Innovation is easy to say, but harder to achieve. In the first article of Protiviti’s Building a Brighter Future series, which will help companies to look ahead, we unpack how they can bring ideas to life.
Many people will be familiar with this situation: sitting in a company workshop, coming up with new ideas, and sticking notes on the wall. Hours spent searching for new ways of working, new products, or new thinking about old problems. The word ‘innovation’ is used a lot in modern business. But, in reality, many still struggle to make it happen. Ideas mean nothing unless they are made tangible.
Thankfully, the past 18 months have started to change the conversation about innovation. Some companies switched their entire business models because they had to. To cite just two examples, manufacturers turned their hand to personal protective equipment, and food and drink companies pivoted to produce hand sanitiser. Innovation happened fast, because companies in crisis management mode adapted quickly to a new reality.
Without the urgency for change, or simply due to a low-risk appetite culture, many companies often get stuck in a rut and fall behind their nimbler competition or start-ups willing to disrupt an incumbent. In this article, we provide insight to help companies take those ideas off the wall, onto the drawing board and into real life, long after the pandemic has receded.
“We often start by trying to help people unlock or rediscover their creativity” says Jonathan Wyatt, managing director at Protiviti. “A lot of the skills and techniques in the innovation process are built for product innovation. But they can be embedded into people’s thought processes, so they become better at what they do.”
The techniques Jonathan talks about include human-centric design thinking. At its heart, the process is about listening and understanding other people’s points of view. But it’s also about not being attached to your own. He describes encouraging people to come up with an idea, write it down, screw it up and then throw it away.
“It’s similar to agile working, but it goes much faster,” says Jonathan. “Much of this is about helping people get comfortable throwing out ideas - not getting attached to them. It drives a collaborative way of working and thinking, which should also feel different.”
Design thinking often reaches a peak with multiple ideas. Then the group selects one. Which idea will have the most impact? At this point, the choice will be forced. Consensus is usually reached, but if people disagree, they can speak their mind. In theory, politics should disappear because transparency is the aim. While design thinking isn’t just used for innovation, Jonathan believes companies can’t innovate without these techniques.
But how do good ideas go further? The initial focus and excitement, which is so familiar, can often be lost. That big idea, on that sticky note, can suffer in silence on someone’s desk. So, here are five things to remember when embarking on the innovation process. These steps will help bring hard-won ideas to life and encourage companies to be honest with themselves, too.
Ongoing innovation doesn’t happen by accident and goes beyond the crisis management seen during the pandemic. Companies that understand it are deliberate about the structures and frameworks they put in place. They support continuous improvement and the source of new ideas.
“Digital organisations, for example, are often flatter and effective at empowering people,” says Jonathan. “They’re good at surfacing ideas: they recognise the best idea might come from a new graduate who’s worked for three weeks, or an intern. They don’t have layers of management to get through for approval.”
They are also good at keeping ideas alive, according to entrepreneur Josh Valman, who spoke on Protiviti’s Collaboration Forum. He explains that companies considered to be innovative, like IBM, Amazon and Apple, are famous for products they didn’t invent. But as they develop products, they focus on what fails, and put those elements back into an innovation pipeline.
“They develop these ideas again later, and they are strict about tracking the process,” says Josh. “They focus on why things fail, put a value on them, and communicate. Talking about them brings people in and helps create value; so, when ideas come back around, they can be developed successfully.”
Good ideas need a sponsor, someone who supports the process, and has the appetite to see it through. This could be a member of the senior management team or a business lead. They will clarify expectations and own the outcome. It’s not always clear how an idea will develop, but having someone to lead it will help people to focus.
“If you think big, it could take too long to solve a problem and people become impatient,” says Jonathan. “So, you therefore need a plan of how to execute, including budget, accountability and ownership; and avoid overthinking as well. Sometimes, people want to build the perfect answer, instead of rapidly prototyping an idea.”
According to Valman, focus will also help to convince the doubters. “Innovation is 99 per cent off the shelf, and one per cent interesting, and it’s the one percent that is really important,” he says. “It’s the same in regulated industries like financial services. If you have a well-developed product, and a small change that will make a big difference, it can be easier to communicate that to people.”
As new ideas are developed, it’s important to gather feedback from users. This helps to improve future versions. This is about learning and not getting hung up on perfection. If a product or service is out in the world adding value, it can be improved in stages. Ultimately, this process can also help to avoid expensive mistakes.
“We’ve all seen companies roll projects out that miss the mark,” says Jonathan. “And we ask: ‘who did you speak to, as you were going through, to get insight and feedback?’ ‘Well, not the customer and/or end users really … ’ they say. The honest answer is that it’s already built, so any feedback will only involve small tweaks. They aren’t going to rewrite an entire system.
“Adopting an agile mindset can be very helpful when it comes to timely feedback,” he adds. “Most people understand that with websites and mobile apps, for example. But when it comes to core systems and processes, and trying to change a business, I’m not so sure that many organisations get it. And it’s problematic if they don’t.”
Some people want to innovate. They join organisations and use their experience to make changes. They need very little encouragement, and with the right conditions, they will get things done. But not everyone will feel the same way. Others will need help to commit. Information and inspiration will often get them on board and then they’ll need support.
“If you don’t unpack innovation, whatever people are working on can become business as usual quite quickly,” says Roland Carandang, managing director in Protiviti’s Technology Consulting practice. “There’s always pressure to keep going, and in some ways, that’s a good thing. But it puts a lot of pressure on organisations when people want to innovate all the time.
“Others will need to see more before doing something themselves.” he adds. “But when people work on a project, they often like doing something different, and seeing it through. That’s important. If companies allow these people to complete projects, and help them succeed, they will maintain their interest in the future.”
If companies are open to new ideas, and provide support, businesses can change the way they operate, and create new products. Innovation can influence the way people think and what they actually do. But, stifling it can send people into reverse. It’s about finding a balance and being honest about risk.
“It’s important for companies to think about where they are not taking enough risk, and where they are taking on too much”,” says Jonathan. “But innovation will be tough if they are too risk averse. In some cases, risk management teams are the biggest risk to a business. When managing the operational risks, they sometimes ignore the strategic risks, and in doing so can end up increasing the risk that the business goes out of business by trying to avoid risk.”
“If someone came up with an idea that might transform part of a business, what would happen if they were given the budget to do it, and what if it failed?” asks Priya Lakhani, chief executive at Century Tech, who spoke on Protiviti’s Collaboration Forum. “Does that person go back to their partner or family and say, ‘oh, my goodness, I’m not going to get promoted’. That kind of culture is stifling creativity and ideas. Companies have to be really honest about where they stand on this.”
In the future, conversations about innovation will have to evolve into something deeper. At the outset, the focus will be on changing the way people think. Their ideas will then be curated, and supported, by companies that believe innovation is important. They will also be actively encouraged, developed in stages, and communicated. “You need everyone contributing to the innovation process,” says Jonathan. You need everyone feeling empowered to put forward crazy ideas, and the organisation aligned to actually execute on the best of them.”
If companies are prepared to take the risk, those sticky notes could actually change their fortunes.
Building a Brighter Future is a series of articles about helping companies to look forward. It has been inspired by Protiviti’s weekly Collaboration Forum, which ran online for 18 months until the summer of 2021. This article is the first in the series, which will also explore how organisations, leadership and culture are evolving, and the changing relationship between people and technology.