How to lead an innovative team

Ravichandran Venkataraman, ACMA, CGMA
Ravichandran Venkataraman, ACMA, CGMA

Ravichandran Venkataraman, ACMA, CGMA, senior vice president and head of the Global Business Services division at Hewlett-Packard, has helped HP innovate by building a diverse team and welcoming ideas from throughout the organisation. He offers five tips on how to foster innovation.

1  Challenge your own beliefs

The biggest challenge I have faced in my career is maintaining the ability to challenge my own beliefs. I did a few things at the beginning of my career in shared services in 2002 that were highly successful at HP. And I got rewarded for them.

When you get rewarded for outstanding work, it is easy to sit back, relax and say, “OK, I will just do more of it.” You do that for another year or two, and pretty soon your belief system takes over and you don’t want to change anymore. All of a sudden, ten years down the line, you look back and realise that what you built is not relevant anymore.

So you have to constantly challenge your beliefs, and the way I have achieved this is by building a diverse team.

2  Diverse views are valuable

I may have one of the most diverse management teams in the world. I have 14 direct reports spanning the globe, from the US, the UK, Korea, India, Mexico, Poland, Japan and Germany.

In addition to having a culturally diverse group of people, I have people from many different functions working for me. I have accountants, engineers, management school graduates, people who have been entrepreneurs, and people who have worked at HP Labs, who, in the past, have had nothing to do with a shared services organisation.

But the way they think about technology and how it’s used is completely different from how I look at it. I believe that the more these people think differently from me, the more successful I will be.

3  No idea is a stupid idea

I believe innovation occurs when you direct where breakthroughs are needed the most and then provide the freedom and sponsorship to encourage good ideas. I always quote A.R. Rahman, the musician who won two Academy Awards for his work in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, who says that “imagination has no budget.” I say the same thing in my organisation. Imaginations have no budget. It’s only organisations that have budgets. So don’t limit your imagination.

Here at HP Global Business Services, we started asking employees to look at the processes they’re doing and suggest one change. Last year, we had 5,000 ideas proposed. We branded this and called it, “I Made It Better.” This has helped us build pride in the workplace.

Somebody in an entry-level job who has submitted an idea has an opportunity to make things better for the organisation. So we’re able to get them to connect the work that they do to the objectives of the organisation. This increases employee engagement, because now they know that what they’re doing makes a difference to the organisation.

We tell people that no idea is a stupid idea. We may not take it up. We may not prioritise it. But it’s not a stupid idea, and we encourage and invite employees to share their ideas with us.

4  Be open to change, and grant ownership

We are very open to change. We also give our people ownership of their transactions in order to drive accountability. I have a set of direct reports, who in turn have direct reports, and there are seven layers in the organisation before we get to the person who is actually processing transactions and performing duties such as paying invoices, or processing orders or payroll cheques. But we inverted the pyramid of the shared services organization and explained to the people who are processing that they are the CEO of their transactions. The rest of the organisation is there to enable them in their work and act as their resource. Then we asked them, since they are the CEOs, what they would change, what was not working well with their processes and transactions.

This encouraged them to take ownership of their processes and be accountable for their transactions. And it’s no longer a transaction. It’s an outcome for the business. This helped move the teams from the belief that they are processing transactions to the understanding that they are generating results for the business.

To reach the next level of creativity and innovation, we are experimenting with a portfolio of approaches. For example, we established an “automation and innovation” club within one of our centres. The “club” members represent different parts of HP’s process domains, and they explore how to best innovate across domains. Recently, we initiated a new approach called “Innovation Pathway” to help combine what we do with our internal partners to create an innovation agenda. Hence, we are in a state of constant innovation; this is a progressive journey.

5 Be human first

I have admired leaders who remembered that they are human beings first. Leaders can reach a stage where they think they are infallible as they move up the organization ladder. They sometimes believe erroneously that they are walking around in a coat of armour, and nothing can pierce that. That’s probably the biggest reason you see people fall.

You should show yourself to be a human being, one who is going to make the same mistakes as everyone around you. You have to be approachable, and you have to give the people around you the freedom to come help you correct those mistakes.

I am fortunate to have that, with a diverse team that constantly helps me challenge my beliefs.

About the author
Venkataraman is based in Bangalore, India. He leads a team of 17,500 people located in 58 countries, and was voted the winner of the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network 2011 People’s Choice Award in the Asian region for personal contributions to the industry.