How to Innovate Like a Rebel

Innovate Like a Rebel

By Leah Cotterman

Calling all rebels: get ready to embrace a counterintuitive approach to preparing for the future.

But before we get into why this approach is essential in the modern era of reinvention, let’s recognize the elephant in the room—innovation…it’s a buzzword that is right up there with “disruption, omnichannel, synergy and work-life balance”. But why and how does something become a buzzword? Well, because it’s a confounding problem that many people in an industry are trying to solve; it quickly weaves itself into the fabric of our collective discussion, takes center stage, then gets beaten to death. But really…

What is Innovation?

Well, here’s what it isn’t:

  • IS NOT just improvement efforts
  • IS NOT just about technology or new product development

Here’s what it is:

  • IS recognizably different from the current state
  • IS a meaningful change that adds value to consumers and businesses
  • IS unique to alternative options or the direct competition
  • IS as much as about identifying the right problems as it is solving them

Within the realm of consumer-based industry, experience innovation is needed NOW for more reasons than one. We are living in an unprecedented time of accelerated change from start-ups to discoveries to technology to yes, even disruption. It’s usually here that most people start equating the current business environment to lessons of evolution and specifically Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. There’s a public misconception, though, of what exactly Darwin meant. It was never about being fit like “buff”, or even strong, fast or smart; it was about the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Take the leafy sea dragon fish. A tiny sea creature that adapted itself to camouflage its body to look like floating seaweed to prevent it from being eaten by predators, thus best suited for the immediate environment. Adaptability helped this little guy to not just outsmart, but out-live his competition.

We are living in an unprecedented time of accelerated change from start-ups to discoveries to technology to yes, even disruption.

There are tons of “leafy sea dragons” these days. In fact, in the last 5 years alone some of the best-known household brands are enjoying a significant dent in their market share because of these “creatures’” ability to adapt to the environment. In media, there’s Netflix; in hospitality, Airbnb; in auto, Uber and Lyft; and in retail, Amazon. These brands figured out one crucial point: that the consumer could be the real source of market disruption if they built and delivered what consumers needed in a better way than the big guys. Now, more than a few brands are getting this message, but many are still getting innovation all wrong.

These brands figured out one crucial point: that the consumer could be the real source of market disruption if they built and delivered what consumers needed in a better way than the big guys.

Everything from the wrong approach to the wrong response and the wrong measurement. Brands can easily fall for any of the “deadly sins of innovation” just as consumers can, and it typically comes at their demise. They get overcome with lust, like IHOP with their IHOB extension. They get prideful, like Gymboree did with their rebrand that abandoned core customers. They get greedy, like Sears when they cut costs before evolving their store experience. And they experience sloth, like Toys "R" Us did when they took too long to embrace ecommerce and experiential retail. Luckily, this idea of rebellion can create opportunities for brands to avoid succumbing to similar fates.

Let’s recognize first that innovation is a team sport. It’s rarely done alone, so if you’re looking to hire ‘innovators’ vs. people with varying degrees of the right skills to round out an innovation team, you’re already getting it wrong. Researchers have devoted a lot of attention to studying this very thing and in the process identified 4 distinct competencies for a high-performing innovation team: Vision, Collaboration, Learning, and Execution.

But who is missing in all of this? The rebel. It’s hard to be a rebel, but it is easy to start to think like one. Rebels are characteristically curious; they question everything, learn the “boundaries”, build strong contextual foundations, and love challenging the status quo. They are creative, imaginative, non-linear thinkers that love asking why NOT, seeking to invent new ways of doing business or solving problems. They are confident, and willing to fail. And lastly, they are calculated; they have no problem breaking the rules when the juice is worth the squeeze.

It’s hard to be a rebel, but it is easy to start to think like one.

Considering the hourglass phenomenon happening in today’s competitive environment, brands that lack in fearlessness will get lost in the middle. But you, too, can rewrite the rules to embrace rebellion and create an authentic path to success by taking these actions immediately:

BE CURIOUS
  • Turn your strategy text upside down and embrace future-casting
  • Challenge the assumptions and conventions of your industry
BE CREATIVE
  • Try adding constraints — many believe it’s the mother of creativity
  • Get madlib happy — imagine how other brands (or your competition) might solve your same challenges
BE CONFIDENT
  • Desirable > Viable or Feasible – in early phases, resist the urge to tighten the business case and practice developing the reverse balance sheet
  • Employ 5B ideation – brainstorm bad and break-down then build-up your best ideas; it’ll put ideas to the test and stretch your thinking further
BE CALCULATED
  • Take on now, how AND wow — resist taking on just the big bets but a balanced portfolio of testing into the great unknown
  • Make failure success — perhaps the hardest of them all, but easy when you consider the real benefit of innovation is reducing risk and accelerating learning before major investments are made

If you need help figuring out how to implement these strategies to innovate like the rebel you want to be, WD is here to help. For more information on rewriting the rules of reinvention, contact our favorite rebel, Leah Cotterman, at Leah.Cotterman@wdpartners.com.

Leah Cotterman
Leah Cotterman
Sr. Director, Strategy & Insights
WD Partners
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