Why We Need More Innovators, Now

Over the past eighteen months, through great political and economic change, we have all been affected by the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This revolution means that technology and accompanying innovation has enormous impact not only on our local and global economy, but also in every area of our life.

Innovations such as cloud computing, social media, mobile tech, data science and the Internet of Things are affecting us every day. There were literally thousands of robotic-aided operations conducted in the UK last year. Uber, and others, have created innovation centres to try and launch flying cars within three years. With today’s increasing pace of innovation, what once was explored only in books, television and movies is now becoming part of our world.

The impact is more than just increased innovation in technology. Organisations themselves are now under definitive pressures to change the way they operate – particularly as it relates to their own customer base. As innovation drives more personalised and entertaining experiences with brands, customer expectations of how a business should interact with them as a buyer are sky-rocketing. Recent research has shown conclusively that within the next three years nearly half of consumers – and more than half of business buyers – will actively switch brands if a company doesn’t properly anticipate their needs. As a result brands (and the companies behind those brands) need to keep innovating to stay one step ahead of these expectations.

This is a huge challenge and from first-hand experience I can tell you that many senior leaders and CEOs are actively trying to manage this new ‘innovation expectation.’ They realise they have to change – but sometimes, it’s harder to explain that innovation doesn’t necessarily mean having huge ‘splash’ ideas, or wacky creatives continually coming up with off-the-wall campaigns. Innovation for many of our biggest brands today will be about finding a new way of interacting more effectively – with customers, with stakeholders, with their supply chain, with their business processes.

And with the speed of business faster than ever, how can organisations – especially larger ones that have more layers of governance – foster innovation without losing sight of what makes the business actually work?

I believe the answer lies in collaboration, because innovation and collaboration are processes that feed off each other in a positive manner. Innovating takes the seeds of ideas and dynamically combines them with new concepts; by participating in driving those new concepts, collaboration takes off, creates new opportunities and options for those innovations – and realises the benefits of the innovation both internally and externally.

Here’s how it works in real life. At Salesforce we’ve deliberately cultivated a workplace and culture that supports collaboration, and focuses on expanding innovations as they become available. I can tell you now that great ideas don’t only come from senior leadership – they come from everyone in the organisation. Even our graduates have the opportunity to feed into our campaigns, our programmes and our processes. Everyone knows that they are welcome to speak up and our senior executives are able to act as cultivators who can embrace ideas and bring in the right people to help make those concepts reality. We do that in meetings, via Chatter (our enterprise social networking application used by all), hackathons, even employee challenges – and everyone takes pride in their role in driving Salesforce innovation forward.

Obviously, truly disruptive companies are all about creating new solutions to customer needs. Uber became popular because there was a definitive need for on-demand, quick and personalised transportation in several markets; AirBnB came up with an accommodation solution designed to help people match their needs with a marketplace of rental options. In both cases, it wasn’t about the product itself but rather about the customer for whom that product made a difference in their day-to-day lives. That’s why encouraging teams to focus in on identifying customer pain points and ways to address them is key to driving innovation that really “disrupts” the market and becomes a “must have” product or service.

Supporting the capture and promotion of ideas is an important step, but it’s only a first step. The time and effort required to turn these ideas into concrete results often requires funding. What’s more, in my experience, allocating resources to innovation also sends a strong message to employees that innovation matters.

Remember, there isn’t any guarantee of a return on investment in innovation – not every idea works. But failure is an important function as well, helping teams and people learn so that the next “try” can build on the positive. Companies can create ‘innovation labs’, either real or virtual, enabling ideas to be continually built out and tested to prove or disprove them, or create formal ’employee challenges.’ Either way, demonstrating that a company is willing to embrace new and different ideas helps foster that mindset across a company that change is good.

We’re at the beginning of a massive wave of tech-based innovation – and now is the time for every business to get on (their) board and ride it.

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