Innovation requires practical, workable insights — the kind that gives you a fresh understanding of customers and categories and markets. How can companies develop them? And how do you not sabotage your own efforts to innovate?

1.What’s your process?

How do you generate insights? Exceptional creativity is one way. Or it could be the result of methodically zeroing in on valuable problems to solve. Nearly every successful innovation occurs at the intersection of three elements — distilling the problem to its essence, refining insights that enable a solution, and building these solutions into the business. Organisations that have a process to actively identify and work with existing consumer, product or channel issues before jumping to innovation, stand the highest probability of success.

WeChat appears to do a bit of both — “grand design” top-down thinking as epitomised by chief architect Allen Zhang who has a personal vision for the app, as well as more incremental thinking through iteration to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Many organisations favour a scattergun approach, trying out a range of different prototypes to see what sticks. But this could just mean work that doesn’t lead anywhere. WeChat, on the other hand, is incredibly user orientated even in the early stages.

WeChat Minishop facilitated U$ 250 billion in ecommerce transactions in 2020

“We talk about what we are actually going to produce, who the target user is, what the functionality is…and only after thoroughly discussing everything would we ask the team to start developing.  The key is being able to zero in on the gist of the problem, for example, demands for sending pictures, or changing the way group chat is done, or including different things in the friend circle.” 

— Wawa Ye, WeChat Pay

A repeatable process can be a lighthouse for what to do next, and a catalyst for creating new value for customers.“Strategy is a pretty far-removed concept,” says WeChat executive Lake Zeng. “Our attention is focused on the problems users encounter. We use all the necessary and most reasonable methods to satisfy their demands. I have always believed that everything we do revolves around this.”

Takeaway 1 — Focus on the sweet spot: the intersection of what the customer is struggling with, and the knowledge or new technologies that could resolve the issue. There’s always value to be generated here.

2. Where are your partnerships?

Productive collaborations go much further than idea and insight-generation. They can mean guiding active product development through users, suppliers and partners. Decathlon makes this process of collaboration seamless via their co-creation platforms. Their Aptonia brand, for instance, is currently validating new fruit jellies with long distance endurance athletes. Decathlon Kipsta is working on a new design for football gloves. And volunteers are more than happy to self-test products with little or no compensation. Creating over 2,800 new products per year on average, takes many, many ideas.

Decathlon Kipsta’s football boot was a breakthrough innovation with a patented manufacturing process that assembled several knitted textile layers using thermo compression: bonding a TPU polyester sock to the sole with heat to fuse the two pieces together. Developed in response to the need for strong and long-lasting footwear for 11-a-side games, the ultra-durable boot was co-created by stakeholders (suppliers, partners and sports users) in just 18 months from start to finish.

Decathlon Kipsta’s Incredible Boot, co-created in 18 months from start to finish

“Innovation is a collaborative process. Most often, it takes many minds, many passionate people working together to come up with an idea and produce a great project.”

— Fabien Brosse, Nature Hiking Leader and Decathlon Co-Creation Leader

These collaborations have yielded functional products that consumers are already eager to buy, as well as those geared towards customers of the future — from compressible rubbish bins, and solar showers to transportable zero-waste toilets. Product owners at Decathlon typically spend half of their time with users to understand their problems and the other half with the development team to solve them.

Takeaway 2 — Engage customers, ecosystem partners, external experts… even competitors… to design a mutually rewarding experience.

3. How do you embed and scale?

Organisations often spend a lot of time worrying about the ‘front end’ of innovation – how to create profitable new products and channels. They spend less time thinking about what happens when the initial efforts succeed. What happens post launch? Will the concept scale? Will it find universal appeal?

Seven out eight corporate innovations fail to scale. They fail to move beyond the charm of a pretty prototype. The challenges are unique — sometimes, especially with large organisations there’s a tendency to wait to make decisions.
Tesla’s strategy, for instance, walks the tightrope between headline-grabbing moves like launching the Cybertruck or the Roadster 2.0 (which Musk claims will accelerate faster than any production car with SpaceX-inspired ‘rocket thrusters’) and the compelling bets it is making on its core vehicles, the models S, X, 3, and Y. These efforts are focused towards different, but complementary outcomes — winning the resources to commercialise vs. actually commercialising the idea. Often it takes a bit of both, so innovators can win the resources and support they need to execute on their vision. 

By investing in batteries, producing them more cost-efficiently, Tesla is betting that they will control an industry bottleneck, and thus the profit center for the future of the industry. By inspiring curiosity, Musk is building innovation capital for his next big move.

Takeaway 3 — Consider the ecosystem, the entire set of complements needed for innovation to succeed, and resolve the systemic limitations that slow the adoption of a technology.

The Innovator’s Playbook: Generating insights, partnerships and scale for innovation

Innovation leaders find ways to embed innovation into the DNA of their culture, from employees to product development to the supply chain. In doing this, knowing where to focus time and resources is key. Data, technology and ideas are everywhere, value however, is not.

What are the innovation leaders doing differently?

  1. Open Process: Innovation leaders blur boundaries to create new spaces, breaking down distinctions between customer, product and maker to zero in on actionable insights.
  2. Partnerships and Trialling: They seek out ideas and collaborations and spaces where they can test their theories, before committing more fully.
  3. Scalability: They refine their ideas for the real world, and prepare their employees and the industry for change, delivering on both the front- and back end of innovation, winning the support they need to maximise the likelihood of success.