Why innovation isn't technology-driven, but culturally-led

By Glenn Core, Head of Architecture, AWS Asia Pacific

In the age of the ideas boom, it is no surprise that innovation has also grown to become a core focus for many of today's progressive, forward-looking companies. In fact, we are already living in an innovation-led economy, where traditional business models and the ways in which organisations interact with their key stakeholders are rapidly shifting.

Unfortunately for companies that fail to remain agile in this fast moving environment, not only will their business be inundated with an array of challenges, they may not actually survive at all.

While it is positive to see that business leaders are recognising the importance of innovation and increasingly leveraging the cloud to digitally transform themselves, it is vital to note that a company's ability to innovate does not automatically correlate to its access to the latest in technology. Indeed, whenever the topic of innovation is broached, the first thing that often comes to mind is the belief that it is technology-driven - but is it really?

Innovation ≠ Invention

To begin with, it is vital to note that innovation is very different from the term invention. The latter essentially refers to creating new things, but doesn't necessarily mean it will improve or fix a problem. On the contrary, innovation refers to change that actually enhances a situation.

Alas, technology teams have a habit of inventing, not innovating. We see big and novel creations all the time, but what businesses really need is to move from this inventive culture to an innovative one.

Nevertheless, you can't merely call out problems. This is one of the mistakes most people make - it's easy to bring forth a problem, but the reverse holds true when it comes to the solution, which is a fundamental part of innovation and change.

Culture - the innate driver of innovation

So what exactly is the driving force behind innovative thinking? Innovation derives from the readiness and capacity to tap into an organisation's best asset - your people. The best thing is, creative talent can sit across any role within a company, from IT to finance, marketing to R&D. And more often than not with new hires, they are also able to offer a fresh perspective as they aren't privy to conventional practices and processes.

What business leaders need to strive towards is a culture where people feel encouraged to question the norm. When you create that safe environment in which a new joiner can confidently challenge a senior person to relook at the company's standard protocols, that's what drives innovation.

Even though many of these discussions may not appear viable right away, what often happens with a build-up of ideas is that it brings organisations that much closer to something that could potentially transform their business.

This is why the secret to innovation also lies in a leader's ability to commit to someone else's idea and importantly, hold back any selfish agenda. In an environment where people want their ideas to win - and at any cost - that is clearly counterproductive.

Overcoming the barriers to creating a culture of idea generation

One of the biggest challenges to fostering an ideas-led, innovative culture lies in self-doubt and the fear of looking silly. What's more, people are never fond of putting themselves in a situation whereby they unknowingly float an idea that has already been tried, tested and failed.

1. Be vocally self-critical: A key way to overcome these is to promote a vocally self-critical environment, where people are not afraid of admitting when their idea just isn't working. This attitude has to come from the top-down, but is evidently something we often struggle with.

Problems exist in every business and the first step in fixing it is admitting that they exist. Leaders must understand that it's not about being right or wrong, it's about initiating conversations for others to contribute to. We can't afford to consider ourselves, or our teams, above criticism.

2.Focus on the long-term: It is also vital for leaders to acknowledge that an idea that has failed previously could still potentially work after several iterations. At Amazon Web Services, we like to focus on the long-term return because we are fully aware that when we try new things for the first time, it doesn’t always end up being used how we designed it. One of the greatest returns I get in my role is seeing how customers are using our services in creative ways, in ways that we never imagined.

For example, Olympic athletes didn’t start off being the best in their field on day one. Athletes are focused and determined to improve themselves bit by bit, day after day. Each setback or loss drives the best athletes to their own very best and after years of hard work and constant improvement they become the best they can be and often set new world records and personal bests as a result.

3. Lower the cost of failure: As Joi Ito from MIT Media Lab once said, "If you want to increase the pace of innovation, you need to lower the cost of failure." I would argue that the greatest 'cost' is actually time. Companies these days simply don't have the luxury of spending six months to test an idea - you're lucky if you get six weeks!

To curtail this barrier, businesses need to figure out how they can best test a hypothesis as quickly and as efficiently as possible. One of the ways they can do this is to break the idea down into its simplest elements, or the minimum viable product (MVP), which provides just enough validated information to prove the concept is worth continued development.

Once businesses make these quantum shifts in perspective, it is actually very liberating and really helps in driving an innovative culture.

People make the culture, but don't forget the technology

While innovation isn't technology-driven, it does play a crucial role in charging ideas forward. You can have many ideas and opinions, but at some point you're going to have to back them up - and the more data you have, the more accurate your justification will be.

Of course, you will still be able to identify macro patterns without data analytics, but so can your competitors. Data will not only give you that edge, but the deeper the insights gleaned, the more waves of ideas you'll generate.

Furthermore, the momentum in the space of machine learning is also accelerating at rapid speed, to the point that milestones are now being brought forward by years. Whilst some people fear that artificial intelligence could take away our jobs, I beg to differ. As machine learning advances, it is only going to free us up from repetitive and predictive tasks to do a lot more sophisticated and creative work. In turn, this will only serve to fuel the pace of innovation.

Gone are the days where leaders only look to hire people who are experts in a single area. When I look at the best performing teams, one thing they all have in common is the multifaceted nature of their staff. For one, I haven't met a good data scientist who doesn't also have an artistic flair. As the complexity of systems and data models increases in today's analytics-driven world, you can no longer afford to be a statistician in isolation. In this case, artistic data scientists will be beneficial in helping companies develop new ways of visualising data, so they can truly grasp the scale of it all.

The future of innovation

With rapid advancements technology, specifically in the field of data analytics, machine learning and the Internet of Things, this will inevitably push businesses to come up with smarter and simpler ways of getting things done. The most successful organisations are those that never stop ideating and innovating. Ultimately, the key to marching businesses forward lies in upholding a culture that feeds our intrinsic need to be curious and ask questions.