Training For The Future: How Businesses Can Build Their "Innovation Muscles"

Similar to what happens with the human body, a company's strengthening of its innovation muscles will bring benefits in the short term, but it is only in the long term that the main gains will be felt.

learn more about Maria Paula Oliveira

By Maria Paula Oliveira

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Imagine two people trying to navigate a difficult obstacle course. One, an individual whose main workout is the coffee run, and the other, a practitioner of parkour, the sport in which the athlete seeks to get from one point to another in a complex environment, without supporting equipment, in the fastest and most efficient way possible.

Who do you think has a better chance of being more adaptable to the unfamiliar environment, reaching the end of the course, and succeeding in similar challenging situations in the future?

Easy answer, right?

The same applies to companies.

For companies to respond effectively to unexpected changes, failures, risks, and obstacles (did anyone mention a pandemic?), they need to develop skills that give them agility, flexibility and adaptability. This is what I call "innovation muscles."

Where are one's innovation muscles?

When a business is in its early stages, informality, quick decision-making, and ease of communication usually prevail. However, as they mature, many companies tend to stiffen up due to things like bureaucracy, excessive processes, and inefficient communication. As a result, they become resistant to change and slow to respond to the challenges of a rapidly transforming world.

In contrast, those companies that manage to grow healthier, acquiring more structure without losing flexibility and agility, are more likely to prosper regardless of the obstacles in front of them. Companies with strong and active innovation muscles are like parkour practitioners. They have muscle memory; they find a wall, they know how to climb; they find a pothole, they know how to jump; they encounter a pandemic, they know how to transform their strategy. Consequently, their products, services, communication channels, not only survive the challenge, but even thrive on it.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses were put to the test. We saw the emergence of new business models, and the radical transformation of consumer habits. Industries had to evolve in weeks what would have taken decades to do. Here are just a few examples of companies with innovative musculature so strong that it allowed them to adapt quickly to the unexpected hurdle we all experience in 2020:

• In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a cinema chain explored the boom in food delivery during the lockdown as an opportunity to stay close to its customers: they started delivering cinema popcorn, so that consumers could have a little bit of the movies experience without leaving their homes.

• A fashion brand in Brazil launched a special T-shirt for Father's Day 2020 containing a QR code allowing fathers to hear pre-recorded messages from their kids.

• A museum in London found a way to keep its visitors engaged, even at a distance: they launched a challenge for people to recreate their favorite works of art at home. The initiative nurtured the visitors' connection to the museum while unlocking the participants' creative streak and generating very fun results.

Related: Necessity Is The Mother Of Innovation

Training one's innovation muscles

Even for the most prepared companies, a day often comes when they realize that the corporate body is no longer the same– it feels like the company has lost its strength to respond to competitors or is lagging in their digital transformation.

In the corporate world as well as in the personal world, the practice of good habits is the best way to be strong in the present and in the future. However, sometimes we need extra help to get back to a healthy body. That's where the Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) comes in. Think of them as corporate personal trainers. Just like a personal trainer in our private lives, the CIO helps organizations to get out of inertia and take action, with focus and discipline to adopt new habits. Some of the instruments of the CIO are:

  • New ways of thinking about how to manage the present and the future concurrently
  • New processes and methods that allow the free flow of creativity
  • Methods to test new ideas and business models, collecting valuable lessons from failures
  • The development of new behaviors which will lead to a culture of innovation

At my company, EY, for example, we have a corporate innovation program dedicated to nurturing an innovation culture and promoting the transformation of our business. Through these efforts, we have embraced new ways of working, with greater flexibility and an increasingly diverse workforce. We are also adopting digital technologies such as blockchain, machine learning, and robotic process automation to increase the potential of our human talent. These technologies are speeding up routine processes, and freeing up our people to engage in more creative work that cannot be done by a robot.

Often, the work of the CIO and the innovation team involves provoking the company, and even creating some discomfort. Just like the pain that accompanies a good workout session, this friction is natural and leads to the breaking of old paradigms, eventually resulting in a healthier corporate organism.

Similar to what happens with the human body, a company's strengthening of its innovation muscles will bring benefits in the short term, but it is only in the long term that the main gains will be felt.

In the short term, businesses could see improvements in KPIs, such as number of ideas generated, speed of bringing ideas to market, percentage of revenue from products launched in recent years, etc. However, these are only measures of the efficiency of the process, not the results.

The real fruits of building a truly innovative culture will only become evident over time, when we look back at a company and see it has progressed and prospered, changed, fallen, and risen, reinvented industries and itself, time and again.

One trait that companies with strong innovation muscles have in common is their ability to successfully deal with the conflict between short-term results and long-term endurance. There is no secret. Just as building a healthy body requires discipline and sacrifice, developing a long-standing company requires making difficult decisions that won't please all stakeholders all the time. However, by betting on measures that might not be popular, but are focused on developing resilience, businesses can establish their leadership positions in the corporate world.

These examples illustrate a key message: in order to survive and thrive during times of transformation, which now occur at increasingly shorter intervals, companies need to be constantly exercising their muscles of innovation by explicitly adopting strategies focused on longevity, executed with discipline by people committed to the mission of building the future.

Related: Enabling An Environment For Innovation: Dr. James Trotter, Dean And Academic President of Murdoch University Dubai

Maria Paula Oliveira

Innovation Leader, EY MENA

Maria Paula Oliveira (MP) is the Innovation Leader for EY MENA (Middle East and North Africa). Her mission is to ensure the company has strong “innovation muscles”: the right skills, processes, and capabilities to thrive through change.

Four times innovation leader and twice an entrepreneur, MP has relevant experience in Latin America, USA, Asia Pacific, and Middle East.

Under MP’s leadership, EY MENA was awarded “Most Innovative Knowledge Enterprise” in 2019, and MP herself was presented with the “Excellence in Innovation” award by the Women Leadership Awards in the Arab World, in 2020. Additionally, she was recognized as one of the most influential corporate leaders in Singapore, in 2017.

Passionate about all-things innovation, MP is particularly interested in how startups and corporations collaborate to create disruptive offerings.

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