I have a colleague who likes to say that innovation is a contact sport – that behind the glitzy product launches and gilt-lined successes is sweat, toil, friction, uncertainty and discomfort. 

And it’s only through these moments of ‘contact’ that truly new and transformative strategies, ideas and innovations can emerge. 

So it was a joy to peek behind the curtain and hear real life stories from the people who engage in this contact sport every day – strategy and innovation leaders from the likes of Google, Sky, The Guardian and British Gas.

The stories that emerged were peppered with hard-won learnings from the field, with clear common threads and hacks emerging. 

So to save you a few minutes of game time, here are my top 6: 

1. Powerful strategies are built on simple, powerful metrics

James Down, CSO for the Guardian Media Group was part of the team that implemented a strategy to turn a £57m loss into breakeven - at a time when the plight of ‘traditional’ media have never been more tenuous.

The driving force that lay behind a huge amount of hard work was a strategy that could be easily articulated, easily measured and lined up perfectly with the values and aspirations of the business - making it motivating for the very people who would need to implement it - and perfectly attuned to the mindset of its customers.

It became a simple filter for any decision and direction - to solve for impact and financial sustainability. 

Built on this simple mantra is a program of innovation and change that has driven transformation in the business - from a reinvention of the business model (The Guardian is now underpinned by voluntary subscriptions from over 1m readers), to an approach to mixed media content that culminated in an Oscar nomination - and yet it remains as true as ever to the 200-year-old founding philosophy of the paper.
 

2. Don’t celebrate failure, reframe it

A lot has been written about the virtues of failure, and the need to celebrate it. While I agree to a point, there is a danger that one starts to fetishize failure. When failure becomes an end in itself then you have ceased pursuing meaningful innovation and are merely pursuing the experience of innovation.

In this case, innovation (or more simply, just failure) becomes a cultural activity - something fun and creative that increases employee engagement but does nothing for the bottom line, or for the future of the business. 

Now don’t get me wrong - at its best innovation should be highly creative and plenty of fun, but if it culminates in a competitive lovefest of highly creative failures then it should answer to Human Resources, not to strategy, let alone shareholders or the CFO. From there, it’s a short trip to losing your mandate, your funding and your future.

No board member wants to talk to shareholders about failure. For Collette Mullings at RMG, the reframe for her board is simple and powerful: don’t be prepared to fail, be prepared to learn.

Embracing learning as the key metric from early stage innovation not only gives teams permission to be bold, it also creates a demand for them to be tangible and to turn any failure into insights that can drive the next version.

Or, as we say at Fahrenheit - efficient innovation is not about failing fast, it’s about increasing your speed of learning.
 

3. An idea is only as good as the number you can put to it

A number of speakers talked about how to build an innovation pipeline within the business - interfacing with existing teams, creating internal communities, and building open innovation through connections with start-ups and customers.

The unspoken danger that lurked below all of these is the challenge of too much. There’s never any shortage of ideas, after all.

So I loved the few simple things that Sandeep Raithatha, Head of Innovation at BT, applies within BT’s innovation program to beef up the commercial heft of ideas - from partnering with Imperial College for mini-MBAs, to reward schemes for internal open innovation - one smart employee landed a cheque for £17.5K for an idea that was successfully commercialized.

By applying a commercial lens early on in the innovation journey, you don’t constrain ideas, you help to filter and focus them.

4. Reimagine the 3 horizon model to explain the discomfort your business will need to endure

One of the greatest challenges for successful innovation teams is to ensure that the core business is fully invested in the process of innovation - understanding the need and the opportunity but also the implications for changes to the core business and the disruption and discomfort to come.

Innovation is by definition doing something new, so one should expect a natural resistance to that change from stakeholders within the world of ‘business as usual’. It’s a perfectly human response.

A smart hack from Lizi Jenkins, Head of Innovation at British Gas is a simple, elegant flip on one of the staples of innovation consulting - the 3 horizon model. 

I’ve seen the model used in many different ways - as a way to plan your investment and allocate your resources; as a way of planning your activities over time. But Jenkins uses it as a way to understand the discomfort implicit in each, from the point of view of the core business a journey of comfort to profound discomfort.

By viewing it as a journey of comfort to discomfort, she can anticipate the engagement that will be required - and explain to her senior stakeholders what the journey will feel like.

As any practitioner knows, the journey of innovation is never linear, nor fits into perfect graphs - but building an expectation and understanding of the discomfort that is NORMAL will go a long way to winning the trust of stakeholders and earning the right to stretch the ambition.

5. "Table stakes" assets from one sector can be superpowers in another

Telco is one of the most interesting industries at the moment, given the fairly low barriers to entry and the ubiquity of demand, new operators are coming from all angles - who would have thought that a beauty retailer would launch a mobile network?

Sky Mobile’s Pierre Coppin gave a brilliant example of how an upstart entrant to an established sector can use its existing assets to create serious competitive advantage - and rewrite some of the rules of the sector.

For Sky, this was about flipping the traditional model of customer acquisition. The established norm in the industry is for mobile operators to have brick-and-mortar retail footprint. Without these stores to count on, Sky turned inward to see how it might redeploy its existing assets in new ways - focusing on their existing customer relationships and owned media channels – thus they could trade expensive traditional media campaigns for deep insight and targeted acquisition, lowering the cost of acquisition and onboarding a pre-made customer group: Sky subscribers.

6. Strategy is about trade-offs – being clear on what you don’t do is critical

The difficulty in shifting from strategy to action was another recurrent theme, specifically overcoming the friction inherent in requiring that the business stops doing what it is accustomed to doing.

For the Telegraph this meant helping the business to understand that in shifting to a new business model driven by subscription, not volume advertising, there would have to be fundamental changes to its advertising model - from who it targeted, how it served them and thus who the sales team should target.

To expect that the change could come on top of the existing business is naïve. So spelling out what a strategy means in terms of what you will not do or what you will stop doing can be more powerful in terms of shifting the understanding and behaviors of the people who will need to implement that strategy.
 

Are you ready to take the field?

These six lessons are deceptively simple but each one solves for the real challenges of innovation within big corporates – not so much generating great ideas, but ensuring that the great ideas stick, that they get embraced by the parent business and that they have a fighting chance of surviving, thriving and helping to invent the future of the business… and that’s how you come out of the contact sport on the winning side.