Lean Startup In The Hard Sciences: Part Three

We recently hosted the third webcast episode of a mini-series we’re doing with Rhapsody Venture Partners on Lean Startup in the hard sciences where we spoke with Jason Whaley from Rhapsody and Chris Thoen, former CTO of Givaudan, the world’s largest flavor and fragrance company and former Managing Director of Open Innovation at Procter & Gamble.

They spoke with Lean Startup Co. faculty member Hisham Ibrahim about ambidexterity in leaders and companies, as well as the importance of open innovation in order for companies to grow in today’s fast-paced marketplace.

Don’t have time for the full webcast now? Catch the webcast highlights and tips from their conversation in our companion blog below.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Hisham Ibrahim’s conversation with Chris Thoen and Jason Whaley, you may download it.

Bringing the Small Startup Mentality to Big Corporations

Chris Thoen spent nearly the entirety of his 32-year career working in science and innovation, and he’s done so while deftly balancing between working for large corporations and small startups – often finding ways to work with both types of companies at the same time.

When he was fresh out of college, Chris’ first job was at a small biotech startup in Belgium. It was not only a good transition from university life to professional life, but it was a great introduction to how young companies can really work. But after a few years, he wanted more of a challenge and the ability to continually innovate on new ideas, which led him to his next job at Procter & Gamble.

“Essentially every six months you [were] on a new project,” Chris recalls, “You’re doing something different, they’re stretching you as a scientist, or potentially as a manager.”

The fast-paced nature of the company suited Chris and he spent the next couple of decades of his career working on projects – big and small – for the company. One of the highlights of his career was working on what he describes as essentially a “startup within the corporation” called Clay Street. For 12 weeks, he and 11 other colleagues from different functions of the organization, worked exclusively on a single project. It’s something that Chris still thinks about fondly. “It was so empowering, so aspirational,” he says.

From there Chris went on to lead Procter & Gamble’s Connect and Develop Program – or what he calls their “open innovation program” – where he worked to stretch targets and figure out how to go outside of their own company walls to make new things happen.

Most recently, he was the leader of science and technology at Givaudan, the world’s leading flavor and fragrance house. While he was there, he became a founding partner of MassChallenge Switzerland, an accelerator that takes no equity and helps startups hone their business and prepare their pitches for investors. Because, according to Chris, it’s important for large companies to find ways to ensure they continue to re-innovate and reinvigorate themselves with new ideas.

“We wanted to link with startup communities to get that stimulus…that boost of energy for our own management team to really see….how other people develop new ideas and novel propositions and how you could work together to bring those ideas to the market.”

“We wanted to link with startup communities to get that stimulus...that boost of energy for our own management team.” Click To Tweet

The Ability to Do Two Things at Once

One of the concepts Chris speaks at length about is the idea of “ambidextrous leaders.” For Chris, that means leaders who are extremely good at managing their core business while also being able to continue to think of fresh ideas and innovate for what consumers need in the future.

“One thing’s for sure,” Chris says, “change is upon us.” And with that change is the risk of falling behind by not finding ways to continue to learn, change, grow and innovate with the market.

This is why, Chris stresses, it’s important for companies to also have a degree of ambidexterity to them. In his opinion, the best way for corporations to do that is to have two separate focuses to their company: the core side and the innovation side.

The core side focuses on the things that keep the lights on – the core business of the company. They stay within boundaries and focus on the daily success of the company. The innovation side, however, should be run completely separately. The innovation side should be able to think freely in an exploratory and experimental way and, notably, have the freedom to fail.

“For me, fail is not a verb,” Chris says, “fail is an acronym which stands for First Attempt In Learning. And who doesn’t want to have a first attempt in learning? If with those learnings, you can do your job better afterward, so much the better.”

According to Chris, it’s important to keep the two separate because it’s impossible for people to effectively do both jobs. There will always be open projects for the core business to think about, so innovating will be put to the back burner.

It’s also why it’s important to have leaders in place who are able to see the importance of both sides of the company, and to help put systems in place to bridge the communication of the groups to keep everyone aligned and positively working together. Things like keeping teams in the loop, letting the core side be part of the discussion of what’s going on with the innovating side.

Also talking about success and failures openly. “Don’t try to push the failures under the carpet,” he says, “but really use it as a learning experience for the broader organization.” And when discussing successes, it shouldn’t be self-congratulatory, but rather, be about how it’s helping the organization grow. Because positivity, especially when it comes from good leaders, is contagious.

The Importance of Being Open to Ideas From Anywhere

Even with the right leadership, Chris thinks that today’s fast-paced marketplace requires companies to continue to look beyond their own internal resources to innovate. “In the past, it was the big companies eating the small,” Chris says, “nowadays, it’s the fast eating the slow.” So it doesn’t make sense for companies to do everything internally, anymore. It simply takes too much time, money and resources.

It’s why Chris is a big believer and a big advocate for open innovation. Companies should be looking beyond their own walls – and even their own industry – to continue to find new ways to help them become successful in the areas where they’re trying to succeed.

That’s not to say it’s easy. It does require the right mindset, the ability to see the positive potential of an idea and then being able to see ways to make it successful. It also requires an ability to focus on how the idea can help the company, both for what it stands for now and for what the company could stand for in the future.

Chris suggests that large companies make sure they have their own house in order before going down the open innovation route. It’s crucial to be sure that your company is internally ready to receive these new opportunities and to know how to deal with them.

For the smaller companies looking to innovate with larger companies, Chris suggests that you approach places that are known to be supported from the top management. Also, to find out why people are motivated to work with you – figure out how both sides benefit so you know what to expect with your partnership.

And if you can’t find these answers through a google search? Ask.

“If [a company] is not willing to give the broader picture of how the company works and how the decisions go through the organization…there should be some alarm bells going off.”

“In the past, it was the big companies eating the small. Nowadays, it’s the fast eating the slow.” Click To Tweet

Make Innovation Part of Your Corporate Conversation

One of the tricky things about having ambidexterity in a corporation or seeking innovation from outside sources is something Chris calls “corporate antibodies.”

It’s essentially when people from within an organization feel threatened when ideas come from an outside source. It has a way of making people question why they didn’t think of the idea or how this threatens their job, their rewards, or their recognition after they’ve poured their blood, sweat, and tears into their work.

In order to combat this, Chris suggests leaders reframe the mindset and make ideas not feel like a threat, but an opportunity. Employees should feel like they have the ability to put their fingerprints on a project to help the project become a success, even if the idea came from elsewhere.

Still, not every employee is going to be suited for working in innovation. There are certain people who aren’t wired to think that way, and that’s okay. “There’s enough work to be done internally within a company that you can put them in your own labs,” Chris says. Conversely, there are people who are really fueled by the startup mentality and working with people who come up with the new, crazy ideas. “You have to think [about] who you place in which kind of environment,” Chris says, and then you can build from there.

But in order for any of that to succeed, empowerment and encouragement need to start from the top. Leadership needs to set the example and have expectations of innovation be part of the regular dialogue of the company. It makes it normal and non-threatening. It also allows people from all levels to feel as though they have the opportunity to come up with the ideas.

Because you never know where the next big idea is going to come from.

Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.

You can catch part one of our Lean Startup in the hard sciences mini-series here and part two here.