Thinking innovation

Thinking innovation
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Senior management at companies large and small pay lip-service to innovation, but in my experience a genuine commitment to innovation is still hard to identify – and the individuals with the truly innovative ideas have to secure the support of their senior management to progress those ideas.

How do you make it happen? Some companies are now using crowd-sourcing techniques internally to draw on the knowledge and innovatory capabilities of their own teams. German car giant Volkswagen created an Information Market, using Nosco software, for an internal project to “pool the wisdom of the crowd through a virtual stock exchange”. Caroline Rudzinski of Volkswagen’s Future Affairs Research Group explains how “the wisdom of the crowd increases the variety of options. Knowledge is made transparent across departments. People start to learn a new culture.”

US consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble is a big believer in looking outside for new ideas. Back in January, it announced a new initiative in its ongoing strategy to use partnerships to develop innovative new ideas. It’s linking up with CircleUp, a Silicon Valley-based crowd-funding specialist to look for potential investments in innovative businesses and ideas in the food and personal care products sectors. CircleUp, which already partners with General Mills, vets startup consumer goods businesses and encourages online investors to invest in companies whose products they like. Launched in April 2012, it has crowdfunded eight consumer goods companies, mostly in the food sector. Procter & Gamble is holding its first incubator day this spring in San Francisco – what a great opportunity!

External crowd-sourcing isn’t as easy as it sounds. German electrical engineering giant Siemens created a Smart Grid Innovation Contest back in 2011, but the company had to take some calculated risks. As Michael Heiss, the principal at Siemens responsible for open innovation networks, told me: “Everything was available to everyone – even our competitors.” A second phase of the contest, involving confidential submissions from universities, was more successful. One experienced member of the Siemens team was impressed by the calibre of response: “I thought I knew the best universities but obviously I didn’t.”

Broad thinking across departments and categories can produce exciting innovation – a philosophy summed up by the Stylus.com approach to creative thinking. At Stylus, we work with major global players to unlock the innovative skill sets within their businesses, partly through our website that is full of inspirational ideas and partly through direct interaction with the companies themselves.

In this age of design, we know that outstanding design ensures brand differentiation, customer loyalty and bigger profits. The challenge is to develop designs that are fresh, relevant and enduring. The overall design language or design vocabulary ensures consistency of message.

David Kelley, founder of design firm Ideo, and Tim Brown, CEO, argue in favour of collaborative, participatory “design thinking”. They argue we need to think bigger about design – focusing less on the product or object and more on the big picture. “In these times of change, our existing solutions are becoming obsolete,” says Brown. “Design thinking encourages us to take a divergent approach and explore new solutions.”

Kelley founded the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the d.school, at Stanford in 2005. It’s been described by Fortune as “a multi-disciplinary mashup of design thinking principles, real-world projects, and collaboration.” At Stylus, we love these kind of places.

Collaboration has become a core theme for designers in recent years, with the skill sets required to create increasingly complex products necessitating input from many different channels.

Consumers can also input into this approach, becoming co-creators in the process. Creativity has been democratised. Amateur writers, photographers, filmmakers and artists can now share their work digitally and have it validated by a vast audience. This is having a dramatic impact on marketing. Today, brands can collaborate with these creative consumers, turning communication into co-creation.

Most of us would like to be considered ‘creative’. The digital era has disrupted the traditional view of the creative classes – which were arguably once harder to join than the ranks of the super-wealthy.

With advances in the technology and digital worlds, everyone now has the potential to express themselves in new, creative ways. The marketing world is leveraging this phenomenon with some success. Brands are using consumers’ urge to create in order to build closer relationships with them, entertain them and source ideas. The consumer demands this new, richer level of engagement.

In the tough marketplace of the second decade of the 21st century, true innovation is harder than ever. But the new technological tools offer rich opportunities to those who can work out how best to utilise them. In my view, the key to true innovation is about staying ever-restless, always looking for new ways of doing things. Innovation never stops still.

Marc Worth is a keynote speaker at the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival’s Business Seminar on Thursday, March 21. Visit the event website for more information.

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