Plus X Brighton
Life in business is complicated enough. In our daily work, our brains can feel like they are on a railway track – driving forwards on a predetermined path – our strategies, plans, and to-do lists helping to make life simpler, focusing our time.
That’s why people often use a different physical space to transport themselves from the day-to-day thinking and processes. By designating space for innovation, businesses and people can steer away from the everyday and explore other paths.
New ideas often aim to be disruptive to the competition but, by definition, they can be disruptive to your own organisation too. You need the right space to generate new ideas, both physical and mental, to counter the effect of your existing systems and processes that can constantly try to steer you onto existing tracks.
The Evolution of Innovation Space
The notion of making space for innovation was most famously started by Lockheed Martin when they created the Skunk Works in the 1940s. Skunk Works was a dedicated space for innovation, and became the place where Lockheed Martin made revolutionary aircraft like the SR71 Blackbird, the first supersonic spy plane. But the world has moved on since then.
The first problem with this model of the separate innovation space, housing the separate innovation department, is that it can become completely detached from operational realities and those people running the main organisation. Even great ideas when shown to these business leaders, can be received with bewilderment, or at the very least crossed arms and furrowed brows. New ideas can appear alien to existing operations.
The second problem is that it’s no longer enough to task the Research and Development department alone with the act of thinking differently. Everyone needs to be thinking about what’s next. The world is too complex and moving too fast to have just one internal team responsible. It’s not just product innovation that is required but business model innovation, marketing innovation, operational innovation, and even organisational design innovation.
This means that what is required is not just a single physical space that supports innovation, such as development labs and test facilities, but spaces that will cultivate the right behaviours and culture across the organisation.
Innovation is for Everyone
I started my career in Silicon Valley where, luckily for me, innovation was completely normal. In fact it was pretty much abnormal for someone not to be part of a startup or corporate innovation lab during some part of their career.
While Plus X aims to make starting a company similarly accessible and normal, there are aspects of the Silicon Valley stereotype that we aim not to copy – we are not aiming for world domination by tech dudes! For us, success is defined by a much greater diversity of business types, types of founders, and visions of success. Indeed, startup businesses are only part of the innovation landscape – innovation in medium and big businesses is just as important.
This plays out in how we curate our innovation communities. Some people ask us whether we select our Plus X members, perhaps accepting only those from innovation-intensive sectors. Our answer is always to point out that every sector needs innovation, it’s just that the amount that innovation matters to people and organisations can vary. We welcome everyone that wants to innovate irrespective of their background or business sector.
The idea that innovation is just for novel technology companies is something we continue to battle. Innovation just means trying out new stuff, changing and progressing. In the 1950s, it was called modernisation and involved a lot of straight lines and concrete; today people think it involves robots and artificial intelligence, but really it can mean any new idea put into practice. You may not know that the word innovation has been around since the 16th century, it’s definitely not a new concept!
Overcoming Barriers to Innovation
All companies can find innovation challenging, but for different reasons. With limited time and money small businesses can struggle because they assume they cannot afford to invest in innovation and run the current business at the same time. To them, the threat of failure can have much more significant consequences, so time is spent keeping the existing show on the road. Innovation hubs like Plus X have been set up to reduce the barriers to small businesses innovation, to make it easy, safe, cost-effective, and fast for them to try new things. Dedicated space and supported innovation programmes make innovation part of the everyday.
Big business has a different set of barriers to innovation. Resources are much less likely to be a constraint. Instead, the barriers to innovation are mostly psychological and cultural. The existing business processes, networks and knowledge provide inertia against change. We find that a rich environment that can adapt to a project team’s needs, with a diverse community that can throw in new ideas, can make a big difference. We’re seeing leading corporates engaging with external innovation spaces, or even creating their own innovation hubs within the corporate space.
Whatever your business size, another barrier can be thinking that innovation doesn’t fit with your business type or sector specialism. During my time with the Design Council, we helped businesses use design methods to innovate more. This wasn’t news in the fashion or housewares or automotive sectors – industries that had adopted design methods from the 1950s onwards – but industrial sectors like logistics or utilities generally perceived design as something only valuable to sectors focused on consumers and shopping. We spent a lot of time convincing those sectors that creativity and imagination were just as valuable as a source of competitive advantage, even with ‘business to business’ businesses.
Building Innovation Behaviours
It’s the behavioural aspects of high-performance innovation cultures that are so often missed. Too many organisations focus on tools and processes and fail to spot the power of mindsets and behaviours. Facebook/Meta’s innovation mantra “Move fast and break things”, may be received with more suspicion these days, but the core provocation is still valid: that inaction, procrastination, and ‘analysis paralysis’ are significant inhibitors to innovation success.
To be an innovator is to be surrounded by uncertainty, you are doing something not done before. One of the biggest questions is therefore how individuals and organisations respond to this. When all around us is uncertain, we might ask ‘Why should I do that?’ and then wait for lots of evidence before we act. But when it feels like everyone around us is acting and we fear missing out, we might say ‘Why not?!’ and plunge in.
That’s where the community within an innovation hub comes in. As soon as you see other people with businesses of similar type or scale making progress, you think, “OK, I’m not alone.” It is hard. It is worrying. But you soon realise that everyone around you is in a similar position it can help practically and psychologically. Finding a community of peers that you can relate to is a fundamental motivator.
At Plus X, we’re constantly pushing and encouraging people to make that leap and try it out. And most of the time when they do, they have such a positive experience they want more. I’m always delighted whenever I hear some of the stories about small business owners figuratively tripping over support in our hubs. There have been so many stories where people had never considered going for new ideas before, but by Plus X providing innovation hubs that make this straightforward and convenient, they have decided to go for it.
Innovation Communities in Innovation Spaces
When you put all of this together, you realise how important and powerful physical innovation spaces can be. Dedicated innovation space has the ability to help you and your team to work productively and think differently, gain support from those outside your organisation who can help plug gaps in your knowledge, form valuable new networks, draw from the example of business leaders around you, and gain inspiration and reassurance as you venture into the unknown.
We know we’ll have succeeded when seeking support for innovation and being part of diverse innovation communities will be seen as entirely normal. Seeking support isn’t an admission of failure; it’s a strategy to succeed with an ambitious goal. We are here to help.
Plus X creates inspiring workspace that unlocks potential – driving business growth, innovation community collaboration and positive social impact. Learn more about our innovation hubs, and get in touch to discuss how Plus X could support innovation within your organisation.