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‘Think big, act small’ — how to innovate at speed

Catherine Elliott8 April 2019

Last week the Octopus Wealth team had the pleasure of hosting ‘Think big, act small’ alongside Instant Impact, the early careers recruitment specialists.

The evening’s discussion was all about innovation – in particular how, when it comes to thinking big, larger companies can learn a thing of two from their smaller, start-up cousins.

Gathering many business owners, C-level executives and other senior decision-makers from across London, the audience came armed with questions for speakers Sam Handfield-Jones, the Octopus Director of Innovation, and Sadiq Damani, the CEO of Theodo UK. Sam took to the floor first to delve straight into the key question of the evening: how do you innovate at speed? And how have Octopus done it?

Sam’s background within Octopus spans many of the company’s different ventures. He started out in Octopus Investments, later moving to Octopus Labs where he oversaw the development of two key products, Octopus Choice and Octopus Cash. He’s also been a part of a few projects that haven’t taken off either, which he says is no bad thing. “Losing the fear of failure is a crucial part of succeeding in the future.”

The first step to innovating at speed? Getting started. “Analysis paralysis”, as he described it, can often leave people stuck at the starting line — too hung up on metrics to take the leap of faith needed to just get things going. Momentum can’t be understated in the digital world.

Governance at speed

Innovating quickly’s one thing. But how do make sure the disruptive path you’re forging doesn’t go too far off track? Though perhaps not the sexiest part of the innovation puzzle, governance is an often overlooked tightrope walk that, done wrong, can either stifle or derail a young venture.

Sam argued that moving away from the “command and control” culture is essential to allow innovation to flourish, especially where tech is involved. Because for company leaders, trying to control every working part of your business ultimately slows things down.

With regular sprint planning and retrospectives, it’s easier to see where decision makers need to jump in — you can still keep an eye on what’s going on without causing momentum to dwindle.

And this, Sam affirmed, ties in to your hiring process. “Sustaining a culture of innovation in your business means hiring people that are comfortable in a somewhat ‘unstructured’ environment, and giving them the freedom they need to do what they do best.”

Cutting corners when it comes to who you hire means you’ll be caught in the trap of trying to oversee and control every decision taken in your business — the ultimate stumbling block to innovation.

Modern skills for a modern workforce

In the fast-paced digital world of today, modern skills can’t be overlooked, either. Data and technology are vital drivers in every element of your business. From back office to client facing roles, it’s important your employees are equipped with the skills to use technology as your greatest innovation vehicle.

“We want to make sure our workforce have a digitally-led skillset to match the digitally-led innovation of our business”, Sam commented.

Defining agility

Sadiq Damini took to the stage next to share his thoughts. He referenced two particular companies that have successfully innovated at speed — including Veygo by Admiral insurance who, quite literally, had a race to the car-sharing insurance market against competitors Drivy.

Sadiq’s starting point was agility. Or, in particular, how to define it. When buzzwords are being loosely thrown around at every turn, Sadiq posed the question “What does it mean to be agile?”

If agility and speed are the keys to innovation, as we’ve been told, what does this translate to in the workplace? And the answer, he reckons, isn’t just daily stand-ups.

“Defining agility is so important when it comes to what it is you’re driving towards through your innovation. They’re inherently intertwined.”

Agility for the sake of agility doesn’t mean much when it comes to creating innovation culture.

Sadiq closed with an analogy about the importance of testing your innovation hypothesis as soon as possible — preferably for free.

Sadiq Damani, CEO Theodo UK, mid-speech at the ‘Think big, act small’ event about innovating in big businesses. He took the example of making a ring. Most rings have two components – the metal and the stone. Most corporates, he says, will typically think ‘let’s get the stone onto the ring to see what it looks like.’

Clever innovators, on the other hand, will first hypothesise about what the stone might look like on the metal – and avoid jumping the gun and making an expensive end product that might not turn out as you’d hope.

In the same way, testing your ideas — testing them again — is a crucial step in successful innovation.

After some thought-provoking discussion from audience members (including whether or not control freaks are a help or a hindrance to innovation) the evening came to a close over some drinks and a chance to network.

We were delighted to be a part of such a great evening and hope that everyone who attended had some key takeaways to bring back to the office. We certainly did.

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