What innovation really means (and how to do it)


Innovation is a term we hear a lot in today’s tech-driven world. While there’s no doubt people know it’s an important part of remaining competitive – both now and into the future – understanding what innovation actually means and how to apply it within your own business context can be difficult.

Last year ReadyTech was named among Australia’s leading tech companies at the Australian Growth Company Awards. One of the key criteria was innovation. While we don’t talk a lot about it, innovation has been part of our DNA from the very beginning. It’s just part of how we operate.

So what is innovation, and how do you do it well? Here’s a few home truths we’ve learned that we think could help you whether you’re in education, or you’re just trying to build a better business.

1. Think about thinking differently

We think the term innovation is too easily connected with the world of cutting edge technology. While we’re a tech company and we’re excited about the benefits market-leading tech can bring to both educators and businesses, the innovation equation involves more than tech alone.

In essence, innovation is about being able to think about how to do things differently, about how to do things better. It’s about doing things in a superior way to how they’ve been done before.

That doesn’t have to be about technology. It could be about the way you structure your organisation, the way you engage your people and teams, the way you set up your work groups, the way you support your customers, or the way you price your products. All these are open to innovation.

Innovation is a fresh way to look at how you do things that is ultimately designed to give you an edge and to support you so that you are able to build a better business for the future. Simple, right?

2. Admit Moore’s law was right

Yes and no. The reality is that today, the pace of tech-driven change is accelerating. We can thank ‘Moore’s Law’ for that – it says computer processing power doubles every year or so. This has a cumulative effect which means ultimately you are getting an accelerating pace of change.

We think everyone today, whether they’re in the business of education or building a business, can feel there is a faster pace of change than five years ago, which is greater again than 10 years ago.

We don’t like the term disruption. However, the reality is there are many small start-ups and tech companies all over the world at the moment trying to innovate and basically change or offer a different model for every industry. This makes every industry prone to being disrupted; many have already been disrupted deeply, while some may have only been disrupted at a superficial level.

We truly believe that, unless organisations are open to innovation or adopting new ways of thinking and new technology, they could find themselves defunct in the future. This makes it imperative to innovate because the world is not standing still – in fact it’s moving a lot faster than before.

3. Use a blank sheet of paper

If you could take a completely blank sheet of paper, how would you reorgnise or rework your organisation today if you had the chance to start over again? It’s a difficult question for many organisations to ask, but it’s an important exercise. You might find you have many ideas, from how you work with your people to your product pricing. With a blank sheet, everything’s up for grabs.

There’s a few things that help ReadyTech with this process. First, any innovation you choose to make always comes back to the customers you serve. Everything has to come back to the problems you are solving for them, and how you can think about solving those problems better than you did before.

The second is making time. The only real way to drive innovation and get there fast is to have people dedicated to it, people working on it. Whether it’s forming small groups or bringing in fresh talent, they should be dedicated to it. Otherwise the risk is people’s time is eaten up with business as usual.

4. Don’t count your calories

Doing innovation isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’s a little scary. This is what Clayton Christensen called the ‘innovator’s dilemma’: as you look to innovate and maybe even disrupt your own business model, there’s a risk of eating into your own bottom line, threatening what’s made you successful.

The problem is that if you stagnate, if you don’t innovate, then someone else might do it for you.

Many people are uncomfortable with change – that’s a part of human nature. Fundamentally in our genes thanks to evolution we are creatures that take the easy option because it stops us from burning calories. That tendency translates into difficulty driving change within an organisation.

To overcome this, innovation has to come from the top. The leadership team needs to be very clear there’s an innovation imperative. On the other hand, you need to encourage ideas coming from anywhere. You need to build a model where anyone feels capable of bringing forward a fresh idea.

If you combine top down and bottom up you can go from calorie counting to a culture of innovation.

5. Learn fast from educated failure

From a ReadyTech perspective, there’s a few things that have made us successful at innovation. First of all, I think we do have a culture where ideas can come from anywhere. From a senior leadership perspective we’re always open to new ideas. We really believe that nothing in our business is sacred, that no idea can’t be changed, that anything can be improved, that anything can be better.

The other thing we’re happy with is the fact that it doesn’t always work. We’ve got a culture where it’s actually OK to fail, as long as we’re able to take the learnings from that. This means we can take small bets and look at the results to understand if something is working or not. What we don’t do is criticise people in the organisation who’ve made mistakes. To an extent they should be celebrated.

6. Do one (or three) things, not everything

Part of leadership on innovation is setting what’s been called ‘innovation intent’ by innovation consultancy Doblin – or a clear, measurable mission. One of the key aspects of this is to focus.

Imagine for a moment that you had a list of Doblin’s ten types of innovation in front of you [https://www.doblin.com/ten-types], from your profit model (how you charge) and your network (who you partner with or leverage within other organisations), to your channel (how you connect your offerings with customers) and your brand (how you resonate over your competitors).

What if you chose just three and did a deep dive into them with your team over the next 90 days? You might reimagine some key aspects of your business and come up with some genuine innovation.

7. Focus today on tomorrow

The main thing that has helped us innovate is that, at times, we’ve taken a step back, we’ve taken the necessary time out. That might mean clearing a couple of days and going into a room with your team and actually looking at where our sector and our customers will be in five years time and working backwards from there. This helps us design products and services that are applicable for tomorrow, not just today. We want to help our customers go on that journey with us and help them navigate that future successfully, and that is what guides us in a way that fosters innovation success.