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What is Innovation?

What is Innovation?

Global thought leader, speaker and strategic advisor on innovation and the bestselling author of ‘Building a Culture of Innovation’, Cris Beswick, kindly took some time out to answer some of our questions on what is innovation, how companies should be embracing it and some of the misconceptions people have about innovation.

When people think hear the world innovation many of them automatically think technology innovation – but it is much more than that?

Yes you’re right, it’s much more than that but you highlight a more important point in that there’s still, for many, a lack of clarity about just what innovation is and that’s still one of the main barriers for companies, many of them who genuinely need to embrace innovation before it’s too late. My team and I look at innovation in this way. Innovation is actually an outcome. Not a thing that you have or do or get but the end result of lots of different components coming together to deliver something that in the end, the customer labels innovative. One of the challenges we see companies facing is that they self-profess ‘innovativeness’ all the time without actually delivering anything of true value. This is one of the factors that has led to the devaluing of the word innovation.

Going back to your reference to technology, yes innovation can be about technology, but I think tech is referenced because it’s easy to add the innovation badge to it, not because it’s genuinely something that is innovative. The reality is that organisations now need to look at things in a more system focussed way i.e. it’s not just about delivering a new product anymore, it’s about the product + the experience + the business model and different combinations of many things that lead to genuinely different outcomes. Building what we call ‘the innovation mix’ is important, especially if you want innovation to be an organisation-wide capability. Mixing activity around product, process, experience, business model, production, logistics etc is important if organisations want to stay relevant.

Your book is on building a culture of innovation – are you finding companies now more open to changing their culture or is to too late for some? Are they too fixed in their ways.

I think the cultural component is now coming into play much more as organisations are realising that the past several years of focusing their innovation efforts solely on the search for new ‘stuff’ hasn’t yielded the results they expected. The realisation that innovation capability is more about people than it is about technology, tools, frameworks or methodologies is now sinking in and we’re finding that the conversations around culture and especially how leaders build that culture are changing. My other comment though is a confession in that, despite being the co-author of the book ‘Building a Culture of Innovation’ I’m well known for saying that I don’t believe in the title! As I mentioned earlier, innovation isn’t a thing so you can’t have a culture of it if you see what I mean. If as we help clients understand, innovation is an outcome then the title of our book probably should have been something like ‘Building a culture capable of consistently delivering outcomes that are labelled innovative’. Not too sexy though right! So, try having that conversation with your publisher!

Has the lack of embracing innovation led to the downfall of many of the leading retailers on the high street?

I think there’s an obvious link here, but I think it’s unfair to say that a lack of innovation is the reason for the downfall of many of the leading retailers. I think not shifting their business models and not embracing the online world effectively enough are major contributing factors. However, organisations that are ‘innovation-led’ tend to be the ones that explore business models, new revenue streams, propositions etc so I think the main factor is a mindset thing. Whether an organisation focusses on innovation or not is fundamentally down to the CEO and the executive team. Their approach, mindset and view of the future will guide their perspective and ultimately the strategic decisions they make. It comes down to their view of whether they are and can remain relevant and if not, what they are prepared to do about it. The innovation agenda has to be completely owned at the top of an organisation.

Is the Millennial generation something to be feared or should their ways of working be embraced?

That’s a great question but one that in many ways comes too late for the majority of organisations who haven’t done a great job of embracing them. Their challenge is that generation Z is already here and already comprises about 25% of the population. That means if you look at the actual numbers, there are more generation Zs than millennials or the baby boomers before them. The challenge is the fundamental differences between millennials and generation Z because many organisations haven’t prepared for them. Organisations will need to rapidly shift their culture and especially how they lead in order to win the war on talent. The great thing is though that innovation is incredibly well aligned to generation Z when you look at their values. As a generation, they are more global, more entrepreneurial and have much higher expectations than previous generations and all of that pushes organisations to do better which is a good thing because it means innovation will need to be higher on the strategic agenda.

You are co-founder of the Future-Shapers, a global network of innovation experts, providing world class perspectives on the challenges of driving innovation. Do you find that too much is being written about innovation that is wrong and we need something like the future shapers to steer us along the right path

Yes, I founded www.thefutureshapers.com a few years ago now for exactly the reason you mention. Too much being written about innovation that is either incorrect or is just generic, regurgitated content. One of the challenges with the innovation management and consulting industry is that it’s been the cool bandwagon to be on for the past few years, so the industry has ballooned. And not for the better unfortunately. The inconvenient truth is that we now have a saturated industry where many ‘experts’ providing advice and creating content are self-professed. The challenge is that innovation maturity, despite its prominence, is still quite low for the majority of organisations,so it’s been difficult and still is, for many organisations and leaders, looking for insight into how to solve their challenges to filter out the self-professed expert form the genuine one so the level of advice many organisations have received has been average at best. For many leaders looking for help it’s been a classic case of “they don’t know what they don’t know” so it’s been easy for them to be convinced of broad-brush, generic interventions unfortunately.

Is there any advice you offer a start-up business in terms of working practices and what they need to prepare for?

The key thing for me is “think big, act small!” As entrepreneurs, purpose and ambition guides us all but the best way to get there is to make lots of small, smart moves, to constantly move forward. One of the best parallels for me is to use the findings from ‘The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators’ by Clayton Christensen, Hal Gregersen and Jeff Dyer. The book outlines the findings of a six-year study that revealed five core skills that distinguish the most creative, innovative and successful executives and entrepreneurs; associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking. The study found that the most innovative entrepreneurs spend 50% more time honing these five skills than their less innovative counterparts. It’s a great benchmark for entrepreneurs and CEOs to use and I highly recommend it. In fact, we use these extensively in the work we do with senior execs around leading for innovation and it’s something I regularly touch on in my keynotes.

Do you think that digital/social media culture we live in now has contributed to people suffering from mental health issues? Are companies doing enough to support their staff and educate them better on a work life balance?

This is a really important question and one that I could easily go way off-track from innovation to talk about. Before her departure, Teresa May actually commissioned a report on this, I think produced by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer the CEO of Mind. The report was about the state of mental health at work and the findings don’t make positive reading. Yes, I think the digital/social/always-on world we live in is a contributing factor to this subject and I think in general, most organisations, especially HR Directors know they have to do more for their people. However, in the context of organisations needing to drive innovation, the support they need to give people is even more important. If you think of the behaviour required to build a culture of innovation and to deliver innovation-led products, services and experiences, you need things like creativity, empathy, risk, perspective, ambition, collaboration, fun etc. Conversely, if you think about an organisational culture with high levels of stress, you’re likely to see things like high staff turnover, absence and decreased levels of performance, motivation, commitment, and confidence etc. The two states are poles apart so it’s easy to see how not dealing with these things can massively impact the performance of an organisation and in most cases almost completely rule out any chance of innovation happening.

Is there a good example of a company or an organisation that has really embraced an innovation culture?

Great question but let me qualify a few things first. There’s a massive distinction between having a culture of innovation and being considered the most innovative and it comes down to how we measure those things. The challenge with it is if you look at Forbes and their list of the world’s most innovative companies for example, they list ServiceNow, Workday, Salesforce, Tesla, Amazon, Netflix, Incyte, Hindustan Unilever, Naiver and Facebook as their top ten. But when you look at how they calculate that it’s nothing to do with measuring culture. They basically measure the difference between each company’s market capitalisation and the net present value of the cash flow from existing businesses. The difference between them is what’s called the ‘innovation premium’ assigned to them by equity investors on the educated hunch that the company will continue to come up with profitable new growth. But, when you look at great examples of companies that have properly embraced innovation as a component of their culture you need to look at companies like Zappos, 3M, W.L Gore, Telefónica, Airbus or Patagonia for example.

The examples I use here are ones where they have demonstrated that innovation is part of the day-to-day culture of the organisation and the stories and examples of that in action are widely available to read. Or if like me you know some of these organisations, it’s demonstrably evident that innovation is a core component of their culture, however none of these companies are using a shared metric for how ‘innovative’ their culture is. One of the things we actually do with clients is measure their maturity level around innovation i.e. we’re able to measure the current maturity of their innovation capability and culture, it’s called the ‘Assessment for Innovation Maturity’ or AIM for short and it’s something we’re now widely using in all client engagements as it takes the subjectivity out of the interventions we need to design for them and allows us to pinpoint exactly where they need our support. It would be amazing to think that in a few years’ time we could use a tool like that to build a global benchmark of innovation maturity and be able to give a measured list of the most innovation-mature companies in the world.

September 2019

For more information of Cris Beswick and his speaking work please see more details here. 



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