Interview with Christophe Lienhard

Fall down, get up, straighten your hat, keep going

Successful companies are innovative companies – because in the age of digitalisation, many tried-and-tested business models no longer apply and need to be replaced with new ones. But how does a company become innovative?

Text: Ladina Camenisch,

At the moment, every company seems to be dealing with the topic of innovation. Is this the hype of the hour?

It’s more than hype – it’s a necessity. The times have changed: New competitors are pushing their way onto the market, customer needs are changing, margins are declining, and companies are increasingly under financial pressure. If you want to survive you have to look for new areas of business. In other words, you have to be innovative.

How does this work?

By starting to think like a start-up. Let’s take an established company like Swisscom. We know the market well; we are experts in our field. But our slow, constant growth is no longer enough. In order to create more business, we need to take new risks. We must learn to think in a completely different way. We must enter a market that we don’t know yet, where we are beginners. This requires a start-up mentality and not the thinking of classic managers. They are the quicksand into which innovations disappear, never to be seen again. And no new success comes from simply preserving the status quo.

But how do I introduce such a mentality into a traditional company?

This is the crux of the matter. A product is often developed over many years – and you want to make it a success, of course. After all, the reputation of everyone involved is at stake. The product is pushed forward using the company coffers, even if it is a non-starter when seen from a neutral point of view. In the end it inevitably fails, and the damage can be great. This is different for start-ups. Here success and failure are much more immediate. For a start-up to work, it needs fast, iterative processes. If something doesn’t work, an immediate adjustment is made. If the market begins to move, the company reacts fast. If no success is apparent after a few months, the start-up is doomed to failure. This kind of thinking should also be used by big companies.

But isn’t this utopian?

No. Swisscom is the proof that it works. At Swisscom Digital Enterprise Solutions, we have a unit that examines and pursues innovative business ideas with a start-up approach. If they prove themselves, we integrate them into the portfolio. If not, we terminate the exercise and start on another innovative project. Even if we fail, we don’t really fail. After all, we take the lessons learned into the next project. I believe that a modern company should work even more with entrepreneurs – meaning entrepreneurs from its own ranks. In this way, innovative projects take off – or at least crash and burn quickly.

What skills do employees need to have in order to work this way?

Basically, the same skills that an entrepreneur needs: visionary ideas, a willingness to take risks, and tenacity. These people often work in multiple disciplines with colleagues from other departments; they care less about job titles and hierarchies than results. Fundamental openness to new tools and methods as well as boundless curiosity are also important factors for success.

Don’t you also need input from outside?

Yes. You need employees who know the internal business very well and develop it further with the right mindset. On the other hand, friction from the outside is required: people who ask critical questions, companies that are becoming a potential danger with their business model and are shaking us up. That’s why at Swisscom we work closely with various start-ups and consider cooperating with certain companies. For example, last year we founded a joint venture with Open Web Technology that is now known as Swisscom Digital Technology (SDT). Our colleagues at SDT are very good at giving advice on digital business transformation. The question of innovative, new areas of business is one of their key topics.

Nevertheless, most companies still make most of their money with their core business. Isn’t it taking it a bit too far when companies invest so much money and energy in innovation?

The fact that even big players are so involved in innovative projects should grab the attention of all the other companies. Success always has a limited time horizon. We are all inside the same hamster wheel: If we don’t keep evolving, other companies will pass us by. In the end, it’s a simple calculation: the more innovative projects you try out, the greater the chance that some of them will be successful. Therefore, a truly innovative company has only one choice: fall down, get up, straighten its hat, keep going.

Swisscom Digital Technology

This joint venture with Swisscom helps companies develop new products or optimise their organisation using digital technologies. Swisscom Digital Technology – also known as Open Web Technology – works hand in hand with its customers to define goals and requirements, propose suitable solutions and implement the transformation.

Contact: Markus Eberhard

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