Innovation Minds founder Bala Balasubramiam believes that human connection is the heart of innovation. Also that great innovation happens when people have the right mindsets, tools, and processes to collaborate effectively.
With that in mind, he founded Innovation Minds. Prior to Innovation Minds, he worked as Head of HR Innovation at LinkedIn. And before that as the leader of Innovation at eBay Research Labs. Bala frequently gives keynotes at Innovation and HR Summits and Conferences.
In this interview, Bala shares his own personal journey as an innovator and innovation leader. He tells us the many reasons why he believes that innovation should be something that every single person in a company should be involved with.
Tell us about your journey, how you got involved with innovation in the first place.
They always say that when you’re a kid, you’re pretty creative, innovative. You don’t worry about being judged. You’re always coming up with out of the box thoughts. They say that as we grow, slowly, we lose that curiosity to find out what is around the corner. That’s pretty much the same for me as well.
But where I reconnected with a kind of curiosity with innovation was my first job at GE Power Systems. That was in Schenectady, which is outside of New York. As you know, GE is a pioneer when it comes to operational excellence, Six Sigma, and all those things. I joined there early as a professional, and I was raw.
When I went there I was more like a kind of code monkey.
You just gave me the task and I’ll go and deliver it. But the more I talked to my managers and the leadership team, I was able to gain a kind of perspective. That this is good, but you should always think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. So that was the beginning of my innovation journey. When I started having that curiosity. And even to be more specific, when I started challenging the status quo. Whenever I saw something, I asked why is this working this way, why not another way? But in a constructive way. Not critical like, hey, this is wrong, you have to go and fix it.
So that is the starting point of my innovation journey. As part of GE Power Systems. Especially coupling that curiosity with a structured Six Sigma process.
It was really a kind of an aha moment.
I was put onto the right path from that point onwards. I had an extensive corporate career. Fortunately, most of my roles have been aligned with innovation, creativity, operational excellence. I was really polishing myself when the moment came when eBay’s CIO, Scott Seese, he saw all my work, and he thought that I’m a go getter. At some point, he thought, Can we throw more challenges at Bala?
And one day, he came to me saying, I’m starting a small innovation programme, do you want to take charge?
Why don’t we go and just run a hackathon for internal eBay. At that time, Facebook was really pioneering this concept of hackathons. So everybody was going after that like the magic bullet of innovation. And then I started arranging a hackathon for eBay. And then, slowly, I just grew into that role. Along the way, we were able to learn a lot of good things.
I was able to unlearn a lot of the bad things that we gather along the way. And I would say that this point, we got close to what true innovation is and how we should do it. What we should look for and how we will really make a transformation at any company or any institution. I think I’m getting there now.
How would you say your experience at these big companies, PayPal, LinkedIn, what did they teach you about innovation?
I started as an engineer, and then I grew into the role of manager and then director. I was focusing on engineering to begin with, and then operational excellence when I was a manager. And then when I went into the director role, it was more focused on HR. It’s such a great combination, how actually you will be able to perfect your innovation maturity within yourself.
If you want to be a true innovation champion, there are two things you should possess.
The first one is you yourself should be an innovator. So when I say innovator, it doesn’t mean that you need to have like fifty patents on your name. As I was telling you earlier. Innovation or innovator is just a mindset, right? As long as you have the mindset of challenging the status quo in a constructive way, and ask the right questions. And pursue the answer and follow through to implement the small spark that you had into a good idea. From a good idea to the minimal viable product or concept. And finally, get that idea to the finish line.
So the passion of challenging the status quo in a constructive way, to get all the input, and then build the solution. That is what I’m calling being an innovator. So being an engineer, and also being an operational excellence expert, and also part of HR, I was blessed to have that kind of coaching and mentoring. So I was just trying to get better at it.
If you want to become an innovation champion within a big enterprise, being an innovator yourself is not enough.
This is a little different challenge, different task. On top of understanding what challenges and opportunities an innovator can go through, you should also know how to enable those innovators. Because when you become a champion, you’re not going to be innovating yourself. You’ll have to actually replicate all the innovation knowledge that you have across the community. And not only that, make sure that they are getting the right guidance, mentoring enablement.
So that is how I see that a true innovation champion is going to slowly progress. You’ll be an innovator first. And then slowly grow into an innovation champion by understanding and appreciating the factors needed for enabling the innovators around yourself. My experience under HR, especially talent management, employee engagement and employee experience, coupled with engineering, gave me the perspective of being an innovation champion.
Steve Jobs, said quite famously, that the difference between a leader and a follower is that leaders are innovators. How did you find your experience at these corporate companies to teach you to be a leader in innovation?
When I was talking about the early part of my innovation journey it was purely under the eBay and PayPal. So now they are two different companies. When they were together, you could see that the magnanimity of that employee workforce and the different cultures and as well as different challenges within each and every one of the functions. So that really kind of was the perfect playground for me to really learn what are the factors that you should focus on to be a truly innovation leader.
The fortunate thing is, my leadership team was giving a little bit of a free hand. They told me, hey Bala, I’m going to be giving you some excuses, if you’re going to be failing first time, it’s okay, try to learn the mistakes but don’t actually make the same mistake again and again.
So that sort of was the cushion, the comfort zone, especially when you’re actually starting and the innovation growth is very critical. So with that, I was able to make some mistakes here and there knowingly and unknowingly, but very quickly, we are able to realise what is working, what is not working, and then actually just perfect it and replicate it.
If you want to really grow up into an innovation champion role there is no silver bullet or playbook will be able to apply across all scenarios.
Even within eBay and PayPal, I would say that there are so many departments, there are actually so many different cultures and different needs. And each and every one of the functions in terms of that innovation journey, everyone is in a kind of different corner of that maturity map.
So when you really try to become a balanced innovation leader for a big company, big institution, and also if you’re an innovator, you’d like to thrive within the company’s innovation framework.
You should understand that innovation is always subjective and context related.
Based on the needs. Based on the challenge of the team. The business challenge that you’re working on. On the colleagues in and around you. The culture that you’re working in. You should be able to be really agile, and also dynamic to try out something new. And then see very quickly what is working, what is not working, work your way up to perfect it and then slowly get that.
My point here is, there is no silver bullet or measurement that we can give to an innovator or innovation champion that this is the runbook: you go and make it happen. You can give baseline advice. But is it is actually your inherent answer our call, based on any given circumstances, trying to really identify what is going to work, what is not going to work, try to seek advice and mentorship from all the other folks around there. And slowly, you’re going to be growing up into that role. And that’s how you become a successful innovation leader.
And the last position you had before you left the corporate life was LinkedIn.
Yeah, that was LinkedIn, Head of HR Innovation. That’s a pretty interesting and exciting journey, I would say.
And why did you then decide to leave this interesting journey to start Innovation Minds?
I’ll just give you a little bit of context. Even though I had extensive career, when I took over the Innovation Officer role in eBay and PayPal, the challenges we had the opportunities we are perceiving were a little different. And the kind of demographics, I mean, employee workforce that I was working on, is a little different, in the sense that the average workforce, age of eBay, PayPal, somewhere around 38, by the time I was working there, and they were primarily focusing on innovation, and also to add a little more colour to that, Amazon and a few other competitors were really kicking these guys ass.
It brought up a lot of opportunities for eBay, at the same time exciting challenges working with this. I wouldn’t say that kind of seasoned workforce on one side, focusing on the engineering and stiff competition from our fellow companies out there. So it gave a little bit of perspective, what is working in innovation? How do you really move the needle?
When I moved on to LinkedIn, it was pretty much a night and day difference.
I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but I’m just giving you a comparison, when I took on that LinkedIn role, as if like, you’re just getting into the UC Berkeley Extension when you get into that LinkedIn campus. It’s such a dynamic and young workforce. And these guys were primarily focusing on talent as well as culture and process innovation.
The challenges were completely different. They’re seasoned-workforce, technology-focused at eBay and PayPal. LinkedIn is a little different, a young and dynamic workforce, focusing on the talent, culture, and all those things.
When I was trying to really Institute the innovation programme there, I was able to get a whole lot of things right, and also a whole lot of things wrong.
But one thing that I was actually able to find out from both the cultures is that if you want to really thrive on innovation in any culture, I would say that human connection is the heart of innovation. As long as you’re able to provide the right tools, and create the ambience for the right mindset for the employees to have. And also create the culture through which they will be able to ask the right questions, get the answers, and also will be able to pursue the answers, innovation is going to thrive. So that is the kind of balance I saw in both companies. But saying it is easy, right?
So human connection is the heart of innovation.
Provide the right tools and all those things. But even if you’re going to be giving the right tools, then the next question will be, are they easily adopting it? Are they able to follow the marching orders of moving the whole company as innovative, and also creative? Even after we were giving all the tools, I saw a major gap in both these companies.
When I’m talking to my fellow innovation leaders, one of the things that we are traditionally doing wrong is that we are making our employees see innovation as a separate discipline. And asking the employees to carve out time from their busy schedules and focus on innovation as another task, another job. So when you do that, you may be able to get some support from innovation evangelists, “Okay I can do it, I can find time.” But across the board, this was not resonating with any of the cultures that I worked at.
So this is the perfect time, I think, for you to explain what “Innovation at the Edge” means and why it’s important.
Every company out there wants to be the next Apple, the next Tesla, the next Google, right? I would say that each and every one of the institutions and the enterprises, they are sincerely trying. But one thing that’s oftentimes getting overlooked is that they want to put innovation as a separate silo, rather than looking at the successful companies trying to learn how they were able to really pioneer innovation. The one fact is that they are making innovation as part of everybody’s everyday job.
So innovation is for everyone, every time. And I would say that it’s for every scenario that they are working on. You’re bringing innovation closer to what they are doing already. You have to create the framework or programme of innovation in such a way that you use innovation to bring in engagement rather than trying to engage the employees first, and then as the outcome or goal work towards innovation. That is a huge difference:
Innovate to engage employees, rather than engaging the employees first, to get to the end goal of being an innovative company.
But there is one important thing that you have to keep in mind. When you go to any culture and ask them to be innovative, it’s not easy. Unless it’s simple, it is fun, it’s exciting. So that is where Innovation Minds is really helping, how to make innovation quickly adaptable, so everybody is going to be raising their hand, “Oh my god, this is so cool, I want to be part of this journey.”
The more you’re pulling them into this kind of collective notion that we are on to something new here, and enabling them, supporting them to be innovators. As part of the journey itself, we are going to be bringing in all sorts of collaboration, looking for all sorts of conversation, looking for engagement. You’re going to be innovating all these next million dollar, billion dollar ideas, getting them to the finish line, as the end goal, and now you have such a thriving and engaging workforce.
After that when you throw any challenge at them, they’re going to say, “You know, I’ll just take care of it.”
There is no kind of question or anything else. At the Edge is more like innovate to engage your employees or talent rather than put all your efforts to bring in the engagement first, then work towards the innovation. I think it’s working out really well with pretty much all the clients that we have, into such a huge success story.
The reason you moved from this corporate trajectory in your life into creating Innovation Minds, is because you wanted innovation to become easier for people.
Yeah. When you’re on a journey, you have to just keep trying multiple things to see what sticks and what doesn’t. My colleagues are all trying certain concepts and approaches when it comes to their innovation programme. Entrepreneurship. Intrapreneurship. All those things.
But one hard truth across the board is that innovation has to be seamless, it has to be simple.
It has to be intuitive, more than all those things. On top of being simplistic, it should answer the question, “What is in it for me?”
You’re asking an employee to be innovative and put some focus there. Unless you are able to explain why they should do it, what is the benefit they are going to get out of this particular discipline, this particular framework program, by this contribution, in terms of their career progression in terms of their personal profile progression? The same way when you’re working with managers, when you’re working with cheerleaders of this innovation programme, stakeholders.
Try to answer the question what is in it for them by participating in this innovation programme.
What are they’re going to get out of it?
And when you’re creating that interest, make it much simpler. Make it frictionless. Fun. Entertaining. Exciting. That way, you will be able to really try that kind of innovation across the board. And within a quick time frame, you will be able to completely transform the entire culture on the campus.
You’ve put everything in your life into Innovation Minds. You do sleep, but when you’re not sleeping, you’re doing Innovation Minds. Why? What is it that you want to bring the world that nobody else is doing?
I wouldn’t say that I figured that out, it but at least I started going in the right direction. Most enterprises and institutions start with good intentions of implementing an innovation programme. They are actually trying to bring in the right support enablement. But in the course of execution, slowly it’s turning into innovation theatre. The reason is, they’re not actually focusing on the right things. They may not be actually focusing on the right focus areas, or the enablement in terms of the technology, the programme, the framework. Even though the intention is right, it becomes a punch line. And then your talent starts asking questions like, “Yeah, I keep hearing this, and I’ve seen this movie multiple times. But I’m not actually seeing where it is going.”
At Innovation Minds, what we are trying to do is move away from innovation theatrics. Towards the notion of making innovation real, fun, and exciting. So that’s where, if you just look at our tagline we say that innovation is for everybody. And also it is for all the time. And also everywhere. So that is our tagline. Everyone, Everywhere, All the Time. So it’s not like, okay, it’s Monday or Tuesday, I’m going to be spending one hour for innovating. That is not going to work, it’s not going to take you anywhere.
Whatever you do, try to approach it in a different way. Ask the question, Is this the right way of doing it? Are there any alternatives?
Ask the questions and then the more you’re bringing in, that’s where you will be able to become the innovator. And that’s what Innovation Minds is trying to help our clients do. I’m not saying that everybody is doing innovation theatre. Our first problem that we want to tackle with our clients is, how do you overcome the notion that innovation is a namesake? Towards innovation being real. Innovation being the transmission engine. So that is our end goal.
Innovation for real rather than innovation as theatre.
To put it simply, yes.
And so to close off, if you were to offer one message about innovation?
Who knows? You can become the next Elon Musk or the next Steve Jobs as far as the business model is concerned. There are so many good examples, right? Pretty much every one of us has Elon Musk or Steve Jobs within us. We need to sincerely look into our self and then try to get that mindset to start challenging the status quo in a constructive way. Not stopping with that. Work towards getting those ideas to the finish line. That is really important.
On a planet of seven billion people, everybody has an idea. But what differentiates us versus the successful folks are that you have an idea, you’re really following it up. Following through it and then trying to get to the finish line. Having an idea is just the beginning of the journey. Getting it to be successful, even if you’re going to have a failure here and there. Don’t give up. Continuously improve. Don’t get into insanity. Finally fulfil your dream to the finish line. That is possible for everyone as long as you have the right mindset.
Go and innovate. Let’s solve world hunger.
**AT THE EDGE ⚡ ON EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT AND INNOVATION is a podcast from Silicon Valley based company Innovation Minds. It looks at how to solve the new challenges of the post-pandemic global workplace by talking to a diverse offering of business leaders from around the planet on how to use innovation to engage the workforce, as well as how to innovate engagement using technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to humanize relationships in the new distributed workplace.
“Innovation is about people, not technology,” says Innovation Minds’ founder and CTO Bala Balasubramaniam.“We believe that innovation OF the workforce is as critical as innovation BY the workforce. Innovation itself offers a critical solution. Innovation can be part of the daily work of everyone in a company, and provides a key to engagement as much as, or even more than, being an end in itself. This podcast aims to help companies manage the new reality in cutting-edge ways.”
Guests for our first season include corporate HR leads, world-class consultants, best-selling authors, and employee engagement and innovation experts working across a wide range of industries: Clint Pulver, Themba Chakela Jamie Notter, Maddie Grant, Delano Johnson, Shawn Nason, Luke Jamieson, Coonoor Behal, Jeff Tobe, Niven Postma, Adriana Bokel Herde, Sindhu Joseph and Dickson Tang.
You can listen to the podcast at the Innovation Minds website or at any podcast platform.