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From 7 May 2024, the North East Growth Hub is a project of the North East Combined Authority. We may still refer to "the North East Local Enterprise Partnership" (or "the North East LEP") in some of our older articles. 

In conversation with Rhona Knox from Procter & Gamble (P&G) about innovation in the North East

Rhona Knox is R&D Vice President, Global Fabric Care Sustainability, Dry Laundry, and head of the Newcastle Innovation Centre at Procter & Gamble (P&G). Originally from Dunbar, Scotland, Rhona came to the North East in 1993 on an internship with P&G and has worked at the company for more than 28 years.

What is it about the culture at P&G that’s led you to stay at the company for such a long time?

At P&G, our culture is rooted in the idea that we can make people’s everyday lives a little bit better through our products and brands. Playing my part in delivering on that mission is one reason I’ve stayed for such a long time. After all, if I asked you what you did this morning, you may tell me that you’ve brushed your teeth, washed your hair, put clean clothes on or cleaned your house. So already, the work I am doing at P&G has touched your life in many different ways. Having that tangible impact on wider society is really important to me.

Working at P&G has also enabled me to live and work all over the world – all whilst doing some really interesting assignments, despite working for the same company. For many of my friends, getting that variety has meant having to change jobs multiple times, so I count myself really lucky.

What does innovation mean to you?

Innovation is at the heart of everything we do – our products, our services, our capabilities – because it enables us to continue to evolve and improve in ways which we believe will make a different to people. It helps us to solve real problems through experimentation. That’s something I’m fortunate enough to be involved in each and every day. If I don’t get it right first time, that’s okay – I learn from it, safe in the knowledge that I’ll be closer to getting it right next time. As a company, we place a huge emphasis on adopting a growth mindset – embedding a culture of learning as opposed to always getting the right answer first time around – and that is crucial to innovation.

A great example of how we’re continuing to embed this philosophy is through our ‘failure panels’, which were introduced by someone in my team. They’ve done an amazing job – providing an opportunity for everyone to share their experiences related to things that haven’t gone right first time. They’re so important because they remind people that failure should be accepted and embraced, whilst providing all-important learnings to carry forward in the future.

Where do you think you’ve innovated most in your career?

I’m really pleased that I’m still able to do some hands-on work and, whilst that might not be in a laboratory, it’s still focused on creating new ideas and developing solutions.

If I think about a situation where I’ve been at my most innovative, I’d say that it’s probably been in scenarios where my team ave been seen as the underdog, i.e. the challenge is high but the chances of success are acknowledged to be relatively low. It’s made me my most innovative because it gives you a lot of freedom to really experiment and try new things, knowing from the outset that nobody really expects you to succeed.

I’ve also found that I’m particularly innovative in cases where I haven’t had a huge budget for my work, because it requires you to put more thought into where and how you use the little resources that you do have. I believe that necessity is the mother of invention, so it isn’t always great to have lots of money at your disposal. On the other hand, there are times where it can make a big difference, particularly in the scaling phase.

You’ve worked all over the world. Is there a similar approach to innovation or does it change in different places?

I think there are nuances. In China, for example, there’s a huge appetite to experiment, whereas generally in the West a lot more planning is applied. And I think there’s probably a sweet spot between the two – both have their merits. Ultimately, there isn’t a perfect model for innovation – so my advice would always be to pick what you think works best, based on your experiences, and to try to bring those things together.

How important are people in innovation?

Innovation is absolutely a team sport; people are such an important part of my job. Yes, everyone can name the great inventors who are all individuals, but I find it hard to believe they truly did it all by themselves. And it’s not a model for today. Productive, meaningful innovation is reliant on bringing together bright, diverse teams to solve complex challenges, because it means you’re able to incorporate all manner of knowledge and experiences to reach a solution. That’s why, as a company, we’re particularly passionate about increasing gender diversity in STEM fields.

What were your impressions of the North East after moving back to the region?

I was working in Singapore before I came back to Newcastle. The P&G site in Singapore is based on a purpose-built Bio Innovation Hub which has some very high-tech buildings. There’s been a huge amount of investment there.

Before I came back to Newcastle, I thought that major innovations would take place at a specific site, as opposed to happening all across the region. Once I’d returned, I found that the old Newcastle brewery site had gone, and that there was a huge amount of work underway to create what is now Newcastle Helix – one of the biggest innovation hubs in Europe. It’s great to see that the whole region is continuing to reinvent itself from the days of heavy industry, with the skills of people across the North East being used to create new science and new innovation. It’s really transformed to become a modern, high-tech hub, which is great to see.

What are your ambitions for the future of the North East?

I’d love to see more big organisations, like P&G, come to the North East, helping to continue to scale up our innovation and manufacturing capabilities. I think the region’s desire to create is very strong, and we no longer need to focus our energies on coal or heavy industry. Today, we can look to biotech or harnessing the power of technology more broadly – creating a clean, manufacturing epicentre for the future.

In addition to attracting existing corporates to the region, we should also ensure that we’re growing the smaller companies that are already in the region, so that they’re able to become the big corporates of tomorrow.

Find out how innovation can help your business grow by visiting the Innovation Toolkit on the North East Growth Hub.