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Igniting Innovation

HEC Paris’ Jean-Rémi Gratadour offers valuable keys to meeting the challenges of innovation in disrupted times

Tuesday 20 July 2021


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In his role as Executive Director in charge of program development at the HEC Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center, Jean-Rémi Gratadour plays an active role in the school’s learning approach to Entrepreneurship and Digital Transformation. He is the coordinator of the MBA Specialization in Digital Innovation, which he also teaches. How important is innovation in companies? And how can it be encouraged? In this article, he shares his insights on some concrete courses of action to innovate effectively.

In times of crisis, innovation is more necessary than ever

The rapid digital transformation that companies are undergoing, and the impact of the current health crisis, mean that innovation has taken on even greater importance. Online tools and access have proliferated and more than ever before, companies need to be able provide their customers with digital services. Services that must be closely aligned with their specific needs at a given moment in time. In entrepreneurial jargon, this is referred to as ‘innovation offerings’.

The health crisis has generated major external constraints and companies have had to learn how to deal with them. Fortunately, the organizations that had already embraced digitalization have been resilient. They have been more responsive, have organized how they operate more effectively and have been able to meet the changing needs of customers.  

Major companies have always performed well in terms of incremental innovation, or in other words process innovation. This is one of the main vectors for developing productivity.

Cutting-edge, disruptive innovation poses more difficulties for companies, especially because it disrupts existing organizational methods and forces them to focus on market segments that seem less promising and exposes them to new forms of competition. The aim of this more radical form of innovation is to provide new solutions for the issues that users face, while at the same time prioritizing efficiency and return on investment. This approach is therefore the one that is frequently adopted by entrepreneurs, who want to develop new and more efficient business models that can be scaled up.

While this kind of innovation may not come naturally to companies, they still need to take it on board. Especially since digitalization has dramatically changed the rules of the game in certain sectors. This is crucial if companies want to avoid being disrupted by external actors.

Guiding principles to develop an innovation mindset

Entrepreneurship is not just about knowledge; it is more a question of skills and mindset.

1. Experiment and accept failure

Innovation is all about experimenting and taking risks. However, our traditional ways of thinking can make us feel that we are exposing ourselves to failure when we try to innovate with new projects. The fear of being blamed or sidelined often stifles innovation among employees, even those who see themselves as internal entrepreneurs or ‘intrapreneurs’.

This means your company must make the necessary changes to allow room for experimentation where the occasional failure is an integral part of an entirely legitimate innovation process.

2. Create cross-functional project teams

Your organization also needs to evolve. Although vertical organizational structures and working in silos are often observed and criticized within companies, new collaborative approaches can be implemented between different business units, which create added value. 

Acquiring new skills is therefore necessary to create environments that lend themselves to this type of cross-functional approach. This means encouraging interaction and exchange between employees, who do not usually work together, by getting them to collaborate on joint innovation projects. This is the starting point for developing any type of new service.

3. Make sure you have the necessary means to scale up

Last but not least, once you have determined that an idea is good, based on positive feedback, you need scale up. All too often, testing is too localized, too focused on basic issues and on something that only works on a small scale. However, scaling up an innovation means rising to other challenges, which can be related to information systems, production methods or the organization itself. It is therefore essential to ensure that the necessary resources are in place to scale up effectively.

As many companies fail to implement these three objectives, the Igniting Innovation program can be an excellent way to fill in any potential gaps.

What is my advice for companies that want to innovate? Have faith in the ability of your teams to innovate, rather than in one-size-fits-all solutions that are not aligned with your corporate culture. The learning methods of the Igniting Innovation are based on this key principle!

Igniting Innovation - 3 months to remove the barriers to innovation

Every year, a number of programs run by the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center bring together hundreds of students to work on creating innovative projects.

With the Igniting Innovation program, our aim is to bring this entrepreneurial expertise to the business world, by giving employees the opportunity to reconcile the demands and constraints they face with the agile development of innovative projects.

Our approach is to teach a team of 3 to 5 people to work together on an innovative project. The aim is to optimize their chances of success by creating an environment in which they can experiment.

At the end of this three-month period, they present their projects to colleagues from their company and are awarded a Certificate. They can then move the project forward.

Our goal is to help companies remove the barriers to innovation. By adopting a straightforward approach that focuses on tangible results, employees practice innovation in a step-by-step process that helps them structure their project with the support of coaches.

The benefits

Participants benefit from enriching personal and professional experience, which will help them tackle the challenges faced by companies that want to innovate. Working as a team, they develop a new type of business model based on a real-life case.

With support at every step, they start out with an almost blank canvas and develop a project that corresponds to the identified criteria and can be applied in their company. And after that? They have to make the transition from the project phase to the production phase, if they have been successful in convincing their company.

Companies can then capitalize on the work of the employees who followed the program and benefit from new perspectives and talents to spread a culture of innovation within their organization. The limited duration of the project – spanning a three-month or six-month period depending on the company's objectives – is reassuring because it imposes a set rhythm. At the end of the program, companies come away with an innovative project that they can then implement – it is a win-win situation.


Jean-Rémi Gratadour is the Executive Director in charge of Program Development at the HEC Paris Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center. He is also Coordinator of the MBA Digital Innovation Specialization. A previous MD of ACSEL (Trade Association of Digital Economy) and a member of EMOTA Strategy Committee (European Multichannel & Online Trade Association), he was the E-commerce Director of GeoPost (a subsidiary of La Poste Group) and mission manager at the French Postal Forecasting Institute (IREPP, Strategy Division). He also has entrepreneurial experience by founding the e-commerce art bookstore

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