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What can we learn about innovation from water lilies?

What can we learn about innovation from water lilies?

This is the first blog of our 5 part “Ignite Innovation” series from the Head of Ignite Exponential, Alan Cucknell. Waiting for part 2? You can catch up here.

A traditional French children’s riddle asks: “suppose a water lily is growing on a pond in your backyard. The plant doubles in size each day and would take 30 days to cover the pond. If this happens it would choke out all other forms of life in the water. The plant seems small, so you decide not to worry about cutting it back until it covers half the pond. Once this happens, how much time will you have left to avert disaster?”

The answer of course is… one day. The water lily will cover half the pond on the 29th day, leaving you only 24 hours before it kills the rest of the pond life. While this may be a trivial example it starts to highlight the challenges facing today’s business leaders as a result of an increasing speed of change.

This rapid change in speed is mostly reported in the context of new technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence. As the lily story illustrates, even for businesses where these technologies may seem to have little impact today, business leaders need to consider the future impact of these technologies carefully. And it would be easy to think that this is simply a “technology problem”. But the challenge we hear from business leaders is much more complex. These new technical capabilities and possibilities are creating a disruption in the society that our businesses operate in and in the framework for how we need to compete.

Emerging technologies can lead to new product offerings – but more challenging for many established businesses – they are enabling new services, new platforms and new business models (Uber offering peer-to-peer ridesharing services disrupting the taxi industry). In turn these enablers are reducing barriers to entry which results in new competition. Established companies are now competing with a swarm of start-ups, many of whom are ‘ripping up the conventional rule book’, in some cases providing what was once considered ‘value’ from the market for a fraction of the cost (e.g. Uber vs taxis). And it’s leading to a convergence of the conventional industry giants – such as Amazon’s entry into Healthcare or Google’s recent entry into gamingCustomers are changing too; their expectations of experience and performance are growing from their personal and professional interactions with other categories.

Competing in this new market requires new skills, capabilities and systems that established players don’t traditionally have in house. But internal resources are more stretched than ever, no longer can you safely keep your ‘eyes in your lane’. Disruptive competition could emerge from almost any company and any sector – in fact, if you’re not already trying to find out how you could ‘replace your current business’, rest assured, someone else is!

These changes are playing out globally, and across many industries – even those we might have thought of as non-technical in nature. It is multi-faceted, complex, non-linear (and perhaps even exponential) – and there is no sign of it going away any time soon.  So while it might have been relatively trivial to work out when to prune the water lily, there is no trivial answer to the strategic innovation challenges faced by businesses today in the face of this increasing speed of change. 

However, engaging with these challenges proactively can manage the risk, and provide great opportunities – and it is important to do so before the lily is too large to prune! To help our clients tackle these early stage strategic innovation challenges, we’ve created a new multi-functional team. The team brings together expertise in strategy, innovation and design with Plextek’s deep technical know-how in key technology areas. We call this new team, ‘Ignite Exponential’.

How are you tackling the ‘water lilies’ in your back garden? Do you have enough internal resource to stay relevant in this fast-changing environment? We’re keen to hear your thoughts on innovation so let’s continue the conversation by following IEX on LinkedIn and Twitter

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