The "How" Behind Virtual Innovation from Leaders at General Mills, Cargill, & RB | The Garage Group

The “How” Behind Virtual Innovation from Leaders at General Mills, Cargill, & RB

The opportunities to enable innovation in a 100% virtual world are ripe. Don’t shy away from them; they’re accessible and more valuable than ever.

The following powerhouse BigCo leaders are tackling this challenge head-on; they’ve been building their innovation pipelines, resetting their strategies, and more while working remotely the past few months:

In our Battled-Tested Lessons Learned panel conversation on August 12, Heather Christman, Ph.D, Senior Director, The Garage Group, dug into how they’re mobilizing their teams and overcoming hurdles using specific tools, tactics, methods, and approaches. Here are some of the key behind-the-scenes lessons, coupled with tangible examples, that you can use as actionable next steps to drive innovation forward in your organization, virtually.

How to Capture Rich Consumer Insights Quicker & Cheaper

“In a large CPG company, sometimes you have lots of data at your disposal, and it can be paralysis by analysis sometimes. In this environment, we are being forced to make decisions faster with less information, but deeper, richer information.

A lot of things that we would normally have done in person, like an in-store learning experiment where we are intercepting shoppers, we can no longer do. So how can we bring that experience online? How can we conduct ethnographies with people virtually like this, as opposed to sitting in their homes?

How can we get very quick, quantitatively sound learning on concepts or new products without having to conduct a three or four-week study? Our partnership with The Garage Group introduced us to some great tools to help us do that a lot faster, but I’d say that’s really how the attitude has shifted.

I don’t want to go back to the old way. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars on a study that’s going to take you five or six weeks when you can reach a subset of your target consumer who is going to give you their undivided attention for a couple of hours and answer some questions overnight?

It doesn’t mean that you’re short-changing the learning in any way. It’s just a different way of working. I think this environment has forced us to accept a different way and actually evaluate that it can be just as valuable and just as rich. The information is just as reliable for us to make decisions upon as some of the more tried-and-true methods that are sometimes more comfortable for us to rely on.” – Tiffani Daniels, Brand Manager, General Mills

How to Keep People Engaged & Connected While Working Remotely

“I love people. I love the energy of being in a room with people. So it’s been hard for me to not have that. I think I’ve had to really be creative, especially when leading an innovation session, on how to make it fun.

I’ve been able to infuse everything from humor to fun memes for people, so it doesn’t feel like homework. It’s just pre-work of creation, wearing colors or setting up my space to be a very customized innovation space. You really have the opportunity to create your own creation space in order to get those great ideas to come together.

People were laughing. I got notes that they were really enjoying the memes. I think anything that you can do can go a long way to help get the output.” – Meghan Howell, Brand Manager, Equity – Airborne and Digestive Advantage, RB

How to Remotely Conduct 3 to 5-day Innovation Sessions

“We’ve decided that we’re not going to do anything longer than two or three hours at any given time. It’s too much of a mental drain on folks to keep their attention at that moment.

For sprints, for example, that would normally be three to five days, we spread those out over the course of several days and sometimes several weeks. What has been a really interesting and positive learning from that is that people’s energy levels are actually much higher after breaking it out over the course of time, rather than being in a room all together.

My hypothesis is that giving people more time and space to think on their own with breaks from the sets of activities that you would normally do in a sprint is really energizing to those people like me who are slower thinkers and who need to ruminate on things for a little bit.

We’ve actually used this virtual challenge to our advantage and gotten really good feedback from particularly that thinking style type of person that this works way better for them. Okay, that’s great. Now, how do we keep the people who are more extroverted and who feed, like Meghan, off of other people’s energy, how do we keep them engaged?

We’ve been doing things like putting together packages of materials that we send in advance of a session, so they’ve got things in their hands to work on. Taking breaks during the sessions, like social breaks. We actually have an upcoming team meeting where we’re having a sommelier virtually come into the meeting and we’re doing a wine tasting. It’s just fun things like that to keep engagement high and appeal to all different thinking styles.” – Kristen Oeltjenbruns, Innovation and Insights, Cargill

How to Know When to Outsource Your Innovation Challenges

“This could be cheating, but I’d say outsource when you can.

Leading a virtual session, especially if it’s several hours or several days, it’s an expertise and it’s not for everybody. You can find tips and tricks on the Internet and there are lists up the wazoo that help you have an effective session.

But I think you should be honest with yourself and ask, “Am I really the most qualified person to do this? Do I have enough energy to sustain myself and a group of seven, eight, 10 people over the course of a few weeks?” You have to be real and sometimes you just have to throw money at the problem if you can’t do it yourself.

I would explore that. Once you assess what your need is or what the brainstorm ideation calls for, think very critically about the leader and the facilitator. We have all been in sessions or an all-day meeting and we really wanted to get up and leave because it was not engaging.

People do not have the bandwidth for that in their home sitting in front of a computer. You have to be efficient, you have to be to the point, and you have to be very thoughtful and intentional about how you build a session. And so, if you can’t do that, if you don’t have the time, if you don’t have the skillset, be real and honest, and leverage some either internal or external resources.

It starts with you as a leader knowing what you need and knowing what your ideal output is. Inside General Mills, we have resources to leverage that lead ideations and we can tap into, but sometimes those folks can only go around so much. They can’t be everywhere at every point in time, and so knowing that you need, let’s say a high-quality output, and you can’t be anybody’s plan B or side project, be open and real about that. If it takes you to leveraging external resources, talk to other folks, talk to other teams.

I think it’s helpful if you’re issuing an RFP or talking to agencies, ask them for a case study, ask them what tools and techniques they’re leveraging in this time. Ask to talk to one of their previous clients. Do some intel, and you can do it relatively quickly, to help you make an informed decision.” – Tiffani Daniels, Brand Manager, General Mills

How to Strengthen Your Virtual Collaboration Using Digital Tools

“Over the course of the last few years, The Garage Group has really been a strategic partner to us in terms of helping us develop in innovation approach and sprinting approach specifically that really works for Cargill and our internal stakeholders. Since the onset of COVID, we’ve been working really hard to think meaningfully about how that translates to the virtual setting. We’re using the same framework, but leveraging different tools to bring it to life.

We’ve been using an online virtual collaboration whiteboard called Miro. There’s a competitor to that called Mural. I think those are the two big ones in the marketplace and they’re very similar.

That’s really been a helpful tool to replicate the type of in-the-room, whiteboard, Post-it Note, voting, clustering, and prioritization exercises that you do in some types of innovation activities. The tool has been really helpful to bring that experience to light and to translate it into the virtual world.

Another thing that we’ve leveraged quite heavily, and I hate to say it because I think it has a lot of baggage, is the Microsoft SharePoint platform. We actually found a way internally to build a modern SharePoint website that looks and feels like an actual sexy website. When we do innovation engagements with customers and sometimes internally, we’ve started to build these SharePoint website experiences to be the landing ground for the meeting, whether it’s a meeting that’s four hours in one day or it’s several hours over the course of a few days or weeks. It’s nice to have one spot where everyone goes to find all of the materials, the agenda, and the contact information for everyone because you’re not trapped in a room anymore for a week at a time. It’s more fluid than that. That’s been a tool that’s really been helpful from an organization standpoint, keeping everyone together, if you will.” – Kristen Oeltjenbruns, Innovation and Insights, Cargill

How to Test Your Hypotheses in an Increasingly Uncertain World

“In the same way that RB is bringing us along the journey in the creation of the next RB and what that will look like, it’s the same idea with concepting, which has been really great. When we partnered with you guys, that’s what I loved. It was from the beginning. It wasn’t months long of taking different data. And at the end, seeing what the consumer liked and didn’t like. It was all these various touchpoints along the way to ensure that at the end, we have a really strong consumer proposition. I love that. It’s arm in arm with the consumer and in all the different various stages to ensure that.

Also, a few months back, I had my equity hat on, and we’ve really dialed up digital learning in regards to our advertising communications. There’s so much that can be learned from the data on a daily basis, making changes to certain points of communication and messaging and changing it. How can that feed into and how can those learnings be transferred from that to our future innovations, and connecting those two? What are we learning in market from a comms messaging, performance, and competitive standpoint day-to-day, and how can we apply that to our future innovations?” – Meghan Howell, Brand Manager, Equity – Airborne and Digestive Advantage, RB

How to Be a More Empathetic Leader

“A few weeks ago, I was working on an engagement with The Garage Group and it was in the midst of riots and protests here in Minneapolis, as well as around the country.

I was greatly emotionally impacted as a black woman and also, I think anybody who is a human here was feeling some sort of way about what was happening. Heather and I had a conversation before one of our sessions to say, “How do we address this with the team? Do we want to address it? Do we want to give people space? Do we want to give people the option to not show up today, not turn their video on today?”

I think that was a moment for me. When you think about it, we are all carrying our own knapsack or backpack into work every day, and there are things that are happening in the world around us that impact us.

You have to think about based on what you have going on today, what am I expecting of people based on what’s happening in the world around us? That’s just one example that comes to mind for me and I try to carry that same empathy forward to my team as well.” – Tiffani Daniels, Brand Manager, General Mills



Watch the full recording to hear more lessons & examples from these leaders, like how to leverage eCommerce platforms to test new ideas and hypotheses, connect with older generations in a virtual world, and enhance employee morale.

Reach out if you’re up against these challenges and need a partner in crime to think through them with you. We help BigCo leaders tackle these challenges via startup-inspired approaches.

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