Often, the challenge with innovation in large companies is not the dearth of good ideas but the ability to identify, develop and sustain them and, eventually, turn them into potentially profitable business propositions.
Innovation is a very broad term and the extent of innovation can vary from incremental core business improvements (below the line innovation) to a major breakthrough or ‘eureka’ moments (above the line innovation). Throughout the whole process, a key component is changing the corporate attitude to failure. The lean methodology and mantra of ‘fail fast’ where companies are encouraged to test out lots of new ideas and quickly drop them if they do not bear fruit may sound good, but it is neither tolerated at most companies nor is it an attitude that guarantees success at the end of the process. Instead, businesses should shift the emphasis to instilling the habit of generating more ideas and managing the good ones through the business.
The process of managing innovation, nurturing new ideas and moving them from the whiteboard and spreadsheets into the field is where we find firms struggle. Innovating at scale is always tricky and to be able to push through new ideas effectively the business, teams and individuals need commitment from the senior leadership team, and commitment that goes beyond lip service. This includes funding, fostering the right culture and ensuring the sustainability of good ideas.
Evolve old methods
In today’s fast-paced marketplace, companies can no longer rely on a set group of people to come up with new ideas. Today, innovation belongs to everyone and, to succeed, businesses must actively encourage innovation among all their employees, from new graduates up to the CEO and outwards to the edge of the business where your suppliers and customers sit. You never know who or where the next big idea may come from and, surprisingly, this softer approach often results in much more business impact, and more quickly than you would expect. This is because, when included from the outset, employees feel personally invested in the process, dedicating more time and effort into building a meaningful proposition which they are passionate about.
Start with context, not 'Blue Sky' notions
For many businesses, concerns around involving all employees in the process include the sheer volume of ideas being generated and how to separate the good from the bad. Fortunately, there are efficient ways of generating valuable ideas while retaining a democratic spirit, by using a few simple execution changes. For example, companies can encourage teams to generate ideas by identifying their own daily frustrations and coming up with solutions to solve them.
Innovation labs – the home of new thinking?
Another way to instil and harness innovation is to set up a dedicated innovation lab, separate from core business operation. This separation is crucial for the labs to work as they must openly encourage disruptive innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, reduce bureaucracy and give people the freedom to challenge current ways of working at the business.
The key to the success of an innovation lab is the creation of ideas that go beyond being novel to ideas that solve real solutions for an organisation’s customers. After all, there is no point innovating to create something that your customers do not want. Innovations must be based on everyday discussions with clients and employees and address their pain points.
However, the role and use of technology cannot be ignored here. Technology is at the heart of every business and its use in the ideas stage can help spark new ideas by allowing companies to really understand the touch points their customers are using on a daily basis. Businesses then need to work through a process of reflection and thinking, rapid prototyping, and then – for the ideas that really work – move solutions to a pilot phase to grow them to enterprise scale.
Some leaders and managers see innovation as complicated, something that is optional and outside of their regular work, looked after by a separate R&D team. Others consider innovation to be part of their daily role, helping their business to maintain market relevance when disruption is dismantling long-standing companies and creating new ones.
However, let us be clear: the life blood of any company lies in its ability to improve its product portfolio or develop new ideas and continually evolve. Successful leaders are those who champion innovation, understand context, mechanics and measurement beyond bottom-line results. How they choose to foster innovation will be felt throughout the entire organisation and ultimately impacts the future success of any company.