Innovation is having a moment – everyone is frantically pursuing it, from governments who think innovation is the answer to the flagging economy (although interestingly Theresa May has taken innovation out of her new business-focused department’s title), to companies petrified of being Ubered out of existence by some upstart with a clever idea. The Internet is awash with articles about the ten things you must do to promote innovation in your organisation, or ways of telling if you’re an innovator, or models of innovation with lovely diagrams that make you feel certain they will work. It feels a lot like the heady days of the first dot-com boom, with some really interesting and exciting developments happening, but also a lot of other noise and babble.
So I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the topic, and get to grips with what innovation really is – walk around it, kick its tyres and suck my teeth a bit to consider it from every angle. One way I’m doing this is to talk to bright and well-respected people who are doing it, to see what they have to say on the subject. This, therefore, is the first in a series of posts I’m calling Innovation Conversations, where I pin someone down who is working in innovation, or involved in some sort of innovative development, and ask them to tell me what it means to them.
Lorenzo Wood is Chief Innovation Officer at DigitasLBi, which describes itself as a modern, data-inspired agency that makes brands count across multiple touch points. DigitasLBi operates in 26 countries and employs over 7,000 people so it’s no slouch when it comes to impact. I first met Lorenzo when I was Communications Manager for Oyster Partners, the company Lorenzo co-founded with four others and which eventually, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, became DigitasLBi. (I credit Oyster Partners for giving me a life-long love of digital technology and those who work in it, as well as teaching me some invaluable skills, such as writing HTML, brand management and design principles, and how to mix a lethal cocktail.) Lorenzo was the person you went to for creative, edge-of-the-envelope ideas that pushed the boundaries of technology, and there’s definitely no such word as “can’t” in his vocabulary.
Lorenzo’s view of innovation is very down-to-earth – as he points out, taking on the role of Chief Innovation Officer in an agency such as DigitasLBi could be a difficult proposition. Innovation is one of the reasons clients come to agencies like DigitasLBi and is an integral part of everything the agency does, so making the role of Chief Innovation Officer mean something is not necessarily as straightforward as it would be in an in-house context.
Furthermore, innovation is a bit of a truism, in much the same way as professionalism. No-one is going to say ‘No thank you, I don’t want to be professional or innovative, I’d rather carry on being a rank amateur and never trying anything new’. For this reason, pinning down a clear definition of innovation is not always easy. Lorenzo’s definition is that innovation is ‘doing new things that create extraordinary value.’ This doesn’t always mean the latest technology, and he was clear that starting with the technology is not the way to go.
Initially, Lorenzo viewed the role of Chief Innovation Officer as being about “looking beyond business as usual. It’s looking for the few and far between opportunities, and they are few and far between because you need the stars to align. You need the right client, with the right position, and the right ambition”. I was really taken with this view, as there can be a tendency in the current narrative to view innovation as magic fairy dust that you sprinkle on any organisation or project and voila, you’re innovative. But in fact, the right combination of factors is not something that necessarily happens every day.
Since taking it on, however, the role has evolved considerably beyond just spotting opportunities for clients. Many companies are now appointing innovation directors or chief innovation officers of their own, and as Lorenzo met the people in these roles he found that they were in many ways like the digital managers of 20 years ago: pioneers in a landscape that is still emerging. Many have come from all sorts of backgrounds to work in innovation, and their roles cover wide ranging elements such as company culture, new products and services, and partnerships or collaboration.
This has led to a correspondingly larger range of innovation services from DigitasLBi than just spotting opportunities – for example, looking at ways of helping clients build their internal capabilities or innovation processes, and approaches to connect them to potential partners and establish collaborations. These services have been built around the three factors that the agency’s own research found were vital for fostering innovation: diversity of contributions; a culture that supports innovation; and processes for delivering it.
By keeping the innovation team at Digitas LBi very small, every project is a collaboration, with people moving in and out from clients, DigitasLBi and other sources as required. This avoids the groupthink or echo chambers that can come about in static teams. Many companies have tried setting up separate innovation labs or appointing fixed innovation teams, but in Lorenzo’s view the diversity of talent that comes from this collaborative set-up is one of the key pillars of innovation.
Building the right culture is vital. By adopting a partnership approach with many different contributors, innovation initiatives can sit outside normal organisational structures and are therefore liberated from any structural or cultural restrictions. This means they have more freedom to try things out or develop projects to a point where they can be properly assessed, without getting subsumed into the prevailing organisational culture.
So how does innovation actually happen at DigitasLBi? The first step is always to get to know the topic intimately through immersive research.
For example, one of DigitasLBi’s flagship programmes is the AstraZeneca Digital Innovation Group, which aims to build digital products and services that improve the lives of doctors and patients. The DIG picks a challenge area on which to focus – e.g. communicating with doctors, or primary care – and gets to know it in as much detail as possible. (You can see more about the Digital Innovation Group in this lovely video – https://youtu.be/b1vztjL4v5s)
(An interesting note here is that the objectives for these projects are wider than just selling more product – they’re about improving the lives of doctors and patients, for example, or peoples’ understanding of personal finance. This opens the door for much more creativity and innovation, and is something I want to write about more in another post.)
Next, frame the problem
It’s tempting to think that the next step with innovation is to get lots of ideas. But Lorenzo points out that generating ideas bring its own challenges. ‘We found it’s better to spend more time on the problem, rather than the ideas – it’s much easier to get people to collaborate on problems. If you ask people to come up with ideas they become competitive and defend them rather than collaborating. But if your starting point is what is the problem and why does it exist, you get much more constructive discussions.’ Framing the problem correctly is almost more important than coming up with the answers, as the way it is expressed can significantly alter the kinds of solutions suggested – and once you are in the ideas phase, your priorities shift to become solution and delivery focused, rather than exploring the problem and thinking as widely and ambitiously as possible about it.
Build it in sprints
The next step then is to go through the process of coming up with solutions to the problems, and this is done with multiple small teams working simultaneously in sprints. The key to this stage for each idea is to start with what looks like the biggest obstacle, because if you can’t solve that then there’s very little point spending time on sorting out the others. So for example, Lorenzo describes a pitch in which the idea’s feasibility rested on finding a suitable movie streaming partner, so this was the obstacle the team tackled first.
How are we doing?
At every stage, the solutions have to make it through an assessment gate to make sure it’s worth continuing with the work: so in the case of DIG projects, they are presented back to AstraZeneca for potential investment. The best assessments take a Red Team approach, challenging the projects as much as possible and using a robust set of criteria to ensure that they are ready to go forward to the next stage. Not setting arbitrary timescales for rolling out products and services at scale is vital, to maintain the freedom to keep iterating until the criteria have been met.
So does this kind of approach bear fruit? An important element Lorenzo discussed was establishing the potential value of any innovation as early as possible. Much like marketing, whether digital or not, return on investment can be a bit of a thorn in the side of innovation. By its nature, innovation always involves a certain amount of failure along the way as you try things out, but how much failure do you tolerate, and how do you know you’re on the right track at all? Lorenzo talked about the importance of starting to evaluate the potential value of any solution right from the beginning, rather than further down the line.
The problem here, of course, is that there are so many variables and it’s very difficult to come up with a fixed value for any of them at the beginning of a project – so how do you build a model that helps you evaluate something so filled with uncertainty? Lorenzo’s approach is to accept that each element of the model will have a huge range of possible values, but that it’s still worth capturing it. As you proceed through the project, the range for each value will narrow down, and you can increase your confidence in your model and in its predictions. (He suggested a great tool for this: Guesstimate, which allows you to build a model with a range in each cell, rather than a fixed value.)
Certainly in the case of the Digital Innovation Group, the signs are good. Several new products have already been launched from the Group, including a coaching app for people recovering from a heart attack and an online community for people living with lung cancer, as well as an app aimed at healthcare professionals attending conferences, to make it easier to take, organise and share notes during presentations.
So finally, what did I take away from my conversation with Lorenzo? A strong sense that innovation is best done in collaborative partnerships rather than in silos or isolated labs; that it relies on pulling in diverse talents, opinions and skills rather than fixed teams; and that it requires a robust and realistic attitude to risk. But also that innovation is a rapidly changing and emerging field, which makes these extremely exciting times to be involved.