isi – Tacking into the Wind (part I)

Image of Fabienne Hübener
Fabienne Hübener

isi repositioned itself in 2020. The maneuver was risky, but it has since paid off. isi is a proponent of open innovation. Open disclosure of innovative processes benefits the company, its partners, and customers. Here is a breakdown of the innovation process. "The first step was to question our business model. Two years into this journey and we have just completed the most successful quarter in isi's 25-year history," explains isi Managing Director Joachim Haag. (Part 1 of 2)

A few years ago, there were growing signs that sensory market research was undergoing a transformation. "We have seen topics become highly explosive at major congresses, such as Pangborn and EuroScience. This diffusion and diversity of topics is always an indication that strong changes are imminent or already in progress. There no longer seemed to be any consensus as to what the priorities in sensory research were," recalls Prof. Andreas Scharf, isi co-founder and advisory board member. For over twenty years, this field was very constant. As a result, isi's work and offerings had also become relatively constant.

Welcome to the VUCA world

By the end of the 2010s at the latest, the tectonic shift in the foundations of sensory research had become tangible for everyone, regionally and internationally. A relatively static world had turned into a VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In order to respond to these demands, to maintain a firm footing on shifting sand, so to speak, a company must offer a competing vision, also derived from the VUCA abbreviation: vision, understanding, clarity and agility. isi was ready to initiate change to accommodate these shifts.

Robert Möslein felt the new wind especially in contact with isi customers. In the companies, the time from the idea to the launch of a new product was becoming shorter and shorter, and the decision-makers in the companies addressed one wish in particular to him repeatedly, "Show us how sensory research can deliver findings even faster”. In addition, new companies emerged, such as Flavorwiki, which offered sensory market research entirely without time-consuming laboratory tests.

"We were comfortable with the situation as it was," acknowledges Robert Möslein, isi Managing Director, "we were sailing in calm waters before this wave of change. We were doing well. We saw no need for challenging maneuvers. Now we've realized how, with specific goals in mind, we can set sail differently and tack even harder into the wind." In order to chart a new course, the isi leadership team identified four drivers to unleash a new dynamic: transparency, structure, innovation, and marketing.


isi dynmic green ralf kresin 5

Thinking bigger, daring to change. The isi team is setting out together on the new path.

rethinking isi

The reorientation included opening up more to the outside world and bringing consultants on board. For innovation and change management, isi invited external coaches, including Prof. Lutz Gocke, an expert in business model innovation, and Prof. Steffen Dörhöfer, an expert in change management. In addition, a new external advisory board was installed to keep an eye on whether isi stayed on track. Advisory Board Chairman Dr. Dietmar Straub was active for a long time in the management circle of the Mannesmann Group and worked as a senior advisor for Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. "We got suggestions and reassurance from these experts," reports Robert Möslein.

The coaching sessions provided insights and clarity about where isi had been. In the past, isi had focused primarily on the development of sensory testing methods and had thought less about new business models. "We were acting more like scientists, less like entrepreneurs," Joachim Haag sums it up.

He studied the topic of innovation management intensively, read books on the subject, listened to lectures, and held discussions. "I had become inspired and passionate about the topic. It became clear that I would take charge on this topic at isi," says Joachim Haag. In dialog with critic and advise giving sparring partners, especially Lutz Göcke and isi co-founder and advisory board member Andreas Scharf, an innovation concept began to take shape.

Giving space to innovations

Among other things, the Three Box Solution strategy of management expert Vijay Govindaran was important in the planning. The strategy is based on distinguishing three areas, boxes, of a company and giving them equal importance: the present, the past, and the future.

While Robert Möslein is primarily concerned with Box 1 - the present - i.e., optimizing the existing business, Joachim Haag is responsible for Box 3 - the future. It includes all strategies to get non-linear innovations off the ground. Box 2 ­- the past - is where the two managing directors meet. This area is about jettisoning methods, ideas and attitudes that were important in the past but now hinder innovation.

With the help of this strategy, isi built up systematic innovation management in just a few months. For example, employees can now make suggestions for innovations and pin the ideas to a digital board for all to see. Suggestions are treated like a kind of business pitch, rewarded and if they are promising, implemented. In this way, isi ensures that the innovation pipeline is always filled up. "This gives us a kind of start-up feeling at isi. That adds additional motivation to the mix ," reports Agnés Wiegand, isi Senior Sensory Researcher.

isi at the table ralf kresin 3

Proposal made, approved, implemented. Innovations start in the minds of the employees.


The Corona Turbo

In the middle of the rebuilding process, in March 2020, the Corona pandemic rolled across Germany and the world. For a short time, isi had to close its doors and stop all testing. But just two weeks later, the isi team was able to transition much of the sensory testing into the test subjects' homes. The tasks of the isi staff changed. This led to uncertainty, but also the surprising realization that workflows can adapt faster than expected. "Corona caught us just as we were preparing for a major upheaval anyway," reports Andreas Scharf, “This is precisely why isi was able to react flexibly to the Corona-related requirements. The pandemic certainly accelerated changes that had already been planned”.

Do-It-Yourself Market Research

Which innovations did isi set out anew? "In the spirit of the jobs-to-be-done approach, we asked ourselves how helpful our products are in fulfilling a problem or a need of our customers," explains Robert Möslein. He sometimes heard from customers that they were highly satisfied with the isi methods, but sometimes they expressed feeling like they were booking a luxury yacht when a maneuverable dinghy would have been sufficient.

In the second part, read about the innovations with which isi repositioned itself in 2020 and 2021 and the role played by techniques and platforms such as Design Sprints and Hubspot.

Go to part II ->


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photos by: Ralf Kresin


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