Avnish Sabharwal teaches us how to enable innovation : curiosity and ability to take risks

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Last week I had a coffee talk with an innovation leader, Avnish Sabharwal. Avnish shared his expertise and experience of handling strategic alignment for corporate innovation initiatives, the challenges of open innovation and the keys to enable tangible benefits through digital transformation and disruption.

For the past six years, he has been leading strategy, investment, and acquisitions as part of Accenture’s Open Innovation program for India. This includes collaborating with start-ups, VCs, PEs, accelerators, incubators, industry bodies, as well as academia for Accenture Ventures.

I had the opportunity to pick his brain about intrapreneurship, innovation, and disruption. The round-up of my questions and his elaborate responses provide valuable insight into successful internal and external innovation best practices. 

Q. Successful corporate innovation requires an architecture that supports the business strategy and is measured by hard metrics. How do you approach this?

Many companies are focused only on software platforms to drive innovation but at Accenture, we have a formal Innovation Architecture that supports a holistic approach to innovation. It brings together existing operating models and new capabilities to enable agility, efficiency, productivity, and creativity. It’s built on six pillars including Research, Ventures, Labs, Studios, Innovation Centers, and Delivery Centers.

This architecture supports our drive to “rotate to the new” to increase revenue from digital solutions. It’s all about continually reinventing ourselves and having an innovation-led approach is absolutely essential.

“Today approximately 65% of our revenue comes from ‘the new,’ which is possible only through innovation”

Q. A major challenge of external innovation is managing internal resistance. How do you address that?

To capture the benefits of an innovation-led environment, organizations need to create a culture of innovation and encourage their leaders to actively contribute to building it.

Sometimes internal teams can initially feel threatened by innovation programs – afraid that their jobs may be in jeopardy or worried that what they contribute won’t be recognized.

Therefore, it’s important that organizations provide a safety net to their innovators and intrapreneurs to give them the freedom and bandwidth to innovate without fear.

Another way to generate internal buy-in of a new program is to demonstrate early wins and results.

“I believe that the biggest catalyst for change is the outcome. If you’re able to show outcomes early in the process, the change will happen”.

If you can show an internal client team that collaborating with an external innovator will lead to a new deal, they’ll become believers. 

Q. Corporate innovation involves two parts: internal and external innovation. How do you view each of these?

A good corporate innovation strategy must combine innovations developed internally, as well as sources of external innovation from the broader ecosystem.

Internal innovation captures knowledge and expertise from your people. There are many ways to tap into this, such as developing small, agile internal startup teams; building internal incubators and solution labs; holding hackathons, and crowdsourcing ideas and solutions from employees. For example, some organizations use an “ideas funnel” as a method of collecting ideas from within their organization, using a filtering process to select the best ideas to prototype and potentially follow up with a commercial solution.

Externally, organizations must look to embrace “ecosystem innovation.” Those are the innovations that are happening outside the organization from startups, academia, venture capitalists, private equity firms, accelerators, and incubators.

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Companies should monitor the external ecosystem and when sources of disruptive innovation are identified they should consider exploring opportunities to establish co-innovation partnerships or examine ways to jointly develop new solutions, enhance core offerings, or expand into new markets.

Q. How do you see organizations struggle with innovation?

I see three things that can lead to challenges in getting the desired outcome.

  1. Lack of coherence between innovation programs. Internal innovation efforts are often run by different people across different parts of the organization. For example, someone leading ventures doesn’t necessarily coordinate efforts with corporate incubators. This is why many organizations struggle to manage this synchronization and it contributes to a lack of coherence between different initiatives. Having a holistic, integrated approach architecture can help make efforts more cohesive.
  2. Big organizations try to behave like startups. It’s generally accepted that when it comes to innovation, failure should be tolerated and even celebrated. But while it’s true that failure is an intrinsic part of innovation, many innovators and intrapreneurs are not able to distinguish between genuine failure and underperformance. Genuine failures happen in the process of pushing boundaries of innovation in the organization, whereas, mediocrity and underperformance can take place in the name of innovation, but could have been avoided with more rigor and discipline. There must be accountability for the time and resources used and explorations must have a justifiable business case.
  3. They strive for perfection, versus agility. Large enterprises are attuned to achieving perfection and mitigating risks. Those that only recognize and reward perfect solutions tend to delay responding to external triggers, miss out on valuable opportunities and fall easy prey to disruption. Organizations that adopt iterative and agile methodologies, and launch their innovations in multiple sprints, achieve much higher success rates than those that are still delivering on the requirements of the pre-digital era.

Q. What’s your advice for corporate innovators trying to change the status quo?

Some practical steps business leaders can take to navigate the unpredictability of digital disruption and turn innovation efforts into value, include:

  • Recognize internal challenges and embarking on a cultural transformation
  • Engage a dedicated team to help identify the transformation journey to the new
  • Define KPIs for each employee on the process and product innovation, ensuring its adoption in both the old and new business
  • Encourage rapid prototyping to prove and demonstrate a business case before committing more resources to a project
  • Break the silos in favor of cross-functional efforts that engage diverse talents beyond the core business capabilities

It’s also really important to understand that driving innovation and making it sustainable is not a “one and done” exercise. It’s a continuous evolution that requires business leaders to assess their organization, address challenges through cultural change, and encourage external collaboration.

Q. Your passion for innovation is extreme. What characteristics do you have that make you successful? 

I’m a lifelong learner and often try to do things other people don’t want to do or are afraid of doing because of the unknown. I’m also very curious and I’m not afraid to take risks.

“I believe that you have to be a risk-taker to be an innovator. It’s a combination of curiosity along with the ability to take the risk that is what life is all about.”

Thank you, Avnish!

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