Innovative disruption

What's the point of having a great idea, if you don't do anything with it? 

It's fun to shoot the breeze, to brainstorm or to pontificate about what could be, but personally, I just love it when I see a great idea turn into action.

We often hear people say "I wish I'd thought of that first" but wouldn't it be more realistic to say "I wish I'd tried that first"?

I genuinely believe that we live in a world where organisations need to innovate in order to grow and survive. A world where competition isn't necessarily about who can do it the cheapest or the fastest, but more about who is doing it differently, or who is doing it better. To stay ahead of your competition means being able to constantly innovate new ideas, new ways of working and new approaches. And yet, how many companies really know how to encourage and incubate innovation?

One of the first organisations I worked for had a fantastic reputation for delivering powerful people development programmes. I felt so lucky when I secured a temporary job with them and yet once I got on the inside I started to get really frustrated. Every suggestion I made for what I saw could be an improvement and every new idea that I came up with was met with a "that wouldn't work here" or  "we've already tried that". Maybe it was unrealistic of me to expect to influence things as a newcomer, but often a fresh set of eyes can see possibilities where others can't. I - and other "newbies" around me - could clearly see where things were going wrong and yet being at the bottom of the pecking order, it was virtually impossible to make any kind of change happen. I enjoyed working there, but after a short while I became so frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm for any kind of innovation, that I decided to leave. Soon afterwards, the organisation came very close to going under and it was only after reducing its size by over 50% and changing its approach, business model and market that it was able to re-invent itself and survive.

Innovation causes disruption! It challenges the status quo, throws processes and systems out of balance and turns established understanding on its head. It's often the middle manager population in an organisation who find themselves most threatened by innovation. It's usually in their interests to preserve familiar ways of doing things, preferring evolution over revolution and by so doing they can inadvertently, or even purposely squash all attempts to innovate. This impermeable layer can be found at different levels in many organisations, effectively resisting change and halting any attempts to introduce new ideas. 

One of the techniques I use to overcome this inertia is to meet every person who is new to the organisation and ask them to keep a notebook during their first three or six months. Writing down everything they see that is great, ideas they have about how they could improve or change things and everything they come across that isn't right or isn't working. By encouraging them to keep notes on what's happening it preserves those fresh observations until we can meet up again in six months' time and start to influence positive change. This means that even after they have been indoctrinated by "the way we do things around here" they can step back and review their initial impressions in the light of experience. We can identify what they think should be improved and what practices are getting in the way of innovation or doing things differently and then take action. 

As a result, we always have a plethora of new innovations being trialled, experimented with, tested out and reviewed. It may be a new session, a social media application, a new process, product or service. Inevitably, only a small number of these innovations make it through to fruition and, ultimately, their success is down to being adopted and promoted by other people in the organisation and by our clients. We don't count the failures, we focus on the successes.

"If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we have always got". That was one of Henry Ford's quotes. He was the one who said that if he had listened to what his customers wanted, he would have created a faster horse!

For organisations to truly embrace change and innovation, there needs to be a culture in place that encourages a degree of risk taking, experimentation and a healthy attitude to failure. There are huge, life-changing, profit-making innovations lying just beneath the surface of most organisations. We have to learn how to listen, to support and to create cultures where it's OK to have ideas and it's OK to try them out. If not, how can we ever hope that anything will be different?

At Impact we have always been passionate about creating sustainable enterprise, building organisations that are worth working for. Organisations where making a profit is only one function of an organisation that is also prioritising how it inspires and develops the people who are a part of it, how it enhances the community it operates within and how it can benefit our environment by reducing waste and creating restorative practices. 

We drew inspiration from many of the pioneers in this space: Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, Ray Anderson of Interface and Marks and Spencer's plan A.

The more time we spent working with organisations on their journey towards sustainable enterprise, the more we realised how much of their success relies on innovation. 

We created a facilitated experience that draws together employees, customers, other stakeholders and critical friends (not for profits and/or issue-based lobby groups).

As part of the process we ran an innovation session, based on Albert Einstein's quote "Insanity - doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

After a few ice breakers to get people's innovation juices flowing - we would give an everyday object to a small group of people who represent the mix in the room. We ask them to think about a more sustainable way of using it. It might be a mobile phone, a coat hanger or a flight ticket. As they are warming to the topic, we then ask them to think about a new, more sustainable way of running the business that is represented by this object. It's amazing what comes out of this simple exercise, from new product or service ideas, through new business processes to totally new business ideas in their own right. Many of these innovations are taken up and implemented in house, saving money, creating new lines of revenue and in some cases actually improving the lives of the recipients. (An insurance policy that was created during one of these sessions has been adopted and is now enabling farmers in the Delta region of India to climb out of poverty by surviving a poor harvest).

One innovation that I heard once, that really impressed me, concerned a famous chain of coffee shops. We gave the group a branded coffee cup to consider how the product could be made in a more sustainable fashion. Obvious ideas were considered, such as sourcing sustainable coffee beans, manufacturing the cups from recycled paper, etc. But when we asked them to consider the business process behind it, there was what I think is an amazing revelation. "People don't just go into coffee shops to buy coffee. They go there to work, to meet, to chill out and look at the paper, to listen to music, to play games, to use the toilet and to spend time in the warm." 

It's as if the coffee shop is the new community centre, library, meeting place and work station all wrapped up in one place. 

So if that is the case then why not charge people to come in and provide the coffee and cakes for free!!!

Last week I came across a cafe on Old Street in Shoreditch, London, that does just that. You go in, help yourself to whatever you want to drink or eat, sit down, play numerous games, meet colleagues or just chill out over a newspaper and you pay by the minute. It's called "Ziferblat" which is Russian for clock face. You can check it out here or read the story.

Disruptive innovation in action!!!

When was the last time you got a bunch of your people together to look at innovations in your business?

We need to stop measuring our "Return on Investment" and start measuring our "Return on Innovation".