What does Innovation really mean to you?
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“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” – Steve Jobs
But what does Innovation mean to you?
Here at Rangeroom, we have listened very closely to how varying teams around the industry, feel about Innovation. When we hear about how tough it’s been since the recession for teams to keep focussed on success and strong…..or even level sales, we’ve been struck by how those habits to maintain sales consistency have become embedded. More importantly, we want to understand how they might negatively impact on a company’s future and particularly, its ability to innovate.
In a well-observed quote in her book ‘The Psychology of Fear in Organizations’, Sheila Keegan notes how we are creatures of habit, and these habits are often counter to the habits needed to embrace, practice and build innovation into a company culture. Whilst innovation as a brand value has varying levels of adoption and application in the way a business operates, one thing is more and more apparent: that innovation is available and can be embraced very easily if the appetite is there, often in much easier ways than people imagine. As the adage goes “if you keep doing the same thing you’ll get the same result’ or, as John Thorbeck of Chainge Capital recently stated so succinctly: “what got you here won’t get you there…”
It is easier than ever for ideas to thrive outside large organizations these days and with start-ups in pole position to be able to be as open, agile and flexible as the opportunities available, there are fewer excuses for large companies not to work with smaller enterprises.
Large companies are taking different approaches to this challenge. Some have embraced the ‘Elephant playing with the Ant’ approach, unperturbed by the difference in scale, recognizing the obvious advantages of the nature of the startup. Others are setting up their own off site Innovation ‘Hubs’, away from the day to day routine and policy, clearly appreciating the unique environments and mindsets that start-ups inhabit. Sometimes we hear that teams would like to develop new innovations themselves, in-house, rather than integrate external innovation into their organizations and systems. When we’ve investigated why, this seems often to come from a sense that not being autonomous and self-reliant, amounts to being ‘vulnerable’. But vulnerability isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Firstly vulnerability is a great stepping-stone to innovation, as Brene Brown noted in her ‘Daring Greatly’ book, quoting Peter Sheahan:
“If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. And this, perhaps paradoxically, requires that first, they are vulnerable themselves.”
Secondly, there’s always the Post-ego, collaborative approach, one that we are very keen to achieve, which looks at teams and companies evolving a more cooperative approach. This means deliberately replacing the defensive position usually associated with vulnerability, with one of purposeful & proactive curiosity. This is summed up perfectly in Libby Fearnley’s most recent Big Little Impact piece on our blog:
“By banding together with our competitors, all parties benefit—customers, retailers, brands, manufacturers”. This really speaks to a more modern, collaborative approach that enhances the entire eco-system, and leverages the best assets of the diverse skills and groups involved. This also encourages accountability and transparency, as we’ve mentioned before, where communication is as inclusive, wide ranging and questioning as it can be.
So what are the barriers that hold groups back from innovating? Clearly, this is subject that spans culture and working practices. A subject that people dedicate whole careers to. It’s natural for human beings to be resistant to change, especially with the status-stasis fulfilling “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach, that is often the risk averse mantra of a company seemingly doing well.
But the crucial question is: How long can you keep standing still for before it gets uncomfortable?
If comfort with success and scale are the enemies of innovation how, (especially in large and profitable companies) can we ensure that the creative curiosity and ambiguity of Risk, associated with innovation, can be accommodated, nurtured and protected to encourage a flow of agility and flexibility?
In a recent conversation with Bruce Salehi, VP of Sales at Ilshin Industries, who has been working and trading globally for over 20 years, we asked what his impression of how companies were feeling, particularly in the US market.
“In the past 2 years, with the rise of online retail and the demise of the traditional retailer, everybody is basically holding onto their hats, running scared – not knowing what the next chapter is, so hence this lends itself to the need for a very efficient supply chain tool, one that allows you to cut costs without cutting efficiencies, so getting the right product at the right time, the cheapest way and the quickest way possible.
In the US market, (which isn’t that different to other global markets) there’s been a huge shift and the pendulum has swung. The old traditional retail doesn’t know how to adjust itself quickly, to be able to take advantage of the new opportunities. That’s where innovation is important, with companies like RangeRoom bringing the next level of innovation to the market, which is the key to success in the future of retail.” So we know that this is a need. But how do we help implement innovation?
Lida Hujic, author of The First to Know, in conversation with Sheila Keegan notes that ‘among other things that a company needs to consider when innovating, are acceptable timescales and risks. Timescales can range enormously depending on the project. Breakthrough innovation takes the longest time and carries the most risk; it involves thinking beyond the companies’ brands and beyond categories.’
Understanding timescales and risks are operational norms across the fashion industry. Thus ‘ring-fencing’ innovation as a part of a strategic push is really just a question of identifying the opportunity and committing to change within a particular time and framework, taking a deliberate, but mindful risk.
Often a focussed or smaller version of ‘what could be’ works well – so that the risks and timescale are clear, manageable, easy to measure and envisage in a scaled-up or ‘real-life’ version. The project is then planned and scoped-out in conjunction with the team of innovators with clear objectives, timelines and responsibilities.
Another key dimension to remember is that most start-ups build a degree of failure, dialogue and learning into this process. This encourages a more open and flexible approach to problem-solving, one that is inherent in the start-up entrepreneurial environments. The phrase ‘let’ fail fast on this’ is often heard in so many startups as its the quickest way to learn and grow.
Where then, within your companies’ values, goals and aspirations, where does innovation lie? What are your biggest pain points that you know you want to banish or relieve drastically? Where did your innovation mean that your competitors missed out on an opportunity that you saw and acted on? Did you lose business to a more innovative competitor? What were those examples of how your new innovations won you new business? Who were the brave risk-takers and entrepreneurs within your business who helped to drive change – successfully or unsuccessfully? If unsuccessfully, then what were the valuable lessons you learnt?
We would love to hear about what Innovation means to you and why this conversation matters.
Title thumbnail image credit: George Barker, aeroplane image Karol Kasanicky and neon by Austin Chan at Unsplash.