Innovation — “How to” and more..
In 2019 I had an amazing trip adventure. This is a piece I wrote when I got back.
It seems that the new elusive job description after “Product manager” must be the “Innovation manager”. Much like product managers, the role, expectations, and scope of work largely depends on the company, the organisational culture, and the leaders who inspire the team. In this article I’d like to talk about what innovative leaders do, my recommended work methods to achieve innovation, what kind of interesting examples are there for how organisations can innovate in different ways and finally my recommendations for essential criteria for an innovation manager.
Don’t fix something that isn’t broken
I did some research, interviewed several directors and executives within large organisations, read some pretty interesting books on the topic and can confidently say, the trend is very clear. I’ve found that companies that choose to evolve, create continuous improvement mechanisms and stay curious are market leaders in their segment. Surprising? Might not be, but creating change within large organisations is a complex task.
In the past, there were many ways of avoiding drastic change, and I believe excellence had a big part in that. Generally speaking, the principle of excellence is pretty simple:
Carefully design a product, engineer every detail, make it out of durable materials and test for an extensive period of time — and there you have it, a long-lasting product that hardly needs to be changed or improved. This work methodology has a name, waterfall and these principals of work are probably a great idea in heavy industries generally categorised as Low-tech.
What would usually happen within a waterfall lead organisation is that any change would go through that same long process. Overall, makes sense right? I would much prefer travelling in a plane that has been carefully designed, engineered and tested by the best. But differently from aircrafts and other heavy machinery products, when dealing with software, data and processes I prefer a more lean process, Agile.
From my experience, Agile as a mindset in combination with frameworks such as design thinking works very well with innovation based projects. I believe one of the main reasons is the principle of having a tangible product to test as soon as possible, this can be a POC (Proof of concept) or MVP (Minimal Viable Product). The principle is based on creating incremental progress in loops instead of planning the entire product until it arrives to a “perfect” state. During the POC/MVP creation process the team would focus on the most basic features needed in order to know if this really is the product we need and want.
Consumers have learned to expect positive impactful change that will improve the usage of their products and services.
Innovation is all about staying with the times, riding the waves and taking advantage of new needs in the market.
What is it like working as an innovation leader?
I recently got back from traveling in Central America, during my travels I spent a few nights at Selina in the gorgeous Caribbean islands of Bocas Del Toro. Selina is a Proptech startup I’ve been following for a few years now, I saw many beautiful pictures of their locations and felt I had to check it out myself.
At Selina, I met Moshe Almog and different members of his innovation team.
Moshe is Head of innovation at Selina and was onsite overseeing the installation of a new solution replacing keys and wallets in a waterproof loss-proof way. Having conversations about how simply and elegantly it solves an issue the Selina chain had for a while and using it first hand inspired me to write this article.
Bracelets, cables and snow scrapers
Upon checking in at Selina the very nice receptionist gave me a fabric bracket, very similar to ones given at music festivals with one major difference, this bracelet had an NFC chip. Door keys and wallets on-premises have become redundant at once. Simple, easy to use, innovative.
Moshe, as the leader of the project, relocated himself to the first test location, brought in his R&D executives and collaborated with another startup in order to make things happen.
What Moshe did was create an incremental improvement loop. He selected one location to start from, organised all needed personnel, came onsite to provide training and see through the first steps of implementation live. By doing so, he created the perfect ground for real-life testing and knowledge-base for future location implementation.
Innovation isn’t only in dramatic large scale changes, innovation can be used as a tool in ongoing everyday life within an organisation. Examples of incremental improvements within marketing and operations could be adding branded USB charging cables and snow scrappers in car-sharing vehicles or adding QR code stickers for easy access to download mobile applications. Human Relations departments can innovate by reviewing internal processes, introducing new interview processes and improving the organisational culture of a company.
Where is the box
“Think outside of the box”, I believe this is one of the hardest tasks to have done. From my experience it’s much easier being outside of the box and thinking about it, especially when it comes to innovation.
I’d like to summarise with some tips about what I’ve found are the type of professionals for leading innovation and the type of work environments that could facilitate it.
The focus is on an individual that can lead innovation, push for progress and be the wind of change in an organisation.
Innovative leaders would necessarily enjoy the constant changes in priority, relevance and timelines, they will invest significant amounts of time and energy learning the industry and the world the organisation lives in and are not afraid of failing.
Not all innovative leaders are managers, some are and that is a significant added bonus to take into account.
Once the organisation has found the right individuals for the task, there should be a significant amount of deliberation regarding the location of the innovative leader within the organisational hierarchy. I would suggest considering one of the following:
Innovation leader joining the different product and development teams — More of a loose cannon type of position. This would be especially suitable for non-manager type innovators.
Fully immersed innovation department — Bringing in an external innovation leader while gathering seniors from within the company that might be rotating in and out of the department. This would require more of a manager persona type.
Bubble innovation department — Bringing in a high performance team that will work separately from the rest of the organisation with different KPIs than the rest of the company. This role would suit individuals with years of experience in managing and creating high performance teams.
Finally, selecting the right path for the organisation heavily depends on the reasoning for bringing in an innovation leader and especially the organisational culture and structure. One task that will be challenging is keeping the organisational structure stable, adding innovation would most certainly rock the boat.
Organisations that would like to foster a healthy innovation environment would be smart to embrace failures, either within ideation phases and especially once a POC/MVP is done, these small failures are many times the foundations on which the most amazing products and services are built upon.
Some innovative processes take time, I would recommend being open minded and transparent, the more the innovation leader knows, the better she can assist in finding solutions.
I see innovation as a need for experimenting and finding different, better, more elegant solutions for known and unknown issues.
My name is Inbal Cohen, a seasoned multidisciplinary executive specialised in innovation, leading high-performance teams and creating healthy organisational cultures.
I’d like to personally thank Selina and Moshe Almog for allowing me to share my experience and use their names for this article. Always a pleasure working with and around talented inspiring people and organisations.