"6 Tips On Driving Innovation - Even If You Think Your Boss Will Say No" - by Hester Lacey
Matt Kingdon is the co-founder and co-chairman of ?What If!, the company he set up with Dave Allan in 1992 to partner clients who were enthusiastic about innovation but stuck on how to make it happen. Today ?What If! has offices in three continents and works with businesses in all sectors – including big names such as Google, PepsiCo, Pfizer and Virgin – and Kingdon’s passion for innovation is stronger than ever. Speaking to him, you get the strong sense that he won’t take “no” for an answer – and all his key themes are backed up with strong, practical strategies that address those times when “no” is what you’re hearing. His book The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organisations, focuses on the specific problems that innovators face in large businesses and is guaranteed to fire up anyone with good ideas who’s seeking ways to implement them. Readers might also be interested to learn that serendipity doesn’t mean exactly what they might have thought it did …
So: if you’ve got good ideas and want to innovate within a large company, how do you get started?
Innovation isn’t impossible in large organisations – but you’ll need determination
“I’ve spent the last 22 years working with people in large organisations who are hell-bent on creating new products, new services, even new businesses, and the thing I’ve noticed over the years is that, when you discuss how entrepreneurs do things, their eyes tend to glaze over. The fact is that if you’re working in a large organisation, you’re working with a lot of constraints and a hell of a lot of sunk costs. And you probably have a day job! That’s why people in large organisations who innovate are the heroes, rather than the entrepreneurs. Those are the people I want to reach out to. There’s a huge tension between the concept of taking a risk and needing a salary to pay the mortgage. We can be as brave as we like when we’re talking innovation in the pub, but when the rubber hits the road at work and we’re having to act like a real innovator, it takes guts. So I wanted to deconstruct what makes these real heroes so effective in large organisations. It’s also a soulful thing: most of the people I work with in large organisations have a creative spark within them, do amazing creative things outside of work, and innovating is extremely fulfilling as well as being an obviously useful commercial activity.”
Being creative is great, but innovators turn creativity into output
“Let’s start with the word creative, which is very often an unexpectedly not useful word or concept at work. Creative people at work tend to create a lot of work for other people – and not really finish anything off. Innovation is creativity with output and that’s really important. You need people to both think outside the box and also leverage the power of the organisation to make something work. It’s a bit like mixing oil and water: you need people who are opinionated, clear and purposeful, who know the right products and services for the customers – but they also need to be humble enough to listen to the views of others and test out hypotheses without biasing the listener. In a nutshell, that’s the essential quality of an innovator. An innovator is both a captain and a pirate: innovators are clear on where they want to go and able to take people with them, but with the ability to throw away the rule book and make things happen at the same time. This paradoxical combination of skills is at the heart of innovation. Listening is an underrated skill and it takes a lot of courage to listen: to not put forward your own point of view, to ask people to have another go at explaining what they mean – really leaning in and trying to see the good in what someone says. It’s quite a mature skill that confident people are good at having – and it’s a skill you can learn.”
De-risk your idea as far as you can
“Large organisations tend to have a lot of layers and they can cloak the process with a kind of dullness which slows things down and saps the life out of you – a bit like the Dementors in Harry Potter. Very often people can give up before they’ve even started because they expect to get nowhere. You need the captain mentality I’ve mentioned, the belief that what you’ve got is right, to power you through. I’ve found that the most effective way of moving ideas through an organisation is to work out how you can reduce the risk, both to yourself as the idea generator and to the stakeholders who need to approve the idea, or assist you, or fund you. How you de-risk innovation is absolutely fascinating. A big project that involves a lot of expenditure over time is high risk – think of government IT projects! A smaller project, with fewer people, over less time, tends to attract different attention. What innovators are very skilled at doing is huddling with a small team of people, saying ‘How far can we get by Friday, who should we talk to, what do we need to try out?’ They’ll replace one big project with a series of iterative projects or loops, learn from each and try it out on a larger scale, gaining confidence, engaging more people, making the project they’re developing more real, exposing it to more customers. The days of very big, very long projects are over. We’re moving into a much more nimble world where we try things out, then get bigger. The perfect example is how James Dyson operated when he developed his bagless cleaner – he carried out over 5,000 of these experiments. Each might have looked very similar, but at any one point during his innovation process, he would have felt like he wasn’t betting everything. That’s a way of working that’s a lot of fun for people in big businesses – the thrill of the pirate role is a great thing.”
Learn collaboration – it’s not the same as teamwork
“Your boss needs to think that what you’re working on has a chance of making it to market, but a series of PowerPoint slides can’t really convey that excitement. Physically making something real makes it exciting, especially if it’s a prototype that isn’t quite complete: people want to lean in and help you complete it. A prototype is shouting out ‘Please complete me, make me better!’ – and stakeholders who feel they’ve had a hand in something themselves will be more keen to get it to market. In most organisations, if you’re creating something new, you’re unlikely to have the skills to make that happen. In financial services organisations, for example, many innovations involve digital skills and most bankers have none, so they have to find ways of partnering other organisations to create, for example, new mobile apps. For innovators this is a challenging time, because what’s needed on a team is diversity: lots of different brains with different perspectives, different skill sets. People need to be able to collaborate more than they need to be good team workers: teamwork often looks like polite people enjoying themselves but not making much progress, while collaboration is much more robust, but quite frightening, as there are no rules to the game and there’s a high degree of uncertainty. You find those top people in big business who are winning have really got their heads around the difference between teamwork and collaboration, and have developed quite a sophisticated philosophy around managing the ambiguity of relationships when you’re not sure how they’re going to look in the following weeks and months, who’s going to contribute what, where you’re going to work, how long you’re going to work together. Many great innovations have come from this rather messy process. Senior people in large organisations often talk a good game about wanting innovation but often don’t have a philosophy of how innovation should look. In a large organisation, one of the things a leader needs to do is work out their own narrative or game plan around innovation.”
Get out of the office
“It’s really amazing how people are influenced by what’s around them. The most effective environments I’ve found are ones that encourage people to collide with each other and to have conversations. You can think of that internally, colliding with your colleagues, but also think about colliding with your customers, particularly in an environment where they’re used to using your product or deciding whether to buy it. You can read all the reports you want on your customer – but there is no substitute for feeling what they’re feeling, and you can’t feel what they’re feeling if you just read a report. The reason why this is important for innovation is that, while innovation is partly rational, it’s also partly down to intuition, people thinking that something needs to improve. The way they get that passion that fuels the journey they need to go on is generally shaking up their environment and putting themselves in a situation that feels uncomfortable or unusual, but can be very rewarding. I’ve taken a lot of executives out of the office to meet customers and it’s when you sit down with them in their kitchen that you really understand how products fit into their lives. You realise they are influenced by categories and events way beyond those you think are competitors. You can’t pick these up with conventional market research, you need to immerse yourself in the customers’ world. It’s fun and it doesn’t cost a lot of money – though it may take some time.”
Don’t expect everyone to say yes straightaway
“It’s absolutely to be anticipated – and quite normal – for people who haven’t experienced everything you’ve experienced on your journey of innovation to take a little time to warm up to your good idea. If you don’t recognise that and you just get cross about it, you’re actually being unreasonable. The first thing to do is simply get over it. Innovation is tough! So what are you going to do about it? Once you’ve got your steel helmet on and you’re crouched in the battle position, the next stage is to figure out how to see through the eyes of your naysayer, the senior stakeholder who is apparently blocking you. What’s causing this? Is it that they don’t understand the insights or the idea? Is it that they can’t see how the idea is commercially useful? Do they feel the idea is off-strategy? These are all perfectly valid reasons to critique an idea. You have to think about your idea from all angles: we call it ‘rigging for impact’. Stress-test it with alternative perspectives. We will frequently adopt the persona of the toughest financial director, or the most sceptical operations manager or factory manager, work out their potential objections and plan for those. Unless you do that, you just have to rely on being lucky – but you can make your own luck by doing your homework.”
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