Innovating a 2000 Year Old Product with Annalisa Gigante

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Welcome to the Innovation Ecosystem. This is Mark Bidwell. With me today is Annalisa Gigante who, until recently, was Head of Innovation at LafargeHolcim which is the world’s largest cement company. Hello, Annalisa.

Hello, lovely to be here. Thank you.

We’re doing this in person which is rare because often we do this over Skype so I’m really looking forward to getting into some of the stuff. Now you’ve been doing innovation for over twenty-five years.

That’s right, even before we called it innovation. We called it product development, business development.

So this is really, this is the common thread throughout your career. So how do you answer the question, because you say the world has changed over that period, how do you answer the dinner party question, ‘What do you do?’

I help big companies transform and grow, and sometimes it takes internal efforts and sometimes it takes external efforts like M&A, so it’s a combination of things.

But you’ve done both, when you started your career as a consultant and then very quickly went into the line working on the other side of the table.

That’s right. I absolutely love the strategy work but I really get a buzz out of getting stuff done and getting the numbers flowing.

So most recently you were, as I said, in LafargeHolcim which is the world’s largest cement company and dealing with a product which most of our listeners come into contact all the time but it’s not a particularly exciting product, it’s been around for many, many years, so what does innovation look like in a large company dealing with a commodity, you know, where there’s very limited opportunity, ostensibly, for a bystander like me to actually see where the innovation comes from.

That’s right. I remember a lunch conversation with the professor of innovation somewhere a long time ago turning round to me and saying, ‘You do innovation in cement? Are you kidding me? It’s a two thousand year old product’, so clearly you do innovation on the product but it’s only tweaks here and there, and understanding better what the chemistry is behind it. The majority of the value capture is actually through new services, new business models, really understanding how far you can go to help the consumer understand what they need. And something that we all learned coming into the business is actually 65% of the business is B2C, so all the work in developing markets is very similar to consumer packaged goods, it’s a branded product which is very heavy and somehow needs to get to the last mile to where the consumer is.

So when you went in having come out — I think more recently, before that you were in the — which part?

Services business. HR services.

In HR services. So going from HR services, we’ll maybe talk that because it’s a little bit about my background as well, and into this completely different industry. What was going through your mind as you went in there? What was the brief?

The brief was really to make an impact with innovation. So on two sides, one is the cultural side, because it’s very important to attract and retain the kind of people who really enjoy putting growth into the organization, and the other part is to show very concretely where innovation can make a difference to the business, but sometimes it’s on the top line so sometimes it is about launching new businesses or new ideas, and sometimes it’s really on the level of EBITDA so it’s looking at the cost structure and indeed , there we did quite a lot of work on manufacturing, on improving the use of energy. Every time you can cut even half a percent of energy usage, it’s fantastic, or looking at the logistics of products.

So it wasn’t just market facing innovation, it was also internal innovation.

Absolutely. I would say of the portfolio we had, half of it was customer facing, and half of it was for the internal operations.

Was that a surprise when you went in because, most people think innovation is new products, new business models.

It was a very unique way of looking at it and actually, I think it’s something we can all learn from. The idea of being able to mix the various projects means that you can work with so many more colleagues within your company and that means that also culturally you can have a much bigger impact because you’re not just working with the sales teams or you know the customer service teams, or the R&D teams looking at products, but you’re also working with your logistics colleagues, with colleagues in sustainability, colleagues in manufacturing, and that’s wonderful. It also gives us much better choices in terms of which ideas we can fund that will have the biggest results, and so the more choices you have, the better your portfolio looks.

But also, what’s going through my mind, it sounds like you would have been treading on a lot of people’s toes, not necessarily treading on their toes but it sounds like a CEO job in some respect.

To some respect it is but I don’t do treading on people’s toes, that’s just not how I work. My question is always, ‘How can I help?’ It’s really trying to understand, ‘what are the goals of my colleagues and is there anything in the portfolio that I’m looking after that can help achieve those goals?’ And if you find that with any of your colleagues, even if you’re fighting on something else, but if you can find some of the areas where we can collaborate, the whole system becomes much stronger over time, and of course at the beginning you will get to do smaller projects because everything is a test, but once those work out then you can really move the needle for the whole company. And in innovation I find that really very, very important. It’s easier to do innovation at the periphery, you know, things that you can talk about but that don’t really have an impact on your core business, but once you do work on the core business, that’s when you really get the big results.

Yeah because, on a company — I’m not sure of the revenues, but these are probably 20, 30, 40 billion dollars revenues. To move the needle you have to do something pretty dramatic on that kind of revenue base.

Yes. You’re looking at an EBITDA impact of a billion plus to really show that you’re doing something interesting.

So how did you, what were the things that you — you talked about the portfolio of opportunities but what were the things that — how did you identify those things that actually could generate that kind of movement on the EBITDA line.

All right, so part of the job is also making sure that you tap into the idea generation potential of the company. In roles like innovation, it’s not the innovation team that comes up with stuff. It’s not the innovation team that has the only good ideas in the business. So part of that really is trying to understand what is already there that maybe you can enhance, or maybe you can make link better with the customers, and so that you can create a bigger market potential, and it’s really harvesting those ideas. So part of that is putting idea generation systems all over in every country and every function and adapting them to what the work is there. So in some cases, for example, in Switzerland we had a very I.T. driven idea generation process because people are very comfortable with that, they’re very comfortable with voting for good ideas and so we used that. In Costa Rica, that would have made no sense. So what we did is organize, you know, lunchtime discussions and then good ideas would come of that, and then every year we would have a global challenge on a certain theme and then we would pick ideas that we could fund. So part of it is that, and part of it is also accelerating good ideas that are already there. For example, part of the business called Geocycle uses trash from municipalities that we can burn in our manufacturing sites, and that does a number of things, it creates a service for the municipality that in some cases we might even get paid for, and it also decreases the energy usage that we would have to pay for otherwise. Of course, there’s a bit of technology in there because you need to know what it is that you are burning and what effect that has on the final product, but, given that that’s our specialty then over time that creates some really interesting momentum.

Right and it’s a new business model, essentially.

Yes. Absolutely.

Because that was one of the things I was intrigued in when we had Alex Osterwalder as I mentioned earlier on, on the program, I think we, in Syngenta, we did a lot of business model innovation partly because the product lifecycle or the product development process was so long that we needed to, you know — you can’t change a product, it’s either services or business models that unlock some of the value in the short term anyway. How — and I think, one of the challenges with the business model work is intellectually coming up with a new business model is one thing, but actually making something work in the market is a completely different thing, so how did you think about business models and are there any that you really kind of, perhaps you can take about just to sort of bring to life the idea of a 2000 year old product, generating a completely different source of value for shareholders.

I love this question. Thank you. I think my favorite example there was in Indonesia, where we had both a new business model and a new technology together. I think the few times when you were able to do both then the value capture is of a completely different nature and that’s why it’s such a good idea. So we had a technology for repairing roads that would set much faster, and the team in Indonesia really did a lot of end customer work, in terms of understanding how could we improve whatever is going on in the country and how can we help? And clearly it’s a place where the biggest nightmare is sitting in traffic all day and that takes off so much of the potential GDP. So we saw that if we were able to do something to decrease the level of traffic jams, and I’m sure all of us would love that at some stage, then we could provide value to all our stakeholders, whether it was the local community or businesses or whatever. And so the local team came up with this idea of actually guaranteeing that a road could be repaired overnight. So instead of just selling the material to a third party who would repair the road we would guarantee to the local community that the road would be repaired within seven hours, otherwise they wouldn’t have to pay for it, and by doing that then we basically guaranteed no traffic jams on either end of the day. And so that was the mechanism which we could try a completely new business model, a completely new way of doing value capture.

So I guess in that you’ve got different customers, different stakeholders –you’re engaging the stakeholders up and down the value chain, and there’s also, was there a different pricing mechanism in there as well?

Yes. There and also a very different way of going to market. We also had to find out who could deliver that overnight work because obviously it wasn’t a skill that we had in the company or something that we wanted to integrate. So it was a question of finding out who the providers could be for that work.

Interesting. And has that been — it’s a fascinating idea because it’s about de-risking the investment obviously for the customer as well as, you’re not selling them the “hole”, you’re selling them the actual outcome they’re looking for, if you like.

Absolutely. The interesting thing about doing things like that – and we have other examples where we would guarantee, for example, in huge warehouses that we would guarantee that the floor of the warehouse would be done and wouldn’t crack over time, so the machines could work better – we found out that in order to bring those to market we had to do innovations in areas that we hadn’t thought of before, for example, in our financial systems. So the financial system was very capable of handling cubic meters of stuff, but if you were selling something in square meters then that system needed to be changed. So it’s very, very funny and I’ve seen that also in other companies that we talk to, because of course you know we try and show these kind of things, and you find out that in the end the blocking point is somewhere completely different. So even if you have the product and the technology, you can get it to market, you find the ecosystem that will get it there, and you find a way of selling it, then sometimes you will find an additional barrier that took us another month in order to really do this.

And I would have thought one of the barriers is actually training your sales people to actually not say how much do you want to be delivered and when but actually to have a completely different conversation with a different customer.

Yes and I think that’s kind of where the handover comes, between the innovation team and then when it really becomes core business and you really hand it over to the local sales team.

One of the things that, while were on subject of business models, I know you work with St Gallen and the team there have come up with I think fifty or sixty,  I can’t remember what the number is, but a number of generic business models you can track back, you know, throughout the course of, I suppose, corporate history, and it’s a fascinating idea because what they’re saying is this even though you hear about these new business models like Spotify and Netflix, their origins can be found back in the 1920’s with Procter & Gamble, with Gillette or something – just really interested in your thoughts on that. Are there any new business models being developed or is it just a constant repetition and repatterning of the existing models?

We were extremely lucky in our team to have one of the co-authors of the book, and so we learned a lot about, really, how these standard business models, and it is a finite number, can be applied no matter what technology you are using, and in fact it’s a different overlay, and it was wonderful to see how we were able to analyze all our businesses and understand that even in our business we had about thirteen different business models, not more than that, and some of them could be replicated from one country to another, maybe we haven’t tried to do that. So again you could see the potential of what innovation can bring, just by doing the analytics. And I’m lucky enough that I’ve been able to work in very, very different industries and I see the parallels so much whether it’s from life sciences, from chemicals, from HR services, you really see that it’s about understanding ultimately what the customer needs and how you can align your teams to be able to deliver that in the best possible way.

So I think, when I was back at number of years ago, we did analysis of how many business models there were in the Hay Group, this was recently bought by Korn Ferry, and I think there were six or seven out there even though it was seen as a professional services firm, it was once you created that common language of business models, it does make a big difference because you can start, you can just have the right conversation at the right time. That was our experience anyway.

Yes, but the interesting thing in HR services, and I’ve spent quite a few years there, is the barrier to inventing a new idea is almost zero – very, very different from when you work in products you might have to work, I don’t know, up to ten years to be able to launch something. So the issue there was that we were coming up with these fabulous ideas fifty times over, one hundred times over, and reinventing the wheel, so in a way innovation there added value by doing more operational excellence by trying to say, ‘OK, what are the commonalities, and let’s not try and recreate everything if we know that these four or five things work very well; then, let’s try and spread them so that we can be first to market’, so although the object is the same the intervention is probably opposite.

Yeah. So it’s easy — for the person, when someone, as I said to you earlier on, Annalisa, they’re sitting in large organizations maybe with ideas that they want to advance and they’re having difficulty getting traction with those ideas in the organization, partly, you know I’ve heard it many, many times, ‘Things are different here. We’re different. We don’t do things that way.’ And I’m just wondering whether there’s some advice that you’ve got or some experience that worked for you whereby you being able to show the elements of the situation and how common it is in other industries and what’s worse in other industries and being able to read that across into the current situation. Is that a way that people can use to sort of unlock, to unblock their specific challenge, because what you’re saying essentially and the book was saying is, and I can’t remember the name of it but we’ll put it in the links, that there are no new business models it’s just a different way of repatterning them in and applying them into specific industries. I just wondered if that’s — what advice do you have for people who think they’ve got something that’s relevant but they’re just constantly bumping up against, ‘well this isn’t relevant in our industry, this won’t work in our industry.’

What I’ve learned is really by doing it myself and failing many, many times over is the closer you can propose an idea that really matches with what the goals of the company are, the easier it is to get a little experiment going to see if it’ll work. So it’s really understanding what the core of the company is. If it’s sustainability and if it’s an idea that increases sustainability then you will already have that momentum with you. It’s about then finding a different way of doing things. If the goal of the company is operational excellence, well you know, you come up with an idea it’s like improving the quality. You can always say, you know, in continuous improvement this is how we do this more effectively, more efficiently. It’s about packaging that and then really finding out what the output metrics are that will link to what the rest of the team is measured on. The closer you are able to put that together, the more attention you will have by definition from the rest of the company. The further away you are, the risk for the company is higher, and the experiments, whether it works or not, might not have the impact you wanted to have.

So that, I guess as you were in LafargeHolcim, as you were looking for ideas, that was one of your forces that you applied against these ideas. It’s actually completely an admission of mission on objectives for the company.

Yes because the wonderful thing is once you do tap into this, the ideas that can happen in our organization, then you have a choice in terms of where to invest your money, your time, everybody else’s hard work, and then you need great filters to understand, why would I put my two days a week on project A or project B, and by merging with the goals of your team, your colleagues, the rest of the company, all of a sudden you really get synergies to work. And that’s why I think somehow it’s more difficult to get things done in larger companies, but once you do hit that spot, then the results are all downhill. Whereas if you’re in a smaller organization it might be much easier at the beginning to get funding and to try the experiment, but when you need the additional funds to go the next step and the next step you will find the barriers happening later on in the project.

Well that’s very rich, and it’s certainly been my experience. It does take a long, long time to get the snowball to the top of the hill but once you do get the momentum if you have an organization with all resources behind it, going after it, it’s almost impossible to stop.

That’s right. There is, in your time budget, there is a part of it that you need to put to ‘permission to operate’.

And that’s months versus weeks, that’s for sure.

It depends on the organization, and it can be.

Hence the need for resilience, hence the need for being recognized-

Absolutely. And knowing what it is that you want as a goal out of it because being persistent really does help and being clear about what it is that you’re trying to achieve and then you can make the alliances within the organization to make things happen. I don’t think any of us are in roles today where we can control 100% of the work that we do. So it is about making alliances and agreeing things and then all of a sudden everything starts flowing.

And you touched on some of the mistakes you’ve made. I mean, over 25 years, I mean, I guess there’s probably a few by definition, right? Are there any in particular that maybe you made earlier on in your career which are now blindingly obvious but that maybe some of our listeners are about to make or are easy traps to fall into? You touched for instance on — we’ve talked about making sure this alliance, so that the overall objectives of the organization, you’ve touched on building support in the organization, are there any other — you know, I’ve made lots of mistakes around doing both of those things completely incorrectly and getting the scars on my back as a result of that, but any other areas where you think are rookie mistakes which you made which maybe you’d encourage our listeners-

First of all if you live in the innovation space as we do, failure is not a bad thing; trying to keep the failure alive is. I think it’s very important to understand when you’ve hit a barrier that is not surmountable in the time and energy that you have, and then move on. I’m very much from the Magic Johnson School of doing stuff. I think we get better with exercise and part of that exercise is trying new stuff, but when you see it doesn’t work or that the alliance isn’t coming together the way you wish or things aren’t working in the time that you had set for yourself it is better at that stage to make an after action review and move on, and I think because we all are emotionally attached to putting great ideas out there in the market, it’s difficult for all of us to understand where that day is.  And taking responsibility for that, and the other part of that is, I think, something that we need to do as leaders in the organization, is to help our teams find that that isn’t a career limiting step, and in fact by putting your hand up and saying, ‘actually you know what, these are the goals we had for this project but they’re not coming out the way we wanted, and this is why, I think my time is better used on another project’, I think you’re doing a favor to the organization and to yourself and it’s part of our job as leaders to make sure that that puts you in a great light in terms of career prospects. I think that the best example out there today is probably Google X with this plan. We will have a chance of doing that in our organizations.

That’s tough as well. It depends on the culture of the organization but failure is still in many organizations, a dirty word.

Absolutely, but again part of the role of being an intrapreneur is taking what is working so well with startups and finding how we can import some of that in the businesses, and if you go to Silicon Valley people are very proud to say, ‘I had ten startups and eight of them failed but actually two of them were very good and this is why I’m here’ and part of that is understanding what we can take in a company and fast failure is good. I think some companies have been pretty good at understanding, you know, at releasing money sequentially as projects get bigger, so that you’re not in it for the whole amount until you’ve proved that some of the underlying key technology or legislative issues or customer issues are over. On the other hand, it’s not good to have zombie projects, right? We’ve all had them.

As a leader, in leading your team, what kind of things did you do or kind of things did you avoid doing to encourage people that this wasn’t a career limiting move, to pursue this opportunity but also to make sure, to help them understand if there is a zombie project, let’s kill it very quickly?

Something I learned at Holcim is that they already had in place something between the project and the overall innovation portfolio which is the platform. So we had six different platforms with different goals in terms of how we wanted to get to market or add value, and the teams that were involved in the projects would get together in a platform meeting and understand which projects in there to continue or not. Now what was wonderful about that is that when talking to the executives, the platform would still be the same. We didn’t have to explain that out of fifty projects on platform, maybe, thirty were different from last time we spoke. So I think structurally and governance wise that was wonderful and I read quite a lot of articles on that since, and I think that is a wonderful way of breaking that direct link between, ‘I’m working on project A, and, I’m making the goals for the company’. And by pushing those decisions to the people who had the technical skills, I think we got fantastic input and recommendations in terms of when to change projects and when not. In any organization you can do things faster and better but in that case I thought it was extremely well structured and something I would keep as a positive legacy of that work, and the other part of it is really from the culture and mindset of the corporation. I think that one of the definitions of culture is what makes you a high potential in that organization, what makes you have a good career, what type of decisions, and if the organization is very risk averse, then it has consequences, and so I think again it’s up to us to make sure that either there are parts of the organization where having these experiences in innovation make you a better leader, or parts of the organization that understands that it’s OK that that team will help because they’re the ones looking after our future and it’s OK that they might behave a little bit differently from the rest of us. But again in a leadership team sometimes it’s difficult to have to balance out the attention that you give to all these different teams with different goals.

We’re beginning to get into this. You mentioned the word ‘portfolio’ a couple of times. In some organizations, high potentials of people who are really good at cracking the existing machine and operational excellence, continuing to serve current products to current customers, and there might be some innovation there but there’s no breakthrough innovation in those processes, in terms of, there’s no business innovation. So how in your experience can you avoid falling into that trap, to pull people who are higher potential people who are associated perhaps with the old model, and ensure you’re getting a broader view from the employee base of people who haven’t necessarily — you might have great ideas and you might be able to transform the business model but haven’t had the opportunity to do that.

So I think there are many, many interventions at many different levels. One is, you know, also using internal company social media to make sure that we link up all these people who are the friends of the innovation program. I think all of us have needed that extra bit of advice and help because we all deal with that in our jobs, part of our colleagues have very different goals. At the highest levels, I think it’s so important for the CEO and the executive team to embrace what the future can bring and to look beyond perhaps the quarterly figures or the three years that they have under control, and part of that is also engaging the supervisory board because they most probably have a much longer view of where the company is going.

And that’s a Swiss perspective.

So in particular in Switzerland I think we’re lucky because the supervisory board is also responsible for corporate strategy and something that interestingly enough in the governance system they are not allowed to delegate management. Everywhere else in the world, this is a management responsibility. So here I think we have an extra bit of help with that, but part of our work in getting companies to transform is also balancing how much attention and how much capital goes to maintaining the current business and how much is really put on the longer term and so engaging some of those conversations with a supervisory board perhaps not just on the annual strategy review, but a little bit more consequentially, as part of the risk discussions, as part of the audit committee discussions, can really help. And to go on the risk point; normally we look at risk of things that can go wrong and what kind of mitigation we can put in place, but if you start looking at risk as not participating in something, what happens if we don’t do that? What happens if we ignore everything that is happening in IOT and digital and this and that, then what are the risks to our company? You’ll end up having completely different conversations and that’s where really you can link any project anywhere in the world to some key conversations that are happening in the center of the company, and that’s what I mean about really changing the needle there.

It’s interesting. One of my future guests does a lot of work with corporate, with boards, and ten years ago, twelve years ago, when she started, the number one challenge for boards was, ‘what are we doing about China?’, and today the number one challenge is, ‘what are we doing about digitalization?’, and sitting here in Switzerland, it’s really interesting because we’ve got some amazing companies like Nestlé, we’ve got an ag company, we’ve got the pharma companies, a lot of very established companies with fantastic track records. But the question — they’re beginning to go ‘ex-growth’, they’re beginning to — traditional engines of growth are no longer there, be it product development or be it emerging market growth, and I’m just wondering, what’s your view on — and you know also, we had the watch fair the other day, where people are concerned about how long the Swiss watch industry is going to continue to dominate as well. What’s your view from a Swiss perspective on how innovative are Swiss leaders? I think you mentioned there are ten global leaders here in Switzerland, or ten global market leaders who are in Switzerland. How do you see that? I mean, is it a cause for concern or optimism?

So I think Switzerland has a great set up in terms of innovation. If you look at the skills coming from the federal universities on technological areas there’s a big market that is full of great ideas and there’s something very special about Switzerland, it’s this outreach internationally, and the big companies have been able to really hook into that with very decentralized models which is very different from an American company that has a domestic market and an international market, as if the international market was all the same. I think we understand that here very well and this is one of the huge, huge strengths. Part of this understanding you know what is happening out there in the world and what is happening in technology is also trying to understand what the purpose of the company is, and I think if we describe the purpose too close to the products that we are bringing to market you will find that over time there’s a natural end to that process, but if you’re able to abstract from that and understand what is the purpose of the company longer term, you will find that the businesses within it can change, and the purpose of the company can be maintained or evolve over time. I’ll give you a great example of the way this is really to high level. In staffing, the business used to be to put a blue collar worker or a secretarial worker for a small amount of time at a certain company and it is true that that was a huge business, and at some point it was maybe 90% of a company’s business but it’s a business that over time was with low margins, high competition, and so companies in that area needed to think how else they can apply their skills, and the big differences were when staffing companies started looking at themselves as HR services companies and then all of a sudden everything was possible. Outplacement was possible, HR consulting was possible, doing permanent placement as well as temporary staffing, working on higher levels of professional skills, and now today there’s yet another jump that these companies need to do in order to understand better how to use artificial intelligence for matching for example. So if you look at the purpose of your company in a broader level then you’re able to look more dispassionately about which businesses are part of that portfolio.

I keep on bringing it up but, Syngenta’s purpose was bringing plant potential to life which is valuable for the reasons you mention. It’s also valuable because it actually engages people at this kind of visceral as well as an intellectual level. If you can get a purpose, really, you can get a whole foundation behind it.

And I think great companies have understood that and have moved from the mission statement and vision statement to a real purpose. I think a lot of this is also thanks to millennials. They’ve forced us to think a little bit differently but that is great, and this really does look at the longer term development of what companies are able to do.

So before we wrap up, you also mentioned you’d worked in the staffing industry for a number of years, how — and you mentioned AI as well. There’s obviously a lot in the media at the moment around what is the future of work. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about what the employment prospects look like for the next generation?

So there’s a lot of doom and gloom out there, and you know when you look at, ‘can a robot do your job?’ — it will have consequences but what we’ve seen every time there’s been a big change in technology, jobs have evolved, they haven’t just disappeared. So it’s up to us to understand how that evolution will affect societies, and I think this is really fundamentally important, which is understanding the skill base. I am passionate to make sure that girls choose STEM careers. I’m one of the few that is a scientist out there and recently we found out that it’s actually in primary school that girls get put off. We used to think it was much later, so all of a sudden we really need to do a lot of engagement there. And it is STEM skills that will give kids the biggest options as things evolve with jobs that today we don’t even know exist, so I think we have a role on being on top of it and understanding that yes, things will change, and making sure that society is ready for that.

We had a previous guest who actually does a lot of work promoting STEM careers in young girls actually, or in young teenagers, and she’s a scientist and made exactly the same point and that’s an American perspective from her. The other question I had related to that, for say twenty-something or thirty-something intrapreneur in a large organization, maybe at the beginning of their career and thinking, ‘I want to spend the next twenty-five years of my life doing the kind of work that you’ve done’. What are the skills that they need to get really good at? What are the things that you learned early on that have made a difference, that have enabled for you to have the impact you’ve had in a wide range of industries?

So I think the one key skill in innovation is something called the Goldilocks Zone, which is finding that middle ground between all the these things that we need to pull together. I think that’s why innovation rules are so fascinating and complex because on the one hand we need to know what’s happening in the cutting edge of technology, but in order for it to be innovation we need to understand what’s happening in markets as well and put the two together. And so it really is a multi-disciplinary role and as we grow in organizations, we find out that there are parts of technology we don’t know so we need to reach out and find out who has the skills who can join our  team and on the other side, on the business side or the customer side or the different markets in the world where we’re trying to reach, areas where we don’t have those direct bits of information, and again we need to pull in people whether it’s in our personal board of directors or whether it’s in an official team within the company, I think we need to have those skills also on the HR side to understand what we are missing and what coalition can we put together to bring products to market.

Right. And any specific tool you’ve used to — how does one go about doing that, you obviously figured out how to do it, but is there anything, for people who are listening to that and thinking, ‘well, what does that actually mean?’, is there an auditing process that you follow, or a checklist – a lot of our listeners are really keen to take something away and do something straight away.

One tool that I use almost every time is the Business Model Canvas, just because it reminds you of the different bits that need to work in order for anything, whether it’s a startup or whatever to work, and it kind of puts the focus on the things that you haven’t filled in enough, and I think that’s really important. The other part that I think is very, very interesting is also to find out how creativity works, because again I think when we’re in companies we tend to know a lot about what we do and sometimes it’s difficult to think outside of that  and these creativity tools can help us really think outside the box. Filling in blank pages is probably the most difficult thing to do and so part of it is understanding what techniques you can use because the more ideas you have the better the selection of what you end up working on.

Yeah. Well, it’s also coming back to talking about the different types of business models, this is about connecting the dots as well and having a view of the range of fifty different business models and then you start seeing patterns there, and I think that’s the same with creativity. One of the questions we asked in a previous season a guest was, what do they do to remain creative, and many of them, well, one of them went to the extreme and they spent a week in a different place of worship, or once a week they went to a different place of worship for a year just look at the world through a completely different set of lenses. Or someone else talked about taking their clients to the National Portrait Gallery and looking at a picture saying, ‘well, what does this tell us about our business, and our business challenges?’ but it’s just connecting dots and being exposed to diverse perspectives.

I think I’m lucky because I’m naturally curious, but part of it is also to go outside of your typical interests to get input. You’re lucky if you can travel for work and you’re exposed to a different environment for a while. Try and take it in, it will help, but you know any curiosity of asking open questions to people who surround you will spark different ideas, and I think sometimes the way we use social media to date doesn’t help because we put in the list, what are the things that we already know that we want  more in-depth information on, and so as long as you’re conscious that that just keeps you in your comfort zone, and that sometimes you really do have to put some things on that list of items that you really don’t know anything about, it really helps the conversation. I’m part of a fantastic network of heads of innovation, and I was so lucky that last time they got the team to meet together with CFOs of big companies, and for me that was wonderful because I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to speak to CFOs but all of a sudden we were having a great conversation about capital allocation. ‘Should it go to optimize the share price or can we push it further and actually put more money into innovation?’ and I think it was a great discussion on both sides, so sometimes I really try to go out of my way to have conversations with people that I wouldn’t naturally meet.

That’s a common theme that I’ve heard frequently since starting this show a year ago or so now. And you’ve got a new book, well, you’re writing a book-

Yes, I’m working on it, yes.

About innovation and your 25 years doing this kind of work. Any timeline of that, I mean, it’d be lovely to have you back on the show to talk a little bit about it, when do we think that’s going to be?

Well, I aim to have it finished in the next three or four months.


And the thesis is really how to de-risk and really deliver innovation. I think that’s what I’ve seen of doing these twenty-five years in a very, very different companies and very, very different industries, that there is a core that you can apply all over. And part of it is really how to construct an innovation portfolio that delivers results. It’s not the individual projects that will deliver the results for the overall portfolio that well, and the other part is what kind of governance you can put together in the organization to help all these conversations work. I mentioned earlier how the boards can get more involved but also how can we individually get more involved and choosing what we work on so that we give ourselves the best likelihood of success.

And when we talk about de-risk, is that de-risking purely for the organizational or is there an element of personal de-risking?

It’s both.

It’s both.

Because again I think it’s very rare in our lives today that we only ever work on one project sequentially, and actually that’s wonderful. It’s a great skill to have to be able to work on many different things, and so if you’re able to do that in different areas, different timelines you can construct that portfolio, also so that there’s always something ticking over.

Yeah. When the inevitable happen and one falls over, you’ve got something to fall back on.


Super. So we’ll look forward to that. Now, I asked you three questions before we started talking. The first one: what have changed your mind about recently, Annalisa?

Fascinating question. I’ve spent probably the last decade trying to help companies get to that higher level of innovation and I’ve seen how much effort it takes. I’m lucky enough very recently to speak to somebody from Red Bull who really helps the top athletes or executives or artists on the way.

Was it Andy Walshe?

Yes, yes.

So he was previous guest on our show. 


Isn’t he an amazing guy? Absolutely amazing guy.

He completely changed my mind in terms of how best to use your time, and that’s a lesson I will always take.

So what was the big change?

Really trying to understand that if you are surrounded by other A players you can achieve a hundred times more than you can in other ways. Sometimes it’s not possible but at least having that goal in mind I think helps select what the next project is to work on. I thought that was just a fabulous discussion and he really changed my mind on that.

Our mutual friend Guy Spier, he’s a great Warren Buffett fan, and Buffett talks about, if you’re the smartest guy in the room then you’re in the wrong room.


That’s exactly, that’s my — that’s been driving by my world for the last couple years. So that’s the first question. The second question, we touched a little bit on it, but are there any disciplines or mindsets or tools that you’ve used that have really made the difference in your career?

What I try to do is also have a portfolio of different things I can do. I find that when I’m grappling with a very hard problem intellectually or business wise, I love doing something creative with my hands because in that time my brain ends up solving the problem. So I love playing the piano, I love doing some art, or doing some sewing, and I think part of that is understanding when is the time to spend a couple of hours doing that as well as knowing how to connect with people who can help you make that next step. I think as we go in our career the beginning we always try and solve everything ourselves. ‘I don’t know this, OK, I need to go to a library and find out how to fix it.’ I think part of it is also changing your first instinct and saying, ‘OK who has already solved that and do I have an easy way of having that conversation that will help me get to the next stage of my project?’

Yeah. Lovely. Great. And the third question around failures. Are there any really monumental failures that you’ve really taken something from? I should imagine twenty-five years of doing this kind of work, the answer is yes.

I have an enormous amount of failures but I am from the courageous school. I believe that if you want to change the world you have to take that into consideration, and again my learning there is what do you do next? Don’t give up. Understand why you’re trying to do something and try and make that happen and make that coalition happen so that you can reach those goals. It’s not easy and I think one of my biggest learnings recently was resilience; that it’s damn well worth having.

Well, Andy Walshe talked a lot about that when I met with him because he’s a —  if you learn from the people who are doing extraordinary things in extreme sports for instance, I mean this is this is the world they live in and this is what’s so exciting about his work is a lot of this stuff is beginning to be democratized and beginning to be made available to people in large organizations so it’s not just the realms of Tiger Woods who can spend a couple of million a year on this kind of stuff, we can all get in on this.

And another really key learning from the conversation with him was actually an honest de-brief is the best thing you can ever do and it takes courage from leaders to be able to do that but I think we all have that responsibility to have people around us who can disagree with us, who can argue a point to the end because the outcome will be better, and I think we need to make that happen in more organizations.

Yes. Either they don’t happen or they’re dishonest, but either of those is bad.

But he was extremely clear about that. If there’s one thing that the top performers have in common and particularly the leaders of those teams is that they’re looking for the biggest, honest de-brief right after something happens.

Yeah. Great stuff, Annalisa, it’s been really nice to have you on the show.

Thank you so much for inviting me, it was wonderful.

And where can people get in touch with you?

Please get in touch on LinkedIn and on Twitter @giganteannalisa

OK and we’ll put those in the show notes and we’ll keep the audience posted about the book as it works its way through the process.

Thank you.

Thank you very much indeed.

Thank you.


In this episode we are joined by Annalisa Gigante, former Head of Innovation and R&D at LafargeHolcim. With over 25 years of experience her expertise includes management, HR, strategy, marketing and innovation. She is currently a Board member of ZIS.

What was covered

  • How Annalisa’s experience in different industries throughout her career has given her the opportunity to see parallels in business innovation
  • Annalisa’s unique approach on handling project failures and how to regain momentum as an individual and as a team
  • Annalisa’s view that innovation is present in all areas of business and not limited to within innovation teams, and how this multi-disciplinary approach ultimately helps creative growth

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • The importance of recognizing ‘fast failure’ in innovation projects
  • Finding the ‘Goldilocks’ zone – the middle ground between innovation in technology and market interests, and bridging the gap by adapting a multi-disciplinary approach
  • Recognizing the finite number of standard business models present within an organization and using these analytics to assist in the external and internal innovation of a business

Links and Resources Mentioned in This Episode

  • The Business Model Navigator: 55 Models That Will Revolutionise Your Business by Oliver Gassman – 


Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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