Dr. Simone Ahuja on Driving Everyday Innovation

  • By AFP Staff
  • Published: 2/1/2023
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Dr. Simone Ahuja is a global innovation expert, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Jugaad Innovation and Disrupt It Yourself. Her keynote address at AFP 2022 challenged financial professionals at all levels to innovate within their roles, using resources they already have.

Following her keynote, Dr. Ahuja shared with AFP her advice for encouraging leadership to choose innovation over business as usual, building a culture of innovation and finding tangible metrics to demonstrate intangible value.

Before you became an expert on innovation strategy, you had a career in dentistry. Can you tell us more about your path to becoming an author and speaker?

My path to innovation strategy and keynote speaking was a unique and webbed one. I trained as a dentist and turned improvisational comedian and documentary filmmaker. I just love talking with people  — so you can imagine why dentistry wasn’t the right fit! I was testing the waters with my creative side while practicing dentistry part-time when a near-death experience with typhoid helped me accelerate my search for purpose and got me laser-focused on what I’m passionate about.

I ended up creating a documentary series about India that was broadcast on PBS — all while practicing dentistry. The market expertise I gained as a documentary filmmaker in emerging markets was of great interest to large corporations, so I shared this knowledge through the Harvard Business Review with two co-authors. This led to a bestselling book, Jugaad Innovation, which talks about how organizations can create high value using the resources they already have, and my second book, Disrupt It Yourself, a playbook that shares why and how intrapreneurs, or internal entrepreneurs, drive everyday innovation in large and established organizations.

How do we rally others in our organization to convince them to choose our innovative ideas?

Influence is one of the most important parts of innovation. If you can’t help others understand why it’s valuable to do something in a new or different way, you’re not going to get very far. Here are four ways to help organizations choose innovation over business as usual, even when there is a lot of cultural resistance:

  1. Consider the “Jobs to Be Done” of those who are pushing back. Ask yourself, “What do they need? What’s important to them?" Talk to them about it and get really curious. You may find that they have an emotional need to feel safe. What language can you use, what research can you share to begin to address this need, and ultimately influence them and others? This won't happen overnight, but it will help you advance more quickly.
  2. Find “social proof” of a similar approach — whether from within your organization or a story/case study from another organization. When one organization has done something new successfully, it becomes “social proof” and reduces the perceived risk of change. Share these at an annual review or a team meeting.
  3. Find your people! There are likely other intrapreneurs in your organization — find them and explore ways to navigate these challenges. Learn from them and share your frustrations so you can keep your own intrapreneurial fire burning. If there is a leader with whom you can align yourself as you leverage a different approach — you’ll move faster and sometimes will gain a bit of a halo as you demonstrate how you can influence and navigate change
  4. Make it micro. Think about the smallest thing you can do that will have the greatest impact on those you serve. Define and act on the smallest actions you can take to help validate your idea. Capture the data and share with your team. Data like, “I spoke to three users of this product and each of them mentioned they have a challenge with xyz,” moves the conversation from one that is assumption-based to one that merits exploration.

Flex that curiosity mindset and transform how you think, and what you can do, at AFP 2023. Learn more.

What is a traditional process or function in treasury or finance that you see the most promise for big “I” innovation?

I’ll share some best practices that include wise insights from Camille Felton King, CTP, principal team leader, financial solutions, at Chik-Fil-A during our fireside chat at AFP 2022.

  1. Creating forums for sharing new ideas: This could be as simple as adding time to existing meetings for everyone to share new ideas, or something more involved like innovation summits where groups across the organization discuss their problems and how they are solving them. Camille shared that creating a Community of Practice has been highly effective for their group. These forums are a clear signal that innovation is important — and it’s not just for the “innovation people.”
  2. Make it micro: Sometimes we back away from innovation because it just feels too big. Once you land on the problem you’re solving (I call it your “Path to Highest Impact” — the one thing you can do that would have the greatest influence on whomever you serve), break it down into tiny pieces. What can you do to get started? It should be action-oriented and start with a verb, and many of them should take 15 minutes or less so you don’t lose momentum (e.g., research SMEs in our organization, ask a senior leader for an introduction to a peer in another division, etc.). Then, think about an MVP (minimum viable product). What is the simplest, most focused innovation I can test with customers so I can move fast and learn fast, and shift directions as needed? This approach is also lower risk because you’re not waiting to test after a massive rollout.
  3. Have a process: Innovation isn’t random. It’s a discipline, just like finance. And while there are more unknowns, we’re calling those out as we go so that we reduce risk and increase our confidence about where we’re heading. We developed a tool called The Intrapreneur’s Code Action Plan based on my research. It’s the process used by some of the world’s most high-impact intrapreneurs. You can use it on your own or with a larger team. We go deeper into this process in our two-day workshops where we focus on the five phases of intrapreneurship-driven innovation; we work on influence skill drills, and we connect with other high-impact intrapreneurs. But this tool is a great place to get started and begin to define how you’ll move your idea to execution.

Are there little "i" innovations to undertake before the big innovation occurs?

Absolutely, and in fact, most of the innovation that adds value to large, established organizations is little “i” innovation — also known as core innovation. This is done through supporting “micro-actions,” or small steps and experimentation to reduce risk. Some examples of this can be …

  • Help your teams understand that ‘a lot of a little is a lot’ — meaning, once they land on a “hypothesis” they want to try to prove or disprove, ask them to create a roadmap including micro-actions they can take (see “Make it Micro” above).
  • Underscore that learning culture goes hand in hand with innovation by inviting them to share what they learned whether things turned out as expected — or not.
  • Encourage them to “experiment” and just get started with some of these actions so they can learn quickly and modify their path as needed.

An example of that third point: Technology leader Vijay Anand, formerly of Intuit and now EVP R&D at Apree Health, told me how he helps intrapreneurs think small to drive more innovation. “When a team asks me if something is a good idea, I ask them for their unit of one — the one customer their product will delight. And once that works, I tell them to bring me 100. When 100 delighted customers actively use a product, I know there’s something to it,” he said.

What should you do if your organization doesn’t recognize or reward the “why” or the person always asking why?

This answer is somewhat individual, and it’s something that managers and leaders must take note of as well. My research shows that intrapreneurs can be some of the most engaged and best evangelists for an organization, and those who go unsupported for too long will often become disgruntled and leave.

If you’re an intrapreneur at heart and are lacking support under your current leader — even after conversations sharing how innovation can help — then look for intrapreneurs in other parts of your organization who are well-supported and find a way to work with their team. If there is no support for those who are asking “why,” my research suggests that the future of that organization may be limited, and it may be time for you to look elsewhere.

How do we advance intangible value to management who love tangible metrics?

I love this question because it’s such a real issue in every industry, and we spend a good deal of time on this during the mid-point of our eight-week intrapreneurship workshop for that reason. In a KPMG survey of nearly 1000 leaders, their top two most important metrics were increased revenue and saved cost. So as intrapreneurs, we must be able to explain how our “intangible” value connects to the tangible.

The answer lies in a kind of innovation alchemy. Well, not exactly alchemy, but in the ability to change the qualitative to quantitative. For example, what data can you find that links customer awareness and loyalty to increased revenue? Better compliance and employee retention mean reduced costs. When you make clear that you understand the importance of these metrics, and you can share an estimate of how your solution will advance these, you’ll quickly build more credibility and gain support to move forward.

Want to learn more from Dr. Ahuja? Check out her tips for solving problems with the resources you already have.

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