigree of inventing innovative products, has devoted so much time and effort to developing an environment that truly supports their employees’ potential for innovation.

With three separate divisions and a presence in over 30 countries, Bayer relied on a hierarchical structure that offered clear lines of communication and strict operational procedures. While ideal for day-to-day operations, this rigid system allowed little room for innovation.

The solution they fixed upon was to develop a dual system approach, creating a separate horizontal innovation network that was more flexible and allowed for simpler lines of interaction, collaboration and communication across the company.

This approach closely illustrates my argument in Built to Innovate: All successful innovative companies simultaneously operate an execution engine for day-to-day operations and an innovation engine that allows employees to dedicate time to generating new ideas.

The process of developing this network started at the very top, with Bayer’s whole board given responsibility for innovation. This innovation committee then selected 80 senior managers, spread across all country groups and global functions, to act as ‘innovation ambassadors’. These ambassadors focus much of their time working with the company’s middle managers, promoting innovation concepts and techniques that managers can share with their employees.

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