Understanding innovation

Much like content, the term innovation is everywhere. Companies must innovate, individuals must think and act innovatively. Startups are changing the world through innovation. Think Uber, Tesla, Airbnb and SnapScan, to name a few.

At a workshop presented by the Greater Tygerberg Partnership on 18 November 2015, Patrick Collings, sub-Saharan managing director of Idea Couture, unpacked what innovation means, why it’s important and how it can be achieved because, as he says, “it’s innovation’s time to sit on the strategy throne”.

There are many different forms of innovation, and even more definitions of the concept, but it is essentially the process – with various factors and inputs considered – whereby a simple solution is found for a complex problem.

I took four main insights/learnings from this three-hour workshop:

1. Empathy is at the heart of innovation

In order to achieve simplicity through innovation, the real need of the user and the job they are trying to accomplish needs to be understood. Empathy facilitates understanding, which ultimately allows for a human-centred approach to innovation.

By observing how people interact with their worlds, their unmet needs and simple solutions for those needs can be discovered and trialled.

Simply, understanding and framing the problem is the first step to innovation. If there were no problems there would be no need for innovative solutions.

Empathy involves listening, researching and understanding that people and their needs are at the centre of any innovation.

2. Collaboration is key

Just like no man is an island, “no company can effectively innovate on its own”, organisational theorist Henry Chesbrough believes.

Collaboration is one of the building blocks of innovation. There’s strength in numbers and two minds are better than one. This means looking across industries and going on an immersive journey into the environment of the market. It also means dismissing the us and them mentality and giving consumers an active voice in the innovation process.

On a bigger scale, open innovation is the glue that connects corporate giants with entrepreneurial ventures.

This idea stands in stark contrast to Henry Ford’s famous, “if I had asked them what they wanted they would have said faster horses” quote. But the world has come a long way since then. Steve Jobs, arguably the most prolific innovator of our time, said “creativity is just connecting things”. It is safe to include people in his “things”.

3. Weak signals

A weak signal is the precursor to a trend. By the time a trend is noticed it has moved out of the innovation phase and had already been widely recognised and/or accepted and adopted.

Weak signals offer clues to things that might or might not turn into trends. The challenge is to know when to react to the weak signal. Ultimately the ability to spot the weak signals and knowing when to do something about it and when to let it go is what differentiates innovative companies and brands from the not so innovative ones.

Collings has a couple of pointers for helping to spot weak signals:

  • Involve knowledgeable staff
  • Involve a network (strength in numbers)
  • Don’t look in the usual places (everybody is looking there)
  • Don’t stick to your home industry (think outside the box)
  • Expect failure because many weak signals don’t pan out

4. Demo or die

What this means is simply to not wait for perfection, because then you’ll never get going. If you wait until you can tick all the boxes before you launch your idea/service/concept/product/innovation you might never get around to it. Some other great innovation might beat you to it. Rather get it out there in an early phase of development and keep ploughing away at making it better, but put it out there.

The perfect business or service model doesn’t exist and you’re bound to learn more from actual user feedback, then through another iteration unknown to the world outside your studio.

Demos can also help you understand and examine the complexities and limitations of the innovation. Throughout this process it is important to maintain focus. Focus helps you to stay true to what you are trying to achieve with the innovation. Forget about being a jack of all trades. Do one thing really well and you’re bound to see the desired results.

While innovation can’t be learned, it certainly helps to know what to look for and what to think about. Keep on asking questions.


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