How can we create a culture that allows everyone to grow and develop?
Carsten Knobel, CEO at Henkel, knows from experience that a good leader fosters the collaborative environment that allows innovation to take hold. In this audio interview, Knobel explains how teams can build a culture of innovation.
How is innovation helping companies like Henkel achieve their key strategic goals?
Innovation is critical. In an increasingly volatile world, with new markets emerging, established business models being disrupted, a climate challenge, and the immediate impact of the pandemic, innovation is vital for global companies to succeed.
Innovation serves all our strategic goals, not just those most obviously relating to growth and profit. Take our sustainability strategy, for example. We have very challenging targets in this area and. To meet them, incremental and disruptive innovations are vital. These may include packaging innovations to avoid plastic and promote a circular economy, or concluding the first corporate plastic waste reduction bond with 100 million euros.
How do you encourage an innovation-friendly culture?
I strongly believe in the power of teamwork. No single person alone can change an organisation’s culture. It takes time and effort – and it needs clear words to be tangible. When we say that we want our people to think and act like entrepreneurs, we also have to say what we mean – for example, that they dare to take risks. Or that they should feel empowered to decisions faster.
What we don’t want to see is people thinking that innovation is solely the job of particular teams, like the R&D team. We also don’t want to see people feeling afraid of making mistakes. A healthy tolerance of failure must be reconciled with a strong performance culture. To be successful, we need to make winning examples visible and use failure as a learning opportunity. One example is our newly established incubator teams. They work fast, test directly on the market and adjust concepts if they don't work.
This sounds good in theory, but what could I do as a leader to make a real difference?
Trust is key. We need a healthy feedback culture, which starts with each of us. And this includes me. For example, I have created an ‘hour of truth’ with my leadership team. It is an open discussion in which my colleagues challenge me on my biggest weaknesses in front of the whole team.
What is the relationship between collaboration and innovation? How crucial is one to the other?
By collaborating, the chance of innovation increases exponentially, particularly in a large global operation. Henkel is active in more than 80 countries, with over 50,000 colleagues. We have a B2B business that touches pretty much every industry in the world and we also have consumer businesses. This makes our organisation very complex. However, it does also mean that we have access to teams throughout the world, who can bring different perspectives and share knowledge.
Increased digitalization does, of course, make that easier and more advanced. We have a cloud-based AI system, called Albert, that hosts data from every single experiment we conduct anywhere in the world. When an expert starts developing a new product, he or she can access this data and benefit from the results of other colleagues’ work. That makes product development leaner, faster and more collaborative. But of course, technologies are only as good as the way they are used, and data is only valuable if it is put in perspective. People are and will always be the vital ingredient in the innovation process.
Does diversity positively affect innovation?
The short answer is yes. Innovation comes from different perspectives, exploring new approaches, and from open-minded discussions. If everyone comes from the same background, shares the same culture and thinks in a similar way, it’s difficult for something new to emerge.
Looking at our diverse portfolio and the industries we serve, there are obvious business reasons for greater diversity. Put simply: why should a group of white, middle-aged male colleagues from Europe be the right people to innovate new styling products for female teenagers in Asia?
How will Henkel accelerate the pace of innovation?
Digitalisation offers great opportunities for innovation. Data allows us to make faster and better decisions - to try new ideas, test new concepts on the market, and adapt them with less effort, in less time and with fewer resources than ever before. Analysed data might even suggest new market opportunities in areas that we hadn’t considered before. Above all, we will accelerate the pace of innovation by creating the right cultural environment that allows an innovative mindset to flourish.