A Closer Look – Kraft’s Deliberate Drive Toward Innovation

A Closer Look - Kraft's Deliberate Drive Toward Innovation

Kraft Foods Group Inc. is a company perhaps best known for products such as Velveeta, Jell-O and Kool-Aid. But it also is trying to make a name for itself as an innovation leader with engaged and forward-thinking employees. One of Kraft’s leaders shares how its culture is changing.

Barry Calpino, vice president of breakthrough innovation at Kraft Food Group Inc., recently noted in a radio interview that there is an effort within Kraft “to push our organization and our innovation teams to shoot for bigger opportunities, more incremental white space, new categories and new usage occasions.”

While he admits that driving innovation was one of Kraft’s “weaknesses” in the past, it is “now one of our biggest strengths,” he says.

Part of that strength comes from hiring more innovative-thinking employees to join the company, which has more than 22,500 workers.

“Our people are our competitive advantage. When we recruit, we’re always looking for a diverse profile of talent. Our objective is to bring together diverse talent and unique perspectives … which, in turn, drives innovation that reflects the needs of the consumers we serve,” Calpino says. “With our big push toward Innovation, we’re particularly focused on finding creative, conceptual thinkers – especially for roles that involve ‘white space’ innovation.”

Such “white space” innovation means looking for new opportunities in a crowded marketplace,  an initiative that has proven successful for the company. Calpino points to Kraft’s leadership as making a “huge difference” in that effort.

“Our business unit leaders set the tone and set the example with their sponsorship of innovation – and innovators. It’s important to have empathy to what it’s like to work in white space, given the high rate of failure,” he explains.

In addition, Kraft has created dedicated innovation teams in all of its business units, “which helps keep the fire lit red hot all the time,” he says, noting teams “feed off each other.”

Further, Kraft takes seriously its commitment to innovation by providing training, speakers and town halls, which “again, keep that fire burning,” he says.

Calpino acknowledges that while innovation can be exhilarating, it can also be difficult. One concern is ensuring that Kraft workers don’t feel they’re taking on too much.

“We have a strong stage-gate process that is designed to help teams deal with innovation challenges and do so in a highly collaborative way, so they don’t feel like they’re out on an island,” he explains. “Culturally, it’s really about leadership and empathy – leaders signaling to innovators that they ‘get’ the pressure and stress. They’ve been there, and they are supportive and have their backs.”

Calpino says that these teams feeding off one another means that the company doesn’t need to turn to gimmicks or other motivational tactics to keep teams engaged, “especially when their leadership is acting as sponsor and champion, and is highly empathetic,” he says.

But one concern, he acknowledges, is that the work can be so exciting that “I would actually say from experience one of the challenges is to not be too engaged or wrapped up in the innovation so that issues of burnout or loss of perspective come into play.”

Kraft does use metrics for key milestones, “results that happen along the journey from ideation to commercialization” – so that teams and individuals are “seeing and chasing results every step of the way, not just at the very end,” he says.

“This is also key for engagement – but also for retention of top innovation talent, especially those who are strong at the front-end but do not want to be the ones who execute in-market,” he adds.

Kraft was started in 1903, but in 2012 the company remade itself, Calpino explains. The international business, the Nabisco business and the chewing gum business was split off as a separate company called Mondelez International. What was left behind was the traditional Kraft brands that many consumers know.

At that time, the company decided it wanted employees to embrace a “fresh mindset,” he says.

“The most important thing is to drive hard against our agenda – and to track it and measure it. It’s one thing to emphasize innovating on traditional brands – it’s another to track it, measure it, and set goals against it. It must be more than talk,” he says. “And when we have wins, it’s important to share those success stories, to show everyone what’s possible, and what’s achievable. “

Still, Kraft isn’t just focusing on its traditional brands and launching new products. Calpino says the company also believes it must have teams building the future.

 “This is one of the hardest things to do. It’s about having the right type of talent and keeping them focused on filling the future pipeline versus executing the current pipeline, which in any company tends to get more attention and traction,” he says.

“You have to be very deliberate about it – even amongst those groups make sure there are milestones and metrics and measures of success that teams can drive against and achieve. But they must be dedicated and focused. Where we do this at Kraft we see incredible quality and quantity of future pipelines and big ideas,” he says.

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