Live with Ben M. Bensaou, Built to Innovate

If there ever was a time that HR and business leaders needed to reimagine their future, it’s right now. Ben M. Bensaou, author of Built to Innovate and Professor of Technology Management at INSEAD, (home of the Blue Ocean Strategy) says that HR (as well as every business leader) needs to begin taking “innovating seriously.” Instead of reaching for one more piece of HR Tech (which Bensaou classifies as innovation), we need to start “innovating” and create an innovating culture that gives people permission to innovate and take risks — motivating them to share ideas and contribute. We interviewed Ben on this episode of Geeks Geezers Googlization Show. Ben was captivating. He’ll leave you wanting more!

Ben Bensaou is ​​a Professor of Technology Management and Professor of Asian Business and Comparative Management at INSEAD. INSEAD is a global business school with campuses across the world in France, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and a new research hub in San Francisco. INSEAD is an independent degree program for business students looking to get their MBA, Executive MBA, and executive education. Using research as the basis of their academic program to teach students. Bensaou recently served as Dean of the executive business school. This stint inspired him to write his own book “Built To Innovate,” which was inspired by the book “Blue Ocean Strategy,” the foundation of the INSEAD curriculum.

With labor shortages crippling many businesses, a blue ocean strategy could be just the ray of hope many leaders are looking for. Bensaou has been closely aligned with the “Blue Ocean Strategy” since its introduction in the late 1990s. He is one of the world’s experts on the popular model. The need for a Blue Ocean Strategy is based on finding answers to the troubling question: how do you compete against companies in the same market as yours without going to war on price? This approach to competition gets bloody, hence the name Red Ocean Strategy. A blue ocean is much less crowded and more appealing. But finding that blue ocean doesn’t just happen by chance. Blue Ocean Strategy shifts the strategy to creating new value, which oftentimes is different than just extending the current one. It requires a business to innovate and identify new markets.

When Bensaou first started assisting companies implementing Blue Ocean Strategies, he realized there needed to be an entire organization aligned around the concept. The idea “Built to Innovate” bridges the Blue Ocean Strategy concept and creates an innovating culture.

Host Ira S Wolfe described his “aha” moment after reading Built to Innovate. HR Tech is innovation. Many companies believe they’ll find the blue ocean with new technology because they confuse innovation (which every business can adopt) with innovating, which is more difficult to copy. Wolfe says, “HR Tech is simply applying a bandaid to a broken process, it’s not innovating.”

This sharp but subtle contrast between innovation and innovating struck Bensaou in the classroom. Talk about innovation created anxiety and fear. It struck a nerve with his students. Bensaou realized that converting innovation to innovating elicited a more positive response because it suggests learning, support, and a process. The idea of innovating represents the Blue Ocean as a whole, while innovation is just the tip of an iceberg.

Innovation is often falsely assigned to technology companies, young entrepreneurs, and start-ups that have the flexibility to put everything in the line. Bensaou suggests this simply isn’t true. His work history is laced with many established companies, sometimes a century old, that continue to innovate. He points to companies not typically associated with innovation, such as a cement or chemical company. They accomplish this by not trying to transform the entire business at once, but by innovating parts of the business. Bensaou likens this to “Doing your Homework” (Bensaou, 00:18:31) where you build the capabilities of innovation one building block at a time. “You can’t rely on the brilliance of your leader or delegate to a few R&D people…You have to create an innovating culture in spite of the fact that you don’t have a genius leader.”

Are there common obstacles that often hold a company back from creating an innovating engine? Bensaou emphasized the importance of valuing the role of middle management but why that alone isn’t enough. Creating an innovating engine requires company leadership to embrace a psychologically safe space where everyone, including the front line, can innovate.

Bensaou quickly points to a company like Bayer Pharmaceutical Company, which has a rich, long history of scientific achievements. But it was not until as recently as 2014 that they realized they needed to implement an innovating engine to leverage the capability of the 100,000 employees they employ.

To get started, they started with the Board, created a trickle-down effect down to their front lines. They selected 80 senior managers as innovation ambassadors to support the board. These ambassadors spent most of their time advocating, training, and sponsoring middle managers on innovation. The next step was creating a support innovation structure by certifying 1,000 innovation coaches responsible for communicating the innovation to the front-line workers. This led to the creation of an innovation platform called, “We Solve,” allowing anyone with a problem to post and share with the rest of the employees. At any given time there can be over 200 “challenges” and 40,000 people using the platform.

Even Bensaou was surprised by the results Bayer achieved. “Two-thirds of the best ideas come from a unit or a function different from where the challenge was generated.” (Bensaou, 00:26:17). “This is a fantastic example of how they got everyone in the organization to participate in the innovating space.”

Meaning “They need to have permission to innovate if you don’t give them permission then guess what? They won’t innovate.”(Bensaou, 00:26:57)

Meaning “They need to have the tools, the training, the support and the time to innovate you have to allocate time and space.”(Bensaou, 00:27:15)

Meaning “Their ideas are wanted and this creates a motivation to innovate.”(Bensaou, 00:27:45)

Both Wolfe and co-host Jason Cochran were able to draw parallels with the dimensions of the AQai (Adaptability Quotient) which they discussed during a recent webinar: Company support, Team support, Emotional health, and Psychological safety. For employees to feel they are able, capable, and motivated, companies must create an environment where employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing ideas, and making suggestions. Click here to watch the webinar replay.

Bensaou recalled a manager at a prior job that understood the three key factors to innovation, which inspired his approach and enthusiasm for innovation. He learned that it was important for a boss to appreciate that employees are often afraid to voice their concerns or ideas. His wise boss viewed these discussions as gifts and gave thanks to his employees any time they shared a problem or idea, to show he valued their opinions. This boss later learned to help his employee reaffirm and analyze their ideas before executing them and understanding the customer’s perspective.

Cochran poetically compared this boss to a Yoda-like character due to his wisdom. He reaffirmed Bensaou’s sage-like story because of his own personal experiences. He states “You can quickly come up with ideas but if it’s not through the lens of who you are trying to help and support… then you can very quickly be off in left field.” (Cochran, 00:36:00). Bensaou states that while creating an innovating culture is a great first step, “you still need a set of tools whether it be Blue Ocean Strategy or Design Thinking.”




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A "Millennial trapped in a Baby Boomer body, Ira S Wolfe has passionately embraced how exponential change will impact the future of work, jobs, and society.

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Ira Wolfe

Ira Wolfe

A "Millennial trapped in a Baby Boomer body, Ira S Wolfe has passionately embraced how exponential change will impact the future of work, jobs, and society.

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