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Simplifying Innovation Part 1: The Problem Of Innovating For Innovation's Sake

As the pressure for companies to innovate and adapt intensifies, the winners will be those who resist hype and simplify innovation.

At the heart of Singapore’s bustling business district sits the regional headquarters of one of the world’s leading advertising firms. In between the pocket squares and sartorially-crafted linen jackets, a visionary CEO talks candidly to me about the challenges of executing effective innovation. The challenge we are discussing is not whether innovation is needed, but how their firm can approach innovation in a way that adds real value without ignoring the operational realities of running a listed company.

From bleeding-edge technology ventures to traditional corporations, a mix of optimism and concern is repeated. Competitive transformation is critical yet how do we execute it in a better way?

The good news is that in accepting something isn’t quite right, we are given the opportunity to make it better. As we dig a little deeper into how many companies approach innovation, we begin to see that the largest barriers to improvement are both the perceived and self-constructed complexities of innovation itself.

Innovation labs have become hugely popular within the corporate arena yet they are far from a silver bullet. On one hand, they demonstrate a move towards greater innovation, yet on the other, they are susceptible to hype and narrow industry focus. While the principles of innovation hubs are sound, there is often an unhealthy segregation between corporate innovators and junior operational staff. There is also a continued dependency on costly consulting firms instead of high-growth entrepreneurs. The result of these resourcing conventions is a tendency to restrict, over-hype and over-complicate innovation. In the worst of cases, an innovation hub can be little more than a costly box-ticking exercise. In the more positive cases, they still struggle to deliver products that will stand the test of time and continued disruption.

The sheer number of businesses launched globally is increasing and can only be described as astonishing. According to a 2015 GEM global report, the number of new business launches had already reached around 11,000 per hour. If we include the ongoing technological advances and growing number of digital platforms we now use each day, the probability of disruption across any industry is huge. This scale of change is part of the reason we are all acutely concerned about how our own companies will survive. The problem comes when this concern about survival brings about an unquestioning acceptance of industry hype and bias towards popularised innovation, especially in digital space. As we chase the next big idea or push to launch the next digital platform, it can be easy to forget about what our customers and clients really want. We often opt for complicated innovations before we think through the value from the customers’ perspective. In many respects, we can lose sight of common sense.

Following venture capitalist (VC) hype tends to produce mammoth-scale ideas that are prone to extinction as the VCs themselves compete with you. Sometimes it is better to let others focus on the emerging technologies, while we take a step back and consider ways to simplify innovation.

Stephen Barling is the Managing Director & Chief Product Designer at Greyspace Digital.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

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