Eat, sleep, innovate, repeat

So, your business has delivered an incredible innovation project. You may have even won an award for it, and your customers might be raving about it. But does that make you an innovative company? We would argue, not quite! Genuine innovation needs to exist within the fabric of your organisation. It’s an ever-present, continuous feedback loop. It’s not a bolt on or a one-trick wonder. Here’s why.

A matter of survival

Innovation is increasingly becoming a matter of business survival. We live in a customer-focused, experience economy, so you need to be innovating faster than your competitors. As consumers, we’re all demanding a more personalised, connected, and seamless customer experience. We want value, convenience, ethical integrity, and to know that businesses are doing things in a purpose-driven way. To deliver these things time and again, you need to build a culture of innovation inside your company.

Up until now, most companies have been doing this work using ‘innovation labs’. They sound cool and have a futuristic, scientific air. They usually consist of a supercharged group of people, specifically with the remit to think of new ideas, solutions, and products. In general, they also provide a safe space to run experiments and iterate ideas. Employees within the core business provide intelligence and feedback to the lab, but the tensions lies in the reality that there’s often very little collaboration. It’s a one-way flow of information, with a specific output. The challenge is that this trend of innovation labs hasn’t returned the innovation investment that it promised. In fact, according to a report from Capgemini, up to 90% fail to deliver on that promise. Why? Principally because of a lack of alignment with the core business.

This is one way of achieving innovation but it’s limited, expensive and not sustainable. To have a genuine impact, organisations need to do the hard work and reshape their culture to go beyond the status quo. It takes time, thought and effort, but innovation depends on the ‘…willingness of organisations to disrupt themselves’ (Systems Theory of Management,” in The Business Professor, updated April 2, 2020, last accessed November 25, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/lesson/systems-theory-of-management/.

The World Economic Forum also believes that, ‘empowering people is the key to achieving profound and lasting…transformation that provides sustainable growth and inclusion.’

So, instead of ‘buying in’ short-term innovation, why not disrupt your organisation and supercharge all the people in your company- make it part of the culture!

Systems thinking

Let’s start big. According to this management theory, a business is an open system that’s made up of interrelated and inter-dependent parts. Those parts interact as sub-systems that influence each other.

Your ‘system’ (that is, your business) is directly affected by external forces: customers, supply chain, regulatory changes…(pandemics). Now, what’s going on within those smaller sub-systems? They have their own internal characteristics, which we could interpret as culture: processes, decisions, leadership, structures, motivations, psychological safety, inclusion – and much more.
We need all these elements aligned and integrated to deliver innovation. This is also when your business is within touching distance of that holy grail: synergy.

Your innovation toolkit

Your innovation journey should always start with your people and culture. Set your innovation strategy. Equip everyone with the mindset and tools that will enable each sub-system to contribute to innovation and strive towards the same purpose. Your people need to know the ‘where, why and how’ before they set off. Get everyone (not just managers) behind the narrative, make it coherent, and allow them to see where they fit into the equation.

For innovation that is repeatable and sustainable, you’ll need:


Flexibility and adaptability:
the agility and ability to execute better, faster and to change direction in the face of uncertain, complex and changing markets. What expertise, skills and capabilities do you need to achieve this? Going back to our systems theory, if you give your smaller sub-systems greater autonomy to arrive at solutions themselves, they can respond more quickly. This is great for your customer experience, and your employee experience. Your people will feel engaged, capable, and empowered – all of which are fantastic when you want to offer up fresh solutions that will drive your business forward.

Collaboration is key: an innovation-led culture is characterised by cross collaboration between teams, leaders, and employees. Drawing on ideas from multiple sources means that teams are creative and you can deliver future-proof solutions. Leverage your ecosystem: use your networks, customers, even your competitors, to observe and predict the direction of travel. If you can see what’s coming up ahead, you can get in front of it and solve the issue before it’s occurred. Or, at the very least, you can change your trajectory so you stay aligned.

Gather intelligence, not just data: gather the right data and insights on your customers, consumer trends, the market and your competitors. Leverage this intelligence to anticipate change, scan the horizon, and create opportunities, shape markets, change the game and lead – not follow. Nothing is permanent and as this year has proven, we cannot predict everything. But if your teams are switched on and armed with the right information, you stand a good chance of riding the waves. Using intelligence also allows your organisation to explore strategies for the future (much further forward than traditional strategy development would allow). Therefore, you can build a picture of where you want to go and reverse engineer the journey that will get you there.

Next Generation Leadership: for innovation to be more than just a one-off, businesses need to focus on developing leaders who can inspire a shared vision and enlist others to contribute towards achieving this. Leaders who can authentically model the required values and behaviours will create an environment of continuous learning, improvement, experimentation, exploration, inclusion and psychological safety, as well as critical and creative thinking.

In short, companies who have the ability to innovate continuously, are those with a culture of innovation that’s embedded across and within all their sub-systems. They eat, sleep and breathe innovation. They are people-focused and customer-centric. Swap the quick-fix innovation ‘band-aid’ for longevity.

Build your innovation system. You won’t regret it and the rewards can be phenomenal.