Routes to innovation

Innovation has proven a popular topic and it’s one we’re keen to explore further. Who better to continue the conversation with than Professor Fiona Lettice,
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research & Innovation) of the University of East Anglia.

As Professor of Innovation Management in the Norwich Business School, Professor Lettice’s research spans all business sectors, whilst her earlier career included working as a project manager for Centrica and as a change consultant on a major project for BMW/Rover.

“Innovation is about coming up with a good idea and bringing it into widespread and effective use. A rather narrow definition of innovation prevails which focuses on technology.

 “Innovation is about more than technology, it can refer to a business model, a company’s operations or how customers’ access or pay for services. To foster innovation, we need to be open to new ideas and to think about problems in a different way.”

How can we, as business people, be more innovative? Professor Lettice identifies several routes to innovation:


Disrupt, change the way people do things. A radical breakthrough, what you might call disruptive innovation, changes how people do things – like the advent of the world wide web. The way businesses operate has been transformed with the advent of the internet, with opportunities for services like Deliveroo, Airbnb or Netflix.

Disruptive innovators tend to come from outside an industry because once you’re established within an industry, innovation efforts tend to focus on improving an existing product rather than making a game-changing innovation.

The digital camera is a good case in point here as some established camera manufacturers were slow to embrace digital technology due to the additional revenue they made from producing and developing the film. Resulting in some familiar brand names like Kodak and Polaroid struggling.

Fast forward a few years and the convenience of smartphone cameras has meant demand for these devices has outstripped the demand for digital cameras. Where convenience led, technology soon followed and cameras on phones swiftly improved. Today, the bulk of digital cameras are made for the high-end specialist camera market, whilst most of the lower end of the market is catered for by smartphones.

Disruptive innovators completely change the product range, think of home entertainment and the transition from VHS to DVD and then to streaming services like Netflix. Disruptive innovators may also change the key players in the industry, putting companies which once dominated an industry out of business or forcing them into niche positions.

Be radical

A radical innovator, on the other hand, will bring about a step-change in an industry, like the advent of the camera flash for example, but won’t change the market like a disruptive innovation – they are still working within the original product concept


Don’t standstill. As a business, always look to improve what you’re doing, how you are doing it and improve your customers’ ease of use. Consider how an existing product could be improved, by adding a new feature or by improving performance – longer battery life or faster service, for example.


Some innovation takes the middle road, such as businesses that add new product lines which build on their existing reputation – like confectioners adding ice creams to their product offering.


Re-appropriating an existing product so it’s perceived completely differently is another route to innovation and one which can potentially open up a whole new market. A good example of which is when Lucozade was repositioned as a sports drink, here the product didn’t change much, but how it was perceived by customers changed radically.


Seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what nobody has thought is another example of innovation. Reframe an existing problem and come up with a different way of doing things, just as Airbnb has done in the way it offers cost-effective accommodation.


Taking an idea from one field and using it in another field is another example of innovation. James Dyson famously took inspiration from the industrial dust extractor in a factory, scaling down the technology to make a bag-free vacuum cleaner. A project which illustrates how technology used in one sector can be translated to another. Here, by being creative and 

looking at a problem from a different perspective, the shortcomings and frustrations previously found with a product have been negated.


Innovation can involve re-expressing an existing idea – making what was once undesirable, desirable. Tesla worked on the principle that it is not that there is no demand for electric vehicles (the prevailing thought at that time), but that there is no demand for an undesirable vehicle. Tesla partnered with Lotus to deliver a desirable electric luxury sports car.

Be a first-mover…

First movers recognise the importance of an emerging market or changes in consumer behaviour, taking steps to meet those needs early on, ultimately becoming synonymous with that market.

…Or a fast follower

The Apple iPod emerged after the MP3 player market was established, but became the product most identified with the portable music system. Reimagining the technology, Apple made it more aesthetically pleasing, improved the user interface so it was more intuitive and ultimately made it a better, more desirable product. Though they were not the first to come up with a portable music system, Apple’s design transformed what was on offer – hence they dominated this new market.

How to galvanise innovation

So innovation is a broader concept than we might at first envisage – but how do we foster innovation? Here Professor Lettice explains a few tactics for fostering innovation in your business.

Seek peer support

East Anglia is a vibrant place to live and work, if you’re setting up a business in the region, there’s lots of support available, organisations like TechEast and SyncNorwich are great sources of information, expertise and support. Your peer group can assist in negotiating the hurdles you may encounter as a start-up as you can learn from others’ experience.

Finding a community of innovators outside of your industry can also be beneficial as you’ll learn what’s happening in areas adjacent to yours, paving the way for translational innovation.

Value teamwork

Whether you’re starting up a business or working within an established concern, creating a multi-disciplinary team can be extremely beneficial. By drawing on a diverse range of expertise, you are more likely to get things right the first time. A multi-disciplinary team will look at problems from different perspectives and bring a range of solutions to the table.

Work in partnership

“There’s never been a better time to work collaboratively,” observes Professor Lettice. Work in partnership with organisations outside of your business. Connect with your local university as they can share research expertise and help you to access funding. Universities today are very outward looking and open to partnership, with a pool of talented researchers who could benefit your business. Long term partnerships between the public and private sector are also being supported by Innovate UK and the Industrial Strategy to boost innovation and productivity.

Be prepared to fail

Within an established business, creating a dedicated innovation team, with a separate structure, remit and budget, can be helpful. Innovation is frequently rejected because “it doesn’t feel like how we do things around here,” so having a separate department where the team has the freedom to break the rules, take short cuts and do things differently, can be beneficial.

In evaluating innovative ideas, don’t equate success with immediate commercial gain. Think long term, so ideas can be explored and experimented with, without having to meet short term commercial targets.

Be prepared for the fact that not all ideas will be successful for various reasons. You might say that to be successful in business, you have to be prepared to fail, some of our most successful tech firms have experienced significant failures as well as the spectacular successes for which they’re best known.

Listen effectively

Harness the whole of the work world, remember that good ideas may come from all areas of the business and from outside too. Listen effectively and be open to the ideas forthcoming from your colleagues and your customers. Good ideas may come from unexpected sources.

Innovate responsibly

In evaluating a project’s worth, consider the whole life of a product including its environmental and ethical impact. Strive to build a responsible supply chain and consider the eco credentials of the materials used in a product, as these factors are increasingly important to consumers. Look at how a product’s life can be extended, how it could be disassembled, reused and recycled.

Consumers are demanding that businesses are more responsible, so how we go about employing and deploying innovation is crucial in making your products stand out from competitors. We need to get better at being more responsible in the ways we employ or deploy innovation.

Consider consumption

In bringing products to the market, consider the different models of consumption available, as this may reduce environmental impact – people now tend to stream films and music rather than to own them, car clubs are becoming more popular and we are used to leasing photocopiers – what else can we consume without having to own a product outright?

Observe your product

Never distance yourself from your customers. Observe people using your product, see first-hand how they are interacting with it and consider how it could be improved. Make it as easy and convenient to use as possible and put the user at the centre of your product or service design. For example, if you design cars, watch someone loading the boot with shopping and think about how you could make it more accessible. Always be open to feedback and harness this feedback to bring about continuous improvements.

The cycle of innovation

So innovation is a broader concept than we might at first consider and several avenues exist to instigating innovation in our businesses. As for the cycle of innovation, “humans have always been creating and innovating,” explains Professor Lettice, “and this isn’t going to change. Innovation is the key to addressing some of the greatest challenges we face today.”


Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research & Innovation) of the University of East Anglia

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