Monday, 30th March, 2015

An innovative business is often thought about in terms of the new technology they adopt or the R&D investment they make to come up with new products or services.

But over the last few years many companies have begun looking beyond the traditional idea of what makes a company innovative in a belief that innovation should involve all corners of your organisation.

The idea of what is and what inspires innovation has been evolving to meet the new realities of a business world that these days takes innovative design and creativity for granted. The question is no longer framed on the premise of how to innovate a better product or service but instead how to inspire and unleash a sense of belonging and innate creativity found within the existing people in a business.

The old model of driving innovation through strategic corporate investment in ICT and R&D are no longer enough.

To my mind, “Z” is one company demonstrating how innovation and its value creation goes well beyond just applying new technology or R&D.

In a handbook for staff, investors and other stakeholders on what matters in Z, we read: “We believe that if you want to be a world class Kiwi company, don’t just employ people, divide them into functional departments and tell them what to do. Instead give them a reason for belonging, the possibility of a bigger purpose, and a hunger for the extraordinary.”

Innovative thinking has been applied to capture the identity, the meaning, values and beliefs of Z’s people individually, and then collectively as an entire firm. When it comes down to it, at its essence the company is expressing itself as a values based and organic firm of people, not a clock-on, clock-off machine.

They sum up their brand as ‘solving what matters for a moving world.’ “Our driving obsession is to relentlessly look for solutions that help our customers get out and about, get on with their lives and get on with running their businesses.”

To me that’s a form of innovation – thinking harnessed to arrive at a point of difference. It is the new kind of innovation that could usefully be applied to many of our large corporate and government agencies.

Over the years I have had dealings with many types of organisations – big and small businesses, councils and government agencies. For companies, I strongly agree that if they don’t believe they need to innovate solutions that really matter to customers and embrace changes of attitude and behavior that recognize the diverse needs and contributions of staff, they most likely will not remain relevant very long.

Continuing to do things on a basis that ‘this is the way we have always behaved’, becomes counter-productive. Opportunities are missed. For example, many of Auckland’s small-medium companies have innovated products or services that have generated success in Auckland. However, a step change in applying innovative thinking would see many more develop a business plan to grow internationally.

In the past few months, the Chamber of Commerce has hosted a number of business award presentations. Many of the winners began in a garage or back yard and have grown rapidly into successful international companies, and it was traditional innovation that got them off the ground in the first place.

But they have not been content with just innovation of the new idea, the new product, the new approach; instead they have gone on to apply innovative thinking to build a successful team, create values they all share but at the same time recognize and respect the diversity of who they are and where they come from; which in Auckland is from all corners of the world.

To adapt an Ernest Rutherford quote in the context of an SME seeking to establish on a tight budget: “We don’t have a lot of money, so we will just have to think”. And that, of course, is the essence of innovation.

And my point is: It is the innovative thinking and flexible management that is invested to encourage individual people in the business to bring their values and beliefs that allows a business collectively to stand out in a crowded market.

“It’s our people.” This was the first words that many of Auckland’s recent business award winners attributed to their success. They didn’t stand up and recognize the new technology, the software they may have developed, or the marketing plan – as important as these business tools and strategies are.

Instead, the platform on which an innovative company achieves success depends on a broad range of intangible people-centred values and beliefs that create an environment that drives productivity growth and attracts customers.

It is through encouraging the pivotal role of people as innovation carriers – their network, collaborations, knowledge, interactions and know-how – and how this people power is harnessed that becomes the point of difference in building a successful innovation-led enterprise.

For more information contact Michael Barnett, mobile: 0275 631 150.
Michael Barnett, Chief Executive, Auckland Chamber of Commerce.