BIG Ideas: How ICL Built a Billion Dollar Innovation Accelerator

ICL’s story begins at the lowest point on earth. Nearly a century ago, a Siberian adventurer, engineer, and businessman named Moshe Novomeysky secured permission to establish a mining facility in the mineral-rich waters of the Dead Sea. Over the years that followed, this venture would overcome significant obstacles and make countless breakthroughs on its journey to becoming the global innovation powerhouse known nowadays as ICL.

ICL is a global leader in the minerals industry operating across every corner of the globe, and committed to driving sustainability through its activities in food technology, agriculture, and industrial production.  Innovation is central to the company’s commitment to help humanity meet its sustainability challenges.

In 2020, ICL launched its BIG (Business Innovation for Growth) Internal Innovation Accelerator. Powered by Qmarkets’ idea management solution Q-ideate, BIG gathers and implements ideas sourced by over 13,000 ICL employees around the world.

The results have been outstanding, generating a realized annual operating income contribution of $262m just three years since launching. What can ICL’s approach to crowdsourcing tell us about how to launch a successful idea management program? To find out, let’s dive into the world of BIG.

Preparing for Launch

Plans to launch BIG began in 2019 after the company identified the need for an effective innovation management solution. A key challenge identified by the company’s VP of Corporate Initiatives, Eduard Croitoru, was to connect the disparate efforts of ICL’s global workforce. To innovate better, Croitoru recognized the need for greater collaboration between teams and divisions across the business.

As of December 2022, BIG had generated $262m in realized run-rate annual operating income contribution. The future looks equally bright, with an anticipated, risk-weighted annual outcome of more than $577m.

In breaking down these siloes, ICL also wanted to capture another benefit: gathering ideas from every employee around the world. “When you have thousands of employees, you have thousands of perspectives, combined with a wealth of experience and creativity. That’s a treasure trove of potential insights and ideas”, Croitoru said, in an interview on ICL’s website. “We want our people to be excited about their work and to know that they have a unique ability to help steer the ship.”

Croitoru’s background is in accounting and investment banking, and this informed his objective to treat innovation in the same way as financial results. If ICL met quarterly to review those, why not treat innovation with the same transparency? This led to the company’s policy of ‘innovation accounting’, involving clear performance measurements to be communicated with the entire business.

The ICL Internal Innovation Accelerator (BIG)

In 2020 BIG launched with three key objectives: to enhance ideation, accelerate execution, and improve collaboration. Underpinning the program is what ICL calls the BIG Basics, a checklist that ensures that employees and management are all pulling in the same direction, with clear communication channels, recognition, and metrics to drive and measure success.

bigbasics
The BIG Basics: the core principles of ICL’s idea management program

Here’s how it works. ICL’s employees around the world can submit their ideas on ICL’s ideation platform PITCH BIG, powered by Qmarkets’ Q-ideate software. Those ideas then pass through an evaluation phase by relevant internal experts, with the best ones selected for implementation as live projects. A wide network of more than 300 internal ‘catalysts’ evaluate ideas, incorporating ‘BIG Champions’, ‘BIG Captains’, and ‘BIG Experts’.

Fundamental to the program’s steady stream of high-quality ideas is ICL’s commitment to giving employees recognition for their contributions, as well as comprehensive reviews and feedback.

BIG Impact

Those BIG Basics are proving to be a strong basis for a successful idea management program. By the end of 2022, ICL had received almost 5,000 ideas from its employees. Incredibly, more than half of these have progressed into actual projects; ICL has completed 1,154 projects to date with another 1,584 currently live.

bigstats
The work that has gone into BIG is paying off handsomely. Right now, the lion’s share of ROI is coming from optimizations. The company expects its new product and business model projects, which require a longer incubation period, to drive ROI further down the road.

A program as efficient as this is always going to drive ROI, and the numbers point to an outstandingly successful operation: as of December 2022, BIG had generated $262m in realized run-rate annual operating income contribution. The future looks equally bright, with an anticipated, risk-weighted annual outcome of more than $577m.

Reflecting on these numbers, Eduard Croitoru said: “I’m really proud of these numbers, although the problem with numbers is that they can never adequately portray the human endeavor and commitment involved, or what it means for the business to have completed 1,154 successful projects that probably wouldn’t have existed without BIG.”

Measuring BIG’s Success

The numbers speak for themselves, but how does ICL measure the success of the program on an ongoing basis? The company’s policy of transparent performance measurement culminated in the ‘BIG Index’. As the name suggests, the index focuses on progress rather than absolute values:

“Our focus with BIG isn’t on absolute numbers like volume, or even the total BIG score. We’re more interested in the change on the BIG Index, which is the best indicator of our overall progress”

Dr Hila Koren, BIG

ICL places a greater emphasis on targets than on complex projections. Dr. Hila Koren, who manages the BIG Program, says: The BIG Index is a uniform measuring system that enables us to compare different units and focus primarily on progress. What we love about it is the healthy competition that it encourages between those units which are all committed to delivering as big an impact as possible.”

In practice, the Big Index provides a simple metric to measure the program’s progress, enabling every team member to understand and monitor the performance of their projects. Its scoring system is accessible to all and unites everyone involved in the program around a common goal.

The BIG Blueprint: Key Takeaways

ICL’s deployment of BIG is a resounding success story that demonstrates the enormous power of an effective idea management program. Within the story lies several important insights that every innovation leader can use to guide their own program launch. Here is a rundown of some of the key best practices exhibited by ICL which has set them on the path to success:

They set out with a clear strategy: Right at the beginning of BIG’s development ICL laid out clear ground rules and defined what innovation means for the company, providing every employee with clarity on the program’s goals from the get-go.

Innovation is driven by leadership & accountability: in every business unit, a BIG Champion is appointed, each building their team of BIG Captains that are spread worldwide and serve as innovation leaders on site. Champions and Captains are trained and provided with tools and methods to drive innovation forward.

Communication is key: ICL’s BIG Basics lays out the establishment of communication channels as a core foundation for success, so it ensures everyone is aware of the program and what is required from them.

Recognition drives engagement: The company is aware that you can’t just expect your audience to engage with a new initiative without recognizing their efforts. The company rewards contributors’ creativity and hard work with recognition and exposure.

They focus on cross-team collaboration vs individual or siloed activity: ICL encourage projects that involve multiple teams working together and monitor the number of them in their pipeline, helping to establish a culture of collaboration that runs through the entire business and enriches projects with diverse perspectives and skillsets. 

Ideas are progressed efficiently through the pipeline: The number of completed and live projects shows us that ICL has established a clear process for moving ideas quickly through the stage-gates of ideation, evaluation, and implementation. Decentralized leadership removes bottlenecks; ideas are evaluated by a network of more than 300 BIG Champions, BIG Captains, and BIG Experts, so that projects are always reviewed by the most relevant internal experts. 

They track and connect activities to available resources: To keep this steady stream of innovations moving through the pipeline, ICL has a process in place to allocate resources to each project, and to track and optimize resource allocation on a portfolio-wide level. 

Transparent innovation accounting benefits every contributor: Everyone at ICL can understand the metrics that measure performance, allowing them to replicate what works and learn from what doesn’t.

Times of adversity have often proved to be fertile periods of innovation, and this was clearly the case with ICL, where the challenges they faced early on in their journey led to some incredible innovations in the long run. What makes their story so inspiring is that they have maintained this mindset over the course of their history and continue to push forward the frontiers of innovation.

Charlie Lloyd

Charlie is an innovation strategist at Qmarkets. He started his innovation journey at a boutique consultancy in London, where he worked with some of the world’s leading retail and CPG brands. In his spare time, he’s a voracious reader of crime fiction and an avid supporter of Arsenal FC.

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