Why you must innovate, or watch your business die

Innovation needn't mean massive disruption
Innovation needn't mean massive disruption

Continued innovation is critical to gaining competitive advantage and taking market share. Actually, I would go as far as to say that if you don't innovate, your business won't survive. However, for most businesses, and larger enterprises in particular, it can be a real challenge to generate new ideas and then take those ideas from the drawing board and put them into practice quickly, and with minimal disruption.

One recent innovation that captured my attention is the latest children's craze, the Rainbow Loom and Loom Bands. Back in 2010, Cheong Choon Ng, a Malaysian-born former crash-test engineer for Nissan, invented the Rainbow Loom, a craft kit that turns rubber bands into bracelets.

Ng had noticed his daughters weaving elastic bands into bracelets and he wanted to create a way of making this process easier, so he developed a plastic version of a loom. His young daughters started making bracelets for friends and neighbours using the new loom, and Ng's brother encouraged him to sell the product online.

Looming large

Ng's big break came in 2012 when Learning Express Toy Stores, a chain of 130 franchises, placed an order for 24 looms that sold out within hours. Ng innovated by optimising a process, and as a result, today he is overseeing a rapidly growing company that sold four million starter sets at £20 (around $31, AU$40) each in 2013.

Organisations often use the same approach to innovation. Like Ng, they want to improve a process in order to improve business. However, from an IT perspective, any kind of innovation is often considered to be highly disruptive.

New application development projects can take months and months to deliver and necessitate big changes in software architectures and application development lifecycles, all of which traditionally require increased resources, time and significant cost.

For example, I was reading the 2014 Big Bang Boom Report from the Standish Group, which analyses how successful large software projects were between 2003 and 2012. The report shows that 42% of projects failed completely, in that they were either cancelled prior to completion or were not used after implementation. Over half (52%) of projects were challenging in that they were late, over budget, and/or had an unsatisfactory implementation, and only 6% were considered to be successful projects that were delivered on time, on budget, and with a satisfactory implementation.

So, in an IT context, how can you create an environment that enables and encourages innovation with minimum disruption?

Dodging disruption

The simple answer is it has to be about undertaking new IT projects in an agile and iterative way without having to make huge step changes. What I am talking about here is not changing a whole architectural approach to building applications or a 'Big Bang' change to the application development cycle as we know it. Instead, it's about taking a similar architectural approach that involves the same people and the same systems, but will deliver enterprise web and mobile applications far more robustly, quickly and within budget.

For example, one of our customers, a provider of energy management solutions, is using a high-productivity application platform to help build and accelerate technology delivery without the need to undertake a radical overhaul.

This company has rapidly delivered new software modules for its Sustainability Workbench platform, an environmental application, using a high-productivity application platform. They have also been able to keep the same IT architecture and people – all they've done is build new applications using our technology, and the firm has done it in a third of the time and at a fraction of the cost.

Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) can also enable innovation without disruption. It opens up a range of options that allow for large leaps in capability with smaller amounts of in-house resources versus traditional build in-house solutions. PaaS can massively reduce the total time to value, overall deployment cycle time and headaches involved whilst simultaneously increasing IT's ability to iterate quickly. Again, our customer FirstCarbon found that PaaS was a great enabler in achieving its goals in a scalable and cost effective way.

When I think about the Loom Band innovation, I admit I wish it had been my idea. It was a simple idea that was fairly straightforward to produce and took off. However, in an IT environment, we know that even simple ideas often involve complex and disruptive change. Today, organisations like FirstCarbon are using high-productivity platforms along with PaaS to support innovation and application change in their business, quickly and without disruption.

With high-productivity platforms it's become clear that delivering innovation doesn't have to be as disruptive as you think. The statistics in the Standish Group report show that 94% of large software projects either fail completely or are challenging to deliver. Doesn't that tell us that it is time to change the way we approach these projects?

  • Zahid Jiwa is Vice President of Sales at OutSystems