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PA OPINION

Three ingredients needed for successful innovation

Anita Chandraker, PA innovation expert, explained the secret of successful innovation in a talk to business leaders on 11 July. Below are her three ingredients for making your next move.

I’m an optimist. I believe our best days are ahead of us.

That seems like a pretty bold statement in this time of great political upheaval, stagnant global growth, and struggling legacy industries. But as someone who’s made a career of helping organisations innovate, I’ve come to realise that fundamentally we’re all trying to answer one simple question: what’s my next move?

What’s my next move to make my organisation or my team more competitive, recognised and deliver growth?

For many, the answer is to lean on technology. It’s an incredibly powerful enabler. The world is better off today than ever before and that’s largely because of the rapid advances in technology. And in many ways, it’s helping us map what comes next.

At the same time, technology can be scary. A quick scan of the recent headlines on artificial intelligence is a stark reminder that people are nervous, even quite fearful.

But to focus on technology ‘solutions’ is to overlook a critical ingredient in answering the question. And that’s our human ability to drive positive change.

Much has been said recently about the need for people and tech to work better together. But to achieve truly ingenious results – where man and machine come together to break new ground –we need to go back to basics. That means taking a critical view of what we as humans can do to answer the question: what’s my next move? And that ranges from seemingly simple tweaks to more involved, but equally rewarding, work.

So, I’m going to offer three suggestions. First, reframe the problem to get better answers. Second, build diverse teams. And third, listen intently.

Reframe the problem

Plastic waste. It’s a huge issue. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation believes that by 2050 the plastic in the world’s oceans will weigh more than the fish. For those of you who watched the latest Blue Planet series, you’ll have seen David Attenborough talk about the tragic effects of plastic on marine life. The series spurred a call to ban plastics - you might have seen the news that the government in the Indian state of Maharashtra has banned all plastic bags, for example.

But for the beverage industry, this is a huge threat. But what if, instead of banning packaging outright, we could reframe packaging?

That was the question Skipping Rocks Lab, a start-up based in London, asked themselves. In their eyes, solving the problem wasn’t about dropping packaging altogether, it was about creating packaging that left absolutely nothing behind.

The answer? Ooho. It’s packaging you can eat. You don’t have to, but the fact it’s edible shows that it’s natural, harmless and 100 per cent biodegradable.

We’ve been helping Skipping Rocks Lab create the machine to produce Ooho. Although it’s early days, the aim is to lease the production machine to businesses. They can then produce Oohos on site daily, filling them with whatever they like, from water and juices to sauces and alcohol.

The goal of Ooho is to stop 1 billion plastic bottles reaching the oceans each year.

Reframing the problem was so important to Skipping Rocks Lab, and it is whenever you’re looking to innovate. It stops us getting stuck in the same pattern of thinking. It helps us think more broadly. It inspires creativity. And it shows where we can borrow from other industries.

Build diverse teams

Taking in a range of opinions is essential. Business challenges are more interwoven than ever before - do one thing and it’ll affect something else. Those challenges demand diverse teams who can look at them from different angles.

Take Holland & Barrett, one of the UK’s most trusted health and wellbeing brands. One of the benefits of buying in-store versus online is the personalised advice you get from trained staff. They saw an opportunity to replicate the in-store experience online. The challenge was how to build the staff’s expertise into an online platform.

The answer was to assemble a diverse team of experts. Our strategy and marketing experts developed the initial concept and customer experience, planned how to get the new proposition into the market, and designed the trial. Our digital experts designed the website and set up the e-commerce platform that sits behind it, working with our life sciences experts and nutritionists to develop a customer questionnaire. Meanwhile, our product development and manufacturing specialists designed innovative packaging, and helped procure and commission the manufacturing equipment needed to produce personalised packs.

Today, you can go online, complete a quick survey and Holland & Barrett will deliver a box of supplements, packaged in daily doses and personalised to you.

By bringing together a range of people with diverse skills and expertise, we removed any chance of creating an echo chamber of similar people generating similar ideas. And we could apply experience from other sectors. Both are crucial to making a success of any new project.

Listen to the customer

Listening to the customer sounds obvious, like something we all do every day. But so often we force our preconceptions onto what we’re hearing, undermining our desire to really listen.

So when Veolia Water Technologies, one of the world’s biggest water treatment companies, asked us to help them create new digital services for their customers, we knew we’d have to work hard to listen to what customers really wanted.

Over just eight weeks, we came up with a long list of ideas based on real customer needs before whittling it down to two. We piloted both, gathering more feedback from customers along the way.

Having learned how to make the services most effective, VWT were confident to move forward so more customers could benefit.

By constantly listening to the customer, we overcame some common barriers to successful innovation. We didn’t assume we knew what people needed. We surveyed the entire landscape and thought about all possible futures. And we quickly understood when we were veering off course and stopped it quickly.

The future’s bright

I started off by calling myself an optimist. One of the reasons for that is because I see young people today taking these three lessons to heart.

You need look no further than the hundreds of school children aged eight to 18 who have taken part in our Raspberry Pi competitions over the last six years.

For those six years, we’ve been going out to schools across the UK and challenging them to come up with solutions to big social problems using a simple computer called a Raspberry Pi.

They’ve created incredible devices like a simple, portable charger that uses wind and solar power to charge four rechargeable AA batteries without harming the environment. And they’ve devised ingenious systems to help people, like an ultra-sonic, multi-sensory smart hat for the visually impaired that alerts people to nearby obstacles.

It’s inspiring to see how young people reframe the problem, how they work in teams of people with diverse opinions, and how they listen to those their inventions are meant to serve.

So remember, reframe the problem, seek out diversity of thought and listen, listen, listen. Incorporate these three ingredients into your life and you’ll be well on your way to answering that most nagging question of all: what’s my next move.

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