“Why do we need to innovate?”
How often do we hear these words inside organisations today? The thematic goes, that things have been good, and there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken. Except, in many cases, it is broken – at least, it’s no longer good enough to keep going the way we were.
The evidence of this is everywhere you look. Competitors coming into the market with new offerings: “they’ll never last.”; new customer demographics wanting to engage through digital and ‘engage digitally; and “it’s just a fad.” Companies that have worked out how to truly speak to their customer needs: “it’s just slick marketing.”
Looking at the fastest growing and most disruptive market entrants, a number of major capabilities set them apart. In our first post in this series, we talked about the five key corporate capabilities to focus your business on. Last post in this series, we looked at “building customer centricity” – or putting the customer first. In this post, we cover what we believe to be the most important of the five: how to enable innovation in your business.
But hang on, why do we need innovation? What exactly is it, and even if we wanted it, how do we “turn it on?” It sounds very trendy, but what is the ROI (segue: check out our ROI vs CONI article to re-frame your thinking around that question).
While many see innovation as a the invention of new products, services or even markets, innovative ideas can permeate all aspects of an organisation – new ways to do things, faster ways to communicate, better ways to integrate, less onerous ways to get the information needed to make quick decisions.
Innovation isn’t something particularly magical that you buy in a packet, consult in, or get from an service provider. Innovation is actually in most people, you just have to work out how to unshackle it, foster it, and keep it focused to prevent chaos. The expertise often missing in organisations is how to go about making innovation an important capability – in other words, how to enable innovation.
Here are some practical tips we suggest can work for you when enabling innovation:
- Get the mindset right. Many organisations have loads of good ideas on how to do things better every day. They also have a bunch of bad ideas. It’s been shown that where bad ideas are frowned upon, used to mock people or shut down without further exploration, good ideas stop coming up as well. Ideation is a skill that people can learn, and that learning involves trying things out and allowing for failure. The term ‘failing fast’ is often used – and it allows for failure, but also for calling it out quickly and moving on to the next idea.
- Innovate from the bottom up. It’s considered counter-intuitive, but the best ideas come from those who are in touch with customers and partners and each other every day. The leaders of the company are often looked to for the best ideas; but the best leaders lay the structure, set the mindset and put in place the processes for innovation to flourish. Ultimately, the ideas that get the most merit will need sign off by a board or executive, but trying to start the innovation process at the top is less effective.
- Keep it simple. While it’s true that as major process and product re-designs lean on more agile and lean principles that are being widely taught to management teams, there’s no need to boil the ocean and wait for these skills to get started. Simple, well-facilitated workshops that get the right people together to solve operational or customer problems in a practical, timely way are a great start. As thematics – such as the capability of your core IT platform (see below) – start to surface, this can then lead to larger strategic efforts to think bigger (and with those, come bigger risks). But ongoing, small-win innovation efforts throughout the organisation are empowering and effective, and most importantly don’t need to cost a lot.
- Get wide feedback early. A classic trait seen early in the innovation cycle is secrecy – people want to get credit for what they think is a great idea, and so they tend to keep it a secret. Once an idea has had some airtime inside the group to test it, and made to the ‘this might work’ level, the more input before much more is spent on it, the better. This can be as simple as showcasing an idea among a management team or wider operational group, or event at a town hall – for feedback (see below). After all, the most costly ideas in an organisation are the ones that turned out to be bad – if you can find these before they cost much or get far, that turns them into value.
- Welcome feedback. While teams may feel their precious idea is perfect, the great value in getting wider feedback is to welcome it. The best ideas put into play are those with organisation-wide commitment. This will come if more folks have had (valuable) input to the process and had their refinements taken into consideration. That doesn’t mean design or development by committee, where each in the room is somehow appeased, resulting in something very moribund and yawn-inducing – but feedback will certainly stop happening if it’s ignored or used against people. Referring to our prior article on putting the customer first [link], one of the best sources of early feedback is a customer advocate or a trusted, close customer themselves.
- Stand up the right technology. Innovation requires the ability to quickly prototype and iterate on ideas. Many modern technology platforms and methodologies – like Agile and DevOps – can enable this. There is also a burgeoning industry in off-the-shelf (online) prototyping tools that focus on business processes through to actual physical production (hello 3D printing). There’s no need to upend production systems when setting this up at first – though in time, when the innovation cycle becomes part of daily life, strong integration allowing frequent, low-risk production releases of a website, application or service are going to be what keeps the organisation moving and innovating.
You have to want to do it
The drive to innovate should be lead from the top and have strong sponsorship from the executive / management team. A sign that it is working is an initial profusion of ideas – the cork of inertia has been un-popped. The challenge then is to quickly act on, prioritise and put some ideas into play so that people can see that ideas have a life inside your organisation. The worst situations are ones where ideas stop coming because, “nobody listens anyway.”
As we will see more and more, innovation is becoming less of a choice and more of a necessity to keep up, let alone to get ahead.
Anthony Woodward is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Accelera