Proactive Innovation: Where Do the Best Ideas Come from?

Proactive Innovation: Where the Best Ideas Come from?
  • Proactive innovation anticipates changes that may occur in an industry or sector as a result of rapid technological development and shorter economic cycles.
  • Keeping an organisation competitive by preparing it for those changes with innovative ideas at every level, proactive innovation is a deliberate process which regularly draws in and nurtures ideas from all stakeholders, such as customers, employees, investors and shareholders.

Have you ever thought about where innovation within an organisation comes from? In some organisations, all stakeholders, and their perspectives are considered and included. Innovation is purposeful and proactive, and there are systems and structures in place to support innovative growth. In others, innovation appears to be an afterthought, a last-minute reaction to growing problems or part of the firefighting process when problems are already set to threaten the business.

Change the game: from reactive to proactive

As economic cycles are becoming shorter and new technologies disrupt established businesses, change induced by innovation can sweep through industries like tidal waves, leaving unprepared organisations in their wake. There are a number of principles to keep in mind when an organisation is looking to implement successful proactive innovation:

1. The importance of proactive innovation
Innovation needs to be proactive rather than reactive. Proactive organisations establish programmes which help them identify the changes needed before they become problems. They develop “innovation systems” that include important interrelationships at all levels, and between all stakeholders, and the structures required to support these, such as clear communication channels, access to resources, and decision making pathways.

2. For deliberate innovation, anticipate and design change
In order to be proactive, an organisation needs to anticipate upcoming changes and deliberately design a process that will ensure it remains competitive. Rather than being randomly impacted by change, the organisation will be in control. This requires researching and predicting future trends, and therefore staying ahead of the curve. While accidental innovations make for interesting stories, they do not contribute to long-term sustainable growth.

3. Use creative processes for intentional innovation
Innovation can be prepared for with a number of useful systematic processes. Proactive organisations ensure that they have a system in place and train people at all levels to be able to use this process for ongoing innovation.

The processes usually include the following stages:

a. Enquiry: Look into the possible reasons behind the issue and establish what the key challenge is.

b. Exploration: Use divergent thinking strategies to identify a range of possible options.

c. Solution: Try combining and recombining ideas to come up with creative new solutions.

d. Application: Test the best potential solutions. Use convergent thinking strategies to find the best solution and work through a practical plan of action to ensure it is implemented.

4. Include people at all levels to get different perspectives
Innovation is typically left to managers or research and development professionals. However, often employees at all levels will have different perspectives, which can be extremely valuable. The people on the frontline, who are in direct contact with customers, will usually be able to give particularly useful feedback. Investors and shareholders will usually also have an input on high impact issues, and their opinions will need to be considered. Include people at all levels and from all different functions, units, and departments in innovation process workshops to ensure these great perspectives and ideas are captured and utilised.

5. Include the customer in the process
If the problem relates to the customer in any way, it is important to get their perspective and ensure their views are heard. Customers will be able to help you identify the issues behind the challenges they face. All innovations should be customer-centric.

6. Provide opportunities for ongoing contributions
If proactive innovation workshops are run regularly, staff will develop habitual ways of thinking and behaving that will ultimately transform the organisational culture. After an initial innovation workshop, the organisation will need to ensure there are ongoing opportunities for regular contributions from everyone. This could include anything from an idea box to an interactive blog and an innovation forum to a pitch process. This will help to create an organisational culture of innovation, in which everyone feels that they are a part of the company’s longterm transformation and can continue to contribute to the process. This will help to increase morale and employee engagement, and will ensure that innovation remains a priority for all.

Proactive innovation is smart, fast and effective. It is so easy to do, and yet so rarely considered – and rarely done well. To survive and flourish in today’s business environment, companies need to anticipate and prepare for potential changes through proactive innovation rather than firefight when it is too late and fails to protect their businesses.

Being proactive rather than reactive to protect your business

Alex Backer, founder and director of QLess, came across an innovative idea for his award-winning company quite by chance. After queuing at an amusement park for hours on end, he came up with the technology that allowed people to book their place in the queue, radically improving the queuing process. This is a case of accidental innovation. More often, however, innovation needs to be a purposeful process – especially if the organisation aims for long-term sustainability.

A similar example involves an Asian bank, who also had a problem with its queuing system. It received constant customer complaints about queuing times, and management was forced to do something about it when they started losing premium clients. They undertook an innovation session that included people from all parts of the organisation, such as managers, back-office staff, and frontline staff, as well as some customers.

By digging deep into the causes of the queuing, the company identified that customers with different types of needs were all queuing in one single queue. Premium clients were queuing along with people coming in off the street wanting to just exchange a few dollars. By simply separating the different types of customers, and creating a booth for money exchange, queue times were cut and premium customers were satisfied. Following the workshop session, the bank looked further into their customer service vision and mission, and identified how this could be better implemented at all levels. They came up with a complete innovation strategy that would ensure these sorts of incidents would not arise again.

These queuing stories both illustrate how innovations are often reactive. From these cases, the first company was able to capitalise on the queuing problems. The second company reacted before it was too late, but only just: customer dissatisfaction was already hurting their business. But these sorts of adaptations are often only considered after it’s already too late.