Innovation is quickly becoming the most overused word in the English language, a trend that has not escaped the satirical masterminds over at The Onion, who claimed that the word “innovate” was used 8.2 timers per second at SxSW 2017. But as much as we can dismiss the use of buzzwords, it is a fact that with the huge changes happening in the business world today, being innovative is key to finding the right ideas for the future. All industries are changing with a velocity we’ve not seen since the industrial revolution. So, we could make up new words for it, but innovation is quite descriptive to what we are trying to do. To come up with new ideas that resonate with human beings, and that improves the business, efficiency, the products we’re selling, the services we offer or in some other way improves on what we already have. Innovation is key to transformation. If you don’t have ideas, the change will be forced by outside forces (consumers, competition, government regulation etc.), rather than leaving you in control of your own destiny. So, I’m personally going to stick with innovation. But what does it take to actually innovate? Is it just about brainstorming new ideas, or is there something more to it? Well, at Acoustic, we strongly believe that innovation and creativity is a process, that relies on six specific components that will let us create a strategy and creativity that truly are innovative. These six are:
If you don’t have a problem, there’s nothing to solve. It seems simple, but in today’s corporate world, we like to talk about “challenges” and “obstacles”. That needs to stop immediately. By mislabelling problems as challenges, nothing get done. Problems have to be solved. It may not be an easy thing to do, but if you have a bonafide problem in front of you, it becomes your mission to solve it, and you will not rest until its done. Problems are the core pillar of innovation. identifying the problem puts you on a path to solution. Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Similarly, Steve Jobs expressed “You’ve got to have a problem that you want to solve; a wrong that you want to right”. If you don’t, clearly, you are not making something that people will want to use. It’s very important that the problem you want to solve is truly customer centric or people centric if you will. It’s not about solving your own internal problems. Now, people may not know exactly what their problem is. They may express it differently than the core problem. It is our job, then, to identify and isolate the actual problem that we need to solve.
Which leads us to the next pillar, which are insights; the understanding of human behaviour, understanding the past to improve the future, understanding how people interact with each other, and how they use technology, understanding what makes people think and act the way they do. Having real insights into how people lead their lives, makes innovation relevant and increases the chances of success. There are many ways of acquiring these insights, from traditional quantitative and qualitative research, from observing life in general, from reading, from observing other ideas that have been implemented, and perhaps especially from talking to front-line staff. To identify the pain points people have, and to figure out how to turn that into real insights, and thus real problems, is what puts innovation on the right path. The insights have to be crystallised into tangible truths. This not only makes the innovation process easier, but it makes it a lot easier to get the innovative ideas approved by stakeholders.
Creativity is the main catalyst of innovation. When you fully understand the problem, and you have the insights to support it, the solution is just an idea away. Well, technically, we usually have to look at many ideas before we have solved the actual problem. Now, these ideas have to be relevant to the customers, and relevant to the business you are most likely to run in the future. It is crucial to think of these ideas as business ideas that changes your revenue streams over time. Ideas can come from anywhere, and I always encourage getting ideas from an as diverse group of people as possible. Don’t just listen to “innovators” and “product developers”, or people in “accelerators’ etc. Get ideas from the people who meet customers every day. Encourage a culture of ideas, where everyone, and I mean everyone, feels empowered to contribute thoughts and input to the business. Then evaluate those ideas, and move forward with the ones that you believe will work. And make the most important judgement criteria common sense.
We don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a highly connected world, where ideas can build on existing technologies. When the most important man of the 20th century, Tim Berners-Lee, invented the World Wide Web, he had the opportunity to do so. First of all, there was already the Internet (previously known as Arpanet) and the TCP/IP protocol. There were also already ways to connect to servers remotely from any location (modems had been around for decades, and many BBS and internet existed around the world, offering services to businesses and consumers). Even hypertext (the main concept of the web browser through HTTP and HTML) was a well know principle since the 60s, (and companies already offered software based on the idea that you could click at a word, to move to another section. Notably, Apple launched HyperCard for the Mac in 1987). So, all these components were already in place. This doesn’t diminish Berners-Lee’s achievement. Bringing all the technology together, creating HTTP and HTML and developing the first web browser were all great innovations, which together with the underlying technologies, allowed us to access websites around the world. Berners-Lee had the opportunity, he took it, and he changed the world as we know it.
Giving up is the easiest thing to do. You take an idea, develop it, fail and say; “well, we tried. It didn’t work”. But like the poet Gil Scott-Heron said; “The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things. And see that there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown.” The revolution, in other words, starts with you. Within. IN Silicon Valley, they talk about “Fail fast. Fail often.” But making failure as a cultural thing embedded in an organisation is not the way to go. it’s more about understanding that failure in itself can be a good thing, provide that you learn from it, and don’t give up on the core idea. Keeping focus on the big goal, and the core idea, gives you the opportunity to solve the problem you set out to solve. Successful innovators have tenacity. They keep pushing for better solution, more efficient products, more affordable offerings and more applicable technology. They don’t give up just because it’s tough. They keep going until the product or service is as good as it can possibly be. There can still be room for improvement over time but delivering quality from day one is a sure-fire way to put your idea on the path to success. Disappointing people is never a good idea.
The final, and most controversial of the pillars is ‘resistance’. Resistance is crucial to innovation, because if everyone is applauding and not offering constructive push-back, you may not get the ground-breaking product you’re hoping for. Now, we are not talking about nay-sayers here. We already have enough of those. No, I’m talking about the kind of resistance that makes the path slightly harder, but the end result much better. Including making tough choices as to what functionality to keep, and what to dispose of. When Sean Parker started Napster in 1999, and quickly made it into a huge success that was used by millions of people to share music, he didn’t count on the force of resistance. Lars Ulrich (drummer of Metallica), fought the idea that music should be free. Ulrich argued that music should remain the property of the artist who made it, and that sharing music for free would effectively kill the industry. It made him a very unpopular man, but there is little doubt that he was right. From the ashes of Napster rose a profitable and inclusive new service, iTunes Music Store, and from there we got Spotify and Apple Music (yes, I’m simply ignoring the “me too” offering of Tidal). Sometimes, being the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a good thing. Using common sense and calling out obvious flaws is crucial for the innovation process.
So, when we link these six pillars, we can create truly ground-breaking new products, services and experiences that work FOR the customers, not against them. Understanding that customer-centricity is crucial in all of this, will make it possible to execute as well. Show me a CEO that doesn’t want a customer-centric, solution-oriented organisation, that understands how technology can improve that experience, and I will show you a CEO who will be out of a job very shortly.
Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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