Cultivating A Risk-taking Culture: Inside Li & Fung’s Innovation Journey

11 July, 2017 / Articles
Dictionary Series - Science: innovation

When it comes to building a more innovative culture, lots of companies wring their hands. A few actually take bold steps to make it happen.

One such organization is Hong Kong-based Li & Fung, which manages the supply chains for hundreds of retailers and brands around the world. With market changes brought on by e-commerce disrupting its business model, the company’s vision is to “create the supply chain of the future.” To deliver on the culture piece, Li & Fung formed a five-person open innovation unit under the direction of Lale Kesebi, Chief Communications Officer & Head of Strategic Engagement. The team is focused on finding new ways of working, and discovering new ways to grow revenue.

What follows is a condensed version of my conversation with Kesebi, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, which took place at the Ignite 2017 crowdsourcing conference in San Francisco on May 4th, 2017.

Robert Tucker: Lale, what an inspiring and detailed presentation of Li & Fung’s culture journey. Where did you start this initiative?

Lale Kesebi: Our journey started three years ago with the creation of the Strategic Engagement unit. We were interested in thinking deeply about how to get to transformation in the company through the core initiatives that were focused on the employee as an individual and as a whole person across our 22,000-person organization. We began asking “WII-FM”, what’s in it for me? We knew that every project we were going to run needed to be able to translate itself to WII-FM, and that we needed to be able to connect with colleagues in our company globally, in 40 countries. That turned out to be a pretty profound question to ask. We needed to connect with the “why” of the change we wanted to bring about, and pair that with creative storytelling to make the change real.

Tucker: What was your rollout strategy?

Kesebi: We asked ourselves how we could role model the change to a traditional culture that was looking to bust out and create transformation in its business model. Could we identify the motivators and create the environment that would truly inspire interesting work? And could we invite others into our work from inside and outside the company so that they could not only see the difference, but feel it.

Tucker: What was the journey like?

Kesebi: We could never have predicted where this journey would go. We experimented a ton. Some of the things we tried didn’t work out, but many of them exceeded our expectations. We built a broadly skilled creative team that was designed to be collaborative. We focused on creating sightlines from company goals to team goals to individual goals that were both professional and personal. We ran mentoring circles to get to individual performance that uplifted the entire team. We drew heavily on crowdsourcing our ideas from far-flung companies and organizations. We began giving out random Rock Star awards to people on our team for great work on a project. We collaborated across Slack and connected personally through our wellness room. We did whatever we could do to bring feeling and emotion and connection and a sense of belonging to a team of extremely high-performing individuals.

Tucker: You also made physical changes to your headquarters offices. How come?

Kesebi: To get people’s attention, we felt we needed to move away from a traditional office structure with cubicle farms surrounded by managers’ offices on the perimeter, and towards an open structure for everybody. I know this kind of thing is typical in Silicon Valley, but not for Hong Kong. We were really trying to create a high-performance team atmosphere that was naturally collaborative, and where we could co-create together. And we asked, how do we honor people’s ability to bring their full selves to work and unleash their full potential?

Tucker: How did you scale the change to all of Li & Fung’s 250 offices?

Kesebi: One thing we did that worked amazingly was we dispatched a three-person team from headquarters that visit our offices around the world sharing our company values. We call them the Culture Crew. These folks are amazing. They volunteered to spend the next eight months of their lives — on top of their day jobs — traveling the world, meeting people in our field offices. They ended up going around the world seven times, ate a lot of really bad airline food, and got to about 100 offices, but it was a game-changer for us. They were out there listening and figuring out the stories of our people in those markets. They would engage people, asking them what were the values of the company as far as they were concerned, and they were, as we say, spreading the love.

Tucker: They did a lot of social media on these visits, right?

Kesebi: They sure did. It was an amazing project to chronicle their journey and see the response to their tour. The Culture Crew would travel with their GoPro cameras and shoot and edit videos, and they’d push out vlogs and blogs through our internal channels. They became rock stars inside our company. Everyone was learning from everyone else what was going on because the stream was coming through to everybody. We used WeChat a lot as a social channel. Our little group was on it daily. Whoever was in market was giving the rundown of what happened during that day and what new innovators they were meeting in market. The buzz was extraordinary.

Tucker: What was the payoff?

Kesebi: For a shoestring budget of less than fifty thousand U.S. dollars, the Culture Crew created an impact that’s still paying dividends. We launched an experiment where we didn’t really know what the output might be. But by taking a chance on creating something original, and by getting stories out of these Culture Crew drop-ins, we were plugged in to individual innovators everywhere in the organization. And the word got around. We would have our colleagues say “you’ve got to meet so and so because he’s cracked a solution to a problem that can help the company. And by the way the he’s also a racecar driver in his free time!” We’d hear incredible stories like this of some incredible people out there who were innovating alone. So the Culture Crew was connecting innovation without that even having been the point of the original experiment.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

 

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