Guest Post: How Innovation Projects Benefit Your Company and Your Employees

December 2, 2021

Welcome back to our “Customer Service Heroes” series, where we invite inspiring customer service leaders to share their advice for running successful teams. 

Lea Haep-Ninnemann is the Head of Innovation Management at Otto Group. In her role, she uncovers opportunities for cross-functional innovation across Otto Group’s portfolio of e-commerce companies and online retailers. Together with Principal Technology Strategist Francesco Ferreri, Haep-Ninnemann discusses the importance of prioritizing innovation and using opportunities within innovation projects to attract and retain top technical talent. 

My team is responsible for Group Innovation Management, which means we identify opportunities for cross-functional innovation across our ~10 focus companies within the Otto Group and find creative solutions that can be implemented and replicated across those. One example is predictive supply chain, where we bring internal and external experts together and jointly work on optimizing forecasting along the supply chain.

Emphasizing innovation at Otto Group

Innovation can sound like an intimidating and abstract concept on its own. In order to make it an actionable priority at our company, we try to keep it simple and set some parameters. We pick really approachable topics that are relevant to a group of companies we work with and make sure our solutions can be implemented on realistic timelines that will bring value back to those companies. For others who are interested in implementing innovation projects within their own company, I’d recommend the same approach: Think about the value add and set timelines to make big ideas more actionable. 

Another key component of innovation is executive buy-in. Innovation usually competes with the daily tasks of running a business, when it comes to (especially tech) resources and time. It’s tough to sell the value of a new technology when more pressing needs — like customer experience issues or supply chain delays — are at play. It’s important to have an authentic commitment to innovation from management right from the start. Top management needs to put a framework together to facilitate innovation, which includes pledging dedicated resources to the effort. This must be an unwavering commitment.

Innovation attracts technical talent

We’ve found that the top technical talent out there wants to work on innovative, cutting-edge topics like the predictive supply chain effort I mentioned earlier. Promoting our innovation efforts, and the brilliant minds who are working on these projects, inspires technical talent to join the company. 

At Otto Group, we’ve even updated some of our recruiting tactics to speak directly to this effort and these prospective employees. A lot of times technical talent wants to speak with other technical talent — even in the recruiting process. Traditional HR roles have been filled by technical minds to facilitate these conversations and help convey our message of innovation. We’ve also learned to meet the talent where they are. We are active on GitHub and Stack Overflow, which allow us to authentically talk about our innovation projects with a group of like-minded people who are also interested in these topics. 

Retaining talent is a challenge all its own

Just as technologists are attracted to innovation, they also have certain intrinsic motivations that inspire their best work and encourage long-term commitment to a company. They want to work on passion projects and have the freedom to discover and learn new things. Harnessing and supporting those intrinsic motivators is key to retaining technical talent. 

We put a lot of effort into allowing our technical leaders the freedom to be creative. We include technical talent in the selection and prioritization of all innovation projects, and host events like Tech Councils where employees can connect with others for an exchange of ideas. This is similar to what a lot of companies do with hackathons and passion project days. 

We also believe in enabling our employees to learn as much as they can through training, conferences, or other professional development initiatives. Feeding curiosity and providing outlets for learning is essential for any company to retain their technical talent. 

When tension rises between innovation and retention

Retaining technical talent can be a problem when companies don’t follow through on a commitment to innovation. After all, it’s what initially brought your technical talent in the door. If you don’t nurture their ability to work on these projects, they will naturally become demotivated.

We’ve already discussed how innovation can compete with daily business needs. Companies that don’t have executive buy-in and a steadfast commitment from the top levels of management will often de-prioritize the most innovative tasks in favor of day-to-day business needs. If creatives and technologists are told “no” too many times, they lose the intrinsic motivation to keep bringing good ideas to the table. That can cost your business big time.

The best thing any company can do is clearly define its commitment to innovation. This enables the company to follow through on projects that will have a big impact on the business, and keep employees engaged — and motivated to do their best work — at all times. It’s a win-win.

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