What is innovation, anyway?

A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON

A few years ago, the word innovation would receive an eye roll in the world of advertising and marketing agencies. Mostly because it was usually used in relation to startups – some that were threatening seats of power, some that were being started up by talent leaving agencies, and some that had valuations that eclipsed even the biggest agencies within just a year.

Fast forward to 2015 and the situation has very much changed. There are still threats attached to the word – there isn’t an agency in town that isn’t aware of the encroaching management consultancies wrapping words like ‘innovation’ and ‘transformation’ together to pose a real risk to the consultative ambitions of the best agency names – but on the whole, agencies are warming because clients have warmed.

BUT WHAT IS INNOVATION, REALLY?

To me, innovation should be something that lives and breathes throughout the organisation, led by the senior leadership team, prioritised by the management teams, and focused on growth. Growing culture requires innovation to enable your people to make a difference. Growing your bottom line requires a differential edge in your product or service offering – and how you deliver it. Growing your brand requires a way of thinking that demonstrates why you stand out.

The best innovations can feel a little like the obvious inventions that you could’ve invented, would’ve made millions with, but didn’t do. Which is possibly where another element of contempt for the subject has come from before.

Many people assume innovation always ends up with something being ‘built’, which is why digital agencies have led the charge to date. But true innovation can come in many shapes.

A knowledge ecosystem based on people and software can help a company harness knowledge management, directly impact how talent integrates, and lead to tangible growth through both efficiencies and leveragability. Similarly, a data dashboard that combines proprietary, volunteered and available commercial data into one predictive modelling tool can easily demonstrate a return on investment by increasing competitive advantage.

But innovation can also centre on education. Coaching a company’s top layer of leadership, for example, can embed managers who know the business inside out in the alternative cultures of technology startups, venture capital firms, business media and next-generation educational organisations etc in order to embed innovation-first thinking.

The secret to getting innovation right is quite simple, yet can feel impossible at times. It’s about the right talent, in the right environment. The best partner and the right plan are vital. As is a clear brief and freedom to explore. So is being prepared to fail (smartly) along the way. But, crucially, good innovation comes from combining all of these things, in the right way, at the right time.

WHAT’S NEXT IN INNOVATION?

More of the same, ironically. Where companies, boards and leaders were turning to innovation to help fill revenue and profitability gaps a few years ago, the same nod is now focused on growth beyond the baseline. Using an innovation partner is a new priority for boards if it brings new thinking, new products, new services, new talent and – most importantly – new bottom line results.