It’s a great time to be an innovator. Too long synonymous with Silicon Valley, venture capital, apps and the internet, ‘innovation’ is now being embraced by companies worldwide. Society’s greatest challenges need innovative solutions, and your people can provide them. But this new innovation is different. It’s strategic: meeting our real needs, rather than our consumer-driven ‘wants’, and to do it well we need to recognise this. Jonathan Armstrong, Director of Frazer-Nash’s Australian business, explains.
Strategic innovation is often the domain of the intrapreneur – driving change within the organisation – not just the entrepreneur. It offers huge opportunity for established businesses, governments, scientists and engineers, not just for start-ups and coders. So how do you ensure strategic innovation flourishes in your business?
There are eight key steps to fostering an innovation culture. One, in particular, is frequently overlooked: telling the story of your innovation. To turn ideas into impact you must bring others along on the journey – not just customers and investors, but suppliers, partners, and staff.
Eight steps to an innovation culture
1 Be clear what your innovation is
Innovation is wide-ranging, but within your organisation it needs to be linked to your business strategy. This strategy should provide your staff with direction, but remain broad enough to give room to innovate.
2 Nurture the key competency of ‘telling the story’ of innovation
A great idea can fail to become reality because of poor storytelling. The famous orator, Roman Senator Cicero, advocated that all communication should seek to prove, delight and persuade. Engineers tend to be very good at proving – they’re less comfortable with the concepts of delighting and persuading.
3 Encourage curiosity
Encourage a sense of continuous learning across the organisation. This goes beyond simply seeking efficiency: try approaches such as exploring ideas through lunchtime seminars; sharing new perspectives from your leadership team; or adapting the environment you work in to incorporate a creative space.
4 Have a rubric
Make sure you understand how you will respond to the innovative ideas that come forward. An assessment rubric allows for constructive feedback that nurtures rather than demotivates. It doesn’t need to be complex – the European Union’s Horizon 2020 strategic innovation fund, for example has only three assessment criteria: excellence; impact; and exploitation.
5 Send a leadership signal that it’s important
A clear leadership signal needs to shine the light of executive attention on innovation in your company. For example, here at Frazer-Nash we run an Innovation Competition, judged by our executives, to encourage our staff to innovate and create new services. Businesses already compete in the market for customers and the market for talent. Today, the market for ideas is equally important.
6 Overcome fear of failure
Innovation requires us to move beyond certainty and this can be uncomfortable for engineers. Engineers have a healthy fear of failure. But stress that while products should not fail, ideas can. Operate an innovation pipeline, in which ideas move through a staged process, with some being eliminated at each stage.
7 Create unusual teams
Organisations often separate customer-facing teams from their technical counterparts. You need to ensure that you have both the understanding what the customer needs (the market pull) and the technical solution (the technology push). At Frazer-Nash we create innovation teams, by pairing staff with a deep technical understanding with those with deep market understanding.
8 Don’t forget about the business model
Many of today’s truly disruptive developments innovate business models, not solely new products or services. Uber and AirBnB innovated business models for monetising the demand for taxis and accommodation.
Good storytelling is essential to influence others to your way of thinking. Decisions are affected by emotional responses. Cicero’s ‘delight, persuade and prove’ maxim ensures that your idea appeals to the heart as well as the head. Tell your story at three levels:
1 Delight the heart.
Tell your story in one minute. Grab your audience by focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve, and build delight and emotional buy-in to your impactful, exciting thinking.
2 Persuade the head.
Tell your story in 20 minutes. If your one-minute pitch has gone well, then your audience will want to know more. Persuade the head through a short presentation: 10 slides; 20 minutes; 30 point font. Describe the exploitation of your innovation – its market, business model, competition, as well as its technical merits.
3 Prove your claims.
Tell your story in 60 minutes. If your 10/20/30 presentation went well, provide a written business case. Let logic have its full place, and provide the detailed evidence that supports your claims.
The demand for strategic innovation is all around us. Transform your innovation ‘idea’ culture into an entrepreneurial culture, through the successful commercial exploitation of those ideas. Engineers have many of the answers to the challenges facing us today: decarbonising energy supply, responding to urbanisation, keeping us safe, secure and fed in a changing world. If we tell the story of our innovations well, our ideas can become meaningful changes and make a difference to the world around us.
Jonathan Armstrong is Director of Frazer-Nash’s Australian business, based in Adelaide. He has extensive expertise in commercialising science and engineering in corporate, consultancy and start-up environments. He was formerly Executive Director of a start-up company, developing innovative generator technology for the marine energy market. Prior to that he founded Frazer-Nash’s consultancy operation in Scotland and in his early career worked in the nuclear sector, leading a significant internal innovation programme to enhance the enrichment of nuclear fuel across the UK’s advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs). He advocates for the vital role engineering innovation can play in addressing society’s challenges and wants to help engineers and scientists to communicate their ideas with impact.
In 2010, Frazer-Nash opened its office in Adelaide to support programmes in defence, energy, resources, transport and industry. We quickly found success within these key markets and in 2012 we opened our second office in Melbourne, followed by Canberra in 2015. This investment is set to go from strength to strength as we continue to invest in our local team and build strong client relationships across our key market sectors.