Francois Fournier - Thales AVS - innovation copilots

Interview – A Pragmatic Pioneer with a Portfolio Approach at Thales AVS

So here is the third interview in the Transformation Leaders series. After a digital intrapreneur at AIRBUS and a business transformation executive at ATOS, I have interviewed François Fournier, Digital Business Leader at Thales.

François is an avid learner who wanted to become an aircraft pilot. As he couldn’t, he found his way closest possible to the cockpit via engineering studies specializing in avionics and developed his career in SEXTANT Avionique and then THALES AVS. 

“I love to learn and when I think I’ve sufficiently explored a subject either there is a new opportunity or I go look for new opportunity and in a large corporation it is easy to find.”

For François, transformation, is of course about digital but more about being in-transformation, it is about growth (business and people) and it is about innovation as a culture, about learning and sharing knowledge. What struck me during our discussions was: his clear vision of what transformation is, how it is helping his organisation become more intelligent and his portfolio approach to innovation.

Disclaimer: the opinions and perspectives shared in this article are my own and that of the interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the interviewee’s employer.

The intelligent organisation is in-transformation 

One of the key point that came across in my exchanges with François was that transformation for him is not about going from A to B. As he says: 

“As you reach mid point between A and B, you realise that B is not relevant anymore, it should now be C or D. So it is more about being in-transformation. To make a well-known reference, it is more about the journey than the destination.”

Being in continuous transformation is being intelligent, it is about having the capacity to adapt efficiently to your environment. Standing still is not a valid option for survival, however successful or comfortable your organisation might be right now. 

“Intelligence is the unique propensity of human beings to change or modify the structure of their cognitive functioning to adapt to the changing demands of a life situation”. Reuven Feuerstein (Psychologist)

Being an intelligent organisation, is not about having one intelligent leader. François stresses on the fact that the whole organisation needs to move forward as one: 

“ How do I move forward and help others progress too, leaving no-one behind?”

Innovations are vectors of transformations for individuals’ lifestyles, businesses’ practices, markets, and society. However they are often reduced to techno buzz, overnight wows, and business quick wins. The impact of innovations actually is much wider on their market, associated markets, people’s lives, social values, and is constantly transforming the way we do business and work together. For François it is key that when exploring potential innovations in his business, he considers the wider impact and questions the potential extended benefits for the whole organisation and its ecosystem.

“Innovation should be seen as transformation of the organisation, not just a buzz about one disruptive project, but an organisation-wide benefit.”

It is so refreshing to meet innovators who are not carried away by the buzz, not looking for the next quick win and public recognition. 

“It is easy to innovate in small teams but then it is hard to reintegrate into the whole system, it seems too far. And yes, it is nice, it creates buzz, so we can have nice articles in the press about these initiatives, but does the rest of the organisation, the ones not engaged in these initiatives, benefit from that?” 

As an example, François shared that he has been one of the pioneers of agile in his organisation, but being a pioneer doesn’t mean he is not realistic and pragmatic about the scaling or propagation of new practices. 

“When we needed to integrate our agile way in a small team to the wider project with teams that were not agile, it didn’t work at first, not everyone was at the same pace. There were issues about communication, and pace, with different milestones and mindsets. But I understood that because I had been there [not agile] before.”

François seems very lucid and aware about the organisation’s stakeholders and bystanders’ difficulty to change their way, to adapt their mindset and to understand the value of transformation. Innovation is in the end about risk, so it is key to understand what the perceived risks at organisation and individual levels are. François asks himself this very simple but critical question:

“How can I support the ecosystem so THEY can take the risk?”

For people to engage in the transformation they need to willingly take the risk of leaving their comfort zone, they need to own the risk they are taking. Hence transformation leaders are encouraging teams as willing participants in the change and NOT driving a herd of blind captive sheep. 

But, transforming the organisation is also about critical mass. And reaching it is not that simple: there is rarely a very homogenous population who will need, value, perceive and understand the same things. 

“The naivety would be to think that everyone thinks like me.”

Beyond the usual stakeholder mapping and interactions, François goes looking for allies. What is interesting is that in finding allies or sponsors he first ensures that they are « aligned on intention and the why, as the how can be negotiated ». 

The difficulty that François (and many others I’ve met) encounters is the constraint of his own role, and perception others may have of his role. Is he legitimate in proposing new ways of working, trying new tech, experimenting with a client? He finds he has to ask for permission to extend his perimeter, to justify why he should be the one doing this. As he puts it he has to “innovate in a box”. So he tries to find the right backers, people who are willing to take some risk with him, who do not feel threatened by his actions or potential results of these, who can also bring resources whether it is financial or competencies, or network.

This reminds me of the many conversions I’ve had in some industrial corporations I work with. Engineers in these organisations are so used to the traditional innovation or more to the point R&D processes that when I ask them about MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and the ressources they need for their first opportunity to test (RAT – Riskiest Assumption Testing) they immediately think enormous budgets.

Their next thought is how do we onboard or convince the finance guys?  So they  try to figure out what would be the tangible predictable ROI for their project and they end up going for incremental innovation, trying to reduce the risk to zero. 

In these cases of innovation, the finance guys might not be the “right” allies in the organisation, especially very early on.

For any innovation to be initiated (read here get first tests, PoC) in a large corporation and for an organisational movement to start (read here the first steps of transformation – critical mass being achieved in following waves), you need to find the right allies. Often the most successful movements start under the radar, without the big ooha advertised.

As François puts it while laughing: “The characteristic of an organisation is to defend itself against all innovators”.

“The challenge is to find the allies who will allow you to do things differently than they are done usually. People, at all levels, managers, in quality, in certification, have always many reasons to do things according to the currently defined process, many good reasons. Except that if we continue to do them in this manner we also lose a more important intention or opportunities to innovate and to do differently, or more efficiently or more respectfully of the environment or people.

So the difficulty is to say to yourself I need to understand this [resisting] person because she has her own constraints, choices, and see if she can become an ally in this transformation or not. The difficulty is to find the right allies, people who are aligned on the intention.”

A portfolio approach to innovation and transformation

To engage people in a company-wide transformation, François multiplies the approaches and initiatives, not all will land, but this portfolio approach is a great way to test early and to trigger movement in different parts of the organisation. 

A portfolio approach is the kind of « method » we’ve been recommending for years to our corporate clients who wish to innovate. 

 “A big corporation is a collection of many individuals, it seems obvious but if you want to engage a critical mass, you cannot engage everyone in the same way, there is a diversity of attitudes, some are curious, some have an interest in their own progress, others in solidarity actions, others like the FabLab idea… So  my thinking is how do you multiply different initiatives in an organisation with different approaches but with a convergent intention”.

Building a portfolio is about playing the numbers game, it is learning about various subjects, exploring varying levels and nature of risks (techno and market), testing new techno, approaches and processes, observing startups, partnering with non-obvious organisations. The portfolio tool functions like an awareness radar which enhances the organisations capacity to grab new opportunities quickly. 

The portfolio approach brings very unpredictable returns on investment. These ROIs are rarely financial or direct business growth, they are most of the time valuable learning opportunities, but can also be about gaining agility in teams, nudging the company culture, or enhancing the brand value.

“In a large corporation, the objective is to optimize production, so everything is organized to reach that – that’s the mainstream, and then, there is innovation.”

To maintain a portfolio approach you need not only to value learning as a valid ROI but also to have a learning mindset (open mind, curiosity, questioning own thinking). For François Fournier, it comes easy as he always has been a keen learner, regardless of his hierarchical position. It is reflected in his career path which has been very diverse in terms of jobs and missions from strategy, marketing, P&L management, studies, engineering, product specification, design, development, testing to support and services.

It is also in the way he is open to new approaches and willing to test them. It is illustrated in how he cherishes the various trainings he benefited from at Thales which encouraged him (and others) to consider the differences between people in terms of perspectives and ways of thinking. And finally his learning is also enriched outside of Thales since he joined the hacktivateurs, a not-for-profit organization aiming to promote intrapreneurship, collaborative intelligence and corporate hacking.

“I am attracted to new things since always, it is connected to my taste for learning. Innovation to me is about learning something new and it is not reduced to techno, I’m attracted to other approaches, methods and people to address the concrete issues. I’m interested in various approaches like agile, collaborative methods, etc and I wanted to test these if they could solve current issues. It answers in part large or small, so maybe I try other things. I’ve always been interested by new things, I’m always a pilot, to try things.”

The learning mindset and portfolio approach both impact the way you consider failure, not meeting expectations, or not controlling the results. François was very open in sharing how his thinking evolved, and needed to evolve on the subject:

“I was asked after a speech what should be a leader’s response to failure of performance in a team. I have three answers. When I was younger I thought: “this guy [low performer, not achieving what I expected] is careless, he is not well intentioned, he’s not engaged”. Then in a second part of my life I started to think more like: “What did I do? What did I say that was not clear?”. I was questioning my own leadership communication, my capacity to evaluate the competencies of my team.

Now my thinking has evolved to: “How did we [together] get here?” It can be everything from my own leadership capacity to his competency level, but it could also be something completely different”.

The learning part is key in post-mortems of projects in a portfolio approach as it allows the teams to learn and grow. And what struck me when discussing leadership and innovation with François was how humble and open he was as regards to vision setting. We often expect the leader to set the vision, but in his view, despite his talent for vision setting and sharing, he stays open to the possibility of being wrong, or at least not quite right. 

“I have the capacity to envision the future, represent it in space and share it. However, how can I develop the teams and their autonomy? How can I delegate and help them with their problem solving skills? Maybe they do not need to or shouldn’t  go where I have defined. The final product might not be my vision.

Everyone in the team needs to engage, to find their place and their own way of expression, that’s why it is key to ask the question “how did we get here together?” Because maybe he/she chose a different route and it is actually a great initiative, or maybe it is not great for the business but it has learning value, so the team can progress, even if we have slowed down on the business side of the project.”

François clearly values learning over quick wins, and this approach brings, in our experience, much more long term and sustainable results.

“Feedback and learning why we got here are important. Look at the gap between where we are and where we thought we would be. Sometimes where we are is better than anticipated, so how do we learn from this and ensure that our prediction is closer to reality.”

The portfolio approach is also about knowing when to stop, it is about choosing your battles or their timing.

“[Another] challenge, which is a great difficulty for me, is to know how to choose your battles or to stop when it is time to. I have a tendency to push forward, be very frank, and at some point I tire myself out, because it is not the right time, the right person, the right process, not the right way to do. It is important to listen to yourself and if it doesn’t work right now, maybe it is not the right time, or you need to find another person, so do not force it.”

“Now I manage this difficulty by launching many projects and some will work really fast, some others will take time and the rest will die.”

To illustrate this approach François explained that his current missions were connected to projects he launched 6 months to a year ago. He doesn’t know which projects that he’s launching right now will feed his workflow next year, but he carries on looking for new allies, looking at new opportunities and fine-tuning projects.

For example, the SILAB (Services Innovation LABoratory) is the place that François created to learn and share internally and with clients. A place for questions, explorations, testing and learning. 

“How can we present [what we do] to our client and internally, how can we define usages? The SILAB helps develop product lines and market awareness, welcomes clients and is also a place open to others to share about issues. People can come and explore if a techno or competencies or other knowledge can help solve their current concrete issues. Or they can share knowledge about similar issues.” 

François explains that the SILAB is open for anyone in the company to come and benefit from human, techno or project capital to enrich their own capital, it is a sharing place. Following Philippe’s latest article on innovation programs, I’m wondering if François and his team are exploring the first or the second order of consequences in their Lab but this question would be worth a whole new article. 

Be the change

To conclude, François believes, and I have to say I agree, to transform, the organisation has to apply itself, has to commit, and embody the change.

“So to help our clients, let’s start with ourselves”.

He explained how proud he was of Thales to have fully committed to the digital transformation of itself, engaging financial, technological and human means, partners and experts to create in less than a year the Digital Factory. A typical case of putting your money where your mouth is. 

“The digital transformation is also a transformation of the organisation. Four things were put into place in less than a year: an MVP delivery involving endusers; we support startups on subjects of cyber security in the Station F accelerator; the digital academy with internal trainings and ambassadors to spread knowledge; and Thales digital platform (software / tool). Digital factory is not just the tool it is the four elements implemented all together.”

It was a pleasure exchanging with François as he reminded me about the importance of being actor of the change and “walking the talk” as we used to hear. With Philippe we always apply our own tools to ourselves and it is often a humbling experience and a powerful one to understand ourselves and our clients. 

Published by

Stéphanie Mitrano

Insightful and open-minded, Stéphanie accompanies organisations in their cultural transformation to support innovation and business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.