If creativity is the starting point for innovation, then play is the starting point for creativity. But without a connected ecosystem, both in and outside the organisation, great ideas will fail to come to fruition. Harnessing diversity of thought and empowering your workforce with curiosity, passion and collaboration, is how businesses need to behave if they want to become constant innovators.
01 February 2021 • 6 min read
Photograph: Benjamin Suter/Unsplash
Many businesses think about innovation as something that happens in a linear fashion: a goal is set, a roadmap developed, a team assigned and off you go on a project. But is this approach still relevant today?
I would argue that it’s not. Businesses need to innovate at speed. Beyond a more flexible and agile approach to the process of innovation, it’s critical we develop new ways to behave as organisations.
What if you had, at your fingertips, all the elements you needed to create and deliver a much-demanded product or service innovation? Imagine a toolbox of components, a set of building blocks, which can be configured into any shape; with such an abundance of possible combinations, very precise needs can be met (and quickly).
Most of the time, ‘innovation’ doesn’t come from people with it in their job title.
Think of these building blocks as pliable, able to adapt to whatever you need depending on what the situation requires. How you assemble these blocks is up to you: your R&D can suddenly become more agile and dynamic; your customer experiences, products and processes can be renewed.
Remember, though, that putting in the work early to understand exactly what building blocks you have in the business, is the only way to ensure you can create the right combinations when you need to. As Thomas Edison said, brilliant inventions are ‘1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’. By having done the legwork to thoroughly understand the assets at your disposal, when the moment of opportunity strikes, you’ll be hitting the ground running.
Already, we’re witnessing the advent of these changes in how businesses operate: enterprises are using cloud services to quickly scale elements of their business to meet the demand for online services. But this is just one aspect of how companies can transform by adopting a more modular approach to how they innovate.
When I talk to clients about how to create building blocks within their enterprises, inevitably, LEGO comes up. The Danish toy innovator enjoys unrivalled success, thanks to a simple but immensely powerful premise: with a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.
With a set of simple LEGO bricks, a myriad of exciting objects can be built, even with the basic original bricks that were designed 70 years ago. But then the LEGO system evolved, with a huge range of different bricks produced in the 1990s that, while each had a specific individual purpose, could all still be attached to any other brick with a standard connector. The clever bit, though, is the prodigious inventory of components that the LEGO innovators have at their disposal: they’re able to re-use bricks for entirely new (and unintended) purposes.
In the LEGO inventory of your business, the bricks are your technology platforms, your people and your processes. They are your data. They are that capability that you brought in for a tactical reason but your team is telling you could be used for so much more. They are your partners, and start-ups with a really cool idea. They are your customers and their untapped (or as yet unknown) needs. They are anything that you could use as an asset to help you build your future.
Using your toolset of building blocks, and approaching every challenge with curiosity, passion and collaboration is where great ideas intersect to become disruptive new products.
Part of my role is to ensure that our clients have both the tools and the right culture to innovate. NTT DATA helps enterprises define new tools and business processes that can flex, be modified and be augmented as each new iteration of the business demands. Modifiable foundation tools, platforms and capabilities mean your teams have a rich and diverse toolset at their disposal. But without a robust approach to knowledge management (i.e. knowing what you’ve got to play with) and, crucially, an inclusive and collaborative environment, you won’t get the most from this toolbox of tricks.
When play and exploration are encouraged in the workplace, innovation can flourish – but this does need direction. Rather than passively waiting for inspiration to strike, innovation is about understanding customer needs and proactively doing new things (or the same things in new ways) to address them – and recognising that the best ideas often come from those on the frontline with your customers. A diversity of thought is needed to generate new solutions that make use of the assets, or the building blocks, in the organisation. Most of the time, ‘innovation’ doesn’t come from people with it in their job title.
The business building blocks which make up an organisation’s ability to innovate can, all too often, be disparate and isolated. The concept of interacting through play is rarely considered a business imperative. But I have seen first-hand the positive impact that a free and flexible approach to project development, when structured and defined like play, can have on the project outcomes.
When we play, three important things happen: we are curious, we find enjoyment and we realise that it’s better when there are more people involved.
Curiosity is a powerful element of play, as this drives the desire to discover, create and innovate. All businesses should strive to create an ecosystem that has curiosity at its core. Without asking ‘why’ and ‘how’, world-class innovation won’t take place.
We enjoy the experience of discovery, of finding a solution to a problem, because passion is present. For us at NTT DATA, we’re driven by the desire to have a positive impact on the lives of our clients, our colleagues, our partners and society. Passion is the fuel that curiosity uses to find answers. A passionate team has that extra, unwavering bit of motivation to keep going when a project’s goals seem unattainable.
Play allows us to engage socially with others, in a pursuit which is purely for its own end – there is no further motive than to enjoy what you’re doing. Whilst in a business setting there is, of course, another agenda, the similarity is that you are engaged in achieving something together. Teams and individuals must be free to collaborate, both internally and with partners outside the organisation. Really successful, truly innovative companies demonstrate a level of maturity and an enlightened view that a project will use whatever collaborative resources are available.
If the digital transformation of the last few years, and particularly the acceleration of that journey due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has taught us anything, it’s that rapid, seismic change can be achieved if more organisations pull together.
These three elements of play are, I believe, the cornerstones of innovation. Using your toolset of building blocks, and approaching every challenge with curiosity, passion and collaboration is where great ideas intersect to become disruptive new products or services.
The business leaders I speak to can find this a difficult change to apply. But those who embrace change, who challenge the status quo and the well-worn processes, are reaping the benefits. New ways of working, new products or services, or even whole new business models, can emerge from an environment of play.
Many of the clients I speak to want a definition of what an innovative business culture looks like; a template from which they can build their own. Here are some of the elements I believe are critical to nurturing a culture of collaborative innovation.
Thorough appreciation of customer needs (as opposed to wants). Using the data and insights your business already has, in order to define customer needs, is the foundation onto which your company can build a culture of innovation. Allowing your business to look at start-ups and other markets for potential innovation is also key: simply looking over your shoulder at what your direct competitors are doing won’t deliver the level of innovation your business needs. The best ideas will almost certainly come from outside your existing industry and experience, making the need for curiosity and being open to new ideas essential.
The connected ecosystem. Working collaboratively means shared benefits, and at NTT DATA we refer to this ethos as ‘triple win’, where the focus is not just on great results for the client and for us as the partner (a win-win), but also for other suppliers, partners and start-ups. We look at how to improve our clients’ business, how to improve our partners’ reach and market opportunities, and how to increase our relevance to clients and open up new revenue streams.
Playful people. With your company’s toolset of building blocks, and a culture that’s welcoming of play and curiosity, your people are the last key component: they must be driving your transformation forward. Business transformation and getting your team to adopt change is about helping them to choose to do things differently. This underpins the NTT DATA approach to business agility and change. Teams need to be on the journey with you, which means communicating, sharing and engaging them in not just the change, but the underlying business issues and strategic vision.
If the digital transformation of the last few years, and particularly the acceleration of that journey due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has taught us anything it’s that rapid, seismic change can be achieved if more organisations pull together. With business irrevocably changed (90% of executives believe that, due to the pandemic, what made them successful historically may no longer be possible), having a strategic narrative that the whole organisation can get behind will be vital to withstand the transformation that will ensue in a post-Covid world.
How businesses innovate is transforming. Leaders are coming to understand that the traditional, linear approach to product and service design needs a revamp. They understand that through collaboration, the most game-changing ideas emerge, thanks to diversity of thought and fresh perspectives, not to mention shared data, knowledge – and passion.
As we navigate this brave new world, leaders will do well to remember that, together (and only together), we can build the future we want.
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