Caterpillar’s Ken Gray on Leading in Innovation

December 7, 2015

When it comes to innovation, there are significant distinctions between startups and large enterprises. Startups are often agile and have the advantage of being able to rapidly change directions without worrying about permission or casting aside legacy systems or processes. Meanwhile, large companies have great, established brands and better access to resources, but cultures that sometimes stymie innovation rather than foster it. So how does a large company like Caterpillar move forward in innovating with a leadership team that supports it?

Recently, the Marketing & Digital Division’s Director of Innovation, Ken Gray, took part in a podcast interview with the Everyday Innovator – a blog for Innovators and educators – talking about just that. In it, he outlines some of the actions Caterpillar and his team are taking to overcome innovation barriers and develop leaders that will help turn the organization into an innovation factory for new businesses.

“Caterpillar has been an innovator in the businesses we’ve chosen to be in for 90 years. You don’t survive 90 years without being an innovative company,” Gray said in his interview. “That said, we’ve become a much larger company than we were when I joined it. What we’ve found with an organization this size is we have pockets of great success … but we needed to be more innovative to continue to grow our top line.”

According to Gray, continuous improvement and building better machines often take a front seat at Caterpillar. He said spending time improving the things that made our company successful is essential, but we also need to make it easier to innovate in our core business and search for new opportunities to grow the company’s top line.

“We tend to be historically focused on how do we make a better machine, what’s the better design look like and how do we manufacture that machine more effectively,” Gray said. “This organization, while we’re going to do some things that are going to support those traditional activities, we’re going to try to get more outside the machine than where we’ve traditionally been … we’re trying to find new businesses for Caterpillar.”

Gray’s team has started to create the culture, processes and tools to do just that, starting with creating a rankless team with leaders that stand out with a new way of thinking.

"I manage my team with a principal we call the ‘kitchen table,’ and it was born a long, long time ago at my parents’ own kitchen table, where we were expected to share at the table every day and there were no topics that were off limits,” Gray said.  “So those were the times that we brought up the tough subjects…. So if there’s a really tough conversation to be had, my team will say, ‘Okay, Ken, kitchen table.’ It’s just a way we’ve encouraged people to be brave.”

And speaking of being brave, when it comes to a great idea … the advice Ken had for innovators is just to get started. He said a good place to get started is establish a culture with mutual trust between leaders and their teams – providing employees freedom to work on new ideas.

“As opposed to coming in and barking orders, the best leaders tend to come in and ask questions based on insights they have gained through their own experience that help new leaders learn on their own,” Gray said. “I think that’s really important that you allow your team to learn along the way, but one of your roles as a leader is to take the team places it might not go without you. The only way to do that is [by asking questions].”

To hear more and read the highlights from Ken’s interview, click here.

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