Innovation isn't a grand scheme - it's making everyday ideas happen

At a conference in London last week on the role of the CIO in innovation, William Kendall, the former CEO of Green and Black’s, said that innovation is not about brilliant ideas. “It’s about taking everyday ideas and making them...


At a conference in London last week on the role of the CIO in innovation, William Kendall, the former CEO of Green and Black’s, said that innovation is not about brilliant ideas. “It’s about taking everyday ideas and making them happen.” 

He was speaking to a “ leadership summit” of nearly 300 delegates, many of them CIOs, at the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington. It was organised by technology recruitment specialists La Fosse Associates.   

“What is innovation and creativity?” Kendall asked. “We talk about it a lot but I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about it. Why is there so little of it in most organisations?

“…I heard Maurice Saatchi celebrating an anniversary of his organisation. He was asked about the legacy of Saatchi and he said it was a few people who dared to believe they could change the world. I think that’s a lovely idea but it’s rather elitist to me that only a few people dared to think this.

“In so many organisations I come across innovation teams. You wonder why innovation is not driven throughout the organisation. Why do you need innovation teams? So often in those organisations even the innovation teams don’t seem to be innovating to me.

“This is so odd. The majority of people bring about significant change in their everyday lives. We go home and change our utility suppliers, repaint the bathroom, deal with family crisis, organise a huge social event, make massive capex decisions involving several times our annual revenue like buying a new house. 

"We do all this very rationally and without endless layers of bureaucracy which so many organisations seem to require before any decision is made, or more often than not, is not made. 

“Why is this? Why don’t these same people who are making these monumental decisions - that’s you by the way - make these happen in their workplace?

Provide framework for innovation to flourish

“I don’t have all the answers but I guess it’s because the leadership teams don’t provide the right framework to enable this to happen. 

“I fear it’s because, as organisations grow, the desire to control and avoid the risk of failure takes over from the need to be creative to survive. Creativity everyday is vital. It’s our lifeblood. 

“If you do nothing, the organisation ultimately is overcome by a massive failure. It becomes bureaucratic, sclerotic, and death follows. We have a responsibility to challenge the inevitability of this process. 

“Do you believe we can change things in life? Or are you one of those people who think your actions are irrelevant?

Do you switch off the lights?

“Are you one of those people who switches off the lights, or do you not bother anymore because you know nobody else is going to? I do switch off the lights but I have always believed I can make a difference as an individual...”

Why I hit my boss

Kendall revealed that he once hit his boss, at a time when he was junior investment banker.  

“I wasn’t expected to fix things. I saw things going wrong but there was no process for me to get involved.  

“One of my last efforts in my banking career was when I had planned a trip to Scandinavia to do what I thought was a very innovative fact-finding tour for clients who’d already asked me to do it. 

“I was told by my boss that I couldn’t do it and so I hit him. I’m not recommending this as a strategy. But I hit him out of sheer frustration. By the way I have not hit somebody since and I haven’t hit anybody before. I hit this guy and I am appalled by it and amazingly I didn’t lose my job. 

“I also made the mistake - I was an investment banker - of hitting him in the middle of a trading floor. So it was not a discrete activity. And of course there was a huge cheer from the traders. 

“I did it out of sheer frustration because I knew I was doing something right for the business but because it hadn’t been endorsed by layers of bureaucracy I was prevented from doing it. 

“As a consequence of this I realised I was unemployable. I needed somewhere where I just go and get on with it.”

Green and Black's still thriving

Kendall went on to run The New Covent Garden Soup Company for nine years, then discovered an embryonic chocolate brand, Green & Black’s. With his team he turned it into an international brand and became the company’s CEO.

Kendall says Green and Black’s was the first fair-trade product in the UK. He and his team built a sustainable cocoa industry in the impoverished south Belize which he says has “really made a difference”. 

“We sold it five years ago. Everybody predicted a quality collapse when Cadbury’s bought the business but in fact they have been utterly devoted to the brand’s quality and its ethics. 

“What has been much more difficult has been maintaining the entrepreneurial quality and attitude of the business. It has been a real challenge. Why it has been very difficult is that we have lost ownership of the business. 

“Everybody at Green and Black’s believed that they were owners in the business. Most of them in fact were shareholders. Taking away that ownership and that responsibility produced a massive shock… 

“Green and Black’s is still thriving. Its products are fantastic still. It’s still changing peoples’ lives but as I observe it now it has perhaps become  rather middle-aged and corpulent and not fleet as foot as it was five years ago. That is a challenge.”

CIOs must believe they can make a difference

He urged CIOs not to turn their backs on fixing business problems within their organisations. 

“Do you have great ideas, and can you develop them within the organisation? Or if you had a really great idea would you run and do it outside? If you are like that I’d say there is something wrong with you. It’s your responsibility to fix it within your organisation.”

Kendall continues to advise Green and Black’s. He read law at Cambridge and has an MBA from the  INSEAD business school.


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