Innovation Conversations with Peter Fullagar (Part 2)

Peter continues his conversation about innovation and talks about working in the innovation arena… (click here to read part 1).

 

I want to talk a bit about the kind of people who work in the innovation space. I notice that you’ve got a background in engineering as well as design, is that unusual, and how did that come about?

It depends on whether people have actively sought out work in innovation, or whether they have ended up there. I know people who have done it deliberately and ones for whom it was an accident – I probably arrived at it by the accident route. I went into engineering because I was interested in how you solve problems and come up with new things. I was interested in things that changed the world, which is why I studied aeronautics and astronautics, but what scared me off was that they were such big projects, you could spend ten years working on one development cycle. From a career point of view that meant only having two or three big projects in your career, which is why I shifted into design because it gave me a faster change cycle.

 

And how did you find that change from engineering to design, is it much of a jump?

I was lucky, I went on a conversion course specifically for engineers who wanted to move into design, and it addressed the mindset shift really well. A lot of what I do here is about that shift: helping clients be more free in their exploration and not apply purely rational thinking. Being rational is important, but there’s often a conflict between pure creativity and trying to find new ways of doing things: as soon as you start analysing ideas you find ways of shooting them down.

A lot of what we do in our processes is separate out those two elements: first of all you need the freedom to create without judgment, and then we’ll do the judging later and pick out the ideas that might work.

 

Ah yes, separating out divergent and convergent thinking. How do you tell if people are going to be good at that? I’m interested in how you recruit people to work on your innovation team, what are the skills you look for?

It’s incredibly hard, I think is my short answer. Because this business is product-centric, they do need an understanding of products and how they’re designed, and the technical development end of things. But you also need the ability to help uncover where needs are coming from and the consumer perspective, and then another important element is being able to help other people explore both those spaces.

Part of what I’ve been trying to do since I’ve been here is work collaboratively across our business because I believe most people can contribute towards innovation, even if some people have a more natural affinity for it. There’s a number of people in this business who’ve worked on a lot of innovation projects, but who wouldn’t be classified as innovation specialists. In fact they’ve done a lot of it and are very good at it.

 

And is there something that you look for in terms of personal qualities –  a mindset or an attitude?

I think one of the key things is to be a strong team player, and that’s both in terms of being able to work with people from different disciplines, but also knowing how to get the best out of them, and how to play different strengths at any given moment within a challenge. And, as part of that, I suppose a shift away from a dependency on you being the one who has to crack every part of the challenge.

I think the skill is being able to work out before you start the challenge who is going to help solve it, and then how you get the best out of the team. You’re playing a kind of guiding and steering role, making sure you’re not getting bogged down in the detail and you’re focusing on the big idea.

 

What advice would you give someone starting out in their career now, looking back on what you’ve done so far?

Innovation must be incredibly difficult to teach, because you can teach the process and the principles, you can teach creative exercises, you can teach how to do an evaluation, you can teach how to do insight work going out and exploring the challenge, but really most of it comes from the doing. So I would advise people to choose where they want to start and start doing as soon as possible. Ultimately you’ll migrate to covering more of the process, but there are many different ways in depending on what you like doing.

One of the biggest challenges is that there’s lots of different ways of doing it. There are core principles that most people play by, but there are quite a lot of flavours and variants in terms of different organisations who promote different ways of delivering innovation work.

 

When you started here five years ago, were there already innovation processes in place?

At the time they were more constructed as product offers, for example an exploratory programme and another which was more of an innovation accelerator approach. And we still do a lot in both those spaces, but what we’ve done since is look at the consistent elements across all of them, so there is more of a framework whether it’s a very small project or a large project. There’s still a need to make the approach bespoke to the challenge, so I suppose we’ve shifted to more of a tool-kit mindset.

 

Not just focus groups then? 

In the innovation space we’ve kind of stopped doing anything focus-group based, pretty much since I joined I think.

 

So can you give me an example of some of the ways in which you can engage with consumers that aren’t the diabolical focus group?

One approach is where we want to create one-on-one interactions in a speed-dating methodology. We’ll have a series of stations which have different topics or different ideas that we want to talk about. And then we have short but intense conversations with consumers: they come to your station, you talk to them about your particular thing, get feedback on that, and then they rotate. So you get six or eight view points, but they’re not influenced by what any of the rest of the groups thinking.

 

And I imagine you don’t get the kind of people that are dominating the conversation, and people who don’t feel they can speak up.

Exactly. Everybody has to contribute, and everybody has to spend all of their time contributing. So actually you’ve got six conversations or eight conversations, running simultaneously. It’s quite exhausting but you get a lot more out of it as a result.

 

And is there an emphasis on the consumers engaging in this to give you a quick, visceral reaction, rather than spending too long thinking about their feedback…?

Yes, so it tends to be better suited to moments where you’ve got early ideas and you want to get an initial reaction, So it’s less about “do you like this yes or no?” and more about “What do you think about this? What’s interesting? What else could we do?”.

Another approach we’ve developed recently is to take the moderator entirely out of the process. We set up a room, rather like gogglebox, and have small groups of twos, threes or fours, and then set them a series of questions with different roles that they then play out. This facilitates a more natural conversation around set topics: it gets much more light-hearted, and then we can introduce concepts, and get them to talk about what they think about it. It’s less about us, it’s more about them and their interactions and their thoughts.

 

So what’s next for your role here? What are your current challenges in terms of where you want to take Head of Innovation?

I suppose for me it’s been about embedding innovation principles, and making them widely accessible across the business. That’s partly why I’ve focused not on building a separate business unit, that operates as an innovation arm, but making it part and parcel of as many pieces of work as possible. As a business, trying to communicate all the different things we do has been one of our challenges, and being able to communicate the innovation element is tricky.

Another interesting challenge for the innovation space is not allowing processes to become fixed – you have to innovate your own innovation process.  So one of my drivers is to make sure we’re always looking at new ways of doing things – it’s an interesting challenge.

We get to work with some fantastic challenges, so I suppose the simple ambition is that we continue to grow the ways in which we can help our clients explore their ambiguities, and for some of the tools and techniques to be applied across more challenges.

 

It’s interesting that you use the word ‘challenges’ – is there a difference between a brief and a challenge?

It reflects what innovation is about, which is trying to look at problems in different ways. The brief might be what you’ve been asked to do, the objective is where you’re trying to get to, and actually those two things might not correlate initially. The challenge is looking at the objective and trying to define that in terms of what needs to be achieved and all the different elements that we need to think about.

One of the core elements of the creative innovation process is to say, what is the challenge that you’re really trying to solve? That can evolve, so sometimes the output of your first phase of work is a better definition of what the challenge is.

 

Finally, what do you think is particularly exciting in the industry at the moment?

One of the things that I’m pleased about is that the role of design in the innovation space is being increasingly recognised. Fifteen years ago, if someone had an innovation brief and they asked who they should see, it was unlikely that they’d be told to go to a design agency. But in fact while the design process and the innovation process have developed in parallel they are very similar. The design process has always been very user-centric, and the early part has always been quite exploratory in its nature. I think there’s much more recognition across businesses of the term ‘design thinking’ and how it relates to innovation.

What excites me about our work is where we’re able to support not just in having the ideas, but also realising them. I’m most proud of work we’ve done where we’ve been able to apply multiple perspectives to a challenge, and we’ve created value because of that.

 

Written by Cecilia Thirlway - a consultant and writer covering innovation, self-employment and entrepreneurship. She consults on brand and communications for SMEs in London and the South West.