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Not a trick question. And possibly nothing. However, if the two events I attended last week were anything to go by, they share a common goal: innovation that makes life easier for users.

Thanks to Neil Perkin, Monday saw me at the eleventh Google Firestarters, an event that is fast becoming a favourite of mine. Monday’s featured only one person, Russell Davies, Creative Director of the Government Digital Service.

Much as already been written up about this event. James Caig always writes smart stuff, and his take on things was no exception.

I’ll try to build on that, with some overlap. The first thing is that GDS don’t consider gov.uk to be innovative. It’s just doing things right. And there was a lot of this thinking in Russell’s talk.

“It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.”
Michael Slaby, Chief Technology Officer for Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign.

At GDS, they have 10 simple rules to follow to create digital transformation. It’s worth reiterating these in case anyone is still unsure how to do digital services well.

  1. Start with needs
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. And iterate again
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open, it makes things better

I’m sure there are some who wonder what this could do for marketing. If it still isn’t obvious from that list, there were some other nuggets to take away for those in the business of advertising or marketing.

“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”
Henry Ford

That’s one reason why the GDS team blogs about everything they do. The entire process is transparent.

There is a difference between winning attention and respecting the attention you’ve been granted. For me, that’s a big one to take away.

Don’t overcomplicate. What’s the minimum amount of work needed to get the point across? Show the thing!

If you make a decent digital service, people will like it.

It’s certainly working for the team at GDS.

Big Organisations Can’t Innovate?
The following evening I was lucky enough to be invited to the Albion Society event. This is, in their words, a “thought-provoking quarterly breakfast meeting where cultural commentators, marketers and entrepreneurs meet to discuss controversial topics led by some of the UK’s best informed speakers.”

It was held in the evening, but I’ll forgive them for not updating their metadata.

Set against Google Firestarters, this promised to be an entirely different beast. It was even billed as “Why big businesses are bad at innovation – and how start-up culture can point the way forward.”

I was keen to contrast the opinions of the panel against what I’d learned the previous evening. And I expected to be able to do just that. But I was wrong. There was a lot of overlap, which was surprising.

User needs featured highly on the agenda. From QuoteMeHappy.com to giffgaff, it all stemmed from what users wanted or provided that made a service you wanted to engage with. And data. Used well, this is what gives a brand an edge (a point Russell made with his analogy for Amazon Biscuits, a entirely plausible yet made-up company).

Share ideas – in both directions. And be open, because innovation isn’t inside your organisation, it’s beyond those corporate walls. Done well, big business can nurture, as long as the partnership is a fair one.

There were some interesting specifics to apply to corporate organisations looking to innovate.

A startup within a larger corporation cannot remain separate. It’s not about being an R&D outpost. Only by being part of the bigger picture and not outsourcing innovation can the smaller team understand the investment as much as the need to innovate. This will help strike a balance.

Threats are often asymmetric; it’s just that the corporate process makes it hard to spot them – its focus is all wrong. I’d say agencies should think about this, too. Shift objectives to succeed in an agile business world.

Big businesses have to change their KPIs. Failure is not a bad thing. It’s about rewarding the risk and the attempt to do something different – as long as the business learns something. It’s becoming a cliché, but it’s still true.

One last thing that advertising really needs to think about: Hire from outside your sector if you really want to change things and innovate.

It turns out that innovation is alive and well in some big businesses. It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.

I’ve heard that somewhere else before.