Pavel Sikachev on How Big Companies Could Integrate Innovationsby@alexlash
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Pavel Sikachev on How Big Companies Could Integrate Innovations

by Alex LashkovJanuary 27th, 2023
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Pavel Sikachev has been managing various product portfolios, empowered by innovation and agility. He landed international C-suite roles in large corporations such as Mars Inc. Sikachev shared his secret sauce of innovation tools and his approach to them. He also shared his opinions on the future of product management.
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Pavel Sikachev has been managing various product portfolios, empowered by innovation and agility, managing cross-cultural teams and organizations, and scaling up different product ecosystems and services across the European and American markets.

From working in tech startups to landing international C-suite roles in large corporations such as Mars Inc., Sikachev’s experience in innovation proves his professionalism in the industry, and passion for high-end technology and innovation, along with growth and development techniques. 

In the interview, Pavel shared his secret sauce of innovation tools and his approach to them, his opinions on the future of product management, and how big companies can integrate innovations into their business strategies.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us about your professional backstory?

My career started in the field of business development and growth. I was focused on international product scaling, which led me to the product management field. It significantly boosted my career, which is how I landed leadership roles in leading tech companies and corporations such as Mars Inc.  

 In JivoChat, for instance, I was involved with a SaaS product, penetrating and scaling the business in the US and EU markets. On the other hand, at Mars Inc., my team and I built a PetTech ecosystem, which became the pioneer project in Europe. Apart from it, I was leading four product teams and negotiating an M&A deal to have the division product portfolio of Mars Inc. enhanced. That experience transformed my career from Director of Product Management to Head of the Region Division. It also turned my life in a different direction from a professional and personal perspective. 

Besides directing projects in established corporations, I have been leading products and managing startups for the last seven years. Across the European Union and the United States, my work scale consisted of B2C and B2B products, primarily for diverse environment settings such as e-commerce, marketplaces, SaaS, and even health tech. In other words, I helped grow and scale products on the international market for startups and well-known companies. 

I also have experience launching two startups, building everything from scratch, and leading all the processes at the beginning. Whereas one startup has profoundly failed and another is on pause for better times, I mentor other startups, solo entrepreneurs, and product professionals and help them scale up their business operations, launch new projects, and own the world of product management. 

You’ve had a remarkable career journey. Why have you chosen to work at large corporate companies?

Large corporations have numerous career opportunities and benefits, room for professional and personal growth and development, and room for challenge. In particular, I liked the idea of an organized workflow and structure as a whole. This is almost impossible for a startup, as it has a chaotic environment with processes still in the research or discovery phase, just before the scaling begins. Leading a division is great, and doing it in a large corporation with 6,000 people is exceptional. It significantly impacts you as a project leader, positioning the brand on the international market. 

Another advantage of being a part of a large corporation is the fantastic opportunity to have multiple products in the product portfolio on various platforms while building the ecosystem. A vivid example of my career could be my experience at Mars Inc. when we made the PetTech ecosystem, which was new to me. I was the head of the newly created division with a cross-functional team focusing on digital products for pet parents and their little friends. In fact, I led a portfolio of five various products on mobile and web platforms. It was a breathtaking experience as it involved innovative activities that involved testing and creating new digital products that would further become an integral part of the corporate machine with tremendous scale and leverage. 

What’s the most impactful initiative you’ve led that you’re particularly proud of?

I admire the success we were able to reach with my team in JivoChat. We were competing against market leaders such as Zendesk and Intercom while being bootstrapped business, and this takes a lot of courage. Nonetheless, thanks to our knowledge and previous learnings of the home market, my team and I were able to determine the strong product positioning on the market and accelerate its development in North America and Europe. By doing so, we double our revenue and, at the same time, capture a niche with SMB customers. 

Mars, Inc. has a special place in my heart, not only as a company where I was leading a portfolio but as a company that screams innovation. In particular, I was leading the new division in the Mars Petcare branch, Kinship, where the goal was to create a holistic platform for pet parents to solve significant issues with their pets. We did a fantastic job with my team, starting with only one mature product and, later on, building the entire ecosystem over the next few years. I am incredibly proud of this accomplishment, which my team and I were able to complete in less than two years.

Creating the first ecosystem of a portfolio of various digital products and services in a PetTech was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everything was unknown to me, and everything was carrying some sort of innovation, whether it was a HealthTech, an InsurTech, or simply the subscription product with the delivery of goods. That was an excellent opportunity to dig deeper and learn more about the market and new types of D2C products. 

 Yet, there were some challenges, like in any other workspace. Mainly, it was the difficulties of adapting the US headquarters strategy to the local market and understanding how to connect all the products in one synergetic ecosystem. With the help of other departments, in particular, and using them as a leverage mechanism, my team figured it out, from addressing the complexity of the ecosystem to establishing partnerships with different business verticals across the company. Such noteworthy achievements were an integral part of my career growth. Thanks to them, I accomplished even more, considering the knowledge of the industry and innovation as a driving force in the market. 

To be a real leader in your industry, it’s important to prioritize innovation. This isn’t always easy. How to create an environment for innovative solutions at any company? 

Undoubtedly, the focus on innovation is one of the most powerful tools of any company, and it is vital to know how to utilize it to your benefit. Yet, there needs to be a manual on how to do it adequately, as every company differs from each other, whether we talk about culture, environment, or just business activities and operations. Some innovation practices are universal, so I will focus on them to give you an overview of innovation, following the standard advice that can help you build the innovation path that you can tailor according to your business needs and wants.

Innovation drives the company, and it is the critical element of success. It creates an environment focused on innovation, an integral element for corporations, to stay afloat, drive growth, and prevail in competition. Creativity and risk-taking are two vital items businesses should put on their "must-have" list to create an environment driven by innovation. Simply put, corporations have to encourage employees to step outside their comfort zone, think outside the box, and take calculated risks even if they do not go as planned. It is essential to focus on team collaboration since it brings diverse perspectives to the table along with various experiences and backgrounds that could lead to new ideas, concepts, and solutions. 

Furthermore, providing resources and support to employees is critical to fostering innovation. A vivid example of this could be access to training, mentorship, and financial support that is aimed at helping employees pursue their ideas and bring them to fruition. When you recognize and reward some employees' work regarding innovative solutions, other members of your organization will be encouraged to do the same high-quality job. It only takes a little encouragement to create the magic or the innovation. 

Open and transparent communication is integral to creating innovation and distributing it within the company. Let’s agree on one thing: employees should feel comfortable expressing their ideas or sharing their opinions and concerns on various topics. At the same time, management should be open to hearing it all, whether the message is positive or negative. To add a little spark to ideas and solutions, businesses should encourage ongoing learning processes and stay up-to-date with the industry’s news and recent developments in this field.  

It is also essential to have a clear understanding and complete comprehension of ownership from the employee’s point of view. For instance, workers should be able to take ownership of their work and make the right decisions to drive innovation. This could be done with a positive work culture that values creativity, diversity, and collaboration. A holy trinity that helps create an innovative environment where employees are empowered and motivated to develop new ideas daily. 

Another aspect of an innovative community is the clear goals and expectations set by the management or corporation as a whole. You, as a leader, should communicate the business’s goals and expectations as simply as possible, and you have to ensure that every employee understands them the same way you do. By doing so, employees and you will focus on innovative solutions that scale up your business operations and activities. 

Undoubtedly, this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding innovation. Yet, this is the basis of all corporate manuals prioritizing workflow innovation. 

Startups can be powerful and effective in achieving a corporate innovation strategy. How can companies engage with startups to enhance corporate innovation?

Let's face it: startups appear on the market for one and only one reason: innovation, which drives their growth. Simultaneously, corporations should use it as a learning opportunity to learn how startups implement innovation in their business ecosystems and how they navigate the market with an agile approach and rapid pace of invention.

There are several ways companies can collaborate with startups to enhance the innovation aspect of their ecosystem. As a vivid example, businesses can establish a corporate venture program called a CVC. With the help of CVC, the company invests in and establishes partnerships with rising industry stars (aka promising startups) to gain access to their innovative technology, business models, and other intriguing insights. This practice enables the company to identify and capitalize on new opportunities and gain access to the startup's CRM, including investors, partners, and customers. 

Creating an open innovation platform is another example of how corporations can utilize the innovative power of startups. In particular, the innovation platform invites startups to submit ideas and solutions for specific challenges or opportunities. This can be seen as a competition. Innovative platforms are an excellent source for established businesses to dig deeper into the collective knowledge, gain expertise in the startup community, and identify and develop new ideas and solutions that could only be created with the innovative approach of one or another startup. 

Furthermore, large corporations communicate with startups with the help of incubators and accelerators that provide support and resources that help startups grow and develop their business plans. Involvement in incubators and accelerators identifies the company as an innovative entity that helps startups and prioritizes innovation in business operations. 

Mars Petcare is a vivid example of this. Lead Venture Studio & Academy is a perfect opportunity for early founders to test the business concept and the idea behind it and better structure their path to success. You can also find the brightest ideas for the pet world that have been successfully funded at the Compassion Fund. 

Lastly, companies can engage with startups with the help of open innovation programs that involve collaboration with external partners and aim at developing and commercializing new products, services, or technologies. In other words, businesses invite startups to participate in innovation challenges such as hackathons and other innovation-savvy collaborative events. This practice allows the company to stay competitive, adapt to market conditions, and implement innovation into its business model. 

Often, a tug of war between short-term profit goals and the long-range plan is a big challenge. How do different types of innovation drive short-term and long-term business strategies?

As you might have guessed from the name, different types of innovation drive various business strategies. For instance, incremental innovation involves minor improvements to existing products and processes. It can drive business strategy in the short term by helping companies generate immediate revenue and boost efficiency. Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, involves the introduction of new technologies and business models that make noise or simply disrupt existing markets. It can drive business strategy in the long term by helping companies gain a competitive advantage in the market and, therefore, open up new markets for the company.

At the same time, innovation can drive business strategies in the long term by creating new products, services, and business models that could generate long-term revenue channels. As a vivid example, companies that are invested in research and development (R&D) are more likely to create new products and services that make some money, which is an integral part of sustaining the company’s growth and profitability in the long run. 

Hence, different types of innovation impact business strategy in the most diverse ways, depending on the set goals and objectives of the company. That is why it is crucial to understand different types of innovation, their impact on the business and its strategies, and align the innovative approaches with the defined goals and objectives.  

Scaling includes bringing new people into the organization. How should a company manage a team responsible for innovations?

People are the heart of every business, and when we talk about innovation, they are the vital core of it. In the business world, companies that can attract professionals to their business activities are considered lucky for a simple reason. Corporations allow their employees to grow and develop skills, which is a remarkable opportunity nowadays. 

Before managing a team responsible for innovation, it is crucial to define the term "innovation." So, what is it in austere words? Well, innovation is a complex process of generating new ideas, products, and processes for further implementation in the business strategy that would add value to it. Undoubtedly, innovation is a crucial driver of any company's success, as it helps businesses stay ahead of the curve, respond to changes in the market rapidly, and prevail in the competition. Companies that can implement innovation in their ecosystem are more likely to succeed in today’s world full of high-end technology, a fast-paced environment, and competition. 

There are several techniques corporations use to foster innovation and promote growth within the team. First, they create a friendly work environment where creativity and risk-taking prevail. On top of that, some corporations provide resources and support to the teams so they can experiment and try out new ideas that will later be recognized and rewarded by the management. Another technique some companies utilize is collaboration and communication tools, such as online project management platforms and team chat apps. The main idea behind these tools is to help various teams within the company work together and, most importantly, communicate effectively. 

Another vivid example of a sufficient tool that most businesses use is structured approaches to developing and implementing new ideas within an organization. For instance, innovation frameworks and methodologies, such as design thinking and agile, produce structure and guidance for teams. With the help of such guidance, employees work on new projects more effectively. To enhance it even further, some companies allow people to utilize training and development opportunities to the maximum as they can boost the development of new skills and ideas, supported by the newly gained knowledge and skills from the training. In other words, training and development help employees generate, evaluate, and understand ideas at a new and satisfactory level. 

Project management tools, for instance, help the team stay organized and focused on the goal of delivering innovative solutions. With the help of such tools, companies ensure that everyone on the team is on the same page and that they all work toward one target more efficiently and effectively. 

The next step in managing innovative teams is to further support innovation within the company. Attracting new creative minds who would be a perfect fit for an organizational environment fueled by innovation is especially important. For example, companies should actively seek innovative and creative candidates, and provide ongoing training and development opportunities for the professional and personal growth of every employee in the corporation. By incorporating these steps into their business strategy, corporations build strong, innovative teams that are ready for a challenge in order to drive success and remain competitive in the market. 

Do you think it's possible to create a system and environment that develops employees' innovative thinking?

No doubt at all — it is more than possible to create a system and an environment in which employees’ innovative thinking abilities are highly appreciated and encouraged. By implementing various innovative strategies, such as providing employees with opportunities for professional development and training, encouraging collaboration and idea-sharing, fostering a culture of innovation and creativity, and providing resources and support for employees to develop their ideas further, you create a supportive environment with innovative thinking that drives innovation within the organization. 

A great example of innovative thinking is my experience at Mars Inc., where there are several innovation-driving projects, including the global event "Make the Difference" and the local initiative " Fund of Bright Ideas." To my surprise, everybody is engaged in such activities, and it does not matter whether you are an engineer, a marketer, or part of a digital team. On top of that, there is the judging panel, which consists of senior leadership and professionals outside the corporation with significant achievements powered by innovation. My team and I, for instance, are mentors for some of the local events that focus on digital products and services. We helped establish discovery processes and emphasized explanations regarding product mindset for the teams. And one of our students, along with her team, will become a winner in 2021. Such an initiative was a watershed moment for her. She drastically altered her career path: product management was the way to go for her, and she soon joined my team as a junior product manager.

Another innovation-driven approach within JivoChat was an initiative in a non-corporate environment with 50 participants. This event is a cherry on top for engineers, as they could receive "bonus points" if they come up with a better approach, simplification, or product innovation. Usually, engineering teams spend bonuses on tech upgrades and other benefits. 

 What are the biggest obstacles to innovation?

Several constraints could be considered obstacles to the innovations of corporations. Some of them I have encountered during my experience, and I want to outline the four most significant barriers to innovation. The first and most important is the need for more support from top management, which leads to several problems, such as challenges for employees to secure the resources they need to develop and implement new ideas in the business structure. From my perspective, top management not only provides the resources but also drives the exposure within the company that improves the idea workflow and the openness to collaboration in case it is needed. From a leadership standpoint, setting the course for innovation is critical.

Another hardship preventing innovation in the corporation is the organizational culture, which primarily focuses on stability and caution rather than risk-taking. I have faced this obstacle while working in corporate America, where a sort of "fixed" mindset was created roughly 5–10 years ago without any possibility of changing it in the future. Unfortunately, this is not an odd reason that restricts innovation but rather the classic scenario: large corporations are most likely to have complex hierarchies and bureaucratic activities that slow down decision-making processes and hinder the implementation of new ideas and innovation. Some departments, for instance, are just inflexible by default, and it takes courage and time to meet the right person, driven by creativity and innovation, to help you pursue and reach the set goals. A true miracle, if I may say so. 

Lack of collaboration within the corporation is another obstacle you must avoid. It is also closely linked with other problems, including a lack of cooperation between different teams and a need for more diversity in work. Of course, some departments may not communicate as effectively as you would like, which can be a red flag leading to the concealment of innovative ideas for development. Luckily, this issue can be solved with the integration of a corporate culture that encourages not only creativity and innovation within the company but also a safe space for the employees to share the craziest ideas that can be implemented in the business structure and that can drive innovation to the market. 

Last but not least, there are innovation activities designed to foster innovation. Sometimes they work wonders, and sometimes it is torture for employees to create something innovative without any motivation or inspiration. You have to find the right balance between those two. Furthermore, it is crucial to embed the user needs, competition analysis, and pressure overview from the external market process into the initial research. And if the business does not do anything from the abovementioned list, it is time to set a more straightforward goal for innovation and how it can impact business in the future. In other words, you need to crystallize the purpose you are trying to reach with the help of innovation practices.

Is there any secret sauce in your managerial approach and implementation? What tools or instruments have helped your teams be successful and keep focused on innovation?

There is no specific secret, or, as I may say, secret sauce, to managing innovative teams. I believe you must always be a human being and remain authentic; that is the story. At the end of the day, it is all about the people and how they communicate with each other. Tools, undoubtedly, are crucial elements of managing innovative teams, yet they come in second as they are used to organize the workflow of the employees. People, together with tools, provoke processes of brainstorming and idea generation, such as mind mapping and lateral thinking, that help people generate creative ideas and implement them in reality.

 We have to agree that innovation frameworks and methodologies are the structured approaches of the corporation that are aimed at idea development and implementation. A vivid example of it could be design thinking and agility. Such frameworks, which work best with innovative projects, provide guidance and structure to the team.

We should not forget about innovation workshops, training, and educational sessions offered by most companies in this fast-paced environment. With the help of these elements, teams develop skills and get the knowledge they need to generate and evaluate new ideas. 

In idea-generation and brainstorming meetings, the team produced a vast number of ideas and identified the most optimal ones to continue to the development stage. Such sessions are extremely helpful for fostering innovation as they empower employees to think creatively and come up with different ideas that can be further turned into innovative solutions and challenges. 

 On the other hand, creativity and problem-solving tools are unique techniques that help teams generate ideas, solutions, and challenges fueled by innovation. The above-mentioned tools are critical for the innovation-fostering environment as they encourage teams to think positively and creatively to produce brilliant and original ideas. 

Another innovation-savvy tool is the utilization of project management tools and solutions that help teams stay organized, focused, and aligned with budgets. A vivid example of such tools could be project management software and task tracking tools that keep everything on track and ensure everything is running smoothly and in accordance with the timeline.  

Last but not least, it is important to give and receive timely and regular feedback on the projects so that teams stay on track, focus on the right objectives, and produce phenomenal work. 

Sometimes mistakes could give us crucial insights. Can you share a mistake you’ve made and the lesson you took away from it?

It is not a secret that learning from our mistakes is the best way to learn and gain expertise in the industry. I want to share three mistakes I made in my career and how they helped me grow in the product management field and sharpened me into the leader I am today. Let’s focus on managing leadership expectations, cross-team communication, and implementing new processes within the team. 

Undoubtedly, driving innovation puts you on the cutting edge, whether you want it or not. You change the status quo by putting the business outside its comfort zone, and to do that, you need support not only 24/7 but on a 360-degree 

So what were the main hurdles? One of the most significant was the misalignment and tension between innovative global requests and local agendas. Even though leading meetings and gathering stakeholders in one room could never hurt you, you need to realign the expectations and the long-term goals. 

Growing exposure and exposing the collective mind to innovation is crucial in the corporate environment. You have to know what is going on in the team, what the product strategy is, and if there is any external excitement about the project. All things being equal, it will greatly benefit the cross-functional community with many stakeholders. 

Another essential thing I learned during my career is that you have to keep your team informed and transparent in your processes, especially when employees report to you. Even slight adjustments or changes in the working process can harm your business but do not cause your real team pain. Avoid it by communicating everything in advance, particularly the needs and benefits of the tool or process, followed by a question and answer section and some time to process the information. It is best practice when the leaders use such a tool on themselves first to understand all points, create win-win situations, and address all the issues. In my opinion, clear communication is a holistic approach to meeting the teams’ expectations. 

Remember, people are the beating heart of the organization, and they should always come first. And the processes always come second. Innovate your business and see results for yourself!