We interviewed International MBA alumnus Keenan Thompson, Global Director of Innovation at the brewing giant AB InBev (LinkedIn profile). As a leader in the field of innovation, AB InBev is constantly looking for new ways to engage with consumers and drive business growth. Keenan is part of the Global Innovation & Technology Center (GITEC), a multi-functional team creating capabilities and building the necessary Technology Platforms to set the company apart from competition and lead the future growth of the Beverage Industry, integrating these tools across the global footprint.
AB InBev is committed to growing an international community of innovators who will change the way we work and think in the future. With this in mind, since 2019, Keenan has been sharing his expertise with EADA participants, exploring how innovation drives strategy, recruitment techniques and sustainability.
AB InBev is a leader in fostering an innovation community around the world. Your contribution to developing the innovation skills and mindset of EADA participants is a big part of that – can you give some other examples of how AB InBev promotes future talent in the field of innovation?
There are three main ways Ab InBev promotes the future talent in innovation:
- One of our core principles is building our internal talent, giving our people the chance to take on challenges that are outside of their comfort zone. You will never know what is possible if you don’t try.
- We look outside, to our existing and future value chain partners. We give them a new brief, a fresh perspective, a situation or market they haven’t seen before, we give their people a new role. This results in the chance to grow and add value with us, often creating a strong bond in the relationship, with partners getting addicted to the energy of creating massive change together.
- We can’t forget about students, the true talent of the future. We reach out to our past connections in Academia, not only teaching strategy and methods, but also directly involving students in the development of new capabilities.
What role does AB InBev’s Global Innovation & Technology Center (GITEC) play in innovation at the company?
GITEC’s role is to shape the future through technology. We meet the needs of future consumers, we unlock the technologies to achieve our sustainability and social responsibility goals, and most importantly, we create value for the company through new capabilities and people. We basically create synergistic Technology Platforms that make money, save money, and ensure we disrupt ourselves before others have the chance.
In your opinion, how important is it to have a centre specifically dedicated to innovation?
Innovation is much more than one Global Team dreaming up the future, it’s part of everyone’s job! Asking ourselves, what could be better? How could we do something differently? Which needs are not being addressed? This isn’t the role of one group, it’s everyone’s responsibility in the company, no matter what their function, to keep their eyes open and identify the gaps, continually putting the challenges and opportunities on the table.
Then you have a group like GITEC, a specific group of people given the freedom to gather those needs, find consistencies, understand where existing solutions are not good enough, attach a value if solved, and prioritise.
What are some examples of the new technology GITEC is pioneering?
I can’t give away all our secrets, but a few GITEC efforts in developing industry leading technologies have recently gone public. The ability to remove alcohol from brewed beverages while enhancing taste and aroma, opening up new market segments. Digitally printing directly on objects like glass bottles, eliminating labels and enhancing decorative freedom. Draught systems that keep beer fresh much longer than typical kegs and can be scaled for different end users. I’ll share some links to a few videos so you can meet some of the experts!
How does innovation work in your experience?
Innovation is not mysterious, in fact it’s very straightforward and systematic. Let’s take situation A, then we make a “change” and we end up with situation B. Innovation has occurred when B = A + “added value”. When you think about it this way, innovation is all around us, all the time!
Every case of innovation is unique, and you learn something from every single one. Sometimes the changes are big and many times, they are small; they can happen at specific places up and down the value chain, or they can be all encompassing. What’s fun is when you see patterns repeating, that you can use again and again with a twist.
As Global Director of Innovation, how much are you actually involved in the innovating and execution of projects and how much are you managing?
As you go up in an organisation, the hardest part is not getting your hands dirty anymore, especially for an innovator! It’s tough because, of course, I want to be involved. So, what I try to do is make sure that my teams are managing great projects. I pop in often enough to understand what’s happening and be part of the team in terms of reflecting on the hurdles and helping them overcome those hurdles. This gives me a chance to be creative and still add value, but my role now is more about motivating teams, making connections, building confidence and getting them super pumped up so that we can not only “Dream Big”, but also accomplish big things together.
What kind of mindset is necessary to be a leader in the innovation field? How did you integrate the related knowledge or skills into your teaching at EADA?
An Innovator’s mindset is basically a Growth mindset, a way of living, a culture, a way of being that is not comfortable for many. I’ll give you my top 5:
- Perspective is everything, and it grows with experience
- Persistence is what differentiates the winners
- Passion is what gets you up
- Taking risks is what keeps you going
- Believe it’s possible, because if you don’t, nobody else will
The experience-based case studies, proven tools/frameworks, and the corporate challenges built into the course work all exemplify why a growth mindset is needed to be successful in innovation endeavours.
EADA’s classes are very diverse in terms of nationality and background. How important is diversity for effective innovation?
I mentioned it before, perspective really is everything. The more diverse experience you have on a team, the more frames of reference are represented through opinions, assumptions, hypothesis, facts. You get to the bigger picture, faster, and can make a solid plan to test the unknowns and uncertainties.
Innovation is a blend of improving Desirability, Viability and Feasibility of any given situation to add value, putting it simply, improving the DVF. If you have a diverse team, with competencies in different areas, you have a much better chance of thinking of not only what DVF hurdles are in your way, but also what DVF opportunities could be added to your efforts/concept/solution.
What are some of the tools and tricks of the trade that you wish you had had as a new graduate?
As a new graduate, you are faced with a whole host of uncertainty, new faces, new competition, new situations, the VUCA world… but what most people won’t share with you, is that it doesn’t have to be that complicated; it can be quite systematic. There are tools and frameworks out there to guide you, and plenty of mentors who enjoy lending a hand and building the talent of the future.
After graduating from EADA, I used my new business knowledge to shift my career into Marketing for the next 10 years, and after that, back to the technical world for another 6. What I learned was how to translate those disciplines, find the similarities, the differences, the motivations, and the underlying “patterns and formulas”. I learned how to help the commercial and technical sides of the business communicate with each other.
As an EADA alumnus, how do you value the opportunity to give back into current students in your field of expertise?
To be quite honest, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in a while (not counting my family vacation in Norway this summer of course). Students give you energy, prepping to teach a class takes you back in time, it brings back good memories, reminds you of what you know, it makes one contemplate: “what is in my head that is really worth sharing”. It also reminds you to exercise what you teach in your own daily life, as we can get lost in the hustle.
When I see students raise their hands in class, eager to jump into the discussion, I remember what it was like to think I knew it all, and it makes me smile because I know that even for me, tomorrow is just the beginning.
What would you suggest to students who want to work in an innovation centre like GITEC in the future?
I would say that a career isn’t necessarily perfectly defined – you’re not going to map or plan a “perfect” career. But what you can do is take all of the challenges that you’re faced with and make a conscious effort to keep a growth mindset. You will be confronted with plenty of decisions, and they add up to this career that you that you’ve built, and more often than not, you end up with certain opportunities because of the skills that you picked up along the way.
When you make changes in life, and in your career path, do it for do it for a reason that you’re passionate about –follow your passion– that’s going to build a path that you’re actually enjoying.