Riding the cutting edge Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Companies expect innovation from Carl Kohrt. No wonder. The president and CEO of Battelle Memorial Institute oversees a work force, which, over the years, has developed life-changing technology, such as the first office photocopier, automotive cruise control, UPC codes, compact disc technology and cut-resistant golf balls, just to name a few.

Naturally, Kohrt, who joined Battelle in 2001, hasn’t been there for all of that, but as the leader of this Columbus-based innovation machine, he’s come to appreciate what it takes to maintain a 20,000-strong work force bent on discovering the next great idea.

“It’s really hard, and you have to have a thick skin,” Kohrt says of managing innovative types. “They don’t particularly care about titles. And generally, they think management is overrated. So the sense is that I, as the leader, have to find ways to help them have resources — appropriate resources — and help them facilitate their use.”

You also have to be clear about what kind of innovation you are expecting.

“Looking for the unusual is only one part of innovation,” Kohrt says. “You can spend all your time doing that and finding nothing. The second part of innovation is doing it with a purpose. Companies that know their business, that know their industry, that know their customers can innovate for product extensions or product improvements.

“Then there’s innovation of looking for a new problem to solve or a new way of doing it. Many entrepreneurs work in those areas. They’re looking for the pain in the industry and a new solution to that pain that someone is willing to pay for.”

All three types of innovation-seeking go on at Battelle, which conducts $4.1 billion in annual research and development for government agencies, private sector customers and corporations around the globe. Last year, 13 of those quests were successful enough to be named among the 100 most significant scientific and technological innovations in the world.

Here’s how Kohrt continues to build on Battelle’s reputation — and how your company could develop a more innovative work force.

Seek ideas outside your company

The days of developing great new products or services exclusively within your own four walls are fading fast.

“The new wave of R&D is to not do it all yourself but rather to have core capabilities, and then to also have sophisticated ways of identifying, acquiring, supporting and bringing back ideas from others,” Kohrt says. “It’s an R&D network.”

That doesn’t mean you have to give away or farm out all your potentially great concepts. But being able to brainstorm with other individuals and organizations, whether they’re across the street or two continents away, can help you develop better solutions more quickly.

“It’s hard to go outside your own company,” Kohrt says. “It takes different people and different management. You can’t just take the same people who have done it internally forever and now expect them to be effective doing it externally without some help.”

Kohrt suggests seeking out workers to lead up R&D networking who are naturally curious, good communicators and open-minded about where they look for potential ideas.

“They have to have fairly eclectic taste because the easy thing to do is to always look at the world through the same filter,” Kohrt says. “They really need to be able to envision outside their experience base and have a willingness to engage with people where they don’t know as much as the other person does. You have to strongly value — and demand — individual expertise and excellence but also seek horizontal networks across disciplines and across cultures.

“Can you value what others have done without judging? Because there’s a lot of different ways of accomplishing the same thing. Some of those ways are not best done by how you do it in Columbus.”

Look, for example, at water purification. “We’re used to an infrastructure here that others don’t have in India, Bangladesh or other parts of the developing world,” Kohrt says. “So proposed solutions for purifying water there can’t follow the usual formula.

“How do you do that in a town that has no electricity and shallow wells? Solving that problem there may give you a simpler solution for solving it here.”

Case in point: hand-cranked radios and lights. Kohrt says this technology was first developed for use in African villages without electricity, but it has caught on in the United States, as well.

“I’ve got a hand-cranked radio down in my basement and one of those flashlights that you shake in every car,” he says. “It’s actually a fairly interesting market. Was there an impetus for us to do that here? No. But working in other cultures gives you opportunities to be innovative about how you look at a problem.”

Respect employees — even in failure

“Innovation is a very human process,” Kohrt says. “We take pride in that. It’s gratifying.”

Yet many CEOs tend to overlook the need for innovators to feel respected and honored for what they do — even when things go wrong.

“It is hard because they’re all passionate about what they do and intolerant in your lack of interest or knowledge in what they do and yet want very much to be respected,” he says.

“What helps, but also makes it difficult, is valuing the mistakes. Often, the most important thing you can learn is what doesn’t work. Because that narrows the field of what does work very rapidly. Yet, if it’s viewed as a mistake because it doesn’t work and therefore, you screwed up, that will cut the spirit faster than almost anything.”

Instead, Kohrt says, ask, “What did you learn?” Then move on. “A corollary to that are incentives,” he says. “I think it’s underestimated quite often, the role of recognition, even if that recognition doesn’t result in a monetary reward or product. Probably the bane of my existence is trying to define what type of incentives, if any, one wants or should use.

“You have to be very sure that, as the management, you really understand what the consequences and unintended consequences are of your incentive system. You may think you’re helping when, in fact, it has the opposite effect.”

Kohrt offers an example from his days as a senior researcher at Kodak Laboratories.

“Someone had the bright idea that, from a cost-effective point of view, all of the doors would be locked after 6 o’clock,” he says. “The people who were running the physical plant facility were getting (incentivized) on power costs. So if you keep people out of the building, power costs go down.”

The inherent problem with that was it also limited researchers’ access to their work.

“Now, I can’t get in at 8 o’clock to look at my experiment,” he says. “Who the hell’s idea was this? It didn’t last very long, but that’s why you have to think of the incentives from a system point of view and be sensitive to that.”

Battelle’s incentives include recognizing teams and individuals for the number of patents they receive, profit sharing on certain inventions and holding Inventor of the Year competitions. The winner of this competition gets a reserved parking space, among other accolades. Battelle also has a call for ideas to compete for internal research and development funds.

“The most important aspect when we give these recognitions is that spouses and families are invited,” Kohrt says. “There’s gratification in receiving recognition from others they respect: their peers and, to a lesser extent maybe, management.”

But being able to share those moments with family makes them all that much sweeter.

Beware of burnout

Constantly pushing employees to be innovative — or even just having innovative employees who push themselves too hard — can elevate stress levels and cause burnout.

The trick, Kohrt says, is to vary what employees do. “We have people who may be working on two or three projects simultaneously,” he says. “That’s part of the appeal of working at Battelle: You get to try lots of different things.

“The people here work phenomenally hard. If there’s burnout, it tends to be because there are not enough hours and too many demands, so it’s more of a physical burnout than a burnout based on, ‘I don’t have any more ideas.’

“One way to avoid that is to get people different experiences — especially early in their careers. It’s one of our initiatives to focus on getting people broader experience so they can be more adaptive.”

Not only does that challenge different parts of their brains, but it can help a talented innovator avoid obsolescence.

“The world changes rapidly, and if you’re best at a narrow area, that area may become irrelevant,” Kohrt says. “And knowing the most about the least important thing is not very valuable.”

A small pat on the back can also help recharge the batteries in an otherwise overworked or overwhelmed employee.

“The best thing is for me or other managers or leaders to wander into the laboratories and just show curiosity,” he says. “They love to talk about their work.”

So much so that Kohrt devoted one entire board of directors meeting at Battelle this past winter specifically to innovation.

“We had several of our actual researchers there, and they had poster sessions where our board members spent two hours going poster to poster listening to and talking to our staff and having dinner afterward,” he says.

It was a real motivator. “And word gets around that management values creative ideas,” he says.

Be a mobile manager

Innovative types have a reputation for being hard to manage, but it doesn’t have to be that way. All it takes is a manager who will show interest in what his or her innovators are doing, who can communicate well and who knows his or her stuff.

“They need to be technically competent in the arena they’re expected to lead because the staff values what you know, not your position — except when they really need you to do something,” Kohrt says.

That doesn’t necessarily mean your best innovator should be put in a leadership position.

“Unfortunately, the most technically competent person may not be the best manager,” he says. “I don’t pretend to be the smartest guy in this organization. The skills on how to communicate and how to sell ideas and how to envision how individuals in an organization can contribute, those are abilities they need to have.”

Kohrt says he, himself, often underestimates the importance of good communication in an environment filled with innovators.

“In any organization there’s a particular level through which top-down messages and bottom-up messages just don’t seem to penetrate,” he says. “Sitting at the top, I can preach, but often, I don’t know what happens.”

That’s why he gets up and walks around. “When a CEO maintains the right to talk to anyone in the organization, the quality of the information transferred is much higher,” he says. “You know the boss is going to find out anyway.

“I’m very accessible. Some would say to a fault. This is effective both for managing an organization and for innovation because it lets the staff know at all levels what’s valued and what’s of value in an organization. If, in the course of that, you’re wandering into a lab and they’re doing something cool and you act like you’re at least interested, it’s amazing how that story gets out. Organizations run on stories — as much on stories as on fact.”

Don’t forget front-line innovators

“What I’m still learning after 45 years of doing this is you can be just as innovative in the mail room as you can be in the lab or the factory,” Kohrt says. “And you should celebrate it the same way.”

After all, innovation isn’t just about selling a new, improved service or product. It’s also about working smarter.

“There are a lot of hidden costs,” Kohrt says. “I believe the organization always has more knowledge about how they can operate more effectively than management gives them credit for. So we’re now trying to get the staff to step back and say, ‘Do you have a better idea?’

“It comes in many different arenas — some of them seemingly mundane — but it can improve your cost position or your competitive position in unexpected ways.”

“You just have to be open to it. It’s not just the product. It’s innovation in many different areas.”

HOW TO REACH: Battelle Memorial Institute, (614) 424-6562 or www.battelle.org