Innovation Officers with a range of tools to help managers at the coal-face in delivering innovations

Corporate have tended to look for their innovations more to acquisitions of early-stage businesses than to internal developments, perhaps because of the difficulty of the latter; but Innovation Officers are evidently developing their tool boxes and shifting their targets to achieve greater success.
Evidence has for some time been indicating that Innovation is the top objective for organisations and their CEOs, but what they are doing about it is less evident. Appointing an Innovation Officer is one such response, so it was interesting for me to be a fly on the wall at a recent conference of Chief Innovation Officers (run, rather surprisingly, in a deeply old-fashioned style!)
Such people often faced the impossible option of either attempting to change the entire culture of the organisation – a vital but entirely impossible job without the total commitment of the CEO, or of diverting funds towards developing new products, a task likely to be killed by the existing divisional Barons. So it was a dead-end job.
Many of the conference presentations demonstrated a range of other roles – including the support of those Barons in terms of their own objectives – helping them to achieve outcomes that would deliver their bonuses. One of them: delivering a process that would elicit new ideas; another the use of an online facility to aggregate questions and knowledge on current issues; another the bringing together of groups of people (from both inside and outside the organisation) to identify and wrestle with issues and deliver solutions; and another to help the Barons to enhance their existing services, especially with new perceptions, new ideas, new skills and new kinds of support.
Yet another was that of Tesco Lab’s dozen or so members, with their 6-week projects. It has a number of strings to its bow, including new products, product design and development, open innovation, hackathons and supplier workshops, and even culture change. It relies on delivering new products that would clearly benefit the entire business, like a mobile app that enabled all staff to interrogate stock levels, locations, delivery expectations etc; and another (fascinating) gadget – a pair of google specs with which the wearer could read the barcodes of items running short, and re-order them for subsequent delivery.
One outstanding address was that of Lee Burton, Director of Innovation at Stanford’s School of Engineering, who presented a comparison of the culture of Silicon Valley with that of European businesses, highlighting the latter’s key ‘missing catalysts’. While Europe’s economies are supported on science-based cultures, Silicon Valley’s is an innovation-based culture – and in its economy ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast!’ Comments from the floor countered that Europe has to develop its own particular approach to innovation culture. Speakers suggested that innovation units were busily growing, and Lee Burton reflected on the time it takes (maybe three years) for units like Tesco Lab to move from ‘push to pull’ – from pushing their ideas into the organisation to the organisation seeking to pull out ideas from the unit.
A small number of corporates have tasted the concept of the Accelerator (short, intensive programmes designed to help a small number of teams with fulsome support to develop their ideas for a new business into marketable propositions), but only Telefonica has done so wholeheartedly, establishing its own Accelerators in around a dozen countries – apparently with success in terms of new products for itself.
However, there has been a feeling that such Accelerators (as those of Johnson & Johnson, Banco Sabadell, Barclays, John Lewis et al) will be less attractive to startups because if their venture does not receive further funding from the corporate, the sponsor’s subsequent support will be indifferent, whereas the likes of Techstars Europe and Startupbootcamp rely on their reputations for launching as many new businesses as possible from each cohort of startups.
Accelerators supported by clusters such as Fintech Lab London for the banking industry have been more attractive – to SMEs from all over the world, but while the Fintech world is beset with rapid change (not least from Apple), in this field before they are adopted new products require a great deal of testing – not least for reliability and security, and across the entire organisation.

John Whatmore
October 2014

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