Innovation is more evolution than revolution

Contrary to popular myth, innovation is more about
evolution than revolution.

‘Innovation’ is something of a Marmite word. Some senior executives can’t get enough of it. To them, innovation is not an option, it is an absolute necessity for commercial survival. For others, though, innovation can be a concern. A disruptive, high-risk experiment with no guarantee of success.

The truth, like so many things in life, lies somewhere in the solid centre-ground…

Yes, innovation is an inescapable reality for almost all businesses. If you don’t innovate, someone else will. And yes, it’s also true that experimentation is the basic building-block of innovation. If you don’t push the boundaries you will always be locked in the status quo – a quaint anachronism left behind by a market that has moved on.

However – and this is the really surprising truth – innovation doesn’t have to be disruptive. It is not solely about radical change. Frequently, innovation is more about evolution than revolution. And the evidence for this assertion comes from a most unlikely source…

Sir Patrick Head is one of the most creative thinkers in one of the world’s most competitive industries. He is the co-founder and former Technical Director of the Williams Formula One team. He is also one of the greatest game-changers in Grand Prix racing. For example, he was responsible for developing the ground-breaking 6-wheeled grand prix car – a concept so clever and revolutionary that rival race teams forced the authorities to ban it!

Two months ago, Patrick agreed to be the principal guest speaker at a ‘Clustre Innovation Club’ evening attended by sixty senior executives. His subject – ‘Innovation at Speed’ – was the perfect vehicle for some high-octane technological revelations. Instead, though, Patrick opened with this frank and very honest comment:

“Curiously – and contrary to most people’s expectations – innovation in F1 is strictly limited by restrictive regulation. Consequently, change comes in the form of continuous, rapid, iterative development. Although this environment is highly conducive to innovation, the opportunities for truly game-changing ideas are strictly limited…”

This was not quite the opening shot we had expected from a man whose inventive genius drove the Williams team to 59 Grand Prix race wins in just seven years. However, it serves as a powerful reminder that innovation (even within the aggressively competitive arena of motorsport) is largely an iterative process. A persistent game of incremental change rather than game-changing revolution. It’s a lesson to us all.

But that comment in no-way diminishes the need for innovation – quite the contrary. Commercial history is littered with failed companies that have grown complacent and lost the will to stay ahead of the curve. However, as Patrick explained, complacency is not always the problem – sometimes institutional inertia is the biggest killer of innovation…


“Several years ago, I was in talks with Chevrolet on the possibility of them developing a new F1 engine for us.

At the time, Chevrolet had just bought Lotus Engineering – a decision that, quite frankly, puzzled me since Chevrolet already had an engineering technology centre employing over 4,000 engineers.
Why buy another outfit when you already have a state-of-the-art facility? It’s a question I put to a very senior manager; his answer proved to be a revealing insight into the human mindset…

The senior executive explained that the existing centre had seven levels of management, payment and reward. This over-complicated hierarchical structure actually stunted creativity. The people in this pyramid quickly worked out that the trick to progression was simple: don’t make any mistakes. If you never put your head above the parapet you would never put your career at risk.

But equally, you would never produce anything of any value – because innovation is all about experimenting with risk. Everyone was an expert at sitting on their hands – so, to solve their real engineering problems, Chevrolet had to buy Lotus Engineering – an outfit that thrived on the risk of experimentation.”

This true story sums up the problem for large companies. The larger the organisation; the bigger the problem of implementing innovation. However, as another of our ‘Clustre Innovation Club’ guest speakers went on to reveal, innovation and implementation don’t have to be arduous or complex…

Richard Poole is the Managing Partner of Fluxx – a successful innovation company that adopts start-up thinking to drive growth within established brands. He maintains that there are only three things you must put in place to become excellent at experimenting:

“First, start with an idea. Not just any idea, but a really good one. Maybe 1 in every 100 will be good enough – so develop a rigorous process for sifting the pearls from the slimy oysters.
And don’t just rely on the judgement of people already doing the job. Fine-tuning the status quo is rarely a game-changer.

Also, don’t confuse refinement with genuine innovation. Real breakthrough thinking is often (as Tesla has proved) transplanted from other sectors and other industries.

Most important of all, remember that truly great ideas start with deep customer insight and understanding. So, make this your mantra: ideas without customer insight are very unlikely to be successful.

Second, keep it simple. Experimentation is a really simple process: you need to have a hypothesis; an experimental method for testing that hypothesis; and the results gained from conducting that experiment. Don’t get mired in over-complication. And put a cap on expenditure – that soon focuses minds!

Third, get the governance right. Essentially, there are two fundamental types of decision that an organisation must make…

  • Type 1: These are decisions that have important, long-term consequences. The good news is that organisations are generally quite adept at these types of decision. They have well-established processes and procedures for making the right call. But in contrast…
  • Type 2: These are (potentially reversible) decisions that you have to make instantly… right now… today. In every experiment, there are key moments when rapid decisions must be taken. Unfortunately, most companies are very bad at making these judgement calls. They vacillate. They delay. They lose the moment… and momentum.”

Richard’s three steps are the vital building blocks for experimentation. But the most critical block of all must be the first imperative: start with a really good idea. Without that absolute priority in place, everything else is pretty academic. And this was a theme that David Hood – another of our ‘Clustre Innovation Club’ speakers – also emphasised:

David is Head of Innovation at Happen – a global innovation agency that specialises in helping highly ambitious brands to grow their businesses in the world’s most competitive markets. David is the first to agree that customer insight is critical to defining that ‘good idea’ – but he has taken this thinking to a new level of sophistication…

“We dig for deep customer insights but we do it in a very focused way… we search for the real sources of consumer frustration. We want to discover the disappointments, aggravations and embarrassments that consumers suffer. We can then use this emotional insight to identify exciting, innovative solutions. Understanding this ‘emotional intelligence’ is key to unlocking the causes of frustration… this is the seed capital for innovation.”

Consumer frustration is very fertile ground for dedicated innovators. Dissatisfaction… disappointment… disillusionment… words with the prefix ‘dis’ are a rich seam of inspiration. That motherlode of emotional negativity is a truly valuable insight because it focuses experimentation on genuine consumer needs and solutions.

Cling on to that thought. Whether you are a passionate advocate or a cautious adopter of new ideas, you have nothing to fear from innovation. This Marmite word has divided senior management for far too long. Innovation should be uniting us all in a shared desire to shape the future – either by revolution or evolution, that is entirely your choice.

If you buy into that positive thinking, let me leave you with this final thought. At the end of our ‘Clustre Innovation Club’ event, we asked Sir Patrick Head to summarise his thoughts on how to create a successful innovation culture.

These are ‘Ten Steps to Success’ from a man who dominated probably the most competitive industry in the world:

  1. Build direct lines of communication between innovators and decision-makers
  2. Outlaw the blame culture
  3. Foster an open, enthusiastic and encouraging management style
  4. Encourage the equally open, collaborative assessment of ideas.
  5. Adopt a light touch when it comes to procedure and documentation
  6. Create a light, spacious physical environment – one that inspires innovation
  7. Provide access to the right tools for research and experimentation
  8. Recognise and reward innovation – kudos is often more valued than cash
  9. Develop a strong team ethic and spirit – participation at all levels is key
  10. Realise that innovation is 99% hard graft and 1% inspiration.

Ian Spencer is a founding partner of Clustre
The Innovation Brokers

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