Innovation in an age of disruption

A photo time lapse of a superhighway.

Organisations across all sectors have never before been under such pressure to modernise and transform as their old worldview certainties get swept away by post-COVID ‘new normal’ customer behaviours, harsh economic realities, evolving regulatory landscapes in new technology areas, and ongoing disruption from fast-moving, savvy competitors.

Some of these you might already know about; others, perhaps from other sectors, you might not … yet.

In this piece:


COVID-19 was a catalyst for profound change in many organisations — a kick, more than a nudge — that accelerated even the most reticent of business transformation journeys into the digital future.

Some were already on such a path anyway (though they may have found themselves reluctantly riding a bit of a rocket-powered rollercoaster). But others — faced with the rather harsh realities of “modernise or move over” — will likely have had to deploy crisis innovation techniques in order to dig themselves out of their potential midpandemic holes.

Granted, in either case, numerous of these forced, fast changes have resulted in what we’ve been calling “COVID Keepers:” bright ideas, originally conceived perhaps as temporary workarounds and adaptations, which have nonetheless actually come to be thought of as rather liberating, empowering, value-adding … and something of a preferred modus operandi (especially once they are re-examined under somewhat more sober circumstances).

But now that organisations are able, once again, to reapply some of the more established “peacetime” protocols around the innovation lifecycle … what tools and approaches best fit the cause of innovation in an age of strife?

Innovation-fuelled transformation is a business imperative

Traditional R&D (with its typically top-down, siloed, slow-moving, internally focused, product-centric approaches) has tended to force companies to bet the farm on single “saviour solutions” to dig them out of a hole (or jump them ahead, or into a new market entirely).

The risks of losing that bet (because someone else got there first, with something more nimble; or because things have moved on, and what you eventually ended up with is a perfectly well-engineered solution to a problem that no longer exists, or is no longer anyone’s priority) have meant that the focus now is on much more agile, democratised, mixed-mode approaches to “innovation,” which seek to leverage all the talents and insights you can lay your hands on — and quickly. Today, every investment needs to demonstrate its value to the business over much tighter timescales.

Plus, many old-school approaches were simply unaffordable to many companies anyway. So this is a way for more organisations to get in on the act for themselves, rather than waiting to have change foisted upon them by the larger gorillas in their industry.

Modern innovation is a spread bet in terms of diverse idea sources (rather than relying on a small coterie of experts in the lab); it helps level out objectives that recognise the aggregated contribution of many small improvements across wide areas of the business. It doesn’t all have to be headline-grabbing, large-scale, disruptive and transformational Big Bang change.

Growth by a thousand (marginal) gains should not be dismissed as insignificant!

Growth by a thousand (marginal) gains should not be dismissed as insignificant.

$ Craig Wentworth$

Achieving balance

For organisations needing to balance strategic innovation activities (on a longer-term horizon plan) with the tactical here-and-now imperatives of actually keeping afloat and maintaining business-as-usual, the watchwords now are: participation, coordination, simplification, and acceleration.

Hence it’s show-not-tell time … with speedy iterations of innovation-into-pilot and into-production essential to build an appetite for adoption that keeps the cultural landing zones clear for the next innovation. And the next one after that.

Participation

Innovations start with ideas.

It pays to engage with both a variety of audiences (across the organisation, and externally — if possible) and through a range of activities (to capture a well-rounded perspective and reduce the risk of introducing biases).

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s simply a numbers game.

Yes, generally speaking, the more ideas you pull into the innovation funnel the better, but consider where they came from and how they were surfaced … what is that information not telling you (or where are ideas not coming from)?

Are gaps because the people involved in particular segments of the business are blissfully happy with their lot and have no complaint (or could conceive of no improvement)? Or are they so disillusioned and disengaged that they didn’t feel like it was worth them speaking up? Or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable with whatever process was available for them to do so?

Look out for a form of survivorship bias creeping into your crowdsourcing initiatives too, lest you end up reinforcing and rejuvenating the products and processes that were just the most vocal … not those in the most needed areas.

Any innovation initiative likely to survive “in the wild” needs sponsors and champions on all affected teams, and at multiple levels, in order to sell its adoption with plenty of positive “what’s in it for me” stories along the way … making innovation everyone’s responsibility.

Wider workforce engagement can bring benefits both for employees (being recognised for contributions — not just the originator, but also those who have a hand in stewarding an idea to fruition) and for employers (real staff involvement in the future of the business can be a great recruiting and retention tool). But it has to be authentic: faux engagement is worse than no engagement.

Gamification techniques also have a part to play in widening participation during early-stage ideation processes — incentivising real engagement and recognising contributions. They can range from the awarding of badges and “experience points” to more sophisticated approaches like “stock markets,” where idea pitches invite the backing of participants using virtual currency a way of people spreading weighted support across multiple worthy recipients, not having to go all-in with a single vote.

Coordination

A well-rounded innovation programme combines both formal (e.g. an Innovation Office of dedicated staff, formal protocols, etc.) and informal (i.e. more peer-led, community engagement) approach, but both should be well-defined, repeatable and evaluable. Don’t mistake informal for invisible, though. It still needs some recognisable structure to enable information flows to be properly managed, for learning to be disseminated, and for deliverables to be fed into the wider process.

The case for a formal innovation function is pretty easy to make — it’s hard to run a serious programme without adequate funding and a formalised structure that sets out clear organisation-wide roles and responsibilities. It’s unwise to do so without proper governance, oversight too.

But also bear in mind that a formal function, whilst necessary, is not sufficient (on its own).

It’s important to pair such an approach with more informal ones so innovation isn’t just seen as “someone else’s problem” (e.g. the preserve of the Innovation Office or lab; and their sole responsibility to get right and get embedded/adopted without help).

Just as leadership-without-funding is a recipe for frustration and stagnation in any serious innovation programme, conversely, funding-without-leadership is also problematic (for other reasons).

A lack of “top cover” from senior stakeholders will leave innovation initiatives exposed. Without advocates to amplify success at the highest levels, it will be difficult to maintain organisational commitment to the cause. Never before has time-to-value actually been such a pressing metric as now. Any new initiative has to deliver tangible benefits quickly (and be seen to have delivered them too — hence the need for metrics that properly convey contribution to top and/or bottom lines).

And although guerrilla innovation may flourish at the fringes (like shadow IT), it won’t — on its own — drive organisation-wide (or ecosystem-wide) change. It won’t necessarily be cognisant of developments elsewhere, align with wider strategies or survive outside of its niche. And without proper coordination, support and exposure to outside elements, even potential “winners,” can fail to be noticed for wider appropriation.

So it’s sanctioned, sponsored, managed innovation that the organisation must ultimately be prepared to stake its (now scarce) funding –— and potentially its reputation — on. And that isn’t something that people can continue to work on in their spare time.

Just as leadership-without-funding is a recipe for frustration and stagnation in any serious innovation programme, conversely, funding-without-leadership is also problematic.

$ Craig Wentworth$

Simplification

The business need to combat complexity (in an effort to achieve greater focus and clarity, repeatability and transparency) is often one of the driving forces behind an innovation drive. But just as much as it’s a desired end goal, simplicity is also an important factor in the innovation process itself (from the generation of ideas and their refinement, through development and into production).

In the first place, a quick round of simplification can be applied to an organisation’s normal operating procedures without the need to resort to anything particularly innovative (though things may feel new and unusual to those involved, depending on the prevailing culture).

Things like a review of policies and protocols that might be stifling novel thought (or at least discouraging people from thinking too differently, or changing perspectives … reinforcing a “can’t happen here” mentality). Consider what might realistically be the impact of not having a particular rule, and how easily/quickly it could be amended or abolished. And while you’re at it, think about how to better empower people across the organisation so they feel comfortable and confident to take advantage of newfound freedoms by stepping forward and contributing to a programme of innovation.

Also look at whether long-held assumptions about meetings, communications and reports (how often, how long, who to involve, etc.) still hold true in your current operating environment … or are they taking up valuable time that could otherwise be put to better use?

Maybe split the time savings across direct customer-impact activity “in-the-now” and more forward-thinking innovation work to get some early payback from reforms that also benefit a longer-term innovation horizon.

Now, this is all well and good for improving the breeding ground for ideas and freeing-up people’s headspace and task lists so they can better engage with the process (sifting, sorting, testing and feeding back to determine what goes through), but how do you make good on the promise of a paper prototype, and actually drive things through to pilot and production? Especially if there’s a significant new technology component that needs to take form.

Not every business can boast in-house armies of low-level deep tech experts on tap.

This is where low-code tooling comes in.

Sure, you could hire in the expertise you need to execute from scratch, but if you can instead leverage easy-to-apply templates and (importantly!) already battle-hardened, robust and ready-mixed libraries of business logic, etc., for common use cases and still maintain a suitable level of differentiation from your competitors by focusing your efforts on building out great experiences higher up the stack … then the case for the alternative starts to get pretty weak!

Acceleration

Every step you take that reduces reliance on freshly minted custom code shortens time-to-value (by getting to a workable pilot or minimum viable product faster), and it lessens the risk of unproven elements introducing errors and unforeseen behaviours. It even bakes in best-solution practices established elsewhere (because you’re building with blocks that have already been subject to a rigorous testing regime under your trusted tech partner before you even get your hands on them).

Plus it also helps bring into these latter stages of the innovation process those nontechnical lines-of-business personnel who’d rarely (if ever!) be able to dive into a tech-dev-heavy project, but for whom low-code/no-code environments present an opportunity for much more direct involvement. If they are absent, it can store up latent adoption and senior sponsorship problems down the line if too many assumptions have been made in their absence.

Lowering the cost (in time and talent spend) of taking each idea forward stops the later stages of innovation development from becoming too much of a bottleneck in the process — thereby bringing successes to market faster and enabling the organisation to learn from the mistakes of “failures” more quickly too … adding to the overall knowledge base that improves the thinking for next time.

People need to feel real ownership of the new products and processes they’re being asked to have a hand in developing, otherwise adoption (and selling change to customers) will be an uphill struggle.

$ Craig Wentworth$

Call to action

For innovation approaches to work (and for their outputs to really take hold and sustain, leading to demonstrably better ways of working, and/or products and services for customers), organisations needs buy-in from right across the business. At all levels and in all areas (because maintaining an innovation culture is everyone’s responsibility) but particularly from senior sponsors with authority and funding to see things through.

That culture aspect is an important part of the equation.

You can have all the top-down inclination, all the frameworks and support structures, even all the necessary time and money resources available to push things along, but if the pull isn’t there — if the culture (to be innovative and to embrace innovations) isn’t pervasive — then what new ideas you do manage to elicit will likely wither before they take hold and develop into something useful, usable and more widely used.

People need to feel real ownership of the new products and processes they’re being asked to have a hand in developing, otherwise adoption (and selling change to customers) will be an uphill struggle.

But when resources are limited, focus initially on those who want to be involved (pull, not push) and ensure that anyone can contribute rather than overly worrying as to whether everyone is. Realistically and pragmatically, it’ll pay more dividends than spending lots of time and effort convincing the less enthused. You can return to them later in the process, when there’s more of a relevant story for their situation, which they might latch onto better.

Do listen and learn from early trials with real users, and don’t be afraid to pull the plug (or at least look for pivoting potential) if the value isn’t being seen.

Yes, some innovations might end up becoming more of a second-tier benefit, needing to build upon easier-to-adopt and earlier-to-prove changes, but you can’t allow your portfolio to comprise exclusively of such endeavours.

Today’s climate demands immediate results that can be demonstrated in meaningful language (in many cases, financial, but at the very least, in terms of time freed up for more mission-driving activities). And so your innovation initiatives must deliver accordingly (or face the risk of being abandoned before they’ve really had a chance to prove their worth).


This is the first blog post in a three-part series on the subject of post-COVID-onset innovation and modernisation. In part two, we examine various techniques designed to make innovation work best for your type of organisation (and how to recognise what sort of an innovation organisation you actually are); in part three, we look at how to put innovation into action (and how to know if you’re doing it right).


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Craig Wentworth is the Co-founder and Research Director at Independent Thought, where he focuses on how emergent and traditional technologies converge to address the problems and opportunities facing organisations today. He examines how this helps tech suppliers better anticipate and respond to their customers’ needs, as well as how tech buyers get the best value from their investments.
He has 30 years of experience in technology and change across the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, in a broad range of roles (including analyst research, consultancy, technology strategy, innovation and service delivery).
Craig Wentworth

Craig Wentworth

Craig Wentworth is the Co-founder and Research Director at Independent Thought, where he focuses on how emergent and traditional technologies converge to address the problems and opportunities facing organisations today.... read more about: Craig Wentworth