A conversation with Katherine Manuel, Corporate Strategy & Change Executive

This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.

As a child, Katherine Manuel loved math. “I loved numbers. I loved the idea that companies could grow and that the more money they got, if they were publicly traded, they could do interesting things.” Her family regularly discussed the stock market and what was happening with different investments.

As she absorbed these conversations, she began to understand the inner workings of business at an early age. “I started picking stocks and understanding what companies were doing and what they were talking about from a growth perspective.” After working as a consultant in her early career, she went back to business school for a Master’s degree.

Biographies of company founders and leaders have also served as a great source of learning for Katherine. One of her favorite biographies tells the story of Katharine Graham, who ran The Washington Post for over two decades. “It’s an incredible story about a woman of that era who became a company leader…She did not come into that role confident, but grew confidence in time. She was a phenomenal leader when she got her sea legs in that space.”

Katherine recently left Thomson Reuters where she was SVP of Innovation and is currently working on a book on the future of innovation and the importance of inclusion. She is also an Operating Partner at IDEA Fund Partners, a North Carolina-based VC firm that focuses on early-stage investments in second-tier cities.

Katherine Manuel
Katherine Manuel

Culture, Process, Talent

Katherine’s fascination with business led her to fill a number of roles at Thomson Reuters (TR) in her 13 years there. She worked in technology strategy, enterprise architecture, and corporate strategy before moving into innovation. When Katherine took over as SVP of Innovation, the company faced considerable technical debt and opportunity as a result of TR’s strategy of growth through mergers and acquisitions. “We had acquired all of these small, medium, and big companies and had not put the time, effort, or resources into streamlining the backend systems. So we ended up with our expenses outpacing our revenues.”

Katherine began the process of taking stock of what prior acquisitions had brought to the company and how these assets could be leveraged to drive organic growth and transform the company culture.

“Everything was very siloed. It was run more like a holding company than a true enterprise. A shift had to happen that was cultural around driving an enterprise mindset, but also an innovation mindset—the idea of trying things quickly, lean experimentation, and design sprints.”

In her previous roles, culture hadn’t been a focus for Katherine, and she found herself embracing the learning process. “I had a boss at the time who said, ‘Drive the metrics around culture and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.’ And so we started looking at metrics that we can drive innovation around and programs that we can use to almost federate the work of innovation.”

Katherine realized early on that inclusivity was an important factor in this cultural shift. “Everybody feels they know the path to innovation and so you need to understand where the power positions sit and make sure that people view their thumbprints on what the program looks like.”

Working through problems

Katherine ran two innovation funds for TR. One fund focused on bigger, disruptive ideas. “We ran it a little bit like Shark Tank. People would come with ideas and they’d pitch to our CEO and senior leaders. They didn’t need to have their manager’s support; we tried to take out some of the hierarchy and bureaucracy. It was hugely successful and had a lot of impact. People saw that they had a voice. They got talk to the CEO, share an idea that they had, and get funding.”

The second fund focused on incremental improvements driven by people from the operations teams. “One of the things that I uncovered was that a lot of folks in our operation centers wanted to be a part of it. We created a secondary seed fund that was designed differently. We didn’t need as many stage gates, and quite frankly, we didn’t need as much money, because a lot of it was small changes to existing processes. They were driving bottom-line improvements.”

Katherine on a FT Live Digital panel
Katherine on a FT Live Digital panel

Capturing and celebrating wins

Both programs energized employees and gave them a voice they didn’t have before, which had a positive impact on culture. Katherine wanted to capture that momentum, which she did through a campaign called Dare to Disrupt. One aspect of the campaign challenged employees to do something differently each day and share their insights on the company intranet. “We wanted people to be involved, so we gave employees three dares: Do something different today that you didn’t do yesterday and tell us what it is. Leave a meeting and write something inspirational about change and innovation on the whiteboard, and take a selfie picture, and share it.”

“We dare you to do something different today that you didn’t do yesterday and tell us what it is.”

With a lean team, Katherine knew others would need to take up the mantle of innovation for it to spread across the company, so she also committed to supporting anyone who wanted to lead an innovation workshop. “One of the challenges was how to train and put innovation in the hands of others to lead and drive. And so in this Dare to Disrupt campaign, we pretty much said, ‘Send us a proposal of an innovation workshop that you want to drive. We’ll provide you with the materials, the few hours of consulting time to help stand it up, and support it.’ And we were able to drive around 20 different innovation workshops in 10 different countries. We were able to empower other people to take those lead roles and drive some of the programs within their parts of the company.”

Do more.

As these activities took flight, Katherine made a point to capture and celebrate the work being done across the company to create a continuous drive toward innovation in the culture. “We did a gamification where we created a tool to show 100 different innovations around the globe that were happening at the company leading people through a scavenger hunt. You could watch a quick video or a write up on what somebody was doing in a different part of the world. Capturing that and celebrating it as a company was certainly powerful.”

“We created a tool to show 100 different innovations around the globe that were happening at the company leading people through a scavenger hunt.”

One of the most impactful aspects of these programs was that it gave employees explicit permission to talk to customers. “A lot of it was teaching people about lean experimentation and encouraging them to talk to customers sooner rather than later. In certain parts of the organization, even though the customer is always first, I think people are hesitant to actually talk to a customer. It was taking down those boundaries and letting people know that they could. It seems like such a little thing, but at a company with some very entrenched cultures from the acquired companies as well, it was important to recalibrate how to think about driving new ideas and new product.”

“At a company with some very entrenched cultures..it was important to recalibrate how to think about driving new ideas and new product.”

Understand the seat of power

Structuring innovation programs is another area where it’s important to understand where the traditional power sits. In large, established companies that seat of power tends to be finance.

While scrappiness can take innovation through the initial stages, high-level support is crucial for that preliminary success to grow into broader company success. “There were teams that, once they got to a certain point, they needed the support from finance to understand what they were trying to do and provide the funding and resources that they needed. You have to bring the group with the power in as soon as possible so they feel part of it and can support it long term. And I think there are places where we did that well, and there are places where, if I were to do it again, I would have spent more time there.”

“It’s really important to understand where the traditional power sits and how can you bring that structure to the table to help make sure that they’re on board and they’re aligned.”

While metrics are necessary, placing too much focus on formalizing them early on can hamstring innovation efforts as programs evolve. Katherine chose to approach the question of metrics at a more granular level that could be contextualized for different audiences.

“I decided to collect 30 measures every quarter and not get stuck on rolling them into KPIs. My real justification was we still need to atomize this process and understand where something isn’t optimal and evolve what we’re doing. And the more granular I could understand where the measures were, the better. Depending on the audience, I could customize those metrics depending on who I was talking to and what they cared about. So if it’s somebody from finance versus somebody from marketing versus somebody from HR, the measures would be the same measures, but they’d be looking at things in different ways. I could speak their language, which I think was also a helpful part of what we did.”

Beyond metrics, finding champions for long-term thinking is key to the longevity of innovation programs. “You have to figure out who are the champions and who understands long-term thinking. It’s probably the space that kills innovation in large corporations time and time again. Having a long-term mindset is incredibly difficult for publicly traded, large corporations these days. That is not what most companies either have the luxury of thinking like or the tolerance for.”


All the stars must align

All of these experiences have taught Katherine that an idea is not enough for successful innovation. In her words, the stars have to align across culture, process, and talent for an idea to make its way through the corporate machine. Innovators must be vigilant about the various factors that can affect success.

“There are so many things that can make something fail. It can be that the person with the great idea leaves the company. It can be that finance cuts funding. It can be that the business that the innovation is for is overwhelmed and doesn’t have the resources to support it. There are so many different forces at play…The nice thing about being at a big company is that you can get money and fund an idea.But, the challenge is getting it truly embraced by the business and to then invest in it.”

While startup innovation may have an advantage with fewer barriers to entry, innovation at a large company is possible. “You can get my small guerrilla warfare type team to invest, support, and coach, but when it’s time for the machine to take it, scale it, and push it into the market is the machine going to reject it? Is it big enough for the machine to take on and draw from?” These are key questions for innovation teams and leaders to consider, but it’s also where the magic can happen. “We ended up having really high ROI numbers on the catalyst fund. Part of it was having a couple significant wins where that machine took an idea, brought it to market and made it big.”

“Build out a wireframe or PowerPoint slides that start showing how it would look and get feedback really early…”

Regardless of size, though, Katherine believes that innovation relies on lean experimentation to avoid the plague of over planning. “Build out a wireframe or PowerPoint slides that start showing how it would look and get feedback really early because that early learning will change the direction in ways that you don’t always realize.”

According to Katherine, the beginning phases are not the time for polished business plans; they are more suited to a seed investment approach. “I’ve seen a lot of platinum business cases developed that have a really linear way of developing a product. It’s better to put some seed funding into an idea, get customers at the table, iterate on what it’s going to look like, start building, and keep iterating with customers early. Then building out a business case makes sense, but you first need to invest in exploration time.”

Democratizing innovation

As someone who has seen the value of seed money and the power of motivating individuals to innovate, Katherine admires the role Kickstarter has played in democratizing innovation. “Something like a Kickstarter, a community that allows people to gain energy, funding, resources, and enthusiasm, is incredibly important. On the global scene, it’s a space that the United States needs to continue to support because our innovations are what got us here. We have to figure out how to keep the innovation spark alive to keep our prosperity going.”

“We have to figure out how to keep the innovation spark alive to keep our prosperity going.”

Staring out the window

One area where Katherine sees massive opportunity is the venture capital (VC) arena. “Right now, only about 2% of venture funds in the US go to woman-founder companies. There’s huge growth potential if we can build that up and encourage more women to start companies and also have more women in VC funds. Women are half the population, but only 2% are getting venture funds. What would happen if we really provided funding to more of that population? What are those big discoveries that we would make in the world?”

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.