Embracing complexity: an open approach to innovation

Before I joined IBM I worked on a project with a healthcare company to launch a new approach to drug development. The client had spent quite some time working on the new approach and had already devised their launch plan.

My team’s role was to do the market research that would prove it could work. A little bit ‘cart before horse’ you might say, but the launch plan was at least thorough and well-considered.

The trouble was, our research found some serious risks in how the industry and the public might react that the client simply hadn’t spotted. And, whichever way we looked at the results, we couldn’t find a way to mitigate the risks in the existing plan.

The plan needed to change, but the client wasn’t budging. They had their plan and they were sticking to it. There was no room for compromise.

As you can probably imagine, the meeting in which we presented back our results was a pretty uncomfortable affair and it was clear that even if we’d wanted to, we wouldn’t be asked to support the next stage of the programme.

This turned out to be no bad thing.

We found out later that the launch plan had been put into action without any changes and that the ‘risks’ we’d foreseen had indeed come to pass. The whole programme was put on hold within five days of the launch, ‘pending review’. That was a couple of years ago and nothing’s been heard of it since.

Listening to customers seems like the most obvious thing in the world.

According to IBM’s Global C-suite study, for CEOs, customer influence is second only to the C-suite in terms of strategic influence. So why do we still hear about companies tumbling into the same predicament as my healthcare client?

They want to innovate their products and services, but whether it’s due to time restraints, resource pressure, or just an overwhelming belief in their own convictions, they continue alone. I’m certainly not arguing against the value of gut instinct, but when it comes to the practice of innovation I do believe – and experience has shown – gaining multiple perspectives on a problem or an idea is vital to finding the best answer.

That’s why I also believe in value of open innovation and the tremendous potential of social media.

Social platforms and behaviours have a major role in enabling innovation. IBM’s study into how successful organisations innovate identifies three areas where leaders outperform the competition: organisation, culture and process.


Source: More than magic: How the most successful organizations innovate, IBM Institute for Business Value, 2015.

Culture and Process are both important to my earlier point about time and resource constraints: by developing a culture that appreciates innovation and the conditions it requires, and has the processes in place to support innovation-generating activities, then you will be better-placed to act swiftly and confidently when the need arises.

Organisation and structure is the ‘glue’ that unites Culture and Process, ensuring the activities within both ‘spheres’ deliver value back to the business. It’s here where I want to focus for a moment.

By building robust structures to support ‘open’ forms of innovation it becomes possible to tap into the wealth of market intelligence and insight shared by your customers in social media. More significantly, it also becomes possible to connect with those customers directly, to formulate new ideas and concepts, and develop and prototype products in an inclusive way.

Lego Ideas is probably one of the most well-known and successful examples of open, social innovation. The platform not only helps customers build affinity with the brand, but for Lego promotes higher success rates for new initiatives, thanks to the early input from customers.

Many other organisations have experienced similar benefits:

GE has adopted an ecosystem approach to accelerate its innovation programme, ‘crowdsourcing’ ideas through Quirky, it is able to reduce risk and costs while sharing revenue with Quirky and the inventor community.

Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone producer, uses open innovation to improve product and as a vehicle for marketing and sales. Xiaomi releases a new version of its MIUI software every week in response to user feedback. The releases and feedback system are, in effect, the marketing content and channel, while the software itself provides a platform to generate sales.


LEGO Ideas

Across all industries, firms face a common challenge in the growing complexity of the business environment. Unlike my healthcare client which tried to shield itself from the uncertainty this creates by focussing inward, I believe the best way to deal with complexity is to become more complex yourself – opening up the innovation process and providing employees with the tools and environments (physical or virtual) in which to engage in collaboration.

Of course, systems of governance must be in place to protect the firm and the collaborators, but in an environment where customers have the means and the will to share their views and ideas, surely it would be foolish not to listen?

Also published at IBM iX Blog: http://bit.ly/1CLrTSW

From the ridiculous to the sublime

A week ago the Internet was buzzing with debate about the colour of a dress.

Today the Salvation Army turned it into a provocative and thought-provoking advertising campaign about domestic violence.

It’s a brilliant piece of creative subversion that the Salvation Army should be applauded for, enabled by close monitoring of trends; creative expertise; swift decision-making and good management of media channels.

Combine all those things together in one team and it’s amazing what can be achieved – from Oreo’s taking of Twitter by storm after a Superbowl power cut to the kind of rich coverage of a serious social issue we’ve seen today.

It’s also a great illustration of why I love the Internet – you can go from the utterly ephemeral to the most complex and serious of stories in a moment.

And often when you’re least expecting it.

Leadership and Open Innovation

Yesterday, Innovation Excellence published a forthright post by Paul Sloane about the factors impeding the growth of open innovation. IE lays the responsibility squarely on CEOs, who, the post argues, say all the right things about innovation, but aren’t following up with enough action.

The post made me think of this profile of Jack Welch, reflecting on his time as chairman and CEO of General Electric. Towards the end of the film he talks about how he saw his role as leader, as moving around the corporation “with a can of water in one hand and a can of fertilizer in the other”, using his knowledge, experience and expertise to help the companies and people who make GE to grow.

I’ve never worked for GE, so I’ve no idea how closely Jack Welch’s perception of his role matched the reality of what he did, but what is interesting is that of the few companies Paul Sloane names as making strides forward in open innovation, GE is on the list.

Taking an edge

Picture of Ling's Leases owner, Ling Valentine, with her personal truck

Not sure what the lease rate is on this one. Source: http://www.lingscars.com

The other day I was planning a client workshop with a colleague, when we discovered our mutual love of www.lingscars.com

What’s great about Lings Leases is that it doesn’t so much ignore every rule in the book when it comes to web design, it takes the rule book and bludgeons the authors into submission until they’re willing to admit that animated gifs are actually a very good thing indeed and that every website should have them. Along with some karaoke sing-a-longs too.

Although then again, does it?

Ling’s Leases reminds me a bit of a Tommy Cooper performance; at first glance it looks like a gloriously haphazard amateurish mess, but take a closer look and you realise a lot of thought and planning have gone in to both to provoke a certain reaction.

For Tommy Cooper, it was laughter; for Ling’s Leases, it’s trust. And probably a bit of laughter too.

Ling clearly recognised that to build a brand in a highly competitive and mature market, like car leasing, she had to get an edge.

That meant creating a service proposition and a website completely unlike anything else in the marketplace.

She also recognised that the best way to win the trust of customers was to give her business personality, and what better personality to place at the heart of her marketing than her own?

A woman in a male-dominated industry, a recent immigrant to the UK and with an irreverent sense of humour, Ling is perfectly placed to offer customers something different and she does that so openly and directly it’s hard not to be convinced by her.

A very different website that I was browsing around the other day is the new Guardian.

Definitely a different experience to Lings Leases, but actually the underlying values aren’t too dissimilar.

Transparency and personality are still central to the experience: a cleaner presentation, better integration of pictures and video, the ability to embed Guardian content in your own blog or website to aid sharability, and we can even see what the Guardian journalists are reading to inform their ideas and writing.

According to the latest edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer (my former employer) firms need to think hard about how they build trust with customers, as the average level of trust in business is apparently declining:

There’s a lesson here I think about personality: the more genuine personality you can bring to your marketing and the more you can make your people part of the marketing communication, the more potential you’ll have to build trust.

This takes more than simply featuring pictures of your staff on the website or in glossy brochures; it depends on their direct participation in the communications activity and the willingness of the firm to give them autonomy to tell the firm’s story.

By all means work with them to craft that story in the first place – in fact, make that an essential part of your plan – but allow them to tell it in their own way.

The subject matter might be different, but Ling and the Guardian both tell powerful stories.

Cut outs #7: Time for a social network shake-up?

New social tools pop up all the time, and long may that continue.

A few stories I’ve spotted recently though suggest a bit of shake-up is happening amongst the popular social platforms.

Emarketer has noted a declining trend in the use of Facebook by teenagers in the UK and US.

And the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Myspace is still alive and well, carving out a tidy nice for itself as a community for music lovers.

No doubt Facebook will be working hard on innovation to stay fresh and relevant to new generations who want something different to the people who arrived on the network 10 years ago.

But with developments in technology making it easier and cheaper to launch new networks, and more sophisticated data collection and analysis enabling better customer segmentation and marketing, the potential for more platforms and tools to emerge and establish business models that will enable them to flourish seems to be growing.

The business sector too is showing some real movement. At IBM 65% of CIOs tell us that collaboration is their major investment priority (IBM CXO survey). While today, Slack’s CEO said today that interest in the business message app is growing off the scale.

Everybody likes to find their own space to play.

Cut outs #6: New business models

In August last year Ello burst on to the scene, promising an ad-free social networking experience and later establishing itself as a “public benefit corporation“, as a way to seal that promise.

Meanwhile in the music industry, platforms like weeSPIN are applying Big Data technologies to solve the artist royalties and industry revenues conundrum by enabling brands to partner with artists in a form of content marketing.

Now 8 has appeared: a new video-sharing platform promising greater content ownership for producers and control over advertising revenues.



My prediction for 2015

Source: visitlondon.com

Source: visitlondon.com

This is less of a prediction and more of a hope.

And for brevity’s sake I’m restricting myself to one because after all; there are enough lists of 2015 predictions out there already without me adding to the stack.

2014 has seen some fantastic examples of social media marketing, but despite the wealth of creativity and increasingly keen measurement on display, brands and organisations are still only scratching the surface of what’s possible in social.

The decline (or demise) of organic reach in Facebook and the potential for the same thing to happen on other platforms has been a big topic of conversation this year.

It’s certainly a significant development and it should prompt much more creativity in content strategy and I hope more considered customer segmentation too, but in 2015 I’d like to see organisations think beyond content marketing and brand promotion, and get a grasp of what social means for other business functions like customer service; innovation; customer relationship management and partner collaboration.

I’m being a bit harsh here (maybe it’s the Christmas fatigue setting in) – there are some great examples out there of organisations approaching social in a truly strategic way, but they are still the exception rather than the rule and in 2015 I’d love to see more organisations taking determined steps forward.

And that’s not just to keep me in a job…I genuinely want to see something new!

I talk to plenty of people in organisations of all sizes who recognise the potential social has to offer, but struggle to make a change due to the lack of internal will or direction in the places where they work.

This year I’d like to see more leaders recognise the opportunity to gain some competitive advantage and deliver more value to customers by thinking strategically about how they can harness the social character of their organisations.

I’d also like to see more people at lower levels in organisations applying their initiative to make positive, constructive changes.

After all, that’s often where the best ideas come from.

This obviously takes a bit of gumption from workers, but also the culture change, systems and technology to support them.

Top-down change and more creative impetus from the grassroots could make for an exciting combination.

The technology and cultural potential is there, I hope more organisations have the will to harness it.