Electrolux on Fostering Cross-Functional Collaborations and Using Data for Better Alignment

September 20, 2023

Pamela Everett knows that innovation can be lonely at times, especially when it comes to Horizon 3 initiatives — and that it can take some convincing to get innovation projects over the finish line.

Throughout different roles in her career, she’s learned how to best manage staying in lockstep with other business units to make progress and launch new products in the market. 

Everett serves as the Product Planning and Innovation Manager for the Stockholm-based multinational home appliance manufacturer Electrolux. In that role, she helps oversee care and food preservation for North America. 

As part of our recent research report, Building a Productive Innovation Portfolio, Everett offered her insights on why collaboration and communication with other business units is important; share her thoughts on keeping close to a project even after handing it off to R&D; and how data points can help get a number of business units on the same page. 

My remit. I [work on] two of our three major product lines. I have care and food preservation, which is refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, dryers, and dishwashers. I report to a Senior Director of Insights and Innovation. In our organization, we are in the North America BA, or business area. … We are linked very closely with our insights team, which is why I do roll up to both our insights and innovation side of things. 

Pamela Everett, Product Planning and Innovation Manager North America, Electrolux

Horizons 2 and 3. We are responsible for things we consider Horizon 2, Horizon 3, consumer-led innovation, and we really are focused on being an advocate for the consumer of tomorrow. There’s short-term innovation that gets translated into things like our product planning, [but] our product management team really does that. For our group, we’re really trying to stay ahead of a product plan, and essentially try to find different “razors for razor blades” to go into the different clients’ portfolios, but also identify different technologies that could be game-changers longer term in the H2, H3 [zone]. … 60 percent to 70 percent of our work [is] in H2, because it’s the next thing to come. The other 30 percent [is] in H3. For those of us who have roles like I have, we are the loudest advocates for the H3-type stuff, and it’s a bit lonely, as you might imagine, being in that space. 

I do think that what we’re getting more attracted to and understanding about is that the technology is shifting so quickly that H3 becomes H2 very fast now. I think we are shifting a little bit more [toward H3]. We would like to see a 60-40 split [between H2 and H3 innovation.] … I don’t know that we’ll ever get to 50-50. But we can’t assume that that [technologies are] so far away that we can’t work on it now, because it takes one email from Apple, one product launch to show, “Oh, this is actually within range.”

The technology is shifting so quickly that H3 becomes H2 very fast now.

Using data to foster alignment. [Over my career, I’ve learned] it’s really tough when you’re in organizations that are risk-averse, because innovation inherently involves risk. From that lens… what is the way that you can make this risk not feel as tough as it is? Because it’s sometimes hard to change a leadership person’s viewpoint, who is not really interested, [or] is very conservative in terms of the way they approach things. I don’t have that situation today, but over my career, that’s been really, really hard — when [leaders] want innovation, there’s going to be an investment, and there are going to be some ideas that don’t come to fruition. … A lot of people have this view of it’s wasted time, it’s wasted effort, it’s wasted money. That’s a really hard thing to overcome.

…In innovation, there’s never a shortage of ideas. There are always more ideas than there is capability to get it done. Part of what we have to do is try to filter it down to the best ones, and the ones that are most meaningful to the business, to the brand, to the consumer. 

What I would say has been most successful for me to get everybody aligned [is having data.] I strongly believe in gathering as much data as you possibly can… We know consumers care about 10 things, and we tested, and these four are the most important. To try to get R&D, marketing, PMO, everybody very clearly communicated that we believe this because of that data and we are asking you as an organization to support us on advancing initiatives in these four areas.

When you hear [an idea, you can then say,] “That’s really cool, but does it fit through the filter? Does it meet these four things?” Because if it doesn’t, I’m not saying that it’s not a good idea, but we have to stay laser focused on the things that matter the most. … Then to the extent that we can link back to the things that the business cares about in terms of growing volume, growing margin, growing top line, growing brand awareness, and those sorts of metrics… we try to show that this innovation gets us closer by driving more volume here, better brand awareness there, and we try to do that as early on in the idea as we can.

I think a big part of it, for me, has always been constant communication early and often; buy-in early and often; and having data to support that.

Lockstep with other business units. I am technically in an innovation structure and organization, but I feel very much a part of all my product line teams as well. We are, collectively, very much integrated. I would say that for our insights as well, we are considered team members and ad hoc team members to our product line management teams. We’re very much in those discussions, even if they may not really involve specific innovations or insights. We’re still integrated into the day-to-day operations, the short-term objectives for the company for this year, maybe even 18 months out, because it has so much impact on what the focus that we can have as an organization on things beyond those next 12 to 18 months is. 

We’re very much in lockstep with the product line, with marketing, with R&D — and we have R&D both at a global and a local level. … In the innovation world, there are some times where everybody’s ready to do innovation, because everything’s going great. There are some times where everybody is like, “I can’t worry about innovation, because I have to worry about the next 30 days.”

No real guidebook. I haven’t worked anywhere that has said, “Hey, here’s the guidebook to make sure that your innovation is supported and actually launches a few years later.” I think a big part of it, for me, has always been constant communication early and often; buy-in early and often; and having data to support that. We have a ton of processes at my current company, more than you could ever use. But there’s not a real process that says, “This is how you [connect innovation to the organization at large].” Of course, there’s a checklist of all the people who should be involved. But the reality is that it’s a checklist — it’s not building a relationship. It’s not advocating for things on an ongoing basis. It’s not showing up to the meetings that you might not inherently think you need to be a part of, but it really does influence how you can manage your innovation flow.

Staying on board post-handoff. I hand [initiatives] off, but I stay connected to the R&D team for a fairly good period of the development time, so that as they get to, “We can do X, but we can’t do Y,” [we can say], “Okay, but if you do Y it has to deliver this thing to the consumer.” I am solution agnostic; I don’t care how you get there, but I need it to deliver X. 

Of course there is this moment of, “Okay, here’s my baby, what is it going to look like once it gets through this machine?” But our processes are designed such that there’s a carry-over. There’s the typical innovation process of vetting out the idea, but then once it gets to, “Hey, we’re going to start developing it, there are going to be a lot more questions,” we stay engaged for quite a period of time.