It’s time to get serious about innovation

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According to Vodafone research, 93% of businesses want to become more innovative in order to energise growth, but many fail to translate this intent into action. Here Dave Allan, co-founder and chairman of ?What If!, explains why these businesses are right to crave innovation and how they can achieve their goal.

We’re a global innovation company with 250 employees who spend all day working with organisations to help them innovate by changing the way organisations approach projects.

We do this in three ways: by working with leadership teams to create a vision and direction for the future; by getting actively involved creating new brands, services and businesses for clients, and by helping them develop an organisation-wide innovation mindset.

The top 10 innovations we have helped brands create, new products or new approaches to work, have created between $22 and $23 billion of value for our clients and people come to us because we deliver ‘different’ – i.e. a completely new outlook – and not just ‘better’ – i.e. improving old systems.

Innovation is not a new concept, but it has come a long way since 1992 when we founded our business. Innovation used to be the domain of large businesses with the means to invest in change. Products and services evolved at a glacial pace and it was primarily dictated by big players in the economy.

Today is very different. Near universal connectivity, 4G and affordable devices have enabled anyone with a strong idea to start a business, and global companies are constantly looking over their shoulder at the start-ups that threaten to steal their crown.

Injecting innovation into the day-to-day

Today, whether you are a large or a small business, it is possible to invent very quickly, a fact which has compounded the pressure on businesses to become more dynamic, agile and inventive. People are aware of this but not everyone is sure how to make it happen.

As a business leader, the very first thing to do is ask yourself what role should innovation play in your organisation. That means having an honest discussion about your growth agenda and how ambitious you are as a business and how doing things differently (i.e. innovating) can help achieve your business goals.

You should arrive at one of three positions: being a game player, a game evolver or a game-changer; they are all possibilities and none is necessarily better than the others.

Game playing means finding ways of carrying on with the same ingredients but aiming to deliver results cheaper and faster. Game evolving is asking how your business can take existing models and twist them in a new way; while game-changing is about creating something entirely new and different.

Finding out your position on this question is very important because each approach to innovation requires a different set of strategies to deliver against it.

Next, you must define the potential growth platforms for your business. These are the broad areas where it has the brand, assets and capabilities to provide an advantage.

By combining the answers to these two questions you start to create focus around your innovation agenda. Once the leaders are aligned – failing to create a cohesive approach is where a lot of strategies fall down – then you can start to feed the message into the company.

Ushering in a culture change

If the plan is to create a culture of innovation, such that thrives in companies like Google and Apple, then you must be very clear about your plans and back them up with action by applying flexible and creative thinking to day-to-day tasks. Train people to want to make small improvements and give them the skills to achieve it.

When someone has a good idea, force them to make it real very quickly and run small, low-cost experiments to test the new thinking. It is important to learn in the real world, not through theory, so foster a culture of fast and cheap experimentation.

If you are looking to make big changes, whatever you do don’t try to force them through the existing operational infrastructure of the business. Again, set up small teams and give them license to work outside the core structure.

Treat them like a pop-up start-up. Invest tranches of money over time and then ask for reports two or three months apart. Create governance structures that hold them accountable and set regular deadlines for gradual improvement.

For many companies it’s impossible to become truly innovative without going back to basics and starting from a new platform. By getting to the very bottom of what will make your organisation truly innovative, you stand a much better chance of succeeding in the long-term.

How to become more innovative:

–                 Get a consensus on your organisation’s appetite for innovation

–                 Consider the areas where your business has an advantage

–                 Apply flexible and creative thinking to everyday tasks

–                 Motivate and train people to make lots of small improvements

–                 Embrace ideas and run inexpensive experiments to see if they work in practice

–                 Treat projects like independent start-ups

–                 Set performance targets and regular deadlines for progress

–                 Assess their performance quarterly


Download the full Perspective series report on Turning Ambition into Growth