We sat down with Stephen Jordan, Batterii’s Director of Innovation, to talk about purpose-driven activities that allow you to stay close to your consumer and make your own environment more innovative. We also learned the breakthrough he believes is giving “meaningful” innovation a whole new perspective.
Q: Staying close to the consumer and the ability to spot trends is an ongoing challenge and desire for companies right now more than ever. How do you believe companies can better spot and explore early trends?
A: I think the first thing is that companies need to explicitly recognize that constant “exploration” is core to innovation, and that it is an area where every colleague can contribute. Many companies seem to view anything that isn’t about execution and incremental improvement of its core offerings as “extra,”, and often put all the responsibility for developing trends and insights into one department. Understanding and empathizing with the “consumer” can be everyone’s job, not just a select few.
Encouraging employees to be curious, and teaching them to have awareness of what’s going on in the world, as well as how to apply or leverage those observations is a great way to jumpstart a new culture and new way of working. Some employees are natural at that – they are always looking for the new and unique. Some need to be encouraged to use their creative thinking and problem solving skills. Everyone has the capacity. Some just haven’t exercised as much as others.
“Innovation is a lifestyle,” as Adam Malofsky asserts in his blog post, "Innovation is a lifestyle, not a bunch of metrics!" Observing things in new ways with an accumulation of highly varied experiences that seemingly culminate in that "sudden" epiphany is something that Steven Johnson and others have excellently described as not so sudden after all. Darwin’s notes show that he was forming the hunches about natural selection in his notes decades before his seminal work.
Edison’s most famous inventions were often inspired by the successes and failures of his prior experiments. Most new products, services and companies - especially startups - follow a circuitous journey to their best product/market fit. They don’t just land in the perfect place right away. In all of these cases, most of the innovators pick up the ingredients for their killer ideas over time and in many iterations - iterations that include feedback from the market each step fo the way. Think about how many times our final realizations are culminations of a long period of mental thought, observation and experimentation. It’s why we say research - not search.
Another problem is that “the consumer” is sometimes treated as some sort of abstract concept, when in reality these are actual people that are interacting with a brand every day. Finding creative ways to engage consumers and deliver fresh information to insights & product development teams inside an organization can be a great way to expose more employees to this first-hand perspective, and keep the pipeline of deep insights and fresh ideas thriving. In order to ensure that the consumer isn’t abstract is to talk to them. These are real people with real needs, desires, and problems and hearing from them first hand provides authentic, unfiltered input and helps build empathy and understanding within your team.
Q: Once a company has spent energy collecting and curating inspiration and research, what are the top factors that help these ideas turn into areas of shared value?
A: Simply gathering inspiration and research is not enough to consistently capitalize on trends to deliver new insights and ideas. Creating a framework to deal with all this information is critical. Some of our client’s at Batterii rely on a centralized team of practitioners to make sense of thousands of “clues” and assimilate research into well-formed trends, using proprietary frameworks and highly curated communities to share and collaborate across brands.
Others rely on team leaders and brand managers to turn the raw stimulus of inspiration into highly contextualized insights that are relevant to their specific products and services, allowing the same content to be synthesized in any number of ways. There isn’t one right way to solve for this. The key to any approach is to develop and drive a workable process, and provide the right type of open, collaborative tools that make capturing, sharing, and synthesizing information simple, engaging, and “consumer grade.”
Q: Many innovators within an enterprise recognize there is no clear or clean path when it comes to innovation. Does this idea resonate with you, and do you agree with this idea?
A: I think a big issue is that the word “innovation” is at the same time monolithic and means different things to different people. Depending on whom you speak to at some companies, just talking about innovation could just as easily induce an eye roll as an enthusiastic response. How many keynote presentations have you been to where the keynote speaker spends time talking about the internal collaboration needed to define innovation within their organization?
Is not having a definition for innovation preventing your company from developing the coolest new products, services, and experiences? Probably not!
Creating clearer paths to “innovation” is about teaching people new ways to approach solving problems, or perhaps creative problem solving for unmet needs. How can you help your R&D team think beyond only the technical aspects of a project they’re about to run and incorporate usability and desirability? How might you involve your marketing communication team in the nitty-gritty of the front-end activities and get them engaging with consumers vs. a “hand off” in a PowerPoint? Could you expand what you mean by cross-functional collaboration and bring retail employees or a field force into your process?
Design thinking or creative problem solving are a great ways to make the term “innovation” more tangible and accessible. These terms represent a system of mindsets and methods that can be applied to almost any process or discipline. With the right training and tools, companies can build the capabilities of individual employees while simultaneously building the innovation capability of the entire organization. It can be difficult for a leader to ask an organization to simply “be more innovative,” without offering tools, training, and techniques to be more effective at the many processes that drive innovation.
Q: Last question: what is an example of meaningful innovation that has caught your eye recently?
A: Perhaps it’s because I used to be a fish biologist, but I’m really excited about the artifical coral reef that won one of the Popular Science awards for 2015. The loss of coral reefs is expected to increase with the rise of global ocean temperatures this century, so this invention is meeting a growing and largely unmet need. It’s inspired by nature, using a ceramic outer shell to mimic the chemical makeup of coral calcium.
A great example of exploration for inspiration, and this was an invention inspired by scuba diving in Australia, after seeing first-hand the problems with existing artificial reefs. And, having spent just $11,500 on about 15 prototypes, the inventor put the “quick and dirty, fail fast” principles of design thinking and experimentation into practice.
Will it work in the end? Time will tell, but if it does I think it could give “meaningful” innovation a whole new perspective.
Ready to become more consumer-obsessed?
Use Batterii for staying close to the consumer during research, trend spotting, business model development, product service and design, and concept development. Download the "Dare to Try" presentation given by John Klick, an innovation leader at Pfizer, to see how a large corporation is using Batterii to innovate.