There are sticky myths surrounding innovation. Take success rate. Only 7 out of 10 launches work. Or is it 80%? 50%? Brand extensions. They always weaken a brand, right? Wrong?
Ultimately what is generally agreed is that innovation is for poker players. There are high rewards possible and they only come with high risks. But you will certainly earn nothing if you don’t put any chips down. Honestly, I don’t know whether 1 in 7 launches work or 3 in 17. What matters is understanding what we can do to increase our chances of success.
Over the past two years, our business has been taking developing a fresh perspective on this very question, looking at our own client practice, published case studies and primary research with innovation practitioners. Interestingly, before we even consider where to innovate or on what there are two foundations – cornerstones that determine the success of everything else that innovative businesses attempt.
The first is cultural. What innovation will the business permit? This seems an odd question but we’ve found a clear gap between what is said and what is done. Innovation enjoys its fair share of grand pronouncements (‘We will reinvent the future of our category’, ‘Innovation will become our DNA’), but what really matters is what gets approved when the rubber hits the road. Many publicly listed companies need to innovate for the long-term, for example, fundamentally changing the way they work, or strengthening their core brands. These are not overnight tasks by any means, but they struggle to do so in an environment where shareholders and analysts are breathing down their necks for instant success. The Board transmit this short-termism through the business whether they realise it or not. It’s not to say that businesses such as these can’t innovate, nor that the innovation can be successful – it’s just that the strike rate of success will likely be low and potentially the really thorny, knotty challenges won’t be faced up to. Innovation therefore must strike the balance between long and short-term needs.
The second foundation is direction. If the company’s purpose and it’s values don’t allow for, or perhaps it’s better to say, inspire innovative ideas, innovative behaviour and allow for the diversity of thought, style and personality involved to be innovative, then the chances of success reduce again. The tell tale signs are whether innovation naturally flows out of the company’s purpose – not the vision, nor the goals, but the purpose – that ‘why we get out of bed in the morning’ sense of being that high performing businesses work off. If innovation is just a ‘tool’ for delivering a gap in the plan – beware.
And it’s easy to write about these foundations, much harder to put them in place. They are fundamental though – and by definition therefore they are big beasts to wrestle to the ground. But wrestle them you must.
Only then, it is possible to start innovating. And where to start?
What our research has shown is that – somewhat counter intuitively – the place to start is the core of your business. Oh, I’ll grant you, it’s not a sexy as doing crazy new stuff but here’s the thing – innovation is about balancing short and long-term. The core is more short-term and this has some advantages. What you do will be on an existing brand so the chances of creating some impact and momentum are higher. The core is 80% of what you do: your staff will therefore understand why you are doing it more and feel the need. And critically, it buys you time and space to work on the ‘other stuff’. But it doesn’t mean do anything to the core. The question should be, ‘how can I make the core of my business feel contemporary, cared about and vibrant?’ This means investigating your target consumers’ unmet needs in-depth; it means drilling into adjacent product territories or areas your competitors are naturally strong and most critically it means dramatising the existing brand positioning through your innovation effort. A brand that does this superbly is Coors Light – a top 5 beer brand worldwide. Everything it does communicates the global positioning of cold Rocky Mountain refreshment. In every market where the brand is on sale, you’ll see innovation (and brand activity) bringing to life the coldness of the brand through innovations like temperature sensitive ink from the ‘Blue Train’ in the US to Damme Cold in the UK. And they do this relentlessly, year in year out. The most innovative idea? No. But an idea that impacts the core of their business.
Then businesses can focus on the really new – the 20% today which will be the 80% of tomorrow. Here the questions are about large segments we’re not in but could credibly compete, or transitional trends (trends that are becoming mainstream) – or even unlocking the potential in unloved assets by repurposing them …. as well as, of course, inventing. When we asked our clients and practitioners about innovation, it’s this effort that seems to define innovation overall (the crazy new stuff). Importantly though, the successful innovation companies also recognise that this takes less of the focus, effort and resource but is protected nonetheless.
The Crow Flies now offers one-day stimulus sessions on how businesses can increase their chances of innovation success, which build on the principles and findings here. It would be great to hear from you if you find yourself wrestling (or not wrestling) with some of the big issues at play.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. firstname.lastname@example.org; +44 (0) 1283 295100.
© The Crow Flies, 2016