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  • Danny

The riddle of innovation

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

It drives me nuts when people say things like "we want something innovative", "we need an innovative solution" or "we need to innovate our way out of this problem", although I love the intention behind these statements and it is 100% the intention I want my customer to have.

However, the word innovation isn't actually the problem, the real issue is its misuse/understanding and overvalue of the word, along with the timing of using such a word... let me explain

The I word

What I find, especially in my field of culture, learning, and employee experience is that often what’s needed first is evolution and a lot of people don't like hearing this because it’s not sexy or shiny but we need to remember we aren’t magpies

Usually, when in the scoping phase of a project I tend to try to remove the word innovation from our vocab as fast as possible, you see innovation is nuanced and doesn't get us on the same page. What innovation means to you could be completely different to me, Sue, Bob in HR or Arif in Finance.

A simple tool I use to open up the conversation is the appetite checker, this puts a simple spectrum in front of the customer followed by some simple questions. When they say innovation, what do they mean? Is what you want evolution or revolution? After questions I will tend to follow up with my take on innovation/revolution and how it looks, I will then ask their appetite for that and what the resources and budgets are like

At this point, the customer will often say revolution, who wants mincemeat when steak is on the menu right? However, this allows me to then move the conversation from this many shades of grey word called innovation to a much clearer and richer conversation around evolution vs revolution conversation. It’s in this conversation that we can start to talk about the maturity of the organisation as well the complexity of starting something truly revolutionary.

It’s important to note that I tend to do two versions of this conversation, one right at the start of our relationship before any sense-making is done and then once after sense-making. This allows me to identify the voice of the employee and help highlight any uncovered challenges.

The last thing you want to do find yourself looking at is a big revolutionary idea, when the data and insight start to show you people are craving some basics or actually just want to see an iteration on something that is already working.

Now before somebody quotes this to me:

Please don't misinterpret what I am saying here, innovation is an important and often a good word to use especially when working on breakthrough/disruptive ideas, innovation is often found when working in whitespace opportunities

White Space is where unmet needs are uncovered to create new innovation opportunities

It can also be used when you specifically know the challenge, for example, creating a future EVP for distributed teams or creating a leaving experience that attracts new talent. However, before we get here we have to acknowledge that most innovation is built on a solid foundation of evolution ideas, take Uber for an example:

There is a lot to be said about why Uber was innovative, it could be the breaking of a ring-fenced model that taxi companies had on local areas, it could be the supply, demand and digitalisation through an app, or the design of a better end to end experience in most cases.

However, these ideas were built on a basic foundation the taxi model, something that has evolved since 1605 by Hackney Coach Service.


Therefore, what does Uber have to do with designing and creating an evolutionary or revolutionary employee experience? Well, as we can see Uber is a fantastic example of evolution before revolution, it’s built on a solid foundation but if you strip it back it’s a good example of the Pareto principle aka 80/20 which I am a huge fan of.

Here is an oversimplified example, in your phone, you have a lot of contacts, of those contacts 20% you will contact 80% of the time, maybe these are close family and friends, the rest not so much. The principle says to concentrate on the 20% that brings in the 80% impact and if we were to apply this to Uber, the 20% is the taxi at its basic level

We can apply this logic to the employee experience or any element within that, we should look at the insight from sense-making and where possible identify the 20% and ask the simple questions: do these areas need to evolve? Where is the opportunity areas for revolution? Is revolution even needed?

It all goes back to the point at the start, what is evolution and revolution in the context of the customer, sometime it is getting the basics set up.

Lipstick on a pig

It is so enticing to go revolution first, it is fun, exciting, creative you get to think speculatively and connect random ideas - but sometimes it can be seen as putting lipstick on a pig, especially if it doesn't match what has come out of the sense-making.

Let’s pretend your people want flexible working, given where we are in 2022 this feels like a good example to use (20% evolution) and instead you ignore this without explanation and offer everybody a company car (your revolutionary ideas). The chances are your great idea will fail, not because it won’t be successful, I am sure it will and you would have many sign up. It will fail because you’re not giving your people the experience they expect (which links innovation into experience design but that’s for another day).

Let me use the analogy of bonfire night, to sum up:

1. What your people want is the experience of people getting together, wrapped up, semi-drunk, laughing and joking with friends around a fire, maybe a few sparklers and fireworks (flexible working - this is the evolution)

2. Then someone brings out a bad rocket, they light the fuse, it shoots up in the air and lets off a loud bang and some bright lights, people cheer and clap

(company cars - revolution idea)

3. Your people then turn back to the fire and continue joking and chatting

(probably about flexible working at this point)


  • Innovation is a nuanced word, find context to what it means to the customer

  • Innovation is important, it has a place in culture & employee experience, just timing

  • Use sense-making to validate what’s needed, is it evolution or revolution

  • Often evolution will bring more impact than revolution

  • Revolution can often feel like a big bang firework on bonfire night

  • Innovation can be applied to specifics once identified

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