Linda Elkins heads the Silicon Valley Innovation Center of Expertise at W.L. Gore — a privately held company that invented Gore-Tex, a breathable, waterproof fabric. Because the company is privately held, Elkins says, she didn’t feel as though her team was ever in a COVID-19 related “crisis mode.”
“We very much take a long-term view as a company. Due to that, we’ve been able — at least within our innovation group — to really continue on through COVID as we were prior to COVID,” she says, despite the impact of the pandemic on traveling and remote work. “We were encouraged to continue on with projects, and understand opportunities, and really follow the process…that we feel is a successful way to assess opportunities that could move forward at Gore.”
In her role running the Innovation Center, which opened in 2017, Elkins works on external collaboration and helping Gore become an active part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem by working with startups. The team at the innovation center also focuses on life science advancements and sustainability.
In a recent interview with InnoLead, Elkins shared insights on how she prioritizes innovation opportunities, how W.L. Gore celebrates failure, and more. This interview with Elkins is a part of InnoLead’s most recent research report, “The New Imperatives: Innovation, Agility, and Openness.”
Can you talk about how you balance organic innovation and external innovation efforts at Gore?
Gore does not have a formal corporate venture unit. We do M&A or acquisitions with strategic intent, where it makes sense to continue to grow…the business…
What we brought into the company, let’s say five to 10 years ago, was our approach to bringing in new ideas. What we use is the lean cohort approach, where we take teams that could range from two to three people. We run them through an eight-week sprint to understand a new business opportunity… We run two sessions of that formally throughout a calendar year, where we typically will have maybe around 10 teams…
At the end of that process, we hope to have learned what is the potential opportunity for Gore. There’ll be a stage-gate process… If there is an opportunity, and we see potential and want to explore further, we will list out what the uncertainties are — technical, business, insurance, fees — and then continue to move that through our stage-gate process. … There are also teams that decide that there is no opportunity, and we reward that as well…and then re-allocate those resources.
What are some best practices for staying agile?
We are very much focused on associates finding what we would call a sweet spot — an area where they excel, and they can add as much value as possible to the business, develop themselves, be happy doing it, and be in a good environment.
We very much try and be transparent. Within our innovation group, we recently formed a team around communication — and I don’t mean external communication — internal communication and how to keep people engaged, how to make sure people have development opportunities, how to make sure people are going after interesting ideas for themselves. So we have done that as well, which…put a lot on our leaders here at Gore to make sure that their folks are going after opportunities.
Are there any tools you use that help your organization stay open to new ideas?
We formally have a crowdsourcing platform… Our innovation leadership group meets quarterly to share ideas across projects. So for example, if there’s a technical challenge on one project that can be potentially reinforced by someone on the other project, it’s really open lines of communication.
At Gore, we do not have your typical hierarchical structure… Folks are very encouraged to reach out within the organization, build the relationships, reach out to whomever makes sense to have conversations. … That’s one of the things that enables us to have a good environment where we can learn from each other.
Can you talk me through a challenge you face when it comes to staying agile?
Understanding the data of an opportunity versus the emotions of the associates working on it. As people have gone through this process, essentially, we see the folks doing these eight-week cohorts and moving these projects forward as founders, and there’s passion to see the idea through and to understand what the opportunity is and progress it. … I think this could be a challenge… Understanding what the data says, and what is the best decision for an opportunity, versus what the gut reaction is and the passion to continue something.
I think Gore does do a very good job [of asking] if something does not move forward…what is the next opportunity for the associates? That conversation happens right away, which really encourages folks to make the best decision…
Another one I’ll throw out there is working on the right number of projects with the right number of associates. Do we have enough associates on the project to keep moving forward?
Do you have a rule of thumb for deciding how many associates should be on a project given its scope?
It will depend on the technical complexity of the project. Gore is also very good at pulling cross-functionally. So, we have a core-technology organization. That’s really our research organization. We’re able to pull associates from there. We’re able to actually have full-time associates in different functions — like marketing, supply chain — that we can pull on and really develop a cross-functional perspective.
But I wouldn’t say there’s a magic number. It really depends on how complicated the project is. With these cohorts, we will typically start with two to three associates and a mentor. Then as we progress into the subsequent phase, you might add one or two associates to that. … One of the elements of our culture is the power of small teams, and that plays out in innovation as well as across our commercial businesses.