Innovation has always been important in any business and organisation, but recent years have seen disruptors like Amazon, Uber, Netflix and others take it to a whole new level. Coronavirus has meant that innovation is even more important now, not only to continue to operate but to emerge stronger from the crisis.

Some businesses have been quick to pivot and change how they operate, driven by necessity and demand associated with addressing urgent problems. High-profile examples include Mercedes producing ventilators, H&M producing PPE, and LVMH producing hand sanitisers. Organisations of all sizes have had to transform their day-to-day operations to enable many employees to work from home or to safeguard and protect those unable to do so. It is clear that standing still and continuing with the status quo is no longer an option.

Innovating can seem like a daunting task for many leaders; it may be unclear how to increase it or foster it in teams. There is a widely held belief that innovation is the domain of “creative geniuses” or certain departments in an organisation. In reality, there are different types of innovation that include small incremental changes as well as big step changes. Furthermore, innovation can happen at all levels within an organisation. Individuals may generate ideas about how to improve services, and how to do things more efficiently or effectively. Managers may create a team environment where diverse ideas are shared openly and combined to create new ways of doing things. Similarly, leaders may create cultures where people are able to take calculated risks and where there is a focus on continuous learning and improvement.

Understanding the different types of innovation as well as how innovation happens can help to de-mystify the process and make increasing innovation more achievable. Let’s consider innovation in two slightly different ways:

Recombinant innovation

Recombinant innovation occurs when ideas from different areas come together to create something new. Some examples from recent months include doctors partnering with engineering companies to create new types of ventilators[1], design of robots that sterilize hospitals using ultraviolet light[2], and virtual reality being used to simulate office drinks[3]. Widespread adoption of these types of innovations is hugely dependent on evolving demands. For example, video conferencing has existed for many years, but has only recently become the norm with social isolation in effect. Now may be the time for organisations to review their business models, core products and services, and how well they will continue to meet the needs of their customers or the communities they serve in future. What assumptions have changed? How have demands changed? How can we bring together different ideas or partner with others to continue to be successful in the future?

Incremental innovation

In contrast, incremental innovation focuses on making small, iterative improvements or changes to an existing approach, process, product or service. Examples include Zoom adding additional security features, smart phones with extended battery life, or Amazon reducing the number of clicks to enable customers to spend more easily. Incremental innovation can also be applied to organisational challenges, such as improving customer satisfaction and retention, reducing number of errors, or improving the efficiency of a process. It is not always about adding more, it can be about simplifying. What can we stop doing that is no longer useful? The current situation has motivated many to stop and re-think how work is done and let go of things that were no longer adding value. A collection of small changes, when combined, can make a significant difference to performance.

Techniques to generate new ideas

Creativity and innovation don’t have to be the domain of a few. Below are a couple of techniques to help generate ideas for recombinant and incremental innovation and to encourage this more widely across teams and organisations.

Recombinant innovation

Many of our assumptions about how work is done have been flipped in recent months. Use this approach to anticipate potential changes and explore what these would mean.

Assumption Reversal
Assumptions may limit the way we think. Reversing our assumptions and asking ‘what if?’ can open up new ways of thinking. It forces you to think about different ways to solve a problem.

1. Define your objective or problem: What customer problem are you trying to solve?

2. Describe the current situation: How do you solve the problem today? What constraints do you work with? What are the underlying assumptions?

3. Explain it to someone who is not familiar with the problem: This may bring in an outsider perspective and generate questions that help you see things that seem obvious to others but not to you.

4. Take an assumption or constraint and flip it: Ask yourself “What if X was not true? How would we solve the problem?” Example: What if everyone had to work remotely? How would we still support our customers? Example: What if there was no longer demand for our core products? What would we sell instead?

5. Re-think how you would solve the problem: What type of resources would help solve the problem? Consider people skills, information, technology. What processes would help solve the problem?

Incremental innovation

Your overall goals and objectives may be the same as the start of the year. But, the way they can be achieved in the current environment may be quite different. Use the marginal gains technique to identify focus areas and incremental improvements that will help you change and enhance ways of working.​

Marginal Gains
This simple, but powerful technique breaks down an objective into its component parts and looks for a series of marginal gains that drive significant performance improvements.

1. Define your problem and end goal: Make sure your goal is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound)

2. Identify your focus areas: These are the areas that need to be addressed to achieve the end goal.

3. Identify marginal gains: These are the small improvements that can be made to each focus area to help achieve the end goal.

4. Prioritise: Review the marginal gains, check that they align with the end goal, and prioritise them.

5. Implement: Track and quantify progress.

Lockdown has made us question the assumptions we hold about work, and has made us approach problems more creatively. Creativity and innovation will help organisations continue to evolve and adapt to the changing environment. As leaders, understanding the different types of innovation and how to help nurture them can make innovation exciting and accessible to all, helping to drive the change and teamwork that is so vital at this challenging time.