“It’s the realisation of ideas, the translation of possibility into material value. The old adage about 99% perspiration is true in my experience through a number of start-ups. The idea is the easy bit. Making it real takes sweat, and investment.”
This was my answer when asked by TheBusinessDesk recently what innovation meant to me. But I realised it was one of many possible answers.
Innovation is something that every almost company seems to be chasing at the moment, driven in part by excitement about what is possible, and in equal measure by fear of impending disruption. These are equally valid motivations. No-one wants to be blown away by Schumpeter’s gale, and that weather front seems to be approaching every organisation, if it hasn’t already hit.
It’s easy to be cynical when there is so much buzz around an idea, particularly in business where fads seem to fly past faster than new fashions. But I genuinely believe that high frequency change (as distinct from a more generic argument for accelerated change) justifies renewed focus on innovation, in proposition, process, and culture.
So what is innovation? And what is it not?
For me, what it is not, is exclusively new ideas. Ideas are frankly ten a penny. Great ideas may be rarer, but to be honest, there are plenty floating around out there. What is generally lacking, is application. Whether it’s a new idea, an old one, or often one borrowed from another place, the key to innovation is making it count.
Innovation is not always about success either. ‘Fail fast’ has become another over-used term, often with too much emphasis on the ‘fail’ and not enough on the ‘fast’. Because ‘fast’ in this context also means ‘cheap’.
We are better equipped than ever to experiment and every business should encourage its people to do so, but only within a framework that maximises the chances of success and learns lessons from the natural proportion of failures. Failing fast without learning lessons is just wasting time.
Creating a culture
Innovation may be cheaper now, but it’s not free. That’s why innovation needs support from leadership, and committed expenditure. There is a natural overhead that comes with change, and every company focused on sustainable success should be budgeting for it.
Putting budget aside is a great starting point for a culture of innovation. It says that you are committed. Package this budget in a framework that encourages feedback, speculation, and experimentation, and you are beginning to create the right environment.
Iteration & recombination
Innovation also doesn’t have to be about big steps. Many smaller steps can be just as valuable, if not more so. This is particularly true in organisations that have lacked a culture of innovation, and where assembling financial and political support for major change can be time-consuming and draining.
Smaller steps can start to build up a track record of evidence, demonstrating progress and value. And these small steps particularly don’t need to be about original ideas: small iterations of existing processes and structures can rapidly improve efficiency and customer experience, and eliminate frustration.
One of the cheapest and easiest forms of innovation is the application of other people’s innovations to your organisation. Cloud applications are particularly easy to bolt-on to existing processes, and while uncontrolled, this type of ad-hoc procurement risks a future IT nightmare, it can be a great tool for rapid prototyping.
What does innovation mean to you?
Ultimately, innovation is about survival. As Schumpeter said, “[Capitalism] is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary.”
If you want your organisation to survive and thrive then innovation is critical. Create a culture of innovation by assigning clear budgets to it, by inviting contributions from across the organisation, and by creating a framework within which ideas can be tested, evaluated and applied or discarded as appropriate, rapidly and cheaply.
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