The argument for being innovative is obvious. It’s a bit like saying ‘to win matches we need to score more goals’. But as football coaches know, investing in the best strikers won’t bring more goals if the team as a whole doesn’t work together. Or as England found in their last group stage match, you can create a lot of opportunities, but against a solid defence you may still not score.
Which reminds me of an interesting example of the corporate approach where a well-known technology giant (who must have been innovative at one time or another) held an innovation competition that generated over 400 new ideas. But then it applied a convoluted evaluation process which whittled it down to just two that would get funding for development. That’s loads of chances, but nothing in the back of the net!
Another common theme is the quest for finding new ways to use other people’s cool inventions. Creating new customer ‘experiences’ and being ‘disruptive’ is the name of the game. By and large though, innovation departments that try this are more likely to cause a lot of internal disruption before being shut down with nothing to show for their efforts.
I won’t name names since the failures are not generally made public. However, a good example in the public domain, and which is certainly not unique, is that of US retailer Nordstrom. Nordstrom wound down its innovation lab in 2015 after four years.
It is suggested that the company created the innovation unit but then failed to follow through on any of the experiments and prototypes that the team built. It had a very energetic and talented team who would do things like descend on a store and create a solution on the spot. But nothing that they did stuck.
So why do innovation units have a tendency to fail?
There are a number of potential factors such as: culture mismatch with the rest of the organisation; technology legacy getting in the way; lack of change management experience in innovation teams.
But there could be another very simple reason: the misconception that innovation is all about the ‘sexy’ stuff, and nothing to do with the boring stuff.
If we look at where companies believe they have opportunities for improvement or growth it is often not where you would expect. An extensive survey by KPMG of insurance companies in 2015 revealed that respondents saw their biggest opportunities in improving operational processes and by integrating their technologies (anyone got multiple sources of customer information?).
Opportunities for using ‘innovative’ technologies such as biometrics and wear-ables was at the bottom of the list. I suspect that this is common across many financial companies and supports the notion that innovation could be more effective and useful if it had an internal focus and had the necessary free reign to apply its creativity to mundane problems. When it is bolted on the side and looking outwards (and called something like the innovation shack) its days are probably numbered.
Having had the privilege of working on innovative trading solutions back in the eighties (yes we could be innovative then you know). Stuff just happened because there were no holds barred. The IT team I worked in was at the heart of the business. We were just thrown problems and we just got on with solving them. We even designed bespoke keyboards and developed our own version of Windows! I’ve also helped clients save thousands by implementing zero-cost (other than my time) Outlook forms and spreadsheet-based work flow solutions to replace cumbersome and expensive manual processes. Finding creative solutions isn’t always about fancy technology. Sometimes it is as simple as asking yourself ‘why do we do that?’
So my football analogous conclusions are:
Encourage your teams to be creative and solve problems themselves
Watch how Spain play.
Be innovative where it will count
Bring in the ‘sexy’ stuff but make sure it blends well with the rest of what you do. Think Ronaldo and Portugal.
Remember innovation also comes from the less ‘sexy’ stuff too
Think Wayne Rooney and Man U.
Don’t stifle invention with process and nth-degree justification
Allow your teams to try-and-fail. (Well Roy Hodgson did try a few experiments – let’s hope he’s learnt something from them!).
If at first you don’t succeed, try again
Wales lost nine matches in a row before getting it right.
And as Richard Branson says: “You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over”. (Something that the French and Italians seem to do a lot of).