Q&A: Innovation and Portfolio Management at The J.M. Smucker Company

Recently Laura Drake – Portfolio Commercialization Analyst at The J.M. Smucker Company – gave a run-down of Smucker's journey to implementing an improved innovation and portfolio management process to drive more effective decision-making and produce sustainable value.

You can watch the 40-minute webinar here.

After her presentation, there was a lively Q&A session from people trying to improve their own organization's innovation and portfolio management practices. Here's the transcript.

Question 1

You talked a lot about your process overhaul year-by-year, the changes you made and the things that you grew in your maturity. During that process, how did you determine which metrics to keep and which ones you think should be deprecated?

Laura Drake: One of the first things we did is pull reports out of the system to see which metrics were being filled out and which were typically left blank. That was the starting point to initiate some conversations with cross-functional leadership. We recognize that just because the metric isn't being filled out doesn't mean that we should get rid of it, but again, it was a starting point.

After discussing with cross-functional leadership, R&D, finance and marketing, we got a better understanding of what metrics they were truly using and what they wanted to use to make decisions. Based on their feedback — and including, of course, what we needed for portfolio purposes — we were able to align on which metrics made sense to keep and which ones should be deprecated.

Question 2

Now that you're up and running and doing things differently, how do you ensure that your processes, the reports that you're running and the systems that you're using continue to meet your business needs as you're moving forward?

Laura Drake: This is an ongoing process. We do gather our portfolio managers across the businesses in weekly, bimonthly or biweekly meetings and gather feedback from them and their teams so we understand what the current pain points are, what's working and what isn't.

We talk to leadership to see if there's any additional reporting requests. We actually are just in the middle of a two-day work session as well with our portfolio managers to just pound through a list of topics to understand reporting needs and pain points today.

I'm also undertaking some cross-functional interviews to understand from all levels and all different groups in the organization where we're at. It's one thing to train on process and how it works in theory, but to really get into the weeds and understand what the feedback is from the people doing the work every day is essential.

Question 3

What version of Accolade are you currently using?

Laura Drake: 12.3.

Question 4

Which function are the portfolio managers considered a part of? In many organizations this role is under supply chain, but unclear where the portfolio managers live at The J.M Smucker Company.

Laura Drake: They live within our growth and innovation team.

Question 5

What did you have as a change management structure and strategy to be able to drive the changes through the organization?

Laura Drake: I think it started within our team. One of the big things that the recent organizational change has helped with is leveraging our portfolio managers for change management, talking directly to their leadership and then speaking directly to their teams.

For us, even when we didn't have the updated org chart, it was really about getting key stakeholders to be champions for whatever we were changing in the system or in processes and really emphasizing the “why.”

I think previously we had made some changes and didn't properly communicate why it was important and then it's harder to get people on board. So better communicating the strategy and driving reasons for why you're moving through the changes?

Laura Drake: Yes.

Question 6

Regarding analyzing your portfolio, do you analyze your portfolio by innovation types such as core or adjacent and transformational? And do you have a percentage of projects or resources in each of those buckets or any other lenses that you use to analyze your portfolio?

Laura Drake: Other than splitting up our portfolio by Class, we do use Project Tracks. Our Project Tracks are a measure of risk and complexity that help us communicate to the groups throughout the organization, whether or not something is going to be a fairly simple project from both a commercial and technical perspective, or if it's going to be more complex. A Track Two or a Track Three.

And when we talk about resourcing and understanding prioritization, we are starting to use the resource capabilities within Accolade to help us see where are we most resource constrained. Is this a track two? Is it going to be really risky? Can we shift it? Etc.

Question 7

Can you give a few more details about the technical and commercial readiness meetings you had? Who attends those, what is included on the agenda and what's discussed in those meetings?

Laura Drake: High-level, there is one intended to understand commercial readiness. Things like our volume build assumptions are discussed, if we have considered different channels, when we should get our MDO team or our sales team involved, and understanding customer acceptance. That's attended by marketing or innovation teams, our insights teams, our MDO or connection with sales. And those conversations, again, are really around the question, “Do we feel comfortable moving forward going into gate from a technical or from a commercial perspective?”

At the end of that meeting, for each project that we take to that review, we align on a status. This status can be green, yellow or red. And then those same conversations from a technical perspective are happening: Is this feasible? Do we understand the effort, the cost it would take to reach a premium formula? Or, if we're trying to cut pennies off with formula, where are we at from a technical perspective? And that's really just the technical community. We have R&D operations and then there's a project management representative there to bring everything together.

And they're doing the same thing: they're aligning on a technical status. A green, yellow or red. And then we take both of those statuses into the gate review and say, “Okay, after talking in detail about the commercial risks and talking in detail about the technical risks, we're at a yellow for technical and a green for commercial. What other conversations do we need to have to make a decision and move forward?”

Question 8

How do you manage your stakeholder needs over the four-year journey? You've been doing this for four years and managing a lot of your stakeholder needs. How did you do that as you were moving?

Laura Drake: Communication was big and understanding the right timing. Also, we can't do everything for everyone at the same time. If someone at a strategic level needed to see certain data or needed to have a certain change in process we tried to approach it fairly slowly. Actually, I think our first intent was to just change it and meet needs right away. But again, understanding the “why,” the problem to be solved before we just went out and did something or built a report was important, moving slowly with care, but also getting everyone together.

If we were hearing from a lot of stakeholders that they wanted particular changes or they wanted particular adds, we wanted to get an understanding across all businesses if that's something that was needed or if there were other adds to that initial request.

Question 9

What training tools do you have? What did you use?

Laura Drake: We had a handful, we do in-person trainings monthly. That's about a three hour session where we talk about Stage-Gate® and then we dive into the system and we do some Accolade training. We also have utilized Workday®. We have some Workday videos out there for some general Stage-Gate training.

We also have a SharePoint® site where we house multiple different presentations for training and quick reference guides. And then we've linked from Accolade from the user guides. We have a user section directly to that SharePoint site.

Question 10

In addition to using Accolade, what else does the growth and innovation team do?

Laura Drake: Wow. A lot. In a nutshell, our innovation team is working with our insights team that's also within that group on all of our innovation projects to understand those unmet needs in the market to see what white space we want to go after. And then there's our group, the portfolio commercialization and management group. We're doing commercialization work, which is what the portfolio managers and the project managers support as well as the portfolio management portion that we support.

Also, within our group — the overarching commercial activation team — we have groups that support item data management, industry affairs, corporate QA, consumer activation and enablement so that they're working with marketing on budgeting tools and on education and training tools. Also, with growth and innovation, our creative services team, our studio and production team are there.

Question 11

Do you make kill decisions in your portfolio reviews? Or do reserve kill decisions just for your gate reviews? What other decisions have you made in your portfolio reviews or are they just more like status updates?

Laura Drake: Within our portfolio reviews where we're discussing projects across the portfolio instead of really focusing on particular projects. It's less intended to be a conversation where we're killing projects. We might talk about a couple initiatives we have and if the timing's aligned or if we have resources to support them. I think more often than not, instead of making a kill decision, we'll put something on hold or understand whether or not it's strategic based on other things that are launching at the same time.

It's more of a conversation of resourcing. And if we look at let's say three projects and they all look good individually, but we know we can really only launch two items in that launch window. That's when they have the conversation about which ones make sense, which ones are more strategic, which ones are more profitable and then they'll relay that back to their teams. Then maybe during the next gate we'll have that conversation at the gate to communicate we put this project on hold.

Question 12

Did you roll the system out globally or just in the US business at this point?

Laura Drake: We're centralized in that sense. Our international is actually here in Orville, Ohio. And then Canada is up in Markham. Yes, both our Canadian and our international teams do use Accolade.

Question 13

Fail fast implies a project gets killed in the earlier stages. Do you have any data on which stages experience what percentage of killed projects?

Laura Drake: Yes. We end up killing most of our projects at our second gate, our Charter gate. And that's part of a result of not all of our projects go to the first gate. If it's a simple line extension or we're aware of the concept, then we go straight to Charter. But the highest percent of our projects are killed at Charter. Then, our third gate is a little lower than that. And our last gate is significantly lower than the others.

Question 14

What changes do you have planned in terms of continuous improvement on your portfolio management journey?

Laura Drake: We are looking to implement new systems from an item perspective and from a project management perspective. We're excited about linking some of those back to Accolade to eliminate dual entry that our project managers have to do today. And that's really the big thing slotted for next fiscal, I guess current fiscal and moving on to the next several fiscals is really just getting those new systems up and running and really benefiting from the efficiency and the synergies that we found. Even just early on in the testing phases.

Question 15

Are your project managers PMP certified?

Laura Drake: I think some are, I don't think we have it as a requirement, but I can double check on that one and follow up with whoever asked that question.

Question 16

Can you share what the different stages are in your Stage-Gate process? Give us an overview of the stages and gates that you have.

Laura Drake: First, we submit an opportunity within the system. That's an idea that we're considering to launch. Then once we aligned that it's strategic we move that into our first stage, which is Discover. In Discover, we're really just trying to understand that an articulated unmet need in the market. What are we really trying to go after? What problem are we trying to solve?

After Discover, we're moving into Study Request where we're showing a learning plan, what research, what we want to learn more about. Really getting permission to go do that. After Study Request the project will enter the Spine stage prior to Charter. This is where we're creating the charter for the project. Understanding what that solution or that potential product solution could look like. Doing a bit more research to really get there. Charter is the gate.

It goes Discover, send your request, Define and then Charter. After Charter, we move into Create and here's where we're really creating the solution on a small scale — doing prototype development — trying to determine whether or not it's technically feasible to create the solution. Then after we have information regarding that product solution, we move to Money gate. After Create is where there is a much bigger review of the financials to understand the profitability.

If we're good, and it's a “go” at Money gate, we'll move to Qualify. And this is where we're really qualifying the capability to produce this item, client trials are involved, we get operations and supply chain involved, and then if the client trial goes well the next gate we move to is Launch Approval. And this is the final approval to launch. After we get that Launch Approval the last stage of our Stage-Gate process is Launch, where we work on really executing that go-to-market strategy, doing customer calls, starting production, building out the pipeline and then ultimately ship.

Question 17

How do you drive adoption? Is it a top-down directive?

Laura Drake: Yeah. I think it's kind of both ways. I think having those champions in our portfolio managers have really helped in getting leadership on-board. But I think also going to a lower level and getting kind of at the grassroots level of getting that alignment and understanding even at the analyst level, they're the ones doing the work, if we can show them the benefit that's also helpful. Kind of both. And then we can hopefully meet in the middle.


Thanks again to Laura Drake for presenting The J.M. Smucker Company's innovation and portfolio management journey!

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