Innovating in a large organisation

We caught up with Han Gerrits who has 15 years of experience working with large multi-million pound organisations to help them build their capabilities, departments and systems for successful innovation.

Time and time again Han has seen the same problems stopping successful innovation in large organisations. He shared, in his experience the biggest barriers to innovation.

Rules and regulations that don’t allow for experimentation

Han is currently a partner at an international audit firm and audit in particular is heavily regulated and has a strict set of operating rules making it hard to innovate. Han believes that in a big organisation, successful innovation requires a different set of rules from business as usual.

For example, in the context of innovation, failure is a positive learning experience. There is an understanding and an acceptance that success is not guaranteed. A new innovation needs time for experimentation and learning.

Thomas Edison failed over 9,000 times before he made the light bulb that worked. This experiment and learn approach, critical for innovation, is not part of the rules and is not tolerated in normal business operations.

Short timescales and lack of focus

The next common stumbling block for innovation in large organisations is a cycle of investing budget for a new idea or innovation programme, the test and learn approach isn’t given enough time to succeed and the project or programme is stopped because it ’didn’t work’. Then months later the innovation programme is revisited and the start stop cycle repeats itself, never given long enough to learn.

According to Han, it’s not just the timescale that lets the innovation down, its lack of focus. Companies that are good at innovation have a strategic focus in a limited amount of areas. This means that every failed experiment has valuable and highly relevant learning which leads onto the next experiment and ultimately innovation success.

The need to protect the core business

“Most big organisations are risk averse. They are anxious about doing anything that might disturb their core business that brings in the money.”

Google says “chaos is good” and that “freedom from constraints delivers new ideas”. But even that only applies in certain parts of Google’s business. Their data centres don’t allow any chaos or experimentation, because their business relies on their servers being 100% reliable 100% of the time.

So whilst Han hears organisations talking about innovation and disruption, when it comes to the potential disruption of core business systems, large organisations are rarely keen to support innovation.

For example Han shared an experience with a checklist for new ideas. There were two fundamental questions to decide if an idea was worth perusing. “Have we done this before?” and “Do we know this client?” If the answer to either question is no then the idea gets turned down straight away. This meant that the focus was only ever on existing products to existing clients. As soon as something didn’t follow those rules it was stopped, making the opportunity to try something genuinely new non-existent in practice.

Is innovation a good career move?

Often in large organisations people are consciously navigating a career path. They are looking for their next job within the company. If as an individual, you fear that a ‘failed’ project could signal the end of a career you’ll never be able to innovate and the innovation department isn’t an attractive career move.

Han suggests that this is compounded by newly appointed innovation managers often over promising results with inadequate resource. There is a high churn rate a lot of innovation managers leave within three years then move onto a new innovation role and start again which has an impact on organisational innovation and learning.

Han’s innovation tips for innovating in a big company…

  • Focus innovation themes around the strategic plans of the business
  • Consider how external forces will have an impact on your core business and force innovation e.g. how might 3D printing or the internet of things affect the business you are in?
  • If you don’t have budget, time and motivation to innovate – then don’t
  • If the top management doesn’t want to do innovation then don’t do it – it’s a waste of energy
  • Engage with all employees to make improvements in current practice – this creates a culture where everyone is an innovator
  • You need bravery and energy – innovation is about doing not thinking
  • Innovation touches a lot of different functions. You need to build the right connections over different teams. If you are not well-connected – work with someone who is
  • Get some success fast
  • Communication is very important – you have to tell people many times before they come on board.

Read more about other successful innovators in the new Innovation Leadership Launchpad – a mix of case stories and practical tips to help you innovate. Order your free copy straight into your inbox today. 

Sheer gritty bloody mindedness and belief

Sometimes a chance encounter can open up new opportunities. It certainly did for Emily Halderthay when she met Phil Reardon, Global CEO and Founder of Schoolzine in 2015. Phil setup Schoolzine in Australia 10 years ago in response to a school principal’s frustrations around communicating with parents, and was looking for an opportunity to grow the business by launching it in the UK. Emily was living in Australia and looking for a business opportunity to take back to the UK with her family. Boom! Serendipity in action.

Schoolzine has a suite of products designed to better connect schools with parents and put an end to screwed up paper newsletters in school bags, the frustration of never reaching the same group of parents and a heap of unnecessary, costly admin in the school office. Schoolzine includes a digital newsletter, website and app which shares information, reminders, calendars, video and photos in an interactive and dynamic way so that parents no longer have to rely on their children bringing letters home in their bags, which is hit and miss at best, is cheaper than relying on text messages and less time-consuming than the class Whatsapp or Facebook group and of course the ongoing mystery of who took home little Johnny’s PE kit by mistake

Part funded by a grant from the Australian Government Emily set up Schoolzine in the UK in August 2016.

However, the UK team learned quickly that establishing Schoolzine UK is not as simple as just replicating the approach that is working in Australia in the UK market.

One obvious difference between UK and Australia is geography. There are more than 30,000 schools in the UK. Australia is 31 times the size of the UK with just 9000 schools. On paper this makes the UK a great opportunity, a much bigger market over a much smaller geography. At first the team thought it might be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, but they were wrong for several reasons.

Firstly many UK schools are becoming Academies, funded directly by the Department of Education. There are also several multi-academy trusts which in theory facilitates greater independence and scope to innovate, but in reality many are tied in knots of red tape and systems of governance that results in slow and complex decision making.

“We’ve tried working through academy trusts, but the added complexity means that it’s often better for us to approach one school at a time”

The team have also learned that, “Selling to schools in the UK is really hard. Whilst Australian schools are not rich, it seems that many UK schools simply don’t have the same level of funds available to them.”

In addition to budget constraints, school stakeholders are so very time poor. Whilst they always love what we offer, the challenge to get them to account set up stage can often be immense!

Schoolzine’s solution is to break their package down into smaller parts, and reassure schools how straightforward and swift the onboarding process is. In Australia schools want the newsletter as priority – in the UK it’s the App, partly because school technology seems more advanced in the UK and they want it to integrate with current systems, and partly because the cost is less.

Thinking differently – a mind set shift

“A big learning curve is about understanding who makes the decision, and working out how and if we can speak directly with them”

 Also it’s important the schools using the platform use it well, so Emily and the team have a job to do to help encourage teachers and parents understand how their products could help them. “parents will download the app when they know the information contained there is relevant and useful for them”

The schools that are having success with Schoolzine are also led by Head Teachers who think differently; who can see a problem and then do something about it and are prepared to test out something new to make an improvement rather than tolerating the status quo.

Often, part of the challenge for Schoolzine is to change mind sets from ‘not broken no need to fix it” to ‘how can we make life better for our parents, staff and children’

Focus on growth

The focus for Emily and the team moving forward is to continue to grow their UK customer base.

Social media has proved a powerful marketing tool for Schoolzine combined with conference speaking and a bulletproof methodological approach to following up every lead. They are also looking at how they can both rationalise and increase their new business development. They are exploring new routes to market which help to keep costs down, whilst also providing schools with the most useful and relevant information about how Schoolzine will help them improve engagement.

“It’s mostly sheer gritty bloody mindedness right now and the belief in our amazing service to schools”

Emily’s innovation tips are…

  • Be bold – lose your inhibitions and be resilient
  • If something doesn’t work – think differently about how you approach it. Don’t be scared to do something another way
  • Take feedback from your markets and from your customers and use it to improve your approach, messaging and results.
  • Tailor your messages for the needs of different audiences
  • Take any and every opportunity you can to market your product
  • Keep open minded as well as an element of realism (open minded is very different from mindless optimism!)
  • Things change and you have to change too. As your organisation grows roles and responsibilities will evolve – keep on top of the changes necessary
  • Face your fears and face tough decisions
  • Grit your teeth and do the stuff that’s not enjoyable
  • Take time to sit back and take stock and look at how far you’ve come
  • Relinquish control and hand over what you can to other people so you can focus on where you can add most value
  • With decisions remember it’s not Armageddon – really think about what’s the worst that can happen? It’s unlikely to be as bad as you think.

Emily Halderthay is CEO of Schoolzine UK.

If you’d like to learn more insights from other successful innovators check out the new Innovation Leadership Launchpad – a mix of case stories and practical tips to help you innovate. Order your free copy straight into your inbox today. 


Doing things differently at Bromford Lab. Because saying you’re different isn’t enough

We caught up with the team at Bromford Lab to understand the challenges to innovating in a large and traditional organisation. The Lab works across Bromford, a Housing Association of 30,000 homes, to reimagine services, inspire new thinking and design new ways of working.

It seems that all organisations these days are talking about innovation. It’s true of all sectors, but perhaps one of the fastest growing in it’s thirst for innovation is the public and social facing sector, which is seeing a huge rise in the number of teams being setup to ‘drive change’ and ‘promote new working cultures’. But, often the same organisations who are calling for such teams, are at the same time internally confused about why or how they will work; often overlooking the fact that meaningful innovation is disruptive by its nature and the impact that disruption will likely make on the fabric of the organisation.

We wanted to make sure that when we started upon our own journey of innovation we understood this impact, so we spent around a year scoping out what an Innovation Lab at Bromford might look like. We could see that there was a need to create a space for other colleagues to think differently about the problems they faced and come up with new types of solutions which could help drive the business forward, but the form that this took was set to evolve over time. Often, colleagues were having ideas, but increasingly found that they had no way of taking them forward, or even worse, took them forward without understanding how they fitted with the rest of organisational strategy.

“It’s fair to say that [as an organisation] our focus on doing the right things for our customers has sometimes meant we followed our hearts rather than our heads – designing services around gut feelings, instincts and myths, rather than data, analytics and research.” Philippa Jones, Chief Executive, Bromford

The problem the Lab was set up to fix was that innovation was random and unfocused at Bromford. It happened at will, and there wasn’t a resource to nurture and protect new ideas from colleagues. We describe it as ‘initiative-itis’- there was an initiative for lots of things – but they didn’t always solve the right problem and weren’t always effective. Bromford Lab was launched back in 2014 as a place to nurture innovation. The Lab was founded using Jeff Bezos’ principle of being a Two Pizza Team, that teams shouldn’t be larger than two pizzas can feed. Small teams make it easier to communicate more effectively and encourage high autonomy and innovation. Since then we have been working across the business to help colleagues capture, frame and realise their ideas, with no pressure to force bad ideas to work. In fact, failing and failing fast was one of our founding principles. Over the past few years the lab approach has evolved. These days our Insight team (data analysis and research) and Innovation work closely together, and that has been important learning for us. Working off instincts is an important part of the design process, they can often give us a position to start from, but when we make judgments based on instincts alone, without the evidence to back them up, all we are really doing is making judgments based on what we think we know.

Back in the early days we tried a lot of things that we would never have been able to do before we set up the lab. From Google Glass to Drones and Smart Homes to Loneliness, the spirit of the lab was to get on and try things out. These speculative tests provided a lot of learning about the future of our business and the future direction of work, and we were able to use that learning to help colleagues start to design better, more informed services. But a side effect of our different way of working was becoming known as the team who have the ‘wacky ideas’. This is both a blessing and a curse, because as anyone working in a social facing creative role knows, the lab is about more than ‘wacky ideas’, it’s about social impact. In early 2017, Bromford were about to embark on one of their biggest challenges to date, an organisation wide transformation programme called ‘Bromford 2point0’. The big question we were asking ourselves was how we could use this opportunity to embed the lab approach to innovation into the DNA of Bromford, whilst at the same time keeping true to the independent intent of the Lab?

Innovation & Organisational Change

The Lab has been asked to play a key role in Bromford 2point0, which is great because one of the things we have learned is that innovation cannot scale if it doesn’t have a place within organisational strategy. Alongside the organisational transformation programme, Bromford are also in the process of moving to a localities based approach to working. Our Housing Managers are taking on new roles as Neighbourhood Coaches – a £3.5 million approach developed in the Lab – and we’re reducing the size of their patches from around 500-750 homes to around 175 homes. We recognise the benefits that getting to know our customers better can bring. We also know that we can’t design services that our customers both need and

will engage with, without understanding more about their lives and without involving them in the design process. Making decisions based on what we think we know can be dangerous and costly. If we understand people’s needs and wants we can make decisions based on insight, both quantitative and qualitative. That’s important because if we just think we know, all we are doing is making stuff up. The Lab is actually, therefore, the antithesis of an ivory tower; what we are doing is moving Bromford to a position where everything we do is based on some form of evidence and customer insight. We have a great opportunity to pick up weak signals from our communities and act upon them in a way that will help us provide services which meet the needs of our communities.

What’s our advice to others who are developing innovation in a traditional/ large organisation?

Create design thinking organisations

  • Part of the role of an in-house designer has to be to help colleagues spot opportunities, but we also need to help them understand the best way to exploit them. Not every improvement needs to be run as a formal design project, but enabling colleagues to understand the key principles of design thinking will help ensure that any changes they make are customer focused and considered as part of a wider ecosystem; promoting the evolution of the organisation rather than its mutation.

Start with problems not solutions

  • Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle. There’s a lack of penetration into the root causes of problems as most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. Innovation is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

Nurture creativity

  • Organisations that are serious about designing great services understand the need to provide creative spaces, inspirational spaces and different ways of working. Creativity isn’t like a tap that can be turned on and off. You can’t just be creative when someone asks you to be. Creative space isn’t a luxury (physical and mental), it’s a necessity. After all, how can people think outside of the box if they are locked up inside it?

Autonomy over projects

  • As in-house innovators we need to find the projects that can really benefit from design input and then do them well. But we have also learned not to expect to run every design project through each stage of the double diamond. Even if this should be the case, practically it just isn’t always possible within the bureaucratic project frameworks of large organisations. It is true that there is indeed a balance to be found between taking a pragmatic, flexible approach to design and watering down the impact design can have.

Link with policy

  • Solutions simply cannot scale if they don’t have a place within organisational strategy. As part of our organisational change work with Bromford 2point0 we have a growing pipeline of exploration areas, tests, and design challenges, but in order to be sure that we are working on the right things, we must have a clear idea of how the work we are doing feeds into the 2point0 programme strategy.

Measure and Communicate success

  • In-house creative teams are a precious resource and we need to prove that we add value. Often when working on preventive services, it’s hard to prove that an intervention you designed will achieve a better outcome without access to a DeLorean fitted with a flux capacitor. We need to work with the people in the organisation that have the right skills to help us work through the data, but also challenge the organisation to look at different types of metrics, and work with them in order to design them, rather than against them.

Don’t keep talking about it – try it

  • Most of us can’t tell if we like something or not by reading about it in a report. We need to see it, feel it and experience it. That’s why the Lab focuses on what we call ‘tests’. Tests are typically time-limited, minimal resource and therefore low risk. The whole principle is to get things in front of people as soon as possible to reduce spending time and money on potential failures.

Fast failure is good risk management

  • The biggest barrier in most organisations is risk aversion – so anticipate this in advance. Show that you acknowledge risk and have put as much cotton wool around your idea as possible. Governance teams can be your greatest enemies or biggest friends

Be ruthless pulling the plug

  • Not every idea or project is destined for success. Stopping a project is a difficult decision but in certain cases, it’s inevitable. Making things work artificially is not always in the interests of the customer or the company. You need to know when to pull the plug early to avoid spending more money on well-intentioned vanity projects.

You cant save the world on your own

  • Labs should get better at sharing their knowledge and collaborating on projects. The problems we are seeking to address, certainly in the public and social sectors are wicked by nature, and because wicked problems transcend organisations and sectors, no single organisation can solve a given problem on their own. The solution lies in creating effective networks that work together to transcend silos. Labs should link up with each other in order to share, learn and exploit opportunities to improve social outcomes for all our populations.

If you’d like to learn more insights from other successful innovators check out the new Innovation Leadership Launchpad – a mix of case stories and practical tips to help you innovate. Order your free copy straight into your inbox today. 

Being up against it drives innovation

Recently we caught up with Luke Southern, Managing Director at Drum the creative arm of Omnicom Media Group. Drum are a content and creative business that helps ambitious brands, including McDonald’s, Virgin Media, Warner Brothers and Hasbro to create and influence popular culture.

Luke told us that innovation is vital for Drum. “Because the world is moving so quickly success for our clients is dependent on doing things differently, and creatively – and being up against it drives innovation.”

It’s harder than ever before to get young people’s attention – they have so much on the go all the time

Drums’ starting point for innovation is an unmet need or a problem. Recent research has shown that 18-24 year olds (a core audience for the brands that Drum works with) have an 8 second attention span. This means that companies have a tiny amount of time to make what they are saying relevant to their audience, something their audience wants to engage with and then share with their friends and social networks.

One of the ways that Drum seeks to make their innovation successful is to place brands within the existing pop culture. Drum refers to this as creating “cultural signals” for brands.

People care about popular culture; TV, music, films, comedy, sport as well as films about sport and music. When great branded content fuses the brands’ ambitions, with entertainment and popular culture we remember, we talk about it and we are interested.

A couple of years ago Drum made the Lego ad break. They reconstructed an entire ad break out of Lego, remaking popular ads of the time piece by piece. It was an effective piece of communication driving opening weekend box office takings of the The Lego Movie beyond expectations and it was also a great piece of entertainment in its own right that has been watched millions of times.

Drum have just used this approach again to promote the Lego Batman film. Lego Batman took over the continuity announcements on Channel 4 which meant that their target audience heard about the campaign from the media that they usually consume – they didn’t have to seek it out.  It made Batman as relevant to film lovers in their 30s and 40s as it is to kids. 40% of the population saw Batman continuity announcements in just 4 days and 1 in 6 booked to see the movie as a result.

Check it out here.

Luke acknowledges that Drum has the advantage of being part of a larger organisation and therefore has access to large data sets. “For example, if we know that someone has just bought a pair of shoes then they are unlikely to buy another pair of shoes, so advertising more shoes to the shoe buyer isn’t a good idea. However, they might well be in the market for a leather cleaner, so advertising that is a much better idea! Data can show us all sorts of things now and using the data available to understand your customers unmet needs, identify trends and solve problems can be a competitive advantage.”

Innovation is bloody hardpeople are addicted to certainty but certainty kills creativity

For Luke and his colleagues the biggest barrier to making innovation happen is budget restraints versus creative ideas that you can’t prove are going to work. Certainty kills creativity because you can never guarantee that something new is going to work.

Another challenge is bringing people alongside the changes that are needed in a business to enable the idea or innovation happen.

This means that for successful innovation getting the right mix of talent is really key. If you only recruit in your own image you won’t achieve the breakthroughs that you need to achieve. Innovation requires a democracy of ideas to enable excellence. There is a requirement for different experiences, backgrounds and skills to be able to create something really creative. Opening minds to take risks with different people and not always traveling the known road is vital for both Drum and their clients.

Innovation is not straightforward and requires leadership and Luke believes that an innovation leader must have the following qualities.

  • Avoid using the “I’m the Boss and we’re doing it my way” card.
  • Acknowledging problems – because pretending they aren’t there creates an atmosphere where people feel they can’t talk about difficulties.
  • Being able to steer people and encourage them to solve their own problems without stifling their views.
  • Listening and focusing on saying less, yet knowing where to intervene
  • Humility, being aware of your own weaknesses and not being afraid of saying when you have made a mistake

Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should

Luke’s other innovation advice is just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Companies create clever widgets and gadgets that people just aren’t ready for or don’t need. There is a balance. Innovation needs to be something that people want. It needs to benefit people’s lives or to solve a problem. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it’s automatically something that people are excited about.

Luke’s advice to anyone wanting to improve their creativity and innovation skills is to read Creativity Inc. We agree – we wrote a blog inspired by it a while ago.

If you’d like to learn more insights from other successful innovators check out the new Innovation Leadership Launchpad – a mix of case stories and practical tips to help you innovate. Order your free copy straight into your inbox today.