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Book Review: Unleashing Innovation
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Book Review: Unleashing Innovation by Nancy Tenant Snyder and Deborah L. Duarte

Unleashing Innovation: How Whirlpool Transformed an Industry

Written by: Nancy Tenant Snyder and Deborah L. Duarte. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008. 244+xxiv pages.
Reviewed by: Steven P. MacGregor

Unleashing Innovation

The Whirlpool transformation has become a poster child for the power of innovation in recent years. Positive reviews in the popular business press allied to diffusion within the new product development (NPD) community and to alignment with contemporary academic theory on innovation, not to mention one or two Harvard Business School cases thrown in for good measure, meant great anticipation forUnleashing Innovation by Nancy Tennant Snyder and Deborah L. Duarte by many in the NPD and innovation communities. The promise is there, and it doesn't disappoint; this is a richly crafted book where the reader will benefit from almost 10 years of wisdom and hindsight from a multinational manufacturer that transformed both its business and the industry through an ambitious innovation vision implemented as a major strategic initiative.

The starting point for that vision in 1999 of “innovation from everyone and everywhere” defines the intended audience for the book—anyone who is charged with, or involved in, the implementation of innovation in an enterprise—innovation that is intended to be inclusive and embedded within the corporate DNA. There is much of interest to the NPD community also, with many perhaps able to identify with the starting scenario for Whirlpool as a process-focused organization fighting against ever decreasing margins, low product differentiation, and low customer-brand awareness. Yet, as shown by Snyder and Duarte through their presentation of the innovation framework that has formed and developed in Whirlpool since 1999, the company did not take the easy way out of innovating a handful of star products that may reap advantage quickly and then fizzle out. Rather, it focused on sustainable innovation (referring to sustainable competitiveness as opposed to any sustainable development or environment themes), a slower process that required patience until the tipping point was achieved (see especially Chapter 7, “Managing Execution and Results”) and resulted in an “innovative company that makes appliances as opposed to an appliance company that innovates” (p. xvii). The overall approach to innovation is instructive: “We did not have to invent a discontinuous series of innovations to change the dynamics of an industry; rather, innovating around articulated and unarticulated customer needs at the core of the business would have a significant impact on our success” (p. 23).

The innovation framework used to drive sustainable innovation at Whirlpool forms the structure of the book. An introductory part that showcases sustainable innovation at work is followed by parts 2 and 3, each with five chapters that detail the main constituents of the framework: the rational and emotional drivers. The rational drivers, essentially the management structure that directs, controls, and measures innovation, are as follows: the strategic architecture, management systems, innovation machine, innovators and innovation mentors, and managing execution and results. The emotional drivers, essentially the culture of the workforce necessary to sustain innovation, are as follows: learn, dream, create, heroes, and spirit. Through an entertaining narrative that does a good job of telling the story of a near decade-long strategic initiative, Duarte and Snyder highlight the need for a strong interplay between the rational drivers, which are “imposed from the top down,” and the emotional drivers, which “cannot be imposed … and can only be unleashed” (p. 26), and provide many examples along the way. Many of the key literature references from contemporary innovation and management research are also weaved into the story.

The story of embedding sustainable innovation is the real value of the book. The authors maintain a delicate balancing act between the facilitating framework of the rational drivers and the spiritual, often intangible, power of the emotional drivers. Since the framework as it is presented is the result of nearly a decade's worth of work, the reader will benefit from a significant degree of hindsight and trial and error within Whirlpool. The discussion of the S curve (Chapter 7) provides a fascinating insight into the approach to a major transformation initiative and the management nerve required. Some of the most powerful elements also exist on a very simple level, with the Whirlpool definition of innovation—” Innovation provides unique and compelling solutions valued by our customers and aligned to our brands; creates competitive advantage that is difficult to copy; and creates differentiated shareholder value” (p. 28)—an early breakthrough in being able to grasp and also diffuse the raw vision of “innovation from everyone and everywhere” (ibid.). At the core of the emotional drivers is untapping the tremendous potential of the workforce, and in a company like Whirlpool with almost 70,000 employees around the world that potential is substantial. Introduced in the sustainable innovation case of Chapter 1 and detailed in the emotional drivers the authors show how people are driven to produce results within efforts bigger than themselves, the resultant spirit helping to overcome the problems encountered on a daily basis. Innovation heroes are introduced in Chapter 11 and within a general context that “change management does not change culture as well as stories and folklore can” (p. 197) and that “without heroes to lift our spirits, innovation can wither over time” (p. 183). Further, given the current economic climate, a cautionary tale is presented against the cancellation of innovation programs during tough times from the experience of Whirlpool Europe in 2003, since “putting innovation on hold, even for a short time, diminishes the emotional drivers that are helping you in other parts of your business” and “when you diminish emotional drivers, you create a hole you have to dig your way out of” (p. 134).

The NPD community will find immediate interest in Chapter 5 on the Innovation Machine or I-Pipe at Whirlpool. It discusses the innovation funnel, fuzzy front end, and its implementation and integration with the product development process that predated it. Yet many other chapters link with the I-Pipe (which provides more value to the NPD community), including discussions on its financial reengineering (pp. 67–70), metrics used to measure its ongoing health and innovation in general (pp. 125–131), and the learning process at different stages (Chapter 8). Some key lessons for the community include the need to focus on postlaunch to maximize the value of new products, the development of an open, transparent system so that employees are motivated to share their ideas, and several techniques that were introduced by the consultancy Strategos, which helped Whirlpool get started on its journey, including challenging orthodoxies and lens smashing (pp. 175–176).

The book is not perfect. Some of the key messages are overly repetitive and perhaps indicative of Snyder's evangelization activities over several years, while some of the literature references are glossed over and best left out if not discussed in sufficient depth. The chapter on I-mentors is light on actual content though perhaps best explained by commercial sensitivity, while one or two other chapters do not have the same flow as the rest of the book, especially the chapter on learning. Yet, given the scale of the task in presenting the Whirlpool transformation, the authors have done an excellent job.

In sum, for anyone in the NPD, innovation, or management fields, this book is a must for the bookshelf, though there is probably greater value for the strategic initiative implementer than for the NPD manager. It is a book that will yield immediate insights and that will likely endure as a reference source. A final note related to the innovation heroes concept presented in Chapter 11: They are described as rebellious, off-corporate-ladder types. Yet Snyder, as the main architect of the transformation (previously director of strategic initiatives and now vice president of leadership and strategy), and both chief executive officers involved in this journey, Dave Whitwam and Jeff Fettig, are undoubtedly part of the new Whirlpool innovation folklore.

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