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12 January 2018

Catherine Howe

When innovation turns to the dark side

At the Solace in the Midland’s conference, I spoke about how innovation can drive transformation, but, unexpectedly, subvert it too. How can a factor essential to the transformation process also lead it astray?

In the journey to digital transformation you may need to make some significant and scary leaps to get from where you are to where you want to be. Leaps of imagination, of mindset, sometimes of faith, but often of implementation.

The implementation gap can be one of the most daunting divides in the process of change, especially when what’s on the other side is largely unknown.

When Capita helps businesses enact a successful digital transformation, we first encourage them to consider what they are trying to achieve. Do they just want to row that boat faster, or is their aim to set to sea with an entirely new and improved craft?

The first will likely involve fairly pragmatic changes, but the second – a service redesign – will call for systematic innovation. That’s where the real challenges will arise, as along the way you’ll need to adjust people’s world views, and then take them with you if your ambition is to rewrite the future.

A creative discipline

It’s here that innovation truly comes into play, but counter to expectations it can be a blocker as well as an enabler. Organisations that believe innovation will somehow look after itself once the fuse is lit can be disappointed when they don’t get the satisfying bang they were looking for.

Innovation is a disciplined and creative process that should sit easily alongside agile or other iterative development methods. In fact, when the far side of that implementation gap really is unexplored territory, the only sensible strategy is continuous iterative and tangible experimentation to gradually shepherd you towards your future vision.

Where teams often fail – or at least fail to learn – is in two areas: having a sensible process to decide where to focus their creativity, and understanding how they want to measure or understand the impact of what they are doing.

One of the tools we use to address this is The Hopper – a seven-stage innovation process that discovers, designs, develops and delivers specific interventions to usher an organisation towards effective digital change.  It runs through a number of iterations, carefully constrained and guided, so that only viable, achievable ideas, products and user journeys emerge at the far end.

It’s an engine fine-tuned to ignite and burn innovation to yield the maximum horsepower.

Three innovation errors businesses make:

So, if this process can be made to work well, where do we see organisations getting it wrong?

  • First – innovation is not people staring into the cosmos and imagining flying cars. It’s a broad church. Lean innovation that features constant, small, continual improvement – innovation with a small i if you like – is just as valid as large-scale reimaginings of the corporate context.
  • Second – innovation is not an elite sport. Everyone in your business can have an idea; it’s what human beings do. However, elevate it to a higher plain and suddenly you have a lot of employees believing it’s not for them, and not their responsibility. It’s not unusual to see boards rushing up the change curve with the light of innovation in their eyes, only to realise they haven’t brought the rest of the business with them. Slow down, give your people a reason to change, get them involved, and while it may take longer, you’ll be in a better place at the end.
  • Third – innovation is not an instruction. I’ve witnessed sessions where all you need do is mention the word and people freeze like cornered prey. They’ve been subjected to too many instances of ‘innovation by bean bag’, where a chief exec has demanded the organisation “become more innovative” and a series of itchily uncomfortable navel gazing meetings ensue. When it’s no longer about what you do, but about what’s done to you – when it becomes just another task – that’s when innovation swaps from tool to label, and from enabler to blocker.

We list innovation as one of our five key engines of change (the others are people, technology smd infrastructure, knowledge, and process and service). That’s because without it you simply won’t bridge that implementation gap. You won’t have the mechanism that will allow you to see how the world could be.

Crossing that gap can be hard, but once you recognise there are tools and techniques for doing it (and we’ve spent a long time divining the ones that actually work…) your chances of doing it successfully will improve substantially.

Innovation, viewed correctly, is a driver of change, especially in the midst of agile, iterative thinking – a mindset that dovetails perfectly with digital transformation. But it can also be a tripwire, so get help, or even with the best of intentions, in your search for innovation, you may just end up setting traps for yourself.

Photo of Catherine Howe

Catherine Howe

Digital innovation director, Capita

Catherine is an expert in how communities embrace digital innovation, be it in smart cities, digital democracy or social change. She has over 15 years’ experience, throughout the UK and Europe, looking at how new technologies can best benefit individuals and communities and how the Networked Society can prosper from the coming innovations that will impact where and how we live and work. Working across the public sector she is currently helping deliver projects such as the ground breaking NHS Citizen initiative as well as digital leadership programmes within local government.

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