What I Learnt Speaking to Six Founders of Innovation Companies
Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of any of the participating parties.
Innovation. Buzzword? Key to Success? The topic of your next book? This word seemed to come up even more often than businesses were announcing their new branded apps. As the omnipresence of this term in strategy reports increased, my curiosity about this space peaked and I followed some common business advice: I scratched my own itch. I went straight to the source and sat with six heads of companies involved in the innovation consulting space, to learn about their work, their approach to innovation and where they had all, it seems quite recently, sprouted from.
In search of commonalities and answers, it seemed all I came upon was a rainbow of different approaches, specializations and origins. Whether they had previously been marketing superstars, client-side strategy consultants or in one of the many noughties digital agencies, their backgrounds were as diverse as their clever names. I would soon discover that finding similarities would be a journey as adventurous as the innovation processes they described to me during their interviews. Listening back to my recordings, however (and to my great relief) I noticed some recurring themes.
Hew Leith, founder of 10x a data-driven innovation consultancy, Andrew Crysell, founder of Crowd DNA, a cultural insights and innovation business, Gary Wilson, cofounder at Fluxx, a product and service innovation company, Bianca Cawthorne, founder at Butterfly London, a brand strategy and innovation company, Costas Papaikonomou, cofounder at Happen, an innovation agency and finally Ben Little, cofounder at Fearlessly Frank an innovation consultancy.
First and foremost, given the undefined nature of this space, it became clear that knowing what your company was all about and what it did best (it’s superpower, let’s say) was of utmost importance. Some discussed how they found themselves at the beginning stages of an innovation process while others were in the room when the final product or service was being presented. For example, Andrew explained that Crowd DNA found itself “In the space of insights helping our clients understand what people are doing and how they are changing with a focus more on the foundational, the bigger stories, the trends and the cultural aspects.”
Costas, on the other hand, described how at Happen they focused on the “single frustrations or single simple solutions” and how they were all about the practical approach, “We focus on how solutions are created, capitalizing on business strengths, with commercial viability always in mind.” In the end, this party mix of companies, included those that preferred getting into weeds as well as those that mainly roamed the blue skies.
The Hammer and the Nail
Innovation starts with the consumer, period. There was practically a full consensus on this one (quite remarkable, given the diversity in other domains). Expertise and technology would forever remain benchwarmers as they were never the starters in the innovation process.
As Fearlessly Frank’s Ben pointed out, “When we set up the business, we didn’t want to be dictated by the resources that we had. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” At the end of the day, it seemed no piece of technology, nor consultant’s past PhD thesis could be the starting point for the innovation process, it all had to start with the consumer needs.
Keeping it Lean
Given that the innovators knew where to start, the next question was, where to go from there? Well, from the discussions, one thing became starkly clear: Eric Ries is likely one of the most popular kids on the block. The lean startup methodology which he helped popularize with his book had influenced many of the innovators. Hew (10x) put it succinctly “Create a minimum viable products, put it into the market, and learn. Because nine out of ten times, it’s the wrong thing.”
This rhetoric was echoed by many of the other founders. Bianca (Butterfly) for example, explained how they follow this method of build, test and evolve. This approach allowed the people working at Butterfly to base their propositions on valuable insights. She went on to describe, “We are creating very tight spaces to innovate in and then working in a more agile way.” In many cases, it seemed the lean startup methodology (or at least aspects of it) had invaded the R&D space and substituted it with P&I (prototype and iterate, that is).
And Yet Keeping it Fresh
Despite the popularity of lean among some of the founders, part of being an innovator is always being open to change. And if a reminder of this state of flexibility is required why not name your company after it (where did you think Fluxx got its name)? Despite the success of the rapid start events (two day intensive workshops) at Fluxx, don’t make the mistake of labelling them as the rapid start company. As Gary explained, “we are constantly reinventing ourselves… and along the way we create new tools and techniques but they are constantly changing”.
The teams at Fluxx weren’t the only ones taking such a flexible approach to their process, Andrew reflected on Crowd DNA’s work “I am pretty certain that in five years time this agency will still be providing recommendations and inspiration to people. I think the ways we do it, the techniques and tools we use could well have changed dramatically.” It seemed that even when one thought they had found the holy grail of methodologies, nothing was too sacred to be overthrown.
The Psychology of Persuasion
With the beginning and the middle (sort of) covered, we arrived at the grand finale. Here it turned out, was one of the most challenging aspects of the work. It was the point of persuasion. The time had come to convince others of your solution and to possibly begin the journey of implementation. This was when one would reach for their dusty copy of Cialdini’s classic for solace (signed and dedicated of course).
Ben (Fearlessly Frank) likened this introduction of a new innovation into business as usual to a surgical procedure explaining, “When a doctor gives someone a new heart, their biggest worry is that the body will reject the heart.” And Hew (10x) seemed to agree, pointing out that, “You’re not selling to a business, you’re selling to a person, who has real wants, needs and aversions.” Learning about this last stage of innovation one discovered that “save the best for last” is probably not an expression often used by innovation practitioners.
The DIY of Innovation
Finally, while the word consulting may conjure up boring images of endless excel spreadsheets, insert the word innovation, and start expecting the unexpected. The experimental spirit and out-of-the-box thinking native to these companies meant that one never really knew what they may find at their office. From stacks of dog food (check out Fluxx’s doggyssentials project they did with insurance company MoreThan) to running into a startup founder (Fearlessly Frank is always incubating a couple) these companies seemed to be full of surprises.
In many cases, they weren’t just innovating the existing suite of products and services their clients presented them with but they were spinning out completely new businesses all together. And if that was not enough, some had even opted to set up their own businesses. Hew (10x) spoke to me about IntelligentX, the world’s first beer brewed by artificial intelligence. But as he explained, it’s not about the AI technology nor is it even about the beer, “It’s about a consumer product that consumers are actively engaged in the development of. They are co-creating a product over time based on their feedback.” In the end, researching the work of the various companies ultimately lead one into the deep rabbit hole that is the web and yet sans regrets due to the interesting new things learnt in the duration of the journey.
Wrapping it All Up
The broad conclusion that I drew from the entire project turned out being that the innovation consulting space is diverse and under constant development. And the term innovation has many facets to it. Whether you’re an innovation practitioner looking for a new place to join or a director at a company searching for the right innovation consultants to hire, my advice would be research, research, and research some more. Find the right match. As often as corporate culture is discussed on the client side of things, it’s just as important on the agency side as well.
In the end this is a very exciting space to be in and while the big four were the recipients of floods of graduates in the past, I would not be surprised if the winds change and in the future, the influx of interest goes in this direction instead.
By Anna Skoulikari
Anna is an economist turned designer, with particular training in service design and user experience design. She has an insatiable curiosity which means she has a never-ending list of questions about the world around us and the people in it.
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