‘Spirit of adventure’ in business

Almost all children love the idea of adventures. The excitement and the thrill of risk – losing everything to gain the ultimate reward – is central to most children’s approach to their early years. It is this love of adventure that helps children embrace new experiences as they grow older. And children brought up in a secure environment can imagine all the risks they want, secure in the knowledge that they will always be safe.

In the process of becoming adults and assuming responsibility for the security of ourselves and others, it is easy for that spirit of adventure to be lost. People who lean much more naturally than others to adventure are often those entrepreneurs who go on to create or innovate.

Key personalities at the top of a company help to shape its corporate identity and these people need to have a desire for adventure if they are to lead the business to innovate. Sometimes a leader has just one big idea which works so well that it enables them to sell their business and then go on to do something different. Other times it is a journey marked by several small innovations. Either is good in business innovation terms.

Businesses tend to recruit people in their own image and so it follows that the more adventurous businesses tend to recruit people who are of a similar mindset.

So that’s it ?
Well ‘No’, there is another factor. As businesses grow they tend naturally toward being less adventurous because their stakeholders will work to reduce risk and control the amount of change that takes place. And this can stifle innovation.

In such scenarios, businesses sometimes adopt a ‘safe’ model of innovation by financing an ‘innovation’ fund separate from the business itself in the hope that this will engender activity adjacent to the company or sector and that this will ultimately prove beneficial to the business. For me, this is less likely to work than creating an innovation team within your own business – one that is somehow able to work independently in terms of both reference and their vision or direction. Perhaps by co-opting certain staff into a special task force. Or by spinning off a majority owned enterprise.

When I worked for Chas. A Blatchford & Sons Chas, the CEO of the company, felt that there may be something worthwhile looking at in the way that the business was operating and trading in China and he was prepared to stake resources on it, which is why I was brought in to act as an independent resource to move thinking forward in that new area. And again when I worked for Talaris there was an identified need for a signature product, and the company also knew they had to look outside for the skills required to make that happen. Similarly, my project with Novartis was about the company setting up a completely separate group focussing on Telehealth – which was actually quite courageous, since it involved investing significant money into the team. And one of my most recent projects at Costa Express involved taking managers out of the business, then backfilling their roles to enable taskforces to create something new in the business.

So interestingly, here we have four different companies, all in their own ways evoking a spirit of adventure, and all achieving it through different means, but in each case through a determination from the top that something needed to be done and would indeed be achieved. In each instance there was an element of risk and, to a greater or lesser extent, a leap of faith – something that is much easier to take when there is strong belief in the strength of the company brand.

The challenge of Brexit

Understandably, the prospect of Brexit is causing quite a few jitters in the world of business at the moment. But although Britain’s exit from the EU is bound to pose challenges for a significant number of businesses, I think it presents genuine opportunities too.

Making our own way
In attempting to understand some of the issues associated with Brexit, I think that the notion of family relationships can be a useful analogy. While some people have their children living with them until they’re 30 or so, others find ways to encourage them to go out and find their own way in the world. The second way is undoubtedly harder, on several levels – emotional, financial, in energy, in organisation.

But my view is that this act of ‘kicking out’ can trigger a stronger motivation to get on and succeed. Although painful in the interim, this process can lead to greater rewards in the long term. Looked at like this, the UK’s break from the EU can be seen as a challenge that can and should yield benefits.

Brexit is certainly going to be painful for a number of UK businesses, but when challenged in this way, I am certain that we are going to see just how resilient and how resourceful these businesses can be. In this context, Brexit offers a challenge to be actively embraced.

EU – a community that works for some
This is not to say that I don’t fully appreciate the EU and what it continues to do. The difficulty as I see it, is that not all member states have equivalent levels of economic advancement or industrial sophistication. The EU is a community that works well at the level of a trading community, but when it attempts to level off economic values it works better for some nations than for others. That is not necessarily where everybody wants to be, going forward.

Tying nations together under these circumstances reminds me of all those family get-togethers at Christmas. A lot of people come together in one tight space, there’s friction, tensions rise and it is only traditional family ties that often prevent things from boiling over. After a short time, given their choice, most people would rather go their own way and be back in their own homes. For me, the EU has this kind of feel about it.

I think this analogy applies to the scenario of globalisation, too. Is it necessarily a good thing that we are all part of the same systems, doing the same things together and thinking in a uniform way? Surely we would benefit more from the opportunity to appreciate what it is that makes us different – our individual culture – and the contribution that this can make to the global community?

I think we benefit from changes that challenge communities to improve and try to resolve things in different ways. I think leaving the EU will provide a better result for us and the EU long term. More than if we just carry on, maintaining the status quo.

The easiest path is not always the best
And I accept that this makes it harder for business. Commercial organisations will naturally find the easiest (least hard) way to make a profit. Familiar, successful ways of operating can blind us to the fact that there are other, potentially greater opportunities out there and being forced to think outside the box can open up areas of investigation that had not previously been considered viable. Brexit presents such opportunities by challenging companies to go out and look for new markets.

Companies which put serious investment into the new and the uncertain stand to gain. So while we all share the tension of uncertainty, I believe that we should also be excited by the opportunities that lie ahead for British industry.

Understanding innovation

Innovation is a key part of the work I do, but as a term, it’s sometimes misused and misunderstood. So what exactly do I mean by the word ‘innovation’? For me, it is all about creating something new that can be measured in terms of business value, or customer value.

To effect some kind of minor tweak to a product – a colour or shape for example – is not really what I would understand by the term innovation. It is more to do with something that makes a dramatic difference to the customer’s perception as well as to the company’s revenue earning potential.

Sometimes innovation is a long journey or process over many years. The airline industry, for example, has been working for a long time on engineering innovation to make aircraft engines quieter. Continuous progress is being made, but as this project amply demonstrates, it can sometimes take decades to reach an outcome or conclusion.

It’s a team effort
One thing is certainly true about innovation – it is hard. Why? Firstly because it requires people and organisations to think and act differently. And secondly because it is a team effort. The genius inventor who comes up with something amazing, which then goes on to change the world, has done something rare and wonderful – but this is not what I mean by innovation. Even Steve Jobs relied on others to create and deliver the iPod.

Innovation is much more than pure inventiveness. It involves people with a number of different skills and abilities who not only know where they want to go, but who can also drive towards that vision, and bring their own skills to bear on achieving that. Thus, alongside the visionary, you need someone who understands how you are going to pace the project to get there in time, someone who delivers the finance, as well as someone who sees the bigger picture, who sees where the brand is going and where it needs to be.

Letting the brand guide the vision
This was all brought into focus for me when I recently went to my local branch of a large and well-known hardware retailer. What hit me was what the company had done to differentiate itself from the competitor company next door. In times past, one could have gone from one of these stores to the other and barely noticed any difference in terms of what was being sold. But what I now noticed was how this company had reduced its product lines and moved from a general household hardware and garden store to more of a builder’s merchant outlet.

It was evident that someone in the organisation had asked some important questions: ‘what is our brand vision’? and ‘what is it that makes us of value?’ and then gone on to influence the organisation to innovate it’s business model. As a result, the store had moved closer to its original brand identity and brand values.

The importance of a ‘motivating force’
In order to happen, business innovation requires some kind of impetus. In Newtonian terms, a new, different direction of an object. This force or ‘innovation and change agent’ might be one individual within the business, or it might be a small group of people pulling people along with them, providing the focus and drive to stay focused on the endpoint and keep pushing towards it.

Once the need for innovation has been identified, Senior Managers must look closely at the business and assemble the required processes and resources to make innovation happen. Upon evaluating its available resources, it may then decide it needs to look outside the company to an innovation specialist who can bring a fresh, outside perspective and who can also work with company teams and bring the resources and the processes necessary to achieve the desired goal.

The innovation and change agent needs to possess a unique set of skills or attributes. They must balance focus, energy and drive with an analytical mind. And bearing in mind that their main task is to effectively disrupt any business they are coming into, the change agent must be able to demonstrate high levels of empathy and good people skills.

It’s a fine balance, and a rare combination of attributes. And perhaps the most important quality of all is adaptability, because you can never be completely certain where you are going. As I’ve found during my career as a leader of innovation, sometimes it makes more sense to bring things to a halt, or even call for a complete rethink.