insight  innovation culture

The thrills and spills of innovation

The thrills and
spills of innovation

Thales UK offers an insight into its innovation culture and shares advice on how companies can create a working environment that encourages ground-breaking ideas.

From 275BCE, when Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” and ran naked from his bath, to 1989 when a (presumably) appropriately dressed Tim Berners-Lee announced the birth of the world wide web, the history of civilisation has been the history of ideas and inspiration: the lifeblood of innovation. 


Kodak, for instance, was founded by George Eastman in 1888, with an innovation not of technology, but of strategy. His idea was to sell cameras so cheaply that everyone could afford them, and then make his fortune from the high-volume, high-margin sales of film, chemicals and paper. It was an astonishing success. Nearly 100 years later, Kodak still commanded 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the US.


Tim Berners-Lee’s innovation was also strategic. In April 1993 he made the underlying code of the web available to anyone who wanted it, free of charge: an approach which led to a global wave of creativity, collaboration and further innovation.


Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Google and PayPal are all daughters of the brainchild of Sir Tim Berners-Lee.


Where do all these ground-breaking ideas come from? The truth is that they can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And just because an idea comes from a fresh-faced graduate with more passion than real-life work experience, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. The real question is whether your organisation has the capability to nurture it.

Creating a culture of innovation 

A capacity for innovation (distinct from inspiration) stems from an organisation’s working culture, not its business processes. In a way, it’s a culture in which we are allowed, if not encouraged, to fail and learn from failure. 


That sounds counterintuitive. No one likes to fail. We treat risk with caution. We play it safe. But playing it safe prohibits innovation. Playing it safe means sticking with the tried and tested. The trick, then, is to stimulate the expression of new ideas by removing the crude ‘sink or swim’ metric. We must allow people try new things and learn if it does not work out.


How do you go about developing a culture of innovation where people are free to fail? A good starting point is to put together a small team which reaches out to as many people as possible in every business function and every level, including internal roles. Begin with the assumption that there is no part of your organisation that can’t be improved.

How do you go about developing a culture of innovation where people are free to fail? A good starting point is to put together a small team which reaches out to as many people as possible in every business function and every level, including internal roles.

Before you change anything, it is essential to understand what your company’s ‘core positive values’ – your strengths and special capabilities – are. Remember, you are not trying to ‘fix’ anything. You are only trying to remove some of the barriers to further success. Once you understand these, it is crucial to create an environment in which new ideas are encouraged. Ideas and inspiration are key to innovation.


Management buy-in is essential. Give someone, at a senior level, the responsibility of championing innovation and innovative practices. Encourage every manager to lead by example and let the new culture permeate your business. Don’t be too prescriptive. Let people find their own ways of achieving outcomes but make sure those outcomes are clearly expressed. 

Video: a look inside Thales' weekly innovation drop-in events

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Do something different 

You can sometimes use the shock of change to jump start innovation. When we designed the new Thales HQ in Reading, we took the opportunity to create an Innovation Centre. We have created a place that brings our staff, customers and suppliers together, in an environment which encourages free thinking, communication and mutual understanding.


There are three distinct areas linked together in the Innovation Centre. First, there is the Presentation Studio, which is fully equipped for conventional, presenter-to-audience communications. Next door is the Demonstration Studio: a larger area where people can get hands-on with our technology. 


The Demonstration Studio flows through to the Design Studio: a large, airy space with bright colours, soft furnishings and a cool, funky vibe, where people can free themselves from the straightjacket of day-to-day tasks and routines, immersing themselves in creativity. It is somewhere to play and explore and to dream.

We want our people to feel part of something exciting and to work together to shape the future of the company.

The Innovation Centre hosts weekly innovation drop-in events, which are open to everyone. We have panel discussions, guest speakers, open forums and visiting representatives from all parts of the business. There are always one or more senior managers present, and the message that people take away is: ‘Innovating is how we do things at Thales. Bring your best ideas and share them.’ We want our people to feel part of something exciting and to work together to shape the future of the company.


Innovative thinking and behaviour helps you move from the position of ‘How to build a better mousetrap’ to ‘How can I solve the mouse problem?’ And that opens up a whole new arena. It immediately gives you the freedom to come at the problem, if it even is a problem, from a variety of different angles.

A matter of understanding

If you don’t have the luxury of a purpose-built Innovation Centre, you can still facilitate discussions. Aim to create an environment where people from different business functions can interact and share experiences. Sales people, for example, should understand engineers. Marketing should understand sales; sales should understand accounts, and so on. It helps everyone to be more rounded and creates fertile ground for innovation.


Examine failure. Understand what didn’t work. Find ways to moderate the model of rewarding success and punishing failure. Innovation is a journey of discovery, not a process, and it recognises that we are all human and each of us has human failings and human inspiration and human creativity. People want to succeed. Let them.

Innovation is a journey of discovery, not a process, and it recognises that we are all human and each of us has human failings and human inspiration and human creativity. 

In any commercial enterprise, innovation can be the engine that drives success. But it is an engine that must be kept running at all times. For Kodak, this was an expensive lesson.


Kodak had digital photographic technology long before it became mainstream and it certainly had a global brand presence. It could have competed; it could have dominated. What it lacked was the desire to innovate.


A little more than 20 years ago – a blink in the history of commerce – businesses were still sceptical of the claims made about the world wide web. Today, the global online retail market has grown to $2.29bn in 2017 – up from $1.34bn in 2014 and now on its way to a predicted $4.8bn in 2021. 


That is how fast things change. 


You can’t anticipate such changes – they’re too far-reaching, too profound; all but unimaginable. All you can do is adopt a culture of innovation – an environment, which is open to new ideas and where people aren’t afraid to experiment with new ideas. With a culture of innovation, you create an environment in which great ideas are not only generated, they are developed and nurtured.

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