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Innovation VS. Invention

During the 2018 Future of Leadership Conference, an interactive two-day Think Tank that included powerful keynotes, panel discussions and innovative interactive formats, Sebastian Morgner interviewed Dr Frank Meyer, Head of B2C Solution & Innovation at E.ON to hear his thoughts on Innovation vs Invention.

By Sebastian Morgner

Morgner: How do you define innovation?

Meyer: I personally distinguish between invention and innovation. Inventions create, for example, new technological options and opportunities. On the other hand, innovations use an invention to solve real customer problems. In other words, innovations are new marketable solutions / business models that scale. 

Morgner: Many products claim to be innovations, but mostly are – according to Nassim Taleb, ‘neomania,’ old solutions packaged with new marketing. Do you agree?

Meyer: Real innovations solve customer problems in a completely new way. Often a real innovation is based on an invention. For example, a new type of technology, service model or delivery method.

Morgner: What factors are crucial when assessing true innovation?

Meyer: To evaluate whether you created a true innovation or not, you must first launch and test your product or service to find out if it meets customers’ needs. But don’t stop too early – it is important to adapt your solution until scale is achieved in the market. If customers adopt the product because it truly generates value for them and solves a real customer problem, then it is a true innovation.

Morgner: Plan vs. accident – how do innovations happen?

Meyer: It depends. To plan it, you need to understand the conscious and unconscious factors which influence customer behaviour. In contrast, for example, Steve Jobs’ strategy was different. It was strongly based on intuition, as well as anticipating and understanding customer needs. He was sure that if a product or service improved customers’ lives that there would be a demand for it. He had a clear vision he believed in.

Morgner: As a result, innovators must think about the customers’ needs?

Meyer: Yes and it even goes beyond that. What are the consequences of putting changing customer needs at the core of your actions? It may lead to the conclusion that you must disrupt your own business model. Yet, in traditional management you normally don’t want to accept an innovation which disrupts your role and your own business model. However, if you don’t do it, you will ultimately lose. You must disrupt your own business model.

Morgner: Is it possible for companies to create an ecosystem which allows for disruptive innovation?

Meyer: Yes, but you need to provide the right space and structure. You need to make innovation a real priority. Look at Google, here every employee is supposed to spend 20 percent of their time on innovative concepts, projects and processes. Moreover, you need a risk-taking culture where you can learn from mistakes, adapt your ideas, and test whether this innovation can ultimately become a business success.

Morgner: Looking at a big company like E.ON, what do you consider the most important challenge to this change of mindset?

Meyer: One challenge is persistent focus. Whatever you create, it’s going to be small, at least in the beginning. You may ask, why should we do it? Well, you need to be deeply convinced and accept that you will disappear if you do not do it. Innovation is about giving your corporation a future which your employees and the market believe in. If you succeed, it will ultimately translate into growth and a higher share price. This is one of the big tasks in large corporations. It does not happen overnight and only works with continuous strong leadership from the top.

Morgner: Whenever you start a project in a company, you have to deliver a very detailed 5-year business plan. In the end, you’ll face problems if it doesn’t come out as expected. This must change somehow, surely?

Meyer: How do you as a leader provide your team with the space to test things and learn from failures, but at the same time focus them on creating real market impact? Recently, I had a conversation with a Google engineer who told me that “if a project fails, we do not look for a person to blame, but we carry out a ‘post-mortem’ analysis to learn what we can do better next time”.  In a classic corporation, fast testing and failure is a big cultural challenge. Leadership needs to change its attitude here. At the same time, innovation needs to show impact, we need to test fast, at a low cost, be agile, and learn from it to create impact. But as you know, changing attitudes is one of the most challenging things in large corporations. 

Dr Frank Myer is widely regarded as one of the most innovative minds in Germany.

In 2012, Dr Meyer joined Vodafone Germany as Director of Strategy and New Business Development, where he was responsible for corporate strategy, innovation, new business development and strategic programmes management. In this role he acted as strategic lead in the Kabel Deutschland acquisition. Following this, the doctor was appointed Director, Commercial Management, Enterprise Business Unit at Vodafone, where he was responsible for the commercial steering of a multi-billion euro B2B business. Currently, he is opening up new business opportunities for E.ON as Senior Vice President B2C Solution Management and Innovation for E.ON SE. Dr Myer is responsible for setting up and accelerating E.ON’s innovation and growth areas across the globe and was recently selected as one of Handelsblatt Top 100 Innovators of Germany.

In addition to his role at E.ON, Dr Meyer is board member of the Handelsblatt Energy Academy.

Veröffentlicht in Leadership Stories am 13.09.2023

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