Having independently resolved over one thousand disputes between companies and
consumers whilst working for the UK’s largest multi-sector alternative dispute resolution
(ADR) provider, Ombudsman Services, I am extremely proud to have been chosen as part of
the judging panel at the UK Complaint Handling Awards 2018.
I recently wrote here about how there is plenty of scope for all forms of ADR to innovate and
become more diverse, not least the traditional Ombuds practices. My first caveat here is that
I’m not an innovation expert; I’m at the start of my journey which will no doubt be a big
learning curve yet having immersed myself into a new world of innovation since that article,
I’ve quickly realised that all is not what it seems.
A key part of my early education has been to really understand the concept of innovation –
what it is, why it is important, how to put it into practice and, crucially, what it is not. I fear
that innovation has become one of those buzzwords that can often end up being used
sweepingly when more often than not, words like creativity, or ‘bright idea’ are a better fit.
Several of the entries I saw when judging at the UK Complaint Handling Awards fell into this
category where some excellent work in reducing complaints and improving customer
experiences was evidenced, and indeed the passion for delivering this was clear, but for me,
they fell short of being truly innovative.
Being creative or an ‘ideas’ person is a fabulous gift and one which I would encourage
companies to embrace to help continually improve processes and create efficiencies; but
being innovative is a different kettle of fish altogether. It isn’t all jazz hands and flamingo
shirts (my second caveat: I have been known to wear a flamingo print t-shirt).
So, what is innovation then? Innovation is a practice that runs much deeper. Here are what I
believe to be four of the critical elements required to be truly innovative, as opposed to
simply being creative.
First and foremost, it is strategic and therefore has to be linked to a companies’ strategic
direction, as well as having the full backing of senior management, otherwise the innovation
people will simply end up being an add-on to the existing strategy. Innovation will also
quickly become redundant without the ability to execute the transformation of existing ways
of working to realise new approaches.
Therefore, the types of activities that should be on the innovation programme ought to relate
to some big-ticket initiatives and perhaps the most relatable example is the business model –
how a company creates, configures and captures value. There is a debate to be had whether
the Uber business model is a new invention, but it certainly ticks the innovation boxes.
Third, innovation requires critical thinking that experiments with the tried and tested
assumptions that have served so well for so long; having the ability to consider alternative
(and often many) points of view and work them through, but equally maintaining an
unemotional approach so as not to become too attached to an innovation that may not be
Finally, as if to cement the difference between creativity and innovation, innovation requires
structure. Just like a strategy needs a plan and flamingos need shrimp (eating brine shrimp is
what makes then pink), innovation also needs to be underpinned by a framework to ensure
that initiatives are worked through in a considered, and structured way.
I could probably keep writing on this subject and, no doubt I will as I continue to learn my
trade in this area, indeed, there are plenty of articles and books out there that may agree or
disagree with my thoughts here. I’d welcome any comments or further discussion on any of
the points raised (don’t forget, I’m always open to another point of view).
Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge a person who has been the key
influence in my innovation journey so far, and hopefully will continue to be. Professor
Gordon Hewitt is not only a distinguished expert in the fields of global competition,
corporate strategy, innovation and executive leadership, but he is also one of the nicest people
I’ve met. Thank you for your counsel and wisdom Gordon.
Head of Innovation