What WIRED's former editor discovered on a global quest for non-BS innovation

Radical innovation

I recently wrote a book Non-Bullshit Innovation: Radical Ideas from the World’s Smartest Minds. The book was born from my frustration that so many corporate innovation teams, incubators, accelerators and “chief disruptive growth operators” I met when founding editor-in-chief of WIRED UK were building no real value. It was mostly pointless innovation theatre – a box-ticking, jargon-led, shareholder-pleasing alternative to delivering genuine transformation. So I went in search of the real thing. And boy, I found it. Here are a few things I learned.

I spent last year reporting for the book from 20 countries, from Peru to Australia, China to Estonia. I was looking for successful incumbent businesses – from media to manufacturing –that had found ways to build new value even as the internet was commodifying today’s business. I wanted to understand the mindset of leadership teams who were motivating their staff to think ambitiously in fresh ways and launch successful new business lines. I sought to learn how company cultures can enable real change. And I wanted to go beyond the innovation hype that has become an industry in itself – the change agents and co-creation gurus, ideas portals and webinars, make-a-thons and hackfests, paradigm shifts and pilgrimages to Silicon Valley. That’s corporate nonsense that won’t deliver real change. 

The corporate directors of innovation I met had all read Clayton Christensen – but for all their excitement about “disruption”, they could never execute as boldly as the founders I’d got to know at WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Google, Spotify, Xiaomi, Didi, Nest or Twitter. So often they didn’t have the backing of the CEO or the board, who worked to promote business-as-usual for the quarterly analysts’ reports.

The first condition for genuine innovation, then, is independence from stockmarket pressures. Some of my strongest case studies are cooperatively owned by workers (the engineers Arup) or customers (Op bank in Finland). Or they’re family-controlled businesses that can ignore short-term market pressures (EOS, making 3D printers in Germany; or Meyer, the Hong Kong king of cookware). Or the founders are still in charge (Lei Jun controlling China's Xiaomi; Sergey Brin overseeing Google’s X moonshot lab). 

Second, non-BS innovation happens when leaders don’t make “innovation” the responsibility of one executive or a team in another building. The most impressive CEOs know how to devolve responsibility to the entire staff. Ilkka Paananen, who runs Supercell, the Helsinki games company behind Clash of Clans, wants to be “the world’s least powerful CEO”. It’s working out fine.

Third, bold ideas flourish where diverse people – in thinking as well as background and demography – come together in conditions that promote serendipitous conversations. Steve Jobs knew this when planning a new building at Pixar; London’s new Crick Institute, tackling genomic illness and cancer, is physically designed to enable chance meetings across professional specialisms. Bridge those gaps to build new value.

Fourth, embrace genuine unmet customer needs. In Peru, Intercorp is a banks-to-supermarkets conglomerate that’s 4 per cent of GDP. Frustrated with poor education standards, its founder built a school system as a separate for-profit business unit. It now has 52 schools that are outperforming national results two to one, as well as a technical university. After schools, Intercorp's tackling healthcare, with a national chain of low-cost, high-quality health clinics.

Fifth, reframe your value. Australia’s Qantas struggled as the economics of airlines became unsustainable – so it built vast new businesses upon its loyalty programme, from life insurance to a wine club. These businesses now represent a third of group profits. Or Heywood Hill books in the expensive neighbourhood of Mayfair, central London, which realised it couldn't compete on price with the online retailers. So instead, the MD reframed the business as experts not in book retail but in book curation – with thousands of book lovers now paying for the bookshop's highly profitable monthly bespoke subscription services.

I found 16 separate innovation strategies that deliver results, with each book chapter focusing on one – from “Build an ecosystem” to “Turn products into services”. Chapters end with “action points” that break down lessons from the case studies so they can be more widely applied.

Here’s the Financial Times’s kind review of Non-Bullshit Innovation: “WIRED UK seems to have provided Rowan, who was its founding editor, with an enviable launch pad from which he blasts off to talk to the world’s most innovative people and companies. He does not squander the opportunity. … Rowan rightly deplores the bullshit corporate job titles — the ‘innovation catalysts’, ‘innovation sherpas’ and ‘chief disruptive growth operators’ — and his sympathies very clearly lie with the scrappy entrepreneurs rather than the lumbering incumbents. He points out that small, resilient, cognitively diverse teams with an urge to solve a genuine problem, and a powerful story, will easily outmanoeuvre bigger companies. There are lessons here, though, for corporate innovation departments, as Rowan’s quest for ‘non-bullshit strategies that can really deliver’ takes him from Tallinn to Hangzhou. It is an entertaining quest, well told, and illustrated with plenty of fresh examples from beyond the usual well-worn Silicon Valley legends.”

I'd welcome your feedback too. Thank you.

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