Innovate or Die: A challenge for specialists or crucial for all?

Updated: Aug 20, 2019



Innovate or die, apparently. And many organisations seem to choose the latter. Not consciously of course, but as a by-product of finding it so hard just to be big. Most people spend most of their time making sure what’s planned to happen is what happens in practice. There’s precious little left for finding a better plan.

Given innovation is crucial and it’s largely badly done (UK productivity figures make the point all too eloquently), we thought we’d shine a trio of lights on the issue and see what that told us about how to improve.

We had Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School, where he is the Academic Director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

He recently co-founded the Real Innovation Awards alongside Management Today with the stated aim of showcasing the authentic, haphazard and, as a result, exciting business of real innovation

We had Mark Evans, Marketing Director at Direct Line, where a determination to steer clear of the price fighting aggregators led to the only alternative, innovating to create something worth paying more for.

A search for wow factors and a deliberately grown capability in digital technology have led to a business enjoying rude health in a market with a heavy dose of flu

And we had Scott Cain, a leader at the Future Cities Catapult, with the challenge of nudging a whole country into more innovative action to make our cities work better by becoming smarter.

When you stop for a moment to think how many organisations have a view on how cities work, and competing views on how they might improve, you realise this is the mother of all pieces of string to push and a serious motivation and co-ordination challenge

According to the ONS it takes a German worker four days to produce what we make in five. In the time a British worker makes £1, a German worker makes £1.35. Unsurprisingly the average British worker toils away for longer, in return for lower pay, than their German equivalents. No wonder they get to the sun loungers first. Their towels are thicker too.

But to be fair everyone, even the Germans, finds it tough to make new things happen in large organisations

And good new things are rarer still.

At the heart of the conundrum is the need for innovation (which starts small) to make a significant difference (which means big).

At the beginning end of the equation, having ideas, it seems self-evident that a focused group of people intent only on finding new and better ways will get a great deal further than an army marching in step on a route that’s prescribed trying a bit of juggling on the side. But later on, when the small team of lateral thinkers has something that works, they find they have a serious persuasion job on their hands, and a question or two about whether their baby can survive a serious growth spurt without losing its essential but delicate brilliance.

This is only one way that specialists have been tried. We’ve also had corporate accelerators that became all the rage at about the time of peak beard. And catapults are another example of a specialist team, in their case taking raw potential from academia and building bridges to the commercial world and issues that society needs solving.

But maybe this is all a distraction. Maybe innovation never really takes hold unless its everyone’s job, front and centre, what we do all day. When a business or a charity or a government gets a serious challenge under its skin, a sense of purpose that is authentic and all consuming, then mountains get moved. When Singapore was ejected by Malaysia and found itself becoming a nation state in 1965 it was assumed to be ‘non-viable’. Economic development wasn’t nice to have, it was critical, and 20 years on it was thriving with unusual approaches to tax, education, chewing gum and more.

When something’s burning, most often a platform but sometimes an ambition to go further, faster, to win and to prove people wrong, then a whole body of people spend their time on improvement. Necessity really is the matriarch perhaps?

But where are the matches kept? if you're somewhere that's comfortable, at least on the surface, how do you create the urgency that seems to be needed?

The Real Innovation Awards took a more bottom-up approach to understanding. It’s a scheme that’s kicking back on some of the neatness above. The assumption behind them was that, for such a crucially important process, innovation is badly served by awards that largely describe a simplified, sanitised and inaccurate view. The belief was that real innovation is messy, more uncertain, and more serendipitous than most believe. And the first winners’ stories, which we at The Foundation enjoyed playing a small part in helping choose, bear this out.

So many thoughts, so much familiarity, serious importance and a need for some guidance. So to the discussion itself – three views, plus wisdom from around the room, on how to innovate not die.

How do we do innovation?

The discussion that followed, summed up by Simon Caulkin

It’s a question that has worked its way steadily to the very top of the economic agenda. At national and international level, fading innovation is one important reason why some leading economists foresee a period of global secular stagnation as the long era of growth comes to an end.

At firm level, the same innovation drought has left large incumbent firms across a swathe of industries perilously vulnerable to disruption from digital-savvy insurgents with massively more efficient business models.

And without a jolt from innovation, a public sector confronted with the need to do ever more with ever less faces a future of near permanent austerity.

Yet as a crowded February Forum heard, innovation, like the Holy Grail, is fervently desired, difficult, mysterious and often tantalisingly out of reach. There are a number of reasons for this elusiveness. One is that although the need to innovate seems obvious, setting out to do it in the abstract, like deciding to paint a masterpiece, is meaningless. There must be something to drive and shape it – a purpose. While there are good negative reasons to innovate (change will overwhelm you if you don’t), as Mark Evans, marketing director at the Direct Line insurance group, put it, the positive imperative for innovation is purpose, in its hard-edged sense of ‘having a legitimacy for your business in the future.’

Five years ago, he recounts, Direct Line was a broken brand (part of RBS) in an industry that, having spent the last two decades talking only about price, was absolutely ripe for disruption. Actually, the pivotal insight was hiding in plain sight: ‘blow me, it’s not a point of purchase thing, it’s point of need: insurance is about fixing things, putting things right. How could we have lost that category insight for 20 years?’ Then it was a question of going back to marketing 101 ‘and saying, we have a better mousetrap, we do insurance better. We do it at point of need and we differentiate ourselves that way’.

A 40 per cent rise in the motor insurance business last year is proof of the pudding. Thus emboldened, and in line with its purpose of ‘protecting an ever-changing Britain’, and the principle of prevention, it has launched eye-catching innovations like a ‘Shotgun’ app which rewards safe young drivers with pizza and coffee during their first 1000 miles when they are most accident-prone, and ‘Fleet Lights’, a system of drones to light the way in dark streets.

A second reason why innovation is elusive (one dear to the Foundation’s heart) is the difficulty of maintaining a customer focus. Most organisations look at the world from the inside out, through the prism of their boardroom or their product or service, rather than from the outside in, through the eyes of the customer. Even if you can maintain this unnatural stance, it’s easy, as LBS’s Professor Julian Birkinshaw pointed out, to pay attention to the wrong kind of customers or misinterpret what they are saying. ‘What we’re trying to do of course is to get to the unarticulated views – what is the underlying thing that the customers need but they don’t actually know quite how to express, what is the underlying ‘job to be done’?

This means much real innovation is a gamble based on guesswork (‘unreasonable conviction based on inadequate evidence,’ as Tom Peters once put it) – gambles often don’t sit well with shareholders or those with a vested interest in the status quo. Mark speaks feelingly of the internal ‘vitriol’ that was directed at Marketing as a result of suggesting, then pursuing, bold and unusual initiatives. Not surprising, then, that for every Direct Line that cracks it, there’s a Kodak or Nokia that can see the tip of the iceberg ahead, but can’t change direction fast enough to avoid the hidden bulk below.

Further blurring the issue for would-be innovators is the widespread assumption that never mind the question, the answer is technology. For Scott Cain, who leads on business and project development at an organisation called the Future Cities Catapult, ‘where innovation fundamentally failed over the last 10 years or so, it’s primarily because people are saying I've got this great big technology hammer and I just need to find that available nail and keep on hitting with it.’

Thus in his field there is a plethora of vibrant, exciting technologies for making cities smarter or more liveable, to the extent that city authorities are overwhelmed by the proliferation of choice. But features don’t necessarily translate into benefits – particularly in complex entities like cities, systems of systems where each has knock-on effects on others so that it’s hard to establish reliable evidence of what works or work out a viable business model between them.

Again, purpose is key. When Dubai in 2014 decreed its aim of being the smartest and happiest city in the world (by 2017), it approached the Future Cities Catapult to establish just what that meant in context and how technology could contribute to its achievement. The city state has now worked through the first set of projects from the findings and is into its second.

Finally, most organisations are good at either being efficient ('exploitation') or being inventive ('exploration') - and for all the reasons above exploration is the road less taken, which of course makes it all the more desirable, and essential.

But innovation-driven companies such as Apple, or Intel in semiconductors, that exhibit this drive are rare. Those that don’t have it in their DNA and have to summon up the impetus from elsewhere. Evans calls it a ‘groundswell’, a combination of pride and striving to do the job better, that Direct Line has channelled into an ideas lab that yielded 3000 suggestions in its first year.

Organisations should focus on areas they are competitive in – ‘not necessarily Real Madrid or Bayern Munich; Arsenal will do,’ says Cain – and where something is broken, or markets are not providing a good solution. Internally, a burning platform, as at Direct Line, may be the stimulus to get things moving. The timing needs to be right – innovating too far ahead of customers is as bad as being too late. And while scaling up is a huge issue in itself, ‘the way it becomes a bit more viable is to start at the smallest scale you want to be operating at’, counsels Cain. ‘Start at the very, very human scale, that’s my insight’.

Unsettlingly, innovation isn’t primarily a matter of cold management reason. On the contrary, cautions Birkinshaw, big data and analytics can be bad for innovation. With information everywhere and research costs approaching zero, marshalling data can take only a company so far. (In any case, most of what we call disruptive innovation is actually emergent: the disruption only becomes clear after the event.) So it’s avoiding the trap of over-analysis with decisive action and emotional commitment that are the key to successful innovation, Birkinshaw argues: ‘When we look at the Facebooks, the Amazons of this world, the companies that succeed are the ones that know when to stop gathering information and when to start actually acting on a little bit of intuition’.

This puts a premium on leaders with the wit and courage to make the important calls (and knock some heads together if necessary to bring the talking to a stop) – and on the cussed, unreasonable people, sometimes lower down in the organisation, who make it their business to provoke, stir up the status quo and go on asking the uncomfortable questions until they are either kicked out or get their way.

On the people, in fact, for whom the phrase ‘innovate or die’ has a literal meaning.

The Foundation's view

Three points most starkly stood out for us from the evening, complementing Simon Caulkin’s summary.

Diversity matters. And in a substantive way.

Mark Evans shared his belief in Neurodiversity, a hitherto unrecognised version referring to people who literally have different brains. Dyslexia, dyspraxia, colour blindness, autism and plenty more lead to very different ways of seeing the world, of drawing conclusions from it and of having ideas. If you want to look round corners that usually get in the way, ensuring diversity of thought and style matters, in version 1.0 gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the like, and in this version 2.0 way as well (as he described it). What also emerged less intentionally was a rather masculine way of describing the qualities needed to succeed with innovation, and cajones along with their Anglo Saxon counterparts were referred to several times, and called out by one of our questioners too. It was a sobering moment and showed how less visible things like language matter when discussing and framing issues, opening up or closing down options unconsciously

Innovation is no way to have an easy life.

All the way through the examples that were shared, unreasonable people were the ones who had to put up with the slings and arrows on their way to outrageous fortune. Mark described the vitriol that was directed his way as a result of suggesting then pursuing bold and unusual initiatives in the insurance business, like helping young drivers have a ‘shot-gun’ riding alongside them, coaching them towards safety and away from £20m claims that result from disfiguring best friends in all-too-common accidents. There are more or less challenging styles that go with being unreasonable, but relentlessness and unshakeable will are at the core, and ideally these people need some air-cover and space, so they can work through the process of ruling out all the wrong ways to do something towards the right way where the pot of gold lives

Well-meaning collectivism is an enemy.

Well-meaning collectivism is fantastic for many many things and would ideally be far more common in the world of work. But innovation is not one of them. Ask enough people and someone will find a reason to say no, or a sensible suggestion to modify, or to test a bit more carefully. Benevolent dictators made their presence felt, labelled, like unreasonable people, by Julian Birkinshaw and described by him at places like Oracle (Larry Ellison – we are moving to cloud, no debate) and by Scott Cain in cities like Dubai where interestingly the person in question was female (we want to create the world’s happiest City, and we’ll do it by a week on Tuesday – well, three years, but you get the idea). This kind of unarguable direction can also come from a deeply held purpose that gives direction and conviction that something matters to everyone involved. Direct Line now has a belief in being fixers, there to put things right when insurance is called on, and people across the business are in action with their interpretations like delivering a replacement TV in person because otherwise it wasn’t getting there before a crucial boxing match that a customer desperately wanted to see

About The Foundation

The Foundation is a management consultancy specialising in growth. We help clients address big organic growth challenges; growing faster, growing into new markets or fending off threats to growth What these challenges share is the need to influence customer behaviour, but this is inherently tough. Why? Because people in any organisation naturally see the world from the inside-out, with colleagues close and customers distant, and lots of assumptions about how things work that aren't challenged.

We help clients look from the outside-in, re-connecting them with what customers really value (the problem they want to solve, not usually what the client sells), then finding new and better ways to create this value This means working both as expert advisors and facilitators. The issue with simply gathering outside-in information is that it lacks impact to get senior teams to tackle inconvenient truths in what customers want, and to believe their own organisation can be different.

By using ‘Immersion’, personal conversations with customers and leaders of organisations in other sectors who have tackled parts of their challenge, we help teams get round beliefs that stand in their way. This helps them develop better answers for customers and new ways of achieving lasting success.

We most often answer three questions: 1. Developing new propositions 2. Improving customers’ experiences 3. Developing customer-led strategies for broader issues such as increasing retention or lifetime value

Our clients include HSBC, JLR, O2, M&S and Ebay, with achievements including helping create Plan A at M&S, adding £100m of value to a Travelex travel money proposition, and giving Morrisons a competitive direction contributing to their return to growth

Behind our work our most distinctive characteristic is our team and their outlook. Each individual is motivated to and experienced in crossing the border between the worlds of customers and business which often resist mixing well

This link will take you to more information about us and our Forum events:

Contact Details

Charlie Dawson (Founding Partner): / +44 7785 268 859

Charlie Sim (Director) / +44 7958 574 917

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