VIew: Keeping innovation alive at big corps

David Preston, The Crow Flies


This article was first published by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and is re-published with kind permission of CIM. Find more CIM articles here

At big companies, where people often work in silos and are encouraged to stick with established practices, marketers need to use practical techniques to encourage creative disruption.

In large organisations today, it is typical to hear innovation being proclaimed as a saviour, critical to business success. The rewards of innovation are stressed and the risks downplayed.

The difficulties of innovation are always underestimated and often misunderstood – and some of these difficulties are cast into sharper relief in bigger businesses. Despite this, there are some simple ways that you can cut through and make a difference.

Focus on the big levers

With innovation you are likely to be creating something totally new, without form or shape. Despite this, there’s rarely an innovation team that gets to endlessly ponder on possibilities. Shareholders and your board want results and want them fast. Focus on creating early momentum. It may seem counter to disruptive thinking but the place to start is the core of your business today.

What are the big levers? What drives your economic engine? It may be one brand, one channel, one consumer segment or one particular pack. What is the challenge that ‘lever’ faces and how can innovation help solve it? A 0.5% increase in volume or profit doesn’t sound dramatic but put that growth onto a declining big brand and suddenly people pay more interest.

Find problems to solve

There’s a whole mythology around finding insights for innovation; digging deeper; persistently asking ‘why?’; finding beliefs, values, truths; identifying ever more specific unmet needs. This has a role – just don’t start there.

Start by finding the simple ‘problems to solve’ for your customer. These may seem prosaic; ease of handling or storage; portion size; bold communication of the benefit; portability; resealability. But solve them and you’ll be surprised at your success.

Brainyseason not a brainstorm

‘Game changing’ innovation isn’t ‘light bulb moments’ created to order. Idea generation isn’t like a passing storm – all ferocious energy and then gone. It is a longer process where ideas are generated, pulled apart and rebuilt, where hunches are made public and tested.

It sounds messy; it is. Innovation needs to live and breathe constantly. Create a dedicated space, give over one section to your insights and observations, another to thoughts and hunches, and a third to ideas that you and the team have developed.

Make it public. Provide pens and paper so anyone can make suggestions and then…work it. Capture everything and keep building. What you’re looking for is a living resource that you can call on at any time, where stronger ideas emerge gradually.

Get out the craft box and engage the senses

Big businesses act rationally, but innovation can’t be judged that way.

Does it look great? Would my friends be impressed? How will it make me feel? Open up the craft box, lift your ideas off the paper and get creative. It doesn’t matter how Heath Robinson your effort is. When those around you start touching and feeling an idea rather than merely thinking about it, something different happens.

We imagine how we would use it. We wonder whether the kids would get messy with it. We try to make it fit in the glove compartment. You’ll never look at paper tubes, tin foil and glue in the same way again.

The City doesn’t like surprises. If it’s bad news, your share price suffers, if it’s good news, they think you’re sandbagging your performance. It’s the same with innovation. Work hard on communicating and letting the team own the ideas.

Think hard about setting expectations throughout your innovation process: nothing can kill an idea quicker than an unenthusiastic shrug and nothing can wreck implementation faster that an excited board pushing something that needs development time into market too fast.

David Preston is the founder of The Crow Flies.  Read more about the company here.