7 pathways to innovation that work

Innovation is very popular and for many companies it has become a trite buzzword. Both politicians and business leaders use it interchangeably when setting goals and developing strategies for the future. But what’s the best way to go about innovation? How can your company really adapt, and how can you implement a more innovative culture? From IS IT A Bird’s own work, and taking inspiration from a number of international innovation blogs, we have compiled 7 quick tips on becoming more innovative.

1. The Director must take the lead

If a company wants to be innovative, it is important that management takes the lead. Companies underestimate the hard work it takes to innovate, and risk wasting effort on small and often insignificant innovation projects that rarely deliver real value to anyone. In order to be successful, the innovation must be at the very core of the company's DNA. The innovation strategy must therefore play a central role in the overall business strategy. Directors must take the lead and show the rest of the organisation that innovation is a priority, and that business thinking and innovative thinking go hand in hand.

2. Understand the users' needs

In the old days, companies were arranged so that product development was hidden away in locked laboratories. Today, companies increasingly open themselves up to the community in order to keep up with trends and new market needs. The companies that manage to understand their products through the customer's eyes, and understand the emotions that are at stake, will be better able to create products according to customers' real needs. It is therefore important that a company explores the user’s world and tries to understand the deeper explanations that lie beneath a specific user experience.

CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner, launched a so-called "Operation Bear Hug" to get the company in close contact with its customers. For a certain period, IBM's 50 top executives had to visit five customers a week and then submit reports from the meetings to the headquarters.

3. Break down internal silos

Innovation is not just about products and business models. It is also about organisational infrastructure. Good ideas are likely to be lost if the communicative infrastructure is not geared to support innovation. The classic corporate structure is often sharply divided by employee backgrounds, which means that HR people sit with HR people, economists with economists, marketers with marketers and so on. Unfortunately, the division of silos risks hindering the potential creation of ideas that cut across departments. And often, innovation is all about bringing different skills into the game to find new solutions to relatively complex problems.

In 2009, PricewaterhouseCoopers consultancy launched a web-based idea center called iPlace, where employees across departments can share and develop ideas for solutions to the company's diverse challenges.

4. Enter into new partnerships

Businesses can strengthen their innovation by bringing different skills into play – not only inside the company, but also externally. Companies that understand how to engage in new and smart partnerships can increase their chances of finding new, innovative solutions. In a world of new challenges – urbanisation, pollution, obesity, stress, food, water and resource shortages – it is important to search for new creative collaborations. Today we see private and public entities starting to work together, and in the future we will probably see doctors working with designers, marine biologists working with economists and IT programmers working with anthropologists, and so on.

Earlier this year sports giant Nike and the US space agency NASA launched a major collaboration to develop new sustainable textiles.

5. Cultivate a healthy culture of failure

If your company does not dare to make mistakes, you can be sure that you are not innovative enough. It is important that a company develops a healthy culture of failure. A healthy culture of failure is characterised by many small and cheap mistakes. Development of good innovation ideas takes time, and it is in moments of failure that your ideas have the potential for improvement. As the familiar mantra proclaims "Fail early to succeed sooner": the premature failure in itself is a criteria of success.

The worldwide advertising agency GREY has chosen to pay homage to failure. Grey awards so-called "Heroic Failure Awards" to employees with the most risky idea that fails.

6. Be curious, stay open to new routes

Classic business leaders are objective-driven and trained to make quick and effective decisions. Seldom do business executives have time to take an especially creative approach, and detours to the target are often seen as wasted time. But when it comes to innovation, it is not necessarily the fastest way to the goal that turns out to be the best. An innovative business leader should be curious, and open to taking new paths toward the goal. For example, you can reach the target through rapid prototyping, where ideas and opportunities are continuously tested on a small scale.

The design firm IDEO believes that it is not only design challenges that can benefit from ​​rapid prototyping and building-to-think. Organisational and management challenges can also be solved through experimentation and the testing of small, tangible ideas.

7. Systematise your innovation    

Innovation is in many ways an intuitive discipline - you have to be open, curious and creative. But innovation is also about timing and systematics. Considering the lifetime of a product, you will see that it follows an almost predictable S-curve: growth - maturation – out phasing. The maturation phase of the product is a strategically good time to clarify what innovative measures are required to renew a product's lifeline. Companies must therefore consider innovation as an infinite chain of processes. Planning an innovation process can be systematised by the stage-gate model. This involves dividing the innovation process into time-dependent stages in order to maintain a required degree of control. At the beginning of each stage you have to open up the creativity and experiment with new possibilities. At the end of each phase, a final decision is made, and the options boil down to one idea chosen to be pursued. A new phase can then begin. In this way the innovation becomes a system, and you get the chance to manage the process, rather than losing visibility and control.

German Siemens Wind Power divides the innovation processes into tight time-defined intervals, and provides a way to maintain momentum in the development of high-tech solutions for wind turbines.

It is time for more innovation

At IS IT A BIRD, we believe that private companies and public institutions can benefit from more innovation in daily life. Especially in the wake of the financial crisis. In a period where consumers tighten their belts and superfluous goods and services become extinct, it's time to find out what customers really want. In times of crisis, it is tempting to cut back on investments, but when it comes to innovation, it could be fatal to cut back efforts now.

Not only do innovative companies often have bigger market shares, higher growth rates and better profitability than their competitors, studies also show that innovative firms do better through a crisis than companies that are less ready for change. Take, for example Google, Amazon, Starbucks and Danish Coloplast, all rank in the top 50 of the world's most innovative companies in 2013 (Forbes Magazine). They defy financial crises and don’t yield when setting new standards for modern product development.

If a company fails to innovate at a time of crisis, it has in many ways already lost. The future – and the way out of the crisis – is not paved with more of the same, but with new and creative ways to do things. And good, innovative ideas do not grow on trees. They have to be earned. With these 7 innovation tips, we hope that you have a good overview of some of the opportunities companies have to improve their innovative power.