The ability to innovate is the greatest differentiator in business today. There are many different ways a company can innovate, whether that’s developing new products, uncovering more efficient market channels, optimizing cost or acquiring new customers. But one thing remains consistent: it is the main force that defines whether a company can pivot and sustain what investors expect.
The pandemic has made innovation more important than ever before. According to a McKinsey Global Survey, as a result of the pandemic, consumers have moved dramatically toward online channels, and companies and industries have responded in turn. For example, I’ve seen retailers explore the shift to e-commerce, healthcare companies to telehealth, and financial services companies to online banking.
In fact, more than half of the executives surveyed by McKinsey in 2020, see digital transformation as a competitive advantage or are refocusing their entire business around digital technologies.
The key to successful innovation, though, is the pace at which it happens. Businesses need to make thorough and definitive decisions quickly, while simultaneously achieving buy-in from all stakeholders. This is where collaboration plays an important role.
Innovative thinking and collaboration is less a philosophy and more of a science. In my role as a member of the Office of the CTO at Google, I work with a team of technologists and industry experts with a mission to “collaboratively innovate” with our customers. We’ve helped businesses solve their most challenging and ambiguous problems through the lens of technology. We’ve helped an insurance company go completely paperless in less than 18 months and helped a consumer packaged goods company redefine how to deal with plastics in their supply chain. It is always a combination of engaging the people, enhancing the processes and accelerating both through the value of technology.
“Heptagon Thinking” is a seven step system that my team developed to guide collaboration with our customers, which helps them make major changes that disrupt industries. We find it particularly valuable because anyone at any level of the organization can use this method and can be applied anywhere people need to come together to solve a problem or move an effort forward. The change won’t be instant, it takes effort, communication and commitment, but it will ultimately provide the capacity to innovate faster and drive better success. Supreme to all these steps is the willingness to make failure acceptable. Sometimes things don’t work, especially when pushing the boundaries. Accept that and move on, but don’t stop innovating. This will encourage your team to create and execute – and feel safe while doing so.
Provide a platform to empower people as equals in addressing innovation. The best innovation often comes from within an organization, sparked by comments like “why do we do that?” or “I wish…” and the cherished “well that was a waste of time.”
Improved listening leads to better understanding of ideas. A focus on listening also allows a leader to better guide and identify spaces to focus on. Your team knows you and your company the best, give them space to be heard and ask questions.
Be super clear about “why” we do what we do as a company or innovation. For example, “Why are we doing this?,” or “Why will customers care?” and “Why do we exist?” Focus on finding the why. It will be hard to define, but when you do, the rest becomes so much easier.
Friction. It’s not always about being first, or even developing the next great piece of technology. The best innovation comes from removing friction that benefits the user. It’s often that companies are still dealing with the preconceived notions of the past. For example, I frequently hear, “We don’t do things like that here” or “We’ve always done it this way.” Removing the friction is the first step to disruption. Removing bias provides the bandwidth for people and resources to focus on changing things for the future.
What are you famous for? That’s where innovation will continue to have its greatest impact for an organization. Make it a headline and ever present, “What are we famous for?” Focus on specifics and make it something simple. Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin always said, “Any conversation I have about innovation starts with the ultimate goal.”
It’s important to build in time and space for stakeholders to think and reflect, or even cool down for a period. For example, I often go for long walks when I need to make important decisions. It’s the uninterrupted space that allows me to reflect. And, when you have a team with diverse perspectives, it is often the space that allows for the best discussions and creativity. Create space!
It is imperative you move quickly in all aspects of innovation, even early ideas should be shared to provide the ability for people to contribute. Do not wait for the perfect written report; sharing early helps you learn faster. Failure is OK as you push the boundaries of innovation because not every innovation will work. This is called “fail fast” in technology but I prefer an approach akin to experiment and learning, leading to a positive impact. Even something that fails fast is a great benefit to learning and continual innovation.
John Abel is technical director in the office of the CTO at Google Cloud, whose mission is to “collaboratively innovate” with customers, fostering long term relationships to guide customers’ digital transformation goals and ultimately disrupt their industries.