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Unstoppable Innovation – Advice from the World’s Greatest

“Nothing endures but change.”

Heraclitus c. 535 – c. 475 BC

Success is impermanent.  The greatest organisations realise this and embrace change.

The M&E sector has been undergoing rapid change for some years now. We’ve seen many new entrants both in the content creation and distribution spaces.

What’s different now?

Convergent technology trends have released the global platform genie. Unprecedented sectorial disruption will result. Rapid advances in areas such as AI, AR, Mixed Reality and VR will further exacerbate the disruption.

It’s no surprise then that the M&E sector has the attention of growth-hungry global technology organisations. Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google are all now investing not just in content creation but also the underlying technologies which will shape both the delivery and creative possibilities for media in the coming decade. Once these organisations target a sector, radical change will follow.

For those of us who are compulsive builders and thrive on change, this is a golden era to be working in M&E. Fascinating times, although in focusing on the output of these organisations, we miss the point.

This article is neither about global platforms nor their disruptive impact on the M&E sector but instead the capacity of some organisations for relentless innovation.

Analysing what has been built isn’t nearly as interesting as understanding how innovative organisations nurture creativity and capture ideas.

So, what works?

How do some of the world’s most successful organisations mine the collective intellect of their work forces for ideas?

Innovation is a big, multidimensional topic, so we’ll focus on a few high-profile organisations eyeing the M&E sector.

Amazon are perhaps the most transparent about their approach to nurturing, mining and exploiting the creative potential within their organisation.  The diversity, scale and success of Amazon’s businesses offer proof of the effectiveness of their strategy, so we’ll start here.

In 2017, Forbes wrote an article entitled “How Does Amazon Stay at Day One?”.  The article provides great insight into the attitudes and working practices the company adopts to support innovation.  It’s worth a read.  For brevity, takeaway points include:

  1. Hire builders. Pursue those who are habitual builders. I fall into this category, it borders on being an illness.
  2. Customer obsession. Work backwards to describe a product from the customer perspective. Build products that customers will love.
  3. Encourage experimentation. Make it simple to get approval to experiment.
  4. Vision & Process. Create a simple, fast, standardised process (an idea brief) to distill and develop ideas and get them in front of decision makers.
  5. Define simple appraisal criteria. Define simple criteria against which ideas can be assessed.  For Amazon these include:
    1. Can it get big?
    2. Can it be built?
    3. Will customers love it?
  6. Create supportive company culture. Lower the barriers to experimentation for employees.
    1. It’s OK to back out of an idea once a project has started.
    2. It’s OK to disagree with one another about the value of an idea but proceed regardless.
    3. Don’t penalise staff who’ve worked on a failed product/project. Much can be learnt from unsuccessful projects.
  7. Competency. Be willing to develop new competencies to realise a great idea.
  8. Support new projects. “Single-threaded leadership”. Assign a dedicated leader to champion a project. This gives an idea the best chance of becoming successful.

The points, I think, speak for themselves. Amazon’s willingness to develop new competencies is striking.  Their dedication to customer focus seemingly overriding the self-imposed, competency-based atrophy common to most organisations.

The “idea brief” concept represents something akin to “idea DNA”. Coupled with the supporting processes for selecting and nurturing strong ideas, the strategy appears effective in encouraging both incremental and transformational innovations to surface. Furthermore, it also seems to reduce the impact of departmental “siloing” which can obstruct idea sharing. The results are undeniably impressive.

Contrast this with Facebook. The Harvard Business Review published the following article some years ago. Takeaway points include:

  1. Nurture experimentation. Encourage everyone to build and to sell ideas through prototyping rather than presentation.
  2. A winning mobile strategy: ask what’s essential and contextual. Keep interfaces simple and un-intrusive.
  3. Physically mix up your work environment on a regular basis. Allow office space to be easily reconfigurable on the fly to support ad-hoc group working and idea exchange.
  4. Make the workspace comfortable / homely and flexible. Create an environment where workers feel comfortable and at ease.

The pointers are very much engineering focused, and as you might expect from Facebook, suggest subtle social engineering approaches to improve information exchange, remove barriers to building and disrupt departmental siloing. Clever stuff.

The contrast of the innovation strategies is striking, pointing towards the different identities of each organisation, which might read something like:

Facebook: We are the social network, we develop software.

Amazon: We create disruptive, global products our customers love.

What comes across is that Facebook’s innovation strategy is engineering and product / competence (social network) centred. The focus is introspective and targeted at protecting and building its position as the social networking platform.

The two perspectives are highly complementary. Amazon’s comprehension of corporate innovation appears to be broader, whilst Facebook have a good grasp of the social basis of innovation in a project delivery and continuous integration/development context.

Amazon’s focus is simultaneously intro and extrospective. Encouraging business and customer focus, fostering that outlook in staff and providing channels for transformative ideas (irrespective of competence) to gain attention and funding.

Presently, both organisations are hugely successful, although Amazon’s innovation strategy has undoubtedly resulted in a more diverse business portfolio.

As I write this, SpaceX has just launched the Falcon Heavy; a spectacular achievement. No discussion on delivering breakthrough innovations would be complete without input from one of the most prominent and high-risk innovators in the world, Elon Musk.

During 2017, Elon Musk reportedly wrote the following email to his staff at Tesla:

“There are two schools of thought about how information should flow within companies. By far the most common way is chain of command, which means that you always flow communication through your manager. The problem with this approach is that, while it serves to enhance the power of the manager, it fails to serve the company.”

He goes on to say:

“… managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an us vs. them mentality or impede communication in any way. This is unfortunately a natural tendency and needs to be actively fought.”

Elon Musk, 2017 – www.inc.com

There are many truths here and you’ll note some recurrent themes.  No matter how effective your recruitment process nor how gifted and creative your team is, if organisational processes and management practices don’t focus them towards clear goals and actively promote information exchange, debating of ideas and experimentation, your pace of innovation and business will suffer.

In practice, one email won’t deliver unstoppable innovation, that takes concerted, ongoing effort. To this this end, Amazon and Facebook offer some excellent guidance.

One final point. The single most import omission from the discussion is trust. Though not directly mentioned, it’s concealed somewhere between Facebook and Amazon’s takeaway points and is most certainly there.

If people don’t trust their colleagues, managers or the business they work for, silos will emerge both within and between teams. People will expend energy and attention on building barriers to defend themselves and not on creativity and delivering results. No matter how good your processes for sharing ideas are, if trust is lost, information will not flow efficiently. The greatest leaders possess deep emotional maturity, implicitly understand the importance of trust and strive to nurture a trusting environment.

– Grant Hammond.

 

Further reading about Thomson Reuters experience of refocusing on innovation can be found here, as well as pointers from Google about innovation culture here.

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