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Ping Pong tables are a symptom, not a cause!

by Jo White December 15, 2016

At Freshminds we have enjoyed some really interesting seminars over the years, our usual Friday lunchtime seminar slot has proven both especially enlightening from a commercial perspective and also more broadly speaking has helped us investigate broader socio-political problems facing our clients, our candidates and indeed ourselves.

We were lucky enough to have a heavyweight in the world of innovation, Dan Salmons, come into our offices to give us a presentation on his career within innovation and his in-depth understanding of the space followed by a lively Q&A.

Dan was fascinating, with a career ranging from Anderson Consulting (as was), Capital One, through Barclaycard, Whatif and various Non-exec positions in smaller businesses. Here is a man who has experienced and driven innovation from every side of the oft-mentioned and apparently multi-dimensional fence.

As a result, his insight into the pitfalls and problems of innovation within a massive corporate such as Barclaycard as well as an agile specialist like Whatif came from an unquestionably rounded perspective that learnt them all the veracity and profundity you could wish for.

Dan lead us through what he considers the main phases of innovation strategy from start to finish giving us his thoughts on what is crucial to successfully build innovation into a business.

First, the big question to ask is “Why are we innovating”, what is this innovation actually for? It really pays not to be too amorphous in the thought process around innovation as it risks innovation in areas that are in no way connected or additive to the core. All good innovators should thus constantly be asking “For the sake of what!”

Narrowing the field in these situations can really help, both to focus resource in the right areas, but also to make it a lot easier to see ROI and thus perpetuate the need, desire and buy-in for innovation as a whole. Therefore, if this is done well, you should be able to build the credibility and capability for innovation within any business.

How to actually innovate:

It is critical, when innovating, to push something all the way up and over the ‘curve’, not to push lots of things a little way up, as they will simply fall back down. You don’t become innovators by buying a Ping Pong table and hoping for ideas and money to flood in – in Dan’s mind Ping Pong tables are a symptom, not a cause, much like it doesn’t rain when you put up an umbrella!

First, you have to define by competition, see where might be sensible and don’t start with too blank a piece of paper. Then it is a case of focusing intensity, not scatter-gunning a million ideas, but focusing on one or two where there are adjacent ‘hot’ areas of interest already in existence.

The analogy Dan gave us was that everyday occurrence of when you want to burn down a damp forest - bear with me on this! His metaphor was that to burn down a damp forest you won’t get very far by lighting 100 candles and spreading them throughout, what might work however is to build a small concentrated fire and watch it catch. Similarly, lots of scattered ideas won’t gain momentum, but a few focused ones might. There were four core things for this stage of innovation to keep at the front of mind:

  • Top level support and buy-in

  • Get hands-on with the innovation itself quickly, so that you can play with it and iterate

  • Hiring the right people way ahead of time so you have them there when they are actually needed

  • Having a broad spectrum of innovation in the pipeline - long/short term, no risk/massively risky, boring process tweak to massive new idea

Barriers to Innovation:

Funnily enough, Dan did not put much credence to what is usually rolled out by innovators – i.e. people don’t like change. His argument is that people do like change, but what they don’t like is losing what they know/are comfortable with and there is a key difference there. Also, he made the point that good and successful businesses have usually spent significant amounts of time optimising and managing their businesses in a way that accidentally mitigates against innovation while having the best of intentions. A good business should actually have pushed the apparatus for innovation to the sidelines. As such, a good and successful innovation team often needs to unpick the processes that have accrued over time.

Innovation within the Product team:

Then Dan went on to extol the virtues of putting innovation in the hands of a Product team, once it’s launched. This gives ownership of the innovation to a cross-functional unit that is well positioned to adapt and change as the innovation comes up against the inevitable hiccups that lie in wait. Also, embedding innovation within Product gives it a structured roadmap, which aids overall longevity of an idea within a business.

Customer is King:

The key take away from the seminar was the importance of being close to the customer. Successful innovation can only come when you know and actually like your customer and have them at the center of all things.

The example Dan gave on this was; having run a lot of innovation workshops/competitions they simply do not work if they are purely internal. In his very quantifiable experience, the best innovation comes from the customer and the more internally focused and more senior a person is the less likely they are to come up with a successful innovation – a word of warning there for us all!

It is this customer-centric process, which brings the most interesting ideas to the fore and any innovator worth their salt should be obsessed with the “Aha” moment when a customer does or says something weird, something that doesn’t quite make sense, but inexplicably works regardless.

If you find this, you have the seeds of innovation.

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