INSIGHT: How NZ businesses can innovate faster and better

David Reiss, Business technology specialist, Spark Digital, admits true innovation is hard. So hard, in fact, that the majority of established businesses aren't successful at it.

True innovation is hard. So hard, in fact, that the majority of established businesses aren't successful at it.

But - like Blockbuster and Kodak - if you can't keep up when your industry is disrupted by innovators, your days are numbered.

Your success can slow you down

Established businesses are often successful because of their stability and ability to deliver what customers expect. You need to provide good, consistent service to keep the money coming in to pay your bills and keep your staff.

But that element of success also means IT teams are tasked with keeping the lights on and making controlled, incremental changes. Policies, processes, investments and incentives all reward "safe" behaviour that reduces risk.

This approach does work to deliver evolutionary changes, but it seldom results in earth-shattering innovation.

It really is a mindset of "slow and steady wins the race" - which is great when your industry is moving at a steady pace - like running a marathon. But it gets dicey is when that pace suddenly increases.

Technology is speeding the race up

Technology is enabling innovation; strengthening competitors and creating disruptive new ones. These competitors will one day turn the marathon you are running (and maybe even winning) into a sprint.

The pace of change is so fast that successful businesses could be seriously threatened in a matter of months.

Disruptive innovations are coming harder and faster than ever; like Uber for transport, AirBnB for accommodation and Spotify for music. The barrier for new entrants is also being removed by crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter.

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Get set to sprint when you need to

To stay in the race, every business needs to focus on agility and awareness. Making sure you can quickly change gear when required - and knowing when changes in your industry will force you to.

It's crucial to make sure you never fall too far behind the pace or you may never catch up again. As disruptors often cross industry boundaries, this isn't about keeping up with your current competitors - it's keeping up with the changing digital world.

When you do need to truly innovate, it's hard to do in "business as usual" mode, as it requires different skills. You still need your IT team to safely keep you in the marathon race, so it's best to introduce a sprint team as well.

This is what Gartner calls Bimodal IT - having a different approach - and ideally a different team - for innovation, without significantly changing day to day operations.

True innovation is wild, fast and revolutionary

To compete with the digital disruptors, you need empowered people that can innovate without the usual restrictions. You need to learn fast, create fast and (probably) fail a few times just as fast.

Risk is best managed during innovation by being agile and budgeting to allow some missteps, rather than by the shackles of process.

The proliferation of cloud platforms can offer a massive kick-start to any innovation project - get you up and running in hours, or even minutes - compared to the weeks it can take to purchase and setup hardware based solutions.

This means you can focus your energies on innovation and creating your competitive advantage.

Innovation doesn't just happen - or just happen once

As my mate Bevan Trotman said in a recent post, innovation comes from change agents in your business - and it can't be something that you just do occasionally. It's a culture that you need to create and set free to grow with (and hopefully ahead of) your business.

Looking at some of the projects I've been involved in recently, having dedicated teams and using partners have really fast-tracked them. Using agile platforms and processes has meant quicker and lower risk evolution of existing services and creation of new ones.

Innovation done right isn't usually a single, massive change - it's changing often and at the right times to stay ahead of the curve.

The ability to innovate and change is the only really sustainable business value.

By David Reiss - Business technology specialist, Spark Digital