More than Just “New”  

Innovation: Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines it as “A new idea, device, or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods”—not surprisingly, since it’s related to the Latin word “novus,” which means “new.” But more precisely, it derives from the Latin “innovare,” which means “to renew or change.” And that’s an important distinction, because innovation doesn’t always mean creating something entirely new. Just as often it’s about transformation—looking at something with fresh eyes, seeing the opportunity in it, and evolving it in that direction. So at Merial today, we have a specific definition of "innovation": creating value from an idea that is new to you! 

We do that all the time at Merial—for example, putting a drug into an easier-to-use format, making a vaccine more potent while maintaining its safety, or finding a more efficient way to manufacture a product. Innovation has been a guiding principle at the company since our earliest days, but recently we’ve started exploring ways of incorporating it more formally into our working processes. Can innovation be taught? We believe so. And is it only the domain of scientists and product developers? Absolutely not! Our latest company-wide training initiative is proving all this, and more.  

Taking a Chance on Change 

The foundation of our initiative is a program called Managing Innovation™ by the global leadership training and development company Barnes & Conti Associates1.  The core of the program is the “Innovation Journey, ” a structured process for moving from ideation to implementation through five phases: Searching, Exploring, Committing, Realizing, and Optimizing. Using real-world examples and hands-on approaches, the program teaches practical techniques and tools for generating innovation in the workplace. 

One of the leaders in our Industrial Operations group, had attended the program and become a certified facilitator. Looking at his own work environment, he thought, “Why not?”—and started applying the principles and practices he’d learned with his team members. He saw firsthand the way it helped break down the barriers and fears that can leave people stuck in old ways of working, freeing them to think big and take chances on interesting if unproven ideas. Inspired by these results, he spearheaded an effort to train more leaders and managers throughout Merial in the Managing Innovation approach.

Dare. Dare to create value. Dare not to ask permission first…. Just dare to do something, and demonstrate [value]

Olivier Lecointre, Merial Industrial Operations, Change & Innovation Management

Teaching Innovation: from Brainstorm to Prototype  

Merial’s training session is spread over two days. Day one is all about freedom and brainstorming. Participants are presented with challenges to tackle and encouraged to open up and express any and all ideas—nothing is too big, too crazy, too risky to throw on the table. Egos are set aside. Judgment is deferred. The only thing that’s challenged is the status quo. People bounce thoughts off one another, and a think-tank-like environment starts to form. The energy is almost tangible—you can actually see people’s body language change as they’re freed from the constraints of restrictive, day-to-day thinking. “It’s like a breath of fresh air,” many employees have observed.

Day two starts to rein in the “chaos, ” by harnessing the power of collective intelligence—that “meeting of the minds” that’s possible when a roomful of people set aside their individual egos and stakes and unite toward a common goal. There’s a strong emphasis on decision-making skills: how to scrutinize a mass of ideas, narrow them down, and refine them into viable possibilities. Trainees start learning how to set aside common fears—such as uncertainty, risk aversion, and worries of regret—and simply see where ideas might lead. Perhaps most importantly, the two-day training introduces participants to actionable tools and methodologies that they can replicate in the workplace.  

Establishing an Ongoing Think Tank  

The problem with so many workplace training programs is that, exciting or inspiring as they may be, once they’re over it’s so easy to go back to “business as usual.” Olivier Lecointre was determined not to see this happen; there had to be a way to maintain that Managing Innovation energy in a permanent, ongoing way. And thus was born the idea for the Merial Innovators’ Network: a series of regular workshops for graduates of the training program to continue flexing their “innovation muscles” by tackling real, everyday challenges contributed by colleagues throughout the company.  

Since its kick-off in 2013, our Innovators’ Network has moved dozens of ideas—from technical and scientific to managerial and financial—into real, value-based changes at Merial. With more of our people completing the training and joining the Network, we expect many more great innovations in the years to come. 

See a conversation between Olivier Lecointre, Merial’s champion for the Managing Innovation initiative, and Kim Barnes, CEO of Barnes & Conti Associates.

 References 

1.  Managing Innovation: Driving Ideas from Strategic Initiative to Value Creation is a copyrighted program of Barnes & Conti Associates and David Francies, Ph.D.