Sparking innovation: Ready, Set... I don’t know
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Sparking innovation: Ready, Set... I don’t know

Customer experience
Design thinking

Embracing the unknown can be daunting. But as Joe Ferry explains, it’s an essential part of innovation. Using examples from his time as Head of Design at Virgin Atlantic, Joe discusses his three key ingredients for innovating successfully – and competitively – in an ever-changing world.

The starting point to innovation

“I don’t know.” It’s a phrase that most people feel uncomfortable with. At school we’re brought up to view it as an admission of failure, and this feeling can continue into later life. Most leaders and senior managers believe it’s their duty to avoid these words at all costs. Yet when embarking on the journey of true innovation, you just don’t know what the end result will be.

Perhaps this is why more conventional organisations leave it to the mavericks and entrepreneurs of the world to go in search of the next big thing. If it’s not your brand’s goal to attract early adopters, then playing the waiting game may seem like the best strategy.

"When embarking on the journey of true innovation, you just don’t know what the end result will be."

But with the current speed of change in the world, waiting becomes a riskier option. A company that waits may never be able to regain its market position. Or it could discredit its hard-earned brand equity by being associated with outdated products or services.

For brands that won’t settle for that scenario, investment in innovation becomes a regular line on the balance sheet. But to make real innovation successful, you need to do more than throw cash in its direction. In my experience, there are three key elements that make the difference between a great idea that revolutionises markets and a pretty prototype that gathers dust in a warehouse.

1. Leadership

Leadership is imperative for the successful execution of innovations. This may sound contradictory to my earlier claim that “I don’t know” doesn’t exactly roll off a CEO’s tongue. However, a statement such as “I don’t know right now, but I’ll enable our best people to find the solution” shows both future thinking and clear leadership.

In his book, Like A Virgin, Sir Richard Branson refers to me as an “intrapreneur” and he cites the importance of enabling intrapreneurs within organisations. These are people who have a vision and are allowed to follow it. Most importantly, they’re enabled by the leaders of the organisation to achieve that vision. Branson even suggests that CEO should stand for Chief Enabling Officer.

I was certainly enabled to lead the Virgin design team’s visions during my 15 years at Virgin Atlantic, resulting in many successfully patented innovations that made for millions of happy passengers. There’d be lots of expensive prototypes gathering dust at a Gatwick warehouse right now, were it not for supportive leaders who backed the big decisions at the toughest of times – and who pushed the button on production runs, even while the product’s success was still an unknown. The best ideas can end up going nowhere without support and endorsement from the top.

2. Brand

Next is brand. I don’t mean branding, although that’s another essential element that must be well executed within any organisation. I mean brand: the reason why the company exists and what it wants to be in the future; the relevance it has to its consumer’s world and the way it makes its customers feel. It is internal as well as external, so the way employees feel when they’re at work and their belief in the brand will be critical.

Before you consider innovation, you need to have defined your brand. As you go through all the iterative loops of deciding whether an innovation is viable, feasible and desirable, your lodestone should be your brand. Not just the brand as it is today, but the brand as it needs to become in tomorrow’s world.

At Virgin, our brand idea was to be “everyday pioneers”, so being a “me too” was never an option. It gave us clear guidance on assessing ideas for their relevance to the brand – a brand that could honestly present itself as truly pioneering.

3. Belief

Finally, an essential ingredient in getting innovations over the line is belief. All three key elements are interdependent. The CEO must believe in both you and your ideas for the innovation if you’re to gain the traction you need. And everyone must believe in the brand and where the leader wants to take it.

The word “can’t” is used quite often when creatives and innovators start discussing possible ideas with those at the coalface. That can be frustrating. But if the concerns of operational teams are ignored, belief can disappear very quickly. Bringing stakeholders along with you and truly listening to their concerns is critical. It can take only one person in an influential position to feel disenfranchised for the whole project to be scuppered.

As the phases of discovery and development evolve, it’s easy to get caught up with the problems of today. In so doing, we neglect the issues of tomorrow. That’s why presenting a clear vision of the future helps to inspire belief in an innovation.

To create a credible vision, I’d advise walking in the shoes of your consumers. How will you improve their world tomorrow through your proposed innovation? Some of the best designs are by designers who are themselves in the right demographic for their product or service. They’re the consumers who will ultimately use their own designs.

It’s easy to get caught up with the problems of today. That’s why presenting a clear vision of the future helps to inspire belief in an innovation.

At Virgin Atlantic I always felt we were designing products that we’d want and use ourselves. I’m sure that’s the same for many other successful in-house teams. It could also be why we’re not seeing enough devotion to credible designs for an ageing population, for instance.

You can create a real sense of belief within the team by having empathy for the end customer and passionately delivering something that will both delight and help them. If your team believes in that vision, as well as the leadership and the brand, then your starting point for innovation is as good as it gets.