Innovation cultivation a key competitive edge in the global market

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“Through this pandemic, we’ve become a truly innovative and agile company.” I’ve probably heard that statement 100 times in the last six months.

Most of these companies witnessed significant accomplishments such as moving their operations to “work from home” in a matter of weeks when their IT team previously said it could take a year. Some launched curbside pickup in days; others diverted their resources and expertise to manufacture much needed health and safety supplies. Many reduced meetings, made decisions exponentially faster and embraced technology solutions they were previously hesitant to. These are all to be applauded.

However, my fear is that organizations are viewing these one-off achievements to stake their claim as being an innovative company. In a world that continues to accelerate in social, political and technological change, any false sense of modernization can breed dangerous complacency.

This often happens when companies compare their successes only against their past behaviours. Instead, companies and their leaders should be looking outside their borders and sectors to see how fast other markets are moving. Most would then find that they’re much less innovative than they previously thought.

So what does a truly innovative company look like? In no particular order, they likely:

•innovate in multiple horizons;

•have identified ecosystem partners they frequently meet and periodically collaborate with;

•have democratized innovation across most of the organization;

•have a culture of experimentation;

•are transparent with innovation wins and losses; and

•their default ideation teams are cross functional and intentionally diverse.

While these companies are rare, they do exist. I’ve worked in and have consulted many. Unsurprisingly, a disproportionate number of them come from startup and scale-up tech. If every company is, or will soon become, a “tech company” then that will be the benchmark standard.

Making your culture truly innovative takes a strategic commitment from the CEO and is created from the bottom up. As a starting point, I encourage every company to regularly host non-technical hackathons and design jams so every team member in the organization has an outlet to flex his or her creative muscles and contribute to innovation.

Teams should then be afforded the time, talent and budget to experiment with ideas and report back their success or learning. And while I am opposed to attaching return on investment to many innovation conversations, the notion of innovation accounting is imperative.

We’ve found for example, that one in 30 ideas is testable, one in 300 has a measurable impact on solving a problem and one in 3,000 is a game changer.

Incremental innovation and patience is important. Expecting a home run in your first at-bat or believing you will be innovative just because you’ve preached that innovation is a strategic priority are generally poorly calculated expectations.

Sadly, both scenarios are all too common.

Innovation theatre is a term used to describe what happens when companies talk about innovation but have no throughput in their innovation funnel or measurable improvement to their company culture. This is rarely intentional and more often a common step in the innovation journey many companies initially embark on.

But innovation theatre can be a positive stage that I liken to people who just served the first amazing meal they learned in an online master class. They should pat themselves on the back, but avoid calling themselves a chef because they have little context as to the knowledge and skills a true chef possesses.

People and companies are still moving too slowly. Most were already far behind modern organizational practices that no matter how many wins they’ve had in the last year, they at best may have just caught up to the pre-COVID standard.

Many parts of the world are pushing the pace faster every day. From exponential technologies such as the internet of things, spatial computing and blockchain to creating employee experiences that foster diversity, equity and inclusion, and, of course, challenging all our old assumptions about what problems we solve for our customers, much of the world is in a reset mode, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what will stick in the coming years.

What is certain in my mind is that the awakening many organizations have experienced through COVID, must now shift into the next gear – or two. Companies have a much greater chance of success when innovation and agility are apparent daily in all their teams.

As with any culture change, it takes time, resources and a strong desire.

The good news is that Vancouver has an abundance of talent, forward-thinking leaders and blossoming ecosystems that are begging for their teams and companies to become more innovative.

Sadly, too many restaurants and entertainment venues have closed during the pandemic, but the only one that should be going forward is the innovation theatre. • 

Rocky Ozaki is the founder and CEO of the NoW of Work Inc.