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Alan Turing, WWII-code breaker and precursor of artificial intelligence, noted: “this is only a foretaste of what is to come and only the shadow of what’s going to be.” They are true to any moment of a rapid change.
Since Turing’s time in mid-last century, the use of the term “innovation” skyrocketed. Companies across industries seem simultaneously obsessed with innovation, and unclear what to do about it. There are more than 3 billion search results of “innovation” on Google. There are countless attempts to create innovation labs, install chief digital and innovation officers, and hire external innovation consultants. Labs whiter away, innovation officers leave, consultants’ recommendations end up dismissed.
Definition is lacking. According to dictionary, innovation is “the action or process of innovating” (good to know!). The executive mandates are still not clear. The role descriptions are vague. The process and the practice are isolated. Too often, corporate approach to innovation simplistically focuses on advances in technology, at the expense of the organization, business, and society needed for anything new to be implemented, monetized, and adopted.
A more comprehensive approach to innovation asks companies to:
define the role of a particular innovation initiative or practice in driving the business and brand forward (strategy);
explore how to use it to convey the brand message and deliver a great experience (creative); and
to define the plan, process, and methodology needed for its successful implementation (operations).
But the first step in the process is for companies to specify what kind of innovation they want to prioritize and invest in. They may choose to focus on one (or a few) among the following five broad scenarios.
Material innovation. Climate change and pressures for transparency are putting innovation in materials at the core of any conversation about sourcing, production, packaging, and recycling of materials, across industries. Once futuristic-sounding things like spider silk, bacterial ink, or lab grown diamonds are today’s competitive advantage. Luxury fashion brand Stella McCartney invested in making new clothes by liquifying old ones, and successfully navigated consecutive partnerships with the two biggest competing luxury conglomerates. In the meantime, just having a database of material science startups and academic programs can help in grasping the horizon of possibility.
Customer Experience Innovation. Customer experience is the top reason consumers choose a brand, yet most of us are not able to give more than a couple of examples of brands that consistently deliver exceptional experiences, across the entire customer journey. Best practices still reside within a discrete step of the journey, like Danny Meyer has done in his restaurants and IKEA in its stores. There is much left to be desired in connecting different steps of the journey in a seamless flow, and this is where the biggest innovation wins will happen.
Media innovation. Streaming wars are probably the headline of 2020. At the media buying level, most innovations promptly got entangled with the legitimate concerns of consumer privacy and brand safety. AI, AR/VR, and voice interfaces are exciting new domains, but the real media innovation challenge is in the customer-centrism and personalization, and resides among resolutely un-sexy topics like CRM, customer service, e-commerce platform management, and having a single customer database.
Commerce innovation. Where, how, and what we buy is constantly changing. A scenario where we order a dress than an influencer wore from Amazon Alexa can quickly be made obsolete by buying that same dress, directly on Instagram, from an influencer herself. While a lot of companies still grapple with making e-commerce and mobile commerce work in their favor, Chinese superapps are already onto social commerce as their latest revenue stream. With their ad models under regulatory attack, the US platforms have been quick to follow. In commerce, the biggest innovation challenge is to figure out how to keep opening up new revenue streams while keeping in focus a single customer point of view.
Organizational innovation. There’s an entire field of study that spans sociology, management, design, behavioral economics, and psychology, dedicated exclusively to the question of innovative organizations. Success of an innovation depends on whether or not a company is organized for it; at the same time, the type of innovation a company chooses to focus on shapes the organization around it. The problem is wicked, and solving it starts with understanding that organizational innovation starts with people, teams, space, knowledge sharing and projects, and not with an innovation figurehead.
I recently spoke with Tim Richardson (Commercial Director at Shopify Plus agency, We Make Websites) for his podcast, Your Basket Is Empty. We talked about some of the themes in my book, learnings from 2020, using your personal brand to add value and the importance of being patient. Listen to our conversation here.