Innovation is easy to get excited about: It’s essential for any company to grow, and it’s a buzzword that just won’t go away.
When you’re limited to your office, only exposed to your team’s thoughts, ideas, and challenges, it might feel like your solutions are innovative. But sometimes, as soon as you leave your office and step foot in a place like an industry conference, you’re exposed to all kinds of trends that you didn’t even know you should be paying attention to.
I encourage my team members to attend events like these, featuring different creatives and innovators, to challenge their ways of thinking. One of these beneficial events my team recently attended was the Maritz Innovation By Design Summit in September.
The IxDS brought together a community of innovators to discuss topics like the Internet of Things, recruiting, social good, mobility, and corporate culture and to inspire those innovators to drive their companies in new directions.
Emcee John Launius, the executive director at Vidzu Media, encouraged attendees to not just react to the speakers and presentations, but to focus on their own “way of being” while they took in these new ideas — which in itself is a pretty innovative way to attend a conference.
I asked one of my team members to take notes so I could share the insights that stood out to him. Check out these six lessons on the future of innovation:
1. Don’t get so distracted by new technologies that you lose sight of the bigger picture.
Bringing in new technology just for the sake of new tech or jumping the gun on the latest cool idea isn’t a solid strategy. Aaron Ferber, director at IDEO, said your audience and the needs of your market should drive your company. The new tech or processes you bring into the mix have to fit into your company’s bigger picture: its ability to best meet those market needs. No leaders should be willing to put their companies at risk just because they are so stuck on their own ideas and opinions (like what new tech is coolest or what ideas they just heard) that the big picture gets lost.
His advice was to create a “future state” and consider your company’s role in the future. If you keep prototyping and learning by building new products, services, and processes to meet the needs of your market, that’s how you’ll actually innovate.
2. Evolve with your customers.
Your customers’ needs won’t always stay the same, so it’s pretty useless to focus your company on meeting those needs if you don’t have the mentality to keep up with how they change. AB Mauri North America has been around since 1868, and its current VP of marketing, Rick Oleshak, mentioned that the reason for its staying power is its ability to keep up with changing wants and needs.
When the company started, the options for bread weren’t as expansive as they are today. In the past, options were maybe white or wheat bread items, and now the company offers more choices in line with what its customers ask for. Oleshak recommended keeping a close eye on the changes in your customers’ needs and demands, identifying which you can meet, and innovating accordingly.
3. Successful innovation requires companywide involvement and acceptance.
A company innovation team is great for experimenting internally and gathering inspiration from other organizations — but building a team focused on new ideas and advancements without employee (and customer) involvement is a recipe for disaster.
Sometimes ideation and innovation teams come up with solutions that are incredible on paper but just aren’t that usable for teams or lack the process and operation models to be implemented smoothly. Mike Chandler, executive director and co-founder of XperienceLab, said the people and culture side of innovation is just as important as the tech side. You have to balance both so you can actually put your new ideas to use.
You could design cool new things all day, but you have to analyze how they fit in strategically with your company and your customers’ needs. You can’t throw new tech at people and expect it to go over smoothly; you need input and involvement from every department in order for innovation to work.
4. The missing piece of innovation is company culture.
I hear companies all the time say they want to be “more innovative,” but that’s easier said than done. You need an innovative company culture to bring it all together.
Annemarie Michaud of CLG and Donna Mickens of Sense Corp. agreed that culture must come first and companies must focus on accepting new ideas to grow, evolve, and perform. It’s not enough to just learn new things if your team doesn’t feel encouraged to welcome that kind of experimentation into practice.
The reverse is also true. Mark Lindgren, the SVP of corporate communications and chief human resources officer at Ameren, noted that the highest performers want relationships with their companies, not just jobs. Top culture attracts top talent. Intentional culture efforts that are focused on encouraging employee innovation will help attract the best and brightest. Leaders need to break down the barriers to employee innovation and fully support personal development for this to work. Build a great culture for people to thrive in, and the results will follow.
5. Corporate venture capital is becoming a strong alternative to R&D labs.
It’s no secret that big corporations often struggle to innovate. Because of that difficulty, Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund said it’s not economic for companies to have research and development labs anymore. Instead, the more agile smaller companies and startups can innovate better and faster than a lot of these labs can.
So it makes sense that these corporations would look to those startups for innovation and start embracing corporate venture capital to stay ahead of the curve. Sach Chitnis of Jump Capital outlined a few ways companies in any industry can practice CVC.
Companies can start with a loose process of building and strengthening strategic relationships in their local startup communities before making any moves to investment. Larger companies might start putting together innovation groups within their companies to seek out new technologies and opportunities and to bring them in, and others could form a true venture firm in the company.
This CVC approach to innovation is a delicate balance. If the startup is too early, your corporation will suffocate it. You should start small with an effort like a branded hackathon or mentoring a seed accelerator; through that, you can build relationships to help you understand what stage of company you should engage with.
6. Audience data can help you create and distribute content that makes innovation easier.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Cold, hard numbers can’t measure everything. We’re reaching the end of what quantitative analysis alone can tell us, so if companies want to stay ahead of the curve, leaders have to start looking at the wealth of qualitative data out there. Nick Szabo of Swizzle Global noticed that many large brands don’t use all the information and data that most people disclose, either on their own social media accounts or directly to the brands and influencers they engage with online. Successful companies will be the ones that can digest that audience-given data and turn it into insights.
A good start is using social listening, but it’s also a smart idea to make sure your company’s research, product, and marketing teams can interpret that data and do something with it.
L&T Co. President Jonathan Allen said he uses data to create content people will want to engage with and share. Creating viral content is hard to conceive, let alone execute. But with data, you can better understand what makes content go viral and use that to grow your audience, get more feedback, and innovate in your company.
No one grows a company by keeping it the same forever. You have to evolve, and one of the best ways to do so and to differentiate your brand from the competition is to remain open to innovation. By following these six lessons, you’ll not only keep the door open to innovation, you’ll also welcome it.
John Hall is the CEO of Influence & Co., a company that specializes in expertise extraction and knowledge management that is used to fuel marketing efforts.