You only have to look at the research & development (R&D) costs at any publicly listed company to realise that innovation is at the heart of most businesses’ growth strategy. However, many businesses are currently suffering from a lack of innovation despite the sizeable sums of money they’re pouring into trying to transform their company’s fortunes.
To demonstrate this, just look at the gradual homogeny of mobile phone designs over the last ten years. Where once there were a diverse mix of shapes and sizes that you could flip, extend and twist; now most smartphones look noticeably similar. So much so that companies like Samsung and Apple have battled it out to settle who started the trend in the first place.
Largely, I think this problem lies in businesses not wanting to take a risk, but in my opinion this way of thinking is contrary to innovation. Therefore, when asked how a company gets trend-setting itself and becomes innovative, I start with a simple question; do you want to compete or create?
Creating can be alienating. People are often scared to take a chance and most tend to be disparaging of new ideas. If you look at most successful entrepreneurs and inventors now, we say in hindsight that they had good ideas.
But just consider the journey they went on to get to that point. New ideas are often unnerving and there’s no doubt that all your entrepreneurial heroes will have had their share of critics.
Having studied trends for many years I liken the process of innovation to using a ketchup bottle. You squeeze and squeeze, and nothing happens – but then soon you have ketchup all over the place. All it takes is one good idea or product and then suddenly you have similar creations almost everywhere. These similar creations often compete with each other to gain market share, however, by that point, you’re unlikely to reap the greatest rewards. Clearly you want to spark the initial idea, but creating comes at a cost.
If you want to create, there are four steps which I think are integral to the process. Firstly, you need to gather secrets. A secret is a not widely shared insight where you can uncover opportunities. You need to think about ideas that few people agree on and then investigate.
I’d argue now more than ever that access to data can be useful to help us with finding hidden, thought-provoking insights. I spoke recently at an event organised by Business Discovery provider QlikTech whose technology is a great example of how practically anyone can gain access to information if they’re willing to look for it.
Secondly, businesses should be prepared to experiment. Ideas and processes need be in a constant state of evolution so they can honed and improved. The IT industry’s emphasis on keeping technology in a state of ‘beta’ is a good example of how we can continually refine and deconstruct ideas with the ultimate aim of progressing it further.
Thirdly, it’s crucial to recycle failures. Usually the first attempt to do something new fails. The dot-com boom in the late 1990s is a general example of how this can happen. However, if you’re not afraid to fail and study mistakes made previously, it can be interesting to find where you end up.
Looking through history I’ve found that progress comes from a series of unexpected events rather than from what you would predict. For example, penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming because a window was left open by accident and similarly Viagra was a failed blood pressure medication with side effects.
Finally, and the most challenging obstacle, is that creativity requires patience. It’s no secret that corporate culture isn’t patient, but good ideas need to be fostered over time. I have a general rule that it often takes seven years for something to take off. The recent rise of companies such as Twitter and Facebook are good examples of this. Taking an idea from conception to profitability doesn’t happen instantly and companies need to treat time as an investment in itself.
In conclusion, many people claim to be interested in innovation, but to create something truly new takes more than setting up a department dedicated to it. For true innovation, businesses need to think disruptively and beyond what their competitors are doing.
It’s vital for them to discover what they can do differently, hone the ideas to perfection through experimentation and time, then get ready to face the inevitable barrage of criticism if they really want to make a difference. To create history it’s not enough just to compete with others; make sure your ideas are the first coming out of the ketchup bottle.