Ingenuity has the power to build a positive human future. To tackle society’s and business’s biggest challenges. It takes us beyond iteratively innovating. It’s a mindset, a curious, tenacious, insightful approach that delivers something fundamentally different. And it’s at the heart of our philosophy.
That’s because ingenuity lets you reframe problems and create opportunity from complexity. It makes it possible to empower cross-functional teams to iterate without boundaries, with leadership removing constraint rather than imposing it. In short, a belief in ingenuity reaffirms that people working together can achieve incredible things.
In 2018, I explained to business leaders that to embrace ingenuity, to take that step beyond the process of innovation, you need three things: a purpose, an experimental mindset and the right attitude to scaling up.
For too long, organisations have focussed on the what and the how – understand your customer as best you can, appeal to their unmet need and drive efficiency in the business. And for too long, this model has presumed that a higher purpose is at odds with a higher profit. But if we don’t get the purpose, or the why, right we’ll find two things work against us.
First, we won’t get the best out of our people. In his book Drive, Dan Pink shows that a sense of autonomy and purpose motivate people. While a study by Virgin Pulse found that more than three-quarters of millennials choose culture and purpose over salary and benefits.
Purpose attracts the best talent. And purpose persuades them to give 100 per cent and deliver the best results.
Second, purpose drives decisions. It gives you a goal to measure options against so every choice you make pulls in the same direction. Innovation is about saying no. Ingenuity is about using purpose to decide when to say no.
So, purpose will drive profit. And the best metric for whether the purpose is clear is whether it’s what your customers say about you.
When we worked with Drayson Technologies to launch CleanSpace, a sensor and cloud service for checking live air quality, purpose was the differentiator. While CleanSpace could have simply been a cool gadget, the higher purpose of creating a cleaner city brought together both employees and customers. That meant CleanSpace quickly grew to have 50,000 users in and around London.
The second characteristic of the ingenious is the approach.
We often hear that innovation is about embracing failure. That a fear of failure inhibits us from being innovative. Well, I’m a bit sceptical about embracing failure. I’m not a big failure fan. Why would anyone want to fail?
Having an experimental mindset turns that around. When we design and create new products, seeing what will and won’t work, we’re not trying to fail. Rather, we’re taking on board the principles of Lean Start-up – we’re conducting an experiment. The only kind of experiments that fail are the ones that weren’t set up correctly or weren’t run properly.
The experimental mindset says that if we treat the process of creating new things as a series of experiments, we don’t need to fail at all. We’re asking people to be inquisitive and try things, but there’s no notion of failure within this. This helps us think in non-linear ways.
We’ve been working with the health and wellness chain Holland and Barrett to improve the effectiveness of people’s vitamin and mineral regime. We’re all very different when it comes to our diet and wellness, but we’re all presented with the same choices. So, we developed HealthBox to tailor support to individuals.
We developed the concept and took it to market in around nine months by testing with customers, absorbing the feedback and tweaking the product continuously. The whole project was a sequence of experiments. There was no ‘big bang’ launch and by the time we got to the point of investing heavily, we had higher confidence in the effectiveness of the consumer offer.
The experimental mindset was embedded into every aspect of our approach, from the packaging and consumer engagement to the product formulation and fulfilment.
Ingenuity is about mindset. Ingenuity is about an experimental mindset. While the purpose gives you the destination for your ingenuity, it’s this experimental mindset that helps you take the steps towards achieving that purpose.
Finally, the third element of the ingenious is the right attitude to scaling up.
If you’ve seen Dragon’s Den you’ll have noticed how often the Dragon’s reject ideas because they can’t understand how an innovation is going to scale. But research company Start-up Genome says 70 per cent of the 3,000 start-ups they looked at failed because they scaled up too soon.
So, you need the right balance. You need to know what you’re doing is scalable, but if you reject ideas at an early stage because you can’t see how that will happen, you could miss out.
Having the right attitude to scaling up means kicking the ‘scale can’ down the road for as long as you can. Don’t be put off by those who say it can’t scale. If you’ve got your purpose and experimental mindset, the scaling problems aren’t the ones to fix first.
For example, Hyperloop, the vacuum-tube mag-lev train hybrid that travels three times faster than high-speed rail, has plenty of problems around scaling up. It might fundamentally change the shape of our cities and transform economies, but how can we install the infrastructure needed, regulate it, or train the support staff needed to run it?
As we work with Virgin Hyperloop One to make the new system a reality, we’re thinking about scale. But we’re also mindful that these sorts of scaling questions don’t need an answer yet. If we focused on all of this, we would never get the fundamental engineering right.
So, to be ingenious we must start with a purpose. We then need to use an experimental mindset to constantly iterate towards an answer, or choice of answers, letting the results of our experiments guide us. And we put off scaling up, confident that we’ll better understand the challenges, and be more able to solve them, when scaling is a necessity.
Getting these three things right will put your organisation on an ingenious footing. And with ingenuity flowing freely, you’ll turn complexity to opportunity to deliver enduring results.