Steve Jobs knew something about innovation, saying, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. But while we can easily follow his words, it takes more work to become an innovative business. As another technology alum, video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell, mused, “Innovation is hard. It really is. Because most people don’t get it”.
To innovate has always been an essential part of organisations. It can improve existing products, create efficiencies or establish brand-new options and revenue streams. But the emphasis on innovation has become very big in the digital era. We can pursue much faster, tying into the number one rule of successful innovation: fail sooner rather than later and keep trying.
Digital technology makes many forms of innovation much more affordable, flexible and accessible. Everyone in a company can now be an innovator. Even an employee who sees a better way to do something is an innovator. Humans are natural innovators, but not every business knows how to encourage them.
I have these conversations often. Leading Swipe’s design thinking teams, I often chat with different people about this topic. Leaders want ways to enable and embed sustainable, purpose-led innovation within their organisations. But they don’t know how.
Innovation means two things to me. It is the combination of open innovation and design thinking, leading to both inorganic and human-centred innovation. These concepts are important. But I can appreciate that for many, they have become vague buzzwords. No wonder we’re so confused about innovation!
What type of innovation should companies strive for?
Organisations must have a purpose. Many claim to have one, generally as their vision statement. But how many companies live and express that vision through what they do? This is the first and most significant place where innovation falls short: you can wish for innovation, but you need purpose to achieve it.
To make your purpose an innovation accelerator, you must translate your purpose into action. Connect that purpose to your strategy, and establish a coherent set of actions. And remember – that purpose should face real problems, inspire solutions and drive actions, not just decorate your company walls and CEO speeches!
Move your purpose from the periphery to the core of your business, resonating across the conversations and decisions made by your people. Once this culture is active, you can start driving innovation as an integrated discipline, stoked by collaboration, as you remove barriers between different organisational silos. Once your people speak to the same purpose, it becomes easier to bridge gaps between them. This is especially relevant to collaboration between communications and development teams – often the first line of effective innovation.
Focusing on purpose will even guide what you know about your customers. By exploring purpose-led innovation, you are far more likely to create the experiences your customers desire. There is no escaping from this fact: a coherent and shared purpose that resonates across your business is the critical ingredient for true innovation.
With purpose in hand and using it to encourage innovation across your people, you are set to start your true innovation journey. Yet every journey works best when it has a map to follow, and I find innovation frameworks invaluable for that purpose.
We can distinguish innovation into three categories: open innovation, experience innovation and routine innovation. Each uses a different framework.
Open Innovation: This new innovation model encourages inorganic growth. It starts by setting out problem statements that help people unearth disruptive innovation – new ideas that are not part of current ideas of products. A proper open innovation model involves internal and external parties, including crowdsourcing and third parties such as think tanks and universities. The Venture Building innovation framework is a proven choice for this approach.
Experience Innovation: Human-centred design prominently features experience innovation, which is no surprise since it focuses on the experience between your services and customers. Ultimately, these innovations look for ways to build a stronger relationship between businesses and customers, and are vital to driving revenue and retaining customers. Whereas open innovation focuses on entirely new ideas, experience innovation asks how you can improve what your products, brand and services mean to customers. The popular Design Thinking framework is often used for this type of innovation.
Routine Innovation: This is the most common type of innovation because all companies should use it. But it’s often also the most neglected. Consider these questions: Are your employees encouraged to develop business improvements? Are they allowed to fail in order to iterate their ideas? Do they have access to channels that will help them realise their ideas? Companies that discourage this type of innovation, preferring to keep things as they are, miss out on a huge opportunity: the wisdom of the professionals they pay to work there. Other types of innovation are sexier, but routine innovation is fundamental, and Employee Experience frameworks are excellent for cultivating this approach.
I’ll conclude by saying that innovation matters, but we live in a time when the concept has become diluted and confusing. Companies are told they must innovate when, in fact, they already innovate. Instead, companies should decide what kind of innovation they are chasing and find ways to bring that innovation into action with the proper structure and support. Innovation starts with purpose and intent, thrives through strategy and collaboration, and delivers because of supportive channels and guiding frameworks.
Innovation is often hard because we don’t articulate and pursue what we want to achieve. Add a little focus and purpose, and your company will become an innovation leader.