A letter to Innovation Santa

john bessant
8 min readNov 27, 2022

Ten essentials for an innovator’s Christmas list…

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Christmas, as my 6 year old never tires of reminding me, is coming. Never mind that technically it’s a month away and forget the efforts I make, Scrooge-like, not to allow any trace of the season to cross our threshold until at least 1st December. She excitedly points out that everywhere — the TV and online adverts, the shop decorations, even some of our early bird neighbours with their flashing light displays — everywhere the signals are unmistakable. ‘It’s nearly here!’

Which prompts her to write lists, long and getting longer, of gift ideas in case Santa is short of the relevant information about this year’s must-have items without which a six-year old’s world can never be complete. I feel like King Canute, water lapping around my ankles as I desperately try to stem the tide, inevitability fast approaching on my horizon.

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In a desperate attempt to distract myself from these seasonal waves I began thinking about the kind of list I might put together for a would-be innovating organization. Assuming there was an innovation equivalent of the old gentleman at the North Pole what might he be working on with his elves right now? What are his stock-pickers pulling off the warehouse shelves and loading up on the sleigh? What might be on the must-have list for an innovation Christmas?

Turns out to be a useful exercise in choice editing. Just like my daughter, my early lists grew and grew like Topsy, sprawling over several pages. And containing lots of items in the ‘Motherhood and apple pie’ class — things which were unarguably ‘good’ for innovation but a bit vague in how they might actually be implemented. ‘Make innovation happen every day in every way’ or ‘Put innovation at the heart of everything you do’, or ‘Keep reinventing the organization’ kind of thing — nice sentiments but not exactly helpful.

Back to the drawing board, trying to focus on things which not only represent important elements but also have some specific tools to help put them into practice. So here’s the result. If you’re looking for inspiration for your seasonal innovation shopping here’s a few ideas that might help. (And if you believe in an Innovation Santa they might be useful items to add to the ‘what I’d really like’ list you’re about to send up the chimney)

Image: Canva

First the wrapping paper.

Innovation matters. If we don’t change what we offer the world (our products and services) and the ways we create and deliver them (our processes) then there’s a good chance that we won’t survive long in today’s turbulent market-place. The issue isn’t about whether or not to innovate but how?

The good news is that we’ve learned a lot about this challenge; whilst innovation still remains a risky business there are some key insights which can help stack the deck in our favour. Over a hundred years of research consistently shows that successful innovators ….

Manage innovation as a process. Innovation isn’t like the cartoon moment with a light bulb flashing on above someone’s head. It’s a journey, involving key steps (search, select, implement) to create value from ideas. Anyone might get lucky once but in order to repeat the innovation trick we need a process for managing this; it doesn’t have to be bureaucratic but it does have to be systematic. So to help you work with this one there are plenty of frameworks which you can adapt, checklists to make sure you’ve got a system for innovation — you could do a lot worse than start with the framework which the ISO launched this year for an Innovation Management Standard…

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Explore all the innovation space available. There are many different ways to innovate, from changing our offering, updating our processes , exploring new market contexts and even switching our underlying business model. It’s a little like an innovation compass and the challenge is to make sure we explore the full 360 degrees of opportunity. Once again there are plenty of tools to help with this — try looking at Doblin’s ten types of innovation, play with the 4Ps innovation compass or explore Blue Ocean thinking

Have an innovation strategy — a clear roadmap of where and how innovation will take the business forward. It’s easy to wave the flag and shout about how important innovation is; serious players think through their strategy for dealing with it, share the roadmap and make sure that people buy into it. And there are plenty of stocking fillers here to help with strategic positioning and analysis, from good old PEST and SWOT through to more thorough future scanning, scenarios and road mapping and discovery-driven planning.

Pay attention to the small stuff. Although radical changes are the ones which hit the headlines the underlying economic evidence is clear; most innovation, most of the time, is about doing what we do a little better. Incremental innovation of this kind adds up and has the additional advantage that it is much lower in risk, advancing slowly along well-known frontiers. This is where the lean toolkit becomes a must-have — whether it’s tools like fishbones and process maps for continuous improvement of processes or value analysis and product feature maps for our offerings

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Mobilize the mainstream. Many organizations have specialists who are given the responsibility for innovation — a bit like James Bond, they have the ‘licence to innovate’. But every human being comes fitted with the standard equipment to enable us to be creative, finding solutions to problems and coming up with new ideas. Smart innovators mobilize this creativity across the entire organization. And there’s a rich toolbox to help with this one, from simple variants on the humble suggestion scheme to powerful collaboration platforms to ensure voices get heard, ideas get shared and collective intelligence puts its weight behind the big strategic challenges facing the organization.

Make connections. Innovation has always been a multi-player game rather than a solo act and these days the talk is all about ‘open innovation’. Simply put, in a world rich in knowledge even the largest organization has to recognize that ‘not all the smart people work for us’. The game has shifted from one where knowledge creation and ownership is key to one where managing knowledge flow is the critical ingredient. The good news for smaller firms is that this levels the playing field; you don’t have to have all the resources for innovation as long as you know where they are and how to connect to them. By now some version of ‘open innovation’ should be at the heart of your strategy and there are plenty of tools and frameworks to help you work out what connections you need and how to build them. It might also be worth looking at your absorptive capacity — how well placed are you to take advantage of all the rich knowledge that’s out there, making sure you don’t get a kind of ‘knowledge indigestion’ as a result of gorging yourself on everything that’s on offer!

Photo by Uriel SC on Unsplash

Build an innovative organization. Companies like 3M and Google are famous for giving their staff time and space to explore and experiment, not just because they are generous employers trying to attract and retain talented employees. What they’re really doing is actively trying to recreate the entrepreneurial spirit which began their businesses. They believe that embedding that spirit in ‘the way we do things round here’ gives them a real long-term edge — everyone is an entrepreneur. But they also know that creating that kind of climate needs work — on the physical layout (to make sure people have the chance to creatively collide) on time (to allow ideas to emerge and incubate), on support and space (to provide fertile environments for creativity) and on their approach to ‘failure’ (not punishing people when things don’t work but encouraging an experimental learning approach). Maybe take a look at some of the tools available to help you assess how much of a creative climate you have — and focus on what you might usefully work on to develop it further.

Co-create with users. Learning from markets has always been important but customers aren’t passive, they can also be a rich source of ideas for innovation. Finding ways to tap into user innovation not only generates more diverse ideas, it also helps create a partnership with the marketplace which improves adoption of innovation. People will use things, work with processes, feel a sense of ‘ownership’ if they’ve been involved in the innovation process. And the good news here is that we have plenty of tools and frameworks to help — starting with design thinking and embracing approaches like lead user methods

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Accept failure — innovation is omelette territory and the odd broken egg is an important part. The key is to learn from failures and use the information to build and strengthen capability for the future. That’s been the big lesson coming out of the whole lean -start-up’ model for developing new ventures and it sits just as well inside established organizations who make use of agile approaches. Once again there are plenty of tools which capture this ‘build-measure-learn — pivot’ approach which builds on ‘intelligent failure’…

Build dynamic capability. Innovation involves a moving target — constant changes in technologies, markets, competition, regulation and a host of other variables. Successful innovators build on the above principles but they also keep checking and updating their innovation management capabilities, learning new tricks and discarding old ones which no longer work. Innovation model innovation. Having a commitment to structured and constructively critical reflection is a key to this ‘metacognition’ approach — and there are plenty of helpful frameworks to enable and support that process. Check out the Innovation Fitness Test as an example…

Image: Canva

One last seasonal thought. Innovation, like a puppy, is for life, not just for Christmas. It’s something we need to think about all year round. So it might be worth recycling your Christmas innovation list into something you could use as a set of New Year resolutions…..

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john bessant

Innovation teacher/coach/researcher and these days trying to write songs, sketches and explore other ways to tell stories