Why are many corporations still perceived as ‘ideas killers’? We all know that innovation-driven companies perform better. Ideas-rich businesses outperform the market, and some of the most iconic companies are those that allow ideas to inform their future.
But still, many fail to nurture and use ideas effectively. In fact, encouraging ideas – in products, services, technological advances or partnerships – often runs counter to how those businesses are built. They are typically set up around a certain skill set or specialism, and are hardwired to dispatch anything that doesn’t obviously suit the mould, in service of operational efficiency.
Often, corporations are so well structured, so solidly built to achieve certain goals through their people, their thinking, their communication and their operations, that anything that doesn’t neatly fit within that is dismissed. It explains why newcomers like Monzo and Starling Bank spearheaded the revolution of the digital banking industry. Established players were built around the high street, and it was just too difficult for them to truly embrace digitisation.
So how can C-suite leaders make sure that ideas thrive? How can they break from their own restraints to embrace ideas rather than unintentionally stifling them?
How to make space for new ideas
There are different ways of making space for ideas at corporations. Firms can start incubators, where ideas are given space outside an organisation, such as InGenius by Nestlé, Rise by Barclays or ZX Ventures by AB InBev; they can give a small group of people autonomy within a set-up, like Procter & Gamble’s Victor Mills Society of research fellows; or they can empower the whole organisation to get behind long-term innovation. Netflix, for example, is known for its culture of freedom and responsibility.
But you need to know what kind of ideas you’re after – whether that’s more incremental innovation or the more long-term, blockbuster innovation – and consider what model might work best.
Whatever combination of the above, nurturing ideas won’t happen without C-suite buy-in and committed support.
Know how to test ideas and learn from them
Whether you’re CEO or COO, you need to appreciate how ideas thrive. There’s often a corporate habit of allowing small ideas to be trialled and abandoning them when they ‘don’t work’.
Idea-killers are risk averse. They’re scared to launch something that doesn’t give them the right scale or margins immediately, or something that might not be accretive to the brand. But piloting ideas successfully means taking learnings and continually and iteratively improving. To innovate well, you spend a little but you learn a lot. Test small, figure out how to prove out ideas to truly understand them, and apply the learnings at the next step.
This test and learn approach doesn’t have to cost huge sums of money, but it does require a leap of faith to get those ideas out there. Companies that do it well go for it with conviction, and often talk about ideas before they’re even close to reality. For example, Amazon’s shareholder announcements often highlight investment in barely formed ideas; Google’s floating drone delivery was first announced nearly a decade ago, and it’s an idea that may shortly be realised in California; and Apple has recently launched an ad featuring Mother Nature holding its leadership to account over sustainability initiatives.
These are statements of intent, offering a glimpse into how companies see the future and how they are orienting themselves for that future. The socialisation of nascent ideas in this way allows for instant feedback from potential consumers and shareholders alike.
Identify and remove the ideas blockers
To get to that stage, as a C-suite member you need to ask yourself where your ideas blockers are. For example, structurally there might be such a churn within a business that someone can launch an innovation pilot and the next person doesn’t know how to learn from it. Or someone might dream up the best innovation, but it will languish unless you can create a home for it within the organisation.
Maybe ideas don’t sit in the standard P&L or aren’t supported by the business’ standard operating model. In these cases, creating senior sponsorship and resources to create new models is paramount. Take Unilever and the Dove refillable deodorant – for success, the P&L, revenue model and supply chain would look completely different from that at the core of the business.
As a leader, you need to identify those blockers, ask yourself which ones are under your control, which are least understood, which are timeless and how to remove them to usher ideas through.
Articulating the future of the organisation
Design can play a huge part in driving innovation – it’s no surprise that the most innovative corporations are often design-led. The design function’s ability to visualise and articulate what the future could look like, to bring ideas to life for users and to sense check them can help disseminate good ideas through an organisation and help express a solid business case behind them.
But remember, to a certain extent, killing ideas can also be a good thing. This isn’t about making sure that every idea lands, but that your organisation is equipped for making the great ideas take off. There is a reason Evian’s Water Bra got relegated to obscurity. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge what you’ve learned and cut your losses.