Timing, as we know, can be everything. With new ideas and innovation, timing is king. We have all walked down the street and seen something on sale or a new business that just opened and thought to ourselves, “damn, I thought of doing that!”
It is a little known fact, that long before Starbucks or Costa took over our highstreets here in the UK, Warburtons actually started its own coffee shops, but they were just too early and unfortunately folded the venture before the market need arrived. If you think about it, and apologies to readers outside the UK who may not know “the nation’s favourite baker”, this was actually a really great brand extension and ought to have worked amazingly. Freshly baked pastries and breads with a freshly brewed coffee. Timing was just not right.
New ideas are not in short supply. In this and other forums, I have frequently built on the truism that ideas are cheap, with the observation, that whilst ideas may not be in short supply, we have no idea how many ideas we have as organisations, no metrics around them, no processes to measure them, yet we all freely admit they are the lifeblood of the way we do business.
In other aspect of our business lives we have become much more adept at measuring and developing KPIs and have widely adopted software to facilitate this (Saleforce CRM, Marketo for marketing automation etc etc.). Yet in innovation this is still lagging. It is a pretty huge gap in the organisational armory if you think about it. Ideas are our lifeblood, yet we have no mechanism to manage or measure them…..can that be right?
At Wazoku we challenge companies on a daily basis to think more about ideas and how they are managed within their organisations. To the point of this article, when we consider the concept of managing ideas, what we are really looking to do is to ensure that the right ideas are uncovered at the time when they are most needed, and by the team who most needs them.
This is of course, far easier said than done. It is also,overly simplistic to suggest we are not doing anything at all to manage ideas, or to portray organisations as intentionally negligent with their ideas. However, it is undeniably true that as businesses we can be doing a lot better and benefitting a lot more than we do.
In order to explain myself further, I want to dive a little deeper into the nuance of what I am suggesting. Let us return to the above statement: Ideas are cheap and any group of smart people can come up with some ideas that look good on the surface. So, what can organisations do to not only unearth great ideas, but also to ensure these ideas are timely and likely to achieve product-market fit? What can we do to improve the likelihood of a higher impact rate from ideas? Here are a few relatively simple steps that I recommend organszations explore and evaluate as they strive to achieve the above panacea:
Strive to be innovative, not to innovate – this is an important starting point and one I am happy to scale my tallest soap box and adopt my loudest voice to champion. Innovation is a noun and is, at its most simplistic, ‘the action or process of innovating’. I would go one step further and say it is the ‘by-product of being innovative.’ From atop my soap box, I repeat my mantra – If you are innovative, you will innovate (and repeat…..).
Start with a real understanding of a true market need and take the time to frame it: When we are seeking to be innovative we need to frame what this means. We need to tell our organisation what it means and talk about it in language, actions and processes that support, reinforce and allow for this to happen. A key strength of truly innovative organisations is that they understand the strategy, know the strategic direction and then manage innovation in line with this strategy. This can be extremely broad ranging, but it is aligned with the wider (and widest) objectives of the organisation. Real innovation comes from a disciplined process of understanding a real market need, designing a robust solution for that need and executing flawlessly.
As an example, it is important to focus the innovative organisation on specific challenges and problem statements. It is vital these are rooted in true market/business need and are clearly framed in terms of the ask, the process and the governance so as to allow for the greatest probability of a positive outcome. Far from being the nemesis of innovation, process is the enabler of innovation. How many of you have run your innovation activities like Dave Lewis, Tesco CEO, did when he first took the hotseat at the UK’s largest retailer? Eager to engage the organisation in “improving Tesco”, Mr Lewis went out to his 500k employees and asked them to email him directly with any ideas they had to achieve this goal. The result? Over 14,000 ideas in a few days, an overloaded inbox and a huge task for someone to sort through. It took a team of consultants several months to sort through the ideas, just to categorise them, and then begin the task of evaluating them, looking for sponsors within the business, trying to see if there was any business case for them, etc. etc. Not only could this have been managed far more effectively and efficiently by a specialist idea management tool, but even then, any IM software provider worth their fees would have been encouraging Mr Lewis and his team to consider the real ask in his question and focus it down in some way. I could write a full post on just this case study, but for now I will leave it with this point: consider your innovation focus and run clearly defined, well communicated innovation challenges, with clear requirements, process and business champions in place;
Define what being innovative means and provide the tools to achieve it: Clearly defining what innovation means within your business is, hopefully, an obvious first step. If those you want to innovate for you, do not know your overall strategy for innovation and how this fits within your core organisational strategy, then how can you expect them to ever give you what you need. State this clearly, communicate it widely and reinforce it often.
Innovation projects that employ design thinking come up with solutions that have a better chance of making it to market successfully, because they are developed with holistic thinking that considers desirability, feasibility and viability simultaneously. Design thinking also encourages iterative development, which helps work out potential kinks before a company has to commit more significant investment and ultimately to get the best ideas to market quicker, often in the form of an MVP (minimum viable product).
Look further than what you know and can see: Those of you who work in the innovation world will be familiar with the concept of the “Three Horizons of Innovation” from Baghai, Coley and White, who suggest that a company allocate its innovations across three categories called “Horizons”, these are explained in the image below.
I am not going to dive into this topic any further here, but will likely pick it up in another post, and there is also much written about it across the web and beyond. The principal point here is that as companies looking to innovate, we need the right lens and data, we need to know where we are focusing. Are we looking to innovate on the current business model, the adaptive business model (i.e. where we will be as the company evolves organically) or the future business model (whether or not we have one in mind!)? There are numerous techniques (futurists, horizon scanning, technology scouting, etc.), which are growing in popularity, sophistication and validity. Whatever approach you take as an organisation, you need to be looking out beyond your immediate frame of reference and strategy as part of your innovation work.
Building on this point takes me nicely into my final bit of advice, which is (potentially) a slight curveball to end with, but could be the big question you are not asking or the elephant in the room you are avoiding;
Are Google or Amazon your biggest competitor (no matter what you do)? I like this as a general challenge for all businesses we engage with. It is a great discussion point for an offsite with your executive team, no matter what business/sector you are in. Brainstorm the question: How could Google or Amazon disrupt our business? Take an example here of Yale, the lock manufacturer. Could (why would) Google disrupt this sector? It seems counter-intuitive, but the answer if most definitely yes. In 2015 Yale announced a partnership with Nest, the Google owned Connected Home products company acquired by Google in 2013 for $3.2bn. Yale identified this threat and are partnering with Nest (Google) on this. As data enters every device and everything becomes wifi enabled and interconnected, Google (or Amazon or another web-behemoth or well funded tech unicorn) could be the competition you never saw coming. Is it worth positing this question at your next executive team get together?