Monday, October 25, 2021

Book Review - Built to Innovate by Ben Bensaou

Since I am an innovation consultant, working with Fortune 500 companies to build innovation capacity, and I regularly blog on this site about innovation topics, I often have the opportunity to review new books about innovation.  In the coming days I will review two books, one by an old friend (Roger Von Oech) and one by a professor at INSEAD who I have not had the pleasure of meeting.

In this blog, I am going to be reviewing the book Built to Innovate by Ben Bensaou.  The book was published in September 2021.

This is an interesting and difficult book to categorize and to review, for a number of reasons.  First, the book pulls together a lot of innovation theory and practice from a number of innovation practitioners, particularly the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, which is often referenced in the book.  To that end, reading the book, at least in the early chapters, can seem a bit like a recap of good innovation tools and practices.  I do like the fact that Bensaou creates a new framework that he calls the BTI Framework, which shows what and how three different groups within a company participate in innovation - Frontline innovators, Mid level coaches and Senior leaders.  This is a useful framework for thinking about who does what in innovation, and the roles they play and the challenges they face.

The second reason it is a bit difficult to review is that a significant portion of the book relies on vignettes about successful innovators.  Since innovation is unusual and there aren't a lot of successful examples, many of us (I covered some of the same companies in my book Relentless Innovation) rely on the success of a few companies to illustrate what others should do, often not fully aware that these companies that are successful are often somewhat unique.  Bensaou does a good job relating the factors that make these companies successful, but I think he overlooks or ignores two critical points early in his book.

Perhaps the third reason this book is a bit difficult for me to review is that I find the material in the latter sections of the book more interesting and useful than the vignettes at the front of the book.

One point that he writes about but is not specific about is that all of these successful vignettes have deep engagement from the CEO or a board member.  My copy of the book has several sections where I have underlined the unique commitment from senior executives.  For example, on page 37, talking about the transition at Samsung, the author writes about a "painstaking, decades-long process" of building an innovation engine.  Many of the vignettes are told from a CEO or board member perspective and illustrate just how important senior executive engagement is, and this quote and others highlight the second concern:  building an innovation engine takes time.  Lots of time, because companies aren't just creating a new product, but a new process, and changing culture along the way.  In another chapter, the author notes that BASF expects culture change to take 8 to 10 years.  

These two ideas - the deep engagement of senior leadership in innovation skill and process development, and the time it takes to build innovation competence, and scattered throughout the book but not directly addressed.

The book, in my opinion, spends too little time on the importance of executive commitment, and on the impact of culture as a barrier to innovation.  Finally, in Chapter 8, Bensauo has a chapter on the role of senior leadership, but it feels somewhat too little, too late.

So, for the first 3/4ths of the book, the text and what it says seems a rehash or a repeat of many innovation books, full of vignettes with senior leadership, with the introduction of new frameworks and some new insights.

Then, in Chapter Ten, Bensauo introduces the BTI seven step innovating process, built on work from INSEAD.  This process is interesting and helpful.  In this chapter, he defines what a good innovation process could look like and uses good examples.  I think this is a good way to approach an innovation capacity, and I would add a few things to the process or surround the process with:

  1. The first step in his process is Choosing a subject for innovating, which I think is vitally important.  Innovation is too risky to leave it to chance - we need to be working on strategic issues.  As such, it's not just choosing a subject, but also having a senior sponsor who cares about the success of the project.  Again, I think Bensauo is anticipating that a senior, engaged sponsor is involved, but it is important to say so, because without that senior sponsor who flies cover for the work, the barriers and resistance most projects face will cause it to fail.
  2. I think Bensauo does a good job considering the customer experience and emphasizing customer needs.  Here he relies on Jobs to be Done, a fine methodology, but ignore ideas like the Customer Experience Journey and nice tools from design thinking.
  3. What is interesting in his process is that there is no specific idea generation "step".  The process moves from one phase (Exploring non-customer space) to a new phase (Selecting and fast prototyping the best ideas) without an idea generating step, assuming that ideas are generated in the research phases.  This omission is interesting, as it anticipates that all ideas are generated during the research phases, with no need for additional idea generation.  
  4. The next phase is in my mind one of the most important, but it gets a little short shrift in the process definition.  Selecting the best ideas is a task that involves considering the strategy of the business, key customer needs, market demands, future industry shifts, investment models and so forth.  Without this information, it is difficult to "select the best idea), yet we don't get enough detail in the writeup about this.  I'd have liked to see more detail here.
  5. One omission from the process is in the final step.  Bensauo has as his final step "Presenting and selling the idea" which is exceptionally important.  Too many innovators fail to realize that a great idea does not sell itself to executives.  They need help seeing its value.  But what Bensauo leaves out or does not address is what I like to call the crossing the chasm problem for innovation. That is, getting executives to agree to a new idea is one thing, getting the idea into a product or service development process and fully developed and eventually launched is a completely different thing.  Most companies lack a good method and process for moving ideas that executives like into product or service production.

While it may seem I've reviewed the book rather negatively, there is a lot to like in this book.  Bensauo introduces some new frameworks and a new innovation process, and does a good job of describing the work it takes to "wire innovation" into a business.  There are some areas where I wish he had placed different emphasis, and the books suffers a bit from vignettes with executives that tell similar stories to ones we've heard before, but this is a good book and I think it will have an impact how innovation gets done in corporations.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:20 AM


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