Innovation is important – but it’s useless without strategy

By Brad Mallard, - Employee experienceFuture Workplace

It’s no secret: we’re living through times of disruption.

Rising customer expectations, the adaption of technology, the recent pandemic – all of these are factors in creating a market that’s more uncertain than ever before.

But ask any leader what the secret is to traversing the future, and they’ll likely answer with one word: innovation.

We all know innovation is important. We need to become faster, smarter and more flexible – and the only way to do that is to think outside-the-box.

The innovation argument has been won. So instead of trying to convince you to innovate, I’m going to probe the topic from a different perspective. Innovation is all well and good. But I put it to you that, without strategy, you’re not going to get very far at all.

Strategic innovation

Innovation is easy. Any employee, department or business can start doing things differently if they want to. The problem is, without a guiding set of parameters, that innovation will likely fall flat on its face.

Meaningful innovation means not doing things differently for the sake of it. It means giving people direction and purpose; setting down those parameters and providing the framework within which people can be creative.

And that’s where strategy comes in. Some people think strategy stifles innovation, but that’s not the case. Instead, it merely channels it: focusing creativity into the areas that need it, and ensuring every great idea is aligned with the objectives of the businesses.

It’s a tricky balance. If you’re too strategic, then spontaneous ideas and lateral thinking are muted. But if innovation goes unchecked, ideas won’t land – or worse, they won’t even be considered by the wider company.

That’s the other thing about innovation. It requires buy-in – not just to secure budget, but to ensure everyone across the whole business is engaged. If an ideas falls outside of a company’s strategic vision, it’s very unlikely to get off the ground.

The only way to get around this is to first demonstrate why the idea will be effective or to work for a company that is comfortable in investing in the occasional moonshot idea – which, in this understandably risk-averse age, may not be easy to find.

Systemised innovation

I think one of the most effective things businesses can do is set up processes to capture and sculpt the untapped innovation that’s within their workforce.

Innovation isn’t exclusively top-down or bottom-up. Everyone within the workforce has something to bring to the table, so the focus really needs to be on empowering people to be creative.

A big mistake I see businesses make is to set up ‘innovation teams’. I say, scrap that. Never silo creativity. Instead, create processes that ensure you’re receptive to everyone – regardless of seniority, job role or background.

This is something Fujitsu really does well. We scout for ideas across our entire ecosystem – particularly with regards to how we can help governments tackle COVID-19. We then conduct a daily triage to assess which ideas are most likely to be a success, and pour resources into the projects that we think can really scale.

We also invest in plenty of moonshot ideas.  Naturally, not many of these are effective – perhaps only 1 in every 20. But that’s sort of the point. By factoring in the risks, we can spread our seeds widely, and double down on nurturing those that sprout shoots.

This should be part of your strategy too. Grow comfortable with failure – and build it into your business plan. Some projects work, and some don’t. As long as you carry on generating ideas – and you have the tools to hone them into something special – you’ll find that your business will innovate with the best of them.

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