Innovation and transformation are all too commonly invoked, but what do actual innovation strategies look like? In short, they think about societies, morals, and the technological world that the future will hold.
In Cannes, creativity rules the festival; effectiveness, meanwhile, feels prudish. On the creative side, everyone is full of optimism about the varying powers of creativity to ‘save the world’ or ‘solve the biggest problems’. It’s difficult to disagree that creativity will play a part in all of those things.
Conversely, effectiveness is about doubt, scepticism, and fundamentally about telling the truth about a piece of work. As such, one afternoon, I sat in a very subdued mood, listening to professional sceptics. The room was tucked away at the back of the Palais, drably lit and poorly attended. The rosé, it seemed, was elsewhere.
The discussion, however, was fantastic. Client-side marketers and senior agency planners argued brilliantly. Blame became a game, and quite a watchable one. Then the planners-anonymous session turned its focus to innovation, the term skewered in a talk by Tracey Follows, formerly J. Walter Thompson’s Chief Strategy Officer, and speaking then as WIRED Consulting’s Head of Strategy. We all know it’s a buzzword, but Follows described in detail, the gap between the word’s presumed meaning and its most effective manifestations. (Read WARC’s in-depth report on effective innovation here: Why innovation should be your long-term strategy)
Very few of them come from big brands, the kind of brands that talk endlessly about innovation or transformation. Follows pointed to a study by the research firm CB Insights, which interviewed nearly 700 corporate strategy professionals. Allegedly, the overwhelming majority of companies care deeply about innovation, with 84.9% of respondents saying it is “very important” to them. However, when the time comes, most budgets are dedicated to an innovation strategy that looks more like incremental improvement rather than transformation.
Obviously, resisting disruption from a leaner organisation – unbothered by the restraints of turning a profit – is tough. It is a long-term investment, but that long-term outlook needs servicing through the serious setting of a strategy. Follows advocated zooming out to a broader context to try to understand the kind of world that the brand will be operating in in ten years’ time.
The extreme of this genre of futurism comes in the form of Softbank’s 300-year strategy document. It’s not really possible to see with much accuracy into the far future, which is what makes the document quite startling reading, but the principles come from a deep reading of information technology up to 2018. By surveying the broad trends that have driven us to now, the company proposes how its work and its investments can help bring about a positive future (“happiness for everyone”) in the next 300 years.
Such a document chimes with Follow’s observation that innovation requires a plan to avoid it falling into a “blob”. That plan has to zoom in to the concrete steps required to achieve objectives – these should be sober, but must also be ambitious.
True ambition, however, thinks about how to change the world. Softbank does, and it’s why few funding rounds within its remit lack its name. Looking forward, and working out what the return on society will be, however, requires some deeper thinking about social change.
Prediction is a complicated and flawed art. That’s because the future is plural, full of alternatives and options. Planning always requires a certain flexibility, but it also needs preferred outcomes, and plans A, B, and C.
How do we know if any of it works? If you’re not thinking about the next ten years, then you’re probably doing it wrong.
For the full report, go to: Why innovation should be your long-term strategy