Making innovation a key strategic pillar at Implenia
In 2019, the leading multinational integrated construction and real estate services company Implenia put innovation and intrapreneurship at the top of their strategic agenda. We spoke to Senior Innovation Manager Karel van Eechoud and Innovation Analyst Diana Fischer about the importance of innovation in construction, the specific challenges they face, and how Kickbox is contributing to a shift in perspective.
How has the role of innovation at Implenia changed over the past years?
Karel: Before Kickbox, we didn’t have a centralized structure to stimulate innovation or organize such projects. While we have always had an internal research unit that focuses on construction materials mostly, other innovation activities were scattered throughout the company with no central entry point for innovation or intrapreneurship.
As of 2019, Implenia has now integrated innovation as a key pillar in its corporate strategy, making it a top priority. We recognize how important innovation is to prepare the construction industry for the challenges of the future. For this reason, the organization created the Innovation Hub, an internal team to implement a new approach to innovation and intrapreneurship" or something in that direction.. Now, there aren’t many construction companies with a team dedicated specifically to innovation and intrapreneurship. And so, it became our job to promote and facilitate innovation throughout the company, and a key part of this is Kickbox.
Not only has Kickbox provided us with a way to promote innovation in general, but it also gives us a set structure to incubate and implement ideas. On the one hand, this helps Implenia to find new ideas and opportunities to improve and optimize the business. On the other hand, it fosters a corporate culture that encourages and welcomes innovation and intrapreneurship.
Implenia’s workforce is widely spread geographically and in terms of working environments – from offices to construction sites. How did you promote Kickbox across the company to reach all employees?
Diana: Since the Implenia workforce is so widely spread, we took a two-prong approach: The first was the more standard online approach. We made Kickbox very visible on our intranet site, and as more RedBox projects came to fruition, we made them visible there too. This worked great for employees in our offices.
But to reach those out on site, we had to take a different approach. So, we provided sites with lots of visual materials such as posters, etc., in the local languages to reach those employees who aren’t frequently online. Site visits also played an important role by putting a face to the program and as an opportunity to answer any questions. Finally, as far as COVID permitted, we organized a range of meet-ups to promote the Kickbox program.
We also worked hard to make the launch a big event that would start the program with a bang. Top management launched the program by pressing a big red buzzer to signal that the Kickbox was online. We also placed a big RedBox in our offices to draw attention and get people talking about it. Now we celebrate the program with yearly internal pitch events and show the inside of Kickbox. Here our employees get the possibility to pitch their ideas in front of a high-ranking jury of experts.
Which other challenges have you faced that are specific to Implenia and the construction industry?
Diana: Many of our employees don’t work at a desk or have access to the company intranet. For this reason, we made sure that all of the necessary resources for Kickbox were also available in mobile-friendly formats for access from different devices. We also encouraged Kickboxers to build teams around their idea from the start. This enables them to bundle their skill sets and taps into the team feeling on a construction site. In addition, team members often experience the same issues, so it makes sense to work together to resolve them.
Karel: Another challenge we face is the project-based nature of our business, which means workloads depend greatly on the project cycle. For example, a project manager will have difficulty finding the time and focus for Kickbox when they’re in the middle of a multimillion project. This faced us with the challenge of getting people to commit to completing the RedBox phase and then move on to BlueBox.
Luckily, Kickbox provides flexibility. To overcome this, we adapted some aspects of the program to suit our needs. For example, at Implenia, the sponsor agreement that takes Kickboxers to the BlueBox phase not only requires the sponsor’s signature but the line manager’s too. This ensures that everyone agrees on the time and energy required and ups commitment from both sides by making it explicit.
Furthermore, the Innovation Hub also supports our Kickboxers as much as possible. And we are always thinking about new ways to improve the program in this respect. For example, we’re planning to trial an allocation of project hours just for Kickbox. We will have a set number of paid project hours to give to Kickboxers just like any other project. This designates a set amount of time for Kickbox, which we hope will provide them with that extra “permission” and increase their commitment.
How has the response been so far?
Karel: Following the launch in autumn 2019, we had a lot of idea submissions in the first few months, and we’re pleased to report that this trend continued through 2020. Last year, we worked hard to grow the Kickbox community within Implenia to keep it alive during the lockdown. We moved our offline events and meet-ups online and held them even more frequently than before. This kept up the initial momentum and strengthened engagement. We have now created a movement within Implenia. Kickbox has not only formed a lot of ambassadors for intrapreneurship, but it’s also strengthened connections within the company on the topic of innovation.
Diana: As the Innovation Hub and the central team, creating connections internally and externally is one of our key goals. And the feedback we receive confirms how important that is. So often, a person has an idea, but they don’t know who to reach out to or whether it’s appropriate for them to contact them. We initiate those contacts and foster connections across all levels and locations. One example that comes to mind is a Kickboxer who said that he feels so much more connected to the rest of the company and part of a wider community within Implenia.
That’s great to see that Kickbox is having an impact on a personal level too. Where else have you seen cultural changes like this as a result of Kickbox?
Karel: I would say that Implenia, and construction in general, have what I call the “feasibility trap.” Many of us are engineers, so we’re trained to assess the technical side of a solution. But we’re not particularly strong in considering desirability, understanding customers, and thinking about their pain points and specific needs. As such, Kickboxers often come to us with a fully conceived solution set out in an extensive business plan, but there are only a few lines in there about the problem itself.
The Kickbox process pulls them back a step and forces them to look at the problem first. In fact, while Kickbox is seen as providing a low barrier to entry, it’s a bit of a trick. We catch people with their idea, and then comes the “but,” as the Kickbox process takes them away from the solution and back to the problem. This triggers a learning process in Kickboxers, contributing to their own development and an overall shift in mindset within the company and industry. Kickbox is helping us to get out of the feasibility trap and learn more about desirability, something that will be key for our industry in the future.