Innovation in a business: Is it getting harder or easier to innovate?

Innovation in a business should be built into everyday processes – but is it getting easier or harder to pull off successful innovation today?

Innovation should be a core business process, rather than waiting for that ‘eureka’ moment when an idea comes up. But how can innovation be achieved effectively?

Paul Knight, partner and innovation champion at Mills & Reeve says that one way of overcoming the challenges of innovation is to think internationally.

Focusing on a product or service with relevance beyond their current target market forces businesses to think more broadly, he says. ‘It doesn’t always have to be about creating an innovative new service or changing your production lines, but growing who you sell to and how.

‘Innovation is not just about the big bang disruption, which are few and far between. It should be a consistent process and a part of the everyday. Because even if you aren’t moving forward, your competitors are.’

Innovation is essential to business survival and it is important to get it right. Businesses should embrace the tools they have available, including technology, in order to innovate.

In the legal sector for instance, Mills & Reeve is investigating how to use AI and automation to enable people to focus their attention on more strategic work, and to help with critical workplace issues, such as maintaining a work-life balance and addressing the gender pay gap.

Five ways growing businesses can keep pace with disruptive innovation

  • Ask for feedback often, from clients and your workforce. Use this information to look at your products and processes in new ways, as well as re-evaluating your business model.
  • Keep your customers happy. Be sensitive to the pain everyone is feeling in an uncertain time. Hiking prices may solve your cost issues but is unlikely to be the best option to keep customers happy.
  • Disruptive innovation is difficult. It places longer term innovation in tension with shorter term financial performance so it needs strong and talented leadership at all levels to manage this pressure.
  • Take care of your people and enable them to innovate. Break down silos, collaborate more and create a climate that encourages and rewards innovation – both big and small.
  • Get financial and business advice at each stage of your lifecycle. Take action at the right times to make the most of opportunities, and make sure you don’t miss your moment.

Is it getting harder or easier to innovate in a scale-up? Here, three business owners give their views.

Daniel Ball, business development director at Wax Digital

Digital transformation, driven by a conveyor belt of new technology has, without a doubt, made it easier for businesses to be innovative. You only need to consider cases like video rental giants Blockbuster – which famously declined the opportunity to buy Netflix – finding themselves usurped by the sprightly start-up several years later.

Innovation will only increase in frequency as technology continues to improve. For instance, communications technology was improved with the introduction of email. Then came text messaging, instant messaging, video messaging and social media.

“Make sure you have an agile, non-corporate structure that fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation”

As long as there are problems to solve, businesses will always seek to innovate. I’d expect the pace of innovation to increase too, as more and more technology becomes available.

But while it is easier to innovate, it is far more difficult to stay ahead. Facebook, an organisation that’s been around for about 13 years, is facing serious challenges.

Users are disenfranchised in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as well-documented mental health issues excessive social media consumption exacerbates. Facebook users are closing accounts in their droves and flocking to alternative sites such as Vero.

So, what can organisations do to fend off these threats? One thing, is to have an agile, non-corporate structure that fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. Apple is one such example, who under Steve Job’s leadership, launched game-changing lifestyle devices such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Extensive cash reserves also help, because in the instance of Facebook, they are quite literally, buying their competition – with WhatsApp and Instagram now part of their portfolio.

One thing that is certain is that innovation will only increase as we increasingly gain access to more technology. The pertinent question that aspiring and established businesses must ask themselves is whether they want to continue to be a trend-setter? Or are they content with becoming irrelevant?

Gianluca Bisceglie, Founder and CEO of SaaS platform Visyond

From the perspective of a large company that wants to innovate, it could be difficult to find available niches. That is why we see acquisitions by big companies that want to enter new spaces. Competitiveness is not simply being in a space where your historical competitors are not, it’s about being ahead of new competition too. That means that teams must waste less time on non-critical activities and focus on the value-added ones.

Every senior leader will tell you that people are their greatest asset and innovation is the top priority on their agenda, but most of them fall in the inertia trap. It’s not a lack of tools, consultants, or solutions, but a thinking trap where urgency and firefighting take priority over innovation. A manager’s performance tends to be evaluated on a very short cycle compared to the times usually necessary to observe the benefits of changes like digital transformation.

“If leaders want their company to be and stay ahead, large budgets, great tools and top consultants are not enough”

You can be competitive in your existing space by using technological developments such as automation to boost productivity. With the rise of cloud software (Software as a Service), in the last few years many tools and platforms have been built to improve productivity across company functions, such as HR and accounting, as well as workflow, including analysis, decision making and collaboration.

Many employees, especially in large companies, waste time on long, error-prone manual routine activities that make them feel indispensable (eg ‘I am the CRM guru’, or ‘I am the Excel guru’), rather than thinking like entrepreneurs or shareholders, supporting senior management and sharing with them the risks and rewards in adopting new technologies and methodologies. This is where we get into the incentive alignment debate.

If leaders want their company to be and stay ahead, large budgets, great tools and top consultants are not enough. The critical success factor to win is the ability by senior management to portray a clear vision of how change and innovation will benefit every stakeholder in order to receive their genuine support.

Beverley Gough, managing director of Repertoire Fashion

In the retail industry there is not a lot of scope for innovation at a bricks and mortar level. We’re seeing an increase in the introduction of in-store indulgences champagne, nail and even Botox bars as a way of enticing new customers but we’re yet to hear how beneficial this is financially for businesses.

The new owner of House of Fraser has cited ‘Personal Shopping’ as if an innovative technique they hope will change their business but this is far from innovative. Personal shopping expertise has always existed and is a given in smaller, specialist, independent businesses like ourselves.

“The rise of the e-commerce industry goes to show how innovation is going from strength to strength”

With extortionate rates, businesses with physical stores are less likely to take on the financial risks of new in-store tactics which may or may not prove fruitful.

However, innovation is much easier when selling online, as it opens up a wealth of techniques which can quickly and relatively cheaply, be used to reach and attract both new and existing customers.

We can trial new site navigations, special offers and email marketing to attract a broader range of consumers including international ones, keeping them on our site longer, with the aim of more conversions.

The rise of the e-commerce industry goes to show how innovation is going from strength to strength, especially for those retailers who already have a strong online presence. They have the tools necessary to be creative in their interaction with consumers and can readily expand the ways in which they reach them.

Amazon is a great example of this. Using something as simple as ‘Prime’, which offers customers faster shipping and streaming of films and television, Amazon now collaborates with filmmakers to create their own content which they can offer exclusively to their customer base.

Ben Lobel

Ella Swaniawski

Ben Lobel was the editor of and from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.