Innovate or disappear: Big companies look for the right solution

Nimble, innovative labs have been popping up around multinationals for many years now. That's because the threats are coming in from all sides, as are the new opportunities worth grabbing. And since large corporations are generally cost focused and risk averse, their smaller brethren can make an invaluable contribution when innovative solutions are needed quickly. That said, large companies are brimming with entrepreneurial talent that deserves encouragement too. With that in mind, Total recently set up its own lab – called the Booster – to unleash internal energies and help employees deploy their innovation projects faster. Michael Offredi, digital ecosystem and innovation officer in charge of the cross-functional program, tells us about its many benefits.

Here at Total's Booster, the five-person team leads internal customers into a world of innovation, transformation and digitalization.

"Innovate or Disappear": undoubtedly chosen to set off alarm bells, this title of a recent book by Olivier Laborde also seems to have become a rallying cry for global companies.

There's good reason to think that it's more than a passing fad, for despite their size and entrenched business models, these economic giants are facing a number of disruptions that pose real challenges – and risks.

The reason has largely to do with the digital transition, and the continuous roll-out of innovations such as blockchain and chatbot technologies, artificial intelligence, multichannel marketing, digital platforms, mobile apps, open source and Plant 4.0, which have upended the established order. The list grows longer every day. And when you add the pressures of imminent climate change, civil society's highly vocal demands, the gradual shift from a product-based to a service economy and the newer generations' different expectations in the workplace, to this technological ferment, it's easy to understand why companies need to leverage their employees' talent for innovation even more. Team members are often clamoring for the chance and are ready to engage – now.

So the way out is up, towards faster, more efficient innovation. To secure a sustainable future, large multinationals have been co-opting the start-up mindset by creating dedicated environments, often called labs. These nimble structures, entirely dedicated to innovation and digitalization, can waken sometimes-sleepy giants with their agility, fast execution and processes (if they have any).

Innovative methods

Historically, the labs created by multinationals functioned primarily as start-up incubators. The idea was to provide newly hatched businesses with the time, money and networks they needed to bring forth innovative solutions in an interval and under conditions that the industrial giants' inertia didn't necessarily allow. However, big companies have a key asset that should not be overlooked: a deep reservoir of potential innovators, and even "intrapreneurs," waiting to be activated. These employees, who may sometimes feel boxed in by their job descriptions, have ideas, a mindset and a desire to take action, that deserve the organization's full attention. They can galvanize research by finding new markets, forge ties among professions to upgrade internal processes, or simply move faster to test the value of a new idea. This is a path Total has chosen to explore.

Michael Offredi is digital ecosystem and innovation officer in Total's Strategy & Innovation Division. He runs the recently created Booster, a facility that defines itself as an accelerator. Created in February 2017, it is designed to spark innovation and speed up the emergence of innovative projects from all Total business lines. Offredi points out that "contrary to what is often thought, innovation isn't focused solely on technology. Things have changed for Total in recent years. A host of uncertainties hang over its business environment, leading to a constant focus on competitiveness, and a number of new ambitions. These include an even more customer-focused business model increasingly based on low-carbon energy and energy efficiency, because Total is making climate part of its growth strategy. It's an excellent opportunity to test and implement different approaches, to support these changes as effectively as possible."

The Booster and its five person team, housed in a 700 square meter space in one of Total's two skyscrapers in the La Défense district near Paris, are focused on driving innovation approaches that are more open, collaborative and efficient. "Our mission has three main thrusts," says Offredi. "The first is to foster new ways of working – a people-centered approach to innovation and iterative processes with fast prototyping, better known as 'test and learn' – while constantly strengthening collective efficiency. These break with Total's usual processes. The second consists of taking steps to get projects – especially digital projects – moving faster. We're an accelerator, and the goal isn't so much the intellectual property we could claim, but more about how quickly we can use the idea to position ourselves in the market or to deploy it in our operations to test its value. The third is to rekindle a culture of 'doing,' by nurturing, for example, a community of digital makers who are helping Total digitally transition."

This shows that the Booster isn't simply a box that cranks out innovative ideas or products, but rather a support environment for projects of varying maturity, generated throughout Total. "We don't specify which topics people have to work on and we're not a start-up incubator like the ones you might see at other big companies. Our role is to encourage innovation and speed the digital transition of our internal customers," notes Offredi, adding that "Total will never be a start-up." "That said, replicating start-up practices and methods to quickly prototype an idea, create differentiating value propositions, and speed up time-to-market is more than useful when we want effective, business-generating innovation at Total."

Quantifying success

Useful, to be sure. But how can the success of a lab like the Booster be measured if you ignore both patents and revenue? "We have our performance indicators," says Offredi. "From the beginning, we let our management know that, based on the feedback from other labs, Key Performance Indicators (KPI) in dollars should be avoided, because it's almost impossible to quantify short-term revenues generated by this kind of lab. As a result, we measure our efficiency based on other criteria directly related to our mission as catalysts of new mindsets. These include the number of interactions and projects supported for each field, in relation to Total's strategic challenges. Or the number of cross-profession topics that align with our ambition to be a more cross-functional company with fewer organizational silos. Qualitatively, we also measure the satisfaction of the people and teams we work with and the extent to which they adopt the new methods we promote. Their feedback helps us improve."

So much for conventional KPIs. Total has realized that, in a disruptive competitive environment, companies have moved from "it will happen someday" to "we have to be proactive about coming up with solutions." Offredi gives an example: "With electric cars, we went in a few months from cautious questioning to the realization that certain countries and carmakers had already scheduled the demise of the internal combustion engine in a not-too-distant future. If we can't respond quickly to a change like that, we'll be pigeonholed as a commodities supplier. But if we respond adequately, this is a fantastic opportunity to capture new positions in groundbreaking value chains."

The Booster is tasked with changing the mindset toward innovation across Total and nurturing it from the inside. Offredi has no doubts about this mission; "The Booster meshes perfectly with Total's values, which include a pioneer spirit, performance-mindedness and respect for each other. It's not a matter of rolling out a major project that will revolutionize the company every day, but rather of promoting initiatives at the individual level. Our mission is to give everyone the desire and ability to articulate their ideas, and then help them take their first steps and complete the indispensible first phases for implementing those ideas. We're going to continue down this path to help drive Total's transformation. Admittedly, they're drops in a bucket, but adding all the drops together will produce a tidal wave," he predicts with a smile.

This page was paid for by Total. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.