Our Head of Innovation, Peter Fullagar, had an in-depth conversation with writer, Cecilia Thirlway, about his points of view on and passion for innovation.
Innovation Conversations with Peter Fullagar (PART 1)
This was a fascinating conversation, and a long one as Peter was hugely generous with his time.
Peter’s background and experience made this a wide-ranging conversation, but I was struck by a few elements particularly: one was his discussion of innovation as an uncomfortable process, and the other was his thoughts on the Internet of Things and the challenge of making it relevant and useful to the individual customer.
So, Peter, how would you define innovation? What exactly is it?
I don’t have a single answer to that question – it’s such an all-encompassing term. At its broadest sense it means businesses who want to create some kind of progress: people want to advance their business and come up with new things as part of that process.
But actually, everything that we do here as a business is a form of innovation – design is coming up with something new in the same way that innovation is coming up with something new. The work that we do is very product-centric but we look at it from a very broad perspective, so it might involve looking at the service or the brand as much as the product itself.
What we’re looking for is to generate not just new ideas, but big ideas, ones that have impact for our clients. The process we go through is to help explore and look for new ideas, but then to boil them down and make them as strong and as valuable as possible. So the simple version is that innovation for us is about helping our clients to create big ideas for differentiation and growth.
There’s a lot to unpack in there.
There is a lot, and it took a long time to get to that point! Some of the other descriptions of it that I think are good are ‘creating new value’ which is great because it’s broad, but also because it’s focusing on the end result. Another one is something like ‘the uncomfortable process of disruptive change’.
What I like about it is the uncomfortable process part, because in reality while everybody talks about wanting innovation, getting there can be incredibly uncomfortable. It often means that you’ve got to do things differently or look at things differently – it isn’t as simple as having a great idea and the world changes for you, that’s just the starting point. One of the big value providers of innovation is not just having the idea, but making it have impact in the real world.
Why do you think innovation has suddenly become incredibly important?
I don’t think it’s sudden, personally, I think it’s been having a slow march for the last twenty years. I started working with a specialist focus on innovation about ten years ago at ?What If!, and they were well-established even then.
I think what’s happened is it’s gone from being very driven by consumer marketing led businesses, and now it’s trickled down into many more industries. A lot of the methodologies and processes were born in the FMCG space, but have expanded and adapted and evolved. Simultaneously, the other end that it came from was around improvement innovation – manufacturing improvement, technical development processes. And those two things have now come together and merged and become something else.
So is there a difference between product innovation, service innovation, and business model innovation?
Doblin has identified ‘Ten Types of Innovation’ – what’s interesting is that they recognise all the different types of innovation that you might do, including the very process-orientated end of the spectrum, where it’s not about things but about how you do things. And then there are types that move into the product or offer part of the business, and there’s the innovation around how you are communicating, selling and marketing. All three are equally valid in terms of creating value.
A lot of innovation happens without creating anything new – you just sell it in a better way. Equally you can innovate behind the scenes, where the buyer of the service doesn’t see any particular change, but actually you’ve made your processes better or more efficient, and the value is extracted for you as a business or an organisation.
We’re doing a lot more in the process space lately, particularly in the last year, mostly driven by client demand. There is a great fit there because we do technical development work, so we understand processes, there’s a natural synergy between us being able to look at the process and saying how it might change.
Is there a standard process for how you approach a project – is there a separate innovation phase, or is it woven into everything you do?
Essentially, we do four different types of innovation. The first is what I would call strategic innovation, where we helping set future visions of where businesses are trying to head, and understanding the impact of future technologies.
Then we do product-centric innovation, planning and developing future products.
Thirdly, we identify new market opportunities, and these can come from a number of angles. For example, we might know the consumer but want to identify the next thing we can help with in their lives or it could be that clients want to find new ways to apply their existing technologies to uncover new markets.
And then finally we often help with direction setting, using innovation tools to explore ambiguities in their market or business to define challenges and set a series of directions for further exploration and development.
In terms of how we work, there is a separate team, but it’s small relative to the size of the business. As such, we work very collaboratively with the other parts of the business. I’ve done very technical-led pieces where I’m working with electronics engineers and mechanical engineers, but also very insight-led work where we work with our research and insights team as well as our designers to look for creative opportunities. Part of what we do is to look at the different angles from which we should examine a challenge and make sure we’re bringing together the different aspects.
You mention that you’ve worked on very technical-led projects – what would be the justification for starting with the technology? Presumably it’s always got to come down to meeting the user needs rather than what’s possible technically?
I think it depends on the nature of the challenge as to where the user is in the process. Quite a lot of our projects are in the medical space where the challenges are being driven from a medical angle, because we’re trying to do something with a particular drug or a particular mechanism to achieve an end result. In that instance the user wouldn’t be the driver, you’d factor it in later in the process.
Other challenges exist where the way the product operates doesn’t include much user interaction, for example a piece of equipment. And so the user-interaction part, which is important for us to design for, is only a very small part of the total system of how it works. If you’re developing a new insulin pump, for example, there may be a particular challenge about how the pipe connects to the device, and that can be quite a technical challenge, whereas actually how someone wears it becomes a very user-centric challenge.
If everything at Kinneir Dufort is essentially innovation, are all projects led by the innovation team?
No, we tend to get involved where the brief is more ambiguous than a specific design or technology brief, where we need to be quite exploratory to understand and undercover new needs before we can come up with new solutions. The other reason we would get involved is where we need to get lots of different perspectives. A big part of what we do is fostering collaborative creativity, bringing different parties together including clients and their partners.
It’s interesting that you mentioned ambiguity. Do you think that’s one of the reasons why innovation as a discipline is on an upwards march – that clients realise that they can and should start from a much more ambiguous brief?
I think the growth of the space has allowed people to be aware that you can get help even when you don’t have a clearly defined challenge, or the challenge is clearly defined but you don’t have a clear route in terms of how you’re going to get to an answer. Clients are definitely more open to the fact that there are processes and people out there who can help navigate that ambiguity.
And is that where the process becomes uncomfortable, trying to find that route through?
There is a bit of discomfort about going into the unknown and challenging the status quo, because for most businesses the reason they’re successful is that they’ve created an efficient system, an efficient way of doing or thinking about things.
Innovation proposes challenges to that efficient system, for example a new product that no longer fits with their manufacturing processes. The march of technology is a classic example: many products are having technology added to them, but the business that makes those products may have never had a technology capability: kettle manufacturers have historically never made technology other than to make the water hot, and that’s what they’re good at. That’s an uncomfortable situation, they know that they should be thinking about it, but they also don’t know what to do about it, and they don’t have the in-house skill to respond to that challenge.
I suppose there can be a tendency to just bolt it on and not really think through the user experience or the quality, or whether people actually want their kettle to be Wi-Fi-enabled.
You do get some examples where there’s an available technology so people put it in, just to see if the market has an interest in it. They’re rarely a big success story but occasionally you do get some winners.
I’ve seen many briefs over the last five years which have wanted to use wearable technologies and now the internet of things which is a fascinating place to explore, but where there are some very serious questions that need asking. Interestingly, it’s been mostly pushed by the consumer space, but I’ve seen much better case studies in behind-the-scenes services and equipment, where you can make things more efficient. And it’s interesting for us because we work across both spectrums – lots of very consumer facing work, but also a lot of industrial clients where they are looking for efficiency in their processes.
Yes, I suspect that no one has found a good use for the internet enabled kettle as yet, but you can see how in manufacturing you could introduce quite a lot of efficiency by having self-reporting service requests, for example.
Yes – and it particularly supports the shift into service model innovation. If you’re supplying products, knowing how your product is performing in the field is incredibly valuable for you as a business. One of my favourite examples is about bins. A company developed a smart bin for public spaces that completely changed the way the way they were serviced. They had sensing technology which could tell you when they needed to be emptied, and that information was then fed into the route planning system for the maintenance team. So instead of a standard process where every bin was checked on a regular basis, you could now only empty them when they needed it, which leads to some interesting economies of scale. This is a great example of the first wave of value being generated.
I like that example because it’s a public sector initiative, so the privacy question is not a problem. Do you think that this kind of public space is where some of the more interesting things are going to carry on happening?
I think a lot of the early success stories have come in those sorts of areas, where the technology is being put into large scale applications, and can be deployed at a system level. Often it breaks down where it’s one person with one kettle, it becomes very limited to look at it from that perspective. The value often comes when you’ve got more things working together.
So the value of kettle data is when it can be correlated with demand and supply from the national grid, and therefore can you change people’s kettle use to mean that we’re optimising our energy production. It’s not really about you having a kettle and being able to turn it on with your phone.
No and let’s face it, a button is just as handy. You’ve mentioned collaboration several times, and it seems that innovation has the potential to join up lots of disciplines. Are you seeing more collaborations and partnerships forming across organisations as well as among disciplines?
Historically organisations have worked in isolation to build their power centres and their capabilities and knowledge, but increasingly there is a dependency on other parties and building those relationships, We recently ran a workshop with two businesses in the same sector who realised it would make more sense if they designed their non-competing products together, and now we’re trying to define a future vision for them.
To be continued… Look out for Part 2 Innovations Conversations on the Kinneir Dufort website.