How hybrid teams are driving innovation

Brands are increasingly thinking outside the box with fresh ideas to bring teams together, but will a new focus on cross-functional innovation within these teams lead to a better response to consumer needs?

hybrid teamsIf innovation is a priority in business, how do brands structure their teams to ensure new ideas flourish, which instinctively challenge the status quo?

Brands from telecoms and FMCG to food and drink are experimenting with hybrid models, from trying out closer integration to creating hived-off hubs and copying the much lauded ‘fail fast’ startup mentality.

Vodafone believes it can increase its rate of innovation by bringing together its consumer marketing and digital divisions in new offices to foster closer relationships.

Mondelēz, on the other hand, is piloting cross-functional innovation teams that plug into its 11 global innovation centres. The SnackFutures hub, for instance, brings together brand marketing, consumer insights, research and development, innovation and corporate development to explore opportunities in wellbeing, the premium market and digital platforms.

There has been a real culture change in the way we operate and innovate, acting fast and agile to bring products to market quicker.

Kris Robbens, Coca-Cola

For the launch of its ecommerce-only healthy squash drink Drinkfinity, PepsiCo set up a separate office away from its headquarters and used different manufacturers, while Procter & Gamble (P&G) wants its organisation to work like a startup on seed-stage experiments. Chief brand officer Marc Pritchard explains the business is breaking down the boundaries of functions and operating in a “fast-cycle, integrated, multiskilled way”.

Coca-Cola has seen an “unprecedented” year for new product development, which means the business is acting more like a startup than ever before, explains Kris Robbens, marketing director at Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland.

During the past six months alone, the company has launched Signature Mixers, Coca-Cola Energy, Diet Coke Twisted Strawberry, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Raspberry, Honest Lemonade, Aquarius and Costa Ready To Drink.

“There has been a real culture change in the way we operate and innovate, acting fast and agile to bring products to market quicker,” says Robbens. “With innovation at the heart, rather than telling consumers what they should drink, we are responding to their tastes and needs to give them the drinks they want as part of their lifestyle.”

Marketers have been central to these innovations, working with both the global and European markets to ensure all innovation is driven by consumer insight and relevance.

The marketers are supported by Coca-Cola’s global innovation labs in cities such as Atlanta in the US and Brussels in Belgium, which scan trends and consumer insights for inspiration. The teams are then encouraged to leverage the innovation taking place around the world and bring the products they see working to the local market.

The new rules of innovation

Diversity of thought

Brands should be aware that having a distinct company culture can create unspoken boundaries that suppress the diversity needed to be inventive, notes Andrew Lippman, associate director at MIT Media Lab and co-director of MIT’s communications futures programme.

The media lab spans a research facility supported by 85 member companies and a graduate programme with 150 students. The lab actively recruits students who add a different dimension, rather than just fitting in with the consensus.

This interest in diversity of thought means Lippman is unconvinced by the notion of compartmentalising innovation, arguing it is better to have a culture that thrives on ideas.

Food delivery company Just Eat agrees that having cross-functional teams is the best way to approach innovation as it means all the skills are around the table to innovate at pace, making the decision-making loop much shorter.

Product director Storm Fagan explains that marketing is an essential part of the mix, especially during the recent roll out of the company’s new global platform ‘Did Somebody Say Just Eat?’. The platform has seen Just Eat move from nine TV ads to a single creative, going from pitch to live in a matter of months, which Fagan describes as a “whole business approach to innovation”.

It is also important to accept that not every innovation project will work. By focusing on the customer and continually listening to feedback from users, the cross-functional teams at Just Eat resist becoming hung up on any specific innovation.

“As a product manager there is nothing as humbling as coming up with what you think is the most amazing, innovative new idea, creating a prototype that you think is beautiful and getting members of the public to test it,” says Fagan.

“They have got no agenda, they’re honest and will tell you all the reasons why it’s rubbish. It removes egos from the situation and keeps the focus on customers.”

Jon Burton, international marketing director at seafood company John West, agrees that it is a “difficult, but valuable skill” for teams to be brave enough to pull an innovation project when it is not working.

[For new ideas] I invite everyone from the finance director to the sales director, because the best ideas come from lots of people’s perspectives.

Debbie Epstein, Montezuma’s

The teams at John West collaborate on new ideas with the global innovation centre in Bangkok, Thailand, where its parent company Thai Union is based, as well as constantly analysing consumer behaviour, the competitive set and brands outside the seafood category.

The teams work on a pipeline of ideas at least five years ahead, which are prioritised based on the size and importance of the opportunity. As ideas move from concepts to projects they feed into the three-year planning cycle and annual brand plans, during which time launch campaigns are developed.

The consumer insights function within marketing feeds into all the brand and innovation teams, while the marketers also collaborate with the research and development (R&D) and factory teams. Marketing is responsible for product management on new product development (NPD), from ideas and consumer understanding right through to product delivery and launch.

Think cross-function

This cross-functional approach is also central to the culture at artisan British chocolatier Montezuma’s.

The company has a core NPD team including marketing, purchasing, manufacturing and an internal designer, while the sales teams and retail managers are brought into the process early to ensure all the bases are covered.

When a new idea is in discussion, an email goes out to the wider team that includes company founders Helen and Simon Pattinson.

“I invite everyone from the finance director to the sales director, because the best ideas come from lots of people’s perspectives,” explains marketing director Debbie Epstein.

“You start with the nugget of an idea and when you get around the table you come out with this almost fully formed concept. I don’t have everybody work on everything all the time. I have the right people working on the right things and then we bring in the wider circle when it’s relevant.

Epstein loves it when an idea comes from the factory floor or Montezuma’s retail stores, as it proves her theory that there is not only one creative person within a business and ideas can come from anywhere.

The important thing, however, is that all ideas are approached with positivity as it encourages anyone in the business to come forward without fear of it being shot down.

“I have sat in innovation meetings in the past where you say ‘I’ve got an idea’ and they say ‘No you can’t do that because of this’ and it starts with a negative, instead of actually saying ‘I’ve got no idea how we can do this, but if we think about it this way…’,” Epstein recalls.

Fostering a positive approach to innovation that allows for multiple, cross-functional perspectives helps brands move at pace, killing innovations that are unfit for the market and giving the green light to projects with game-changing potential.

Andrew Lippman is a keynote speaker at the Festival of Marketing 2019, which takes place on 10-11 October at Tobacco Dock, London. Visit www.festivalofmarketing.com to find out more. 

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