Innovation now a vital ingredient in the hyper-digital world

By Dan Llewellyn, Head of Engineering (Tech enablement) at xDesign
Dan Llewellyn, Head of Engineering (Tech enablement) at xDesign believes innovation is no longer a 'nice to have', but crucial to survive and thrive

Innovation, long ago, was a thing that extremely successful businesses committed their vast resources and time to. In some respects, it was perhaps a luxury that was afforded to those companies that had carved out their dominance in an industry or sector. 

Fast forward to 2022. A tumultuous few years have seen household brands rocked to their core; smaller disruptors usurping markets to become dominant frontrunners, and, global businesses becoming more aware of the vital necessity of digital innovation. 

Shedding some light on the importance of a consistent approach to digital innovation, recent data from Accenture states that even before the pandemic, those that were seriously investing and innovating their digital capabilities were growing twice as fast as digital so-called digital ‘laggards’. The eventual pandemic perhaps only severed to magnify the chasm between the innovators and laggards. 

So, that leads to the obvious question, what should organisations be mindful of, and actively doing to ensure they’re not falling behind when it comes to innovation?

Below are some thoughts and tips that may help you reconfigure how your company can actively innovate.

Dan Llewellyn, xDesign

Harnessing a sense of play

Some may be questioning whether the word ‘play’ has any place within a ‘serious business article’ such as this. Well, let me tell you that it certainly does…and here’s why.

Play, or playfulness is a forgotten art - particularly in the supposedly lofty business setting where the maxim “time is money” often dominates. However, it could well be the key to unlocking a heightened state of innovation in your business. 

Some of humankind’s greatest inventions, discoveries and theories have all started out from an actively playful disposition. One modern example can be seen in the discovery of the wonder substance that is graphene. It was discovered at Manchester University where scientists were given a regular afternoon to do experiments of their own choosing in an environment which encouraged play. This was a Nobel Prize-winning discovery for the two academics that worked on it. 

Nurturing a sense of play and curiosity is something xDesign has invested in as a way of creating real value for itself and its clients. In order to carve out dedicated time and resource for this, we’ve created xDesign Labs (or xLabs for short).

xLabs is an internal programme where we work on projects from ‘early innovation’ ideas (i.e. “I wonder if this would work...”), to things not yet ready for sale or adoption. This not only gives us more opportunity to focus on innovation but also provides a host of benefits for our people:

  • All new hires join xLabs in their onboarding process, helping to successfully embed them into the business before they move on to client-facing projects
  • It provides support to junior and graduate engineers, who get an extended period of time to learn their craft, and our ways of working
  • It gives meaningful work to our engineers who are in-between projects
  • When some of our engineers are looking for a change from project work, it gives them a space to work on things that excite them

Put simply, our people have a dedicated space in which to scratch those technological itches, keep themselves motivated and engaged, and possibly stumble upon a new innovative idea which we can commercialise.       

Cross-pollination is key 

Innovation comes in many different forms. If you haven’t got the time or resources to set up dedicated spaces for play, you can simply draw on what’s already around you.

In their simplest form, organisations of all shapes, sizes and flavours are set up to help end-users solve problems - whilst hopefully getting handsomely remunerated for their efforts! As a result, these same organisations may end up with a very varied client base. This variation can be put to good use when it comes to retaining your innovative edge.

For instance, xDesign as a business works with organisations in many different sectors, with many different tech stacks, and many different visions of what they want from us. Part of our approach to innovation is to make a conscious effort to reflect, discuss and act on the work we have done and are currently doing for clients. By taking this approach, we can apply learnings and experiences to better solve current client briefs across a wide spectrum of clients. This cross-pollination of ideas and approaches has been put to great use over the years.  

The point I’m making here is that sometimes innovation doesn’t take a huge amount of time and effort. All you need to ensure is that you give people the time to reflect on their work, and provide them with the right internal forums to discuss experiences and new ideas. 

In the case of xDesign we have a large number of internal communities that have been set up by specialists to ensure all of the above happens regularly. As well as xLabs, we set up communities for cloud & devops, accessibility, security, web 3.0, automation, web development and backend java, to name just a few. 

Building cool things

All technologists love theory, they also like building cool things and seeing them put to work in the real world.

For us, putting innovative thinking into action often sees us building things to help run our company better. This can be a great way of testing new products, updates and optimisations. 

For example, we’ve created our very own internal social network, myface - watch out Zuk! This platform acts as a catalogue of every team member with a short ‘get-to-know-me’ Q&A and is becoming a hub to humanise people who have joined the business and not yet met colleagues face-to-face. A great innovative solution to a current problem facing our own business in these times of hybrid working.

Another way we’ve put innovation to work for the good of the business is via the thinking,  design and building that has gone into creating reusable components or tools. These provide our engineering teams with a set of vital components which can be shared between internal project teams allowing them to build products quickly, efficiently and on-demand. In the long run, they’ll also support the company in scaling its operations.   

The other upside of this approach of course is that all of this internally-focused innovation can also have huge benefits for clients. Any innovation we come up with for our own operations can just as easily be shared and evolved for the projects we work on for clients.

Keep on keeping on  

Put simply, businesses can’t survive by standing still - they need to be constantly moving forward. And, in the modern business environment, innovation is the vital oxygen that will fuel this.  

Although the last few years have seen many companies making the necessary investments needed to survive and modernise, this shouldn’t abate now the waters are slightly less choppy. On the contrary, each and every organisation should be doing much more to fan the sparks of innovation that may be lying dormant in their company. Hopefully, you’ve picked up some food for thought to get you back on the right path.

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