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The Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society


The burning question in innovation management

geneva innovation debate

The Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society

The burning question in innovation management

The burning question in innovation management

Should innovation initiatives remain inside or outside of organisations? Leaders debate both sides.

By Felipe Monteiro, INSEAD, Tina Ambos, Université de Genève, and Katherine Tatarinov, Université de Lausanne

Organisations across sectors set up their innovative initiatives with varying goals, yet they all struggle with the age-old question of how to maintain them — inside or outside? Should my innovative initiative, innovation team, or new idea remain structurally part of the organisation, or should we spin it off as a standalone entity to preserve its creativity, grant autonomy, and decouple it from day-to-day operations? 

Both positions were represented at the 2023 Innovation Debate, jointly hosted by the Center for Innovation & Partnerships at the Geneva School of Economics and Management, the Geneva Innovation Movement Association, and the INSEAD Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society. The Oxford-style debate featured four senior managers — two who oversee innovation initiatives that operate within the organisations that created them, and two who manage initiatives that have spun out into standalone entities. 

In response to the motion, “Innovation initiatives that originate in large organisations ought to be retained within the overall structure of the organisation itself,” each leader made their case before a live audience. Here’s what they argued, and who won the debate. 


Cynthia Hansen, Managing Director of the Innovation Foundation at the Adecco Group

Watch this short video of Cynthia Hansen presenting for the motion

The backstory: The Innovation Foundation functions as a global corporate foundation operating as a social innovation lab for the Adecco Group, a leading provider of workforce solutions. It strives to develop solutions that increase the employability of underserved populations and their access to labour markets. 

The argument: Scalable social impact comes from models that simultaneously drive social innovation and create value for an organisation. By scanning the landscape for problems, ideating solutions, and turning solutions into scalable products, the Innovation Foundation has created value for Adecco and made a positive social impact. 

With the right governance, corporate philanthropy can serve as an engine for value creation that benefits both business and society. If an organisation spins off an innovation initiative, it effectively relinquishes that benefit. “Why would you leave that kind of value on the table?” Hansen asked the audience. 


Pradeep Kakkattil, Cofounder and CEO of the Health Innovation Exchange (HIEx)

Watch this short video of Pradeep Kakkattil presenting against the motion

The backstory: Born in UNAIDS (the United Nations’ joint programme to fight HIV/AIDS) in 2019, HIEx was spun out as an independent organisation in 2023. It seeks to identify global health priorities and challenges; direct healthcare investments in support of the SDGs; and generate innovations that improve healthcare across the world. 

The argument: Keeping an innovation initiative within an organisation is problematic for several reasons. First, if the organisation’s leaders aren’t aligned with your innovation initiatives, those projects will go nowhere. Second, bad ideas never get killed in large organisations. Third, large organisations don’t have the failure tolerance necessary for experimenting and innovating. 

When an innovation initiative is separated from the organisation, it can focus on innovating for the sake of impact—and not for the sake of the organisation. It can also be open to new opportunities across sectors. “If you don’t work across sectors, you will get too caught up in your own world and won’t be able to see how you can make a difference,” Kakkattil explained.


Massimo Gentile, Chief Technology Officer, Geneva Airport     

The backstory: Geneva Airport formalized its innovation unit, Geneve Aeroport Innovation, in 2013. Today, it harnesses innovation to address rising competition, greater passenger expectations, and physical space limitations. 

The argument: When innovation is preserved within the organisation, innovation units can take advantage of the organisation’s broader networks. Moreover, the only way for innovation initiatives to gain traction is by attaching them to the organisation’s strategic goals.

Over time, an organisation can create systems and structures that enable people to become innovation leaders, creating a ripple effect of impact. “This takes years, and it’s very difficult to do,” Gentile said. “But if you are successful, the leverage [you gain] will be huge.” 


Susanne Emonet, CEO, FarmerConnect

The backstory: FarmerConnect was born at multinational coffee merchant Sucafina in 2019. Soon thereafter, it was spun off as an independent start-up dedicated to the food and agriculture sector. It seeks to improve transparency and traceability across value chains using the blockchain.

The argument: When an innovation initiative operates independently, it must develop viable solutions to relevant problems. The market serves as a ruthless testing ground for every idea. “If your idea doesn’t make it, it’s probably for a good reason,” Emonet said. 

Keeping an innovation initiative within an organisation limits its area of impact. Take FarmerConnect as an example: When it operated within Sucafina, it was limited to working within the coffee industry and with existing partners and friends. Now that it is independent, it can provide trusted data on sustainability to a broad range of industries. “If you really have something impactful, make sure it impacts as many people as possible,” she noted.

And the winner is...

By audience vote, the two leaders arguing against the motion—Kakkattil and Emonet—won the debate. Of course, in the real world, the debate continues. 

About the authors

Felipe Monteiro is Senior Affiliate Professor of Strategy at INSEAD and Academic Director of the Global Talent Competitiveness Index. 

Tina Ambos is Professor of International Management and the Director of the Center for Innovation and Partnerships at Université de Genève.

Katherine Tatarinov is Assistant Professor in the Department of Strategy at the Université de Lausanne and Managing Director of the Geneva Innovation Movement Association. 

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