How One CEO Gets Innovation Initiatives Over the Finish Line

By Lilly Milman, Scott Kirsner |  October 19, 2020

There are some companies that decide to make innovation a priority, and then there are companies with cultures so bound to innovation that it bleeds into everything their employees do. The manufacturing company W. L. Gore and Associates falls into the latter category, according to its CEO and President, Jason Field.  

Jason Field, W. L. Gore & Associates

Field was raised in Gore, starting as a product specialist a little over 15 years ago. Like many Gore leaders before him, he says, his priority is encouraging this company-wide culture of innovation and asking the right questions. 

“It is more about what you contribute than what your title is [at W. L. Gore],” Field says. “That’s what I would come back to in terms of advice to anyone looking to really make a significant impact in innovation: Really understand your strengths, accentuate those strengths, build on those strengths, and then put people around you who can address the gaps [and] complement you… That’s been a recipe for success here at Gore for many years. That’s how I was trained and brought up in this enterprise.”

In a recent conversation, Field explained his role as CEO when it comes to innovation at W. L. Gore. This interview with Field is a part of InnoLead’s most recent research report, “CxOs & Innovation.” For more data and interviews on the new vision of corporate innovation in 2020, visit the main report page.  

As CEO, how do you think through future investments, especially in a difficult year like 2020? 

It’s a dynamic process. … We are reallocating, based on the overall health and population of our innovation funnel. When we have a funnel with a whole bunch of great ideas that are ready to scale, we do tend to ramp down very front-end H3 [ideas] so we can support the focus on the scale up. Similarly, if we’re not seeing the funnel with a lot of investment-ready opportunities, we’ll index more towards that front-end H3 aspect of the funnel. 

How does lean startup live within W. L. Gore today?  

Lean as a construct and a process is relatively new. … It characterizes…some good practices that have been part of our approach to innovation for many years, but it provides us a way to scale the approach to innovation across our enterprise. It supports our culture of experimentation — [and showcases the power of] small teams acting with a degree of urgency [and] connecting with customers. It does so with a toolset and a structure that allows us to both educate associates that are newer to inventiveness and innovation, but then also have a degree of consistency as we’re assessing investment readiness or technology readiness across different opportunities.

Is there something that you find yourself poking at a lot when you’re looking at a new project?

The activity I tend to orient towards and the activity that I think is most important really is around portfolio management — that intersection of managing the portfolio of businesses and the portfolio of R&D initiatives. For me to do that, you need two things: You need good data, and you really need to have a commitment to individuals who can bring that data forward with insights in a very consistent and regular way. 

Then, you need good judgment. The judgment part is the art of all of this. We’ve had a long history of leadership who has just had a knack for asking the right questions and seeing into the right opportunities. The legacy of Bob Gore is that incredible ability to, within seconds, zero in on the right question, ask it and get to the deep insights. … If there’s one thing I try to poke at, it’s who in the room has the ability to ask that question of this particular project to draw out that deep insight.

How do you make sure that new ideas are getting enough customer input? 

In that H3 environment where we’re using lean [principles], it’s very, very much a startup mindset. So, a lot of those traditional barriers don’t exist. It is the individuals pursuing the project that are engaging the customer in structured ways… When you get into our H2 scale-up efforts or our H1 businesses, it’s much more diverse and really depends on the business and where those relationships exist. We do everything from having formal scientific advisory boards, to traditional marketing-run focus groups, to long-standing relationships, where engineers and field sales associates or marketers really do come together at the point of the customer to shape our future portfolio and products. 

The thing that is most important is not necessarily how, but that it’s happening. We do have some very fundamental tools that have been in place for many, many years, like a product concept statement that is really meant to focus our innovation initiatives. It’s focusing in light of the technology that you’re bringing to bear, the market that you’re entering into, and the customer needs that you’re serving. You really have to have all of those inputs to get…support for a particular development initiative.

Do you have systems that let senior people at W. L. Gore hear ideas from employees who are earlier in their careers? 

At any point in time [we may have] three to six teams pursuing different ideas…so we create a cohort around a collection of ideas.  

If you think in terms of some of the cohorts we run on the front-end, those report-outs as those cohorts come to a close create an environment for associates to engage across different scopes of responsibility. … We do have a technical meeting on a regular cadence, where it’s an opportunity for innovators to share with each other, [and also] share into the businesses and with business leadership, and reinforce those ideas that align to some of the markets that we’re in. We create those formal opportunities.  

We have in the last couple years put [in place] a portfolio review process…[called] our Enterprise Innovation Council, [which is] responsible for allocating our resources at the broadest level. It also creates an opportunity for innovators to share their work, their ideas, as well as their progress against goals with both local teams and broad teams across the enterprise. 

How can C-suite executives build lasting relationships with other employees? 

Interest goes an awful long way. If you’re willing to sit and take the time to listen to an innovative idea, and provide objective feedback, share some experiences, perhaps even expand one’s network, those are meaningful contributions that I think give energy to individuals and teams, and also increase the likelihood of success by helping [employees] surround themselves with with the right resources.