The drivers of sustainable & disruptive innovation

How do companies innovate? It’s not all ping pong and beer on a Friday.

We live in a world where every firm in every sector describes themselves as “innovative” – but very few are driving sustainable and disruptive innovation. Incubators, R&D labs, Design Studios – we all have them, and implementing experimental environments is a step to becoming innovative. No single working style, space, tool, leader or skill can deliver consistent innovation, and there are a lot of myths around the drivers of a truly innovative culture. Through analysis of the top innovative organisations around the globe, I am going to explore 3 core components of the innovation engine that drive steady and successful disruption.

  1. Curious people develop disruptive ideas.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein.

 Theoretical physicist and philosopher, Albert Einstein 

Having people who are driven to understand how things work, means they understand how to make things better. These types of people (the passionately curious ones) are able to use insights to build concepts/models that make sense of business problems, and it is when building these deceptively simple concepts that they stumble across disruptive ideas.

Ensuring you have passionately curious people, stems from your hiring strategy. Look at the most successful innovative companies in the world (Tesla, Google, Apple, Amazon), do you know how hard it is to get into these firms? In 2018, Tesla received 500,000 applications for 2500 jobs, meaning the chance of getting a job is 0.5%. Part of their application process is to bring a portfolio that demonstrates your “innovative” capabilities. Once passing the portfolio presentation, candidates will be asked to solve a coding test on the spot to demonstrate you are not only smart, but you can problem solve, communicate your thinking and feel comfortable with ambiguity. Being extremely strict around your human capital’s three C’s (competencies, capabilities and curiosities) is the first step to driving sustainable innovation. This may seem blatantly obvious, but there are few firms that impose such demanding recruitment processes that are truly aligned to their vision. If you want to foster passionate curiosity, find a means to test people’s curiosity.

Elon Musk is a technology entrepreneur and engineer: founder, CEO of SpaceX; co-founder, CEO of Tesla, Inc; co-founder PayPal.

2. Accountability for performance and constraints around experiments  

The late Steve Jobs was the first to say great ideas could kill productivity. “Focusing is about saying no” (1997 Worldwide Developers Conference), and this is a mantra that is still applicable today.

If you have 15 extraordinary innovators that are set free to experiment, your organisation will be pulled in 15 wild directions, and innovation will become a distraction. Apple sets a strict culture of accountability at all levels. It is not about impressing your peers, it is about holding employees accountable for the quality of their work. If you are granted the time to experiment, you are responsible for the outcome and you will face the consequences of failure. Experiments must have timeboxes, clear resource allocation and defined outcomes that align with your organisational vision and equate to success. The harsh reality is if this criterion is not met then projects must be terminated, or in some past cases, employees must be terminated. If the experiment criterion is met, then these ideas must be tortured with tests to ensure their longevity and sustainability.

Media has developed a perception of experimentation as young trendy entrepreneurs sitting on beanbags, playing hip hop music and sipping beer whilst they “innovate” on MacBook’s – this could not be further away from the truth. Not only is this inaccurate, but it is also corrupting millennials views on the hard work that goes into building new products/services.

This works in Hollywood, and occasionally Google.

3. Assumptions kill good ideas

With smart people performing controlled experiments, your next step is the torture test. This form of extreme stress test happens well before customer testing and product development, and the purpose of this is to remove bias, emotional attachment, irrelevant insights, and inject rationality. Often in-house innovation comes hand-in-hand with emotional attachment (I know how this feels), blinding us from our own assumptions.

It is important to break an idea down into its individual elements (materials, technology, people, size, name, price, production etc) and assess the data, feasibility and viability behind each component. This will determine whether our guiding insights are irrational or rational. Once outlining any assumptions with an idea, we need to build environments to test them and destroy them. This requires fierce questioning, blue sky thinking to consider alternative worlds, combined with sharp direction and precise decision making.

I am going to address a potential paradox in my thinking. As a Human-Centred design consultant, I am always the first person to preach about adopting a “fail fast” mentality, embracing the cycle of build, test, break and iterate. Encouraging organisations to rapidly test and learn with customers is a design thinking technique to transform their aversion to risk and ambiguity, and to drive the design process into their ways of working and ultimately organisational DNA. It is predominantly used to aid culture change and explore (untouched) creative capabilities. In this instance, I am talking about how large leading organisations (think Apple and Telsa) are consistently sustaining a disruptive product line. Of course, they will engage with excessive customer testing, but only with exceptional ideas.

I am not going to touch upon the more traditionally recognised components of organisational innovation (future-focused leadership, providing time to innovate, celebrating failure etc), as they are widely shared concepts. My focus upon hiring strategy, experimentation constraints and assumption analysis stems from personal innovation failure, and I strongly believe that they are 3 components that are overlooked! Perhaps if HR, R&D and Strategy teams worked cross-functionally, more firms would build unstoppable innovation engines.