Mentoring for innovation culture

Avoiding being « uberised », innovating like startups in large rigid structures, helping employees regain creativity, exploring new business models… are the issues we see our clients confronted by everyday.

To foster innovation in large corporations, several keys and « difficult to get » ingredients need to be gathered: creativity, market awareness and risk mindset whilst being reassuring to existing customers with a solid efficient structure.

mentonring for innovation - innovation copilots

Mentoring for innovation not only requires being great at what you are doing but also having employees with the capacity to adapt their thinking and mindset in line with society. With the evolution of demographics, people’s needs and technologies, corporations need to embrace hybridisation and be willing to open to new markets, to be aware of unexpected competitors and realise that what was true decades ago about markets is no longer valid.

It is the confrontation to the outside — often unrelated — world, that can stimulate the ideation process.Innovation emerges out of confrontation with the unexpected. This is why so many creativity techniques are based upon divergence and shifted perspectives.

To generate this necessary open-mindedness, a solid mentoring programme will usually rely on two key tools linked to the « ➌ Height » and « ➍ Space » dimensions:

  • A closed internal network for mentees in key strategic activities, with mentors at key positions in different part of the organisational chart (linking manufacturing and marketing for example);
  • An open external network with successful entrepreneurs as mentors, preferably not in the same market of the company.

And within these two networks of mentors, the cultural mix will have to be adjusted with great care. Consider in that regard, the « ➋ Horizon » dimension of the programme, and make sure that depending on your industry, market need and current culture, you create an adequate mix of :

  • Generations: allowing mentors to learn about new generations’ issues, new trends in usage and technologies and mentees to learn about organisational culture and best practices;
  • Cultures: be it geographical, ethnic or organisational;
  • Activities: cross-departments, cross-functions, and cross-markets.

You need to realise that by nature innovation will appear in unexpected ways, which is the point of building such cultural mixes. Recently, examples of surprising pay-offs that we had while  setting up mentoring programmes were:

  1. Cross-corporations mentoring with mentees from an IT company developing mobile software for customers in payment systems, that stimulated mentors in the automotive industry to prototype new dashboard apps.
  2. Mentoring between the extremities of a medical value chain, that generated direct benefits for the patient by enhancing up-the-chain employees’ understanding of surgeons’ needs and behaviours, and widening down-the-chain employees’ perspectives on potential product externalities while used in an operation room.
  3. Mentoring between similar activities in different countries for a retail multinational, that allowed for more inspiration and insights into future businesses in Europe, based on recent Japan trends in mobile social networks.
  4. Intrapreneurs from a corporation in defence systems, paired up as mentees with experienced entrepreneurs, developing several new prototypes in three months, down from one year.

With mentors and mentees gaining confidence in playing with new ideas, exchanging with less formality and more diversity, you’ll alleviate the constant pressure of managers to justify everything as a sound business decision.

And that’s good: if you can fully back up every idea with a business plan, they’re not going to be very disruptive, and you’ve been thinking about them for probably too long.

Rapidly, you’ll also see that you are building on « ➊ Speed » and « ➎ Resilience » at corporate level.

This last example on intrapreneurship is by the way, a much more secure approach to the fabled « new businesses incubator » initiative that has popped in many multinationals these last years. Instead of trying to pool new ideas from your employees through internal contests, selecting half-a-dozen a year,  and trying to nurture them in a special room with post-its, bean bags and 3D printers… build a mentoring network, it works wonders.

Author: Stéphanie

Stéphanie has developed an extensive practice of executive coaching in London for more than 10 years. She now coaches CEOs and top executives to help them with team creation and development as well as business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.