Susan Cunningham: Confluence of people, ideas leads to innovative thinking

Posted on 15 May 2013

By Joanne Liou, associate editor

Noble Energy’s senior vice president of exploration and business innovation, Susan Cunningham, recognized how innovative ideas and people have led to her company’s successes in increasing production and discoveries.

Noble Energy’s senior vice president of exploration and business innovation, Susan Cunningham, recognized how innovative ideas and people have led to her company’s successes in increasing production and discoveries.

As a company grows from a small organization to a relatively large one, it must contend with questions of how to keep its enterprising spirit alive. As Noble Energy transforms from its roots as a relatively small entrepreneurial company to a large independent, innovation is key to building and maintaining a competitive edge, Susan Cunningham, senior vice president of exploration and business innovation at Noble, explained at the 2013 OTC on 8 May. “The core of any sustainable and successful company and career trajectory is the ability to think different, to be able to see a different reality than what we see today,” she stated.

Over the past decade, Noble has increased its market capitalization to $20 billion, almost doubled its oil production to 240,000 bbls/day and increased its proved reserves to more than 1 billion bbls from less than 500 million bbls. “In the next five years, we expect to double our production, double our proved reserves,” Ms Cunningham said. “We operate in five core areas – two onshore in US unconventional plays, the other three offshore around the world, from deepwater Gulf of Mexico to West Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. We expect to add at least two core areas through exploration.

Crediting the company’s success to innovation driven by creativity, Ms Cunningham explained innovation is not all about technology; it’s also about innovative thinking. Sharing concepts largely influenced by Imagine: How Creativity Works, a book by Jonah Lehrer, she explained how the confluence of different ideas can lead to breakthroughs. “Whenever people connect or come together, they become much more productive per capita,” she said. “It happens in every city, in every time (period). By measuring every socioeconomic data, from patents to per capita income, scientists have found creativity scales to an exponent of approximately 1.15, which means that a person living in a city of a million people will on average generate 50% more patents and make 15% more money than a person living in a city of 500.”

Businesses, however, exhibit the opposite relationship, an increase in the number of employees leads to a decrease in creativity. According to scientists, this is rooted in failure of innovation because large businesses tend to minimize the very interactions that lead to new ideas, she said.

Cities, however, provide a platform for masses of people to interact to create new ideas and new energy, leading to unpredictable encounters and spontaneous mixing, Ms Cunningham explained. Noble is transferring that concept to build a company around its entrepreneurial history, “where we never lose sight that business is all about people. The engagement of the human spirit is vital to a vibrant community, as well as a vibrant company.”

Three pillars support Noble’s innovation: leadership, alignment with the company’s vision and innovative thinking. “The first is focused on creating great leaders everywhere,” Ms Cunningham said, “where respect and care is at the core and taking outcomes that we don’t know how to achieve is what we do.”

A testament to Noble’s business innovation is the company’s exploration goal in 2006 to discover 1 billion bbls of oil equivalent of net resources in the next five years. “We didn’t end up discovering 1 billion bbls of oil equivalent in five years,” Ms Cunningham said. “We discovered 2.8 billion bbls of oil equivalent from 2007 through 2012, replacing about 30 times our current annual production and creating two new core operating areas.” In 2006, Noble averaged 35 million bbls of oil equivalent per year through exploration. The company set a goal that seemed impossibly high, but “to our astonishment, we exceeded it. We took it on to cause our organization to change, to grow, to be the best it could be,” she said. “To achieve all that, we had to be innovative to change the direction of our future.”

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