Our Secret to Innovation

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Innovation, like creativity, is one of those terms that everyone uses but is hard to pinpoint. How can a big company stay innovative? Can there be a systematic approach to innovation? Or is it serendipity?

Stefan Winners from Hubert Burda Media was joined by Christopher Schläffer from Deutsche Telekom and VimpelCom and Werner Vogels from Amazon to explore these questions.

VimpelCom is a global provider of telecommunications services headquartered in Amsterdam. Schläffer, who only just joined VimpelCom said the company will soon be opening a division in London and reaches out to a billion people in emerging markets. Schläffer declared himself surprised at the longevity of telecommunications.

Winners seemed baffled at Amazon’s continuous innovation. “How do you you ensure innovation when you are growing so quickly?” he asked.

Vogels said that innovation needs two main things: culture and technology. The core principal of Amazon is to continually experiment and learn. This leads to innovation, for instance Amazon became a platform for third party sales, which now make-up a significant part of its total revenue.

Technology, said Vogels, is important for innovation. Only once technology is in place will the barrier to starting something new be low.

Next, there needs to the right culture. Failure needs to be permitted and to come with low costs. Top-down reporting structure is a killer for innovation. Everyone needs to work together to realize a new idea – and not just the person who had it. Indeed, according to Vogels Amazon keeps its teams small and decentralized. This ensures that focus remains on the product rather than the company, and pushes innovation.

How to attract the right people

Of course, it is also important to hire the correct people. To have people in a company that have a capability to be independent.

Winners suggested many young people keen to innovate are unlikely to join existing companies as they would rather start something entirely their own. Schläffer said that attracting the best young recruits has always been a challenge, but particularly Millennials are also interested in contributing to the greater good – which VimpelCom also stands for. Schläffer added that “entrepreneurs need to get sense that even in big companies they’ll have a degree of freedom”. Vogels agreed there has been a shift in what young people look for in their employer. Companies should be aware of this and adapt their climate if necessary.

The discussion ended with Winners asking what the next big thing for the two companies is. Schläffer said this will be Gigabit Internet access at home. Amazon, unfortunately, did not divulge its next big innovation.