A conversation with Navin Kunde, Manager of the Open Innovation team at The Clorox Company
Navin Kunde has a knack for the bigger picture. Following the completion of his Engineering Ph.D., he took a position at Cessna Aircraft Company where he quickly learned that his sweet spot was working outside the lab on projects that were impactful at the intersection between business units and functions. Afterward, he was a consultant with the Corporate Executive Board for a few years gaining the global and cross-industry experiences that enabled him to return to industry work at Clorox with the skills and temperament to succeed. Now he focuses on the front-end of innovation, leading Clorox’s Open Innovation team
Getting inspired through purpose
Navin believes that the best solutions come from people inspired by purpose. “If you want to solicit ideas and get people jazzed about something, connecting their idea to a clear purpose or a cause is very powerful.”
In order to surface a deeper purpose, he moves beyond the specific idea a team may be considering and goes deeper into the core problem being solved. “It’s not just about getting to the right idea. It’s about the larger challenge. People are much more open to morphing their ideas, combining them with other people’s, and less likely to push back if they are focused on the problem that is being solved rather than just their idea.”
“It’s not just about getting to the right idea. It’s about the larger challenge.”
Beyond the 9 to 5
Even though we may still speak of jobs as nine-to-five, the nature of knowledge work is such that we are thinking about it 24/7 as we morph in and out of our personal, community, and career lives. “It’s very hard to come up with that extra motivation beyond daily work if you don’t have something else that is pulling you in. It can’t just be about the nine-to-five job. If it is, then you are leaving a lot of energy and passion on the table.” Giving people opportunities to make an impact by participating in passion projects adjacent to their everyday work is one way to inspire the extra energy that’s necessary to take an idea from paper to a product that can change the lives of consumers.
At Clorox, these purpose-driven opportunities are made possible through a program called Innovent. Innovent is an internal, crowd-sourced ideation competition that involves participation from a third of the total employee pool. The competition seeks to turn the pattern of ideas-seeking-businesses on its head so that businesses seek ideas to overcome their challenges.
The Innovent process starts with an internal call for entries where businesses submit their current challenges for a chance at being selected for the competition. “We usually get 10 to 15 challenges that way. Then we narrow it down to three to four, because they have to be at the right level.”
Finding the right level of problem to solve involves a balancing act that Navin has honed over time. It begins with soliciting feedback on the problem from a new audience outside of the submitting business. “You have to find the right level of problem that gets people excited so they can quickly identify with the problem, come up with something interesting and compelling, and then people can build on it.” Challenges that are too narrow pose the problem of limiting a team’s ability to come up with a unique solution. Conversely, challenges that are too broad are hard to pinpoint and activate a team’s drive to solve.
Clorox uses a tool called Brightidea to communicate the 3–4 challenges being considered for Innovent and solicit feedback from the participant community. In selecting the appropriate challenge, Navin looks for factors like how enthusiastic the business is about actually implementing ideas that come from outside teams. “You weed out anybody who’s only interested in working on stuff that they come up with internally because it’s not going to go anywhere.”
In general, Navin looks for a group who submits their challenge with an attitude of curiosity and humility. That generally comes in the form of statements like, “Wow, we’re really hitting a wall here, but weknow there’s something there,” or “What do I know about what millennials want? I’m not a millennial.”
He helps teams narrow down broad challenges by offering buckets of solutions and honing in on what category of solutions a business might actually be able to implement. “It’s frustrating to put out a lot of your own personal time and energy into framing something up and finding out it’s out of scope. It’s our job to guide them and value their time and effort up front. Otherwise, the process will lose credibility.”
Challenges that are communicated out to the innovation community go through a commenting and discussion process. “We make sure that people from the business who submitted challenges are commenting but also other people. It’s open for anyone to comment and build on submitted ideas.”
Can’t disguise a hollow product
As someone who has a determined focus on identifying the right problem to solve and developing ideas, Navin finds the prevalence of well-marketed, mediocre ideas to be a frustrating trend in the digital space. “Mediocre marketing around a strong product always loses to strong marketing around a mediocre product.” This is especially true for some of the authors and thought leaders he’s connected with through his LinkedIn community whose strong ideas struggle to see light because they’re often side projects without a large budget for marketing. “It’s true even for actual CPG products. Sometimes, if it doesn’t take off right away, we dial back on the marketing spend.”
Clorox approaches this reality by ensuring that R&D and Marketing teams have a strong partnership. “Our marketing guys always tell us, ‘If you don’t have a strong product at the core, our marketing is just a shell. You better have a strong product and we’ll do our best to market it properly and tell the right story around it.’ If the shell is hollow, you can only market it well for so long before people find out, and you lose your reputation.”
“If the shell is hollow, you can only market it well for so long before people find out, and you lose your reputation.”
Navin shared the story of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes as a gap-fill product that wasn’t expected to be a top seller at its inception. “We didn’t put much marketing behind it because there were other products like this on the market, but the fact that it disinfected mattered to people. The fact that you could clean a kindergartner’s desk and reduce sickness by 40% mattered to people, so even though we didn’t see it, the product was so amazing, it just took off.”
Nurturing excitement and playfulness
Beyond helping teams find purpose in their innovation work, Navin believes it’s important to show appreciation and nurture playfulness. During our conversation, a colleague dropped in to confirm their lunch plans. They had recently worked on a project that had been postponed and Navin set up a lunch to show his appreciation for all her hard work.
“Innovation work is often a sidebar. It’s very personal when you are giving your own time and your energy and you’re working on something; it’s not just a paycheck. That passion and curiosity for making the world a better place…you can’t call up that playfulness on demand. You want to nurture that.”
Learning & the long game
Measuring innovation begins with first defining it. “A lot of it comes down to an internal belief that you’re solving the right problem. If you are solving the right consumer problem, and you have the conviction that this is a problem worth solving, then that itself, I think, leads to innovation. Now, sometimes the world is not ready for that solution, but if you are solving the right problem, eventually a solution like it will be successful.”
“Sometimes the world is not ready for that solution, but if you are solving the right problem, eventually a solution like it will be successful.”
While Navin believes that market success is one metric that should be considered, he sees success in a solid learning plan. “There are innovators out here whose success is the learning, not the dollars. Those innovators over time will come up with the thing that works, because eventually there will be that intersection that the learning is leading up to something that actually works in the market, and then it’ll take off.”
Navin, who lives in the Bay Area uses a sports analogy to illustrate his point. “Think about any team that’s been successful in the long-run, the Warriors basketball team, for example. The Phoenix Suns had this idea of a run-and-gun offense 10–12 years ago. They didn’t win a championship, but developed that concept of running fast and three-pointers and all that … now Steph Curry and the Warriors have won multiple championships with that same strategy. So even though the strategy didn’t work right off the bat, it didn’t get thrown away.”
Inventors vs. Innovators
Navin, who values learning, patience and humility, has found that working with inventors is an approach to innovation that lacks a few necessary elements. “Working with inventors is hard. Inventors sometimes can have unrealistic expectations of what it takes to take something to market.” The difficulty often lies in knowing the difference between a good idea and an executable idea.
“You can have a lot of people come up with ideas, but to actually get their idea to solve a problem that somebody’s willing to pay for takes a lot more effort.”
“You can have a lot of people come up with ideas, but to actually get their idea to solve a problem that somebody’s willing to pay for takes a lot more effort. A lot of inventors have unrealistic expectations that their idea is a billion dollar idea. I don’t know if it is or not. What problem is it trying to solve? What markets are we talking about here? You put some parameters around it and then they get frustrated because they think that’s your job to figure out. Then they want to be paid. Why am I going to pay anything? I don’t even know if this is something I want to work on.”
The invention versus innovation conundrum is at least as old as the story of the light bulb. A lot of people say that Edison invented the light bulb, but he actually didn’t invent it. He figured out how to make it marketable illustrating the point that the invention and the innovation are two different things. Invention is when you create it and prove that it works. Innovation is when you can extract value from that creation.
“If whatever we are working on is not actually helping the consumer, why are we working on it? What’s the point? That’s the question at the end of the day.”
“At Clorox, we are about “Making consumer lives better every day.” If whatever we are working on is not actually helping the consumer, why are we working on it? What’s the point? That’s the question at the end of the day. Making money and making margin is nice to have once you solve a problem that somebody’s willing to pay you for. Then the second piece of it is having a solution that’s easily available for the consumer. If you have something at a price point consumers can’t afford, then what’s the point? Innovation is delivering a solution to the consumer at the right quality, at the right price, in the right channels; it’s all these things.”
Curiosity and humility
The most important part of the innovation puzzle for Navin is accurately framing the problem before seeking a solution. “The problems keep morphing. They keep changing, and you’ve gotta keep an eye on that.” Once the problem is identified, Navin’s strategy is to seek external perspective and capability.
“It’s the idea that someone else out there is smarter, faster, cheaper, and better than you are. That combo of curiosity and humility to frame up the problem, be confident in your own approach, but seek external perspective and external capability as needed to build out the best solution for that problem is something that is very, very important ”
During the development of Burt’s Bees cosmetics, the company acknowledged up front they were a lip balm company with no cosmetics experience. So their strategy was to go outside the company and learn from experts in the space. “We humbly listened to outside experts and then we said ‘Okay, this is what we know from Burt’s Bees. This is what we know from outside. How can we connect those two together to come up with the best possible product?”
In the end, Navin thinks the greatest compliment he’s ever been given is that he and his team are very useful. “As a corporate innovator, that’s music to my ears because there are so many corporate innovation groups that are sort of in an ivory tower, working on something theoretical or that doesn’t matter to the business.”
He’s learned that with the right mix of curiosity and humility any company willing to put in the effort to properly identify the problem to solve can create useful solutions that improve lives.
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