I am mindful of the fact that I write this article during what is likely to be viewed, from a business perspective, as one of the most testing times in history. That the advice that I am about to dispense may seem insensitive or a touch too idealistic. Nevertheless, having reflected on it considerably over these past few days I know that my desire to communicate it is attributable to compassion and empathy.
I also know that optimism – believing in yourself and your organisation – is an inherently good thing. It is proven to benefit our psychological wellbeing and, provided it is allied with agility and informed decisions, galvanises.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided key stakeholders with an asset that, within our fast-paced professional world, is becoming increasingly rare: time. This resource can be used to reflect on performance, consider developments and plan accordingly. In turn, they can exit the pandemic with an organisation that is primed and, ultimately, sturdier than it was at the start of the outbreak.
This article will not only outline why the need to seek out innovative practice is now more important than ever but provide a clear definition of what innovation actually is. The proof will also be provided via examples of companies that harnessed inventiveness to succeed in spite of difficult circumstances. Finally, I’ll provide some advice that all organisations can use when looking to innovate.
What innovation is and why it matters
The term innovation is frequently associated with complicated solutions that few are capable of understanding. In the majority of circumstances, however, an innovative act is, at its core, simple. This term is used accurately when it is ascribed to something new.
We exist in an era where technology consistently catalyses innovation, though, and this produces a misunderstanding: people view the tech as innovative when it is actually the practices it enables that are deserving of the description. Offering video content to subscribers over the internet was, for example, innovative in a way that the infrastructure that enabled it had not been for several decades.
Indeed, there are numerous other examples you could provide with regards to the way the internet was used as a means of innovating. Email providers recognised that the technology could see written correspondence received in seconds rather than days; retailers moved online to offer their goods to consumers around the globe and streamline the ordering process; search engines recognised that people would need a tool that could help them find what they were looking for within an environment that was rapidly growing.
In each of these (and other instances so multiple that it is simply not possible to compile a substantive list) cases, an innovative solution utilised one form of technology and built on it.
In each of the examples cited above, a new service was offered that solved a problem or improved on existing solutions. The companies that created them profited greatly but the early pacesetters have been, in many instances, outperformed by companies that took the models they had originally developed and improved them. This initial success – and that of those that enhanced the relevant organisation’s offerings – exemplify the importance of innovation and why it is so vital in our current circumstances.
Finally, for anyone not yet convinced, innovation’s ability to breed success is backed up by meaningful evidence: surveys have shown that organisations that actively look to generate new ideas are 15% more effective at generating earnings than those that do not.1
Innovation through recession
Further proof of the importance of innovation during times of economic difficulty is provided by the many successful organisations that have formed during them and thrived in spite of them. ROCK began offering our services in 2008 during what would come to be known as The Great Recession and, by reviewing and then amending fulfilment models, we were able to offer our clients unlimited and permanent support.
We knew that organisations were frustrated with agreements that left them without support when needed and used tech to consider how we could address this. In doing so, we created a new practice that provided an effective solution to a problem a significant portion of our client base was experiencing.
Along with ROCK, several other companies identified gaps in markets during this period – and many are now household names, including:
Following him and his friends having paid more than $800 to hire a private driver, computer programmer Garrett Camp realised that technology could be used to reduce the cost of public transport.
Harnessing developments in cellular technologies and mobile devices, Camp founded Uber, an organisation that, via an app, helps users looking to use a taxi connect with independent drivers that are able to use their own vehicles as well as undertake work when it is convenient for them to do so. By streamlining the business models used by taxi companies and the process of hailing one, Uber completely transformed this sector and was valued at £63 billion in 2019.2
In 2006, Andrew Mason developed the web platform ‘The Point’. Designed to allow large groups of people to leverage their collective power to achieve goals by pushing them past their ‘tipping points’, the platform’s creator later realised it could be used as a means of leveraging collective buying power and, in 2008, Groupon was born.
Groupon effectively provides organisations with an assurance model: they can offer significant discounts on their goods or services but are only obligated to fulfil orders if a predetermined number of consumers make purchases. Effectively, they can use aggressive promotions to win new customers without many of the associated risks.
In the final quarter of 2019, Groupon processed more than $1.3 billion in payments and generated a $310 million profit.3
WhatsApp addressed two problems with cellular communication technology: it was reliant on external infrastructure that did not provide consistently reliable coverage across all areas and the communications sent from one device to another were insecure.
Developing an app that sent and received communications via the internet rather than traditional cellular networks and also encrypting it at the point of transit, Brian Acton and Jan Koum addressed two consumer needs simultaneously. So valuable was their innovation that Facebook paid $14 billion for it in February 2014.
How to innovate
The task of identifying or developing innovative offerings and processes will require a framework that is, in many ways, unique to individual organisations. Consideration will need to be given to not just the sector within which they operate, but also existing limitations. Whether related to present skillsets, financial resources, the capabilities of equipment or anything else, confines need to be identified to ensure that plans are practicable.
Nevertheless, any attempt at innovation should possess a few key characteristics. These are:
They consider end-users
Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has noted that 95% of new products fail. This happens, he argues, because businesses don’t consider how customers will use their products.4
Innovative goods and services are those that provide a solution to an existing problem or that improve on an existing one. Sometimes, caught up in their passion, decision-makers can forget this and fail to give due consideration to their audience.
Additionally, I’ve seen people get over-excited about a new piece of software capable of making their working lives considerably easier, but fail to consider how it’ll affect others.
In short, before beginning the process of planning a new product, process or anything else that you believe to be innovative, consider the people you want to use it with.
They use opinions
This may seem so similar to my previous point that it has already been addressed. There is a subtle difference so relevant, though, that I’m affording this advice its own section: listen to the thoughts, the needs and the opinions of others.
This is somewhat different to considering users in that the act of listening should follow that of imagining. Provided you, as a decision-maker, are satisfied that an idea is worth exploring, then seek the thoughts of others such as potential customers, colleagues whose opinions you respect, etc. Doing so is an effective means of refining concepts and, in many cases, of deciding whether to pursue or disregard ideas that aren’t yet fully formed.
Quantitative information, too, can prove invaluable. There are multiple means of creating online surveys that, in a time where more and more people are unable to leave their homes and are spending more time on devices, people are now more likely to complete. Create one, send it to your existing customers and offer them something small in return. You could find out something very valuable.
Rigidity is the enemy of innovation. New findings and discoveries abound in the modern era and businesses – particularly their plans and new developments – need to adapt accordingly.
Should a plan be put into action, accept that it’s likely it will need to change at some point. Acknowledge this from the outset and the entire process will run far more smoothly.