January 14, 2020 / All Stories

The making of an innovation ninja

In the office, Joe Maliekal is known as the innovation ninja and he’s training others to push the envelope with their work and thinking.

Joe Maliekal, innovation and agility catalyst, AbbVie

What is an innovation ninja?

When you think of a ninja, video game characters or someone with a black belt who can chop through wooden blocks might come to mind. While the origin was about being stealth in one’s physical abilities, today ninjas can mean someone who excels at a skill. Simply put, an innovation ninja is someone who can apply the methodology of innovating and reach business impact.

It took two decades and different career paths before Joe Maliekal, innovation and agility catalyst, AbbVie, became known as the “Innovation Ninja” among his peers. For the past ten years, Joe has been part of the U.S. Area commercial analytics and operations organization.

Maliekal leads a human centered design exercise with fellow AbbVie employees Fallon Crowley, innovation champion, and Albert Chen, innovation ninja.

How did Joe become a ninja?

In 1987, Maliekal started with AbbVie in R&D as a chemical engineer, eventually becoming a R&D manufacturing engineer but he was always curious about other parts of the company. After a decade of technical experience, Joe transitioned into roles within sales and marketing, as a mentor suggested he get into field sales.

“I’m more of an introvert,” recalls Maliekal. “This wasn’t easy going out in the field, building relationships and focusing on communicating, but it ended up being one of the best things for my career.”

Maliekal says this was the first step in learning empathy, a key component of becoming an innovation ninja. Then opportunity came when Jeff Stewart, president, U.S. commercial operations, established a vision for innovation for his teams.

“Without support from senior leadership, it can be difficult to build a sustainable innovation capability,” says Maliekal. “Innovation works because it’s a process that adapts to solve the problem it finds in front of it. It’s a discipline that seeks the fresh perspectives and approaches necessary to uncover insights and see new solutions. That’s why we practice it.”

How are ninjas trained?

Innovation is used everywhere, and you may not realize it. While today people think of gadgets and apps as innovative, shopping carts are even a form of innovation. It was a new idea to help shoppers collect and carry more groceries through the store. “Innovation is about creating a better experience for the end user. We use innovation in a practical way at AbbVie,” says Maliekal. “We don’t spread innovation like peanut butter. You must be selective so you can double down on the most promising areas that are ripe for new ideas.”

Maliekal was one of the first to go through innovation training with a program that helps companies think and act differently to help solve business challenges. There were only 10 people at the time who were encouraged to keep an open mind to all ideas, find ways to be agile and more efficient and most importantly, stay active in applying innovation. Here’s why.

"You’re not as scared to fail when you know the reward is great. When we succeeded, the company really shined the spotlight on our idea and work.”

At AbbVie, innovation methodology and training take place internally with Joe and the innovation team leading the entire program. Today, there are at least 80 ninjas and 200 champions. Ninjas are identified as the most active in applying the methodology, while champions have completed the training and are in an earlier stage of adoption.

Maliekal gives a presentation about innovative thinking during Chicago Ideas Week 2019.

What do ninjas do?

Ninjas then go out into their everyday work life and apply those principles to help improve their work. For example, teams working to help rheumatoid arthritis patients started implementing patient empathy exercises which included putting on gloves that mimicked the difficulty RA patients had in opening a jar or stirring food. This allows a team to truly understand pain points and have a better understanding of the goals they’re trying to reach.

Prototyping is another key takeaway from the innovation program. Sage Wodarz is a director on the immunology customer experience team. She’s moved solutions forward more quickly because of her ninja training. “Having a prototype of your idea to present early in the ideation process has helped build stronger solutions because my teammates have something solid to react to and provide more constructive feedback,” says Wodarz.

Some lessons are very simple. Amelia Brause, an immunology marketing manager, learned about the importance of perseverance. “Because of my training, I’m testing and learning from my customers and then repeating the cycle all over. Testing and learning should never stop,” says Brause.

Ninjas also apply the behavior of “greenhousing,” where you don’t kill ideas too quickly. Instead, the team builds upon the starter idea presented to make it better. “We like to think about what that idea could turn into, and sometimes you need to give early ideas space to grow, before judging too soon. Some of the best ideas are when two or three early ideas collide to form an amazing idea, that’s greenhousing in action.” says Maliekal.

“Innovation can be applied anywhere and by anybody. For our ninjas, we’re laser focused on ideas and insights that lead to more engaging and impactful use of our time and resources so we’re helping to improve patient lives.”

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Kayla Azzato
Email: kayla.azzato@abbvie.com
Call: 847-935-6492
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