Building a culture of innovation – putting customers and employees at the heart of your organisation

Retail Financial Services

Retail Financial Services


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Experts: James Alexander – KPMG & Simon Hill – Wazoku

Moderator: Cris Beswick – The Future Shapers 

Removing the focus on the word innovation…

One of the constant discussions around innovation and a key proportion of the session was the divided opinion about the value and continued use of the word innovation itself. The very word has been bastardised along with what it stands for and even what it can deliver because of its misguided use, misrepresentation and now somewhat devalued position. Our discussion opened up debate around the suggested removal of the focus on ‘innovation’ and ‘innovating’ and shifted the focus towards the outcomes of any such innovation-led drive. That resulted in a really healthy discussion about the real outcomes, desires and deliverables that organisations strive for when they talk about innovation in the right context. Removing the word itself opened up the real discussion about what organisations are actually trying to achieve, like excellence, differentiation, delight or transformation and using that as the new vernacular.

Innovation labs aren’t the panacea…

In the not too distant past, the drive and responsibility for ‘innovation’ was seen as the sole responsibility of the NPD (New Product Development) department, or the R&D (Research & Development) department. This meant that for many organisations, innovation was completely silo’d, constraining it to a single department or team. The classic ‘men-in-white-lab-coats’ was the visual embodiment of the very person the future successes of the organisation were depending on. The challenge we now face and indeed, the group agreed many of their organisations are currently facing, is that the new embodiment of the R&D department, the contemporary ‘men-in-white-lab-coats’ are now jeans and t-shirt wearing, post-it-note and beanbag experts. They are the innovation lab teams. There was a real strong feeling across the group, almost unanimously, that innovation labs are not the panacea, despite the overwhelming corporate focus on them and that they merely silo innovation activity, yet again, in a small but divorced from the rest of the organisation team.

Learning to fail is learning to innovate…

Our group was lucky enough to be joined by Danae Silvey from Google who gave us a great insight into how Google approach innovation and in particular how they approach the always sticky subject of risk and specifically failure. Having an organisation-wide approach and structure to driving innovation on a daily basis and specifically, a pragmatic view on permission to fail as a central tenant has allowed Google to genuinely create a culture of experimentation. The approach even takes things to a level where employees are encouraged to ‘fail well’ and are actually incentivised and rewarded for doing so.

We need more innovation leaders…

Innovation as a focus, as a core capability and as a cultural ingredient has to come from the top. That was the core message agreed across the group. There was absolute agreement that high levels of innovation stems from obviously from creativity but from things like great engagement, purpose, clarity on what ‘innovation’ is through use of new language, embracing failure as a learning point and part of the process and so on. But, the overriding factor, agreed by every group member was that leadership is the key.

However, the challenge articulated by the group was that leadership talk around innovation isn’t translating into action. I’ve been quoting statistics for years to the effect that the majority of board members agree that innovation is more talked about than actioned and seemingly the change is slow to materialise. As the always engaging Martin Butler said in his lunch-time keynote in reference to leaders actually leading… “are you a walker, or a talker.”

The group shared a common lack of clarity around why leaders aren’t turning words into action and some of the possible reasons cited were; do leaders hold off on focussing on innovation because of the perception that it leads to a lack of control. Or to put it in the glorious words of Martin Butler again in reference to organisational leaders, “I think I may be clinically averse to letting go.”

The truth is that for many, a drive to build game-changing innovation capability will be internally disruptive in terms of organisational change, people change and a shift from ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ to ‘this is now how we do things around here’ and that requires really great leadership. The shift from traditional leadership to ‘innovation leadership’ is one that many believe still hasn’t happened and isn’t happening at the required pace. The resulting status quo or ‘business as usual’ prevails and in turn for many organisations represented in the room, remains the corporate antibody that fights innovation at every juncture.

Engagement, engagement engagement…

One of the core parameters affecting the success of any drive to build a culture of innovation is the level of engagement in and around innovation itself and the mind-set and behaviour it requires. As a central focus of an innovation culture, engagement was widely accepted across the group as one of the core barriers and interestingly not in relation to lack of engagement in innovation per se but more a general lack of engagement or low level of engagement as a prevailing issue across organisations. Unless engagement in general is good across an organisation, adding innovation into the mix merely complicates the issue. However, Ian Rabbidge from P&O Ferries offered us a valuable insight into their attempts to drive engagement across the business which even include an annual engagement awards where the company focuses on and recognises great work which by default requires good or even great engagement in the first place. One of the core perspectives the group discussed widely was the unanimous agreement that mind-set was a crucial focal point for engagement and that everything else we had discussed were actually all contributors to driving engagement in general but more specifically, engagement around innovation and building a culture of innovation.