Rethinking Innovation Through People-Focused Lens

Monday, October 5th, 2020

Innovation has become an important competitive differentiator for businesses, with many quickly jumping on the bandwagon to tap on new technologies. By Mark Piper, Director Category, Strategy & Innovation, Fonterra.

For decades, industries across the world have moved into an innovation-driven business model, but in the pursuit for growth, a common misconception has emerged. Companies often look toward a new technological invention or product development for immediate solutions to keep up with today’s fast-changing environment, but innovation is more than that—the people and culture driving ideas forward also play a crucial role in enabling successful innovations. 

The emphasis on people has never been timelier, as the world considers its next move in a post-COVID-19 era. As leaders seek to rebuild their organisations and safely navigate through the global crisis, trust established from long-standing, deep relationships with stakeholders will be more important than ever for businesses as they work to regain their footing and restart innovation pipelines. 

While it is important to be agile to seize opportunities, companies must also make a conscious effort to better understand consumer needs in the new normal. Instead of simply jumping on a new tech bandwagon, they need to focus on deriving insights that will guide them in delivering products and services that meet consumers’ needs with empathy and care during such uncertain times—valuable traits that can be gained from a people-focused approach to innovation.  


Embrace Diversity Within Companies

Living in an interconnected world driven by globalisation, it is hard to overlook the importance of diversity and the advantages it brings to companies. Not only does it push teams to consider new perspectives and better anticipate how products will be received in different cultural contexts, diversity also fuels creativity. According to a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, companies with a more diverse management team achieved 19 percent higher revenues as a result of increased innovation.

This observation holds true at Fonterra Research and Development Centre (FRDC), where we have consistently displayed our agility through a team of 350 people representing over 40 nationalities. Working in such a diverse environment has shown me that disruptive ideas seldom occur when members from the same background with similar perspectives come together.

Furthermore, the complexities of our products require us to work in cross-functional teams with employees across different professional backgrounds—from nutritionists and dieticians to food scientists, process engineers, and clinical researchers. Such diversity is similarly observed across our regional technical teams, who provide strong local insights for product development and innovation.  

The unique perspectives that our diversity offers have sparked some of the most resilient and effective solutions I have observed in the dairy industry. Thanks to collaboration and knowledge-sharing by teams from across different specialties, we are recognised as a pioneer in dairy protein innovation and have led the development of critical advances over the past century. For example, we introduced the world’s first heat-stable whey protein in 2012, which has since been successfully applied to a range of product categories. This innovation involved several years of research and importantly, a willingness from the research team to embrace different viewpoints to find a solution.  

Enabling diversity in our teams has translated to an equally varied application of dairy protein in food products today, often in ways consumers could never have imagined before. But that is not all – the focus on diversity also needs to be underpinned by a culture of honesty and openness, so that everyone within the company feels comfortable speaking up to share their insights and is willing to work collaboratively in developing new ideas. 


Encourage Risk Taking & Experimentation

Companies that take risks with new thinking can differentiate themselves from competitors, but too often they are afraid to do so due to the fear of failure. Consequently, employees become too nervous to try anything different. 

Unshackling innovation needs to begin with encouraging each employee to think creatively and push boundaries by cultivating an environment that welcomes a healthy level of risk and experimentation. Only by embracing this culture will employees feel more empowered and less pressured by the possibility of failing. Even if the desired outcomes are not achieved, such as not being able to launch a new product after several rounds of experimentation, companies need to recognise that it is not necessarily a failure as long as there is new learning from the process, and we are able to apply the knowledge gained to future attempts.

In a step forward, we are seeing more companies willing to embrace risk and new challenges as they recognise the value it could bring to their business. For instance, more cosmetic brands have branched into supplements, vitamins and powders for skin health in response to an improved understanding among consumers that physical appearance is affected by what they choose to consume and not just what they apply to their bodies. This phenomenon has set the industry on an entirely new trajectory and companies that have successfully expanded their product portfolio are better placed to reach new consumer segments. 

By challenging the status quo, companies also show that they are willing to embrace experimentation and such behaviours will naturally trickle down to employees. 


Levering New Skills Through Open Innovation

Despite the transition to people-focused business models to spur innovation, companies still find it challenging to deliver a consistent pipeline of innovation due to the rapid pace of technological transformations, complex product ecosystems, and evolving consumer needs. 

In this case, open innovation allows companies to tap on the strengths of external partners and even competing players within the industry, in the search of solutions. This is particularly relevant in the world we live in today as innovative ideas are in high demand to tackle unprecedented challenges. Such collaborations not only benefit the business, but also provide employees with an opportunity to learn from the best practices of other firms and enhance their skills. 

Partnerships are similarly a key driver of growth for New Zealand’s dairy industry—with food companies, universities, start-ups, and research institutes—and this has placed us in a better position to harness the power of open innovation to unlock new products and solutions. Leveraging our presence across markets and close ties with local partners, our teams proactively relay insights and on-the-ground observations to researchers so that our innovations can address new consumer needs and trends. 


Putting The Human Touch Back Into Innovation

Innovation has become an important competitive differentiator for businesses, with many quickly jumping on the bandwagon to tap on new technologies. However, organisations that are able to sustain their success throughout the years are those that realise the innovation pipeline cannot be sustained with just technological advancements. 

The real enablers of disruption and growth are the people—not the technology, and companies that embrace this belief can create a positive shift in corporate culture.


Check these articles out:

The Asia Food Challenge Report: $800 billion Investment Opportunity In Asia’s Agri-Food Sector

Bühler And Givaudan To Open Plant-Based Food Innovation Center In Singapore

IFF Merges With Dupont’s Nutrition And Bioscience Unit

Majority Of Malaysian Consumers Want Healthy Foods But Cost Is A Deterrence

Unilever Prioritises Production Of Well Loved, Larger-Sized Products

Sugar Reduction In Dairy Beverages—What You Need To Know

Ingredion Launches Virtual Idea Lab For Asia Pacific