Innovation will be key to future business growth after the pandemic, but it is something firms may have put on the back burner until now, says Mark Wilson, CEO at London-based business innovation company Wilson Fletcher, who recommends six techniques for breakthrough innovation.
A recent survey of business leaders by HLB, the Global Advisory Accountancy and Network[i] says leaders are now compelled to switch from managing their response to the crisis to seeking new opportunities from the disruption, with 83% of respondents saying that more rapid and effective innovation is critical to future growth.
Wilson, whose firm helps leaders to future proof their business in the digital economy says, “Now that work life is settling down after the challenges of the pandemic, many organisations need to take a substantial step forward after treading water but are struggling to make it happen. The need to innovate has never been greater.
“Incremental innovation is everywhere, but the real step-change, breakthrough innovations are harder to come by. There’s no fixed formula for success, but there are six key techniques we use to generate big ideas which involve thinking about current problems or future opportunities in different ways.”
Wilson highlights the following six techniques businesses can use to innovate:
1) Deconstructing ‘truths’: The key breakthrough often comes when businesses can identify a fundamental truth (or a series of them), remove them as constraints, and free up the thinking process. So often, what are considered foundational components of the current business or service — and viewed as key strengths — are the very things holding it back. Identify and deconstruct them and everything changes. Sometimes these are bound up in single words, sometimes in organisation-wide behaviours that, once removed, switch on the innovation gene in teams and enable them to take a big step forward.
2) Building on untapped assets – Companies are frequently sitting on unrecognised assets that have enormous innovation potential. Digital businesses can be built on a wide range of asset bases, and they are rarely assets in the traditional sense, so many established companies don’t identify them. For example, Mark identified that a 30-year-old client’s greatest asset was not their remarkable team or stellar reputation for service, nor their world-leading products; it was their customer network. What they saw as important to the business, but not really an asset, he saw as pivotal. The question he then posed became “what new proposition can leverage that network in a new way?”
Wilson says that building on hidden assets is one of the most powerful ways to redefine a company’s future — once the right assets have been identified.
3) Applying parallel experiences – Often the answer to a problem, or the approach to an opportunity, has been addressed in some other form elsewhere: it is simply a case of identifying the parallel and applying it to the current challenge. Frequently, the parallel experience that makes an impact wasn’t even in-market: it may have been part of a workshop discussion or a concept that was ultimately progressed in a different direction.
4) Contrarian positions – Over-reliance on logical analysis and data tends to lead down rational, obvious paths — paths that competitors are likely to walk down. A key technique
Mark uses is simple contrarianism. People’s brains are wired to look for opportunities to explore whatever is opposite to the accepted norm, counter-intuitive or contrary to accepted practice. The key to contrarianism is to learn how to de-program your brain from running on rails and allow what is not logical to come to the fore.
5) Sparks of insight
Sparks of insight are the gold nuggets that emerge from working with customers. It’s not the general trends or patterns, it’s the outliers; the single, aberrant points that fall way outside the line that is intended to show, by volume, where the most important data lies. Often the breakthrough idea had its origins in one single comment that one single person said.
Businesses need to engage people in the right conversation and listen to what they say with an opportunist’s ear, not a statisticians’ mindset. Breakthrough innovations need breakthrough ideas, and if the breakthroughs were found in the averages and median distributions, everyone would be having them.
6) Loud and lively
Get stuff up on the wall and discuss it aloud, as a group. Some of the best ideas emerge during a ‘hearty’ debate or soon afterwards. They are more pub discussion than structured workshop and they can bring out passionately held views. They can be frustrating because the answer will not come. They can also be exciting when it does.
Wilson believes these techniques are instrumental in breakthrough thinking — partly because they are the perfect feeding ground for the earlier techniques, and partly because they seem to leave the same processes active in the brain long afterwards. So often ‘the idea’ emerges overnight, in the shower, in the bar later, while driving, or in many other scenarios where the brain has switched down a gear again.