If I asked you to think of innovations, what would come to mind? Would it be driverless cars, or turning the taxi and hotel industries on their head? Perhaps you would cast your mind back to the introduction of smartphones and their ability to do almost anything. Whatever you associate with the word, the chances are it would be something that disrupted a market.
Therein lies a problem though. The more we associate innovation with disruption and significant breakthroughs, the greater the danger that businesses miss opportunities as they lose sight of what innovation really means.
So, let’s take a few moments to step back from all the hype, reevaluate and explore how the right focus can bring benefits to your business.
What does innovation mean?
If it’s more than groundbreaking new products or services, what is innovation? The more people you ask, the more definitions you will get. But the one I prefer describes innovation as turning an idea into a solution that adds customer value.
There are several reasons why I think this is a good definition. Firstly it recognises that innovation is about applying an idea. Creativity is often confused with innovation. But while creativity is fundamental to the generation of ideas, innovation is so much more. Even the most significant ideas are worthless if they are not put into practice.
Another reason why I like the definition is its focus on customer value. Invention is also often mistaken for innovation. But how many times have you watched Dragons’ Den and thought to yourself, ‘who’s going to buy that?’ An innovation has to satisfy a customer need. While inventions should, they often don’t.
What’s perhaps not so apparent in the definition is that innovation isn’t just about products or services. Possibly one of the most important things to appreciate is that innovation is as much about what you do or how you do it—your processes and practices. If an innovation in your production line can enable you to make your products with less waste, or to a higher quality and your customers care about waste, cost or quality, then it will benefit them.
Of course, another essential requirement of innovation is for the business to benefit. It’s not explicit in the definition because if customers benefit, the business should too.
Why sweat the small stuff?
If you want to drive innovation within your business, one of the first things to consider is that teams shouldn’t think they have to find a breakthrough or disruptive solution. That perception can paralyse innovation from the outset. Don’t avoid big ideas all together as they are extremely valuable, but they are also rare. Do, however, encourage your colleagues to consider all opportunities, including the small ideas.
The principles of marginal gains were used by Sir Dave Brailsford to great success with British Cycling and Team Sky, and they continue to be applied in areas of intense competition and complexity such as Formula One. They demonstrate that an ongoing focus on the consistent development of small ideas can be as, if not more, valuable than one big idea. This is especially true in areas where the more significant ideas are harder to come by.
There’s more to innovation than product development
It is also important to ensure that you don’t get blinkered by the desire for new products or services. Process innovation can be just as valuable.
A great example is a packaging company I visited last year. They were having problems with paper stock jamming their machines. As the paper sat on pallets, its weight forced the air out from between the sheets. When it was fed into the machines, it would stick, causing jams as a result. It was one of the company’s apprentices that asked why they didn’t just turn the pallets over to stop the compression like his mum did with his towels. One pallet rotator later and machine downtime, and the associated cost had been all but eliminated.
Everyone can contribute to innovation
That example leads on to my next tip, which is to get everyone involved. It’s never helpful to try and force ideas, but do encourage—and if appropriate incentivise—everyone in your business to think about how they can identify and implement new ways of adding customer value.
Doing that requires you to take a customer perspective, of course. Do that early on, and you will avoid wasting time on something nobody wants. But care is needed, as people will develop an emotional attachment to their ideas. When they do, it can be challenging, and disruptive to the business, to drop an idea. It is far easier to make those decisions early before the attachment has grown too strong.
Innovation is everyday business
If you want to drive innovation, it should be part of day-to-day business. A knee-jerk approach to innovation—as a panic reaction to some adverse change in your organisation or market—will not work. Worse still the experience will leave staff unwilling to be involved with innovation in the future.
Instead, encourage innovative thinking as an ongoing practice. Keep everyone focused on what innovation means for your business and make sure they understand that it is more than product development. Whatever you do, don’t let it become a chore that surfaces when things are looking bleak.
Invest in innovation
It is also important to remember that there is a lot to innovation; it’s so much more than generating ideas.
Innovation often fails within a business because all the effort and energy is put into developing ideas. Don’t get bogged down with idea generation. You need to allow time and resources to refine the best concepts. Experimentation, gathering feedback and revising are all stages which are as important as idea generation—some would say more so.
Play to your innovation strengths
And finally, look at what you are good at and do more of it! You are probably innovating already, but you may not realise it. Take stock, identify the strengths within your business and your teams, and leverage those strengths.
The media will still focus on the high-profile, disruptive and breakthrough ideas, and I’m afraid that will stop some businesses from making valuable advances.
But if you put innovation at the heart of your organisation, if you encourage your teams to think as much about how you operate as what you do, and if you don’t ignore the small wins, then you will become an innovation superhero.