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Reinventing Innovation as ‘Always On’

This article originally appeared in Wired Innovation Insights online.

Over the last few years, Frito-Lay has discovered an essential ingredient to its chips: consumer input. Last year, the brand’s “Do Us A Flavor” contest garnered 3.8 million submissions and anointed Cheesy Garlic Bread flavored potato chips as the winner. And this year, Doritos is running its 8th annual “Crash the Super Bowl” competition, collecting commercial submissions from aspiring filmmakers who have a chance to win money and fame. Increasingly, brands like these are realizing that they need to bring the outside in, to directly reflect what their consumers want, like or think.

While major consumer brands can enjoy the success of running large contests or other crowdsourcing techniques, many other business sectors — from financial services and healthcare to telecom and automotive — often can’t. These ad hoc approaches typically engage a large pool of consumers, for a finite moment in time, to develop or improve upon a product or service.

We need to start thinking differently about innovation. We need to stop chasing the next big breakthrough and approach innovation as an always-on collaboration with consumers to drive business impact.

Here’s how we can get there:

1. Get Intimate
Innovation and growth are driven by intimacy — with staff, customers and brands. Intimacy allows for understanding of people’s changing needs, lifestyles, expectations and motivations; and it moves relationships forward. But the truth is, many companies prefer to innovate with consumers at a distance, or infrequently, and not as innovation partners.

For too long, we have celebrated the genius of the few rather than the potential of the many. That feels strange because innovation is in all of our DNAs. When we collaborate with others, new and different ideas emerge.

Some believe that innovation belongs in the hands of a limited number of savants. The truth is, these “innovation gurus” only contribute to the intimacy problem; we are putting too much pressure on the chosen few to concoct innovative ideas, inadvertently creating an “us and them” dynamic across organizations. So, while brands like Frito-Lay may enjoy short, focused bursts of success when crowdsourcing big ideas, it’s the sustained relationships with consumers that creates meaningful and impactful change.

2. Focus on Incremental Wins
Many businesses have long coveted the big, game-changing breakthroughs rather than etching innovation into an ongoing way of working. Ogilvy Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland talks impressively about the idea of “sweating the small stuff,” his theory being that our constant search for so-called breakthroughs is driven essentially by status: “I am a big person with a big budget, I need to have big impact — small change won’t do.” This status-seeking mentality, combined with the brief tenure of the average CEO or CMO, has meant that individuals within businesses often chase the big hits rather than building brilliant pipelines of incremental change to drive growth and (unglamorous) ongoing innovation.

So, while the notion of breakthroughs is important, what’s more impactful are the incremental new ideas that get you there. By building upon an accumulation of innovative thinking, you can move away from failed ideas quickly and facilitate meaningful change that generates fresh ideas and powers consumer-driven growth.

3. Always Be ‘On’
Today, we are conditioned to expect a constant state of change. And we expect the same from innovation. To quote Daft Punk (and Kanye): Harder Better Faster Stronger.

And businesses are expected to deliver this change in a turbulent, often chaotic world. Economic, political, environmental and technological issues are shifting our priorities and demands dramatically, and sometimes on a whim.

If businesses are expected to keep up with the rapid change in the world, then their innovation must always follow suit. Deliberate, steady, incremental progress can better serve the needs of this ever-changing world than one-off breakthroughs that might be here today, gone tomorrow.

Always-on innovation creates tangible change for brands that improves their bottom line and makes customers’ lives better. Innovation doesn’t have to be big or brash. It doesn’t even have to be a new product. But by re-defining innovation as always on, we’re empowered to take smart approaches that create mutually beneficial impact for businesses and consumers alike.

Ben Hayman is Head of Innovation at Promise Communispace.

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