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Making innovation happen - an insight breakfast with Alan Treadgold

As part of our ongoing series of breakfast seminars, Freshminds were lucky enough to have Independent Global Retail Advisor and Partner at PA Consulting, Alan Treadgold join us to speak to us on the topic of ‘Making innovation happen’.

Before we started we went through our usual pop quiz icebreaker, which in this particular instance was – “what is your favourite innovation”.  This generated a range of answers with everything from Fintech and new model banking through to Blockchain, proptech, Teslas solar panels, 5D BIM, new look integration tools, face recognition insurance, organic food delivery and getting your groceries delivered to your car boot!

Having worked with innovation in a number of different guises over the years, Alan’s expertise on the topic was fascinating, and his pithy and practical approach started us off by asking;

How can you be innovative in a corporate setting?

The first point that Alan made was that it is important to decide where you actually want to be on the ‘innovation spectrum’. It is completely OK and indeed commercially viable to be a fast follower, but you need to be aware of this and not get lost or distracted by the mass of ‘bright shiny toys’ that are in the market. Indeed, the fact that there is such a prodigious amount of digital innovators in the marketplace at the moment makes it very easy to become side-tracked and lose sight of the useful, pragmatic and actionable innovation within a given setting.

The key is to focus on what the actual benefit is for both the customer and business - innovation for its own sake can be less than useful. It is also vital to focus on how to be innovative without losing sight of the core business ethos and to sense check that proactive innovation of a business doesn’t add unnecessary complexity and cost. Thus it is important to use a healthy dose of pragmatism and build a careful framework around innovation.

There are 3 areas of change and innovation that need to be considered simultaneously for success to occur. In Alan’s opinion, you need to look at the Consumer, the Tech and the business model, whilst at the same time keeping in mind that maintaining a status quo and being overly conservative is, in fact, the riskiest thing a business can do.

Where do you put the focus on innovation?

  • Start with the customer. You need to understand the needs and desires of the customer, but with the caution that overly obsessive questioning of the customer is a problem and essentially an abdication of strategic leadership. You still need to have ideas, just apply a customer lens to them and conduct only the valuable insight.
  • Product innovation is still important. Choices in today’s market are limitless so building a story and a reason behind the product need is vital. If you are careful about this you can avoid the race to the bottom. Extensive work on personalisation is, from a product perspective, often a good place to start.
  • Innovation in the physical environment. With the ongoing online migration, retailers are realising they have far too much underutilised real estate. But this doesn’t have to be negative and can be turned into a huge opportunity. The subsequent rise of the experiential shop and the re-messaging of product stories in this setting show that there are a lot of different ideas being generated and innovations abound for transforming physical space.
  • Focus on the future. The broader and more expansive the thoughts, the better. Anticipating future customer needs, and understanding within the companies DNA that innovation counts - keep future commercial return in mind when ‘innovating’.
  • Acknowledge that you need to design innovation into an organisation. Think about how you can get innovation into the marketplace. Is the organisation able to start small, but scale fast? Are there frameworks and a specific purpose for innovation? Is the business agile enough to move at the pace that innovation often needs – can the business cope with the journey from purpose to value?
  • Culture is key. You need to create the right climate for innovation. Look outside for ideas, if you are in the position to do so, invest widely in multiple new ideas, go to external inventors, tech developers and accelerators. Spread the net as wide as possible and create a network for innovation. Alan also warned that, especially in bigger businesses, you need to be patient with innovation – things can take a lot of time, but bear with it and hone the approach so that this improves. Innovation cannot be at the expense of the “as-is” business – it is a finely balanced thing. There are some pitfalls involved in putting innovation outside of the main business. An external “innovation hub” of some sort, whilst great in theory, can point to a major cultural issue in that only 5% of the business is responsible for innovation and thus by definition the other 95% is not responsible (or doesn’t feel responsible) and thus an unnecessary divide and lack of ownership can creep in around new ideas.

Alan summarised his talk with a quote from Alan Kay – “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. Alan believes we should us this sentiment as a rallying call for anyone trying to innovate. We should ‘not be subject to the headwinds of change that are constantly battering us or lose ourselves adrift in the external environment’, but rather build a social and corporate responsibility for innovation.

Overall, it was a very interesting and refreshingly pragmatic presentation about how to go about the act of ‘innovating’ – not to think about it as an airy hypothetical thing, but more as the vital core of any serious long-term business. 

Jon White

Jon White

Head of the Experienced and Executive Hire team


Jon leads the team to help partner businesses to find the top experienced or executive level talent for commercial and strategic roles.


Interested to find out more about innovation in business? Get in touch with Jon to discuss further.