Provoking innovation and experimentation

Articles Innovation

Many think that promoting "real" innovation is a very satisfying, "cool" job. My friends are astounded when I tell them how long it takes to build a partnership - from six months to a year - and the number of calls needed to get a project started (on average about twenty). They have no idea how many emotional ups and downs you have to manage, both yours and the person’s you’re dealing with.

When an agreement finally seems to have been found, there’s a corporate restructuring and the person you’re dealing with or a priority changes, so the innovation project is delayed. Innovation can always wait, it’s not urgent, it’s an investment in the future; a future that’s more or less around the corner for everyone, hopefully, one that isn’t remote. Sometimes the person you’re dealing with changes boss and all the presentation material for the project has to be modified and adapted to be appreciated since one boss is strategic, another is analytical or technical, and another still is commercial.

My friends, sometimes even colleagues, think that the person I deal with is eager for innovation and experimentation, the ideal person to whom to propose doing new things with a wow effect. That isn’t the case.

The wow effect exists in B2C, not in B2B

In B2B, there’s a business context to which the person or persons with whom I deal belong and which even today is often not inclined to risk-taking. Many managers I’ve met in recent years are reluctant to approve and invest in medium- or high-risk innovative projects, sometimes even those that are low-risk in terms of economics, time or effort. They shelve new ideas in favour of marginal improvements, cost reductions and investments they deem safe.

Should I give up putting forward innovation? Not, innovation is evolution. This concept is particularly clear when we talk about environmental sustainability, for example. If we aim to reduce emissions of CO2 and/or other pollutants, we need sensors that measure them to understand trends and we need to carry out complex analyses to decide how to intervene. Being an old problem, which now needs to be solved, we have to try different approaches, which need to be verified and tested. A lot of experimentation is required for better air quality and it isn’t trivial because positive results are not a given.

I'm not talking about projects costing millions of euros. Lots of managers also avoid projects that cost less than € 10,000

I can’t stop when faced with a manager who is reluctant at the idea of ​​allocating resources to projects with a percentage of risk and who tends to take refuge in familiar solutions, which have already worked in the past, to reduce failures. Not reducing pollution is the biggest failure to which we can contribute. I have to try to persuade them.

One of the techniques I use with reluctant managers is a provocation

I try to show the person I’m dealing with that the familiar project, which they would dearly like to finance, doesn’t generate value or generate very little of it compared to the previous project carried out in the past. I guide them in their reasoning after having studied and analysed the context in which they operate. I suggest scalable solutions, which require a low-risk start-up and present the results achieved before illustrating the project’s progress. This approach gives a concrete form to what is an abstract idea and familiarises people with the open innovation methodology.

The ideal customer/partner for innovation is a person willing to admit that they are wrong, a broad-minded person, aware of their limited knowledge and who, driven by curiosity, can look beyond what is known and make discoveries enrich their knowledge and the much-vaunted company know-how. It’s a person who isn’t afraid of risk, knows how to manage it and knows that it’s inherent in doing business and in wanting to continue doing so, but there aren’t many ideal customers/partners around.

Fortunately, alongside reticent people and managers, some ecosystems foster innovation, such as innovation hubs, which the European Community itself has promoted

Created in 2008, they have become an example and have fostered the growth of many other less famous, yet very efficient and effective innovation hubs. They are places where institutions, research and businesses, be they start-ups, small, medium or large companies, meet and interact with each other to increase the impact of new technologies for a better quality of life for all of us. They are places of discussion, where the risk of innovating is shared, also thanks to the use of collaboration models such as open innovation.

I consider myself lucky to work in this area, not because promoting innovation is easy, but because I can take part in projects that help me accept and challenge complexity, which facilitates my understanding of extremely complicated dynamics such as those found in Smart Cities.

I meet reticent people who force me to go into greater detail regarding that which I put forward and how I do so, who force me to question that which I believe is compelling and irrefutable, but which they fail to accept. The discussion with those who think differently from me allows me to continue my evolutionary process and enriches me with other points of view, which at times I understand, but don’t share, while at other times they lead me to change my mind.

I never feel like I've arrived, and I never get bored, I always feel like I'm travelling!

Published by:

Barbara Vecchi

Head of Innovation Hub @ SECO Next