Q&A: Babak Forutanpour on how to start a grass roots innovation program in a big company

How do you start a grassroots innovation program within your company? In the following interview, you’ll learn how simple it really is.

I had the opportunity to interview Babak Forutanpour, the Internal Innovation Lead of Qualcomm’s Flux, an employee run open innovation program. In a wide ranging interview he shared with me his experience in starting an innovation program inside Qualcomm, as well as the fantastic results they’ve achieved. What started as an 8 person experiment, four years later is a global initiative.

Below, I’ve summarized some of the answers.

What was/is the goal behind the Forward Looking User Experience program you started at Qualcomm?

It was a program that we decide to start in March 2009 and it really came out of a desire to formalize these amazing discussions I was having with my colleagues during lunch. We were each in different departments at Qualcomm; Brian was in audio, Dave was image processing like me, Ted was systems, Anthony was power. While we were being innovative in our respective domains of expertise, when we got together, it was magic. I hate to use a cliché, but it really was synergistic. So one day, I just decided to formalize it a tiny bit, making sure it still remained fun as we were doing it during lunch. I invited a few more people that I knew were both technically smart but felt were “creative,” who worked in teams we did have a lot of insights into, posed a challenge and took meeting minutes to keep inventorship clear. The first time that we kicked it off, I called it Innovation Roundtable Series, but the team of 8 didn’t like the name as it reminded them of the IRS. The challenge we set for ourselves was “let’s spend 90 minutes every two weeks to sit together and see if together we can discover a latent user need”. Simply, though very difficult to executive, discover a novel solution to an existing problem or a solution to a problem others didn’t even know existed!

The focus of Flux was not necessarily to focus on pixels and chips, but user experience. Flux is about new ideas, whether they’re big or small. They don’t have to be things that move the needle, they don’t have to be things that sell hundreds of millions of chips, it just has to pass two tests: useful and novel.

What we found that by bringing people together that normally don’t interact, and being patient, letting your minds flow without bias, if the team has the right mix of talent, you can discovers some really interesting user needs.

What a couple of friends and I started as an experiment has now grown to numerous teams on four continents, and at last count, captured over 50 patents pending in 50 months with numerous prototypes built. To me, FLUX  is a testament for the passion of innovation, the creativity and curiosity of Qualcomm employees. Ideas may be dime a dozen, but by definition, not novel and useful ones. It is not for everyone, brainstorming effectively is hard work, so that is why we created 4 other programs for those who want to merely network with people outside their social and technical network.

What has surprised you most of this experience?

What surprised me the most was how other people got bitten by this bug of what we call stumping the Google Search. Our goal in those meetings was not just camaraderie and great discussions; we have an agenda, meeting minutes and a process. Our goal is to play this game of “stumping the Google search”, can we together in a room come up with something that no one in the world has thought of.

Again, what has surprised me the most is how much other people have enjoyed playing this game. We see it as a sport, something that you get better at the more you practice, something that you will never master, what we call “Master Bender” but can work towards. When I started the 2nd team, and 3rd, but didn’t have the time to start the 4th team and Anthony Blow stepped up, that is when I knew this baby was scalable and hopefully sustainable.

So, I guess that by doing this you have come up with a creative process. Can you talk about that?

We made it up as we went, and we found that what works best is to keep it democratic. Which means you can bring any topic to the meeting; it’s a place where you can feel safe that you are not going to be judged. It’s a grassroots effort, by the people for the people.

The first thing we do is give the floor to anyone who is interested in talking about a cool article they read, a pain point that they have whether it be personal or work related. And we’ll see where discussions go. The moderator has to be sensitive enough to not cut the discussions too early where people feel excluded, or let it run too long that we are not making best use of the 90 minutes we share every 2 weeks. Over time, we have learned what works, and have our own terminology, “bending,” “Ying,” “runs,” “TOs.”

The moderator takes notes and anything interesting that is discussed during those 90 minutes and assigns people to those ideas for follow up. The follow up is key, without that, then it’s just a creative or team building exercise. There is no secret sauce. The secret sauce is having passionate people who are curious.

At any point, did you think about implementing something similar Google’s 20% time strategy to give people time to play on emerging ideas?

I am sure there are teams within Qualcomm that do have that 20% time, but it is not a company policy. Qualcomm is very execution focused, and I not to speak out of turn, but I don’t think we are a position where we can give folks one day a week to explore. In FLUX, for our members, we have found great success by not doing the 20% time individually, but 2% collectively.

What were the main the obstacles, if any, that you had to overcome to get traction with this initiative?

It’s been a great ride, with honestly, few obstacles. The program has been getting amazing support from employees, middle management, all the way to 10th floor. The only obstacle we’ve had to overcome is to just prove ourselves. At the beginning, we could’ve gone to executives to ask for support but we didn’t have the reputation. So, you have to build a brand. You have to build the credibility with employees and upper management. So, we decided to do it grassroots and learn as we go. We started with 8, and have grown at record rate since. When our CEO keynoted our 3rd birthday in our auditorium and then joined us for brainstorming sessions, that was huge. When COO took the entire San Diego team out for beers, that was all the thanks we ever needed. Those milestones helped the club grow by leaps and bounds.

Culture for some is define by what you do when no one is looking, where the Employee Manual leaves off. I think FLUX is just one of many indicators that Qualcomm has great company culture and is built to last as we have a sense of pride, ownership that we don’t roll out of bed each day for benefits, but we want to help lead the mobile revolution.

What advice do you have for established companies that want to start an innovation program/think tank like Flux?

It doesn’t have to be complicated; it doesn’t have to be this large process with management, a huge budget and a lot of structure in order to get employees connected, whereby ideas are exchanged. In fact, that might turn many off. Folks are already working long hours, so you have to make it fun, something they want to do, not something you tell them, or even ask them to do. The goal is to engineer serendipity, to provide situations where employees get together and discuss things for the benefit of their own selves, feeding their own passions, coupled with great things that can happen for the company.

So, the advice is very simple: just try it!

If it works, that’s fantastic. If it doesn’t, then that’s fine too. There are other ways to innovate. Innovation is messy, it’s dirty and by nature one size does not fit all. So, just try it. Find a champion, find someone who really believes in it, let he or she go for it and see if it scales. If it doesn’t scale, figure out why it didn’t scale, try to correct it and do another run.

What are you most proud of about this initiative?

I’m most proud of how it makes people feel. When they feel good, I in turn as one of the founders and leads feel good about my role in the company, the world really. It’s really about the human connection. To know that 6 guys and 2 girls in San Diego started this, and it has reached Singapore, Markham, Bangalore, Colorado, UK, all over, and touched lives, makes me the proudest. Whenever someone visits our blog,  then signs up for a team, gives it a go, finds that it is their favorite meeting of the week and emails me or their moderators, it makes me feel that all the hard work was worth it.

What did you learn about yourself from this experience?

Flux has helped validate that I should put myself out there more, I should say yes to more opportunities and take more risks. It’s good to put yourself in uncomfortable situations where, in my case, with the 2nd team, ask 15 people to come to a room and try to convince them to go on this Flux journey. So, for me personally, it has shown me that fate favors the courageous.

If you have any additional questions, or would like to share your own experience with Babak, please follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.