Innovation has become one of those big hairy words like Digital or Transformation or Diversity (not the dance troupe). It has many meanings and interpretations. It’s more of a spectrum rather than a fixed point.

The most common challenge with the innovation projects we take on is understanding what the client (or potential client) means by “innovation” when we first meet. It can span almost anything but most often it sits in one of three boxes: marketing innovation, brand innovation or business innovation. What’s more, it’s often not just that person’s definition that needs to be taken into account, but their team’s, their board’s, their customers’…you get the picture.

It’s often the lack of critical alignment and agreement on what problem the business is trying to solve that stops innovation projects dead. That’s why it’s so critical that senior management understands what you’re trying to achieve right from the start, and buys into it.

What makes the innovation work we do so interesting is that problem definition is very much part of the process. And when clients ask us where to start, that’s what we recommend. With more traditional communications briefs, clients often know what they are looking for, and what “right” looks like. With innovation projects, problem definition is a new phase for most and it’s about getting to the brief.

When it comes to how you get to problem definition, it’s important that you look at how any potential innovation partners will help you. This is often what we recommend clients look at when we introduce them to potential innovation partners as we believe it’s a crucial first phase and can even sometimes be the start and finish of a given project as it’s so foundational. The outcomes of that initial phase often require further internal buy-in before moving on to the next phase of investigating those problems and coming up with solutions.

So, a top tip when thinking about where to start with innovation is to start at the start. And the start for innovation is further upstream than you think.