The quickest way to kill innovation in your business…build an innovation lab!

There are better ways to get your company generating bold new ideas
Cass Opara

Innovation has long been heralded by leadership teams as a vital ingredient for a company’s success and competitive positioning, prompting a trend for creating dedicated ‘innovation labs’. Yet, if innovation is so critical, why do so many innovation labs fail in their mission to add value and drive growth? 

Perhaps part of the problem is that the idea of an innovation lab is flawed, and that innovation as a concept is over-hyped and over-sold - a modern-day business obsession. In order to achieve success, organisations must re-frame how they think about innovation, what it means to them, and how it can be harnessed. 

Companies often look to new technology in the pursuit of innovation, but if they paused to analyse their objectives, they might be better served by investing in the human experience first and foremost, only mapping to technology solutions once that human-centred strategy is established. This may result in removing redundant elements to simplify the process, but sometimes real innovation happens when you take things away. 

Below, we’ll discuss the importance of defining what innovation is and what it means to an organisation, why sometimes less is more, and the significance of the human touch in digital innovation. 

So, what is an innovation lab? What is innovation?

Across the UK, US and Europe, an innovation lab is generally considered to be a dedicated space where research and experimentation can flourish. Yet, innovation can exist with or without a dedicated space. In Japan, where Monstarlab is headquartered, the term for lab, “kenkyūshitsu” (研究室), implies a sense of belonging within a research group or community, focusing on co-creation and exchange of ideas versus physical space for experimentation. For successful innovation, how people work together to solve problems and develop new ideas is more important. 

Communication  > innovation

Indeed, communication is key. By creating a safe, comfortable environment for teams to discuss ideas and experiment without judgement or career risk, you are building the foundations for successful innovation. Once that is established, the environment can be equipped to specifically tackle set objectives, but without that fundamental quality of relaxed, safe and non-judgemental idea sharing, new and transformative initiatives will falter.

With the right atmosphere in place, the next step is to define an organisational approach to innovation. Across different companies and cultures, innovation can have contrasting meanings. It’s therefore vital for all internal stakeholders to share a common definition of the term and what it means for an organisation’s success. Whether it’s defined as the ability to deliver something new to customers or the transformation of an internal process, everyone should be clear on the aim.  Innovation output will be meaningless if it is not achieving a specific goal. 

Focusing on the end goal

Is the goal to be more efficient? To go to market faster? To increase revenue streams? After a company defines innovation and its overall objective, it must then identify the best way to achieve it. But by striving to be constantly innovative without consideration of strategy, there’s a very real risk that solutions that would have delivered the desired outcome are discounted because they are not innovative ‘enough’, further compounding the misalignment in objectives. 

The objective of trying to connect with customers to get them to respond to a specific call to action is a good example. By focusing on what might be perceived as an innovative approach above all else, it’s very possible that a more traditional approach that would have better results is ignored. Consider trying to create a metaverse experience versus tried-and-tested SMS campaign. By not factoring in the human experience of the latter, more commonly understood and used medium, it is likely that the opportunity for higher engagement will be missed. 

Speed over innovation? 

Speed and innovation often go hand-in-hand. Speed is why startups frequently outperform more prominent, established companies; they are quicker, more agile, and more focused - and, as a result, they are often more innovative. The quicker a business can decide on a strategy and pursue it, the longer the runway to advance that decision, realise value faster or change direction if required. So if an organisation is struggling with innovation, adopting an approach which favours speed can help deliver better results in the short to medium-term. And while innovation can be hard to measure, speed is easier to quantify.

Removing unnecessary obstacles hindering efficiency can help move the needle when it comes to speed - especially for larger companies. This is also the starting point for improving the quality of decision-making and can represent an important step towards the goal of innovation. 

Digital decluttering

Indeed, in a further nod to our Japanese roots, Marie Kondo’s art of decluttering is an undervalued proposition in today’s business world. 

Fear of eliminating something that has yet to be proven or put to good use is very real, however - hence the trends towards onboarding new technologies and adding layer upon layer of digital complexity rather than taking a step back to work out what is really required. But by embracing reductive processes and asking how value can be added by removing unnecessary aspects, especially before adding greater complexity, it is possible to achieve greater clarity of purpose, simplified processes and an enhanced human experience. 

This simplified approach also creates the opportunity to examine how and why long-forgotten (but still adhered to) functions and processes were once implemented, and more importantly, what purpose they served, to examine whether they are still required. It’s also a chance to review an organisation’s level of technical debt. Often, as the result of rushing a new solution through development, unwanted or unused code and software can be accrued, creating layers of redundancy which can be likened to layers of sediment on a seabed that are added and compacted over time to become more and more impenetrable. 

When realigning around speed, it’s important to find a balance between building the new and reviewing the old. Taking stock of existing licences, changes in technology and functionality overlap with more recent builds or purchases is an important step towards the art of digital innovation. 

Mastering the art of digital innovation

Digital innovation comes when a business takes a holistic look at a process to completely reconfigure or eliminate it through the transformational power of technology. It can involve heavy lifting and has a high failure rate if not approached correctly. But by fostering the right atmosphere for innovation to be explored, ensuring alignment on what it means to the business and what the expected outcome will be, eliminating unnecessary elements, and prioritising the human experience, organisations can further drive their definition of innovation to deliver actual value - with or without a dedicated ‘innovation’ space.  

Written by
Cass Opara