We speak to Alan Cucknell, innovation expert, about how businesses can free themselves from prescriptive processes
Every business wants to be innovative, but not all innovation is equal. Companies can go it alone, taking inspiration from other companies in their sector and gradually improving on what they have done before.
But as the corporate landscape changes, this approach just doesn’t cut it. The ability to innovate in an exponential age has to be part of a company’s DNA. Organisations must be ready to adapt, even before they have fully identified what their challenges might be. But how?
Innovative by design
Alan Cucknell, who currently heads up a new business unit called Ignite Exponential (IEX), has worked in the innovation space for almost 20 years. Over time, he explains, his role has shifted from incremental, continuous innovation towards identifying potential disruptive challenges, and helping businesses to be innovative by design.
“The world is moving so quickly, especially with the convergence of different industries, diminishing barriers to entry, and changing customer expectations,” he explains. “Before you develop a new solution, it can be harder than ever to understand what success looks like. Why? Because our world is changing, industries are being disrupted, and our conventional assumptions about the rules of our industries are being overturned.”
Six months ago, Cucknell joined IEX, which was set up by 30 year old technology consultancy Plextek as part of a move to become a more holistic innovation partner for clients.
IEX helps customers to take a proactive and systematic approach to innovation, shaking up the methodologies of traditional consultancies by focusing on partnerships. Why? Because, in an unpredictable digital age, no business is an island. Organisations also have to invite expertise and talent from as many places as possible.
“A partnership is about collaborating to bring the best skills of both parties to the table, working not to a deliverable but to a joint objective or common purpose,” says Cucknell. “We set up projects collaboratively and focus on the partnership journey, which is particularly important for disruptive innovation projects because you can’t always describe, at the beginning, what success looks like in that context. You need the flexibility of a partnership approach.”
From process to framework
Businesses live and breathe by processes. Without processes, it can be impossible to bring employees together in sight of the same goals. But while processes are useful for standardisation and building a common language, they can be restrictive. In fast paced, disruptive environments, a process that worked in one situation is unlikely to deliver the same outcome in another.
“It’s easy to see why people rely on the processes that they understand, but they can end up focusing on the wrong thing,” says Cucknell.
“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail – with processes, at any point of the journey, you have a particular tool in mind. However, that might not be the right tool to tackle the uncertainty in hand and means you can end up working on the wrong problem.”
“My recommendation is to look at the principles behind those processes, which I refer to as frameworks. This allows you to check, to provoke, and to question what’s going on, but not to prescribe the way that you work. With frameworks, you can look at things from different angles.”
This ties into asking the right questions, and staying open minded. When the focus shifts from process to framework, businesses can detach themselves from business and usual and think in entirely new ways. That said, organisations shouldn’t necessarily part with processes.
“Is it always appropriate to step away from a process?” says Cucknell. “No. For a lot of the work that organisations do, they need to have common management and training processes,” he adds. “By all means, use processes, but make sure you’re using the expertise of your team and eyes from outside of your industry to challenge the mindset.”
“Otherwise, you end up locked in the same paradigms and ways of thinking. That way the ideas you come up with will be the same as what everyone else is doing.”
Innovation at the intersection
By following frameworks, and not processes, businesses can start to think outside of the proverbial box. They are no longer limited to step-by-step instructions, which makes them more likely to draw on external knowledge and experience. In an exponential age, Cucknell explains that innovation happens at the intersection.
“Think of it as a Venn diagram, where innovation happens at the interface between different teams, technology, business models, customers, experiences, and so on. The more you bring different perspectives together, the more valuable it is. Silos make sense for day-to-day operations, but you have to be able to challenge assumptions and traditional boundaries. You need a common purpose.”
Without a multidisciplinary set of eyes and ears, it can be much harder to avoid, or, as the case may be, to learn from failure. Businesses might please their customers but neglect to comply with regulations. They might use cutting edge technology but struggle to make it work with their existing infrastructure. They might prepare themselves for change, but miss opportunities when they arise. For Cucknell, this can be solved through different perspectives.
“Other industries may be ahead in terms of the way the disruptive trends are affecting them. Don’t just bring together different silos… You need to go beyond your own four walls and bring in people who can ask those apparently naive questions. Often they are the starting point of disruptive innovation.”
Enter the the duck-billed platypus…
In his talk at this year’s Disruption Summit Europe conference, Cucknell used an interesting analogy to explain to delegates how businesses can form successful frameworks: the duck-billed platypus.
“The duck-billed platypus is a really fascinating animal,” he says. “It’s a mammal but it lays eggs. It’s got a duck’s bill, a beaver’s tail, otter’s feet, and it’s got venom like a snake… It’s a jigsaw puzzle of different animals. It’s stayed and evolved while other creatures in its habitat have fallen away as the environment has changed. The lesson for innovators here is that it’s not a beauty contest. It’s about finding a framework that might be borrowed from different places.”
Being a duck-billed platypus is about being able to take on different configurations. By combining different learnings and frameworks, businesses can handle change because they are able to adapt. Instead of trying to pre-empt the future, they can create a capacity for change. One example of a company that readies itself for different eventualities without trying to guess the future is Tesla.
“Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, is a very controversial character, but what he does well is see opportunities to try things out,” says Cucknell. “Tesla puts features into vehicles that, if the future goes one way, can be used. An example is a camera that faces into the vehicle. In all Tesla cars today, it’s turned off. But if the regulations change, and vehicles could be rented out to other people, Tesla will be able to turn those cameras on. The Tesla fleet will then be able to compete with other ride sharing companies.”
“They aren’t trying to predict when this will happen, and waiting to invest. If the future goes in that direction, it’s already there.”
Starting the conversation
For Cucknell, innovation often begins with a conversation.
“Some of the challenges we face are so exceptional that no one organisation, country or group of people can address them,” says Cucknell. “Quite frankly, nobody has all the answers.”
In order to find solutions, businesses need to communicate. They need to look at the biological ingenuity of the duck-billed platypus, building their ability to borrow tools and techniques from different places and industries. Central to this is embracing co-creation and partnerships.
The result: the replacement of prescriptive processes with flexible frameworks.
The question is, how do businesses derive competitive advantage in their markets while also sharing, standardising, and embracing open source?
“Yes, you need your own vision and strategy,” says Cucknell. “But at the same time, we need to build a common world with common purpose that works for everyone. Disruptive innovation matters as much to your competitive advantage as it does to the health of the ecosystem in which we all live.”
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