Four steps to drive innovation in large companies

Four steps to drive innovation in large companies

At edding we’ve learned that there are essential components you need in place to turn bright ideas into market disruptors. Here, are my four top tips on how to power your company’s innovation.
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In 2018 we launched edding Tech, the edding Group’s new technology arm.

I describe edding Tech as an ‘arm’ because it defies easy definition. It is neither a division of the edding Group nor a start-up. It’s something in between. edding Tech has been set up to have the agility, energy and entrepreneurial spirit of a start-up; but to also have the assets, infrastructure and market access you get as part of a long-established multinational with a global brand.

Over the decades, edding has branched out beyond our core business in markers by launching disruptive solutions in other markets. Many of those experiences have been positive. Others, less so. We have learned a lot of lessons along the way. Lessons that shaped the creation of edding Tech. Lessons I have shared here.

Don’t get comfy

In 2014 we spoke to CEOs across our industry about what they thought the future looked like for the market. Most predicted it would be struggling by 2020, with 25% wiped off the market value due to price pressure and digitalisation. Still, year after year, edding has achieved constant growth at record levels. Why is that?

Well, first of all, the interviewees’ fatalism didn’t (as yet) materialise, at least not at the levels predicted.

Still, at edding, we grew well above the market average.

I believe one of the key reasons is that we haven’t allowed ourselves to get complacent. After the recession at the turn of the century, we spent years steadily building the business back up. But in 2007, we realised it wasn’t enough to carefully protect what we already had. At edding we think in generations. We knew we needed to keep pushing into new markets by reinvigorating our approach to innovation.

I think that’s why start-ups are so successful at innovation generation. They are under pressure to keep moving forward. They have no core business to protect. Their existence depends upon disrupting markets with ground-breaking ideas.

Just look to ground-breaking disruption in political history. Revolutions have rarely ever come from the satisfied. The same goes for business history which is littered with high-profile examples of industry leaders who failed to keep moving forward. You need to adopt the urgent mindset of a start-up and not the complacency of a well-established incumbent.

Pursue innovation with intent

To be a disruptor, you need to go after innovation opportunities with intent. Our dedicated Corporate Innovation Management team has introduced a structured process for identifying and developing disruptive solutions. edding Tech’s first two products – edding compact printers and edding code – both came out of contacts with innovative tech companies that our team made at trade fairs.

But, it’s not just about innovation for innovations’ sake. Only develop those ideas where you can clearly see how your brand and your solutions bring real value to the user. Be honest with yourself when answering: do we really make a difference?

Then, if you believe in it, show persistence. Be aware of the project bias but above all be ready to go into it for the long haul. Within our Legamaster business, we launched the first interactive devices, eBeam, in 2000. It took almost a decade for the underlying market to develop and a couple of next generation products to lead to interactive whiteboards and eScreen. Today, these are one of our largest and fastest Legamaster solution segments. If we hadn’t stuck with it through the early learning years, we would have lost track on the interactive market completely.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

A common mistake people fall into; myself included, is spending so much time immersed in something you just assume everyone else is on the same page as you. For example, communicating your strategy for driving innovation. The strategy has been agreed. You have presented it to everyone in the company. But that’s when the hard work of communication really begins. My favourite quote in this regard: “If it is starting to come out of your ears, then you have achieved 2% of the necessary communication”.

I’ve learned that just because I’m excited about the creation of edding Tech, for example, not everyone is going to be. Others may be sceptical about the direction you are taking. Or, frustrated that they’re hearing about all this exciting stuff happening elsewhere in the Group while they feel stuck with the seemingly less exciting day-to-day running of the main organisation (which, by the way, is paying for all our new endeavours).

It’s not enough to communicate your strategy once. Go out around the organisation again and again to keep sharing your message and responding to people’s views.That’s how you ensure everyone truly understands the strategy and why you believe it’s the right way forward. And, even more importantly; people feel valued for their role in continuing to protect and build the core business.

Form a rock band, not an orchestra

One of our biggest strengths customers feedback to us on is that they regard edding as a highly professional, reliable company to deal with. We have well-established processes and ink expertise developed over 60 years. I often liken edding to an orchestra. Each section of the large orchestra knows exactly what they are doing, and they play together in (almost) perfect harmony.

But extraordinary ways are seldom found following best practice paths. And to conquer new markets with disruptive solutions, you need disruptive people. You need a rock band.Your core business will flourish with highly experienced experts who can play every rehearsed note in front of them. But to innovate, you need people who love to jam; to try something out and see where it leads. And sometimes even break a guitar.

To really drive innovation, hand it over to a small, nimble rock band. And recruit band members who thrive on the challenge of creating something new.

However, be aware that having an orchestra and a rockband under one roof is a challenge in itself. The silence needed for concentration does not go along well with the noise of a jam session. Also, the different discipline demands can lead to envy and misunderstandings. Leading such an ambidextrous setup is a leadership challenge that deserves a reflection in a dedicated article.

Now, partner up

While we have found that these four steps have changed the way we innovate at edding, there is one more thing we’ve learned powers our innovation – external collaboration. However, there are pitfalls to avoid. In my next article I will look at innovation through collaboration; and share ways in which you can make sure two heads really are better than one.

Author: Per Ledermann, CEO at edding

A version of this article appeared on LinkedIn. Click to see.