At the end of May, we hosted an Executive Roundtable Lunch with the intriguing discussion topic of ‘Innovation Against All Odds’. As you can imagine, our guests had no shortage of interesting stories around this theme!
The first thing to note is that ‘Innovation’ is not a subject solely owned by the technologists, nor one dominated by organisations we would view as ‘born in the cloud’ disrupters. A diverse range of businesses were represented around the table, comprising both B2B and B2C organisations across both the commercial and the charity sector. The roles represented were also diverse, including CTOs, CIOs, COOs and CFOs.
To kick-start the discussion we had invited Marcus Hyett, Facebook’s Technical Program Manager as our keynote speaker. Rather than share the obvious stories of innovation from his current employer, Marcus gave first-hand examples of innovation from organisations you would not naturally consider as innovators – real examples of innovation against all odds.
The discussions that followed were priceless, so we wanted to share some of the gems of wisdom that were revealed around the table during the event. Don’t forget, if you are interested in participating in future Conosco Executive Lunch Roundtable events, you can send a message to email@example.com.
It all starts with a problem
We have all heard the product development adage “a solution looking for a problem”, or ‘innovation’ for innovation’s sake, referring to a new product or service no one really needs or wants! True innovation results when you identify the root cause of a problem and find a way to truly fix it. This might be a business process that is cumbersome and takes your employees ages to complete, or an established way of engaging with customers that is frustrating for both parties – for example, requiring physical signatures on purchase orders or even a lengthy sign up form on your website. Finding things that are slowing your business down and imagining a better way of working is a great starting point for innovation.
Innovation is not just about technology
The technology development team in your business have an important role to play in business innovation, but they are not your only source of innovative thinking. Business managers should keep an open mind to the idea that anyone can have a bright idea. Often, it is those on the front line, who grapple with common internal and customer issues day in and day out, who are best placed to imagine a solution. Remember that not all problems need to be solved by technology; innovation can take many forms.
A useful insight from this discussion was around how important it is to make everyone around you aware of your ideas. Don’t just share your ideas with management but shout about it to your colleagues as well, this can help you to create allies and improve buy-in when the idea does reach the table for discussion.
Buy-in from the top is essential
There are millions of bright ideas that have never seen the light of day, simply due to lack of buy-in. People and organisations are naturally resistant to change, so innovators often have to work as hard on convincing others that their idea will fly, as they do on inventing and developing the idea in the first place. Convincing someone with power is key: once you get senior level buy-in, it’s more likely that the right doors will open, and the right resources will be made available.
Focus on problems with a big impact; governance can be key
An innovative idea that focuses solely on making your life easier is unlikely to gain wider buy-in; however, solving a problem that has a demonstrable return on investment for the wider business is one that can be sold. Governance is a key area that is prime for innovation, so an innovative way to secure personal data or a way to streamline the order-to-cash process are examples of ideas that will quickly get the attention of those who are accountable for areas of governance within the business.
Create a culture of innovation
For every smart idea, there are probably tens, if not hundreds, of not-so-smart ideas. Finding a true gem often requires sifting through a lot of dirt. The challenge for business leaders is to encourage, not stifle problem-solving: identifying the truly game-changing innovations can take a lot of patience, so businesses need to develop a culture that embraces creative thinking, rewards initiative and most importantly, allows employees the time and the space to work through ‘innovations’ that may fail.
Innovation needs to be part of the company’s stated goals. Around the table, there was much talk about encouraging people to take risks and be courageous, for individuals to challenge themselves but also to challenge each other, especially higher up in the organisation. It is also essential for organisations to create ‘curiosity’ on the front-line, empowering people to think beyond established ways of doing things, and creating cross-functional teams to solve problems.
Our roundtable participants shared some excellent examples where organisations have actively encouraged innovative thinking. One business leader uses a simple question, “What is the dumbest thing I ask you to do?” to encourage people to challenge their working practices. Another talked about making problem-solving a key part of the 1-2-1 reviews with their staff. Some companies
invite guest speakers into the office to share stories of amazing innovation or have hosted creative thinking workshops and hack days. Using modern collaboration tools, such as Slack and Yammer, was considered instrumental in breaking down organisational barriers and stimulating creative thinking across the whole company.
Work with customers and partners
Innovation does not only come from within. Our business leaders gave several significant examples of times when they had worked with customers and partners to drive innovation. While it has become quite common to ask customers for feedback through surveys and product forums, one of our participants gave a great example of taking a more direct approach: one quite traditional, corporate business had engaged with their most innovative and forward-thinking client, asking them to make a full audit of the ways they felt the corporation could serve them more effectively. While these methods can certainly challenge the status quo, it can have a very positive impact on the relationship between businesses and their customers.
Conosco would like to thank all of those who took part in another excellent roundtable. The discussion was not only fascinating but extremely valuable, providing some great examples of ways that organisations can encourage innovation, no matter what challenges they face. We look forward to our next round table and a new topic that is as engaging as this one.
Don’t forget, if you are interested in participating in future Conosco Executive Lunch Roundtable events, you can send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.