Fostering Employee Innovation at a 150-Year-Old Company


Monika Lessl, Henning Trill & Julian Birkinshaw

Bayer’s mission is “Science for a Better Life.” To achieve that goal, however, we must innovate not only in terms of science and R&D, but also in how we run our business.

This means shifting the way we work so we’re able to match the pace of change happening in the wider world.

Our solution—one transferable to other organizations pursuing innovation—has been to create an agile network of volunteer ambassadors and coaches throughout the company who have taken collective responsibility for making innovation happen and steering our organizational culture in the right direction.

More than 600 were selected. Inspired by John Kotter’s dual-operating-structure model, we asked all of these employees to maintain their “day jobs” within the established hierarchy, while also using 5 percent to 10percent of their time to work on fast-cycle, informal innovation projects, across silos.

Innovation ambassadors, meanwhile, oversee the coaches, ensure that the initiatives in their respective countries are aligned with the priorities of Bayer’s senior leaders, and serve as cheerleaders for collaborative innovation.

Our experience in changing the way we work to hasten innovation has given us three key insights:

  • Innovation is a social activity, and connectivity is an asset. The image of the lone inventor is alluring, but almost always wrong.
  • The dual-speed model needs a new mindset. The notion that people should spend 5 percent to 15 percent off their time working on fast-cycle projects, while the rest of their work is conducted at a slower clock-speed, is attractive but requires a lot of adjustment.
  • Volunteers need to be refreshed and reinforced. Now that we’ve built the agile network and created a portfolio of activities to support them, we move on to the next, arguably harder, step of institutionalizing the new behaviors across the company. For this to happen, we need to actively replenish our agile network.

Monika Lessl is vice president and head of corporate innovation and R&D at Bayer AG, where Henning Trill is head of corporate innovation. Julian Birkinshaw is deputy dean and professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School.