Q&A: “If we don't fail, it means we are not trying hard enough”
In what ways has Covid-19 affected how you innovate?
The crisis has accelerated the impact that digital transformation is having on our processes. It has led to a significant advance in the topic of remote working. It was an enormous push.
Usually, a lot of innovation processes happen hands-on, inside a laboratory where people are developing and testing new chemicals – you couldn’t do this in your home office. But because of Covid-19, we had to adapt rapidly and think, ‘How can we use a distributed workforce?’ Today, digital tools enable our scientists to develop next-generation formulations remotely, in their own homes. For instance, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence help them predict the material properties of formulations before they're even developed in a laboratory.
We can also assign tasks remotely into laboratories where we have essential colleagues. As a result, we have improved the way we use our assets and resources, and how we integrate data from all of our different scientists around the world.
Are digital technologies changing how you shape your innovation team?
Computers are not going to replace scientists – at least, not in the foreseeable future. But technology is great at analysing data. So, we are increasingly bringing in data scientists who can help analyse project data, which could go as far back as 20 years. This allows us to understand trends in the data and use them to better predict the future performance of projects.
Technology is changing the dynamics of the team structure, but it is not replacing people. We still need to have the brightest scientists, the chemists, the materials and mechanical engineers that can help us design the materials and the processes to apply those materials.
Has there been more demand for innovations in sustainability since the onset of this crisis?
We are seeing strong customer demand for disruptive sustainable innovations. The acceleration is phenomenal, but I can't say that it is all due to Covid-19 of course. For our business, this is a real opportunity. In electronics, automotive, food packaging, diapers – in any product where our materials are being used today – there has been a strong push for recyclable materials.
A large number of the new innovation projects in our pipeline now are related either to the circular economy or to recycling, and a large part of our overall investment into research is focused on these sustainability elements.
How do you create a culture where people feel they can experiment and share ideas?
First, leaders need to set goals for the organisation that are relatively challenging. If we don't fail, it means we are not trying hard enough to do something different. So, we need to set very challenging targets for new technologies or disruptions in the market. Then leaders have to give their teams the freedom and the confidence to work towards those targets – and this is typically the hard part for managers. They have to stand back and let their teams fail, succeed and keep working towards those targets.
That is how the entrepreneurial spirit in the company is built. It is better to harness the creativity of thousands of people in our organisation by giving them that entrepreneurial spirit, than to try to find the one Steve Jobs in that group.
Is there anything you can do to overcome the risk aversion that hinders innovation?
I am a scientist, so by definition I need to be optimistic about innovation. No one says, "Let's not even try this, because I don't think we can do it." Knowing when to pull the plug and when to double down on the investment is one of our biggest challenges.
What we are doing differently today is using a lot of analytics to understand the types of projects that have the highest probability of success. We do a lot more analysis of our portfolio so we can judge whether we are making the right investments. Inevitably, some are still going to fail. But, again, if you don't have projects that fail, then you are not trying.
What are your main priorities right now?
The changing dynamics of the workforce present a challenge and an opportunity for us as a company. Millennials and young graduates, for instance, have different expectations of businesses, which is forcing us to look at our culture and understand how the motivations of our team members have changed over time and what we are doing to adapt. How do we ensure that we are creating a workplace that attracts a diverse, young talent?
And what are our values? Sustainability? Diversity? As a company, are we positioning ourselves to attract people that have the right expectations of those values?
It is a constant challenge for us, as leaders, to answer these questions. I think we are doing good a job, but it is something we have to challenge ourselves on every day.