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In this case study, David Nosibor (who has the great title of Innovation Promoter at Mazars Asia-Pacific and loves basketball and Caribbean music) talks about sparkling intrapreneurship in Asia.

Mazars is a global audit accounting and financial advisory firm operating in seventy-seven countries. When he joined in 2011, located in France, his task was to work on social media for business development, and after two and a half years doing that he decide to quit in the pursuit of more challenges.

His boss instead offered him a position to foster innovation in Asia. They wanted David to engage with millennials, in order to bring their ideas to live. David accepted the challenge, and found himself in Singapore.

David stated with an innovation challenge – “Mazars for Good Innovation Challenge”, which extended to all employees from the age of twenty to thirty.

Employees could submit ideas to three categories: ideas that change the way companies deal with employees, ideas that change the way companies deal with society, and ideas that change the way companies deal with clients. The winner of each category would get a $20k prize.   

Teams could apply to the challenge by sending an idea canvas, that David adapted and simplified from the lean canvas in order to make it easy to apply. The canvas consisted of purpose, problem, and solution and along side teams needed to send a ninety-second long pitch video. Teams also needed to promote their video on social media and get votes.

In order to manage the ideas in a centralized way from all over the world they created a crowdsourcing platform. Then they created a multidisciplinary jury from Senegal, Singapore, Australia, Morocco, the USA and France (and with different expertise), to choose the best ten ideas and teams that could more on to the next round.

The selection was done as follows: 30% for creativity, 30# for relevance, 20% for popularity, and another 20% for feasibility.

The next step was to get to know the teams better. It was impossible to meet face-to-face as the teams came from all parts of the world: South Africa, France, Hong-Kong, Greece…so instead they created Google hangout sessions. They also conduced lean canvas workshops through hangouts, and even did it with a few teams at a time in order to let them give constructive feedback to each other.

For the next eight weeks the teams had to come up with an MVP, customer interviews, a pitch deck and a three to five minute pitch video.

The teams also got to meet their local colleagues who could help them with different parts of the developments, such as getting advice in accounting, how to structure a company, etc.

The thing is that David only has one team from Singapore apply for the challenge. He was nonstop promoting the competition and explaining how it could be done.  So why only one application from where he was operating?

This is when David learnt about the hurdles one needs to take into account in Asia.

One is of the fear of losing face. In Asia people would do anything to avoid being humiliated, and avoid saying things like “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”.  Applying with idea that might get turned down is just too scary/risky.

Additionally, you have a very strong sense of hierarchy in Asia. Employees are not used to stand up to their boss, so why come up with an idea that reinvent how things are?

Last but not least, in the professional services employees tend to be risk-averse. So combining these three reasons makes fostering innovation in Asia a lot more challenging.

To refocus efforts on Asia, David first wanted  to organize a hackathon with employees from Mazars who had ideas working with coders and developers for three days. But it was too costly and ambitious and the management didn’t agree to this. It was time to pivot.

A partner has a business idea that he wanted to test – cloud accounting services, but there were a lot of unanswered questions and assumptions needed to get validated. They introduced the idea to employees with a chance to work on it during an eight-week Lean Launchpad program, which would be mentored along the way.

Five people were selected, and during the eight-weeks they had to talk to at least seven customers every week, had to presently weekly their progress and BMC, and had to work every Friday outside the office at an incubator impact hub (to get them thinking outside the regular professional services style).

A the end of the program they presented their MVP along with a market research to the partner, and now they are currently working on a high fidelity MVP.

Some important lessons were learnt during this process that David shares. One is to get managers involved with the participants, because the lack of manager felt like there was no one in the team who was driving the group.

Second, the program was too short to come up with a high fidelity MVP, David reckons that twelve weeks is a better duration.

Thirdly after this experience David believes that an innovation lab is more impactful than an innovation challenge, because having the continuous external contact with startups (through the incubation hub for example) could actually bring ideas to life.

The innovation lab (the second experiment in Singapore) was a good way to foster intrapreneurship, because they could show employees that has no knowledge about startups or how they work, the value and process of breathing life into ideas. Now they are planning to re-launch this lab in other parts of the world.

To conclude, David suggests you need to have a good amount of supporting coaches for the teams, especially in Asia. You need to have the buy-in from internal sponsors.

And last but not least, you need to let your intrapreneurs work outside of the office because otherwise they will just end up working on their usual work.

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