ExxonMobil Exec on Getting Your Innovation Program Started

By Scott Kirsner |  June 1, 2019

Starting in 2014, Christopher Bailey helped to create a new Digital Ventures team and new innovation programming within ExxonMobil’s IT organization, under an umbrella group that was known as #innovation. As of 2019, Bailey now works as an Evolve Transformation Coach within the IT organization, “helping them transform their work practices,” he explains. Houston-based ExxonMobil had $21 billion in revenues last year. 

Pick One: Enablement or Execution

When new innovation managers inside ExxonMobil come to me and say, how do I get started, one of the first things that I tell those managers is that they need to determine whether they are an enablement team or an execution team. If you’re trying to do both, you’ll find it difficult to be successful. The metrics are very different.

Our #innovation group originally was focused on enablement – helping the broad org to adopt new practices, do boot camps, events, facilitated work – versus an execution team that says we’re going to own a portfolio of work.

My first recommendation is determining which one you want to be, and which one the organization is expecting you to be. If you’re [still] spending time after three to six months trying to figure it out, there’s probably a lack of clarity in the organization.

‘You Have to Set the Vision’

We had different innovation initiatives that weren’t aligned [at various times, and] that created politics. [For example,] there was a design thinking team within IT, and they were saying, “We are the ones helping people actually innovate.” There was another that was focused in on agility, and they said, “We’re the ones.” …Because resourcing is tight, you ended up having this infighting. We should’ve done a better job getting them looped together. Some of them are still around, and some have gone away or gotten integrated.

You have to set the vision, and help [senior leaders] understand what you’re trying to create. “When we’re done, things look like this,” or, “This is enticing for these reasons.” If you fail to create that vision, it makes it difficult for the leadership to get on board.

Creating a Coaching Service

In working on enablement, we set up a coaching service. We had a couple of different approaches. If a team was needing help answering a specific question, we could come in for an hour and then leave. Other teams would say, “I’ve heard about this lean startup thing. Maybe we need to work differently.” So we’ve have a bootcamp, and would spend a week with them, teaching them some new practices, running three to four experiments within a day… Over the course of a week, they’d start getting that muscle memory around looking at your assumptions, running experiments, and using the data to inform your next action. Then there would be some teams where we’d do longer-term coaching engagements. We’d [meet] once a week, and they’d bring things they were struggling with.

The Transformation Roadmap

There’s definitely a need for flexibility. You have to systematize the ability to pivot. We [now] have a transformation roadmap that we’re creating for the large portion of the organization that we’re [involved with.] As part of that, we have listed on the left hand side the current state, and on the far right, the future state. And there’s this big gray area over to the far right, before you get to the future state. We’re only going to be detailing three to six months of the plan, because we want to be diligent about doing some activities, getting learnings from those, and saying, “Are we on the right path towards those outcomes?” Additionally, this is where metrics start to come into play. We want to set up metrics to help see, are we trending toward that direction? Should we do more of that? What things should we stop? We want to bring the leadership team learnings and metrics, and say, “Should we keep going, or head in a different direction?”

You’re the co-pilot, but you want the leadership team saying, “We want more of this,” or, “Let’s change that.” You want to put them in the driver’s seat. If they’re not, this easily becomes something they can push off to the side.