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Featured image: A Blueprint for Systematic Innovation Management

A Blueprint for Systematic Innovation Management

Roman Šiser, Innovation Manager

"When I received the call from the headhunter telling me that Škoda Auto was building a new innovation management team, I knew instantly that this would be my dream job."

In this episode, Innovation Manager Roman Šiser takes us on the innovation journey of Škoda Auto and explains how innovation management has changed in recent years. On the same note, we also shed light on the circumstances that are not only increasingly revolutionizing the automotive market, but also make systematic innovation management essential for a company like Škoda Auto.

If you want to learn more about how Roman received the black belt for innovation or what the Innovation Toolbox of Škoda Auto's is all about - its components and how to use it to specifically drive innovation - then you shouldn't miss this episode!

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

A blueprint for systematic Innovation

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to another episode of Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Roman Šiser. He's the leading figure and responsible for innovation, management and company digitalization at Škoda. He has an extensive background in the space of innovation, acting as an innovation director for Sparkling Beverages and at Ceska inovace, and so on. Thank you so much for joining us today. It is a pleasure having you.

Roman: Thanks for having me, and greetings from the Czech Republic to all the listeners.

Chris: Great. So, let's kick things off with a sixty seconds introduction sprint; as always, all about you, your career and your role at Škoda. For the next sixty seconds, the stage is yours. Let’s go.

Roman: Alright. I attended the University of Economics, and during the third year, I was contemplating what type of work and job I wanted to do after graduation. I always wanted to do something creative and to develop something new. Thus, I decided to go for marketing step by step, and I was gradually introduced to innovation management, starting at Johnson and Johnson and then at Coca-Cola. I was active in various marketing and brand management roles and then transitioned into an innovation role as the Innovation Director for Sparkling Beverages in the EU. After my experiences at Coca-Cola, I helped jump-start an Uber branch here in Prague. Fast-forwarding a bit, I was fortunate to lead a Czech innovation company. And then four years ago, I got a call from a Headhunter to join Škoda Auto's Innovation Management team; I knew instantly this would be my dream job. It's been four years to date, and I'm contributing to get Škoda ready for the future.

Chris: That's a great story, and thanks for sharing it. Next, I have three sentence starters for you, and I would like you to complete them. Number one: " The main thing I have always wanted to say about innovation is…"

Roman: Seeing things that others don’t see or overlook or eventually give up to do.

Chris: Okay. Number two: "I usually start my mornings with checking…"

Roman: My Apple Watch and how I slept last night.

Chris: The Apple Watch. Okay. Finally, number three: "The future of mobility is going to be…"

Roman: Multi-modular and seamless.

The blackbelt in innovation

Chris: Right. Before diving into innovation at Škoda, I learned that you have a black belt; more specifically, a black belt in innovation. I believe it's also known as the innovation igniter black belt. Could you describe what that is?

Roman: That's a testimonial testifying that I'm proficient enough to run an ideation challenge using design thinking. The program had its origin at the Coca-Cola Company, where we formed a community of innovators. We called ourselves "Igniters," and the initial step was to be awarded a green belt by attending a three-day training curriculum. That training changed my mind and life a lot.

It allowed me to recognize and look at things differently, especially by facilitating issues in a very creative and human-centered way. After concluding training, I've worked through and on a few projects before qualifying for the Black Belt, which consisted of a week-long training in the field in the Netherland and assisting in ridding all the initial concerns and facilitating and moderating workshops for large and innovative projects.

Chris: That's awesome to host you as a real innovation expert with a vast amount of experience. I'm curious to hear your opinion. Within some communities where it's said that innovation management —a significant emphasis here on the word management— is actually an oxymoron, essentially a self-contradicting concept. Examples would be "old news" or "random order." I am sure you get the point. So, do you agree with that statement? 

"The most challenging part is finding the right balance, not to overmanage innovation, and at the other hand to not leave them in the clouds."

Roman: Yes. It may sound like managing innovation is killing them. In essence, too much management is hazardous for innovation and creativity. However, finding the right balance between freedom and creativity is an art. In the wilderness, managerial rigor, discipline, and analytical background are essential to balance between the chaos and impact to get things done. The most challenging part is finding the right balance, not to overmanage innovation, and at the other hand to not leave them in the clouds.

Chris: So would that be kind of your definition of innovation management? How would you define innovation management as a discipline actually?

Roman: More or less, yes. It's a kind of craft; basically a set of skills, tools and behaviors that helps to solve problems and advance ideas to the next level and eventually bring them to life. There are a lot of intricate pieces to connect; therefore, cultivating a supportive management environment to generate ideas is of great help. It's also about where to innovate, have a vision, and a corresponding strategy covering the why, what, and how. I should also mention that securing for and making decisions on funding portfolios should not be ignored, specifically findings that need to answer what type of innovation we want or how long we can wait for the return. Last but not least, it's also about the process, the whole journey, how to get from finding an opportunity or identifying a problem to solving it and bringing value. It's a lot about these kinds of things juggling around, and that is called management, I guess.

Chris: Great that you mentioned that since I believe the role of an innovation manager today is still often misunderstood. They certainly are understood to be part of and involved in creativity and tasked to come up with the next best idea, but specifically pointing out the management aspect in this, is actually very important.

Roman: The whole idea is to facilitate innovators to take the next step to come up with and advance their ideas. It's also tied in with motivation, culture and the right behaviors. Environments that encourage playfulness instead of limiting it ultimately fuel and support curiosity, courage and patience. Those are all the core behaviors that the innovation managers need to foster in the innovation teams.

Innovation at Škoda

Chris: Right. It sounds like there's more to it than simply finding the next idea and running some happy workshops. Would you mind taking us through your journey during the early days in the innovation team at Škoda? Let's start at the very beginning. What was the reason for dealing with innovation more systematically than before?

Roman: Škoda has always been driven by inventiveness. It's actually the fifth oldest car producer in the world. It started with the bike production, and it successfully reinvented itself and became relevant in today's markets. Five years ago, management realized that times and things were changing rapidly and drastically. A new wave and age of technologies, powertrains and services are coming; thus, they decided to focus on more radical and transformative innovation. They decided to establish an innovation management team to better prepare for these anticipated events and systematically alter the company culture to adapt to the new programs.

Chris: You have mentioned it before, but it's worth revisiting. How do you maintain the balance between innovation as a discipline —like being hard and smart— and the management aspect of it, versus being more open-minded, being creative and playful, having Hackathons and whatever. My second question would be, how not to fall for the Innovation Theatre.

"However, given the nature of the world today —with all the external challenges like urbanization environmental challenges— autonomously driven business models and their inherent changes require that these innovations take considerable more time, patience and resources."

Roman: There's a good story and lessons behind that since in the beginning, everybody was waiting for quick results and quick wins, which are usually brought about by more incremental innovation. However, given the nature of the world today —with all the external challenges like urbanization environmental challenges— autonomously driven business models and their inherent changes require that these innovations take considerable more time, patience and resources. Unsurprisingly in parallel and relatively quickly, we have started to evaluate the potential of ideas and the proof of concept, which led us to create a dashboard on which we regularly kept track of all the items and their potential impact, including when they are implemented. That helped project the innovation theater onto real life for people to see. Yes, we need a lot of inspirational events, workshops, hackathons, etc., and they bring results. Nevertheless, it takes time to influence the market with a potential impact; therefore, we established a dashboard that showcases the anticipated values and financial gains.

Chris: In other words, you are building momentum. As you know, starting movements and building momentum. People are part and then there might be a certain point of time where the momentum of that movement is slowed down at some point. People may accept casual Fridays by wearing T-Shirts, but how do you keep a "high" of a movement going for something meant to go on for months or even years? How to keep the momentum high?

Roman: We are always riding on a high momentum in a fast-paced environment, and we are constantly faced with new challenges. The world is continuously changing and evolving. We are all aware of the VUCA world and are fully immersed in it lately, especially with the transformations I mentioned before. Then we had COVID last year. We have semiconductors shortage, different working styles with matching behaviors; customers expect significantly more online interactions. All of the separate external and challenging elements I just described, especially from customers, keep us on our toes and propel us to look for ways to serve them best. For me, those are always the best arguments for how to keep that sense of urgency and the need for innovation.

Chris: Great. Got it. By the way, in the beginning, was it more of a bottom-up activity? Like a rogue unit, or did you have a clear commitment from the start and support from management from the top-down.

Roman: It started as you described in the latter scenario as a top-down. Management conducted a two-day workshop where they announced and introduced their first innovation culture program that encompassed building innovation rooms, testing a hackathon, and developing idea box challenges to explain what "innovation" is about and why we need them. It was also about why we need an innovation culture and was a sign of a shift in mindsets or paradigms. Ironically, it was on a casual Friday, and the CEO had his hands full in making folks adapt and stop wearing ties on Fridays.

Chris: The fact that your CEO was involved from the top-down demonstrates the high importance and urgency of creating all the various components for an innovation team and the necessary environment. Would you say that your marketing background actually was a clear advantage you had compared to others in similar positions? If so, why?

"We started to work very closely with innovators, trained them, organized meetups for them, and they would bring their connections and networks along."

Roman: Allow me to add a bit more to the previous question and then return to the marketing background. Since it all started as a top-down initiative, we quickly concluded that starting from the top would not be sufficient nor even feasible without the involvement of innovators in expert functions and departments. Škoda is entirely process-oriented, but innovation requires more spontaneity and a community approach. We started to work very closely with innovators, trained them, organized meetups for them, and they would bring their connections and networks along. We used to call them "inno boosters," who help each other through inspiration. It was all to align and reconcile the top-down initiative with the bottom-up movement. It helped very much to jump-start the momentum you mentioned before and for people to embrace innovation as part of their daily job. Returning to your question regarding my marketing background, to some extent, yes, because innovation is all about understanding customer concerns and issues and how to serve them better. One of our former managers said to not look for ideas at first but look for problems instead. That's basically what marketing is all about. You get a clear picture and understanding of the situation and the needs of the customers, and then you try to find the right solutions. By following that, I think we also touch on innovation management since we try to identify who our customers are for all our innovation and managerial efforts. Is it the innovator, is it the board, are those the managers? And at the end it’s all of them. However, using marketing means to create a tailor-made approach for each target audience is inherently different. That's how we segmented the communication, the tools and the approach for each group to match their needs effectively.

Chris: Okay. A follow-up question to the previously mentioned "inno boosters." Am I correct in my understanding that they are individuals who champion the innovation process that helped you pull out the message to the greater audience?

Roman: Yes. These folks are volunteers who feel very passionate about innovations and want to help others. For example, whenever we develop a new service, they are the first who are willing to answer your survey, test it or come to your workshop and help to brainstorm with you. Frequently, they provide you with their field of expertise to support you, which could be in AI or any kind of technology or 3D printing. That's how we build this community.

Chris: Got it. They are the pioneers. Okay. Before we dive into the toolbox and methods of you doing advanced innovation management at Škoda, I would like to play a short game. It's called "Either-Or", and I will give you two options and you choose one, then you provide your opinion on the selected option in one sentence. Okay? Number one: "Would you rather always know when people are lying or always get away with lying?"

Roman: I think in time, even machines will know if we are lying and to be honest, I feel that I have the intuition to see when people are lying. In any case, I believe we need to get away with it because we, or at least I, have the intuition when people are not telling the truth.

Chris: Got it. I'll note that as intuition. Okay. Number two: "Would you rather give up innovation management or stop driving a Škoda car?"

Roman: That's a tough one. I am inclined to give a one-word answer.  I would give up driving the Škoda, but there will be another opportunity to drive a great Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, etc.

Chris: Noted. Okay. Last one: "Would you either prefer working one percent from home going forward or 100 percent at the office?

Roman: I would choose neither. I think innovations are conducted amongst people within marketplaces with users. I would not be against working remotely, though.

The innovation toolbox

Chris: Okay, now, with that out of the way, let's move on and talk about the innovation toolbox and how you built this up thus far; when we spoke a few times before, you mentioned that Škoda has an innovation blueprint. Could you provide more insights into what the Škoda Innovation blueprints contain and their components?

Roman: Sure. It's a kind of a framework that we came across lately to help us systematically discuss internally —without a doubt, most certainly with management—what needs to be done to advance innovation, maturity and proficiency of Škoda Auto. It has four components. First of all, the strategic one. I think the strategy should allow for exploring new opportunities and understanding the reasons for innovation. Second is about governance. How we make decisions, what type of portfolio of products we need, how we allocate budgets and how we manage the risk.

Thirdly, it's all about processes and tools, like how to advance the ideas, how to come up with the ideas, how to evaluate them and implement them. And lastly, not least, it's all about mindset and culture. So those are four major components. An innovation index is an excellent tool for understanding where you are on each of those four components and what to focus on to move to the next maturity level. In addition, it also helps to benchmark compared to your peers to get a better idea of where you are ahead and where you need to catch up then.

Chris: That makes sense. You first need to know where you are located on the spectrum and focus on the next maturity level. Let's open up the innovation toolbox; what is in it?

Roman: First of all a chocolate bar! The most popular item! Kidding aside, it's a physical box that contains a set of canvases, guides, notebooks and post-its, all the things you need to be a successful innovator. First of all, it's a program. It starts with a two-day training where you understand your motivation and find your stride in spotting new avenues for innovation. Then you have a set of tools to come up with the ideas, validate them with customers, and prepare them for the proof of concept phase; simply everything you need to start and pursue the innovation journey. It’s actually adopted from a very successful Adobe kickbox program. The whole process doesn't work without people since part of that toolbox is also mentorship and coaching by the experts who can help the innovators with their ideas and efforts.

Chris: Well, that’s actually a few points. Based on your opinion, who is responsible for driving the innovation culture? You mentioned earlier that the symbiotic relationship between the bottom and top is crucial for conveying that importance and sense of urgency. How is that with your team and the necessary innovation mindset, etc.? Would you say that everyone has a stake in driving innovation culture, or is it singularly the responsibility of the inno boosters?

Roman: I think everyone is integrated and intertwined in the working style that innovation demands. It's a cultural thing, and as one English proverb says: "It takes one pool to spoil the poolparty." You need everyone to be on board and understand what innovation is about and part of that culture. We have a tool called the Innovation Mindset Index, which assists us in calibrating and aligning each department to the necessary innovation culture. We also have discussions with the IT staff on fostering and encouraging it to evolve further. The bottom line, our ambition is a shared one.

"You need everyone to be on board and understand what innovation is about and part of that culture."

Chris: From your experience, what were the most crucial kinds of building blocks that have helped you advance innovation maturity over time?

Roman: What has proven to work well is to have a set of tools and money to play with to validate the best ideas. I think the POC program that we started was the most significant contributor since it helped us stimulate the ideas from the experts, innovators, different departments, and all of them to jointly provide support and the means to increase the chances for implementing these ideas.

Chris: Okay. How would you describe your operating model? Do you consistently work to innovate, discover new customer needs and then push the information to product management, R&D and so on, for example? Or are you tasked by them, like finding new things, understanding customer needs and so on?

Roman: In actuality, it's tough to say one over the other, but it reminds me of one insight that I got when we worked on the, we call it innovation journey. Our task was to try to explain the innovation process. At its core, the process sounds very rigid; thus, we tried to show staff, via this innovation journey, how to work it and run with it. It made me realize that innovation has to start somewhere, and the question is how to get it started. Of course, there is a scenario where you get a task where you need to be more innovative. That is the worst-case scenario because it's a task, and you just solve it, and it's done. However, good innovation starts with some inspiration, with some vision, seeing an opportunity on the customer side and uncovering problems. It's so rare to get a well-defined challenge; therefore, we try to bring a lot of inspiration to people and show them what other industries are doing and what the competition is doing in order to jump-start the thinking. We want to change, and here are some opportunities that we should address.

"However, good innovation starts with some inspiration, with some vision, seeing an opportunity on the customer side and uncovering problems."

Chris: Where do you get that inspiration from?

Roman: You can obtain inspiration everywhere, like conferences, the Internet, being with customers, observing customers, testing our products and determining what works well and what doesn't, where are areas of improvement, etc. You can also get it from the competition, hence why inspiration is everywhere. You just systematically have to spot it and then reel it in for it to be evaluated and make sense based on what you are trying to achieve.

Chris: Great answer.

Roman: One good about approaching it systematically is that it brings inspiration to life. I think innovators do it naturally. They read trend reports, watch new webinars, attend CES or watch podcasts. But intentionally you need to receive inspiration from the other industries and actively implement it into your weekly routine to implement any insights once a week. It's looking outside your box or cubicle and seeing where you can get inspiration from and how it can help in your business.

Chris: So that's how you do it? For example you set away some time per week to find inspiration besides your research, correct?

Roman: That's right. We have tasks we give out during training or our team meetings. We always kick it off by asking folks to reveal their three or four inspirations that they may have found in magazines, the Internet or conferences. We then, as a team, discuss what that could potentially mean for us. After that, we transfer any feasible ideas to our innovation management platform, which distributes a weekly newsletter to all the innovation enthusiasts at Škoda.

Chris: And what do you think, could an artificial intelligence system in the immediate future assist with identifying new inspiration and gathering data spread across the globe? There are so many sources, and you need the means to cut through the signals and the noise. What's your take on that?

Roman: I believe so. The opportunities and possibilities of AI are endless, to be honest. Lately, we have tried an innovation simulation game where we competed with an AI. Our baseline was our innovation strategy, and we injected our assumptions, way of thinking and experiences into the mix to determine how the AI would assess Škoda's innovation strategy. It was an exciting exercise, and the AI provided sensible strategic measures to address some issues within the innovation ecosystem.

Chris: So who performed better in your eyes? Human or machine?

Roman: It's hard to say since it was merely a simulation. However, the AI got a higher score than us.

Chris: Here we go. It has already started! Okay. Let's turn to the future. Before our episode, I had just learned that Škoda had a critical management meeting about the future of innovation. Without disclosing anything confidential, what would you consider the next logical step for management to take to provide an edge to Škoda?

Roman: There are two big topics that we are currently working on. The first one is focused on a strategy until 2030, which is expected to bring many opportunities for the next five to ten years. That's precisely how we need to bring it to life because strategies are always very high level. To accurately define what specific opportunities to focus on, we need to get certain methodologies to help us determine areas of focus that are part of the overall strategy; we need new technologies or new business models. The second topic is the never-ending corporate evergreen topic is Acceleration. There needs to be more impetus behind it as we progress too slowly, especially in the car development lifecycle. However, the services work much faster, and we need to accelerate our efforts in that area, which means dedicating more time and capacity as a priority for innovations. I will give you one example. When I came to Škoda four years ago, I was very much in love with the digital key using NFC technology. We looked at it and recognized that it was still not entirely as secure or convenient for users. The arrival of Bluetooth technology quickly changed that, and now we are seeing biometric IDs make any appearance. I am trying to make that as technology advances so rapidly; there is an acute danger of being left behind if you don't have a scan horizon looking three, five or ten years into the future to come up with solutions.

Chris: Yes, that's a real challenge. How would you propose to speed things up?

Roman: As I already said before, you need to look a little bit beyond the next two to three years. Also, be on the lookout for best practices in corporate acceleration programs and take glimpses at other groups where possible, like Audi or Porsche, as good examples. The idea is to replicate what works for them and implement that within Škoda to speed up and help innovators be faster with their ideas. It's like a quick method hackathon, and you can get the solution very quickly. We found the algorithms in two days, but it took us an additional two to three years to implement everything efficiently that we had cooked up.

Chris: Right. Thanks for the inspiration. We are already nearing the end of our episode, but before we do that, I'd like to ask what your most greatest Innovation Rockstar moment was when you were looking at your career at Škoda?

Roman: Honestly, I don't feel like a rockstar, and I don't even have the ambition to be one. Eventually, I think that being a rockstar is a lot of small steps, which I enjoy in my daily line of work. Inspiring someone, connecting with them and then helping them come up with suggestions for improvement, facilitating the workshop and overall making them shine is reward enough for me.

Chris: Fair enough; since the show is Innovation Rockstars, you are now part of the Innovation Rockstars community. But, yeah that’s it. With that, we have reached the end of this episode, and it was a pleasure to listen to you. Thank you for sharing all the insights and inspirations. Hope to talk to you again soon.

Roman: Pleasure was all mine, and we'll be in touch. Stay safe, be creative and innovative. Have a great day!

Chris: Indeed, be creative and innovative. Thanks to everybody listening or watching. If you want to learn more about this story, simply leave us a comment on this episode or drop us an email at That’s it, thanks for listening and see you in the next episode! Take care and bye-bye. 

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Roman Šiser is Innovation Manager at Škoda Auto.

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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