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Innovation as a Culture

Nasri is Chief Executive Officer at Biopôle SA and main supporter of any life sciences initiative that can improve the well-being of patients. He firmly believes in the say “together we are stronger” and makes sure to encourage collaboration among the Biopôle community and beyond.

These days, may be besides COVID-19, you cannot read a business article, industry review or economic journal without bumping into the word ‘innovation’ or being commanded to ‘innovate’! But why? And what’s this innovation all about?

Entrepreneurs are often torn between two extremes: the ‘Not Invented Here’ (NIH) syndrome pushes them to fiercely reject any idea that does not originate from within their inner circles, while the ‘Me Too’ impulse pushes them to blindly replicate what works well elsewhere. Two natural though contradictory tendencies; one to differentiate, the other to follow; both extremes and without any guarantee of business success.

For those entrepreneurs willing to go beyond these two extremes, a ‘neither-nor’ position is often cultivated, alongside a burning need to be unique. However, uniqueness is no guarantee of usefulness, and shouldn’t usefulness be what businesses are all about?

Here is where innovation in its most authentic form comes to the rescue: innovation that is not an objective – an end in itself – but which instead can be considered as a process, a path, a general and inclusive mindset.

Innovation is probably best defined as the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. Two major pillars of innovation are clearly emphasised here: ideation/invention and a focus on the paying customer. So, in order to break away from the two extremes of NIH and ‘Me Too’, as well as uniqueness-seeking for its own sake, entrepreneurs should constantly embrace new ideas and inventions, not only in their core technologies, but also in processes, business development, HR etc., while simultaneously and continuously gauging how these new ideas answer real burning customer needs and enable a process that those customers not only appreciate, but value. This is what differentiates entrepreneurs from inventors, and it underlines their innovation mindset: a drive to add value for clients rather than fishing for awards. Ideas and innovations without a paying customer are only good for patent offices. It is the combination of inclusive ideation and a customer-seeking mindset that equips entrepreneurs to thrive.

Innovation is a process that has previously been misrepresented with romantic myths*. For example, it is a myth that innovation is a moment of epiphany: ideas do not fall from above like apples. Beyond the nice stories that we humans like to hear and recount, brilliant ideas are the fruit of relentless work, exchange and standing on the shoulders of giants.

It is a myth that good ideas are hard to find. They are not. But we are operating in a world that does not reward creative thinking. On the contrary, more often than not we applaud conformity, alignment and the repackaging of ideas, services and content. To profit from good ideas, it is best to have several at once – many – but we must not be afraid to test them, to check their validity, their ‘usefulness’, and to accept that we must ‘kill’ some of them. We must accept to fail often in order to succeed sooner.

It is a myth to think that the best ideas always win and that we should doggedly stick with and fight for our best innovation. Across industries and over time, there are countless examples of sub-ultimate solutions dominating the market. The fact is that inventions do not need to fit a model of perfection to become successful innovations. Rather, a sweet spot should be found between increasing the objective merit, ‘goodness’ of the invention (compared to other solutions) and increasing the ease of adoption as perceived by the general public: back to our paying customer who is not always a rational decision maker, as behavioural psychology has demonstrated!

Serendipity, however, is NOT an innovation myth. It is a reality. Unprogrammed encounters do happen; unexpected exchanges can be mind-opening; accidental ideation should be accounted for. But, as a very wise friend of mine once told me, ‘luck is a trait of character’: it is something to be provoked, called for and gently developed through an open, hardworking, constructive, never-resting mindset that ultimately allows for those innovative ‘Eureka moments’. In this respect, the right mindset, attitude and enablers are probably among the most important features that innovation ecosystems can offer to young entrepreneurs; Thus fostering exchange encounters, open-mindedness and, most importantly, a test-and-adapt (vs. plan-and-control) culture.

* Some of the ideas presented here were inspired by Scott Berkun's writings on innovation. To read further on the subject, I highly recommend The myths of innovation (2010).

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