Taking the first steps to quality innovation

By Eric van Niekerk – Research Lead, Innocentrix

When the brief is to build a house, the vision of the outcome is quite clear: build a large structure with a few walls and a roof and probably some doors and windows. When asked to innovate though, the final outcome is almost completely undefined, since innovation can come in many forms and can create value in a variety of ways.

While it can lead to new products and services, innovation can also encourage more efficient ways of engagement, improved health and safety measures, or even incentives for greater work performance. Innovation is ultimately a journey of discovering the potential of your organisation and making it work requires a unique approach.

But why innovation?

Innovation refers to new ideas that can be implemented which adds value. We can call it growth strategies, business model renewal or organisational modernisation, whatever we are more comfortable with. The fact remains, the 21st century is marked by unprecedented and rapid change. Even innovative start-ups with clever, disruptive business models like Uber and AirBnB, will have to eventually (probably sooner rather than later) face the fact that a new way of thinking is required to keep them on top. This undoubtedly changes not only the business landscape but also the way in which we respond to these changes. It asks questions about the ways we manage, our type of activities and actions towards keeping up with this change, and the planning of it in such a way that helps our organisations not only survive but thrive.

Investing in innovation has the possibility to allow organisations to stay on top while the business landscapes changes around them. Through innovation businesses can capitalise on, or even create change. Staying ahead of the curve allows for disruptive innovations, putting you ahead of your competition, and allows for entry into new and emerging market spaces.

Where to start?

Innovation is first about leadership. It requires a leader, champion, or responsible team to right off the bat set goals and direct the innovation process to achieve those goals. This can involve:

  • Determining gaps in the organisation’s performance,
  • Finding areas where innovation could be leveraged and then determining the resulting focus areas (defining the organisational innovation portfolio),
  • Defining the process and rules of engagement (innovation platforms, methodologies, policies and strategies),
  • Planning for awareness creation, orientation and culture change. Think about defining what innovation means for the organisation, communicating what is in it for staff and how it will work. How will you communicate to different target audiences?
  • How will the implementation process work, how will pilot projects be chosen and how will you know when to stop a project?
  • Measurement of progress and return of investment (ROI) is an important early consideration. As innovation is a strategic activity it should, just like any other project, show a ROI. Innovation inherently will take longer to manifest in many instances, but return and impact needs to be tracked. It is not easy but possible and absolutely necessary.

Harvard Business Review recently published an article entitled “Build an Innovation Engine in 90 Days” and comments on the steps needed to get innovation going in an organisation. A minimum viable innovation capability is necessary. Well defined goals and a small team can quickly deliver preliminary results to top management and stakeholders, and provide some early wins for innovation.

Consider staying under the radar if you need to

At Vodacom, the organisation’s initial innovation ‘engine’ was run under the radar, while systems and processes were refined and updated. This allowed the organisation the time to refine and soon the innovation drive started to take off. By the time ideas started flowing in, the innovation team had the opportunity to update their structure, and could quickly grow and adapt as the organisational context and real needs emerged. It wasn’t long until Vodacom’s innovation department started to deliver real-world results.

The big bang approach to innovation is risky and it rarely delivers on its big-bang promise. Being focused with an appetite for collaboration and result driven outcomes can be a safer bet. Still, the true answer will lie in the organisation’s own context, its leadership role in giving it legs (read resources and funding as well) ─ not to mention the organisation’s ability to impact on its culture.