Why Innovation Ain’t Easy

“Innovation is Culture, so if your organisation is renown for killing off ideas and inter-departmental point-scoring, then guess what? You not going to be innovative anytime soon.”

As far as over-used words go, Innovation is up there with disruption on my list of hate-words, along with appvertising, grofits, and game-changer. I don’t hate the concept of innovation; as a designer, it’s my stock in trade. I do hate the misuse of the word, typically when it means ‘coming up with a bunch of radical ideas out of the blue that one hopes will magically disrupt the industry‘.

The Beanbag Effect

I’ve mentioned before that executives sometimes get strange ideas about ideation; typically involving focus groups, expensive consultants with goatees, beanbags and ‘imagineering’ sessions, completely missing the point that innovation isn’t a result, it’s (like many things) a process. Simply coming up with goods ideas isn’t Innovation. While innovation can include an element of brainstorming (as well as other creative methods), it’s not a directionless effort conducted in the vain hope that the group will come up with the ‘next big thing’.

I’ve always said that everything we do is problem solving; that includes innovating. Like problem solving, we first need to understand a problem, challenge or opportunity before worthwhile innovation can occur.

Get The First Aid Kit

Innovation is largely pointless in organisations where failure is forbidden. And let’s be blunt; plenty of organisations claim that ‘learning failure’ is permitted, but few actually have the courage or persistence to actually practice it. In most businesses (especially large conservative organisations), failure is and always has been verboten. Innovate? Sure, but make sure you get it right first time or you’re screwed. This attitude leads to the fear of initiative, which of course is anathema to innovative effort.

Innovation is Culture

If your organisation culture is renowned for killing off ideas and inter-departmental point-scoring, then guess what? You not going to be innovative anytime soon (but you will very effectively kill morale and probably lose your best talent). If the words “That’s not the way it’s done around here” is ever, EVER uttered in the halls of your business, then you’ve got a long hard slog ahead of you to first fix your culture before meaningful innovation can occur.

Innovation is Customer, not Executive, oriented

One of the weirdest examples of ‘innovation’ I every heard coming from the banking industry was a Facebook share button at the bottom of a banking app. The idea was to be able to tell your Facebook ‘friends’ (the 2,780 people that are within four degrees of separation from your third cousin Ralph) that you’d just made a banking transaction. Apparently the idea had come from a senior executive who insisted that since young people (such as his daughter) liked using Facebook, having a ‘share’ button in the app would allow the bank to connect more closely to young people. Because “Hey peeps, I just made a deposit y’all” is totally what those rad far-out young people want to share these days. OMG Banking is so hot right now LOL.

Innovative effort needs to originate at the customer interface, not within the minds of leaders who insist on their idea being implemented.

The Golden Egg

Most businesses diversify services, products or investment to ensure sustainable financial performance. Innovation also needs to be diverse and come from multiple sources and efforts within the organisation, not just from one big project or idea that is intended to be a ‘game changer’. Some organisations put all their effort into one major Golden Egg’ effort hoping to ‘disrupt’ their industry; which is enormously risky from both a financial and cultural perspective. If the effort results in failure, culture takes a hit and innovation becomes a dirty word. Not all innovation is disruptive and the wise executive needs to understand the difference between the two.

Innovation is never Siloed.

There are plenty of examples of innovation that failed because customers never wanted it. New Coke, the Apple Newton PDA, and Google Glass are but a few examples. However sometimes customers can love an innovative service or product which still causes enormous financial damage. A few years ago, a ‘skunk works’ inside a large European bank wanted to implement a cardless cash service from ATMs, based on the example of Australian banks, who originally pioneered the idea.

The problem was, the small team didn’t take systemic and process considerations into account. On the day that cardless cash was launched, the entire ATM and merchant network crashed, costing the bank millions in lost revenue, penalties and reputational damage. Siloed innovation can lead to great products if you’re extremely lucky and disaster if you’re not.

Innovation is Execution 

Ideas are great; everybody has them, but not everyone executes. Innovation is more than coming up with ideas – it’s delivery. At some stage, you’re going to have to commit to the idea enough to actually fund it and execute, otherwise the whole exercise has been a waste of money.


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