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Why your innovation efforts aren't working

Innovation stems from learning to ask the right questions, writes TransUnion Africa CEO Lee Naik.

Lee Naik

Lee Naik

Innovation. Is there any more elusive concept in the business world? Every organisation wants it, yet few have the vaguest clue on how to execute.

Even experts have trouble getting a hold of it. In 1997, before the word ‘disruption' had been branded into our psyches, a Harvard professor called Clayton Christensen first came up with the concept of disruptive innovation. It's nothing new today, where every start-up with an app and a catchy name believes they can be the next Airbnb, but back then it was a revelation.

And yet despite his impressive credentials, Christensen has admitted his theory of disruptive innovation was half-baked. If he couldn't get it right the first time, what chance does the average CIO have, especially with the CEO breathing down their neck to innovate now? Not very high, it turns out: McKinsey has found a measly 6% of executives are satisfied with their innovation performance.

So where exactly is business going wrong?

Start with a problem, not a product

The difference between disruptors and everyone else is that the disruptors understand they don't know everything. Innovation stems from learning to ask the right questions – how can we make our customers' lives better, help our end-users work more efficiently, or solve particular problems?

Take Discovery Vitality, recently recognised as a leading innovator at the World Economic Forum. Vitality came about as a result of Discovery asking the right question, and having the freedom to pursue the series of questions that followed down their natural conclusion – a points system that rewarded good behaviour.

Unfortunately, most companies that strive for innovation don't change their thinking accordingly. More often, they simply tell employees "go forth and be innovative" and expect the organisation to start transforming from within. Or they start celebrating innovation days where everyone can wear takkies and act like a creative for a few hours (and then it's back to the basement to check on the servers).

The problem is that you can't expect your average employee to turn on that kind of creativity, when they're more concerned with keeping everything running as it should. Innovation ends up being a distraction from the real work, the stuff they're judged on.

Innovation needs a space where risk-free experimentation can take place, and the inside of a corporation certainly isn't it.

Then there's the fact that asking the right questions isn't an exact science. Innovation needs a space where risk-free experimentation can take place, and the inside of a corporation certainly isn't it. Celebrate Innovation Monday all you want, the same hierarchies, legacy systems and rigid thinking will still be there to stifle new ideas for the rest of the week.

Turn your thinking outside in

Okay, so if it's the legacy systems and convoluted hierarchies holding innovation back, let's find a way to circumvent them. What if, instead of trying to nurture innovation from the inside out, we were to adopt an outside-in approach instead? One where we establish innovation spaces that mostly operate outside these structures, within which experimentation can take place.

The goal here is to identify a few creative thinkers, incentivise them to get together and think up new ideas, and free them of the typical blockers that hamper innovative thinking. This can take many shapes: specially created teams, whose time is dedicated to testing out new concepts instead of business as usual; innovation competitions, such as Absa's Technology Hackathon, where developers can focus on the cool stuff rather than keeping the lights running; decentralised, cross-functional collaboration networks, where leaders and forward-thinkers pool their knowledge together.

Coming up with those interesting ideas is just the beginning. You'll also need to consider whether your team has the skills you need to test, develop and deploy the solutions you've conceptualised.

Here is where many would-be innovation leaders falter, as they fail to think beyond the ideation stage and consider whether they can execute.

Remember, it doesn't matter who does something, only that it gets done. So if you find your employees lacking the creativity or capabilities to execute new concepts, turn your gaze outwards. Invest in incubators or start-up programmes, like Standard Bank's Startup Grind, where you can partner with people that can help you execute. Or host events and competitions where you can find talent with the right skills.

Whatever shape your innovation pockets take, remember they need the space to grow. Start small. Nurture them. Give them time to make their business case. Then, once they've shown their value, start to scale them elsewhere in the organisation. Eventually, these pockets will have spread so extensively throughout the business that innovative thinking happens, naturally.

Next time your exec starts haranguing you about innovation efforts, ask what you're doing to create spaces where new ideas can thrive. Do they have the freedom to operate independently of corporate red tape? Are they cross-functional, with the skills to test and execute? And will you be able to scale if they prove successful?


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