I think every discussion about innovation should start with WHY.
Why should we innovate? #
This “WHY SHOULD WE INNOVATE?” question will be asked by everyone in your team and in your organisation.
I will mostly talk about tech-powered businesses, but most of the reasons provided here can be easily translated to multiple other domains.
Firstly, this is a reasonable question to ask.
As we want to work in an environment where everyone is aware of the vision and purpose of the company, where every employee is expected to contribute to this vision and to bring their unique value, then one should expect a lot of WHY questions. This is actually one of the basics abilities that you should expect from your colleagues if you want them deeply involved into your business and the development of your products.
Secondly, being challenged allows you to test the strength of your arguments and, ultimately, persuade your audience.
Innovation is a concept that sounds extremely well but which, unfortunately, is also a very elusive one. Without a tangible base, and also given the extremely volatile environment in which we collaborate today, innovation projects – especially if faced with obstacles or even failures - might lose their allure in a very short time, making your colleagues and co-workers doubt their usefulness. By allowing them to challenge you in answering the “WHY SHOULD WE INNOVATE” question, you test the strength of your arguments, you regain your vision on the innovation process and, ultimately, through reasoning, you persuade them as well.
I will try to ask this question from different perspectives and find value for each one of them.
First, let’s ask it at a macro level:
- Why should a company have a strategy for innovation*?
- Why should the team focus on being creative, on generating ideas, on finding new ways to solve problems?
Then let’s continue asking the same about the value brought by innovation for specific roles:
- Why should I, as Product Owner, support innovation in my current product?
- Why should I, as People Manager/Leader, support an innovation mindset for my team?
- Why should I, as Technical Manager/Leader, support an innovation mindset for my team?
- Why should I, as CEO/ Founder/ Managing Director, support innovation in my company?
- Why should I, as Marketing manager, support innovation in my company?
Then let’s talk from the perspective of the user of a product in a business environment:
Why should I, as a user (using the product in a business environment), support a product which is taking innovative solutions to achieve its goal?
Here are my answers to all these big questions, one by one.
Why should a company have a strategy for innovation? #
This is a very big question and I think many people just let it pass, assuming everybody knows the answer. It is mostly true that this question was asked multiple times and it is well documented in a lot of resources, but I think it is best that, from time to time, we came back to it and (re)read some of the answers.
One: Innovate or Die Faster #
In the current technology-driven, rapid changing world, every product which is not innovating is in danger of becoming obsolete. To be fair, all products will become obsolete at a certain point in time, this has happened a lot throughout history. But nowadays, the pace of degradation is faster than any time before. If you keep your head in the sand and refuse to innovate, then probably somebody is already working hard to outpace you and remove you from the market. The moment you see them coming might be too late to start innovating. Here are just a few examples: Blockbuster LLC, Toys R Us , Polaroid, Borders, Nokia and many many more.
Two: Discover new business opportunities #
When thinking about the company, innovation could provide new ways to do business or to develop new products. Failure to support innovation usually means that a company will continue improving its current products… and get stuck there. On the short run, this is great, but on the long run, this means that the company will remain in one place while its users will migrate to new markets, new technologies, and new opportunities. A very good example here is Nokia with its failure to recognise smartphones as the next big thing.
Three: Cultural fitness for the future #
Innovation is also the best opportunity to experiment new ways of working, of collaborating, of upgrading and refreshing the company culture. By allowing small teams to experiment with innovation projects, the company could see which new ways of working are best fitted for the future and later, choose to integrate those in its company culture.
A space/program for innovation is actually a playground where the next leaders of your organisation can experiment with their own style and with their own ideas about how the work culture should be. It is a safe place for such experiments, because they do not directly affect the entire company.
Why should teams focus on being innovative? #
If you are part of a product team (or any kind of team) and you hear that you might be invited to be part of some innovation process, then here are some reasons why you should totally accept this opportunity.
One: Growth #
Teams grow together by experimenting and by assuming different roles. In an innovation project, you have the chance to play any role you want. You can choose any technology stack you want, talk directly to the users and evenplan the release of the product. Innovation could be the best way to upgrade your skills, as it does not follow a known path, thus creating the best opportunity for learning: the unknown with a safety net (as you can go back to your normal job after the innovation process finishes). This could also be a great way for a career change in case you are searching for one.
Two: Motivation #
Your own internal motivation, as part of the team which innovates, will be higher, as you can be directly involved in generating ideas, exploring them, building them and launching them. Moving all the way through the stack, from business to development and back, gives you unique access to your users, allowing you to talk to them directly, to understand their needs, and to get real and direct feedback about your own work.
Three: Freedom #
Where can you have the most freedom if not in innovation? While innovating, the future is not written: you are the one who dreams of what can be done and you are the one who can do it. You really have the full power to invent and create your future and the future of your current product. Or even the power of creating a new product.
Four: Stronger bonds (among team members) #
Apart from all the skill development of every member involved, innovation projects represent great contexts for strengthening teams and for creating new powerful bonds between colleagues who otherwise might not have the chance to interact. Working together towards a common goal - without the pressure and the hierarchic structure imposed by the “normal” work environment -, fighting against unexpected obstacles while having to rely on one another can (and will) strengthen the relationships between the members of the teams involved in an innovation project more than anything else will. Think of it as a more “extreme” version of a team building…
Why should I, as Product Owner, support innovation in my current product? #
The main role of the Product Owner is related to setting up a vision and a strategy for the product and making sure the team ships what is needed for that to happen. This means the PO defines how success looks like and makes product decisions.
One: All products will age #
No matter how great your product is, it will age. From the moment you are launching it, it has already started on the path of ageing. Of course, some products will have a steeper curve of ageing, while others, a more gentle one. As a product owner, the questions “What will be next?” or “What kind of features will keep my product still relevant?” should always stay somewhere on your mind. To truly discover the best answers to these questions means to employ innovation processes, to always look for new and for interesting solutions.
Two: Use technology in your advantage #
You and your product team should experiment with technology as much as possible, because this is the only way you can truly understand all the possibilities technology can lay before you and how you can use them as your competitive advantage. Technology can open new options to solve users’ problems and these options are visible to the Product Owner only when he/she understand how technology can be applied.
Let me give you some examples: You really need to know what blockchain is in order to think about how this technology could be used to solve some of your users’ needs. Or you need to understand how machine learning works, what kind of results it can bring in order to start using it in your product. For example, from your product’s perspective, ML will bring new ways to solve problems which were harder or even impossible to achieve before. One of the best ways to experiment is to facilitate the involvement of the team into innovation, into building new features with new technologies.
Three: The best growth for your product team #
If you want to keep your product up-to-date and relevant from a technological perspective, then your product team should stay updated on what is happening in IT. This is a continuous learning process about a mix of programming languages, technologies of various kinds, but also business and market perspectives. Of course you can take the path of sending your product team to conferences, trainings and workshops. But they will only cover the theoretical side. By encouraging the product team to innovate inside your product and outside, you are helping create the best learning environment: by experience (some people say the only learning environment that works). And, in case of new product innovation, your team will have the chance to learn about product management and business in a direct way, with feedback on the spot.
Why should I, as People Manager, support an innovation mindset for my team? #
In case you are a People Manager and your main job (or one of your main attributes) is the skill development of your people, then supporting innovation should be right among your top main priorities.
One: Empowering your people #
Being there with your people while they are exploring an uncharted territory and helping them navigate it is one of the best ways to empower them and to support their growth. It is also a good place to expand and experiment with your own style of coaching and mentoring.
Two: Explore different job parts #
In an innovation project, it is easier for one of your people to explore a diversified range of jobs. It could be a good opportunity to answer their own question: Would I like doing this? Would I be good at that?. It is also a great way to develop their horizontal T-Shape skills by assuming different roles in the project in a more active and fun way. There is no need to manage their own motivation to learn those skills as they are driven by their inner desire to bring something new in the IT world.
Three: The way to develop resilience and grit #
An innovation project has very few chances of success and, moreover, there is not a clear way of how to do it. Encouraging your people to be a part of such projects and being there for them when it goes south is the best way to learn resilience and grit. There will be plenty of times when the project is stalled or even blocked by the current culture and beliefs. Very often other people will try to discard or block their projects, or add roadblocks. This is the best environment to coach your people to be more resilient and to offer them the best chances to develop their grit.
Why should I, as Technical Manager, support an innovation mindset for my team? #
When I say “Technical Manager”, I mean a variety of roles where you are also involved in technical decisions or, at least, you need to support your team in developing their technical skills. In this case, you should support innovation as a way to experiment with new architectures and as a way of learning about new technologies.
One: Keep up with new trends #
Usually in an innovation project there is a lot of room for experimentation, especially on the technical side. If you put the goal to experiment with technology (like asking “How can we use X tech to achieve Y…?”) then people from your team/department will have the best change to have a deeper understanding of a certain new technology than just reading some articles, resources or watching some videos about it. Moreover, a lot of people prefer to just start using something and then read more in depth about it as they encounter problems or bugs.
Two: Sharing knowledge #
Having a new team assembled to explore a new project, where members will sometimes have different backgrounds and might even be learning some new programming languages or new tools is the best way to truly share knowledge. They will share exactly the essence of their knowledge, the part that is transferable and that is useful without too much context or explanations. This is because, usually, the time to develop an innovative idea is limited and people are highly motivated to execute it. So they will share the best of their knowledge in the best way they know to communicate, without too much procedures or processes in place, making this knowledge truly valuable and striped down of any cultural layers.
Three: Experimenting #
The best way to learn new technologies is to use them. And while the day to day work might not offer you a chance to get your hands on the latest tools, an innovation project could be the perfect solution which allows you to try some new technologies without “braking” anything on your current work projects, while still having the opportunity to actually develop something new.
Why should I, as CEO/Founder/Managing Director, support innovation in my company? #
One: Growing your company #
Growing a company means, firstly, growing its people. As your company develops, you will have less time available to interact with them and to involve them in your decisions. That means less chances for you top management and middle management teams to grow, as well as less chances for other people to express their management skills. Doing innovative projects and involving yourself in them creates the perfect opportunity for everybody to grow, to assume new roles, to take more risks, to learn and to develop their skill set. No matter the outcome of the projects, you will win: if the projects are successful, then you will have new business opportunities.If the projects are not, then you will end up with a more battle tested team and with colleagues more fit to handle unexpected situations.
Also, no matter how up-to-date you believe yourself to be, I assure you that you are not as close to the real users as you think you are, you don’t undersrand the technology used and the product as best as you think you do. So identifying opportunities becomes harder. It is also difficult to really experience the life of your employees and to be able to find the best ways to create a sustainable and future-ready company all by yourself. You might have the vision, but your vision takes off from the ground. And you need a solid base which must pe continuously updated. Supporting innovative projects is the best way to get in touch with reality, to support your colleagues’ growth, to develop new skills, and to sharpen the existing ones. It is also a great exploration of what the culture of your company might be.
Two: Finding new business opportunities #
A company should always be looking for new business opportunities (products, services, offerings …) and not rely only on the current ones. One of the good sources of such opportunities are your colleagues (your employees), who are facing the current situation daily, by interracting directly with your users and by knowing exactly what kind of problems your clients or target market have. You should explore these by inviting everybody in the company to innovate, to come up with new product ideas, to present their own take on the current offering of your company, to suggest company transformations. You will remain the judge, but this will expand the field of possibilities a lot while making everybody feel welcomed and involved in your company future and their own.
Three: Hiring self-driven people #
Having great support for innovation helps you hire self-driven people: the ones who only need some direction or vision from you and then they can get to work by themselves, setting their own objectives, making them happen, improving their work constantly, asking for more, growing in the process and, thus, growing your company. If this is the case, then you should be aware that these people are also the ones who are looking for freedom to experiment, to create their own jobs, to build new products. An innovation playground is a safe way to encourage them to run their own shows without affecting your current business too much and by letting you choose which of the new products they create can be integrated in your offering. Also, having an innovation process can help with finding the best way to position your company in the job market so that you attract the best people who might fit your current culture.
Why should I, as Marketing manager, support innovation in my company? #
One: Make a dent #
Usually, most of the teams involved in innovation projects lack the knowledge, resources or the time needed to spread word about them to their colleagues, to attract others to join them or to actually sell their ideas to stakeholders. This is where you can really make a dent and help them spread their vision. It will be also a way for you to experiment different communication strategies, different branding perspectives and to directly connect to your target group. In the end, this will level-up your own skills and your own strategic ability to understand and promote different products.
Two: Different positioning in the market #
Innovation allows you to differentiate from your competition in a much more obvious way than a normal project will. You can now not only compete on pricing or number of features with other products, but you can also compete on totally different planes, allowing you more “space” for creativity and inspiration. Imagine that having an innovative project (or feature of current products) is a perfect opportunity for you to make a promoting strategy, since it gives you freedom to create, to imagine, and to dream. You really have the chance to approach your users in new ways, to get them closer to your company and to attract new ones as there are no boundaries of what is possible.
Three: Better products, new perspectives #
In the end, innovation also creates better products and new perspectives. A better product means happier users. And happier users are more willing to spend their money on things they are interested in and, more importantly, happier users have higher and more complex needs which you and your company can solve so it really creates a true sustainable business eco-system.
Four: The chance of launching a truly creative campaign #
Approximately 95% of the marketing and communications campaigns launched nowadays are the ones deemed “safe”, or, in other words, “boring”. Only 5% of them truly shine as creative campaigns which surprise audiences and consumers around the world. One of the main reasons marketing specialists choose not to implement truly creative ideas is the fear of failure or of losing their jobs. However, innovation projects – due to their specifically creative nature and their tendency to experiment – might offer you, as Marketing Manager, the chance to launch a truly creative campaign, needed to back up the innovative projects or services developed by the teams involved, in a more controlled setting.
Why should I, as an employee, use innovative products? #
In some companies, employees don’t have too much power to decide what kind of tools they can use to get their job done. Still, I think employees should “fight back” and we should always ask our stakeholders, managers, leaders to allow employees to experiment more with new tools.
One: Discover better tools #
Experimenting with various tools could really lead to discovering better tools for our jobs, thus increasing the productivity and efficiency. You should really try to use new tools, not only read about them, because just reading about a tool does not allow you to learn too much about the advantages that tool could bring.
Two: Be ready for the future #
If you start gaining expertise early in a new tool which might prove to be the next one in your industry, then you will be the one who already has 2-3 years of expertise when that tools hits the early majority of the market. Thus, you will be better positioned not only to choose the kind of job you want to do, but also to be the one who creates the new work architectures or the new ways products are built.
Three: More value and more happiness #
If you don’t know what kind of tools are there, then you don’t know how your own job could be better. Imagine that you are in a village and you still work the field only by using a shovel. You work hard every single hour, trying to keep your productivity and energy high and then you go home, eat, sleep and come back the next day to resume your work. But somewhere in the world, someone is using a machine for this. They are more relaxed and have more free time without coming home already physically tired. Wouldn’t you wish to know that these kind of machines exist? Would you not use the advantage of the technology to make your job more pleasant and easier? Of course there is pleasure in doing things more hands-on, but, at the end of the day, while you are still trying to make your current tool to fit a job which is already challenged by a fast-pacing ever-changing market, there are a lot of people out there already learning AI, ML, DL along with probabilities, math, statistics to create another level of products, thus creating new type of jobs and new type of markets. In the long run, progress always wins.