“There is a way to do it better – find it” by Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison, a great inventor with over 1,000 patents to his name (including some big ones like
the light bulb), summed up what each organization tries to do. Innovation is in every company’s
vision, mission and values. Every organization seeks to do things better.
What do we mean by innovation? It is the act of making something better. Not to be confused with
‘invention’, which is to make something totally new, innovation is incremental.
So how do we change things for the better in our organisations? Should we focus on ‘Process” (a
sequence of steps to achieve something)? Or should we look at our ‘Culture’ (the sum total of the
habits, values and behaviours of our people and organization?
Before the ipod, there was the mp3 player, the portable cd player and the Walkman. Each product
iteration got better at delivering value to the consumer through convenience, capacity and quality.
But Apple saw the need for a much better way to store and listen to music on the move. They
believed the mp3 market offered a below the par user experience. Steve Jobs called the mp3
player’s consumer experience “crap”.
He put together a team comprising Apple stalwarts as well as new-recruits from the best hand-held
computing companies. Based in the Apple campus, and feeding off the ideas and work of other
groups at Apple, they set about creating the ipod.
As well as having the right expertise in place, they were enabel d by Apple’s vision for innovation:
“We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a
way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the
company, and we have the self- honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change.”
Sure enough, in December 2001, a company renowned for selling personal computers launched
the ipod a product so successful that it changed the world of music for ever.
So let’s try to pick out some lessons or observations about how organisations can innovate:
Innovation starts with leadership, leadership that is willing to listen; an acceptance that the leaders
of an organization do not have a monopoly on good ideas.
There are so many types of innovation that can improve an organisation’s performance – changes
in the way a company is doing things; enhanced products; reshaped relationships with clients or
customers. The list is endless and, often, it is junior employees at the front-line of the organization
who can most clearly see where improvements can be made.
Right through the organization, leaders need to create an environment where suggesting better
ways of doing is encouraged and rewarded. It should be OK to come up with a radical idea. The
organization should enable an environment where new ideas evaluated and deployed in a
controlled way. For example, if a sales rep comes up with an idea for a new consumer promotion, it
can trialled in the rep’s own region. Leaders can create an environment where good ideas are
welcomed; where new ways of doing things are tried; and where, if a new initiative fails to hit the
mark, there is no black mark against the innovator
Employees need to understand and be engaged with the organisation’s objectives and its success.
Innovation requires people to think about their job, or their customer, or the tools they use. It
requires them to go the extra mile outside the basic parameters of the job. Our people will not do
this if they are watching the clock and going through the motions of their role.
Make sure people understand the strategy and what role they play in delivering that strategy. Also
ensure that reward mechanisms reflect the drivers of organizational success. For example, if
employees are rewarded for reductions in the cost of the product or route to market efficiency,
they will be more inclined to seek cost-saving innovations. If they are rewarded on market share,
they will seek innovative ways of beating the competition in the trade.
3. Cross functional collaboration
For successful innovation to happen, there usually needs to be a meeting of minds from different
backgrounds, functions and levels in the organisation. Many innovations will only achieve maximum
impact through collaborative effort. For example, an idea for a new trade incentive scheme will
probably benefit from the input of finance, brand marketing and the trade marketing organization.
When you are onto a winning innovation, put a project team on ti and maximise its impact.
4. Knowing when to take innovation out of business as usual
Often innovations can be managed with existing resource. But sometimes, as was the case with the
ipod, the innovation requires serious dedicated cross-functional resource. Another example is
Nespresso, which only became successful when Nestle carved out a completely separate unit to
take forward this concept of a super-premium coffee experience. The notion of marketing coffee as an aspirational, luxury ritual with a price tag to match, did not sit comfortably and was a distraction within an organization forcused on bringing an affordable product to the mass market. Understand when an innovation needs dedicated resource so as not to become a distraction.