Innovation: The trouble is, it’s everywhere!

‘Innovation’ has become one of those catch-all solution words for all manner of problems – from society’s ills and Brexit, to restructuring the NHS and Industry 4.0. Yet its industrial application from the 17th Century onwards has very much shaped the world we live in today.

Dr Paul Stead comments on the over-used ‘i’ word, and offers personal perspective and insights.

Innovations Digital Innovation Stock - Image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Innovation: Get it right and the business prospers, get it wrong and very quickly the business (and the individual) can suffer – Image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Those of you who regularly read these articles will know that we have covered all manner of design and innovation topics. For us, they are two sides of the same coin, and ultimately Darwinian in nature; all about the survival of the fittest!

However, while nature takes millennia just to tweak, let alone evolve the gene pool; in business, life and death decisions are calculated in months, sometimes in years but rarely over decades.

Miss the opportunity, miss the trend, or simply get the core product, service or timing wrong, and customers will move elsewhere. Think Kodak, Nokia, Blackberry – there is a very, very long list.

True, 20:20 hindsight is a wonderful gift. Kodak, Nokia, Blackberry all had amazing innovation budgets, proven processes, expert teams and leadership in technology, but ultimately, they called it wrong.

Therefore, what we can conclude is that innovation is a very uncertain, often dangerous place to be. Get it right and the business prospers, get it wrong and very quickly the business (and the individual) can suffer.

This article first appeared in the July/August issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

Let’s go back to first principles. Search ‘innovation’ online and you get 541,000,000 results from dictionaries, consultants, and all manner of experts – here are just four that I like:

‘Innovation is the critical dimension of economic change’

Joseph Schumpeter (1883 – 1950, economist)

‘Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower’

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011, ex-CEO Apple)

‘We live in a culture filled with “aha” moments: inspiration “strikes,” breakthroughs can happen overnight, and innovation is all about moving fast and breaking things.’

James Dyson

‘Never assume’

Paul Smith

I don’t have my own one-line quote – however, I do have a series of innovation principles established through working with, and alongside some of the world’s best-known brands, innovators and leaders.

The following aren’t in order of importance, each business had their own priorities, culture and dynamics. What I can say, however, is without these principles in place, innovation (and growth) suffers and is often stifled.

Top down sets the tone

Innovation Stock Image
Innovation requires top-down support, involvement from the CEO and the board and all senior leadership.

Innovation requires top-down support, involvement from the CEO and the board and all senior leadership.

They have to set the tone, set objectives, agree the innovation strategy and regularly review. The support has to include appropriate resources (budgets, time and personnel), which must be accountable, measureable and visible.

With this comes empowerment and a ‘can do / will do culture’, where measured risk taking (and failure) is accepted. Remember, there is no such thing as a dead market, only dead companies providing mediocrity.

Understand the market landscape!

An established marketplace usually comes with an established ecosystem, which has a set of rules and regulations, operating principles, partners, suppliers, publishers, trade bodies, competitors (large and small / direct and indirect) and market dynamics/trends.

While there is always a great temptation to innovate against an immediate problem or brief – to do so without understanding the current and future market landscape is folly.

I think of tackling this as creating your own OS map of your market. Just as a map has the contours, rivers, roads, railways and pubs to help you plan your journey, so you need to be aware of all the key dynamics within your landscape, especially if a new ‘motorway’ is planned or new legislation is on the horizon!

Establish innovation guardrails

Many years ago, a client said to me “you can’t boil the ocean – do it kettle by kettle”, and this is true when setting an innovation project or brief.

Perfect sky and water of indian ocean - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
“You can’t boil the ocean – do it kettle by kettle” – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

It is so much easier to start small and to expand the project to include new areas where new discoveries are made, rather than a blank-sheet-of-paper approach. I would go so far as to say the tighter the brief, the better the output.

Also, a key project guardrail is time management. During the early phases it is far better to quickly prototype a broad range of solutions to establish which is preferable, rather than deep dive into every single technology. We generally call this getting the 80% for the 20%. Look to fail fast!

Multidisciplinary teams

Innovation is a team activity. During the initial phases there should be a broad range of skills, including external subject matter experts, as well existing and prospective customers and/or users.

As you’d expect, there has to be a team leader / project co-ordinator leading the workflow with some form of ‘stage gate’ process to keep the team on task. Some insights I’ve discovered along the way include:

  • Always involve your finance department – business model innovation is a major undiscovered source of commercial advantage.
  • Ensure external subject matter experts sign NDAs (including copyright transfer) before their involvement.
  • Ensure the core internal team is correctly resourced, budgeted and empowered.
  • Manage the teams’ energy levels – use ‘design sprints’ to solve individual challenges.
  • Test solutions with clients/users – little and often rather than big presentations/ reveals.

Dedicated project facilities

Leadership SKills Innovation Ideas Planning Design Foundations Meeting - Stock Image
An innovation hub is a place where the jobs to be done are mapped, where research, design and strategies can be debated and where necessary, prototypes/models can be made.

Some call this a ‘war room’, I prefer to think of it as an innovation hub, which is a constant throughout a project. It’s a place where all the information is available – displayed physically and/ or digitally.

It’s a place where the jobs to be done are mapped, start-of-the-week/ day meetings are held, where the teams’ energy can be harnessed, where research, design and strategies can be debated and where necessary, prototypes/models can be made.

I was fortunate many years ago to meet with Sir Jonathan Ive, and tour the Apple facilities. While I wasn’t able to see any of the creative output, what struck me was that the product designers sat next to the engineers, who sat next to the model makers, who sat alongside the packing designers, the interface and code designers, the marketers, the technologists, IP specialists and so on.

Now, I haven’t been to the latest Cupertino facilities, but I can only imagine that this integrated approach has been streamlined to include multiple new product and service lines.

  • Just like Apple, co-locate resources in a centre of excellence with all supporting services close to hand.
  • I’m not a great believer in remote teams unless there are strong interpersonal bonds and clear packages of work that can be delegated.
  • Share with the team (and customers if possible) models and illustrations, early and often.
  • Create a parking lot for idea’s that don’t make it – you never know when or how they may be useful in the future.