“Innovation is not a democratic process. It should never be confused with ideation.”
As research shows, defining what ‘innovation’ is has its difficulties. But to define it well means turning it from an end goal in itself into an everyday activity. In my experience, this starts by defining innovation as the commercialisation of a great idea.
For me, it is the emphasis on ‘commercialisation’ that really matters here. Just having a great idea is simply not enough. No matter how creative it is, if you cannot turn the advantage that an idea brings into a worthwhile return for your business, why bother?
After all, every business leader wants to grow – grow their revenue, grow their audience, or grow their impact as a brand. If innovation doesn’t directly serve that end goal, it can’t realistically hope to outweigh the risks associated with it.
How to minimise the risk of innovation
In my experience, the best way to offset risk is to look beyond creativity alone. If you look at successful innovators you will recognise a ruthlessness streak when it comes to process, not just creativity. They show dedication to focus and action, not just to a disruptive mindset or the urge to upend the status quo.
Leaders of mid size businesses should take real comfort from this, because this is a game that they can play. After all, being able to create a simple, nimble innovation process and fuel it with bravery does not depend on size. MSBs really don’t need to commit to all-involving innovation processes that sprawl across teams, time and budgets.
Instead, the aim should be to hunt for bigger, better and fewer ideas. Nothing good has ever come from wanting a vast collection of innovative ideas. It only adds the wrong kind of pressure. Just focus
on getting to that one idea that you can execute and commercialise. That will help you grow your business in whatever way you believe is best.
I appreciate this is hard. But what makes it hard is not finding that single idea – it is ignoring all the other ideas you might come across. In business, we are so used to having multiple options that committing to a single idea seems downright masochistic. It appears to amplify the possibility of failure and, in turn, paralyses many MSBs.
The four behaviours to effective innovation
To overcome this paralysis, I work with founders, leaders and boards of MSBs to foster four key behaviours in their companies:
1. To start, be selfish
One of the biggest misconceptions is that innovation has to be all about the customer. Although it nearly always leads to customer benefits in the end, it doesn’t have to start there. To kick-start a more innovative mindset, removing the pressure of having to delight customers can be immensely helpful. Focusing first on innovating for yourself rather than for your customer can deliver plenty of benefits, fast. When you have become comfortable in generating, assessing, dismissing and committing to ideas, innovating for customers will feel far less risky.
2. Dial up, not down
Internal innovation is also an excellent way of appreciating that scale really matters; it is far easier to course-correct something small and experimental than to pare back something big that you have bet the business on. And when large businesses are training employees in ‘innovation sprints’ or involving them in ‘growth experiments’, MSBs should really take note. This isn’t just a case of looking after the skill sets of their employees. It is far more likely that they are trying hard to cultivate smaller, faster, more nimble thinking – something that MSBs are already excellent at.
3. Be Brave. Experiment
If you want to kill innovation, do it slowly – there is always someone out there who is willing to go faster than you. One way of making sure that you are at least part of the race is to experiment. This means testing highly practical ideas, hunting for small but measurable impact. Experiments like this can become the perfect fuel for your innovation. And, although it might require a sizeable dose of bravery, it doesn’t require large budgets or demand a huge amount of time. As a matter of fact, you will be surprised what a one-hour ‘growth experiment’ session can bring.
4. Innovation is not a democracy
However provocative as a statement, innovation is not a democratic process. It should never be mistaken with ideation. Of course, everyone in the company can donate their time, know-how and expertise to generating ideas, but this kind of shared responsibility doesn’t apply to innovation. Remember: innovation is the commercialisation of a great idea. And that decision – which idea to commercialise and how to make it a reality – rests only on a few shoulders. For founders, leaders and boards of MSBs, this can quickly feel heartless. But experience shows that without this clarity, most innovation efforts end up as team-building rather than company-building exercises.
On balance, MSBs are much better placed to innovate than their larger counterparts. They are more flexible, closer to customers and haven’t yet lost the ability to experiment. Perhaps more surprisingly, MSBs are often also better placed than startups to innovate. They might not have the exuberance of startups, but they also don’t need to constantly prove their right to even exist. And where both startups and big companies are often forced to throw everything but the kitchen sink at being innovative, MSBs can still celebrate their flexibility to follow through on bigger, better and, more importantly, fewer ideas.