What are the fundamentals of successful innovation? What do business leaders need to take into consideration when they launch their programs, and where do they often go wrong?
We sat down with Matthijs Rosman, partner at Netherlands-based growth specialists RevelX, to discuss these questions and more. Founded in 2014, RevelX is a company driven by its passion for growth and expertise on helping businesses to achieve it through innovation.
Matthijs discusses the innovation landscape and shares examples of the things business leaders should be thinking about and prioritizing as they develop an innovation strategy. Read on to hear his insights!
Q: Hey Matthijs! Could you tell us a little about how you became involved in innovation?
I’ve always been setting up new things. During my teens I set up an outdoor adventure company, during my studies I was part of a startup taxi company. I’ve always been interested in the entrepreneurial journey. At my first ‘grown-up’ job I worked at Libertel (the Dutch branch of a Vodafone). I was among the first to join the company and we were basically building the network from scratch.
Later, I started my career in consulting and I’ve been involved in startup mentoring since 2010. I’ve always been involved in projects that involve designing new business models, especially for clients who are looking to reap the benefits of digital. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and I try to instill that in the companies I work with.
Q: What about the work that you’re doing now at RevelX?
We work with companies who are serious about driving growth through innovation. We aim to firmly embed innovation in the organization, and we do that by tying the innovation strategy to the overall strategy of the company, and by helping to build the structures and behaviors in which innovation thrive.
We work with clients from across many different industries. At the moment we’re working with the Dutch Olympic Committee to support innovation in professional sport and promoting health and well-being in general. We’re building a Technology Innovation Hub for the airline KLM. We also just started a project with the Dutch police force to build an innovation process that will realize the police force of the future.
Ultimately, we really want to make innovation a fundamental business process in any organization. We believe that innovation should be on a par with disciplines like marketing, finance, and operations.
The Innovation Landscape
Q: What do you think the biggest drivers of innovation are right now?
Changing customer behavior is a major driving force. There are still too many companies which are fatally out of touch with their customers and just don’t understand what they are looking for.
I wrote a book with my RevelX colleague Eric de Groot called DARE. In that book we write about what we call the ‘autocatalytic pace of change’ the world is going through, when one change accelerates the next. Too many companies just sit quietly and build their strategies on belief and hope… I think that’s very dangerous.
It’s not all doom and gloom because the COVID pandemic showed us that companies can still be highly innovative when their lives depend on it. Technology is making the world smaller and the way companies deal with their customers is changing very quickly.
Q: Digital transformation is a concept which has been around for a long time. What are the most important aspects of digitalization for companies today? And how do you see that changing in the future?
Companies’ entire operating models will be digitalized eventually. Nowadays, even the most analog of companies are transforming themselves into tech companies. I think the most important aspect of digitalization is making companies more agile, by empowering core business processes with technology. It greatly enhances the way people work together and collaborate, both internally and externally.
We’re working with lots of our clients to digitalize their value propositions and work in a completely different way with their partners, whether that’s wholesale companies or sales partners, and also their customers. I think there’s much more value that can be added to the customer relationship, through higher levels of personalization and lots of other ways.
Many benefits of digitalization haven’t been captured yet, but digital transformation is a very exciting space to be in at the moment. Open innovation is breaking down walls and companies are working with lots of different partners, all fueled by digital technology. I think we’ll see that accelerate over the next few years.
Driving Successful Innovation
Q: What would you say is the most important asset for corporate innovators today?
Innovation will either thrive or fail depending on the culture. Everything else can be bought or built.
Innovation is a people discipline. At RevelX we always say that organizations don’t innovate, people do. Innovation will either thrive or fail depending on the culture of the company. You can build great processes, bring in efficient new tech solutions, have all sorts of things, but a collective innovation mindset is a key asset. Everything else can be bought or built.
Innovators are starting to realize that in order for innovation to thrive within an organization there needs to be the right environment. It’s tough to do and it’s one of the main reasons why so many companies aren’t innovating, because they’re not able to foster that kind of culture. Companies need to think about what an innovation mindset looks like, what it entails, how you build it, and how leadership can keep their innovators happy, efficient, and productive.
Q: Let’s talk about process. What do you think are the most important aspects of a successful innovation process, and why?
A successful innovation process requires a methodical approach. Many companies still think that innovation is something mystical which just suddenly happens, or that there’s a lot of chaos involved. But an innovation process needs to be structured and well thought through.
I consider curiosity, trust, and transparency as key elements, and the only way you can bring those into an innovation process is by being clear about what innovation means for the company. There should always be a discovery phase when organizations consider that question. A successful innovation process should be outward-looking. What do your customers need? What does your market need? Where are the opportunities? That’s where curiosity comes in.
You bring trust into the process by building in the right levels of autonomy and mandate. If employees don’t get that mandate and trust from management, they quickly become less innovative. Transparency means being clear about what the boundaries of innovation are, and what people are and aren’t allowed to do. That’s important because your innovation teams need to be aware of what’s expected of them. It’s really about setting the goal posts and the rules of engagement for the innovation process.
Ultimately you have to make the corporate invitation process a part of your company’s DNA, and you have to tailor it to the specific challenges your organization is facing. And partnership building should be a key part of the innovation process. No company can do it on its own in this day and age so partnerships are really important.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about innovation? You mentioned the assumption it requires chaos, are there any others?
Yes, that one is quite persistent, as is the idea that it should be left up to the ‘great inventors’ in the company. I think another one is that it’s all the responsibility of one innovation department. Innovation has to take center stage because it’s so integral to guarding the future of any company. Leaving that to a couple of people in an innovation department is a very risky approach.
Innovation is a methodical and process-oriented discipline … and it needs to be when you’re in it for the long haul.
A lot of companies tend to put very young and inexperienced people in innovation teams. That, obviously, is not a bad thing in itself but you do need to have the right balance of young, boisterous energy and experience. Innovation departments might be a good start but in the long run innovation should be the responsibility of the entire organization.
People say innovation is all about creativity and of course, creativity is part of it. What often gets overlooked though, is that innovation is a very methodical and process-oriented discipline, and it certainly needs to be when you’re in it for the long haul and grinding out projects through to fruition.
Lastly, one misconception that is prevalent in a lot of companies is that innovation is only about products and features. It should actually be about the entire business model: how we source products, the networks we build, our customer relationships, and our brands.
Q: Do you find that many companies aren’t investing in innovation as much as they should? And if so, what is it that’s holding them back from innovation?
Funnily enough, we’re actually seeing a lot of companies overinvesting in innovation! Innovation is all the rage suddenly and organizations feel a need to get onto the bandwagon, and end up sinking in millions and millions of euros into their innovation programs.
They might make all the right dance moves, but they’re not hearing the music.
Without getting the groundwork right by focusing on the ‘softer’ side of innovation, like building the right teams, the right mindset and the right culture, it’s all wasted. They might make all the right dance moves, but they’re not hearing the music.
On the other hand, it’s also true that we see a lot of companies not investing enough in innovation. The first reason for that is a lack of awareness, either in terms of overestimating their innovation efforts or not understanding them properly. It’s also down to complacency. A lot of companies and industries in general assume that disruption won’t affect them, and that’s a big mistake. Any industry can be disrupted. And then there’s fear of the unknown, fear of taking risks.
Another reason – and this is a management oversight that we see a lot in some of the more traditional industries – is that some companies just don’t believe that their organization can innovate. They don’t have the right people to do it, so they leave it to others. But actually, if you give people the right guidance and a mandate, anybody within any organization can innovate successfully.
Q: Let’s say an organization comes to you that is just starting to think about building an innovation strategy. What’s the single most important piece of advice you would give it?
It might sound like kicking in an open door but just start with defining what innovation means for your organization. If you’re not clear about what innovation means for your organization and the place it has in your corporate growth mix, it’s bound to deliver sub-par results.
Be ready to embrace failure: innovation is a risky endeavor but you need to treat failure as an opportunity to learn. And be ready to be in it for the long haul, not for quick results.
Da Vinci: Inspiring Innovators for more than 500 Years
Q: Absolutely. Let’s end with a fun question: which great historical innovator would you most like to meet?
There have been many great inventors and innovators, but the one I would like to meet is Leonardo da Vinci. The title of our book DARE is an acronym: Defiance, Adventure, Realism, and Endurance, and Leonardo da Vinci was one of the quintessential DARE practitioners!
He was a multi-talented innovator in the 15th Century, long before the first corporate organization was founded (we Dutch would like to say that was the Dutch East India Company in 1602!). What’s fascinating about Leonardo is that he questioned everything, and these were questions which led him to great innovations.
He was one of those people who roamed the Renaissance courts, which effectively served as 15th Century startups or incubators because they were where new ideas were put forward and great inventions came from. A quick coffee or lunch with Leonardo would be fascinating!
To find out more about RevelX and how their services can help you to achieve outstanding business growth through innovation, visit their website.
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