Marketing - Feb 23, 2017

How one strategist sold his bosses on innovation

Businesses find it hard to innovate when they’re at the top of their game. Why fix what isn’t broken? But as countless companies have experienced, organizations that stick with the status quo become more vulnerable to disruption by competitors and new business models.

How does one make the case for change inside a corporation before it’s too late? Even within organizations that form small teams to examine opportunities for innovation, the process of persuading business leaders to actually invest in new approaches requires a strategy all its own.

“Innovation in a big corporation is hard,” said Greg Dubejsky, Director of Strategy and Business Development for Entrepreneurship Programs at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, one of the world’s largest innovation hubs. “But the playbook for making progress isn’t as complicated as you think.”

Dubejsky made his comments during a session on innovation at the recently held ResolveTO conference, which brought together Toronto startups and enterprises to explore new ways of forging partnerships.

Grooming Innovation

Dubejsky has the battle scars to prove it. For more than a decade, he worked on Procter & Gamble’s famously successful Gillette shaving business, and in the last several years of his tenure there, he ran an initiative with the mandate to examine its future.

At a brand like Gillette — more than 150 years old with a razor-and-blades business model that’s been studied endlessly — making the case for change required a deft touch. Even as competitors like Dollar Shave Club made market gains with its low-cost direct-to-consumer model, Dubejsky encountered push-back from executives who confidently advocated releasing yet another razor model with more blades. He had to find better ways to get heard.

Point Out Cracks in the Ice

Panic doesn’t sell, Dubejsky discovered. Pronouncements that the sky is falling and everything must change go nowhere. “You don’t get the traction,” said Dubejsky. “People don’t know how to deal with that.” Opponents can counter with accepted business metrics that show everything is just fine.

Instead, Dubejsky found ways to identify early warning signs. The Gillette business obsessed on Profit per User per Year as its core metric, and by that measure, the business was healthy. So Dubejsky presented data that proved what they were missing. Specifically, he focused on household penetration and the number of users — or as he puts it, the dudes instead of dollars.

“By flipping the way we looked at the core metric and looking at both sides of the equation, we found a shrinking pool of users was supporting our marginally growing profits,” said Dubejsky. Business leaders sat up.

Help Leaders Make Better Decisions

Dubejsky also approached meetings with executives more strategically. While most business people try to make it easy for their leaders to agree with a proposal by making a convincing case for their proposed solution, Dubejsky approached the most likely detractors to discuss barriers and explore topics that could get them on side.

By asking open-ended questions instead of looking for yes/no decisions, Dubejsky consciously engaged leaders in an inquiry decision-making process versus an advocacy process to carefully consider a variety of options, work with others to discover the best solutions and stimulate creative thinking.

“It has a totally different level of opening up the conversation and getting people to buy in,” said Dubejsky. He explored what had to be learned and the killer issues that could either sink an innovative idea, or make it float. “We were able to get resources and the support to progress ideas much further than if we’d gone to leaders with simple pass/fail questions.”

Move the Needle

Although top executives may acknowledge the need to innovate, many leaders still find it hard to approve real change in the face of success. To get budget approval for new initiatives inside large corporations, advocates for innovation must make their case with careful determination.

As for Gillette? The brand continues to thrive while embracing new business models.

You can read more about Greg Dubejsky’s insights into corporate innovation on his MaRS blog.