This is the fourth blog of our 5 part Ignite Innovation blog series from the Head of Ignite Exponential, Alan Cucknell.

In my last blog I discussed mastering your own innovation process. To the British layperson, innovation (and certainly invention) is often considered as something that is created by an erratic loner tinkering with some technology in the garden shed. (In other cultures it might be a spare room or a garage!) With this assumption comes the impression that innovation happens when you create something from nothing.  Starting, as it were, with a blank slate.

This seems to us to be a fundamental misunderstanding of corporate innovation. Generally, we find the challenge is not to start with a blank slate, but rather by starting with what you already have (people, capabilities, assets, relationships etc) to create new value and find new competitive advantage through innovation. Soon Yu articulates this well when he says, “Don't chase the new, innovate the old”.

Solving the strategic innovation challenges required for sustainable growth in these uncertain times really starts with innovating your problem. Early stage innovation is where the greatest opportunities for creating competitive advantage are, and also where the biggest uncertainties are. The process / approach you follow will determine the result, as will the information and people that you feed into the process. If you don’t understand your problem, how can you choose the right process at the beginning, and therefore what hope do you have about finding the best solution?

Your challenge is unique: Each industry, company, and innovation challenge is unique. Yes, we can learn from other companies, industries and even from nature – but it’s best to view this as a source of inspiration and learning, not the answer.  Even close competitors in the same industry have different tangible and intangible assets, cultures etc. Even if you chose to replicate your rival’s success, their existence in the market and their business model, your customer’s familiarity with them will mean your challenge will always be inherently different.

For strategic innovation (as opposed to incremental improvement or product development), those multi-faceted, future facing uncertainties rule. Yet we’ve observed that conventionally, the way clients choose innovation and design partners at the start of a collaboration project is often based on their response to a fixed brief or a pitch, usually answered with a nice linear process. (As to be honest as Plextek did when looking for innovation partners for our technology businesses). This is an attractive proposition, can I outsource my sleepless nights or my future ambition to purchase a finished solution? Given the future uncertainty and inherent uniqueness of any individual strategic innovation challenge, and given our observation that until you’ve engaged in the challenge we’re unlikely to know what the best approach will be, we wonder if this is one reason for the industry's poor hit rate. 

So if the innovation is to be strategic, YOU must be a part of the process – the risk of missing information, outsiders not understanding what you already have or simply ending up with NIH (not-invented-here) syndrome is too great to leave to chance.  And (as we argued in our previous blog) the process you follow does matter, but it’s not possible to dictate this in advance. So we don’t suggest outsourcing early stage or strategic innovation – it’s YOUR business. We suggest collaborating, and letting the journey you follow reveal the critical uncertainties and the right process.

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