Don’t let good ideas die - five ways to shift innovation projects from theory to practice

David Mitchell • Commercial Director, UK

“We don’t try to boil the ocean.” On the face of it, my company’s approach to innovation success sounds a bit low key. And yet, as the FT Innovation Dialogues - “The Change Challenge” event revealed, the gap between grand visionary ambitions around innovation and the real world challenges of actually delivering new processes and products, is where a lot of innovation projects come unstuck. Or, as one of the panellists humorously put it, “where do good ideas go to die in your organisation?

I was lucky enough to be on a panel chaired by FT managing editor Andrew Hill, alongside productivity and innovation specialists including Shilpa Bhandarkar from Linklaters, PA Consulting’s Sam Bunting, Diageo’s Brian Franz and Jacqueline Linke, associate director, leadership and culture at Transport for New South Wales. Our brief was to discuss how companies can organise for success and implement meaningful change by cutting through red tape and making decision making more horizontal.

Diageo’s Brian Franz outlined his mission to get people within the business to connect differently to value in the organisation. When it comes to introducing new ideas or ways of working, resistance to change is par for the course: To tackle this, Linklater’s Shilpa Bhandarkar emphasised the importance of questions such as “why are you asking for this change?” - and of being able to answer in a way that communicates the value of change to people resisting it. For her part, Jacqueline Linke explained how she has banned the word “failure” from discussions around innovation projects: in her view “innovation is about a growth mindset.”

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And then Andrew Hill asked me how companies can reconcile the gulf between the lofty purpose and language that often accompanies innovation projects, with the need for innovation teams to actually deliver a tangible product and service.

Drawing on that discussion, here are my top five tips for moving from innovation principles to delivering projects that add tangible value.

1. Ask “which customer problem can we solve that will have real impact?”

When it comes to innovation there is this misconception that an entire organisation’s needs to be realigned around innovation very quickly. This is neither realistic nor practical. At Futurice we look at innovation through a ‘maker’s lens’. We work with our clients to show them how to quickly move through the gears of innovation and get ideas implemented quickly.

We firmly believe that all innovation should be underpinned by good strategic thinking: our approach is to zoom in on an individual business problem or subset of problems that are worth solving from a customer and commercial point of view. Then we look at how these can be tackled in a human-centric way and with minimum investment. This pragmatic approach allows innovation teams to be able to demonstrate concrete results - that haven’t required a huge investment or taken months to execute - so that the wider company can quickly see tangible benefits of innovation projects.

2. Pick the right people

In order for innovation to flourish, it’s important to embrace diversity of ideas and personalities, not simply to choose people who merely echo each other’s thinking or ways of working. This point is reinforced in a recent Forbes insight survey where 56% of companies with over $10 billion in annual revenues, strongly agreed that diversity helps drive innovation. As the FT panel discussions revealed, putting together innovation teams involves being aware of the role unconscious bias can play and deliberately stepping away from that. It also means innovation leaders charged with recruiting team members, going out and talking to as many people as possible and making efforts to engage more introverted types who won’t necessarily put themselves forward, rather than picking those who shout loudest. That said, innovation teams need to be enthusiastic and to share a similar vision when it comes to the desire to do things better, as they will be ambassadors for new ways of working in their organisations.

3. Build consensus

When it comes to ensuring digital innovation initiatives deliver, a key part of the CDO role is mediating between the different leaders in the bank, many of whom have conflicting priorities. Building consensus is a challenge but it’s essential to the success of any innovation project. It should include agreeing the problem areas worth addressing, identifying the impact you want to see and for whom (it could be customers, or employees of a particular business unit). Any innovation project should also consider its potential impact on the organisation’s ways of working and how this might be achieved.

One real world example of what consensus looks like in practice, is the Face Recognition Experiment at Helsinki Airport which Futurice conducted with Finnair and airport operator Finavia. Before arriving at the airport for their flights, Finnair frequent flyer customers who volunteered for the trial, were asked to take three photos of their faces and upload them to a central server where the images were converted to untraceable biometric IDs. In return, the project gave these customers a more personalised, “hands-free” check-in experience: as the trial participants queued at the dedicated check-in desk, a ceiling camera took their photo and matched it to the one they had uploaded to the system. The passenger details flashed up on the screens of the check-in desk, allowing staff to greet the passenger by name as they arrived at the desk to start the check-in process proactively. In this instance, the collaboration between Finnair and Finavia helped to enhance and streamline the customer experience of check-in. The experiment also positively impacted Finnair and Finavia’s brand image as customer experience champions and pioneers of new technologies.

4. Speak the same language

Our experience of innovation projects chimes with Andrew Hill’s recent article discussing how one of the the biggest barriers to successful innovation, is the lack of common language among those involved in the “how the why and the what of innovation.” Words like “agile” “innovation” “design” are subject to a huge variety of interpretation. We’re not just talking about how business and tech communicate, it’s about ensuring that all the different parties, disciplines, specialisms and levels of management involved in becoming more agile or more focussed on the consumer, share the same understanding of what these words mean. The more organisational layers the message needs to filter through, the greater the risk that the message about what the innovation is trying to achieve, will get distorted and won’t land with the people responsible for making it happen.

5. Tool up

The key to good communication is ensuring that the right questions are being asked of the right people at the right time. It sounds so simple, yet in our experience few companies get this right and the consequence is a lack of value creation for the business. Luckily there are a plethora of good tool kits and methodologies which help bring innovation theory into the real world by encouraging communication and collaboration. Futurice has created several including Lean Service Creation, the IoT Service Kit and Intelligence Augmentation Design Kit which we use in client projects all over Europe.

For more information about how we can help your business implement innovation initiatives that deliver real value, effectively and fast please connect on LinkedIn or email me at

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