Yeah, but what do you really mean by innovation?


By Joe Ward, Head of Sales & Marketing at Communisis

It's remarkable how often it gets mentioned, how rarely anyone defines what they mean by it and how often people misuse - or even abuse - it. Innovation is like Brexit. One person’s definition will not be the same as the person standing next to them, and quite often, it is used as a catch all with absolutely no idea what it really means.

 “Innovation means well, you know, innovation.” - right? 


It might help to define it by what it isn’t, rather than what it is. Innovation is not always shiny and new. It’s not always tech, it’s not always expensive and it’s not always the brainchild of some boffin, guru, futurist or scientist. 

It can come from anywhere and anyone in an organisation, although normally from people with a degree of curiosity - and the scope and permission to be curious. It may well come from a flash of genius, or maybe just a piece of common sense. Or, it can be the output of a well-rehearsed process, involving a tight brief with a desired outcome in mind.

What it isn’t is blue sky. In fact, it’s never blue sky. If blue sky is what you’re searching for, then you don’t know what you want. As one of the best innovation companies I have ever had the privilege of working with, ?WhatIf!, would call it – blue sky bullshit


I recently attended the Savage Marketing conference in Amsterdam and had the pleasure of listening to the guy with possibly one of the coolest jobs in the world – Chief Innovation Officer for Red Bull Media House, Andreas Gall. Not only does his team produce some amazing content, play with some of the latest gizmos and gadgets, and have great fun - but they understand and have defined their innovation process to ensure it’s productive. 

He stressed, however, that it was the mix of gut with insight that made a real difference. You have to trust your gut. Use data to support your argument, but trust your gut. 

One of my old Morrisons’ bosses used to talk about the mix of head, heart and gut when it came to making that leap with any fresh thinking. You need innovation in your business. It will help you adapt to an ever changing landscape and make the most of new opportunities, plus engage your colleagues, your suppliers and your customers. But you need to understand the rules of engagement too.


It’s a common consensus among professionals that innovation is a process, and as with any creative process, it should start with a brief. 

We always start with a problem statement – if it’s a problem worth solving, then it’s probably worth investing resources to help fix it. 

To help identify whether it’s a real problem – break it down to its constituent parts: 

  • Why does the problem exist?
  • When does this problem exist?
  • Who does this problem impact?
  • What happens when this problem occurs?
  • What are the emotional and rational consequences of it existing?

Getting to the bottom of why something reacts in a certain way is another crucial part of the context of the problem – and the method for this is child’s play.

“Why? But, why? Yes, but why? Why? Why? Why?”

How annoying is it when your little Jonny or Jenny keeps on probing with the awkward questions about how the world works when you’re at home? It gets you thinking though and the same process works in getting to the bottom of any problem in a work context. 

The last question on consequences is critical in terms of quantifying the impact and if possible, attributing a value or measurable consequence to the emotional impact too. 

So, we have the context of the problem, but now for the desired outcome - if we fix it. Who will benefit and what will be the impact? In a reverse to the consequences question, here we have the effect being specified. 

Without understanding the result of fixing it, how will you know whether it’s worth putting resources against it? 


At Communisis, we’re retailer marketing experts – a large percentage of our business is working with FMCG brands and retailers to connect to their shoppers in the most effective and efficient way. 

Whilst our outsourcing and procurement expertise can be turned to almost anything (literally anything!), when it comes to our innovation approach, we group it into 3 buckets – process, people and product. Doing this enables us to help shape the brief correctly, engage the right people, and ensure we know what the outcome is going to be. 

We normally start with a problem statement or commercial challenge and, by exploring the cause, we look at solutions in one or more of our 3 areas. 

This means that our experts can start addressing the challenge with their particular lens. For example our process team are all Lean 6 Sigma practitioners, whilst our category sourcing experts work with over 300 key suppliers - keeping in touch with the latest manufacturing techniques, technologies and materials to ensure we bring the right solutions to the table.

When it comes to people we focus on creating shared learning experiences. So our strategy and planning teams create bespoke workshops and content that not only deliver against the innovation brief, but also equip the attendees with some useful tools and techniques they can utilise again and again. 


To ensure you allocate the right resources to fixing your problem, understand the barriers you have to resolving it. 

Do you have the right skills in-house or do you need to look outside of the organisation? How much time do you think you have to fix the problem? And what will happen if you don’t fix it? 

Are there any other projects, dependencies, systems, processes or even people that you think would stand in your way? 

Answering these questions will help you understand the urgency. While it may not help to give you the solution, it will help you figure out whether you can re-allocate internal resource or pull in external help. 

Finally, identify what the metrics or measures of success are. There are many innovation projects that fail purely on the fact that no one identified what they would have looked like if they’d succeeded. 

All of the elements above are just the starting point. Not a single solution offered, no brain storm or ideation session held; not a post-it note stuck on a wall or a flip chart scrawled on. Yet this is THE most crucial part of any innovation process. Get this bit right, and you’ll set yourself up for success. Don’t and you’ll be in a world of blue sky bullshit – and no one wants that. 

Part II The Tools of Innovation - coming soon.



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