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Be disruptive: The secrets to big business innovation laid bare

Steve Jobs once said that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Whilst that’s certainly still true, a more accurate interpretation for 2016 might be that innovation distinguishes between the companies capable of surviving the next few years the ones that aren’t. The reason for that is simple: with technology inventing fields and sectors at a rate of knots, it’s never been more important to adapt and innovate. But can MNCs, with their huge sizes and operational scale, learn to innovate like nimble start-ups?

At Vodafone we firmly believe it’s possible. Firstly because we foster an in-house spirit of innovation ourselves, and secondly because our solutions allow countless companies – ones that rely on us every day – to do the very same. And that ethos – of pushing innovation even in big businesses – is the core concept of our new Breaking Boundaries report, an insight-packed paper that acts as an indispensable guide to the future of MNCs everywhere.

To find out more about the report, and to learn why innovation is so crucial to your future success, we’ve been speaking to Vodafone’s business insights expert Sophie Lovett…

Fostering innovation

“I’m responsible for insights here at Vodafone Global Enterprise,” says Sophie, “but what we mean by ‘insights’ in this instance is really understanding the market that we operate in. What are the key market trends? What are our competitors are up to? And, most importantly, what are our customers’ main priorities and challenges?”

To help with that mission, Vodafone Global Enterprise itself runs an annual executive-level event called the Customer Advisory Board. “The purpose is to bring together senior decision makers from some of our biggest customers along with our senior leadership team,” Sophie explains, “to talk about topics that are impacting global businesses. It’s about business leaders coming together to debate the trends will impact all of us.”

This year the Customer Adisory Board summit was held the European Space Agency’s Innovation Centre, and our core learnings from the day have all been neatly distilled into Vodafone Global Enterprise’s 2016 Breaking Boundaries report. Among the report’s many esteemed contributors are former White House economic advisor Pippa Malgrem; former managing editor of Wired Magazine David Baker; Future Of Work’s Emma Birchall; and writer, philosopher and Founder of The School of Life, Alain de Botton. And all of these thought leaders agree on two things:

  1. Accepting the status quo is poisonous to your business.
  2. If you don’t innovate, someone else will.

But how do you go about doing just that?

Old dogs, new tricks

Ok, so you probably already know that innovating is crucial. But if there’s one big challenge the summit highlighted and the report hones in on, it’s that MNCs find actioning that change – instigating a more freewheeling, failure-tolerating atmosphere – incredibly tough. Sophie explains:

“What was discussed on the day, and what I hear a lot from our customers, is that they really understand the benefits of trying to innovate, and of moving out of their traditional ways of operating, but the problem is that they feel like they don’t have the space to do that. They’re stuck on operational tasks that stop them from being more creative.”

Sound familiar? Your business is far from alone in this regard. But the good news is that there are always ways to combat the problem.

“Vodafone can help,” says Sophie. “What we want to do with our total comms portfolio is take the headache away from those operational tasks – to make sure that our customers have reliable communications services in place – so that they do have the time to invest in making sure they have the right people, the right employment models and the right headspace to innovate.”

But beyond that we’re also able to guide people through the appropriate steps – we’re able to lead by example:

“Working in Vodafone, I think it’s easy to take our deep understanding of communications for granted because it’s what we do on a daily basis.”

To prove our credentials, let’s take a quick look at a successful Vodafone ‘skunkworks’ project highlighted in the report…

Leading by example

At more than 30 years old and with thousands of employees worldwide, Vodafone is an archetypal MNC itself. So how do we innovate? Having our own dedicated innovation teams is a crucial part of the puzzle, but beyond that there’s an ethos of confidence stemming from Vodafone’s leadership team.

A great example of the result this can generate is a project called M-Pesa. As the Breaking Boundaries report explains, “M-Pesa is a new digital innovation that uses SMS technology to enable financial transactions. And it found a very large potential market: the two billion people in the world who had no access to financial services but 70 per cent of whom had access to mobile connectivity and a phone.

“Launched, very experimentally, in 2007 in a small town just north of Nairobi, M-Pesa now has almost 25 million customers and, in the first six months of 2015, processed over 2 billion transactions in real time – annualised, the equivalent of PayPal. Its success has led to Vodafone being ranked by Fortune magazine ahead of Google in its list of companies most likely to change the world.”

But M-Pesa’s success grew out of an unlikely seed – it was a small skunkworks project that far outgrew its expectations. So how was it allowed to thrive? Well, we believe there are three important factors to helping innovative projects blossom from within big businesses:

  1. The willingness to allow small-scale risk-taking
  2. An ability to pivot and modify the product based on emergent customer behaviour
  3. Strong backing from leadership, willing to give new ventures the support they need to grow

Or, as Sophie puts it, “the key to innovation is recognising that you need to give people the time and opportunity to take risk, and that it’s ok to fail.”

But there’s a real knack to that, which is something we’ll be diving into soon on here on Can’t wait until then? You can learn all about it – as well as how those three pillars of innovation work in practice – by downloading the full Breaking Boundaries report below.

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