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Strategic Innovation - the misnomer!

Working in Digital Delivery and change programmes one question I’m constantly asked by clients is how they can deliver faster, better and cheaper. Naturally Im quick to say that innovation is often the answer. There is usually a ‘but’ that follows that statement - either from them or from me. “ But what of strategy? But what innovation can we do? But what should we focus on first? But what does that really mean?"

All very sensible ‘BUT’ questions. However, I prefer to try and focus on What?

What do you already have in place to enable and drive an environment that will support innovation? (technology, data, insight, ideas?)

What attitude to risk do you have?

What do your customers want?

What is your ultimate goal?

Innovation and strategy are often put together in the same context and are linked. The phrase "Strategic innovation" is something of a misnomer and misleading. They sit at opposite ends of the scale and oppose each’s core principles and this is the crux of the But! Its the natural conflict and tension between the two.

Businesses want to find ways to de-risk, consider their options, know their market position, forecasting, assess the range of options against outcomes, and build in contingencies. They look for approaches that provide models for certainty. Often large scale corporates, government departments, huge brands and their consulting partners will spend significant time on reviewing their strategy; raising discussion and focusing on what their perception is of opportunities for improved business results. They review the anti-strategy, understanding the white space of their competitor and/or what they are doing differently - outlining the other variables, aspects and focused choices that could be engaged and aren’t because they don’t fit with the vision of the business. (They represent the competitors standpoint). They languish over the benefits cases and the modes for delivery, frameworks and planning. Finance teams review costs, marketing assess paths to market, social media relevance and customer surveys, product teams interrogate materials, supply chain, Comms, HR, Finance…..the list goes on. No stone is left unturned. The business is pushed-pulled-squeezed, manipulated, tested, the markets are analysed, more models are run, procurement get involved, qualitative and quantitative, subjective and objective views are discussed. This all has its place, BUT it takes a long time and a lot of money…….. And still nothing is built or delivered, nothing is proven.

So when turning to the Innovators - they are the mavericks, the cowboys, the ones who tear up the rule books and test and learn, fail fast and try again, with minimal investment and user focused design techniques that drive delivery and results rather than the ideals the strategy tries to outline - they use efficacy to evidence their results. Things break often, ideas fail, customers feedback and new ideas surface. They get out an 'imperfect draft' and then build on it.

Innovation in its purest state is the doing and showing - the 'show not the tell'! Innovation is bred from fast moving, dynamic rapid prototyping, breaking stuff, testing ideas, iterating on them and then if successful, built out and delivered, usually at a lower overall cost and in much faster time to market. Its also based on failure, and catching it early, thus de-risking painful investment and yielding the ability to save potentially huge costs later if a delivery programme fails.

Working in agency land we often used to cite that 'show don’t tell' was a better approach to anything; from a presentation, pitch or delivering a product or solution - it held innovation at its heart. Big innovation stands and lives by this. Its not just a case of some bright spark stroking his beard and coming up with a brilliant idea; its an environment, its a state of mind, its a movement and action, attitude and a desire to test and learn and prove, not pontificate. Its getting ’S— done!

The core tension between strategy and innovation is that whilst strategy draws resource and skill upfront away from delivery and innovation, and provides the businesses degrees of certainty and comfort in their vision, it is too slow. Innovation is the catalyst - for those that engage. As an aside I would also highlight that innovation requires some cornerstones to be in place to be successful, when it eventually comes to rolling out a new product or service upon their current and/or legacy technology and systems, some of the old mechanisms will be there to support it and maintain it. Sometimes the innovation is the core technology!

Whilst big transformation programme are rolling in the background, the innovators can be driving out the ideas, running labs and hackathons, trialling softwares and looking to new avenues for the future, thus enabling greater chance of delivering something their customer tangibly wants and needs, in a timeframe that doesn’t put shivers down ones spine. Its not beholden to heavy governance, process and procurement. There is a way to have the one feed the other - the hand that feeds the mouth so to speak.

Businesses must be willing to break some rules on traditional approaches and take some risks. If they do, they will do it faster and leaner in the purse, to find out if what they are delivering is something that the customer finds valuable or not, that much faster.

In the current customer-centric environment, where customers demand more and expect greater output from the business, Corporates and brands that they interact with, they also look for not only greater choice but for it to be contextualised to their needs. They are moving way faster than technology, so spending a lot of time on strategy and planning and models can be wasted - by the time its delivered its already out of date. The customer has moved on.

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