'Innovation Is Too Important To Be Left Siloed In The “Innovation” Department'

How Gore Innovation Center encourage company-wide innovation


Ahead of our Chief Innovation Officer summit in San Francisco, May 7 & 8, we spoke with the co-leaders of Gore Innovation Center, Linda Elkins and Paul Campbell, about how to achieve successful innovation.

Linda has spent 17 years with W. L. Gore & Associates serving multiple roles. In the Medical Products Division, Linda led new product development teams from ideation to commercial launch; drove technical resourcing for manufacturing engineering; and owns two patents. Linda dedicated the past two years to the creation and launch of the Gore Innovation Center in Silicon Valley, where she took it from its original concept to the facility’s execution, completion, and launch. Now, she’s working to jointly develop products, technologies, and business models where Gore materials can uniquely add value.

Paul Campbell is an expert in corporate innovation and a serial intrapreneur. Paul built new businesses that generated billions in revenue for companies like Hewlett-Packard, Philips Electronics, Schneider Electric, as well as Silicon Valley tech startups. Paul continually seeks new approaches to corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, co-founding the Silicon Valley Innovation Executive Forum and European Innovation Executive Group, mentoring startups in accelerators from around the world, lecturing at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business and Hult International Business School, and serving as advisor to the World Economic Forum and European Commission.

As the two work closely together in the pursuit of innovation, Linda and Paul have chosen to answer questions collaboratively - a quality which is key to their success.



How do you encourage a culture of innovation?

Gore's unique culture encourages Associates to pursue questions, ideas and innovations as part of their daily commitments. Associates are encouraged to use their “dabble time” to explore areas that they believe may be of value to Gore, even if they are outside their current division. Gore's history of innovation has resulted in important problem solving and business creation as a result of genuinely curious Associates who came up with an idea and had the passion to pursue it.

For example, the Elixir Guitar Strings were born out of the W. L. Gore concept of “dabble time.” During a testing session of slender cables for Disney puppets, a group of Gore engineers noticed the cables were too difficult to control and the prototype failed. Instead of giving up on the project, Gore encouraged them to use some “dabble time” to think of alternative solutions. The group decided they needed a smoother, lower friction cable and realized they could use guitar strings as a substitute for the prototype. Once the strings became integrated into that process, the engineers realized they could create a stronger and longer lasting guitar string by combining the existing strings with Gore polymers.

While this is one proof point, for fostering an innovative mindset, we also believe in the power of creating an internal accelerator, a small team that is available to pursue ideas that germinate from employees. Most employee-generated ideas go nowhere because there are insufficient resources with the right perspective. A broad set of business-building skills are required to take a good idea and an adequate resource pool to a minimum viable product and then build it into a successful business.

Do you have any tips on how companies can have a more innovative mindset?

Innovation is too important to be left siloed in the “innovation” department. Innovation can come from anywhere inside or outside the company. For any company, it is key to be open to the ideas from any source and then take the time to flesh out and prioritize the ideas. Once priorities have been established, the company needs to devote the time and resources necessary to make the ideas successful, then announce the success across the company. A more innovative mindset across the entire company can build from one employee-generated success. Employees are highly motivated by such a success, which improves morale and promotes a supportive culture of innovation across the company.

How do you encourage a culture of innovation in a small company versus a large company?

In all companies, regardless of size, employees need to understand their contribution to company innovation goals. So, leadership is the key. Leaders must communicate their expectations of employees and put infrastructure in place to enable employees to pursue their ideas and curiosities. Companies can give employees a percentage of their time to pursue ideas or have employee idea contests. The most success is when companies have taken the time to educate employees on design thinking, lean innovation, business model innovation, open innovation and more. Leadership, setting expectations and providing infrastructure that supports those expectations, works the same across both large and small companies. Gore started as 2 people in a garage 60 years ago. It is now a $3billion company with over 9,500 Associates. Gore grew up with a culture of innovation and took the necessary steps to ensure that as the company grew, it stayed true to the roots of its culture, made changes when necessary, and allowed Associates to be free to innovate. Leadership was and continues to be critical to this journey.

How important is workplace diversity to innovation?

Innovation comes not just from breadth of experience and deep technical knowledge, but through the involvement of diverse teams. Pioneering ideas result when all those involved — everyone from engineers to customers — tap into their individual talents and experiences. Gore is a stronger enterprise because we foster an environment that is inclusive of all, regardless of race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or other personal identifiers.

Are companies having to innovate faster than they have had to before? If so, what tools are helping them do this?

Yes, over time the focus of innovation has shifted from internal only for some companies to bringing in external ideas and working with external partners. This shifts the pace of innovation as startups are on a faster timeline than corporations. To ensure we are working with the best startups and getting them what they need, we need to move faster. One area that facilitates faster innovation is to 'deconstruct' corporate practices in legal, procurement, supply chain, and other functions that aren't built for speed but for the purpose of reducing risk in core businesses. The innovation team embraces risk when it explores new opportunities and speed is critical to these explorations. Internal processes that worked in the past sometimes only hinder innovation today. Applying a ‘deconstruction’ mindset puts the innovation leader in the position to rewrite policies that accelerate innovation, just like a startup CEO writes policies that support the startup’s mission.

How do you prepare for disruption?

We work closely with startups, universities, and customers to understand emerging technologies and business models. Taking a cross-sector approach allows us to capitalize on best practices from a variety of fields. Disruption at its best capitalizes on the agile nature of start-ups, the expertise and infrastructure of established corporations, and the exploratory mindset of academic institutions, all while focusing on the problem that needs to be solved. Innovation for innovation’s sake means nothing unless it truly makes a difference - addressing a challenge, improving a life, increasing efficiency etc. Preparing for disruption means factoring in all these inputs to improve the status quo.

How is the nature of innovation and organizations' approaches to it set to evolve over the next five years?

One challenge facing companies is finding the right balance across all three business creation phases, Ideation-Incubation-Scaleup. Many companies invest in one of these areas while under-investing in the others, resulting in a large number of projects failing to move the needle for the company. In the next few years, companies will gain more insights from data about where their innovation programs fail to support promising projects, and companies will fix the gaps by balancing investments across all three business creation phases.

In addition, new tools like machine learning and artificial intelligence will continue to shape the way we develop businesses and processes. The potential for increasing efficiency on many fronts and across industries is huge. Organizations that build business models around these disruptive tools will realize success in a way that inflexible institutions are unable to.

See their presentation 'Creating an "innovation ecosystem" – the role of an innovation center in accelerating corporate innovation' at our Chief Innovation Officer summit in San Francisco, May 7 & 8. You can book tickets here.

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