Innovation can be everywhere – just foster it right

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Innovation is per definition a novelty that creates value. It can be new products, invention of materials, developments of new services, even new pricing plans can be regarded as innovations. Every aspect of business operations is a candidate for innovation. We often just have too limited a scope when we talk about innovations.

Innovations are traditionally classified into four categories:

  1. Incremental innovation: every improvement that is made in products or services
  2. Adjacent innovation: leveraging something the company does well into a new space
  3. Radical (transformational, disruptive) innovations: finding an entirely new way to do things or inventions that did not exist before
  4. Reverse (trickle-up) innovation: innovation that has been seen first in developing countries before spreading to the industrial world

The corporate culture defines how well a company will succeed with innovations. According to McKinsey, 84 percent of executives say that innovation is important to their growth strategies. A whopping 93 percent of Nordic companies view having an innovative culture as a very or quite important critical component in the success of their digital strategies, according to the Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2018, Nordic Region Findings.

But what is behind these buzzwords? What defines good innovative culture? Innovation requires courage from individuals. Therefore, it is mandatory that corporate culture puts innovation at the heart of its strategy and touts it in every message. The company must define jobs around innovation, allow employees to carry out self-selected and self-organized projects (when possible), recognize innovation in every part of the company and, finally, encourage agility, creativity and collaboration. When people are surrounded by constant communication and encouragement, they will find the courage to try, fail, redo and try again.

There are also, of course, challenges. The biggest one is described well by Dougherty and Hardy: “generally innovations do not appear to result from an organization-wide commitment, but from particular individuals, and that innovation systems are fragile. Entrepreneurs in large and mature organizational environments face a lack of power in connecting innovations to resources, operational processes and company strategies. They conclude that innovators enjoyed very little, temporary support and often no support at all from senior management.”

Is there an innovator DNA?

If individuals in an organization are key drivers for innovations, then what defines the DNA of an innovator? First, it is about capability: some of people won’t get it, very few are born innovators, the rest can be trained. Secondly, it is about behavior: innovators think differently, which leads them to act differently. Thirdly, one has to master the five primary discovery skills: associating, observing, questioning, networking and experimenting.

In his doctoral thesis, Torkel Tallqvist raised the importance of assigning promoters to support the innovator dealing with “not knowing, not understanding and not wanting in the organization.” After all, “Innovation is the art of interesting an increasing number of allies who will make your idea stronger and stronger” (Akrich, Callon & Latour).

How to identify hidden innovation

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of leading a business consultancy assignment on innovation for a Nordic technology service company together with Ann Amsallem and Vanessa Briffaut-Gèze from Orange Labs and Guillemete Goglio from Orange Technocenter. Our mission was to create an employee innovation program for the firm. The objectives set by our customer were to increase the awareness of them as an innovative company, to develop their innovation culture and strengthen the engagement of their employees. But also to encourage agility, creativity and collaboration to increase performance and profitability by identifying quick wins and disruptive ideas and even potential new services and other open innovation opportunities.

We used as a base the same methods that were created by my colleagues for the Orange Labs internal innovation processes and adapted that to fit the local business circumstances and needs of our customer. This enabled us to share the best practices and advice and to help them avoid potential pitfalls in the innovation process.

To achieve this, we built an innovation framework that involved employees from all ranks in the organization, and our team taught the participants the foundation of innovation as well as what innovation tools are available.

The first step was to identify the pain points. Once we had categorized and prioritized the areas the company wanted to improve, we moderated improvement idea work streams. In these work streams, circa 60 creative ideas were identified. They then selected a couple per work stream to be developed further.

In any development project, it is crucial to be able to convince others. That’s why we also worked with them on how to visualize, how to calculate a business case and how to successfully present an innovation project to their top management. Each work stream had to present and sell its innovation to the company’s top management.

This project was regarded by the participants as a great success. Out of the best ideas presented, two to five were such that top management believed they could materialize into products and services.

It is easy to speak about innovation, but the proof in the pudding is in realization and engagement. This project was a great example that showed how much hidden innovation you can find in your own organization, if you set yourself to the task.

Risk and innovation

Bear in mind that innovation requires organizations and, especially, innovators to step outside of their comfort zones. Innovation is impossible without taking risks. The culture of innovation depends on trust and learning from failures. Fear of failure is the biggest innovation killer.

As a leader, you need to align innovation with your corporate strategy, establish proper innovation governance and create a culture that is open for innovations and the risks associated with it. Those “born innovators” are the ones you should foster, and teach the others how to innovate. After all, the best ideas usually come from the organization itself.

Stefan Reijonen
Stefan Reijonen
As Head of European Customer Profitability focusing on sales, contract and structural pillars, I have the unique opportunity to observe and contribute to the changes that digital and data transformation brings to us and our customers. By combining my broad experience in sales, change and people management with Nordic and European leadership and driving regional profitability programs, I am able to find innovative solutions to meet customers' business needs.
In my spare time I love singing in a choir and sailing a classical yacht in the Finnish archipelago.