You can’t predict the future of your business, but you can create it – and it starts by embedding innovation at the core.

That was the starting point for the AAR Innovation Practice’s first ‘Meet the Innovators’ event. We brought together five of London’s most exciting innovation consultancies who advise some of the world’s biggest brands, even if they don’t all call themselves consultants. Through the course of the evening we heard their definitions of innovation, saw the work they’re most proud of, got their key pieces of advice, some provocations and discovered what they think the future of innovation will look like.

It was a packed event that covered everything from venture building, working with startups, evolving business models, new propositions and products. Here are six things that stood out for me.

  1. Innovation isn’t about having more ideas. This was a recurring theme throughout the evening. Jeremy Basset of Co:cubed said one of the three things he’d learned about innovation from working with start-ups when he ran Unilever’s Foundry was that it’s not about ideas, but about making ideas happen. This was backed up by Tom Le Bree of Prehype, who argued that big companies need to stop paying for more ideas. In his view, corporates have loads of smart people and loads of ideas; what they lack are the structures and champions to turn those ideas into reality. Execution is everything.
  2. Innovation also isn’t about technology. Adam Lawrenson of Albion defined innovation as “Understanding your customers better than anyone else, then designing products and services for them quicker than anyone else”. If you fundamentally understand what your customers want, he said, you’ll find it’s rarely AI, or VR, or the blockchain. Instead he gave the example of insurance start-up Lemonade and its AI claims bot Jim, which can process a claim from submission, through fraud-checking, to payment in three seconds. The innovation there isn’t the chatbot, he said, it’s the re-imagining of the category from the customer’s perspective, and then using tech to re-engineer every process accordingly.
  3. Innovation is about culture. This point was made again and again. If the people in your organisation aren’t ready to take change on board, any money you invest in innovation is likely to be wasted. More important than that, you want people to be engaged in the innovation process from the beginning. Jeremy Basset advised naming your innovation function, to take it away from just being one person’s thing. “If you give it a name, you give birth to a movement,” he said. And Nicki Sprinz of Ustwo talked about future-proofing your organisation through culture change, by following the mantra of learning, making and changing together. For her, that means being transparent, starting small and improving by iteration, and building empowered, collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams.
  4. Entrepreneurialism is contagious. This was another of Jeremy’s points, that the more time you spend around entrepreneurs, the more entrepreneurial you become. So whatever type of innovation partner you work with, just doing so will help to drive the cultural change you need to future-proof your business.
  5. Innovation happens at the core of the business. Following on from the ideas about culture, Adam Lawrenson insisted that innovation can’t be bolted on, or happen at the fringes of the organisation. It has to be done at the centre, because otherwise it’s hard to engage people with the process, and hard to embed any innovations back into the business. Tim Hipperson talked about how his agency, Fearlessly Frank, positions itself as its clients “innovation gene”, to emphasise the importance of making innovation central.
  6. Start-ups aren’t small versions of big companies. This point was made by Tom Le Bree, talking about his belief that structures determine outcomes. He argued that while there are lots of reasons why there are so many start-ups now challenging the dominance of big organisations, one of the main ones is that they have the right structures in place to take risks that big businesses can’t. The conclusion, drawn by both him and Jeremy Bassett, is that corporates need to understand their role, what they can’t – and can – do. According to Jeremy, “The role of a corporate is not to invent the future, but to scale it.”

One thing all the evening’s presenters agreed on was that times are tough for business, and will only get more so (and that was without mentioning the B-word). There have never been more new companies taking on established players, and those new companies can come from anywhere. The average lifetime of a company is coming down, and the bulk of growth in most markets is coming from new entrants. At the same time, big companies have advantages in terms of resources, brand awareness and market presence that start-ups can only dream of.

This “challenge or opportunity” duality was well summed up by Nicki Sprinz’s definition of innovation. She described it as being about how you manage your future, today.

So the question is, what are you going to do today to protect your business tomorrow?