How innovation can accelerate digital transformation

by Emily Chan Product and Innovation Capabilities Lead

The changes required to adapt to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have created an organisational openness to agile working and values – from people and culture, to structure and technology. Business leaders are telling us that the transformations they expected to take up to five years to implement instead happened in a matter of months.

So what’s the key to activating an innovation strategy and powering real transformation? It lies with three Cs: commitment, catalysts and craft.

Commitment: Transformation requires unambiguous buy-in from leadership. When leaders clearly articulate and show appreciation for innovation, they send a powerful signal on priorities to internal and external audiences. Commitment also includes championing innovators.

Catalysts: This involves choosing and creating the right enablers to accelerate the development and adoption of transformation across the organisation. You can’t expect an innovation strategy to succeed if you starve it of resources. Catalysts require investments in capabilities, technologies, workspaces, organisational structures and methods.

Craft: This can be the most difficult part. It’s about introducing change through the catalysts in a way that works with your organisational structure and culture. It also includes having the ingenuity to craft an approach that balances business understanding with insight and technology innovation. Craft is based on developing processes that augment and supplement existing innovation strengths.

Using the three Cs will help you activate your innovation strategy and build a balanced portfolio with space for all types of change. Our survey found 59% of UK CEOs have the digital transformation of core business operations and digitising current processes as a top three priority (61% globally). The three Cs can help you with adjacent innovation too, such as creating new offerings (15% of UK CEOs - 17% globally - are looking to add digital products or services), as well as far-out, disruptive ideas unlike anything you’ve done before.

So what’s the problem?

Innovative solutions that drive transformation can involve identifying fundamental problems in the business, rather than merely addressing symptoms. Too often, there’s a rush to offer solutions without understanding such problems.

Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean starting from zero, though. Some of the biggest innovations involve building on things that already exist but in new ways. It can mean doing new things with existing resources; bringing old ideas to new products, people and places; or creating new combinations of old ideas. Finding ways to test and reuse existing solutions in new ways that meet business needs can result in real innovation. A famous example is the children’s toy Play-Doh, which was originally a wallpaper cleaner. Successfully pivoting existing technologies and services requires as much innovation and invention as starting with a blank sheet of paper.

We recently saw proof of this ourselves. We rapidly designed a programme that uses our ‘always on’ online innovation platform and launched an ‘Ideaspace’ during lockdown. This provided a way to capture and evaluate the spontaneous outpouring of ideas from our people on ways to support our communities, clients and our own organisation. We found that 60% of the ideas already existed in some form and the innovation was in finding new ways to use them.

‘Ideaspace’ was successful because we didn’t put finding solutions first. Instead, we asked for an identification of problems or potential problems. Focusing on solutions can constrain how you think. Remember the theory of constraints: every organisation has constraints that limit it from achieving some of its goals. It follows that if you can identify those constraints, you can turn them to your advantage. A real-world example can be found in the COVID-19 pandemic. It has forced businesses to identify weak links and innovate to turn things around. Solutions come from really seeing the problem and understanding your true capabilities.

Ideaspace invited participation from the whole of our 22,000-strong workforce and produced high-quality ideas, some of which are now being turned into reality. We also applied our learnings from running other innovation challenges. A deadline is always crucial: half of the submissions came in the final 24 hours. It’s important to give personalised feedback, too. It takes courage to put down your thoughts and then submit them. Feedback creates an innovation-friendly space.

Lockdown triggered a fresh look at external events like our CIO Forum, as well. In a world where everyone is comfortable with remote access, the constraints changed on who might be asked to participate and who could attend a business event.

By committing to innovation and transformation, providing the catalysts and applying the craft, it’s possible to do more and do it more quickly than seemed possible just a year ago. We’d be happy to discuss how to accelerate innovation within your organisation. Now is the time to see what you’re truly capable of.

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by Emily Chan Product and Innovation Capabilities Lead

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