As a Head of Innovation and someone who delivers innovation into companies I probably shouldn’t be writing a blog about how boring ‘innovation’ has become!!

I think the concept of innovation and the world that comes with it is still exciting and I don’t think I could ever leave it behind BUT there are only so many blogs you can read, conferences you can attend and ‘activities’ you can take part in until you realise that it has become stifled because the process of innovation in business has no innovation!!

I attended the Digital Innovation Conference recently and there were so many fantastic businesses and innovation leaders all saying very similar things and facing the same problems. The current approach typically follows:

  • Get ideas through certain well-known means – ‘Open Innovation’; hackathons, internal communication platforms, sprints, accelerators & incubators (make sure you involve the entire organisation where possible and try to collaborate with academics, startups, partners and customers)
  • Have a process to filter those ideas
  • Provide a small fund for Proof of Concept (POC) – success will result in further support internally & further funding
  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to prove market traction & potential ROI
  • Get further support from business to implement more widely

The problem, as I’ve seen many times now, is always upon the implementation. Companies working in sectors that are highly regulated such as banking or automotive struggle to find a route for the new products/services into the business following a successful MVP. This is because start ups (and even well established SMEs) are seen as too ‘risky’ and don’t have the right regulations, security or infrastructure in place to make it possible to work with them.  Even the fact that they are paid in such small amounts compared to what large companies are used to, makes it more difficult to justify or process small payments with systems that are not set up that way. 

It usually comes down to the internal heroes navigating their way through finance, procurement, and legal procedures to ensure the company benefits from an innovative idea or product in time for it not to miss out.  However, we can’t rely on this model because sometimes the system wins and the innovation is lost, so it just isn’t sustainable.

Some companies have avoided this issue by looking internally for innovation, by empowering every level of employee to participate in the innovation journey. This is fantastic and it does so much for the culture of the business. However by limiting innovation to the minds within the business (regardless of how amazing they might be) you automatically limit the possibilities.

One option for a company that is ready to embark on the innovation journey is to improve its processes first. This ensures all departments are on board and (hopefully) supportive of what you are doing. It avoids duplication of effort - nothing worse than thinking you’ve found a great solution to a problem to discover half way through that someone else in a different department has also solved the same challenge with a different solution. And the big plus is that it avoids annoying start-ups who put in time and effort to work with you and then find after months of frustration that they’ve been lost in the corporate wheel. 

Having said that, I do appreciate that start-ups need to meet their customers half way. Sometimes it is inevitable that they will need certain infrastructure in place before they can work at a certain level in a business.  I think big companies can help with this by developing programmes like Barclays Rise, which aimed to work with start-ups to get them to the stage they needed to be.

I don’t think there is a silver bullet for innovation, otherwise everyone would already be doing it . Because every business is different you need to know what your business wants and how your internal politics work, and adapt your innovation approach accordingly.