How a Culture of Innovation Pays Off
Lots of companies claim to embody a culture of innovation but very few have the track record to back it up. It’s easy to plant the flag of innovation at the center of your company but the real challenge is being able to use it to deliver positive results for your customers and revenue for your business. All too often innovation is mistakenly associated with success, when in fact many innovative endeavors end up in failure or on the company scrap heap. It’s likely there were marketers at Coca-Cola in the 1980’s boasting about the innovation around the launch of “New Coke” or the automakers at Ford Motor Company proclaiming the innovative advancements of the Edsel model released in the late 1950s. The moral of the story is that not all innovation is good. Even though there are loads more examples of companies attempting to implant a culture of innovation and falling short, we have as much to learn from these flops as we do from the other end of the spectrum at today’s flagship innovators like Apple, Tesla or Amazon.
Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.
Not unlike many industries, companies in the digital media business are currently faced with keeping pace in a rapidly changing economy, competing in a more crowded marketplace and providing more value and better results for every customer. One of the key differentiators for companies that have succeeded in this space has been the ability to foster innovation at all levels of the organization. For a firsthand perspective on addressing these challenges, Don Hawk, executive director and co-founder at TechTarget, recently shared his perspective on innovation at the annual ABM & Information Industry Summit with an audience of his peers. Many of the lessons learned from Hawk’s 15+ years leading TechTarget are universal and applicable to companies across the B2B spectrum and you can see his complete keynote address on the event website. There is a lot of useful advice from his keynote and I encourage you to watch the full presentation (he’s also a very good storyteller), but to get a flavor of how TechTarget built a culture of innovation I have netted out some of the key themes and takeaways from Hawk’s remarks:
Work from your strengths
Most successful innovation at TechTarget has been from the outgrowth of an existing core competency at the company. While Hawk cites many examples of how TechTarget leveraged its core competence in the understanding and development of content to support the research efforts of a serious enterprise IT buyer, he also acknowledges the need to make incremental upgrades to drive ongoing innovation. He refers to this as “doubling down” with investments in successful products or programs in order to discover new variations on success in this space. What is your business good at? Use the answer to that question to “stick to your knitting” and do more of what is working across other parts of your business to take advantage of those strengths. Other thought leaders such as “innovation insurgent” Jorge Barba recommends striking a balance between innovation and continuous improvement because no innovation effort is ever complete.
Focus on your threats
Nothing clarifies your thinking like imminent danger and competitive threats to your business. In this situation Hawk advises companies to ask the question, “what are we really good at to solve this competitive problem?” In other words use your strengths to innovate against your weaknesses. In the case of TechTarget, when the digital landscape became saturated and competitors all embraced an online strategy, the company quickly realized one of its key strengths was manifested in the breadth and depth of the user profile information of its audience. Rather than getting stuck in incremental thinking and using old approaches to solve new problems, the company applied its strengths and helped fuel the company’s next round of innovation around developing new powerful Activity Intelligence insights for marketers based on the strength of its user profile data.
Beware of the grand vision
In many cases, successful and productive innovation is iterative. Many companies will tend to map out a grand vision for product innovation by going on a journey from A to Z in their strategic approach. The companies that actually succeed at getting from A to Z, first figure out how to get to stage B. The guidance Hawk provides is to break down the plan to its smallest pieces, then gradually add and build from the first small step. For example, it might mean launching a new product in one market or one segment and determining the next logical step after a successful pilot roll-out. This helps to mitigate risk and lays the groundwork for a successful, larger scale roll-out based on early adoption and quick wins. This is especially applicable to established companies (not start-ups) in order to “hit some singles and doubles” by making early progress and testing something new within your market.
The best customer feedback comes with a check attached
One overstated point is that Steve Jobs was known for disregarding market research and customer feedback as part of his go to market strategy at Apple. Please don’t try this at home. Clearly you need to understand your customers and prospects, in particular their pain points and opportunities to make sure your offering solves their problems. But the understated point is that there is an enormous gap between positive customer feedback and actual orders being placed. Rather than relying on “free” feedback – one approach to determine the credibility and legitimacy of your customer feedback is to make every product beta a “paid beta” . This will go a long way to ensuring your customer is a stakeholder in their product feedback and will truly test their commitment to your innovation.
There are a number of ways that innovation can help your organization “punch above its weight” and drive it forward, but you have to make sure you follow a few simple rules:
- Innovation devoid from market or customer demand can sink your ship very quickly
- Vet your ideas and gut check them in the real world
- Don’t be afraid to push the envelope with innovation but make sure you test, test, test