Innovator Interview: Mehmood Khan, Unilever


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futurethink recently spoke with Mehmood Khan, Global Leader of Innovation Process Develoment at Unilever. He shared with us what makes innovation such a success at Unilever. Is it leadership? Is it creating an ‘explorer’s mentality?’ He found that it’s much, much more.

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Innovator Interview: Mehmood Khan, Unilever

  1. 1. Mehmood Khan Global Leader – Innovation Process Development Unilever the innovator’s interview The Innovator’s Interview highlights unique innovations from a wide range of industries, and is an opportunity for futurethink and some of today’s leading innovations to share insights and ideas. May 2009 Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY
  2. 2. the innovator’s interview 2 Mehmood Khan the background This Innovator Interview series highlights leading innovators at Fortune 500 companies. In contrast to past interviews, focusing on a single innovation, this series examines the state of innovation at global organizations. We spoke with both innovation leaders and practitioners, within varying business units and organizational structures, across a broad range of industries both for–profit and not–for–profit. The interviews offer a unique insider’s view into the world of innovation—what makes it work, what holds organizations back, and what critical advice new innovators need to know to be more successful with innovation overall. the interview futurethink recently spoke with Mehmood Khan, Global Leader of Innovation Process Develoment at Unilever. He shared with us what makes innovation such a success at Unilever. Is it leadership? Is it creating an ‘explorer’s mentality?’ He found that it’s much, much more. When discussing the innovation process, you mentioned the slow pace of adoption of collaboration and co-creation. Why is this an issue? I think collaboration has become the biggest challenge for people. Because of market challenges, large companies must become very focused organizations. At the same time, they require entrepreneurial traits like that of a smaller company. How do you make these two different needs or ‘apporaches’ work together? It requires a lot of confidence and trust among people to work with each other. Big organizations need to look to smaller organizations or emerging areas to capture this entrepreneurial spirit. If you look around for the next ‘big’ opportunities, they’re happening more at small companies, and in places which are emerging now. So, take India for example, which is an emerging but very faster growing market; there are a host of ideas there. We need to look beyond our organization’s walls to innovate. One of the big issues that leaders often wrestle with has to do with metrics; we’ve found that people have a difficult time tracking innovation and measuring its success. What are the most important metrics to use when measuring your innovation program? We use a scorecard approach. Within the scorecard you can look at how well your efforts are aligned with the business strategy, and if they are delivering on the goals you’ve set over time. One of the roles I perform at Unilever is to give a reality check to what people are saying regarding the productivity of their projects. I can hold up the scorecard against what they are claiming and say: “Well, actually in real life, this is what your projects are showing.” The single biggest indicator of a healthy innovation program is the transparency of your innovation portfolio. This means, letting everyone in the organization understand where your project stands and how it is really performing. Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY
  3. 3. the innovator’s interview 3 Mehmood Khan At Unilever, we operate in more than 100 countries, and everyone — 16,000 people — are technically involved in innovation. There is a front-end piece (strategy, consumer insight and concept development) “To make innovation happen. that is done by Brand Development. And then, the implementation piece is done by Brand Builders who take the new offering to the The process of innovation marketplace. should not be a bureaucracy. How exactly do you go about idea generation and collecting new ideas? So, in a company like ours, Oh, we have a whole host of methods. Anybody in Unilever can submit innovation is done by 16,000 an idea to our online portal for review. But the majority of the time, ideas come from brand strategy reviews. There are other people who people. The innovation teams hold idea jams. This lets them energize their internal and external community and say, “Guys, we are in a holding pattern and need have to just facilitate it and something fresh, so come and give us ideas.” make sure that they’re having And so, at what point does your group get involved? the right environment, right Each business team is quite empowered. They have what we call a tools, and right kind gatekeeper—there are about 300-plus people in Unilever who are acting as gatekeepers. Team members propose a new idea to their of capabilities.” team gatekeeper and that gatekeeper will say, “Okay, the idea makes sense (or not). But here my five, six follow-up questions I need to have answered to suggest that this idea moves on to the next stage”. We stay on the pulse with these gatekeepers to keep innovation moving forward at the business unit level. What should the role of the innovation team or the innovation office? To make innovation happen. The process of innovation should not be a bureaucracy. So, in a company like ours, innovation is done by 16,000 people. The innovation teams have to just facilitate it and make sure that they’re having the right environment, right tools, and right kind of capabilities. We’re more or less facilitators, philosophers, and guides providing an environment for to make innovation happen. How do you ensure that people are constantly kind of energized around innovation? Ensure that we have a common language, a common process, common system, so it’s all a synchronized effort. What traits or characteristics do you think make someone a good innovaor? Having a good balance of creativity, capability and discipline are important to be innovative. I believe that every human being has all these skills, all three, and you need these skills more at different times. Creativity during brainstorms, capability during development, and discipline at ensuring you have your bases covered to get you to launch. What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to somebody who’s trying to build their innovation program or build an innovation effort? Innovation is something that needs to be driven from the top in an organization. It has to be. There is no other choice on it. Innovation is Anticipate. Innovate. equal to growth, and it has to be driven by the CEO. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY
  4. 4. the innovator’s interview 4 Mehmood Khan How much of innovation success do you think has to do with luck versus careful planning and execution? All of it is planning. There’s no luck. If you look at Steve Jobs, his mind is constantly working on creating things. And he prepares himself for that. Where do you see innovation as a practice going over the next few years? Does it become just a buzzword or truly drive business? It will remain strongly linked to organizational strategy. Strategy will drive innovation – it won’t be perceived as such a pure creative endeavor. It’s much more than that. It’s about value and growth. And that’s important. What can you learn about innovation from leaders like Unilever? • Facilitating cross-business unit collaboration: How well do your internal groups or divisions learn from one another when it comes to innovation? What forums can you provide them to better share best practices? • Having a common language around innovation: Does everyone have a consistent definition of what innovation means in your organization? Is there a published set of language that’s used an understood to make innovate happen more quickly? • Senior leadership buy-in: How are you ensuring that senior leadership plays a role in moving innovation forward? To learn more about the research, tools and training you need to better anticipate change and move innovation forward, visit us at Anticipate. Innovate. | Future Think LLC © 2005–09 Reproduction prohibited | New York NY