Interview with Anna Farberov, who is General Manager of PepsiCo Labs.
Most innovation starts with a problem. Conscious or subconscious. Looking for problems to solve is a great way to approach innovation.
But there is an alternative way, which was introduced to me by Anna Farberov, who is General Manager of PepsiCo Labs.
PepsiCo Labs is charged with bringing new innovations to PepsiCo and building a bridge between the ever-changing world of technology and the company’s business units. They do this by bringing technology from creative start-ups around the world to PepsiCo’s 260,000 employees.
The Lab’s main job is to solve pain points that might arise anywhere within PepsiCo. These range from areas like logistics or production, to marketing or analytics. The Lab introduces technology developed by startups across the globe to solve these issues. About 10% of PepsiCo Labs’ focus is on what the company calls “inspiration.” For these projects, PepsiCo Labs identifies new, interesting and promising breakthrough technologies and connects them to employees across a variety of functions to inspire innovation.
Anna told me about a recent event where PepsiCo Labs introduced a new kind of laser to the manufacturing team. The laser measures distance, vibration, and velocity with no contact. Wireless capability also allows lower cost, faster installation, and remote mounting.
(Now, you have to agree that any story that involves a laser as inspiration is worth listening to, so I hope I now have your undivided attention…)
In the story, Anna explained that PepsiCo Labs invited the start-up that developed this new laser to come to one of their factories in Turkey for a three-day workshop. They also invited a number of seasoned PepsiCo employees who knew the factory and the company very well.
During the workshop, the entrepreneurs explained how the laser could be used, and then brainstormed with PepsiCo employees on how they could benefit from it in their daily jobs. The entrepreneurs brought 10 test-kits of the product, then periodically went into the factory to test their ideas, and then came back to the meeting room to continue brainstorming.
After the three days, PepsiCo had over 100 relevant user cases for how the laser could be used at the company, including with snacks packaging machines, maintenance processes and protocols, PC production lines, and more. But more importantly, they inspired employees with new ideas by infusing a new technology that triggered opportunities.
Anna told me that PepsiCo Labs identified the laser as a means of inspiration without identifying the specific problem to solve. When PepsiCo Labs identifies new technology to introduce, they usually find it from tech start-ups that are deeply grounded in substantial scientific advances and high-tech engineering innovation.
Anna: “We go to our people and say: We brought you a laser… What can you do with it?”
The word “solution” literally stems from the Latin “solutionem,” which means “a loosening or unfastening.” And the idea of bringing in “a laser” (or any other new, inspiring technology) is to “loosen the thinking” of how and why something is done in a certain way within PepsiCo.
Anna explained to me that it was important to not only bring in the new technology, but also the people who invented or built the technology because, as Anna so eloquently put it, “the laser cannot talk.” By bringing in the inventors, they can share their passion and more about what’s possible with the internal team at PepsiCo.
So, does it work?
Anna again: “Our people love it. You bring them excitement, joy and energy (when you bring in these new technologies).” It reminded me of how children get all giggly about new toys on their birthday. Not because they are toys, but because they are new, and new is exciting.
Anna shared with me that through this program, PepsiCo employees get new inspiration, and the tech entrepreneurs get valuable industry feedback.
It’s important to see the difference between these “solution-solving sessions” and Hackathons.
With a Hackathon, you invite several external people to solve one problem or issue using a lot of different technologies. With Solution Solving, you invite one external group to come up with many different avenues for how one new technology can be used.
Hearing Anna talk, I was reminded about when the Internet was introduced to most companies back in the 1990s. It was the perfect example of this kind of “disruptive technology” that could inspire businesses to look at what they did and how they did it in a new way. The biggest benefit of the Internet might very well be how it got businesses to see that they had not thought about all the ways that their business could be improved. I personally worked as an Internet consultant in the mid 1990s and still vividly remember how just hearing about the Internet inspired so many new ideas in the minds of business leaders, who just ten minutes before hearing about the Internet thought there was nothing anyone could teach them about the untapped opportunities in their industry.
What technology or innovation could you bring into your organization to inspire people to see new possibilities and do some “Solution Solving”?
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