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Activating Human Intelligence for Global Agile Innovation

Nic Umana, Global Agile Innovation Human Intelligence Director

“We try to get our people attached to the learning rather than the outcome. It's not a failure, if you decide to kill your project. In fact, we celebrate that.” 

In this episode we are delighted to welcome Nic Umana, Global Agile Innovation Human Intelligence Director at Mars. Having worked at Mars for more than two decades, the self-proclaimed "chaos pilot" has gained a wealth of experience within the company, which she now brings to her role by putting people at the heart of innovation.

In this entertaining conversation, we delve into Nic's approach to innovation and get an inside look at the agile innovation model recently implemented at Mars. In addition, we also discuss the challenges of implementing agile innovation across a global organization, and learn how to strike the perfect balance between data-driven decision-making and human-centered innovation.

So put on your headphones and get ready for an insightful journey into activating human intelligence for global agile innovation.

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

Activating human intelligence for global agile innovation

Chris: Hi and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth and in this episode, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Nic Umana. So she's, I guess, more than two decades now with Mars. That's wow. And right now she's Global Agile Innovation Human Intelligence Director. I guess as of November 2020, we'll hear about that pretty soon. And you know, she describes herself as “Chaos Pilot” in her linked in about sections. I'm thrilled to hear about that. Thanks for joining us. It's a pleasure having you on the show, Nic.

Nic: Thank you for having me. I love to chat.

Chris: Of course. Yeah, let's do that chat and we start straight away. As always with a short 60 seconds introduction. It's an introduction sprint, very short one, one minute. So it's all about you, your career and your current role. So you know, for the next 60 seconds, the virtual stage is all yours, Nic. Let's go.

Nic: Okay. So I'm Nic. I'm an Aussie who's been working internationally for the last six years. So across Chicago, now based in London. As you said, I've done almost all of the marketing and sales roles you can imagine over the last 20 years at Mars, a lot of that time in the snacking business. So I found myself in the position once I moved out of sales of having all the new roles. I'm always the person that they send in to say, go and see, is this a new role or not? I love problem solving and I love being on the frontier. And for me, it's helped me stay relevant in my career, but it's also helped me play the role of pushing the organization forward. So when I went to Chicago, I joined the global digital acceleration team. I absolutely loved that. I'm now the human intelligence director, and we've built an agile innovation model at Mars, which has been tough work, but really good fun. As a leader, I'd say I'm a heart, so I'm really energized by helping people reach their full potential and to thrive. So I'm absolutely a wellbeing advocate, but I'm also a mum of three, I'd say rambunctious teenagers. So I'm really focused on how I can create a better future for them as well and their families. So that's what makes me get out of bed in the morning. So that's a bit about me.

Chris: And talking about getting out of bed in the morning, next, what I would like to do is, you know, three sentence starters and ask you to complete those sentence starters. And the first one goes like this: To set me up for success, I usually start my days with…

Nic: …espresso. Always. I'm a coffee addict. Yeah. If I'm not travelling, so I have wherever we move, the first thing we buy is a good coffee machine. And that's a very important part of my day. And if I'm not travelling, I love yoga with Adrienne. So I love her 30-day challenges. That's always a bit of a peaceful way for me to start. Or we've moved to a place in the English countryside, so we can get out and do a walk with the dog. And my mornings start at nine or 10 instead of five or six a.m. in Chicago. So it's a bit more of a peaceful start to the day, which I love and very much get into breath work. So three big deep breaths before my first meeting as well. That's how I often start my day.

Chris: Sounds pretty healthy. You get some dopamine and serotonin kicks. That's great. All right. So number two goes like this: My mission for putting humans at the heart of innovation began when?

Nic: Well, I'm an off the charts extrovert. So I love people and I'm fascinated by humans. And when I joined the global digital team, I was just alarmed by the fact that I felt like human was missing completely from the conversation. So as we talk about the fact that the consumer is our boss, but the consumer was nowhere to be seen. So I became a really, and we actually changed from calling ourselves insights as a function to human intelligence. So our job is to make sure that the human is at the heart of everything that we're doing, all of the value that we're designing. So I became pretty passionate about that in the digital role.

“When I joined the global digital team, I was just alarmed by the fact that I felt like human was missing completely from the conversation. So as we talk about the fact that the consumer is our boss, but the consumer was nowhere to be seen.”

Chris: Cool. So it started with an insight. That's the thing, right? It started with an insight, and then you translated this into, you know, true action. Got it. All right. And finally, you know, sentence number three: When it comes to building a global community for innovation, I believe that the key is…

Nic: Yes. Oh, like there's a long list. A clear vision and purpose. So a real reason for being there. Cross-functional teams, I think, are critical for us. A diverse group of individuals who can all balance each other out. I think agile disciplines has been a game changer for us. So we talk about what it means to be agile and what it means to do agile. And communication, I think, is the way you communicate is the biggest change. So we used to sometimes have like a project that we'd be building innovation for seven years, and you'd meet like once a month. And, you know, so it's gone from like far less frequent communications to daily, you know, or, you know, sometimes hourly, depending on what you're doing. So fast, frequent communications and stand-ups and things like that. So that's really underpinned our success so far, I think.

Chris: Yeah, that's super interesting because it addresses a certain part, you know, of the success. It focuses on things that, you know, I don't hear KPIs, I don't hear, you know, all that stuff comes later. But I hear, you know, human, I hear communication, I hear vision, mission, purpose. So that's super interesting. Now, if you had to explain your job to your grandmother or your grandfather, how would you explain it?

Nic: I'd say we work with people to understand how they want to have snacks and try to design snacks for them in the future that they'll really love. You know, all of the right ingredients. Sometimes you want a really decadent and indulgent treat, and sometimes you want something that feels a bit healthier. So we're trying to move from being a confectionary company to a snacking company. And a big part of what we're doing in the innovation space is focusing on health and wellness. I'm trying to help build a range of balanced snacks, I'd say, because we all need indulgent treats as well as some healthy treats.

Chris: That's a great explanation. Got it. All right. And now I have to ask you about the chaos pilot. Really, I do, because in the about section of your LinkedIn profile, right, you describe yourself as one as a chaos pilot. What's a chaos pilot? Why chaos ? Why pilot?

Nic: Yes, I am. I think when you're on the frontier, so when you're doing things for the first time in an organization, it does feel a bit chaotic. And what I realized is that I have a skill to be able to solve really complex challenges. So I can kind of sit and observe for a little. And then I'm pretty good at sense making and connecting the dots. And my brain works in systems and processes. So I'll be out somewhere looking at how a business is working, even if it's a café and re-designing how the process should be working. So I think naturally that's what I love to do. So I can make sense of the chaos and put a little bit of, I guess, structure and calm a little. I think there still needs to be a little bit of chaos and curiosity in innovation. But that's what I've realized I can do, which is good. Every business needs one of those.

The power of human intelligence

Chris: Absolutely. Especially in today's world of quantitative data, big data, analytics, AI, you name it, you get it. And I could go on and add some more of these fancy buzzwords. But how can we actually balance the need for a more data driven decision-making, which I think we are progressing towards with the importance of keeping humans still at the center of attention and also the center of innovation?

“We realized that to be relevant for the future, we needed to change the way that we worked, and we needed to build our empathy muscle. And so we were shifting a whole lot of big data experts into a place where we needed to build deep empathy.”

Nic: How do you balance that? Well, that's exactly that's almost like our from and to, I'd say. We in 2020 reinvented globally in Mars, the way that we do marketing and R&D. And within that, we shifted from being an insights function to being a human intelligence function. And as part of that, we were in a mass market model where we were blasting out TV campaigns to Jen Pop, and we were designing solutions for everyone. And we were stuck in a really big data quantitative world. And it was almost a bit of sacrilege to be having conversations one on one with consumers, because how could they represent the millions of consumers that we serve? And so we realized that to be relevant for the future, we needed to change the way that we worked, and we needed to build our empathy muscle. And so that takes a while. We were shifting a whole lot of big data experts into a place where we needed to build deep empathy. And it's obviously a space that's close to my heart. So we shifted into a model where instead of talking about what is the business challenge, we talk about the human question. And as we're learning at the beginning, we've pitched a project and got a team allocated. At the beginning, we talk about what are the human truths? What are the cultural and category truths? And how do we do this learning and anchor in a key human insight, which should set us up for what we're innovating, the problems that we're solving? And so part of what we're doing always is taking a whole lot of big data and information and pulling it back down into what does this human need and want, and how will we make something that they love? So instead of talking about gen pop, we talk about very targeted consumers with very specific problems. And then when we found something that we think is interesting, as we start to scale it up, and it starts to become more broadly relevant, we talk about what do we have to do to optimize and keep it relevant for the core group, but start to scale it up and make it attractive for a broader group. So that's quite a fun part of the process, I think.

Chris: Yeah, so one of the key benefits, if I understand correctly, is a higher relevancy for obviously consumers, but also for people and the organization as such. What are some of the other benefits that you see evolving or continue to get in place over time?

“We try to get teams attached to the learning rather than the outcome. It's not a failure if you decide to kill your project. In fact, we celebrate that.”

Nic: Yeah, I think I know this is a buzzword and I try not to use the buzzwords too much, but genuinely, the biggest buzzword for us is ‘failing fast’. So yes, it helps to go faster, but it helps to not waste a whole lot of time and money in scaling something that isn't going to work. So the biggest benefit we have is being able to fail small, to be able to take that learning and apply it to something else that we're doing. And when we talk about agile innovation, we talk about how do you learn with humans, and how do you create value as quickly as you can? So instead of spending like seven years designing the perfect something that then we're going to roll out to every market around the world, we start with a single MVP in a single city, in a single store, and then learn and optimize and slowly scale, as opposed to just blasting something out there all at once. So that's working pretty well for us at the moment. And it's saving us a lot of time and money. So we find something that teams are working on that we think is ahead of its time, it might go on the bench, and we put the team onto the next project. We're not as good at killing projects as we'd like, but we're trying to get better about what is the hypothesis that will help us kill this project. And so we can get you working on something else that will be more valuable. So we try to get teams attached to the learning rather than the outcome. It's not a failure if you decide to kill your project. In fact, we celebrate that.

Chris: You know, I guess this sounds a little bit like, shall I say, good old marketing days, not quite sure. But you know, there's a saying that says, well, you know, 50% of the advertising spend is wasted, but the problem is you don't know which 50% of your advertising budget is going to waste. So that sounds like, you know, an approach to solve that.

Nic: It does. And so we applied this philosophy to everything that we do. Marketing included performance marketing. Yes, because you know, the landscape and all of the bots who are watching our ads instead of the humans. So we're doing our best to find all of the real people that we'd like to buy our snacks.

Chris: So in that light, so we have two things, right? So at the one, we have a world that transforms more and more, you know, into, you know, a world that's at least influenced, I'm not saying driven, but influenced by things like artificial intelligence, by data, by automation, all that stuff, which, you know, you could argue is dehumanizing some parts of the business, right? So particularly in marketing and sales, you know, you get all these software tools that can automate stuff, you know, enroll people in automated email sequences, what have you not, right? So that's the one thing, automation, artificial intelligence. And then obviously you have humans, right? So what is your perspective on, you know, the role of humans in the innovation process in the future, given, you know, the recent developments we see and what we're most likely to see in a few years from now?

Putting humans at the heart of the innovation process

Nic: Yeah, I have a pretty strong opinion on most things and all of this. I posted recently on LinkedIn that I think innovators who use AI will definitely replace those who don't. And I think that AI and ChatGPT is coming at us, you know, at the speed of lightning. And I think it has the opportunity to change every job, every industry, every function. I think it can help us do things more efficiently. And so we have to understand what the right applications are. I think, you know, computers, there's bias in everything that, you know, every algorithm that's written. So as long as you can kind of understand the biases, ask the right questions, so you're not getting a homogeneous answer. I think there's value in automating things, absolutely. And what I also think is it frees up the humans in innovation to actually be doing the value add work, which is the creative work, which is the future work. AI can't always predict the future. No one can. And so it takes humans. We can spend more time doing work that drives a real competitive advantage to be looking at mapping out future scenarios and, you know, talking about a world where, you know, everyone cares about well-being and what would a second portfolio look like there. So I think it's a competitive advantage. One, if you can use the tools to your advantage and two, if you can then do the work that humans can do best that computers can't do yet.

 “Innovators who use AI will definitely replace those who don't.”

Chris: So what are the key skills and the key attributes that you look for when building teams? You know, with having in mind that obviously different skill set might be needed in the future. So we have creativity. So I heard creativity, sure. And maybe boosting that. What else?

Nic: I think diversity is number one. So having people that think differently, that are comfortable to challenge each other, to build, to develop curiosity is so important. People that can actually work together, that can collaborate. So you need to have people that can think spontaneously. It's really hard for people that are deep reflective thinkers to work in agile scrum teams. So that's what I look for. I absolutely look for practitioners of agile. I think that's a skill that everyone in the future needs to have. And the ability, we say, to be decisive. So there is a lot of challenge. Or in our past, there was a lot of challenge with who is the decision maker and what is the decision that we're making. So we talk in these teams about what is the minimum amount of learning and confidence that you need to make this decision and move to the next state and do that. Don't do more than that. So decisiveness is probably a nice place to end because I think that's very important.

Chris: Do you think we actually have artificial intelligence or at least data-driven approaches? Let's not even call it AI. Let's just say data-driven approaches. They will influence decision-making a lot in the future. And I'm referring to the... In the good old times when you, for example, were driving from city A to city B, obviously, we were sitting in the car with a huge map in the car. I said, oh, jeez, next street, right and left. And you were focused on the actual task. And obviously, you need to decide your own what's the best way to go from city A to city B, no matter if it's a long distance or short distance. Now enter navigation system. Right, you basically say brain outsourced. Now you have time to basically hear a podcast as this one or have a good chat in the car, to have a phone call, whatever. But at least decision-making when it comes to where to go or where to drive is actually now outsourced to the navigation system, Google Maps, or anything you have in your car. Is it now the same with decisions and innovation in a couple of years from now with AI?

Nic: It depends on trust, doesn't it? It depends on how much you trust Google Maps to get you there. If you put into Google Maps that you want to drive, but you accidentally press walk, then that gets pretty confusing as well, given error. I feel like there's got to be a blend. You've got to be constantly sense checking what the knowledge and the decisions that you're trusting AI to make are accurate and that you can trust them. I just think there's always got to be human sense checking. You've got to sense check does, you know, instinct still plays a role. It's a mix of art and science. Use the science that you can, but don't ever lose sight of the fact that humans have designed the AI and that humans will need to intervene at different stages. Then it comes into ethical decision-making, doesn't it? And there's a whole conversation around that and what that looks like. Then there's the fear, the human fear. What happens if you make these computers so smart, and they take over the world? So I'm not an expert in this space. I'm actively part of the conversation and learning. I think that there's always going to need to be a role for humans and human intervention is my personal opinion. What do you think? I'd love to hear what you think.

“Use the science that you can, but don't ever lose sight of the fact that humans have designed the AI and that humans will need to intervene at different stages.”

Chris: By the way, it's great that you say that. It's great that you say that because I feel that in the past few weeks on LinkedIn, everybody has become an AI expert. It's the same phenomenon actually that we have in Germany with soccer and football because you always know better than the trainer. You're just like, man, how this strategy for that game is total bullshit. Everybody knows better than the actual specialist. I kind of see this happening. At least my LinkedIn feed is filled with that. Obviously, we're all practitioners and engaging in the conversation and bringing our own perspectives to that. That's just a gut feeling from what I see these days happening. Everybody's become an AI expert. Okay, cool. That's great. But actually, OpenAI developed this or even other companies started the GPT models first. So that's quite interesting how this progresses. Before we dive deeper, I would love to pick your brain on some of your experiences and also what can other organizations learn from the journey you had. Before we do that, I would love to stop for a second and play a quick game. The game is called “Either-Or”. Super simple. This is how it works. I want to give you two options. Option one or option two. You choose one of the options and then spend maybe one or two sentences each to briefly explain your choice. Let's try to challenge some of the stuff we discussed earlier. First one: if you had to decide A or B, would you go for innovation? Would you go back to 100% full human approach or 100% full AI approach? It's a tough one. I know.

Nic: Human.

Chris: Human. Why?

Nic: Because AI can't do everything. There are jobs that AI can do and if I had to choose one or the other human. But do you know, this is a very hard game for me to play because I very much believe in a hybrid approach for nearly everything.

Chris: Of course, that's why I'm asking. Okay. Second one. Second one is also interesting. It's a rather philosophical thing: Do you believe that leaders are born or made?

Nic: If I had to choose one, “made”. I think that there are a lot of innate qualities that a leader has. Being a good leader takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of learning and optimization and adapting to the environment. So I believe very much in situational leadership as well. So I think you have to constantly be polishing your skills as a leader. I don't think you can ever be a perfect leader. I think it's the one thing that I haven't been able to master. I want to be a really good leader, and I'm just constantly working out and evolving what I think that means. I think that expectations of leaders will continue to change as well.

Chris: Yes. 100%. That's a great answer. Thanks for that. The last question is maybe also addressing the young audience getting advice from you. What do you think?: Is it actually better to become a specialist in one area if you had to choose again or become a generalist with broad knowledge in many different areas? Of course, again, that's maybe not a fair either or question, but there is this discussion around T-shaped persons, and you need to be able to do just everything. If someone had to choose, become a specialist these days or rather a generalist, what would your advice be?

Nic: We used to say a jack of all trades and a master of none. So I'd definitely say the latter. That used to be a little bit of a derogatory term. I think it's dangerous to have all of your eggs in one basket. I think I have constantly tried to reinvent who I am and what I think is relevant. I think it's really important to have a number of skills under your belt. When you think about what I look for in teams is diversity, and it's diversity of experience. At Mars, I'm really proud to say, and I think it's to our advantage, that we let people pretty freely move across different functions. So someone starts in finance, they come into human intelligence, then before you know it, they're in R&D. I think as much as you can to have good breadth is powerful, but you can't have depth in no places. So you still have to have a little bit of depth in a couple of places.

Agile innovation in a global organization: Lessons learned

Chris: I love that answer and particularly the first part, even more on constantly reinventing yourself. You know what's quite interesting though? I found a conversation which I think is pretty interesting to share. You know, particularly in the innovation space, there is a certain community that's all in for disruption. So you should aim for disruption. Make sure you disrupt all the competition. Just trashcan them and make sure you completely create a new market and new customer experience whatsoever. So just disrupt. But the thing is, in most cases, I don't think it's actually healthy to design for disruption. Disruption can happen, and maybe it's a good thing, maybe not creative disruption, more specifically is a good thing. Okay, agreed. But you can hardly design for disruption. But what you can actually do is design your career and your personal development to disrupt yourself on an ongoing basis. Like what are the things that I do right now and this year that I can automate or get in better shape or give to some other teams and then do the next thing, do the next thing, the next thing. Make myself actually pull me out of the equation and understand how can I do that, how can I build stuff and then move on to the next thing. So constantly reinventing yourself. And the term disrupt yourself, the saying is actually one thing that's going into the exact same direction. So I love that. And let's pick your brain now on challenges and lessons learned from your experience when implementing agile innovation across certainly what reaches a global organization. For example, one thing is how could you possibly adapt to different cultures, to different working styles? How does that work, and what were some of the challenges and learnings on your journey?

Nic: Yeah, it's a really good question, and it's a complex question to answer as well. Because I'd say to you, I have learned a lot about, I've become more empathetic by living in different countries and being in the shoes of a human that lives in an American culture versus living in an English culture, and I'm from Australia. And I think what it has taught me is the ability to observe and be a better listener and to ask advice for advice more big because I don't always know the answer and I don't know always the best way to deliver the answer. And part of some really great advice I got when I was making my first move was to look for cultural informants. So look for someone that you trust working in a new environment that can keep you on the right path and just to check in and just say, look, how would you go about doing this? Because there is, I think about the iceberg, there's some really obvious things above the surface, but there are sometimes a lot of unwritten rules that you don't know you're breaking. And then you've also got to be careful not to typecast and stereotype cultures based on what people say about people that work in the China business versus what people say about people that work here. So I have things like that in the back of my mind. I think the best way to find quick and easy ways of working with people is I have a one-pager and I talk about, and it's called “Working with Nic Umana” and it talks about what my preferences are, how I like to communicate, what motivates me and I switch it and I say, look, I find this is a really helpful tool. I ask if I'm going to be working closely with someone for them to fill it in, and so we can have a chat and just work out what some more easy ways of working will be and to find, you know, what's going to drive you nuts if I do this versus, you know, how can I kind of adopt some of the things that I know as I know this might be a real preference for you. So I think having that conversation early is really important and also I, what do they call it…? Radical candor. So I'm an Aussie and I use my Aussie to talk about the fact that I'm really direct and so if something isn't working, I really quickly want to have that conversation and try and unpack why and try to solve it. So I don't let anything go very long without having, if it feels something, like something's not right, there's some really good questions that you can ask early on just to explore and to see if you can find better ways of working, and you know what, you just don't have good chemistry with everyone. So sometimes you can, and sometimes you've just got to call it and just say like, we'll do our best to do the minimum, but there'll be some people that at work bring out the best in you and some people that won't. And so you can kind of minimize the time that you have to spend with those that you don't have good chemistry with and then really lean in where you do.

“When entering a new environment, look for cultural informants. Look for someone who you trust and who can keep you on the right path. Because there is the iceberg, meaning some really obvious things above the surface, but there are sometimes a lot of unwritten rules that you don't know you're breaking.”

Chris: So yeah, yeah. Great to say that and also be open to, you know, agree to disagree. I mean, that's also happening a lot. So we know perfectly fine to do that. Absolutely. So that's a good tool to have.. There are actually quite a few tools to have in your toolbox, particularly if you want to adapt to different cultures and also working styles, obviously in a, you know, strongly international and global organization. I agree. Now, how could, you know, other global companies implement similar models? So, you know, ingesting human intelligence in the process, agile innovation, where to start?

Nic: Don't do it. It's too hard. I'm just kidding. But you've got to, it is hard work. You've got to invest a lot of time and effort. And I think the reality is always really different to the theory. So, you know, in a big global organization, you have the consultancies off to the side, having conversations with the senior leaders about, well, you know, this is the way you've got to move and, you know, you design something and then when the reality hits, it's a very different reality. So I feel like with any of these gifts that you're given from consultancies, you've got to take them and optimize them and make them work for you. So I think a massive advantage for us in when we reinvented was that we had an all design change that allowed us to work in more agile ways. And we had teams that were built, cross-functional teams to work in scrums and to sprint. So that definitely helped. I think one of the first things we did, and I was one of the trainers, and I really believe that it helped was we did mindset and behavior shift training. So we talked about what does this new way of working look like? What are the mindsets that are important? How will our behaviors need to be different to really bring this to life? And we use that language all the time. We talk about progress over perfection. We talk about failing fast. It just becomes the way that we talk and the way that we work. If the senior leaders constantly sponsors and checking in, I think you're stuffed, in a nausea way of saying, it's just too difficult unless you have their full support. And it's really important that senior leaders are asking the right questions. So one of the worst questions that you can ask as a very senior leader in an agile innovation model is, oh my God, this is so good. So now how can we make it twice as big and go twice as fast? And that's what they're so tempted to do when they see a big idea. And that's what undoes us every time. So almost as important as training the senior leaders on how they can be good supporters of our business model is really helpful. And I think we talk about constantly optimizing as humans. I think you have to constantly have to have an iterative process to start with, but you have to constantly be optimizing how could we do this better? How could we do this differently? So nothing is ever set in stone. Everything is non-stagnant and for some people that's very overwhelming. And some people don't want to work in that business model. And that's fine. That's fine too. There are different jobs that need different skill sets, but if you want to work in this place, then you need to be able to learn quickly, adapt, move forward, adjust. And I just think that's what the skill sets are that you need mostly for most future roles in any big organizations. I think that's going to be critical. The only other thing I would say is scaling is hard. Scaling, like all of the startups sell up between year five to 10, because it's hard for them to scale. We buy them. It's still hard to scale. It's hard to scale internally. It's so tough. So knowing what business model is right for your business to scale is really important. And it's so hard to do it in the core business. If your core business is healthy, and you don't get incremental resource in the core business to help you scale innovation, then it's very hard to get any human resource or dollars resource pulled to launch and love innovation. That's going to take a lot more time and effort.

“If you want to work in an agile environment, then you need to be able to learn quickly, adapt, move forward, adjust. And I just think that's what the skill sets are that you need mostly for most future roles in any big organizations.”

Chris: That's just the reality. And in most of the cases, you need to answer at least two questions. First one is why change? Second one is why now? If you now live in a business or work in a business or with a business that's fairly stable, making great profits, growing a percentage per year that's fine for outside investors, so the capital market whatsoever. Well, now you got to do that. You can answer the question, why change? Why now? Hey, business going good. Great. Why should we invest in something that's super risky? And now you have the gap. You have most of the executive teams or senior leadership is actually dissatisfied with innovation performance like the vast majority is. But at the same time, if they invest innovation, the great proportion of the project just fails. So what's the return on your one innovation dollar? Well, maybe if it's below one, then you have a problem. So that is a huge discussion. Is there any way you and your teams started answering this for senior leadership? Is that a question that was actually asked by senior leadership? How is that within your organization?

“When a business is healthy, that is the exact time that you should be innovating. That is when you should be using your creative humans to find your new opportunity spaces.”

Nic: It's a constant conversation. It's a problem that we haven't solved. But we're trying lots of different models. We're trying incubation models. I think when a business is healthy, that is the exact time that you should be innovating. That is when you do have permission. When you're not all like in the middle of a pandemic and in a crisis and, you know, working out how do you solve immediately this challenge, that is when you should be using your creative humans to find your new opportunity spaces. So I think constantly trying what works for your business, but also making sure you have the right targets and incentives set up for everyone in the business for long term performance. I think that's critical. So we're working on trialing some things in that place as well, but we haven't got it solved. And even people, I feel like in CPD, there are a couple of pockets of people working in this agile innovation model. And even though we feel like we're ahead of the game, it's still challenging. We still haven't all got this solved. And I don't know, like, I guess it's the million-dollar question, isn't it? It's the new innovators dilemma or probably the old innovators' dilemma. Is it the old innovators' dilemma?

Chris: It's at least THE dilemma. Absolutely. Or maybe even threelemma if you had a third question to that. But yeah, I totally agree. And let's now try to summarize, you know, what we had so far, because I love, you know, the insights and the experiences shared. Maybe if, you know, some to get to some key takeaways, some action recommendations, what would be the three key action recommendations you want listeners to take away from this episode with you?

Nic: I would say my advice would be built in clear discipline on the how, how you are going to innovate. I think that's so important. Don't have teams wasting time talking about how. Have them focused and give teams full freedom on the what. As long as you've got clear links to the strategy. So number one, discipline on the how. And I'm still fighting that battle daily. I think keeping contact with humans at every stage of the process, even after you've launched, constantly be asking them, what do you like? What don't you like? What could be better? How could this evolve? And then be able to make those changes when you learn that is another opportunity. And I would say the third thing is: Do as much learning as you can in the real world. So anchor your decision-making as much as you can in real life experiments, in observation and behavioral data where you can. I think that will set you up for success.

Chris: Perfectly fine. Yeah. And exactly number three is kind of something I try to tell, you know, regularly speaking, universities, talking to students, actually when I launch a startup. One thing I tell them very early is got out of the fucking building. Do something, right? Get fucking feedback (sorry) from the market. Do that. I mean, that's the worst thing, like, you know, just discussing and, you know, building something from a pure technology inside, which is great. Hey, that's ChatGPT. We can do X with that. Beautiful. Does somebody want to pay for that? You don't know? That's bad. Get out and understand that! The exact thing. So thanks very much for your perspective on that. I 100% agree with that. And finally, Nic, your Innovation Rockstar moment. If you look back on your professional career, please share your Innovation Rockstar moment with me.

Nic: I tend to have micro moments rather than one big rockstar moment. And so we talk about the importance of celebrating often. So celebrating failure and success. And I think the rock star moment for me, and I'm currently doing a leadership program and working out what is my purpose? Like, what do I want to impact on live on the world? And I think there's real power in building communities. So my real passion is finding a challenge that needs to be solved and then building a community that can solve that challenge. So I'm most proud of the impact that I had when I worked in digital of building a thriving digital community. And I'm just as passionate and energized and proud of the community that we've built in agile innovation. So that's, you know, what I'm most proud of, that we are all helping each other collectively solve the challenges. And so we do a much better of it, more brains instead of just mine.

Chris: And sounds like you're on a great journey. So congratulations to your micro moments. Well, that's a little cheating, but it's okay. I know I'm contrary. Yeah, we can say the collective of that is kind of okay, fair enough. No, thanks. That's perfectly fine. Thanks for the rockstar moments. And yeah, that's it already, Nic. For this episode. Thank you so much for being my guest. I really had a good time in our conversation. Say hi to the dog in the background.

Nic: Sorry, he just wanted to say hi.

Chris: No worries. Thanks for being my guest. It was a pleasure.

Nic: Thanks. I loved it. Let's chat again soon.

Chris: And to everybody listening or watching, if you enjoyed this episode, then simply leave us a comment on this episode or just, you know, drop us an email at Now that's it. Thanks for listening. Take care and bye-bye.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Nic Umana is Global Agile Innovation Human Intelligence Director.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



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