OPINION: Understanding innovation

Erik Hallander
By Erik Hallander | 18 June 2013
Erik Hallander is Interactive Director at Visual Jazz Isobar

I’m more or less positive that ‘innovation’ is the most misunderstood word in the industry vernacular at the moment. 2012 was bad, but 2013 is absolutely woeful in the gross misuse of the term, and the misdirected energy regarding the topic.

We all get it, innovation is important in any industry. You’re constantly needing to evolve the way you do things, come up with fresh perspectives and approaches to old problems, with the end intent to become ‘better’. If you don’t, then that random start-up around the corner will eat your lunch, and it has a big appetite.

But let’s be real here, it can’t be all about technical innovation. There’s incessant coverage regarding successful technical innovations, but you hear very little about organisations that evolved through other means.

Changing around your internal processes in a new and interesting way to promote efficiency is innovation in a nutshell. Shoehorning some fringe technology for a brand where it makes no sense is not. That’s… just a waste of marketing budget.

The problem I see with innovation is that businesses very commonly look for innovation from isolated places. Outside of having leadership that is courageous enough to take risks, the concept of ‘innovating’ very often comes down to that one spectacular thinker. The ‘creative technologist’ or similar roles are established, and their remit (by the way, it’s an amazing remit) is to try and come up with the next cool technical thing that will blow people out of the water.

However, what’s much more crucial than that one good hire, is the organisation as a whole. Businesses need to re-think the criteria on which they hire people if they are to establish a truly efficient atmosphere to innovate.

Traditionally, and especially in agency environments, recruitment is guided by a few key principles:
1. Is this person able to do the job that we’re hiring for?
2. Is this person a good cultural fit?
3. Is this person ambitious and driven?

But it’s fair to say that for a lot of businesses, recruitment often happens reactively, and thus without the luxury of time to find that perfect candidate. Unfortunately that means some of these guidelines are flexible.

If you’re truly looking to set up a business with the capabilities to be innovative, recruitment is where you need to look. Forget about the flashy creative technologist for a moment. He/she is a catalyst. Real business innovation comes from all angles. Look to your GAD, CD and strategist. They should all be equipped to completely shake the foundations of how you do business. Unfortunately, too many of them simply don’t think laterally enough. And it’s not their fault! People are hired to do ‘a’ role, and do it spectacularly, but they aren’t encouraged to venture outside the boundaries of that role.

The idea of ‘just doing my job’ is a mentality that needs to be completely eradicated from a place of business if you ever want to create the next Oculus Rift or Kanban board. Innovation needs experimental thinkers from every discipline, looking at problems from different points of view. It needs people who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and put forward their ideas and opinions, even if that means the scrutiny of the public eye.

Where those innovation-specific roles will excel, is finding opportunities that are achievable through collaboration. Roles grounded in technology and future thinking can be incredible if you allow them to be facilitators or catalysts. 

In closing, think beyond that innovation program you are planning. It can help. But more importantly, hire people that think outside of their own assigned seat. Hire people that can challenge the status quo, even if that means putting themselves on the line. And most importantly, make sure you create an environment where everyone is encouraged to do so. Failure is always an option, in fact, failure is a constant in innovation. It’s the willingness to fail that creates the opportunity to succeed.

Erik Hallander
Interactive director
Visual Jazz Isobar

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