What does being ‘innovative’ actually mean?

August 8th, 2017 by Simon Alperstein | Innovation

Lately I’ve been struggling with the question, “am I being innovative enough?” This is especially pertinent to me as i work on bringing a new product to life with my team. How to be innovative in practice, however, isn’t always obvious.
I’ve been looking for inspiration to help me work out what innovation really is in day-to-day work.

During this time I’ve been paying close attention to a colleague, Pete Williams. Pete is a retired partner at Deloitte and has a seriously impressive resume. He led an e-consulting business in the early 90s when the internet was a baby. He also helped found Deloitte Digital.
One of his talks on innovation that had a particular impact on me was The Epitome of a DO-er

After seeing Pete present on this topic a few times, and having had him speak directly to my team, I’ve picked up on some key insights that I’ve been able to apply in my work every day.

Fail small, fail often

For those looking to innovate Pete Williams has three critical words of advice: aim, fire, adjust.

Good innovators have many small failures. Progress comes from chipping away at your idea through small steps, failing often. It’s important when experimenting and iterating is to minimise the impact of each failure. The problems emerge when we try big things, locking in key assumptions early. Pete is always thinking of the fastest, cheapest way he can test assumptions. If he’s wrong, he adjusts.  That is what aim, fire, adjust is all about. This simple piece of advice also reinforces his overall view that innovation requires action, no matter how big or small.

Solve the right problem

Design thinking is a method to tease apart your assumptions and discover the underlying problem to be solved, which might not be obvious at first glance. You might assume you understand a client’s problem (and therefore know the answer) but if you don’t confirm that these assumptions are correct then you risk recommending the wrong solution. It’s a methodology I liken to pulling the culprit out of a police line-up.

Design thinking aids the innovation process by informing you of the best direction to aim your efforts/actions toward. After all, to take aim we must first have a proper idea of where we’re aiming for and why we’re aiming. Design thinking helps to reveal the approximate destination that you should fire at. For more information on design thinking, here’s a nice blog post by Michelle Trudgian that compares design thinking with agile methodologies.

Be a ‘doer’

Pete has another equally important piece of advice that has resonated with me hugely: be a doer.

A doer is simply someone that does things. This sounds simple enough, but is easier said than done.

We tend to be so afraid of starting something before we feel completely ready, that we miss potential opportunities. You may never be or feel perfectly equipped to make a decision. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still make it. “Be adventurous, not reckless”, Pete repeats throughout his talks. And this is the key to being a doer.

It’s about not always asking permission for everything you do, and taking small, concerted steps to get the ball rolling in whatever it is you want to achieve. That is how we innovate.

Work with enablers and be an enabler

It helps to have a system around you that doesn’t throw too many roadblocks in the way. Managers can enable innovation simply by saying “yes” more. That doesn’t mean saying yes to everything, but asking “what steps can we take to get this moving”, rather than saying “I’m not sure we can do this”.

Don’t forget, you can also be an enabler of yourself, so don’t get in your own way. Pete’s enthusiasm for innovation is infectious, and his favourite thing about working at Deloitte is the large team of smart and interesting people that we have working at the company. That’s what has kept him here for over 34 years. Indeed one’s ‘social capital’ is incredibly important to leverage when pushing forward with an idea.

It’s your network that will help you improve your idea and get things over the line. A person who innovates rarely does it on their own.


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