How to give innovation the best chance of success

15th Dec 2021

“Innovation is essential for growth”: it’s a management phrase, along with “Innovation is the lifeblood of our business”, that we often hear – and it’s rarely called into question. Quotes such as Steve Jobs’ “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” have only cemented the idea as an inalienable truth. Even the government department focused on business in the UK was, not so long ago, called the ‘Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.’

And UK businesses do seem to be putting their money where their mouth is in this department. The latest figures from the ONS reveal that UK businesses are firmly committed to research and development spending, which rose to £26.9bn last year (ahead of the 0.6 per cent rate of inflation), while the number of R&D employees rose an impressive 18,000 to 283,000. The software industry saw the most gains here: R&D spending in the same period rose some 18.3 per cent rise to £2bn – “almost 10 per cent of the total,” as the Times recently reported.

R&D investment is often used as an easy-to-measure for how innovative a business or sector is. But while it’s undoubtedly the first step on the road to innovation, it should by no means be considered a victory in and of itself. For one thing, many projects, the beneficiaries of those investments, will never see the light of day. Some may only lead to minor improvements that would not in themselves justify the investment needed to bring them to life. As the late, former General Electric boss Jack Welch commented, innovation is “not a big breakthrough invention every time.”

Even when R&D leads to some real breakthroughs, some innovations still fail to take off or have longevity – step forward, the likes of Betamax, New Coke, Google Glass, Segway, Blackberry… the list goes on and on. So while companies across a variety of sectors invest a significant proportion of their resources in R&D as a proxy for driving innovation they must ask themselves: how truly innovative are they at heart, and does it fully permeate their organisation?

True innovation is often tangible: it’s something you can see and touch. But an innovative culture goes beyond that. At its heart, it’s about a strive for constant improvement: finding a better way or seeing opportunities where others see risks. As Jobs said: “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity — not a threat.” On that premise, things like marketing or even the drier, more logical functions of Supply Chain and Finance are all essential in ensuring Innovation is a true driver of business growth.

In a post-pandemic world, business leaders should ask themselves: how equipped is their organisation, from top to bottom, to deal with the unknown? Can they think creatively and in divergent ways? Are they able to collaborate internally and externally with partners, suppliers, retailers or distributors to generate better overall outcomes? “Innovation,” said Jack Welch, “is a constant thing. But if you don’t have an innovative company, coming to work every day to find a better way, you don’t have a company. You’re getting ready to die on the vine.”

So developing the right set of soft skills can be as transformational to a business’ ability to innovate (and survive) as a true technological breakthrough. Better yet, when that shiny new product, the result of years of toil and millions of pounds spent on R&D, does finally emerge blinking into the world, your commercial teams are much more likely to make a success of it.

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