Embedding innovation into all aspects of business strategy and culture 

Stuart Munton (AND Digital)

By Stuart Munton, Chief for Delivery, AND Digital

BUSINESSES can no longer ignore the fact that they are now operating in a tech-first climate, and the ever-evolving nature of this means they must learn to innovate continuously. 

For many companies, innovation still means a carefully mapped-out, linear project, but if they are to thrive and remain competitive – their approach must shift so that they are ready to adopt and adapt strategies quickly as demand changes. 

Companies can therefore no longer afford to play it safe; focusing on the specifics of delivery timelines and dates will only slow them down. Instead, they must think more broadly about how their product will land in the market, prioritising product development and making it part of the strategy and goals, instead of working on it in silo as a one-off project.

To achieve this, a shift in mindset, and strategy, is required. By focusing on creating a culture that equips people with the right skills, businesses set up an “innovation-centric” culture, one which lays down the right conditions for people to thrive.  

Putting innovation at the heart of business models

Strong software and product offerings are no longer sufficient for businesses to remain competitive – it is now essential that creativity and innovation sits at the heart of all business models.

On the ground, this means adjusting customer analysis strategies so that they pre-empt future customer needs – not just their current needs, but those that have yet to be imagined. Increasingly savvy customers will stick with the businesses that provide a seamless, innovative service and leave behind the ones that don’t.

Innovative techniques such as a “design-thinking” approach to problem-solving will also allow teams to reach unique solutions to shifting customer demand. “Design-thinking” is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, redefine problems and challenge assumptions. It works best for approaching ill-defined or unknown problems, involving five phases – empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.

These “innovation-centric” techniques can truly transform your business model, allowing people, teams, and organisations to build a human-centred perspective while still maintaining a scientific approach – both of which are essential to innovation.

Curating an “innovation-centric” company culture

As with every change in business strategy, a focus on innovation must start with a business’ people and culture. Rather than just providing the tools and technology to forward creative thinking, businesses must focus on the bigger picture and instil an innovation-focused mindset in their people as well. This will lead to a workforce that feels encouraged to proactively solve problems and share ideas. Most importantly, they’ll also be excited about future projects. Innovation should be part of everyday thinking and no longer be separated into specific “Innovation Labs” or other “Centres of excellence”.  

While change can be nerve-wracking, it is possible to cultivate this culture shift by adopting “agility” as a technique. This process builds up an organisation’s “adaptability muscles” by focusing on helping people get used to change.

This is achieved through emphasising how change benefits team members individually, as well as the organisation as a whole. It is an iterative approach to solving problems, breaking down large, potentially risky, ideas into smaller chunks.

This technique can be implemented by first adopting a clear vision, then identifying role models in areas of change, and finally breaking down big ambitions into achievable chunks of progress.

Ultimately, this will create a culture of collaboration, continuous improvement, and experimentation, which inevitably leads to a more innovative environment. However, this will require a sustained effort and a true change in approach to be realised.

Importance of upskilling

Finally, it is vital to remember that new ideas can come from anywhere within an organisation, not just at the managerial level. To implement a meaningful culture change, innovation cannot be top-down and must instead be integrated into the way everyone in an organisation works and thinks.

Upskilling is integral to achieving this. Technology development will only take a company so far – businesses must invest in people equipping them with the necessary tools and ways of thinking. 

Training in techniques that implement concepts such as “design” or “agility” can then be applied to workstreams at all levels of a business and in all teams, leaving people feeling empowered that they are contributing to the overall culture of their organisation.

Businesses must also respect the need for their people to flourish personally, as well as professionally. Reminding people that it is an AND not OR world, and that they shouldn’t have to jeopardise their personal life in order to succeed professionally, will cultivate a culture of respect and creativity.

Happy teams = Innovative teams

Working in small units is also a great way to enable this culture. It creates the close-knit feel of belonging, making sure people feel comfortable enough to innovate and share ideas. In turn, this approach enables employees to realise their potential, learn new skills on high impact and deliver transformational work.

Wellbeing is also incredibly important in nurturing growth, and it is vital to conduct regular team health checks, being sensitive to signals and indicators in people that they might be struggling, and taking the time to stop and check in. This simple step can be powerful in helping teams and organisations identify areas requiring focus and support and is essential to any cultural change a business undergoes.

Ultimately, the key to business success in this innovation-centric world is not to just adopt new technologies, but to fully embrace innovative ways of working – and this starts by investing in people. Companies which invest in relevant training and upskilling will foster growth and ultimately end up as the stronger, most agile organisations.

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