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, Co-Founder 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