Last Friday, I had the honour and pleasure of being a judge at a county final for Young Enterprise, something I’ve been involved in since 2010. Every year that I’m a judge, I prepare to feel both a little older and a little less successful in my own career. And every year, I make that same opening joke to the audience of students and parents.
Something really stood out for me this year, perhaps because I’ve spent so much time recently thinking about innovation. It dawned on me that what we actually see in these hastily formed companies of 6th-form students is next generation innovation, or the innovation that companies like to talk about, but very rarely do. In particular, three things came to mind:
1 – They have flat structures
Technically, each company elects people into set roles (Managing Director Finance Officer etc). In reality, the successful companies are the ones that all chip in contributing equally in meetings, selling together at trade stands, and having collective decision making. Some companies even vote on their decisions, or rotate roles regularly to keep things fresh.
2 – They connect ideas to find inspiration
This is always the thing that impresses me the most. Almost universally, the teams come up with their ideas during full day sessions, bringing in ideas from their own experiences and those of people they know. No formal customer research assignments with 50-page Powerpoints at the end of it. Just a group of people, sharing what they’ve found out, throwing ideas around, and connecting them to come up with something they think might work. Then…
3 – They rapidly test & learn
The core of great innovation is the ability to fail fast. Often talked about, rarely done, as concerns about cost, business cases, reputation and regulation loom large in the optimistic eyes of would-be intrapreneurs everywhere. These Young Enterprise companies epitomise the test & learn culture, getting things to a half-ready point and then sharing with customers, gathering live feedback and improving their product(s) accordingly. By the time I meet them, they’ve usually just about settled on an idea backed by months of real-life learning. And as such, are supremely confident about their potential success. And rightly so.
No complicated processes, no protracted sign-offs, no layered hierarchy, and no fear of failure. Just a group of enthusiastic people who believe in what they’re trying to do, sharing ideas freely and learning through doing, building a successful business from scratch whilst studying at school.
Now that’s what I call innovation.
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