Building the Right Foundation for Innovation

May 9, 2019

In our most recent Master Class, Nancy Tennant of the University of Notre Dame explained how companies can build the right foundation for innovation. Other topics included:

  • The basics of bringing innovation to the workplace
  • A case study on Whirlpool Corp.’s innovation strategies
  • Getting the senior leadership to support innovation
  • Innovating within highly-regulated industries.

Tennant is an adjunct professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of the book “Transform Your Company for the Innovation Universe.” She served as Chief Innovation Officer at Whirlpool Corp. until 2015. Also speaking at the Master Class was Donna Porter, Director of Innovation Academy at the University of Notre Dame. Download a PDF of the slide deck here.

During the webcast, Tennant laid out a framework that could help executives start and implement innovation in their organizations. To begin, Tennant said, everyone in the organization has to be aware of the importance of innovation.

Tennant’s “Innovation Universe” framework comprises four steps: frame (creating the innovation blueprint), generate (implementing a common innovation approach), embed (renovating the organization), and lead (having the leadership drive the culture of innovation).

The innovation approach Tennant proposed involves setting a target, discovering insights, ideating concepts, elaborating prototypes — so as to get feedback — and launching solutions.

Tennant also expounded on Whirlpool Corp.’s innovation strategy. In the 1990s, customers usually walked into the appliance store — a “sea of white” washing machines — not expecting anything extraordinary, Tennant recalled.

“Because [the washing machines] looked the same and acted the same, you would base your decision on price,” Tennant said.

Then-CEO David Whitwam wanted to change that perception of washing machines, Tennant said.

“We [were] setting up innovation as a core business process,” Tennant said.

In a memo, Whitwam wrote: “As we think ahead to our Brand Focused Strategy, I believe it is clear to all of us that ‘more of the same’ won’t suffice. By definition, in order for us to create the required levels of brand loyalty, we must rethink our views on innovation and speed to market. Neither of these are particular areas of strength for Whirlpool today.”

To achieve that innovation and “speed to market,” Whirlpool set up a $3 million seed fund for employees to execute projects that addressed those goals, Tennant said. Whitwam would then release tranches of additional money for the employees’ projects as they delivered results.

Tennant said Whirlpool also created new innovation roles like innovation mentors, as well as set a higher bar of accountability for legal, IT and human-resources teams that were supporting innovation efforts.

Toward the end of the webcast, a listener asked what first steps they should take to embark on innovative strategies. Tennant said “the secret sauce is in the management system.”

“It’s more than just putting some innovation teams together,” Tennant said. “You’ve gotta go and look at these four elements [frame, lead, embed, generate] simultaneously…and think about which area you need to work on.”