Are you tough enough? Why resilience is at the heart of IBM’s approach to innovation

Posted on 13/02/2020

Jean Philippe Barleaza, EMEA VP Channel, Alliances and General Business, VMware

Hearing that a company is good at making people tough isn’t necessarily something one would expect to hear in a conversation about innovation. Indeed, it could come across as a bit of a negative, but not in this context. For Simon Kofkin-Hansen, it’s one of the reasons he loves working at IBM, and a key part of what makes it such a supporter of innovation in his view.

“My main job is invention,” he explains, “and IBM has let me pretty much get on with it. It’s like working at a start-up, but with the support and resources of the huge multinational that we are.”

Quite often, when we think about innovation, we imagine small, young businesses disrupting staid markets and incumbents. Yet IBM can trace its routes back to 1911, operates in over 170 countries and has a turnover of almost $80 billion. To still be in business and still leading the way is a testament to its ability to adapt, evolve and, of course, innovate. But how does it keeping doing so, and, more importantly, support its teams in that goal?

Promoting failure

Put simply, it’s a willingness to allow its people to do anything if they’re willing to take the risk, says Simon. “Fear of failure is the biggest inhibitor to any sort of turning ideas into tangible products. At IBM, failure equals learning. As long as you can demonstrate how you’ve learnt from what’s gone wrong, then the company will back you.”

It’s clear from talking to Simon that being innovative is, first and foremost, about culture and people. “There are two challenges when it comes to coming up with ideas – other people, and yourself. The first relates to what other people think. Do they support your idea or not, do you need to win them over? Are they being overly negative? If you’re in an environment where every time you come up with an idea, you will have to overcome scepticism or push back, that’s going to require resilience and a certain stubbornness.” This, for Simon, links closely with his second challenge. “We all have self-doubt – the difference between those that do and those that don’t is how we tackle it. External validation is important, but you’ve got to be able to get to that point without sabotaging it yourself.”

Simon has spent years building teams and enabling people to come up with their own ideas, but how does he manage it himself? “By being stubborn, and refusing to say no. You’ve got to have that belief – if you don’t think it’s a good idea, then why should anyone else?”

That’s not the same, however, as having a perfect one. “Quite often the best ideas aren’t the ones that win – it’s the ones that can become a reality.”

Overcoming the innovation-execution gap

This links to the whole concept of innovation execution, a theme at the heart of the VMware and Cass Business School report ‘Innovating in the exponential economy’. It identified the idea of the innovation-execution gap, the notion that it’s not the idea generation that most enterprises struggle with, but the ability to turn these thoughts into something that delivers tangible results.

To overcome it requires the innovation prism – the right mix of people, processes (or culture) and technology. Simon sees he latter as critical to providing the foundation for success. “People don’t realise that the hard part isn’t necessarily moving from idea to product. It’s what happens when the idea is successful that trips them up. So many great concepts are derailed because the infrastructure or tools aren’t equipped to capitalise on that initial momentum. We’re at a point in time where acquiring the technology, such as cloud, has never been easier.”

The role of cloud in enabling innovation execution is a critical one, something IBM and VMware’s partnership verifies. It supports nearly 2000 enterprises, all of them utilising cloud environments to support their business goals.

Testament to both companies’ commitment to enabling innovation is the Joint Innovation Lab, where IBM and VMware engineers work together on the cloud services of the future. “Ideas don’t become reality in a vacuum. Being able to bring in the best people, to capitalise on different backgrounds, expertise and experience – that’s what brings it all together, facilitated by modern technologies that support collaborative ways of working. The IBM and VMware partnership is a real-life use case of how innovation can work, in the pursuit of innovation itself, when you put the right people, in the right culture, with the right technology. We’re showing our customers how they can innovate, as well as creating the solutions that help them to do so successfully.”

Identifying success

What does that success look like? “Revenue. At IBM, I’m allowed to keep doing what I’m doing, and so are my teams, because the ideas we come up with make money for the business. If we can prove it makes money, then we buy ourselves more credit to come up with more ideas.”

That’s not to say that IBM dismisses concepts that aren’t immediately commercial. “We have thousands of paper-based solutions in the business, these ideas that aren’t yet a reality. We have a number of different processes to help generate innovation, from a formal, regimented funding process, to start-up style incubators. It’s a rigorous, peer-reviewed and challenging process that ensures we’re spending time on the right ideas.”

It’s here that the idea of the company good at making people tough comes up. Simon explains it with an example of securing IBM’s support for a patent, a process he’s gone through himself. “If you think you’ve come up with something that’s going to have a future application, and is worthy of a patent, you have to go through three invention boards before you get a chance to go in front of a lawyer. That’s three panels of experts from across the business, interrogating both you and your idea. IBM inventors received a record 9,262 US patents in 2019, so the company knows what it takes. If you can’t overcome your self-doubt, if you can’t demonstrate resilience and that stubbornness, you’ll be found out.”

Thriving in an ever-faster world

Of course, as someone that is, by their own admission, “unable to take no for an answer”, this is music to Simon’s ears. “I live for innovation. It’s the lifeblood of the business. If we stand still, we’ll fall over. We have to keep moving forward and developing.”

That goes for any business, in his view. “The world is spinning faster and faster. Innovating, and more importantly being able to go from idea to revenue-generator, is the only way any organisation is going to thrive. The moment you stop, it’s time to go home.”


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