Knowledge Center: Podcast

Digital Innovation

The Idea Factory: Fostering employees’ creativity to support business innovation

9/24/2019 Heidrick & Struggles

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Tim Luedke speaks with Alessia Sterpetti, head of open innovation and the Idea Factory at Enel, the multinational power company. Sterpetti shares the journey of the Idea Factory, an initiative that helps foster employee creativity to come up with innovative, value-creating solutions to business challenges. She also talks about shifting the company culture to one that is entrepreneurial and also human-centric, and shares advice for up-and-coming female talent.

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Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:13) Why did Enel set up the Idea Factory and how does it work?
  • (5:33) What’s the next step at Enel for little “i” innovations that ultimately enable people to then build big “I” innovations that really change the path of the company?
  • (7:10) What aspects of cultural change are you seeing and where have you seen the curve moving over the past five years?
  • (8:58) What do you think is the biggest challenge on the talent side for business leaders with all the different technology and innovations and the convergence of these technologies?
  • (10:48) Is there any specific advice you would like to share with young female talent, up-and-coming stars of the future, who want to succeed in their careers just as you did?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.


Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Tim Luedke: Hello, I am Tim Luedke, partner in the Heidrick & Struggles’ office in Munich and global managing partner of Heidrick’s Speciality Practices and the Disruptive Innovators Team. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking to Alessia Sterpetti, the head of open innovation and the Idea Factory at Enel, the multinational power company headquartered here in Rome. Alessia joined Enel 15 years ago. In 2014, she launched the Idea Factory to help employees foster their creativity and support innovation within the company. Alessia, buongiorno, welcome, and thank you for taking the time today to speak with us.

Alessia Sterpetti: Buongiorno. Good morning, everybody.

Tim Luedke: Alessia, could you please maybe start by telling us why Enel set up the Idea Factory and how this actually works?

Alessia Sterpetti: The Factory itself is part of our open innovation strategy. We know that we don’t have enough knowledge to innovate, so we have to access the external as well as internal ideas, and so we have set up several tools to do that, and the Factory is focused on the internal ideas. So it aims at creating an environment where our people are able to use creativity and imagination to solve business challenges and to come up with new ideas, new projects that boost our business and, very important, that address our stakeholders’ expectations. So we want to create value for us and our stakeholders.

So how it works, the Factory is a service, a service that we provide to our colleagues. So when a manager has a challenge, he can get in touch with us or he poses the challenge in a tool that we have. And first we meet him, we organize a meeting with him, with colleagues, a clarification meeting, where we try to explore the challenge and the problems that are behind the challenge because we want to design the best process for him and his colleagues to come up with a solution.

So what does it mean to design the process? Because once we understand his vision, his expectation, and the real problem he has to address, we organize the ideation phase, choosing the most appropriate tools from creative problem solving, from design thinking, from list of facts, depending on the kind of problem, on the kind of challenge, he has to address. And we organize a workshop involving different people from different parts of the company because, for us, it’s so important for cooperation and to break silos, and we help them to come up with solutions using creativity tools. So during these workshops, this ideation phase, this divergent phase, they come up with a long list of ideas, and then afterwards the challenge owner and his team select the best ideas, and they bring them to development and implementation.

So, some examples: glasses, smart glasses, to improve the real-time cooperation among operation and maintenance colleagues that are in the power plant and the control room in the headquarters, to have real-time interaction, were built and were brought to pilot together with a provider.

Our colleagues have created a warehouse for our power plant, to provide for spare parts, very quick availability for our power plants, for example.

Our legal department is reimagining their processes to include artificial intelligence.

So we have several examples from different parts, not only business units but also staff units, because our service is for all the . . .

Tim Luedke: For the whole company, back office and front office.

Alessia Sterpetti: Yes.

Tim Luedke: That’s interesting because, and you have met our colleague Scott Snyder, in his book he calls that little “i” innovations that ultimately enable people to then build big “I,” so innovations that really change the path of the company. And with your AI, you are obviously using cool technologies, the glasses, all these things, so introducing cool stuff. How big is your team, Alessia?

Alessia Sterpetti: We are five in Rome and eight worldwide, because we have hubs in several countries: Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Spain, and Romania. So we try to cover all of them.

Tim Luedke: So you’ve been doing this, or you set it up five years ago.

Alessia Sterpetti: Yes.

Tim Luedke: What’s next, what’s the next step for these little “i” and big “I” innovations within Enel?

Alessia Sterpetti: We have just launched a new corporate entrepreneurship program. So keep continuing in supporting this mind-set shift from employee to entrepreneur with our initiatives. But now we have to make the action come true, so to gather the results. Because we also want to measure innovation and the economic results, but economic results take longer to achieve. So what we are doing now is to gather all the actions implemented because we have to assess them and we have to understand if we have to introduce new initiatives or we have to review the one existing. So at the moment, we are in the analysis stage. We are assessing what we have created to decide what should be improved. We always have to evolve. I mean, culture is something that needs continuous action, and it doesn’t need a one-way solution. And so this is the reason why I told you at the beginning that the Factory itself is part of a strategy where several tools are in place.

Tim Luedke: Yes, so it’s one of many different elements of the strategy.

Alessia Sterpetti: Yes, yes.

Tim Luedke: So this whole behavioral change, this cultural movement within Enel, I just imagine a huge company, formally state-owned, that there’s probably a lot of things that you need to do. Are there any other aspects of the cultural change that you’re seeing and the curve moving over the past five years?

Alessia Sterpetti: Yes. Can I give you some tangible examples? Because of course we are talking about something intangible. Something that happened to me two days ago. I was working at the computer, and a person that I don’t know very well entered the room and put on my desk a card deck. It is the card deck that we use for the visual thinking to help our colleagues to come up with lateral thinking. This means that that person was using the tool without our support, without our facilitation, so it’s becoming a practice. This is what we are measuring, coming back to the thing that we were saying before; we are assessing if we have evidence that it’s working. Because if not, we have to improve or we have to think of new actions, and this is . . .

Tim Luedke: Yes, a nice example.

Alessia Sterpetti: A nice example. Or, a few weeks ago, we have started a program with the risk management team. This is now another key point: we are becoming human-centric. The risk management team are asking for our support because they want to review the reports they create for their clients. And they want to start from the client’s need; they want to start working with the clients. So they want to start an ethnographic and empathizing stage, that is the first stage of the design thinking. And it was not a promotion that I gave to them; they asked me. So this is another signal to review your approaches starting from people, what is necessary for people to work better.

Tim Luedke: Those are interesting examples, Alessia. If you think about all the different technology and all the innovations that are also coming from outside, where people come up with new tools, the Internet of Things, the digital disruption within your clients, the whole industry, your suppliers, these challenges with AI, and these topics, what do you think is the biggest challenge on the talent side for business leaders with this technology and the convergence of these technologies?

Alessia Sterpetti: I think that leaders should always keep in mind and take into account the signals that come from the social behavior. I mean, technology is a commodity, but people are those that decide, people are those that pay. They have to always keep aligned the technology innovation with the culture.

A simple example: I was talking yesterday with a colleague of mine—he’s a manager in the renewable energy—about the Alexa. Alexa is simple; we already have it in our houses. And he was saying, “Can you imagine that, to me, it’s so hard to talk to something that is intangible, is not real?” That is part of the culture. So the importance for a leader is to always take into account the signals and the cultural shift, if the cultural shift is aligned with the technology that is going ahead. This is so important.

Tim Luedke: So not losing people along the ride with all these technologies.

Alessia Sterpetti: Exactly.

Tim Luedke: And not using technology just for the sake of the technology.

Alessia Sterpetti: Exactly, exactly.

Tim Luedke: I think that’s a very important point. So, Alessia, as a woman in a senior leadership role, is there any specific advice you would like to share with young female talent, up-and-coming stars of the future, who want to succeed in their careers just as you did?

Alessia Sterpetti: I have three things that, to me, are so, so important for women but, in general, for young people. First of all, always be learning. Second, always be curious. And, so, so important, always seek impact in what you do, always. You cannot waste time, you cannot waste anything, so please seek impact in what you do. And a little bit of resilience for women because professional life is still a little bit hard. So this is my motto and my advice, if I can give it.

Tim Luedke: Alessia, thank you very much for speaking with me today and explaining to us the Idea Factory and all the innovations within it. Thank you.

Alessia Sterpetti: Thank you, thank you all.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

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