‘Is Middle Management the main obstacle to innovation in large co?’ by Koen Boeykens

KoenBoeykensKoen Boeykens is a talented innovation expert, focused on “getting things done”. He was a member of the Strategy & Innovation team at KPN as a C-level consultant. He shares with us some thoughtful takeaways from this creative venture.

Within KPN we tried on a very small scale to launch rapid innovation, but we didn’t get everything right.

Organisation & process

First of all a Strategy & Innovation department had to be established. Focus of the department was: coming up with new services & solutions for KPN. There were a couple of teams within this department, amongst others the User Experience team, whose I was part of.

Within this team we strove to build prototypes of solutions that customers really wanted. The process would be as follows, and ideally would take less than 4 months

  1. first we would think of a concept of the new service; not in splendid solitude, but in common workshops with all stakeholders: business innovators, marketers, developers, project managers, external innovation consultants, and user experience experts;
  2. next step would be to make a first paper design, essentially a text description of what we think would be the concept;
  3. this would then be tested with users. Basically we would interview customers on the challenges they see, and how they could possibly be solved;
  4. then we would explain/show them our first concept, and record their responses;
  5. concept would be adapted, designing and developing would start;
  6. several iteration cycles of steps 1-5 were needed;
  7. “final” concept was designed, and developed.

Note: designers and developers were external to KPN, and contributing to the solution, they were not just executing. It was basically a whole thought process where the concept evolves, and gets influenced by all contributors. Nevertheless the original integrated vision of our team always prevails.

What happens next is that we would arrange timeslots with the KPN executives (Board level). In general they have always been extremely enthousiastic. What’s even more energizing is that the, no disrespect meant, lowest hierarchical level of employees, meaning employees with no team or P&L management responsibilities, were always very lyrical as well. They see and understand that in order to differentiate as a Telco, integrated solutions need to be implemented, adding value by intelligently combining  several unique products.

Large-scale Implementation

So basically all seemed to be set to start execution, but then it failed. Apparently the middle layers of management acted as an extremely thick layer of clay. A phenomenon which seems to be the case in several large multinational companies.

Middle managers simply cannot, and don’t want to cope with the implementation of radical disruptive innovations. They have targets to achieve, and those targets are on the edge, meaning they don’t have brain time to spend on implementing innovations with a high-risk profile. They go for the easy bet: create a feature roadmap, and manage the timely execution of those features within budget. Next to that there’s of course always the political environment: nobody wants to lose his neck by asking for more or challenging the present product/solution portfolio.

So the result is that the existing product/solution only gets tweaked a little by implementing some features that are being captured from our integrated concept. But the concept as such, which only bears the radical benefits when implemented as a whole, is ignored.

Lessons learnt

Even when the CEO is enthousiastic, test-users/customers delighted, and the innovation engineers on the floor ready, there’s a strong buy-in needed from middle-management. This buy-in can only be realized if those people get the necessary space in their yearly objectives for radical innovations, next to the daily routine of continuously improving existing portfolios.  They would need an innovation target, next to their standard “going-concern” yearly targets.

In fact an alternative proposed solution from our side was to launch a parallel, separate product line, to implement the radically new solutions. Within KPN we would have the luxury then to position those solutions in the market through XS4ALL, the most advanced brand within the KPN group, known for it’s early innovator public. If not successful, we would know that we should not launch them with our mainstream brands. If successful, however we could gradually “copy or transplant”  those innovations to our cost-effective mass supply chains.

The end

Nevertheless we did not succeed to influence the organization as such that those organizational changes could become effective. Almost all of our projects, however excitedly received by most people, failed to be implemented. For this reason it has been decided to dismantle the Strategy & Innovation department, effective immediately beginning of the summer, 2013.

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  1. Sorry to read this account Nicolas. I’ve heard of this phenomena before, that middle management snuffs out the innovation light. Given its frequency, it seems to me there’s really only one way to address it. Start with them up front. Sure, the initial innovation efforts may be more tactical in nature. But you start to gain trust and credibility going that route. You also learn the landscape of interests, hot buttons and ways that changes can be inserted into operations.

    Not sure there’s another way. Heads of different business units will always be there. Given that, the right course seems to be to involve them early in the efforts.

    1. Agree, start sharing views from upstream to create necessity for change. It’s not easy in large co, so many stake holders. An additional way to gain acceptance is to leverage collaborative platforms (API), letting others create value on top of your innovation. Letting go and modesty are required 🙂

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