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Unblocking innovation with food product development expert Valia Christidou

Valia Christidou

We meet an R&D leader with 25 years of experience in innovation and product development to discuss some of the blockers covered in our second Innovation Blockers report – and a couple of her own.

Innovation is the beating heart of any business; the fuel that powers the engine. Or at least it should be. Why is it, then, that more than 90% of companies are unhappy with their innovation or lack thereof? In our latest Innovation Blockers report, we analyzed these five blockers:

  • Fear of failure
  • Conflicting goals
  • A lack of innovation skills
  • No precise definition of what innovation is
  • Disagreement over who owns innovation

We wanted to explore these blockers in greater detail and establish how best to overcome them. To do so, we spoke to Valia Christidou, a freelance R&D leader with an extensive background in food science and technology. It’s a field she found herself falling into by accident but she quickly fell in love with it when she realized the scope of the work involved and the innovations taking place within the food sector.

She spent 25 years working in product development for United Biscuits and spent that time pushing for innovation in new products before moving on as head of R&D UK & Europe at Pladis Global, and finally settling into her current role as a food innovation and product development consultant.

Read the full innovation blockers report

Why are we so scared of failure, and should we be more failure friendly?

Valia is quite pragmatic when it comes to the concept of failure and feels that, as long as we have the right processes in place, we can cast aside our fear and lead more free and creative lives. She explains: “If you've got a robust innovation process in place and a diversity of disciplines at every stage of that process, that's all you need, that's the guarantee. Once you’ve got that in place, you can go off and be as creative as you need to be because you have a safety net.

In the case of food, specifically, she’s referring to food safety and regulatory issues, because as long as you have brought the right people into the project (the microbiologists, the safety specialists and everybody else) to take care of those basics, everything else is open. It’s a safety net that allows a team to be completely free of fear and that can be incredibly liberating.

She also approaches the subject of fear from a perspective of personality and mindset. Half the battle, she surmises, is in recruiting the right people; being around a diverse set of people will not crush your ideas but encourage them, and they will have your back while also being able to validate your thinking.

Valia adds: “You've got to have people with a growth mindset and you have to trust that they are going to have your back should a problem arise. A good innovation team consists of interdependent thinkers in different topics too, so you have diversity in thinking at every level and a variety of points of view, knowledge and expertise to pull from.

Of course, you’re less likely to be afraid of failure if you have a solid team that trusts each other implicitly. So trust is another major factor that Valia points towards.

She explains: “In new product development, you've got very tight timescales. That means working 24/7 sometimes, and if you’re going to be spending that much time with your team you have to make sure your relationships are solid. Then you’ll see that innovative magic come together.

If you’re able to take members of the team forward with you, it also lends your ideas more credence and gives the team a greater level of ownership, which is always going to lead to more confidence and more clarity.

Is there confusion over who owns innovation?

While she agrees that there always needs to be someone “carrying the torch,” and taking responsibility for delivering Innovation in a business, Valia feels there is only ever confusion over who owns innovation when the team, even at board level, doesn’t have common goals.
The buck, she argues, for the success of a business always stops with the CEO and their exec team. Delivering the Innovation plan, as part of the wider business plan, should be the objective of everyone on the board. The same should apply to all the other business priorities.

The immediate outcome of this line of thinking, of course, is that it negates a lot of the finger-pointing and shirking of responsibility that can often occur in situations where a lot of very opinionated people are working together. As Valia puts it: “My success is their success, and their success is my success.

Are we struggling to define innovation?

Valia believes that a lack of clarity can lead to significant problems further down the line. She says: “I always think it’s important to be very clear about what it is you're delivering. Otherwise, you end up delivering something and hearing the immortal line: 'That’s not what I expected.'

The problem is, however, that no matter how clear you are with your individual definitions of what you intend to deliver, you can’t possibly know everyone’s expectations and, even more problematically, people’s expectations can and will change.

She explains: “There is no magic way of seeing inside people’s minds, so the best you can do is to be as clear and detailed as possible when you explain what you expect to be delivered and what you want the endpoint to actually look like.” This is a blocker, it would appear, that she believes comes down to communication.

Could a lack of innovation skills be holding your business back?

When it comes to innovation skills, Valia argues that you might as well be arguing about how long a piece of string is. What is fundamental, however, is the need for a solid innovation framework and the ability to use it and work within it. This is something she agrees that Solverboard delivers in spades.

She also feels, however, that you need a combination of hard and soft skills if you want to push ahead with true innovation. She explains: “Hard skills can either be bought in or developed but ideally in food technology, where time is always of the essence, you may want to do both.”

Valia also underlines the importance of having an innovation plan in place. “If you have a three- or five-year plan and you know your growth is going to come from, for example, healthier opportunities, then you can define the technology road map to deliver these opportunities and the specific skills you need to have in place.

By being clear about where the opportunities are, she believes it’s easier to create an innovation strategy that is robust and, even though it may be tweaked in the future, you’ll never find yourself lapsing into panic mode.

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Measuring the future as if it’s the present

Moving past our initial blockers, Valia also had her own insights she wanted to share with us, the first of which was the fallacy of measuring the future as if it’s right now. Particularly given the unpredictability of the last 12 months, predicting the future has never been a more precarious task and can be a major blocker to creativity and innovation.

She says: “If you apply the same rules to a new product as you do to a 50-year-old established brand, it just doesn’t add up. You can’t expect a new product to be as streamlined in its manufacturing as a product that has been running for 20 years. There are too many variables. It would be like replacing all 11 players on a football team and expecting the same result immediately.”

It requires as Valia puts it, a little more “imagination in terms of how you measure success.” Because if you’re only measuring success by sales figures then you’re missing the bigger picture entirely, and it’s in that bigger picture that the real innovation lives and thrives.

Organizational change

Finally, Valia spoke to us about the blocker of frequent organizational change. While it is key that teams are organized in the best way to deliver their projects, it is also important to avoid changes for the sake of it. Innovation teams are agents of change and used to taking risks and facing uncertainty, but they also need stability so that they can focus their energy in developing trusting relationships, growing professionally and in delivering projects.

Our thanks to Valia for her time and her insight. The key takeaway here seems to be that innovation can only be allowed to thrive and overcome its blockers if every member of the team is on the same page and that there are strong enough foundations in place to allow for the kind of daring risks that make individual and business-wide innovations succeed.

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