Simon de Timary
The modern approach to innovation requires an acceptance that the future will only be found through continuous trial and error.
When it comes to technology innovation, spending months creating the most robust plan, comparing the best providers, and agonising over long-term budget allocation makes failing not only unacceptable but also pretty much inevitable. After attending several recent technology and innovation events and having had many client conversations, I have found that there is an awful lot of similarities for companies across industries and that, most of the time, the first step to getting things done is simply to take the first step.
Digital Transformation is dead
In today’s context, business leaders strongly recognise the strategic importance of the Chief Digital Officer but most also recognise that Digital Transformation is dead, if it ever were alive. The only disagreement about this among practitioners is over whether 90% or 95% of ‘Digital Transformation’ projects fail.
Digital Transformation presupposes there is an end state to be reached when actually, the only constant is transformation. The landscape is now moving so quickly that projects can be outdated before they are even started. Trying to find the ‘best’ technology to answer your current business needs as well as all the potential needs you foresee in a distant future is bound to result in an expensive 5-year transformation project. This project will either be killed off before it ends or succeed in delivering something that is completely misaligned with your needs 5 years from now.
The uncertainty makes it impractical. Everything is unpredictable from requirements to timescales to user reception. The constant and accelerating change tends to shatter the most evolved and elaborate plans. Uncertainty is the new standard paradigm across the technology industry. Treating Digital Transformation as another one-off investment project that can be tightly managed is a recipe for disaster.
This means traditional approaches to developing ideas and weeding out bad investments are now too slow. Large consulting projects to assess technical requirements and build consensus are more likely to increase, rather than reduce, risk. The modern approach to innovation requires an acceptance that the future will only be found through continuous trial and error.
The things you can control are whose ideas get trialled and how expensive the errors are going to be.
Overcoming organisational inertia to kick off innovation projects is the hardest, but most important, part. In fact, nearly every speaker at the recent CogX Festival of AI and Emerging Technologies I attended talked about this.
Finding ideas has never been the problem. People have ideas. Some of them sound good. Some of them are good. And some may even prove to be successful.
But how do you motivate people to take their ideas forward? How do you direct investment towards the ones that work? How do you support weird and wild ideas, giving them a chance to prove themselves, while not breaking the bank?
Here are some elements I believe are key to giving ideas a chance to succeed:
- Know and communicate your Mission, Vision, Goal: Regularly communicate who are you as a company, who you want to be and what you want to achieve.
- Fix problems don’t invent them. Remember innovation is not about technology. You’re building solutions to problems that people have. This is the core of human-centred design. Focus on who you are innovating for, what their expectations are, and why you are innovating in the first place. Set the expectation that new use cases will come from asking users what they want and great solutions from showing them your ideas and asking for feedback.
- Get into the right mindset and ensure access to initial seed money. Driving a culture where employees have the desire to try things out is as important as providing the means to do so. Distribute regular, small amounts of funding to experiment with new ideas. Try running a Kanban board for people to submit ideas or, more creatively, organise a monthly Dragon’s Den to enable people to propose ideas. Recognising that failure is an option (for a £10,000 prototype not for a multi-million project obviously) and celebrating the learnings that come with an unsuccessful idea will enable you to move on quickly and people to take controlled risks.
- Align employees’ objectives with your innovation strategy. It will improve the chance of buy-in at every level and encourage accountability for making ideas a success.
- Start small with what you know you can do. Create space to support this process either by regularly convening user groups, or curating a community of users to receive experimental features. Link the results of user testing to increased funding for the project.
- Provide technical infrastructure to support collaboration. Having transversal platforms and open data will enable intrapreneurs try things out rapidly. Not all innovation needs to be disruptive. Getting the basics right will go a long way.
I don’t believe I’m even close to holding all the answers. In fact, if someone tells you they do, my advice? Run! But I would love to discuss some of the above points and bring in some of my brilliant colleagues to the conversation.