Expert Interview Series: Michel van Hove of Strategos About Creating Innovation Within a Company’s Culture

Michel van Hove is the co-owner and partner of Strategos, a strategy and innovation consultancy that helps companies grow. We recently spoke with Michel to hear his thoughts on how to successfully foster a culture of innovation within a company.

Tell us a bit about your background. What drew you to Strategos?

My career began with a small company in the entertainment industry that developed the first large screen stadium video displays for U2 and other leading music acts. Those were exciting times where we experimented with different technologies to bring new experiences to international audiences. Later, I worked for multinational companies in fast-moving consumer goods and specialty chemicals on strategic innovation initiatives. Strategos offers clients a robust and creative approach to strategy and innovation that appealed to me. I was educated as an engineer and have always believed that finding new ways to solve problems required creativity as well as systemic thinking and collaborating with people that have diverse backgrounds.

Since you have worked on innovation “from the inside,” what lessons have you learned from that process and how have they helped you assist other companies in their innovation efforts?

Working on innovation in industry roles can be very demanding. Often you are the initiator and the evangelist as well as the project manager and team leader. There are many roles to play when you are trying to get innovation off the ground in large companies. You learn that having a big-picture view of what you want to achieve plus executive buy-in and sponsorship is critical. You need a clear step-by-step plan with tangible outcomes to convince middle managers and team members that investing their time and resources produces results.

Could you explain what it means to “work from the future back” as a key strategy of innovation? Why is this important?

Traditional methods are more deterministic in that they extrapolate from the past to the present into the future – more like a planning exercise where we believe in certainties. It presents a future that is acceptable; but in our opinion, it doesn’t lead to significant innovation. Therefore, in our present situation of rapid change, traditional methods fall short. Working from the future back is much more exploratory of what the future may hold and the role that companies can play. It stretches our thinking and helps us to create a more ambitious strategy that drives much higher innovation performance.

What industries or regions are lagging behind right now when it comes to embracing innovation?

There’s good and bad in every industry or company, but generally speaking the companies that stick to their beliefs the longest about what it takes to win without examining those beliefs with the intent to challenge them will be in trouble. On the positive side, innovation is now high on everyone’s agenda, and there are plenty of successful examples. ¬†However, we see many companies still lack the purpose, direction, and capabilities to act and often revert to whichever innovation solution is in fashion. This seems to be particularly true in retail and finance.

When you examine a client company, what do you often find that prevents them from innovating to the best of their abilities?

We usually find pockets of innovation success in every organization. The sense of urgency is there, but there’s also an uneven distribution of innovation capabilities. People understand that culture is an important driver of innovation, but often see it as a problem of motivating employees to act differently. They focus on skill building without having a “landing place” for employees to exercise those skills. We believe organizations need to build individual capability and surround that with organizational capacity to make innovation happen and make it stick.

If a company brainstorms numerous innovative ideas or approaches, how should they go about prioritizing their development or execution and keeping track of their progress?

We provide our clients with a step between brainstorming ideas and picking out the most promising ones called “domaining.” Individual ideas are rarely big enough on their own. We group or synthesize ideas into bigger growth platforms, or domains. These contain ideas that we can work on immediately, but also ideas that need much more refinement and often require additional capabilities that don’t exist today. Domains stretch out over time and provide both the big-picture view as well as a map to track progress. They are flexible and adaptable because along the way, you learn more about the growth platform you are pursuing.

Name one relatively simple step that a company can take to encourage innovative thinking and idea generation from its personnel.

Start by applying a few simple behavioral principles:

  1. Diverge before you converge. Explore a broad set of options before selecting the ones you choose (a straight line from A to B might be the quickest but may prevent you from seeing more interesting alternatives)
  2. Challenge your beliefs about what it takes to be successful, and think about what new opportunities might emerge if that no longer is the norm
  3. Don’t just ask the customer what they want, but invest in understanding what they are trying to achieve.

These behaviors may seem easy, but they require practice before they will lead to really interesting ideas.

If everyone agrees that innovation is important to a company’s survival, which companies will actually succeed and flourish in the future?

The companies that will succeed are those that understand that innovation is not just a series of isolated interventions in the hope that it will lead to a culture of innovation. Those that address innovation “systemically” tend to be the more successful companies who understand that strategy, opportunity, and capability need to be linked together.

How are today’s companies embracing a more innovative culture? For some ideas, join the IdeaScale community today!

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