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How PwC Turns ‘Corporate Antibodies’ Into Allies

By Patricia Riedman Yeager |  June 8, 2016
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As most readers of InnoLead are painfully aware, the death of good ideas at the hands of business units — sometimes referred to as “organ rejection” — is a common problem. In fact, according to our 2015 Innovation Benchmarking Report, published last year with innovation consultancy Innosight, 50 percent of respondents said that innovation projects typically get axed because of insufficient business unit buy-in.

But for many companies, it’s not just business-unit leaders who are obstacles to innovation: It’s other individuals in the system who are there to protect a company from risk — like the legal or compliance departments.

Mitra Best, the U.S. InnoLead at PwC, the $35.4 billion professional services firm, calls these elements “corporate antibodies.”

According to Best, every company has these antibodies — they’re the gatekeepers who are actually healthy and necessary guardians of the enterprise. “Companies need these gatekeepers to minimize risk,” says Best, “but we’ve learned the same gatekeepers can actually accelerate innovation if included in the process, or slow innovation if they’re not.”

In a recent conversation with Best, she outlined five tactics that she’s used to engage these corporate antibodies in a productive way. She also shared a graphic of the innovation process that PwC uses (at bottom.)

Engage the Antibodies

A serial entrepreneur who co-founded two technology companies before joining PwC, Best is quick to acknowledge that a chasm exists at most companies between product development teams and the rest of the corporate infrastructure, especially legal and risk management departments.

Early in her career, for example, Best said she never even considered communicating with those other teams early in the process. “We didn’t think to engage legal or risk management,” she says. “To us, they had nothing to contribute to building software.”

Five Ways to Deal with Antibodies

Identify — Figure out which corporate departments, like Legal, are the valuable “antibodies” within the organization that might help (or slow) innovation;

Engage — Bring those antibodies into the innovation process early; by emotionally and strategically connecting those groups to the innovation agenda, you can transform them into valuable and helpful vitamins;

Utilize — Deploy those vitamins as boosters, perhaps by having them recommend improving outdated, legacy systems, policies or programs;

Infuse — Bring new innovators or “proteins” into the system, using open innovation to co-develop solutions and services with select clients;

Immunize — Leverage the whole system. Executive support isn’t enough; make sure you have buy-in and support from every level, including middle management.

Of course, in the later development stages, Best and her team would call on those departments when something was needed, but by then it was too late. “You’ve already built the car,” she says. “If you’ve built it wrong, and if you didn’t think about the safety measures, you have to go back and fix it, and it’s expensive.”

To that end, Best recommends that innovation executives work to involve legal and risk-management groups early in the process — not just senior leadership like the CEO and COO.

And since every company is different, Best acknowledges that it’s important to understand your specific culture and the antibodies that typically emerge. At some companies, the most powerful antibodies might be in compliance, production, or even sales. “I think the trick there is identifying your stakeholders,” she states.

Turn Antibodies into Vitamins

In addition to mitigating risks early on, engagement can actually transform your corporate antibodies into valuable stakeholders.

Suddenly, she says, those antibodies can become emotionally and strategically connected to the process. “They have a stake in the game, and now the idea is their baby, too,” she says. “They want to help you.”

Ideally, you can create internal champions who advocate on your behalf, and who clear obstacles as they emerge. “You’re turning an antibody into a vitamin,” she says.

That strategy is something that PwC has embraced and institutionalized, even unveiling an Innovation Coordination Center, which is composed of in-house lawyers who focus on innovation projects.

Lawyers participating in the ICC play a role in helping shepherd ideas from concept to reality by ensuring they are “resilient and can withstand legal and market challenges,” says Best. In addition to offering counsel and guidance on regulatory and market matters, PwC’s ICC helps intrapreneurs address intellectual property, cybersecurity, and data privacy issues, to name just a few.

“This is a dream come true for me, because my job has never been about managing the present,” Best says of the Innovation Coordination Center. “It’s always been about inventing the future, and now I’m not alone.”

Best found that by simply asking legal to be involved in the innovation process, they quickly started to become the “vitamin” she hoped for. “They feel empowered to participate in our future, and part of that is being engaged in innovation,” she says.

‘Stop Doing’ — a Way to Save Time for Everyone

Best realized that one way to give everyone at the firm more time — and to eliminate even more obstacles to innovation — was to start looking at outdated systems and processes.

That led to PwC’s “Stop Doing” Challenge. In this competition, employees were asked to suggest practices that the firm would be better off not doing anymore. In other words, what time-consuming, inefficient, or outdated processes or legacy systems should be eliminated, rewritten, or improved?

The results of PwC’s “Stop Doing” Challenge were staggering. “You should have seen the floodgates opening,” says Best. “There were hundreds of hundreds of ideas pouring in within hours of putting out the challenge,” and many represented significant savings in efficiency and costs.

For example, PwC sunsetted its legacy email and communication tools, and adopted more sophisticated and flexible online collaboration platforms and open systems that accelerated the speed of business. “We’re all Google now,” she says, referring to services such as Gmail and Google Drive. “I think we’re generating more Google docs and slides and sheets than any other company that Google has as a client; it’s very indicative of how much we needed that.”

The “Stop Doing” Challenge also brought about workflow improvements, such as streamlining internal time and expense processes.

According to Best, this Challenge wasn’t simply an opportunity for employees to vent their frustrations, but rather recommend approaches that were needed by the firm. “It’s one thing to have a complaint box,” she say, “but it’s another thing when you ask people, ‘How would you do it? What would you do differently? How could we stop doing this?'”

Of the top 10 ideas that came out of the challenge, she says, “we did eight of them in three months … and moving to the cloud took a year.”

Introduce New Proteins 

At PwC, as employees increasingly saw themselves as “trusted business advisors” to the client, they were able to add the voice of the customer to the innovation agenda. That external input acted like a creative “protein” that gets absorbed into the system, improving the quality, speed, and impact of innovation. According to Best, the innovation culture “has snowballed in how we coalesce as an organization and with our clients.”

An example of that, says Best, is a PwC product called Fathom, a new internal document-retrieval system that was the result of rapid prototyping and co-development with clients and other stakeholders who were brought into the innovation process.

The Fathom product leverages data to quickly answer complex questions for employees and clients. Created through a collaboration between internal and external developers, Fathom utilizes artificial intelligence, natural-language processing, and predictive analytics to answer tough client questions, using a “mash up” of digital documents and data sources, both internal and external.

And it couldn’t have been done without transforming antibodies into vitamins, Best says.

For example, a critical component of Fathom’s development was close customer collaboration. According to Best, a handful of vetted companies were asked to collaborate with PwC on a prototype, something that required new legal contracts to be written. She says those legal contracts would have been a major obstacle had not the legal department already become an innovation ally.

Soon the whole firm was involved. As the team crowdsourced its “requirements phase” via weekly contests and ideation challenges, and it created a pipeline of ideas that were validated through development with a pool of thousands of testers from the ranks of PwC employees (additional details here).

Fathom had a soft launch in February, and within three weeks of its announcement Fathom had 16,000 employees using it. That’s one-third of the firm. “People are sending us fan mail,” Best says. “They’re telling us how Fathom is circumventing weeks of research in minutes.”

Get More than Top Leadership Involved

Finally, Best notes that, to fight antibodies, a company needs to build up an immune system. And that includes leadership at every level.

Of course, every leader says they support innovation. “I can’t imagine any leader saying that innovation is bad,” Best jokes.

The challenge, she says, is moving beyond simple pronouncements, so employees fully understand the innovation mandate at every level of the company. “If they don’t see [their boss’] endorsement, they don’t want to engage because they don’t think they’re going to get rewarded,” Best says.

That’s even more important in an industry such as hers, as employees “may even think they’ll get punished for something that’s outside of billable hours.”

To illustrate how a strong immune system requires participation at every level, Best mentions her Innovation Office’s first “PowerPitch” innovation challenge.

To ensure the success of PowerPitch, a firm-wide innovation contest that awards a winning team $100,000, Best enlisted PwC Chairman Bob Moritz. Moritz not only sponsored the contest, but he ensured it got promoted aggressively through internal communications, webcasts, and more.

But executive sponsorship isn’t enough. Best also enlisted the vice chairman to promote the idea to his group of twenty geographic market leaders.

By convincing them that PowerPitch would generate new ideas that would benefit their bottom lines — rather than being a time-consuming distraction — the firm was able to get global buy-in. Best then reached out to the managing partners in each region, and asked them to name a local chief to oversee the PowerPitch program, and tailor the program as necessary for each geography.

This created broad support, from all levels at PwC. Best says employees not only embraced the PowerPitch idea, but they also started volunteering their time to be part of the program.

“You need buy in at every level of the system,” she says, “not just the CEO.”

Best acknowledges that engaging and boosting corporate antibodies is no guarantee for innovation. “What becomes difficult is actually following through with innovating, which a lot of times means that you may be cannibalizing existing products and services,” she says. “That’s when it becomes difficult.” 

Finally, Best reminds readers that patience is a critical virtue when it comes to innovation. “Innovation requires a long-term vision, and patience,” she notes.

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