Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Anita Friis Sommer
This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!
Our next innovation story comes from Anita Friis Sommer, Senior Innovation Manager and Innovation Research Interchange (IRI) Award Winner. Anita was recognized for best paper published in the Research-Technology Management Journal in 2019. In our interview, we hear more about how strategic frameworks, like Industry 4.0 and Agile, can help build a culture of innovation. Anita reminds us to stay curious and create space for innovation at work.
So, grab your beverage of choice and settle into our interview with Innovator of the Month, Anita Friis Sommer.
Anita Friis Sommer’s Innovation Story
Anita Friis Sommer is a Senior Innovation Manager in Operations. She holds a post-doctorate on process modeling at the University of Cambridge and a PhD in product development management and a Master’s in engineering management from Aalborg University, Denmark. She is a double recipient of the Maurice Holland Award (2016 and 2019) for articles on the use of Agile in physical product development.
UC: What is your field of specialty?
AS: I work with innovation in operations.
UC: Where does your personal innovation story begin?
AS: It all started when I was pursuing my PhD. Originally, my focus was on intelligent supply chains. I began exploring this topic in the heating and air conditioning field, but shifted rather quickly into product development. I had to take a close look at the challenges a company was facing, and realized that the processes and structures they had around new product development didn’t fit the way they actually worked. For instance, whenever a strategic customer would come and ask for a change in the product, they struggled to manage the specific engineering changes. This realization had me asking questions like, “How do we collaborate with customers in customer-driven product development?” I realized that this company was not the only one facing challenges like these. I wanted to find a cure for the pain that manufacturers were feeling around new product development.
Then I came across a few companies that seemed to have figured it out. One of them was a small manufacturer in Denmark that made amplifiers for the music industry. They had embraced methodology from the software industry with Agile ways of working and building that into the DNA of new product development. Agile methodology looks like engaging with customers early in the process, working together with them to explore what they really want and make quick iterations, and ultimately, getting something to market very fast–much faster than in the past. I love that story because the manufacturing company was just about to go bankrupt when they got a new CEO who said, “We’re going to make big changes here.” They even displayed the Agile values on the walls and really went all in. That was about 10 years ago and now everybody is going crazy about Agile, Lean Startup Method, design thinking, design sprints, Kanban, Scrum, and so on. It no longer just applies to the software industry. It’s all about structuring entrepreneurial spirit within a big company, and that’s where my innovation journey truly began: with a passion for a new, different, and better ways of working.
UC: What are some of the key factors that make innovation projects successful?
AS: Collaboration is important, but it’s also key to iterate quickly and respond to the change and information that emerges as you work, right? And if specifications are pinned down upfront, you inhibit that. So, if you create a great framework for collaboration, but don’t allow people to evolve and change their minds as they learn new things, then you’ve limited the learning process. I really promote that kind of adaptability. It’s also super important to have an open dialogue around learning. Communication enables innovation because people are encouraged to think more about how they can solve problems, and then they go and do it. Team members don’t just try to stop the problem from happening while trying to cover it up quickly on their own. Together, we see problems emerge and then open it up for others to jump in.
UC: What role do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?
AS: Storytelling is really important. Storyline drives the technology. You don’t want to implement technology just for the sake of technology. You need to have the customer’s focus and if you don’t have that, then how can you ignite the passion and curiosity? Even though we’re in innovation and we might seem far away from the customer, we still have to have that story.
UC: What one piece of advice would you give to future innovators?
AS: For me, it’s a lot about passion. Keep the passion. Keep the curiosity. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who was quoted saying that the best gift a mother can give to her child is curiosity. I really see that in all the passionate people I work with–we stay curious. It’s one of the key behaviors that I’ve been promoting–that and encouraging people to be brave with their curiosity while staying focused.
And if there are any leaders reading out there, I’d like to say: the greatest gift a company can give to their employees is the freedom, empowerment, and space to pursue their passions and innovate. Trust in your people. Set the right strategic framework for the team to follow their interests and then trust them to create value while doing it.
Thanks for reading Anita’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.
*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.