'Innovation' is probably amongst the most cliched words in today's world of 'disruptive' change fueled by 'digital' technologies. That sentence just packed in three such overused words together in one sentence. The problem with such a liberal use of terminologies is the broad interpretation makes it difficult to define an innovation agenda with specific objectives and actionable goals. Moreover, innovation is popularly associated with breakthrough ideas that disrupt the business model and bring about radical change. Such a perception sets a very high barrier in the minds of the innovators themselves.
When seen in the context of a company that provides technology services to its customers, employees need to clearly understand what is expected from them when the ask is to "Go forth and innovate." Enter Pragmatic Innovation (PI), arguably an oxymoron, but that is another debate by itself. One can think of PI, simply as executable ideas that have immediate relevance to a customer and in-line with the business goals of the 'innovating' organization. The factors that significantly contribute to such a result-oriented view are the 3Cs – Customer, Culture and Competence.
Customer – Heart of innovation
Solution providers, over time, develop a deep understanding of the customers' business, insights, and information not just about the customer but also the end-users. A solution provider is in a unique position because this perspective, combined with an understanding of technology, gives rise to opportunities for innovation. Engaging with customers throughout the process, right from ideation to the final stage of implementation, is not only important but also critical for success. Adopting a design thinking approach is a great way to empathize with customers (and end-users) and proactively suggest innovative ideas that are executable at a reasonable cost. Innovations that improve existing Product/ Service/ Process are a much larger pool of opportunity; easier to implement, and with a high rate of successful adoption.
Nurture a Culture
Most people feel safer staying within the boundaries of what has been explicitly asked of them. To break out of this mindset, employees must also feel safe thinking outside the self-imposed box. Making sure that employees have a certain amount of time, or a specific set of employees are mandated to innovate is only a theoretical response to the need. What matters, instead, is an environment where every employee is inspired to think innovatively.
If your organization measures people on their ability to avoid failure, it's most likely crippling the ability to innovate. A culture that replaces the fear of failure with the joy of experimental learning stimulates innovative thinking. Events such as hackathons and technology exhibitions are vital as they do provide an outlet for ideas to be demonstrated and get feedback. Moreover, when participants with diverse backgrounds leverage their insights, tools, and technologies to help your customers win, the roots of innovation begin to grow in your organization as well.
Competence - A Building block
Competence from an individual perspective is the skills and knowledge required to innovate. Equipping employees across the board with training on a methodology such as design thinking and enabling them with skills to rapidly prototype their ideas is akin to providing the tools to do the job. Design thinking, with its emphasis on human-centricity, has another key advantage. The focus is firmly on the end-customer, shifted from a product or technology-centric view to user experience.
Competence for an organization lies in the depth and its nuanced approach to the innovation management process. Innovation gets its oxygen when silos are removed. Ideas can attract mentors and support from diverse parts of the organization and receive sponsorship from different departments, along with the attention of management. Products/ platforms that manage innovation sometimes across and beyond organizational boundaries are becoming popular and provide a structure to a managed but open innovation culture.
Innovation is not just a differentiator but also an imperative for businesses in today's competitive scenario. It is, therefore, not surprising that customers expect their solution providers to transform into innovation partners and adapt to the demands made by their end-customers. Technology solution providers that respond with agility, relevance backed by depth in knowledge of emerging technologies, and their customers business will become increasingly valuable partners in the process. This needs a holistic approach that considers all the above. The times are changing, and so must we.