It is a term that can be overused and its ubiquity has seen it reach buzzword status. However, innovation is a valuable approach to doing business that can be applied to many organisations.

Often considered synonymous with new technology, innovation is frequently used to describe companies like Uber and Airbnb that utilise emerging technology and create new business models to disrupt the status quo. However, innovation is not limited to start-ups disrupting the tech industry. Large private and public organisations are increasingly seeing its value, striving to incorporate it into their business practice as an approach to creating and delivering products or services.

1. Understanding innovation: beyond the buzzword

While many products and services can be labelled as ‘innovations’, it is important to recognise that they are in fact the by-product of innovation as an activity. One common misconception is that it involves the creation of something new, or that it takes a singular genius to intuit the future needs of customers.

However, while the result of innovation activities may be a new product, service or process, it can also be a shift in thinking or a new understanding of an existing problem. This usually involves divergent thinking that can often lead to unexpected ideas and solutions. Innovative ideas and solutions may also arise out of the refinement of existing concepts or ideas.

Some activities that support innovation include:

- Research to thoroughly understand a problem space.

- Customer journey maps to visualise an end-to-end experience. This kind of artifact is a handy communication tool and a great conversation starter within your organisation.

- Workshops to understand how it can be applied within your organisation.

- Ideation activities to generate new thinking about old problems and to identify new areas of opportunities.

- Design sprints that incorporate rapid prototyping to test a specific concept.

2. Experience-led innovation: focusing on customer needs

Asking how you might enhance the customer experience is a good framework to start pursuing innovation. Rather than searching for an application of a hyped technology – does anyone remember iBeacons? – grounding your efforts in understanding the overall customer journey (how a customer interacts with all of your brands' touch points) helps you to identify opportunities to make small innovations. Read more about the benefits of thinking small in this article by Jeff Rodman, Founder of Polycom.

A well-known example of experience-led innovation is Apple’s end-to-end customer journey. Every aspect the customer interacts with – from product launch campaigns and events, packaging design and unboxing experience, through to the product itself and ongoing support from the Genius Bar in the Apple store environment – has been designed to reinforce the unique ‘Apple’ brand experience.

Some quick thought starters for experience innovation:

- Do we fully understand the experience of our customers across all touchpoints?

- Are there any areas in which we could create moments of delight?

- Is there anything we can remove from the experience to make it better?

3. Removing barriers: supporting a culture of innovation

Innovation is often stifled in many organisations because of limited thinking, process constraints and lack of vision. Many of the obstacles may not be obvious. A prevalent hidden barrier to innovation is inflexible organisational decision-making processes and bureaucratic red tape that limit the exploration of new approaches or ideas. Another common barrier is organisations paying lip service to innovation, for example, by designating the responsibility of innovation to a sole individual or team as this can actually inhibit the capacity for the whole organisation to be innovative. In fact, innovation works best when it is part of the organisational culture, and everyone can contribute.

Read more about the hidden barriers to innovation in this article by IESE Business School.

An innovative work-place removes as many of these barriers as possible to foster a culture that is open to new ideas. It supports taking risks, trying new approaches and gives permission to explore new territory. Organisations that facilitate cross-pollination across departments and are able to allocate appropriate resources are setting the scene for innovation.

Innovation is less about a massive shift in the product or solution and more about a shift in culture. It needs to be embedded in the essence of an organisation and be sustained over time to have real impact. A great example of this is Google's '20% time', a mechanism that enables employees to spend 20% of their work time pursuing projects they thought would benefit Google. This organisation-wide approach led to the creation of some of its most successful products including Gmail and AdSense. Despite its success, since 2013 '20% time' has been phased out in favour of a more structured approach to better support the global scale and size of Google. It demonstrates there’s no one-size-fits-all method for fostering a culture of innovation, it can change and evolve over time.

Pixar is another organisation that has successfully embedded a culture of innovation. Director Brad Bird was hired in 2000 to challenge the status quo and the way teams were working. One particularly successful strategy he employed was to empower staff who were disenfranchised within the organisation and to give them permission to change processes and implement better ways of working. Not only did Pixar reduce the production cost per minute of film, but The Incredibles and Ratatouille went on to win Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Screenplay. Read more about innovation at Pixar in this detailed interview with Brad Bird.

Embedding an innovative culture in an organisation is not without its challenges, it can be difficult to go against the tide of “this is the way we've always done things”. However, it is possible to start practicing in small ways, on a single project or within a team, which can gain traction and start to build up a culture of innovation in your broader organisation. Here are some simple ideas to help you start.

About the author

About the author

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Author photo
Author photo

Selena Kearney

Principal Designer and Researcher

Selena has 12 years experience with both visual and user experience design. A curious and passionate problem solver, Selena brings holistic thinking to her research and design projects. She considers both the big picture and the details, imagining future states and potential risk simultaneously. Selena enjoys a collaborative approach to working and cultivates positive connections with clients and stakeholders.

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