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Innovation beyond the pandemic: Six principles for success

Innovation is elusive. According to Lenovo’s new research, two in three senior executives believe the pandemic has made their businesses more creative, but almost as many (61%) cannot agree how to take their innovation to the next level.

The key is to stop paying lip-service to innovation and embed it in the business’ DNA. How? We asked six innovation leaders, all with track records of building cultures of experimentation, for their guidance.

#1: Don’t skip the basics. Crystalise your terms and scale

“Everybody talks about innovation,” says Yoichiro Hirai, Managing Director and Partner, Head of APAC and Japan at BCG Digital Ventures. “But you need to start by clarifying what you mean and what impact you have in mind. What do you want to achieve?”

Defining innovation has become more important because innovation has evolved. “People thought it was about doing something small-scale, like a start-up,” recalls Hirai. “But now it can be about making a bigger impact, reflecting a chunk of new revenue. We're not talking about 10 million, 20 million in revenues. We're talking about a billion, 10 billion dollars.”

#2: Your people aren’t the problem – it’s the system

Every business contains innovative people. But all too often, the organization gets in their way. “The villain is the institutional inertia that pulls you back to yesterday,” argues Scott Anthony, Senior Partner at Innosight.

Business leaders should urge staff to experiment within parameters that give them psychological safety. “If you design a well-thought-out experiment, and the experiment disproves your hypothesis, that's okay. Either your hypothesis is right, and you move forward, or you've learned your hypothesis was wrong and you try something else. Both are good.”

#3: Democratise the process

Innovation is a human endeavour, but some assume innovation only comes from dedicated teams, while failing to encourage others in the business.

“Allow innovation to become a discretionary activity,” suggests Tim Heard, Manager at 11:FS and Co-Founder of Circle of Intrapreneurs. “Rather than relying on a team of hipsters in your innovation unit, make it an activity that anyone can participate in. People will surprise you. Don’t give them reason to think you will take their ideas off them – give them access to the expertise they need to develop them themselves.”

#4: Strike a balance between speed and stakeholder buy-in

Business units will struggle if disruptive ideas are imposed upon them. Organizations that focus all their energies on ensuring speed to market may be disappointed, says Pamela Mar, Executive Vice President of Knowledge and Applications at the Fung Academy.

“You have to let people have authority to shape innovation,” Mar says. “You’re supporting them as they adapt it to their own operation. It is a trade-off between getting to scale and a slower approach where there is ownership and empowerment.”

#5: Give ideas time to breathe

Beware the pressure for demonstrating results, says Daryl Cromer, Chief Technology Officer of PCs and Smart Devices at Lenovo. Concerns about day-to-day performance limit bandwidth. When people get excited about change, they focus on the immediate impact, but the greatest innovations are unpredictable and play out over decades.

“You have to be careful not to over-index today while we miss tomorrow,” Cromer warns. “Every time there is a transformation in the industry, companies over-predict the short-term changes, and don’t give thought to the long-term implications.”

#6: Nurture innovation: don’t teach it

“I’m convinced that you can’t teach innovation – all you can do is ensure you have the right environment to foster it,” argues Gareth Davies, Head of Global Logistics at Lenovo. “That requires an environment in which people are empowered.”

Davies stresses the importance of consistent effort. Employees must be encouraged to share ideas. "We have numerous forums including, Employee Groups, skip-level 1:1 meetings, flash calls across each region,” he says. “As these evolve, you find you start out with the team listening, learning and responding to your challenges, but you end up listening, learning and being challenged by them.”

Read the full report