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Innovation – dispelling the myths and top tips for success


David Rosewell - Head of Client Engagement

Innovation is the buzzword of the moment but there are many myths around what it is (and isn’t) and how you can be successful.

Innovation image showing two people and an atomic particle

Let’s start by drawing a parallel with how children innovate. They aren’t constrained, they are constantly inquisitive, and they don’t instinctively perceive barriers to doing new things. As we get older it is all too easy to have that innovative curiosity beaten out of us and maybe we should all be a bit more child-like in our thinking.

But what is driving innovation? Both suppliers and customers have many catalysts for innovation and three of the most important ones are pace of change, connectivity and fear.

  • Pace of change is driven by consumer demand and competition in the commercial sector. In defence and security it is driven by threats from organised crime, terrorism or nation states. Competition and adversaries are innovating faster often without the constraints such as procurement processes and need for transparency.
  • Connectivity - The world is becoming more connected. This presents great opportunities for new products/services, e.g. leveraging data across multiple platforms, providing information and delivering operational insight. This connectivity also presents new threats which need to be countered, and new connections secured.
  • Fear - New entrants are disrupting the market in the commercial sector and nobody wants to be the next Kodak or Blockbuster. But what about defence and security? Directed energy could disrupt those who produce weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could disrupt those who produce aircraft.

However, there are two great misunderstandings about innovation. The first that is it is often confused with invention. Invention is about creating brand new things such as the light-bulb, mobile phone or internet. Innovation is about the process and the application of inventions to create value by solving problems or creating opportunities. So the development of the mobile phone is invention, and using it to create economic value in remote villages in Africa is innovation. Building wind turbines is invention, but integrating them with military stealth know-how to provide more flexibility in their location is innovation. The second misunderstanding is that innovation is not always synonymous with technology when it can equally be non-technical commercial improvements such as the development of novel contract structures, for example risk/reward models or outcome based contracting. Equally it could be about changing the way people work or developing different skills.

Whilst there are many definitions of innovation, the one that is most useful is the interplay between product and markets, which is fundamentally about people – consumers and purchasers. If people don’t use and therefore see the value then it isn’t innovative.

Let’s look at some top tips for successful innovation:

  1. Drive innovation from the top – It needs to be driven from the CEO down and embodied in the organisation with a clear mandate.CEO’s should be as clear as Steve Jobs with his direction to make the buttons on the iPhone “good enough to lick”.
  2. Embrace Diversity – Make sure your team isn’t just comprised of the same type of people as innovation is most successful when you bring together people with different backgrounds, experiences and skills together.
  3. Be more trusting – Innovation doesn’t happen in isolation and few companies have all the answers. There is a need for established companies, start-ups, academia to build relationships and work together in an ecosystem.This requires trust to make work as you can’t rely on “straightjacket” commercial terms at the outset as there are rarely a defined set of requirements.
  4. Create an authentic innovation culture – I’m not saying that Google has the perfect culture but it is an example of a culture where there is true flexibility and freedom to create and innovate.Now defence and security has a well-established culture and it isn’t something we can change overnight (nor should we), but we need to create a culture that is authentic and appropriate for driving innovation in our organisations.
  5. Don’t believe that the customer is always right – If Henry Ford has asked the customer what they wanted they would have said “faster horses”, rather than the motor car.If Steve Jobs had asked the customer what product they wanted from Apple – would they have been able to envisage the iPhone or iPad? If we asked a customer for their requirements would they know what to ask for…..? Need to embrace a more intuitive, experimental approach based around rapidly prototyping solutions and seeing how they perform in real life just like the Army Warfighting Experiment.
  6. Be quick – Although innovation takes time…..you’ve got to be quick it too. You have to out-innovate the competition and adversaries before they do. It is also important not to just address today’s opportunities and challenges but address tomorrows’- “Skate to where the puck is going to be” as they say in ice hockey.

Armed with the top tips, I urge you embrace your inner child and be unconstrained, be constantly inquisitive and don’t let the obstacles (perceived or otherwise) get in the way of doing new things. In this way established companies, start-ups and academia can work together with our customers to out-innovate the competition – commercial or otherwise.