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A Transformative Approach to Innovation

If you asked ten people what the definition of innovation is you’ll probably get close to ten different answers. This likely contributes to some of the mystery around the topic. Simply put, and with a little help from wikipedia, innovation occurs when either something new is created to solve a need or when something existing is used to solve that need in a different way. Sounds pretty simple, yet many people and companies of all sizes struggle with the topic. Some have it mastered and are redefining our lives and making businesses, traditional business models and long standing companies vanish.

I had the pleasure to lead businesses and teams who were truly innovative, even referred to as “disruptive” at times. So, I have a perspective on the topic that comes from years of testing, trying, observing and every once in awhile, succeeding.

Over time my advice on innovation has evolved. Today, while most fear innovation because of technology, my view is that technology cannot be a synonym for innovation. It is so much more and at times, does not need to involve technology at all.You can innovate in very “low tech” ways but to truly innovate you need to be willing to test, to try, to be open and to be resilient – to not give up!

There are many examples of true innovators but one that inspires me most is Sara Blakely. She is the founder, CEO and 100% owner of a company called Spanx. Sara is the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world!! Her “innovation” story is amazing. It is not a technology story. It is a story of vision, persistence, courage, resolve and resilience.

When you think of innovation, are these the words that come to mind? Likely not. Sara invented a female undergarment that allows women to both look good and feel good. In the early days she didn’t have the money for a patent lawyer so she wrote her patent application with a textbook she got from the library. Her office was her Atlanta apartment and her fulfillment centre was her bathroom floor. So when Oprah named Spanx as one of her favourite products and they wanted to film her at her office she needed to beg her friends to come over and pretend they all worked for her. She spent weekends driving to hosiery mills begging them to manufacture her product for her. Needless to say, hard work paid off. Not just for her but for the millions of women around the world who enjoy her innovative product. Low tech but very innovative.

I remember with a smile on my face the efforts we made at Tangerine Bank (formerly ING DIRECT) to make our clients’ lives simpler. Tangerine was the first bank to launch the ability to deposit a cheque simply by taking a picture of it with their smartphone. To be honest, the technology aspect of this was not the toughest part. Bringing an innovation like this to Canada was challenging because anything new can be difficult for people to understand. It was new for the banking system, for the payment system and for our competitors. It was new for Canadians who had not seen it before and were so used to bringing their cheques to branches. So making the process so simple, so safe and explaining it to people required vision, courage, persistence and resilience when obstacles were thrown in the way of progress. In the end, this innovation changed the business overnight and was key for Tangerine’s continued success.

There is no need to be intimidated by innovation. It doesn’t have to be complicated or technology laden. By challenging everything you do and how you’ve always gone about doing it, you too can bring innovation to your life and to your business.

Peter Aceto