Unpacking the "Pocket Universe"

Drawing on 30 years of experience working with senior leaders to inspire and enable their people, Becky Rea (Lead Inventor, Innovation Capability) and Atif Sheikh (European Practice Director, Innovation Capability) share the latest practices around creating enterprise-wide innovation momentum—and avoiding the pitfalls of large-scale change programmes.
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“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” -John F. Kennedy

We’ve all experienced it—change programmes that promise the world only to deliver complexity, fatigue and disappointment. However, when it comes to changing your innovation culture—becoming more agile, developing an external orientation, taking more risks—it requires a special sort of change programme. A programme that generates rather than saps energy, introduces creativity not policy, and leaves you ‘consultant independent.’ Want your organisation to become more innovative? A traditional change approach is just not an option.

Traditional change management methodologies (many of which were born out of industrial change practices in the 1950s) treat change as an initiative. They use detailed project plans, multiple work-streams, linear and logical process, generous timeframes, budgets and an army of consultants. Whilst proven in operational arenas, this approach cannot deliver both the rational and emotional transformation required if innovation is to flourish.

A few years ago a senior leader from one of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies approached us. With more drugs coming off patent the company was in desperate need for innovation, but the deep science, high-regulation and high-profit nature of his business was more a recipe for torpor than speed. For the last few years the company had pursued a traditional change programme but unfortunately this seemed to have made things more complex; optimism was low. We knew we had to do something different, so borrowing a trick from the skills of product inventors we proposed a transformation plan based on the practice of prototyping.

Action First, Talk Later

Partnering with the pharma company, we turned conventional change wisdom on its head. Instead of disappearing into lengthy phases of diagnosis and theoretical design we chose a course of directed experimentation, calling each experiment a ‘Pocket Universe.’

Within weeks of meeting our slightly despondent client we identified specific pockets of the business where there was a live business challenge, something that needed sorting fast, something ripe for an innovation approach. We skilled client teams in the art of innovation practice, and using all our innovation expertise we buddied with them to attack their issues. Critically important was that these exercises were ‘under the radar,’ small investments that enabled us to take a radical approach to our work and start building capability whilst generating real results first.

For example, in the first wave of Pocket Universes we ran three very different prototypes:

  • In one we took 20 top European leaders off-site for three days and worked with them to create a new model for leading for an innovation mission.
  • In another we tackled one of the toughest challenges the organisation faced—creating a new business model in Diabetes care—but did so in 10 weeks with a team of 8 (rather than the usual 12 months and cast of dozens).
  • In a third we set about proving that some of the business’ most junior people could quickly learn the skills needed to take a struggling number two drug to number one in the market.

These first Pocket Universes were so successful that in the end we ran over thirty similar ‘culture prototypes,’ exploring new ways of innovating and codifying language, approaches and tools that worked as we went. Our client was so excited by the results that 20 of the Pocket Universes and their results were written up and a book of success stories produced. There were several waves of each Pocket Universe so we could build on the learnings from one to the next—this way a point of view about ‘what works around here’ was developed. Just two years later our client has a home grown philosophy of innovation, they know it works for them. With multiple stories of double digit sales growth, and dozens of skilled-up Innovation Practitioners they are oozing innovation confidence. They paid us a great compliment, too—by telling us goodbye, our job was done, they were fine now!

So why is a Pocket Universe so successful? Innovation happens when you strip back the project management bureaucracy and layers of governance; when you lead with action, not theory; and when you work in the business on live business challenges not on the organisation. But most of all, it happens when you give people a powerful and iconic experience which creates a shift in mindset. The kind of experience that will stay with them and inform the way they work throughout the rest of their careers.

Pocket Universe—A User’s Guide

Selecting the right project to experiment with is key. Three criteria should drive this decision:

  1. Generating the Richest Learning: Picking universes with a blend of issue, and differing levels of enthusiasm helps us learn quickly about what will work and what won't as we try and engage across departments and functions.
  2. Rigging for Success: Picking pockets where we have clear line of sight to commercial return helps build an indisputable case for innovation.
  3. Creating Envy: Picking high-profile Pocket Universes help us generate the magic ingredient of any change programme—envy (“I want to do what they’re doing”). Our resident videographer ensures that the story of each experiment is well-documented.

When we first meet the project team it’s important they ‘de-wire’ from the day-to-day; we often take them out of their offices to meet their peers in other organsiations. This gives much inspiration to experiment with working differently.

Clearly top management commitment is key. Each Pocket Universe may only last a few weeks but their sequential nature (learning is passed on) means a programme takes a couple of years. Leaders need to be consistent in their support and interest, and to understand the nature of a learning journey; if one project fails it’s disappointing, but it’s also a gold mine of learning for the next team to adopt.

De-Risking Change

The economic arguments around developing innovation capability through the Pocket Universe approach are compelling:

  1. Because innovation techniques are applied immediately to live business challenges, leaders are rest assured that concrete results will be seen fast (typically within 8 to 10 weeks of the first Pocket Universe starting). As one of our clients said when addressing his leadership team: “What is the risk? Either we continue to work this challenge the way we always have and get the same results or we give our teams a chance to try something new. At the worst we will be in exactly the same place in 8 weeks or I will have the challenge solved and a team excited about applying innovation to everything else.” (Head of Operation and Maintenance for Windfarms, FTSE 50 Energy Company)
  2. Innovation skills are transferred early on to a small group of ‘innovation champions.’ Issues of IP and consultant dependency are designed to become redundant. Each Innovation Champion is skilled to develop others, scale-up is organic.
  3. A Pocket Universe project needs a certain notoriety, the team needs to be seen as successful—who wouldn't want that? We’ve experienced time and time again that this ‘live’ rather than planned way of working is highly engaging and retains good staff. So there is a double benefit; engaged staff as well as self-liquidating process.
  4. The ROI is simple to plot. Because we build from small interventions we can track the cost and benefit of each, suddenly the CFO is looking at a copper bottomed case for scale up.

In a world of fast and chaotic change, why assume we can control the path in a large organisation? We believe Pocket Universes are a critical new tool in transforming organisational innovation capability, by working with the natural energy and priorities of the business. After all, never before have speed, confidence and quick results been so important to success.

FROM the greenhouse