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M&S Tanith Dodge: 10 tips on how to innovate

Businesses need to constantly evolve to survive in challenging market conditions. Here, Marks & Spencer director of HR Tanith Dodge shares her top tips for innovating in business.

Innovation is central to driving business growth and responding to consumers' changing needs and demands. With habits and behaviours shifting, innovation is more important than ever, so it’s crucial to make the most of your talent and create an environment where innovation is encouraged.

Organisations facing challenges in generating innovative and creative ideas can apply some simple techniques:

1. Radical thinking. Give teams the freedom to think creatively, without the restraints of budget, time and resource. The best ideas often begin with an off the wall idea that is clearly not achievable, but can be moulded and adapted to become a viable option.

Encourage staff to make suggestions, big or small, around key challenges your business is facing. You can then work with them to mould these ideas into a tangible entity.  

At M&S, we have launched the BIG Idea scheme, which is an employee initiative that supports colleagues by giving them the opportunity to put forward ideas to the business leaders and improve the way we do things. Each quarter we have a ‘BIG Question’ – employees are invited to come forward with their ideas and our business leaders pick winning entries, which are then put into practice.

2. Change your environment. Great ideas are not generated in a boardroom. People seek inspiration in a host of environments, and to take a new creative direction a new environment is needed. Whether it’s a walk in a park or doing a recce of your competition – it’s important to take ideas generation out of the usual workplace and hold brainstorms in a more relaxed environment where people can move away from the day-to-day routine. This is why we have opened a new creative space in the heart of Shoreditch at the British School of Fashion – a vibrant new location for our design teams to develop innovative ideas and draw inspiration for new capsule collections like our Best of British range. 

3. Know your market. It’s a cliché, but knowledge is indeed power in business. It’s only by keeping abreast of what the competition are doing, what the media are saying and how consumer habits are adapting that you can anticipate your future challenges and work on solutions.

An in-depth understanding of your sector will help you sift the good ideas from the bad and be the first to market with your innovations. Take inspiration from other companies in different sectors – how have they separated themselves from the crowd? What can you learn from them?

Innovation is all about exploiting an observed gap in the market so think outside the box and look at how you can fulfil that gap. Focus on your customer’s needs. What are they demanding from the market place and how can you meet and exceed their expectations?

4. Have a clear vision. Having clear objectives for the business and communicating these to staff is imperative. It helps people to understand what to aim for and where new ideas are needed. Hold focus groups with teams to delve into individual development areas and ensure a clear strategy and vision is filtered down to all levels.

5. Interrogate. When you have new creative ideas, analyse them closely. Ask questions such as what will be needed to make this work? How much time and budget is required? Is this realistic? What is the outcome? Is it low or high risk? What does it tell the outside world about your brand? Does this meet my business need or objective?

Also look at what you are already doing within your business. Can you build on an idea to better it?

6. Create a culture. Innovation is the result of interactions between people so create a culture that promotes and encourages innovation. Look beyond immediate teams and create a social network of experts to facilitate the exchange of ideas. Is there someone in finance who could provide a different perspective to a product issue?

Include a range of people in brainstorms to ensure you have a variety of skills and people that are removed from the immediate issue. If you don’t have the right skillsets for the job, then invest in development for the team or seek new resource.

7. Never underestimate research. Ideas must be vetted and investigated. A commercially viable idea needs to be presented to key stakeholders so the proposal needs to be resilient and well thought out.

Consumer insight and needs drive innovation so market research is a central part of the process. It may also be prudent in some circumstances to trial an idea before committing to it in the long term. If you can demonstrate that your idea meets the demands of the consumer, and also fills a gap in the market, it's a strong one. 

8. Form a plan. If you decide to implement a new idea, you need a thorough plan to avoid obstacles. The plan should outline how much resource is needed, when, aims, implementation, costs, projected outcomes and contingency.

It will need buy in from senior leaders and must convey what the benefit is to the bottom line. Be forward-looking and ensure that your idea is future-proof. Look at ways that you can constantly improve your idea so that it is future fit.

9. Be tenacious and patient. Innovations don’t happen overnight so you need to be tenacious. According to Simon Colbeck, head of innovation at M&S, you need at least 50 ideas to get 10 potential projects, of which only two will be successful, so don’t be disheartened if your initial ideas aren’t a success.

Be prepared to go back to the drawing board and work on variations of your ideas to get them off the ground. It’s also important to remember that not all consumers buy into a new innovation straight away, so be patient.

Although there is a lot to be said for taking the initiative, time and manpower to get bigger ideas off the ground, it is important to keep taking stock. If you are constantly hitting obstacles, having to go back to the drawing board, change your plan and have weak justifications for why you are doing it, then it probably isn’t worth the time, energy and manpower you are putting into it.

10. Secrecy. The most vital part to commercial innovation is that your business is the first, or the leader in the market. This can only happen if confidentiality is maintained. Ensure your staff have confidentiality clauses in their contracts, ask external parties to sign a non-disclosure agreement, have a timeframe in mind for launch and try to stick to it.

If it’s something particularly unique, you may be able to patent the idea before coming to market, but either way it’s vital to keep a paper trail of everything you are working on to ensure your competitors don’t beat you to the marketplace.

The University of Leeds and Marks & Spencer have worked collaboratively to launch a free online course that explores commercial innovation and how people are key to driving successful innovation in existing businesses. 

Tanith Dodge is director of HR at Marks & Spencer