The innovation cocktail – underestimate the challenge at your peril

wazoku Partner blogs

We asked our partner, Tim Westall, Co-founder of April Strategy, to share practical insights that would be useful to organisations juststarting out or already running ambitious innovation programmes.

We also framed the interview with a couple of more philosophical questions and received very honest and fun answers to both. Read on and enjoy the interview…

1. What will the world look like in 10 years’ time?

Only a fool would answer this question literally – we’ll be flying around on unicorns doing deals with Narnia!

In ten years’ time, we’ll have quantum computing and AI which are going to enable things we can’t even imagine yet – automation and self-driving cars – that will all happen. What’s more exciting though is what’s going to happen around healthcare and longevity, around societal structures, the nature of work enabled by the vast power of AI and quantum computing. We’ll look back to now and ponder at how slow and unchanging things were and how we were preoccupied with quite silly things. There are some fundamental step-change breakthroughs that are going to be happening over the next decade that will transform us all again and the pace of change is only going to go up.

2. What does innovation mean to you?

The positive answer is that it’s just a way of being for anybody who works in a dynamic organisation and it should permeate everything we do with the exception of a handful of orgs where it’s all about consistency and process, and adherence to standards and being unchanging but there are very, very few of those. Innovation is a way of life and defining it as something different from BAU is a bit weird. You have got to be changing the way you do things, thinking about evolving your organisation – isn’t that obvious? We don’t really need a word like ‘innovation’, I think it’s a redundant concept.

My snarky answer is that it’s a word that means everything and nothing. It’s oversold but actually the notion behind it is really important. The notion of mastery of process and maximisation of efficiency was the game in the 1960’s but we are beyond that now and we’ll look back on the post-war concentrated, manufacturing environment as being an anomaly in human history.

3. What would you recommend to organisations at the start of an innovation programme?

1) Be very clear about what your goal is, the business impact and outcome you are expecting innovation to make. Many people just hold it to be a self-evident truth that innovation is a good thing, but they are unclear about what they mean by that and what they are looking to achieve.

2) What sort of innovation is it that you’re talking about? Is it incremental, is it transformational, is it exploratory and disruptive? Sometimes it is a cocktail of all of those, but they are categorically different in terms of the skills and approaches that you need to make them happen. That’s often not understood.

  • Leaders might go into a disruptive innovation exercise using their conventional innovation tools and techniques. They would be disappointed and end up with timid, risk-averse ideas. If the programme was framed around ‘doing what we do every day 5% better’, it would be fantastic, but will disappoint if you’re shooting for something more disruptive.
  • Conversely, if you bring wacky creative innovators into an incremental innovation brief, they would get frustrated very quickly by all the constraints ‘business as usual’ imposes upon them.

The single biggest thing to think about when embarking on an innovation programme, apart from the points already mentioned, is having in your mind some sense of how you are going to evolve your organisation from where it is and what it does and what is capable of, into something new and something better. Ask yourself the question ‘Do we actually want to do that? Do we think we can do that?’.

Many people say these days that in a world of complex ecosystems, no single player can deliver everything that’s required within the ecosystem. It’s about partnership and collaboration. Having a sense upfront of where you can or cannot go and where you do or don’t want to go in terms of capability and risk. It defines the space where you are going to need a partner or collaborator. That incidentally requires a very different mindset which they are not used to working with in their walled gardens; whereas the collaborative economy works in a different way where sometimes it’s a little bit vague, fuzzy and open-ended – but if you proceed in good faith, you are likely to achieve more.

4. Whether someone’s just starting out or experienced in innovation, what would be your piece of advice?

On the one hand, there is discipline, persistence and rigour but combined with flexibility and responsiveness and ability to question and change tack. It’s very rare for an organisation to proceed with what was originally envisaged in the plan. The most common reason why ambitious innovations don’t succeed is because people lose heart and give up too early. Don’t just view the programme as grinding through the plan, keep asking whether it’s the right plan and distinguish between what’s the problem with an idea and what’s the problem with an execution of an idea. Those can sometimes get very muddled.

Have KPIs against which you can get a sense of success or not and move away from generic KPIs. People often look at sales or value but these are unhelpful lagging indicators. You need to look at leading indicators around customer velocity, the speed at which you can do the next ‘test and learn’ cycle and improve, to do with your own learning processes – those are actually more important than customer outcomes in the early stages.

5. What’s your piece of advice on managing organisational change?

Underestimate the challenge at your peril. It’s really hard to do well and it’s really hard to make it stick. Think hard about the design of the change process itself before you ‘rush to action’. Think about it from three perspectives:

1) Project management perspective

Checklists, milestones, GANTT charts… You’ve got to have that, it’s really important.

2) Diplomatic perspective

Look at it from the point of view of stakeholders and influencers. Ignore the organisational chart, work out who the real influencers are. They are rarely those that sit around the leadership table. Success or failure will be contingent upon senior management (but not the board layer) and whether they actively embrace what you’re trying to do or not.

3) Marketing perspective

I hesitate to use the word ‘marketing’ because actually, you need to start with listening. You need to start by asking ‘What’s in it for you, what’s your motivation, how do you think we can help this to happen in your neck of the woods’. So the exact opposite of a normal, cascade change process. Again, I hate the word ‘cascade’, which makes it sound like it’s a sort of a gravitational inevitability, as the champagne spills over a tower of glasses.

The reality is that most people are fearful of change, they don’t know what is meant by it and unless you give them the opportunity to explore and define it in their own terms and give it the support to make it happen, then it probably won’t.

My observation is that most organisations, by their very nature, will default to one of those three approaches but will never look at all three in a measurable way.

  • Technology and B2B firms will major on project management and neglect diplomacy and comms.
  • Media communications firms will do lovely brochures and great roadshows and events but neglect the rest.
  • Public sector organisations are fantastic at stakeholder management but will largely forget about communications or project management.

6. How does the partnership with Wazoku add value to your customers?

Our business is around shaping strategy, developing big new innovative ideas, helping those happen at scale and happen fast – and it’s not easy. There are two areas where the partnership can add more value:

1) In the formulation of new thinking and generation of new ideas thorough enabling people to collaborate across borders, functions and levels in a way they’ve not really been able to do before, so that we get more ideas, better ideas and more owned ideas being developed and shaped.

2) The second area is the whole piece around change acceleration, making stuff happen, going from strategic and innovation theory into practice through a platform that’s about more than just communication – also about engagement, learning and reinforcement, about powering up bigger teams across borders and functions in a way that most organisations we have encountered are ill-equipped to do. What Wazoku does is provide the tool, the enabler to help us do what we do in a much more impactful, far-reaching and sustainable way.

Bonus question:

Will the 9-5 type of work change in the near future?

There are people who want and need this structure because of what’s happening in their lives. Wouldn’t it be hellish if everybody was working everywhere and supposed to be available any time in any way? That’s not human.

About April and Tim Westall

Tim Westall is the Co-Founder of April Strategy, an independent and successful management consultancy, working with leading organisations across the UK, USA, Europe, Australasia, China, and SE Asia.

April specialises in proposition and strategy development for impactful business solutions in culture change, organisation development and sustainable growth. Their clients are in the Automotive, Financial Services, CPG, and Healthcare sectors.