Corporate innovation: meet the rebel child of Madre Teresa and Steve Jobs.

What if innovation, communication and retention were 3 aspects of the same challenge? What if empathy was the key to solving it? And what if, cherry on the cake, this could have a simultaneous positive impact on your business and the world?
If you’re working in or with a large organization struggling to get new concepts out in the street, this article might be a useful read. 

Stop optimizing. Break through.

Large companies have been spending an ever-growing-now-clearly-ridiculous amount of money in ads while, in parallel, struggling with retention of young talents. While it may not seem related at first sight, the link could be more obvious than you think. As companies try to force more ads than ever down the throats of consumers who care less and less about them, their employees grow tired of bombarding the world with meaningless messages while optimizing cost-per-clicks to fill the pockets of insensitive stakeholders.

Content marketing actually raised from that idea, promising better stories to consumers. And would be relevant if most companies didn’t treat it as another optimization. But the (not-so-)secret sauce of its success lies in carefully crafting authentic stories before marketing any of them. In other words, the key is in generating impact.

That’s where innovation come into play, and that’s how you could be successfully tickling your bottom line while making this world a better place.

Balancing the rational and the creative sides of the brain

Innovators are already in the house but disruption comes from the outside.

Companies invest huge resources to hire la-crème-de-la-crème graduates from top-notch universities but then put the right part of their brain to rest. Unfortunately, this half is not only host of their creative tree-hugging free spirit, this is also the nest of the aspirational mindset that will eventually convince the other half to write their resignation letter to look for a more meaningful job experience.

In the meantime, the same companies hire content marketing agencies who promise to do research on their audience and write stories their users will want to read. With due diligence, the agencies list top trendy words from their Social Media & SEO tools and write articles using them… keeping the echo-chamber safe from any kind of disruption.

But new opportunities really open up when you start the creative process by gaining empathy toward your target audience. In common words, it means that if you’re looking into doing something different, you should start by physically and emotionally diving into your users’ world, talk with them, walk in their shoes to experience their pain first-hand and take a shot at living their life, even for a limited period of time.

Strange as it may sound, at the Co-Creation Lab, we’re still waiting to meet a client that interacts directly and regularly with its customers. More often than not, customer service is outsourced (!), feedback from sales people is not formally channeled to the product managers and the marketing team are people who live in remote ivory towers and never interact one-on-one with human beings from the real world.

We understand that consumers can be a very scary bunch. But they are the only way to your salvation. And while they might bark when unhappy, we’re yet to meet one who bites. More importantly, they are the reason to be of the company, and not interacting with them in an era where everyone and everything is connected is unsustainable.

The true cost of not innovating

Failure is not the biggest danger to your brand

During a recent project, the Co-Creation Lab worked with a large company facing a common challenge. Employees there are so afraid to damage the brand if they try something new their customers may not like, that they’d rather not do anything at all and keep the business as is.

“After all, we’re still making good money, right?”

But cruiseship-like companies still making decent money have already understood their mid-term survival depends on their ability to change the way they do business. So what’s the trick?

In all cases, the problem is that the very basics of the innovation flows are misunderstood. Innovation is no breakthrough. It’s an iterative process that requires practice to gain confidence in our ability to produce relevant solutions to real problems people are facing.

That means 2 things.

First, that innovation is not about launching products that may fail your customer, but rather co-creating with them a solution that will tangibly improve their life, even if it’s not perfect to begin with.

It also means that without numerous attempts at it, the chances of success are null and the death of the company unavoidable. It’s just a matter of time, and it’s probably going to be sooner than expected.

The way to mastery is full of roadblocks

A safe space for experimentation

Most people get uncomfortable at the idea that failure is a necessary part of the innovation process. This is particularly true in hierarchical companies where social pressure is such that employees are afraid they will lose their job if they fail. As a result, again, they’d rather not try anything new at all.

Very recently, the Co-Creation Lab was consulting for a very large pharma company where the VP would thunder for everyone – from country chairs to junior employees – to be disruptive… Then reminds them the seconds after that they had a business to run and they’d better crush their targets. So his collaborators were terrified at the idea of coming up with half-baked ideas or trying things that may not impact the business right away.

But the idea of a trial-and-error approach is to put the focus on small scale experiments so that you can learn without going all-in.

Look at it this way. Even if you are a world champion today, the first time you tried riding a bike certainly didn’t look like the picture above. Not so surprisingly, innovation follows the same pattern of experimentation and learnings. Hence the point isn’t so much about failure, but about making sure you’re evolving in an environment where you can safely deliver something not working perfectly and learn how to quickly improve it. More importantly, this is the place where you can test reasonable assumptions as well as crazy ideas without throwing millions at a product or service that won’t work.

So by the time you start investing real time and money on not-so-rustic prototypes, you already know it’s worth it and your users are eager to see the next version of something they already validated for you.

But large organization don’t change overnight. They have processes in place, business areas have different agendas and as much as some collaborators would love to come up with the next million-dollar idea, if they miss their target or respond to a manager with a different perspective about how to reinvent their business model, their job will be at immediate risk.

Fear-to-fail paralysis: a corporate epidemy

Take your fear for a ride into the real world

Fear-to-fail is the one disease of the corporate world causing all the inertia. Tom and David Kelley described it all too well in their famous Creative Confidence: from the fear of being judged to taking the first step into a messy uncharted territory they have no control on, the pressure is just too high for employees to take a chance at disrupting the status quo, killing at once every chance of ever becoming an innovative structure.

So since the corporate environment is the origin of the phobia, why not take a ride outside of the physical regulated walls of the organization and work on something slightly different for a short time.

In fact, by consciously choosing the path of serendipity, you’ll give yourself the best chance of looking at the world with new eyes, gain empathy with the humans who live there and understand what really drives them. That doesn’t mean you have to wander the streets randomly, you could as well select a location where your audience live or work, and there you are, learning about your audience in a way you never imagined was possible.

Once there, it will be easier than ever to experiment with new tools and techniques that can help you collect insights: observation, interviews, shadowing sessions, try and replicate your user’s behaviour, sleep in somebody’s house, attend a local cult… There are precautions to be taken to not hurt anyone’s sensibility, but most of the time, people will gladly accept genuine interest in their culture.

Physically leave the comfort of the office enable employees to leave behind the social pressure inherent to the corporate world. This is also a first step into the user’s living environment that doesn’t require much courage and an unfailing source of surprising insights leading to the discovery of their real and unarticulated needs.

Crossroad in São Paulo, Brazil during a traffic light interruption. If drivers don’t become smarter, maybe cities could?

Uncover an unsolved challenge and beat it.

Now that you’re deep in it with your users, paying attention to them rather than to your corporate agenda, it won’t be long until you start experiencing the pains they’re going through and see the turnarounds they’ve come up with to navigate through imperfect situations. Observe long enough, talk to a variety of people, put yourself in their shoes a few times, and you’ll soon see patterns craving to be questioned or dismantled.

While you’re hardly at the doorstep of a breakthrough, the toughest part is done, really. The rest of the process will follow almost organically.

Once you’ve found a challenge worth solving, look for a way to reformulate it that draws a brighter future for your user. To do so, you can combine the needs you’ve identified with the insights that led to your discovery. A tool we love to use at this stage at the Co-Creation Lab is Reframe, developed by the THNK School of Creative Leadership. It has a capacity generate big pictures that never ceases to amaze us!

Now turn your statement into a question starting with “How might we…” and you’ll be confronted with an opportunity to create something meaningful for your user. We call this a Creative Question, and its job is to sparkle your imagination towards the specific goal of creating something relevant for someone. You can play with your statement to create various versions looking at it from different angles. You’ll be surprised at how many perspectives a problem can hide, all leading to different ways to solve it.

From there, you’ll want to follow the steps of the creative process from ideation to prototyping. There are a wide range of brainstorming techniques that can be explored, and a few rules to follow to make an ideation session successful. But practice, an open mind and collaboration are certainly the key factors here.

Once you have a satisfying amount of ideas (think hundreds, not dozens), you’ll have to create criteria to select the one that actually offer potential. The lenses we usually look through are feasibility (technical and financial) VS Impact: you want to work on ideas that have an actual chance of being executed and that will impact a large number of people. Then, force yourself to think with your hands rather than building a business model and plan for it. You don’t have a business yet, just a raw idea, so this is critical to take it as fast as you can to your users in iterative ways through visual thinking and rapid prototyping to take it off the ground.

Soon enough, you’ll get to a working prototype that starts looking like a solution.

Throughout the journey, the participants of this trip will learn a lot on their users and the pains they’re going through. They will also understand some of the key stages of the creative process in ways that takes out the corporate fear-to-fail paralysis, building creative confidence through practice.

It’s a calf, not a cash cow. Make it grow before you make it work for you.

Don’t be too eager to monetize

It may seem counter-intuitive for a business not to look for profit in the first place, so don’t take my word for it. The most valuable company in the world, Google, has built its value on one very principle: focus on the user and the rest will follow.

If you followed this process, you’ve learnt precious and unduplicable insights about your audience. You’ve probably gained their trust and loyalty, too. You’ve re-motivated millennials ready to jump boats if they don’t feel like they’re making a difference. You’ve got a nice PR/Marketing story from an authentic project the company has worked on for the community. And you now have collaborators confident in their ability to create and disrupt your own business model. So don’t waste it by throwing it into the P&L monster. You’ve just made a very good investment, but you’re not quite ready to make profits from it.

For now, make sure to allocate enough time and resources to turn this project into a reality for the people impacted. Learn from it. Learn with them. Then only, start working on small scale solutions you can monetize, linked to your business this time. Evaluate them on different KPIs, like engagement and positive feedback from your audience, then on growth. Cause if you’re comparing them to your well established core-business, their chance to succeed are inexistent.

Remember that it takes 4+ years for a startup to succeed, when it survives in the first place. So buy yourself some patience and remind yourself that the only other option is to let your current business die in the hands of more resilient innovators.

Innovate. Or be somebody else’s experiment.

About the Co-Creation Lab

The Co-Creation Lab is an innovation boutique founded in Brazil and currently expanding its business in South East Asia. We love to walk-the-talk by identifying unsolvable challenges with our clients to then craft unique projects together that can take them to a better place. Our framework, mostly inspired from a design thinking mindset, promotes radical collaboration with the internal teams and our global network of experts, taking the employees of the company to the outside world to co-create with their users.

And we also love talking about innovation. From an inspiring coffee to an aspirational conference, feel free to get in touch, it will always be a pleasure to engage.

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