In this interview, we have the opportunity to pick the brains of a brilliant intrapreneur and serial entrepreneur. Her name is Maj-Britt Kjær Sørensen, she lives and works in Denmark. She has several feathers in her cap that includes changing companies through innovation (on the inside-out), teaching intrapreneurship at a school, and working as a consultant for change management and innovation. Our paths crossed on the Stanford LEAD program last year and now she is a full-time agent of corporate change. She is also a serial entrepreneur at heart with a solid background in marketing and innovation. She had the privilege of co-founding three companies. Currently, she focuses on the ‘Gender Data Gap’ and the commercial opportunities in the same field by keeping growth and change as the core of her competence.
Let’s dive into her expertise and advice for our community of innovators, that I was able to extract during our talk.
Learning from on-job experience is the essence of all actions. What have you learned in the past about innovation and how did you decide to make it your lifelong mission?
There is a long list of learnings that Britt brought out. We highlight here five major categories:
1. Innovation requires resources allocation
Some years back when I was in charge of the marketing department, I was asked to take over innovation alongside my current marketing responsibilities. People in the field of marketing have always been perceived as the creative ones as people think that marketing and innovation are two sides of the same coin. I already had a lot of work in my marketing portfolio. Therefore, it was always a half-hearted effort, not because I did not want to do it, but I never had the time or resources to fulfill both tasks.
After several years of helping many companies achieve their innovation goals. I see the same pattern again and again. They just randomly appoint people for innovation strategy building and implementation along with their current missions. This is a death sentence for his or her current portfolio as well as a company’s innovation dreams.
“Therefore, you as a corporation need to allocate resources and that means people and time to achieve their task-specific to innovation.”
2. Innovation requires advice and support
At that time, there wasn’t a lot of information available on change and internal innovation. In the beginning, I did not know where to start. I couldn’t find relevant support or someone who had gone through the whole process so he or she could guide me. All my current tasks were still there and I had no idea on which direction to jump. However, as of today, I succeed in being equipped with a set of tools that ensure support to my customers and their ventures in achieving their goals and dreams.
3. Changing people and processes is not a simple task
I learned (the hard way) that changing people and processes at the same time is an Everest to climb. Presently, it has become the focus of almost everything I do.
“People aren’t like a computer algorithm, we are complex creatures and this is why it requires a lot of work and effort, and it’s really difficult if you don’t know how to approach it or even start it!”
4. Innovation is not just about good ideas
The difficult part isn’t always coming up with good ideas. I mean you can have a computer do a lot of those things. As an example, there’s an engineering system where if you want to design a new bicycle, you can enter all data on the computer, the colors you want, the material, the kind of use, and with these three inputs the computer generates a thousand designs. All you need to do is pick one. However, when it comes to people involved in innovation, you can’t just put in values on a computer and come up with a solution. This is because each person has their own agenda and values.
“People question how they benefit. The moment they feel that their position is threatened, they apply the brakes and all your innovative ideas are flushed down the river.”
5. Having a shared vision of what we want to achieve is step number one to successful innovation
The key part of any transformation is the company goal. What is the shared vision of innovation for the company? Why are they investing in innovation and why should they put any effort into that? If the goal is not clear, all of it falls apart!
“I always recommend writing a pre-mortem. If you use that approach and write a good story about your project, what would that story be in the years to come?”
Everyone in the team should be able to tell you that story and everyone should be on board when you start implementing the idea. Today a lot of the employees in the innovation department won’t be able to tell that story.
There’s a lot of PR about innovation, but this is nothing without a story attached. A lot of companies tell many stories about innovation initiatives. For example “We had this hackathon and we were so great”. However, the people who created a solution during this hackathon never create a business proposition; afterward, it’s like a creation without an end goal. This happens, because they lack that shared vision.
You just explained how innovation goals should be set up for a big corporation. How does this apply to small and middle-size companies?
In Denmark, we have a lot of small companies and very few big companies that can afford or have the power to create an internal innovation department. We’re a small country. I get approached from a lot of companies, asking, could you just point me to some model or something that shows me how to bring innovation inside their company. However, I can of course show them the model, but I don’t think that’s enough because we must focus on the human execution of it.
On the other side, small companies that can’t afford to create an innovation team are afraid of risking the money investing in innovation. But, as they are small and all people are involved, there’s so much more focus and energy. Hence, they create better results in a shorter time span than the big companies with less amount of investment in regards to money, time, and human resources.
You mention that innovation required resources to be made available. So, it is always a question of resources?
Every activity in a company requires resources of some sort. Be it time, resources, or money. So, when you invest $1 in marketing, you should be able to know what will be the output of that one dollar. How much is this investment going to multiply? But if you put it into innovation, there’s not a lot of evidence around that as there is no concrete reply to the answer “what will I get in return?”
It was the same with marketing earlier on when we didn’t have all of the digital ways of showing how to know the ROMI (return on marketing investment). However, now it’s much easier because we can turn to the digital pattern where we have hard data to prove our marketing theories and investments. So, we can for instance say, every time we put $1 into marketing we know that we get $10 back. But you cannot do the same with innovation, not yet anyway. I think innovation today has sort of the same problem that marketing had 10 or 15 years ago, that it’s difficult to show the value of it on the balance sheet.
“Within many big companies, there is this discussion between the top management and the intrapreneurs about what the return on innovation is. Most people in top management want to know if I spend this dollar on innovation, what will I get in return?”
Then in the ‘lower ranks’ of the company, you have all of the intrapreneurs. Typically they are different and are risk-takers. Often they just want to create good solutions and solve problems. So how do you connect those two ends of that spectrum? How do you connect those two types of people? This is the current dilemma I am facing as an agent of change and facilitator of innovation.
In most of the cases, they have to do so-called ‘skunkworks’ that management doesn’t know about. This skunkworks is a smaller test that generates some small scale data. . This data can indicate the advantage and potential of the innovation being prepared. This way the intrapreneurs can get some of the needed funding because it seems likely that there will be a good return on the investment based on the beta testing.
You have an exceptional experience from multiple innovation perspectives. What is the most important lesson you would like to share with other corporate innovators?
I think you cannot pinpoint a single lesson. I think it is a web of four things that I have learned in this field over the years which are connected.
1. Look for strategic partners
Always be on the lookout for the ones who can support you in your journey. So, it could be the manager, or the CEO or someone at the board. You need a strategic partner that can put pressure on how the company should innovate and is willing to risk something to be innovative and to reap the potential wins of innovation later on. One of the reasons is that you need the ideas to go all the way from the conception to the market and this relates to the value chain. This is why it cannot be done by one individual alone. So, you need someone to cover your back and to support you throughout the process.
2. Look for the right team
Let’s say you are an introvert, but you’re very innovative and you’d like to be an intrapreneur. You have to look at yourself and say, what are my capabilities? What am I lacking? Who can I hook up with that has the capabilities I need? So, if it’s an innovation department, you have to look at it and that “Okay, what connections do the people in this department have with other people in the company and how can I use these connections to bring a coherent change? Always remember that you can’t bring change alone and you need likeminded people to do so!
3. Use storytelling & communicate
One of the most important pieces of advice is not to lose the story around your innovation strategy.
“You need to communicate your story in a way that attracts your team as well as the people looking at your services or products”.
Hence, communicate, communicate & communicate, both internally and externally about your innovation ideas and way forward.
4. Keep questioning your assumptions
We all have “assumptions” and they work brilliantly in moving us forward and being able to navigate through innovation.
If I place my whole business model on a wrong assumption, I will be filing for bankruptcy pretty soon. Therefore, if you have a great idea, always question and test your assumptions before going full throttle.
You seem passionate about your whole work experience. Where does this passion come from?
I read that a third of all people are interested in change, they seek to change and they like change. This essentially means that the other two thirds, don’t like change, and are not interested in change. Therefore, naturally, there’s something integrated into some people. Most of the people who like change are also risk-takers, they embrace risk more than other people. And this is what I am, I like and embrace change. I like to take risks and help others with this process.
I thanked Maj-Britt for her time and generosity. If you have some questions about change, transformation, and implementation of an innovation goal in your startup or corporation, do get in touch.
Thank You, Maj-Britt.