Innovation. Innovation. Innovation.
The I-word: innovation. It’s the one that every business and brand seems to want on their own list of attributes. Probably one of the most used (and some might say overused) descriptors by companies around the world.
The subject came up in a chat with a client recently: “What is innovation? Are we innovative? And, if we are, do we want to say we are?”
Interesting. but to answer these questions, first we have to get our heads around what innovation actually is.
After a wee bit of head scratching I reckon there are three types of innovation.
1. Life Changers
The first is the very rare, big-bang type stuff. The things that have truly never been done before and that has the power to change your life and the way we do things - like language, the printing press, the internet or Elon Musk’s hyperloop.
2. Game changers
These are the ones that businesses like Apple are very good at. Think of the way iPods redefined what the MP3 player was and how the iPad created the tablet computing market after several false starts from Microsoft and others.
The interesting thing is that most people would probably tell you, if asked, that Apple were the first invent these devices (MP3 players and tablet computers). But these innovations - like most game changers - usually take something that exists in some form or other already, and then rethinks and reinvents it to such an extent that it has a big impact changing the way we live, work or play.
3. Gear changers
This type of innovation is perhaps the most common and therefore the least sexy. They aren’t going to grab headlines or make anyone famous, which is unfortunate because they can make a real difference.
This type of innovation finds the small improvements that either give us a better way of doing something, a better end product or a little more profit. Or maybe even all three.
As an agency that produces a lot of corporate reporting, this is the sort of innovation that Emperor does a lot of. With the fundamental content of an Annual Report not changing much from one year to the next, we have to rethink the story, enhance the visual approach and find new ways to tell and reinvigorate the story year on year. Often, this is a collection of small gains that helps us, and our clients, achieve the goal of the report always being better than the previous one.
For other businesses, the good news is that this sort of innovation is often very easy to apply. So if you breed a culture that encourages them – however small – they can all add up to a making a big difference.
The power of ten
As luck would have it, this chat around innovation happened on the day when Microsoft announced their vision of integrating digital technology into our lives and a heap of features for their forthcoming new operating system.
The wonderful thing about this is that it seemed to contain all three types of innovation: from the big stuff to the small stuff. The way we live and work will soon (if Microsoft’s vision is true) be changed by augmented reality interfaces around our homes and offices. Windows users will also have the integration of apps and devices afforded by other platforms, which should help to stem the hemorrhaging of MS customers to Apple and Google. And, perhaps the most powerful features were the smallest – the improved interface and the return of the start bar (apparently much loved and most craved by Windows-ites).
All that’s very good for the tech junkie. But for those less interested in or aware of all that stuff it might still leave you questioning: is it innovative?
So think about this.
The thing that really underlined Microsoft's position as a innovative business was the name of the new operating system: Windows 10.
Pretty innocuous. That is until you ask the question: what happened to Windows 9?
That’s right, Microsoft just skipped ahead a version and in doing so effectively told the world that their next product will be so great that it’s a giant leap forward for them and its customers. I don’t know about you, but to me that seems innovative.
So what do we learn from this?
To be or not to be?
Microsoft has clearly created a culture that focuses on at least two important things: firstly they listen to their customers to find the small but important gear changers; and, secondly they allowed their designers and engineers the creative freedom to explore ideas that will deliver the headline grabbing life-changers and game-changers.
So, going back to the questions in my original conversation I’m inclined to think that being innovative is a bit like being cool. You either are or you aren’t. It’s up to business leaders to create a culture and environment where innovation is possible. And if you get that right, you won’t have to worry about whether you say you’re innovative or not – the results should speak for themselves then customers, peers and potential employees will make up their own minds.
And that’s pretty cool.