How can you better tap into the innovative potential in your company? For the past year, Aquafin has been working with fifteen innovation accelerators, who meanwhile have over a dozen of ideas in the pipeline.
Appeared in De Standaard in Dutch on Wednesday June 12, 2019.
As in many companies, until recently R&D at Aquafin had been a separate and somewhat isolated department, composed of scientists focused on the core business: water purification. When in 1993 the company broadened its mission to ‘creating a clean living environment in harmony with water’, clean waterways continued to be the basis, but there was an added focus on sustainable use of water, climate change, circular economy, scarcity of natural resources, etc.
Danny Baeten, Directeur Business Development & Innovation at Aquafin:
’When you think in business models, you will obtain usable concepts more easily.'
'With such challenges, you have to broaden your R&D and ensure that the developments lead to new products and services’, says Danny Baeten, Director Business Development and Innovation at Aquafin. ‘That does not mean everyone must be innovative, but we need to create a culture where innovation gets maximum opportunity and leads to business. We are not into fundamental research: innovation should create value. To realize that, Aquafin reached out to Antwerp Management School.’
Over the course of several workshops at AMS, the Aquafin management developed a new innovation process. That instantly revealed the need for people who are capable of guiding that process: innovation accelerators or coaches. The selected candidates followed a half year’s training at Antwerp Management School and have been working since 2018. Danny Baeten: ‘If an idea emerges somewhere in the organization, it is now captured, evaluated and supported according to a fixed methodology.
The big difference with before is that now, we think we think about the added value of an idea from the start of the process. When you think in business models, usable concepts will be reached faster.’
Innovation acceleration at Aquafin
It all starts with gathering new ideas from within and outside the organization through a strong network. The ideas go through an editorial committee of two people that quickly decides whether the idea will be pursued or not. ‘If the answer is 'yes', an innovation accelerator is assigned to the idea owner (who originally came up with the idea). The innovation accelerator is a combination of a sparring partner and a program assistant’, Danny explains. ‘The innovation coach asks the right questions and challenges the idea owner: what exactly is the problem you want to solve? Both roles are essential: the idea owner who is enthusiastic and wants to move ahead quickly, and the innovation accelerator who is not too involved with the original idea, so he can keep the necessary criticism and continue to look at the issue from the outside.’
Within a month the idea owner and the innovation accelerator pitch the idea to the innovation board, that Danny Baeten is a member of, together with the R&D manager and the account manager. ‘We expect to hear a good story, but also a good description of the added value of the project: who is interested in this and why is it a good solution? We also want to know which assumptions are used in the business model.’ Sometimes the innovation board wants more explanations on those assumptions, but you can also immediately get a 'go'. In that case, a project team is composed with an innovation project manager, among others.
Remarkable: the idea owners remain involved in the project for as long as they want, but they are not necessarily the ones who need to do all the work. Why?
‘If everyone with a good idea had to develop it themselves and combine it with their regular work, this would create inhibitions to come up with ideas and the other work would suffer from it. That will immediately slow down the innovation speed at an organization.’
The new innovation project has only been running for a year, not enough to hope for concrete results yet. Still, Danny Baeten notices a new dynamism in the organization. ‘Good ideas surface quicker. Especially with our teams in the field, where the threshold probably used to be bigger to suggest ideas. The innovation accelerators reinforce the ideas and make better presentations, which makes it easier to spread ideas within the organization and outside. We have become faster, our network is stronger and we have lots of interesting ideas in the pipeline.’
Innovatie in the pipeline?
What? Recycle phosphorus from waste water.
Why? A limited and necessary natural resource (e.g. for artificial fertilizer), and responsible for water pollution.
State of affairs? In Leuven and Vilvoorde, Aquafin is carrying out a test project, where phosphorus is isolated and recycled from wastewater.
Problem? Recycled phosphorus is harder to process and more expensive than phosphorus from phosphate mines.
Solution? ‘Thanks to the innovation program and the innovation accelerator we now think in business models”, Danny Baeten says. “Who are our customers? What value are we creating for whom? How do we get there? That opens perspectives to see openings for a process that we had been working on for a while. We still need to overcome a few obstacles, but we believe in a positive outcome.’
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