January 23rd, 2022

What makes innovation thrive?

Regardless how you structure it, there are conditions that innovation thrives in and conditions it dies in


"Regardless how you structure it, there are conditions that innovation thrives in and conditions it dies in."  
Heather Pearl, Head Of Innovation at Macmillan Cancer Support, shares her 7 pillars for innovation success.

Tell us a bit more about you and your current role?

I’m currently Head of Near-Term Innovation, my remit covers both innovation to create new services for people with cancer and revenue generation via new products and partnerships.  I have worked across marketing, fundraising and strategic planning before moving into innovation, always with a love for testing new things, user driven decisions and building teams.

What different models of innovation have you worked with at Macmillan?

I’ve worked in a range of ways with Innovation in my time at Macmillan, including in partnership with a centralised fundraising innovation team to create new propositions, an embedded innovation approach across the directorate with teams accountable for their own innovation pipelines and now, a centralised team managing end to end innovation for the whole organisation.

What are the conditions that you feel need to be in place for innovation to thrive?

Available Insight: An obvious one, but interrogating customer, market and portfolio insight is vital to drive successful innovation.  As a near term team we are driven by customer insight at every stage of our process, ensuring we check our biases and decisions are used centred.  Innovation teams need access to various forms of data, research and insight to shape their strategy and prioritise their pipelines, this can be from internal sources, trend agencies, user research, etc but is a core principle for us as a team 

Expertise:  You need agreement of what innovation is within the organisation, recognising its defined role and recruiting for this as a specialism.  We have a diverse team of experts, with experience from a range of sectors to enable broad collective expertise and bring challenge to the work.  This is not at the expense of business knowledge.  One of the benefits of embedded models is you have the business expertise at hand.  As a centralised team you have to be clear on how you are going to call upon business knowledge.  

Process:  Innovation is a very different type of activity from BAU delivery and inherently needs a separate process, performance approach and governance. In creating a new division last year the Innovation leadership team spent considerable time developing this, to create the right foundations to enable the new teams.

Stakeholder Buy-In: Creating new ways of working with colleagues is vital, being clear about what you need and why.  For our team there are now a different set of rules that innovation operates in and we had to evidence why this was required and the impact this will create for the organisation.  Collaborating with stakeholders is key to creating champions at every level. 

Outside help:  Charities don’t need to resource a huge team in house, they could use agencies such as yours when they need specialist help, engage customers continually in their work and category experts for insight and advice.  We call upon specialism when we need it, depending on the brief, to enable us to work at pace and bring in the relevant skills and expertise at each stage to compliment the team’s experience.  By using outside help it really helps to create cognitive diversity and the support and challenge needed for each brief.

Diversity of thought:  Charities aren’t always known for innovation and are sometimes labeled risk averse, so attracting new and varied innovation talent isn’t always easy, but you need to consciously bring in new minds if you want to create new things.  I really believe that having broad perspectives is key for innovation to succeed and taking the time to do this relative to each brief makes a big difference, including the customer at every stage. 

Measurement and value:  Innovators have a different role to business-as-usual so you have to measure their value in a way that captures this.  Innovation needs to track things like diversification, sustainability and pipeline effectiveness over time. This is a focus for us at the moment, establishing new measures to track our progress and outputs across different horizons and pipelines.

Would you say an ‘innovation culture’ or an ‘innovation process’ is more important?

I think it’s about culture and process.   A really supportive culture without process can be chaotic.  Culture on its own can lead to high buy-in, high enthusiasm, high energy, but a lack of focus, quality and value creation.  However, if you have lots of processes without the buy-in and support of leadership, you’ll have well managed products but you won’t have the ambition and psychological safety to drive new growth. I think it's a balance of building a supportive culture (Innovation is hard work and the team needs this to thrive!), alongside effective processes and management of Innovation to drive pace and  responsive ways of working.

Covid has almost been a catalyst for innovation.  How has the pandemic affected your teams?

Before the pandemic, belief in and the extent to which traditional fundraising was in decline varied and therefore buy-in for the need for Innovation was inconsistent.  Covid showed the vulnerability of existing fundraising portfolios and charity business models, this gave us a burning platform and accelerated support for innovation internally.  The pandemic has put Innovation at the top of the agenda for a lot of teams which is great to see, for us it enabled new ways of working and pace, bolder thinking and an improved appetite to risk.

What are you excited for moving forward?

Last year we focused on creating the new innovation division; recruiting, developing new governance, process and ways of working to achieve this ambition, it was a lot of internal focused work. This year I’m really excited to test and build on our new approaches in the real world, develop new pipelines and spend time looking outwards with the team! In 2022 I think we’ll really reap the fruits of all the hard ground work last year. Revenue and services innovation are now working together as a cohesive high performing team and I can’t wait to see what we achieve this year for people with cancer via new inclusive design approaches underway and with the help of external experts.

Is there any other advice or thoughts you can share?

Regardless of how you structure it, there are conditions that innovation thrives in and there are conditions it dies in.  There are many different approaches to how Innovation can be managed and I think you’ve got to know where the challenges and opportunities are in your company to build the approach that works best for that context.  We’ve tried three different structures in my time at Macmillan, but the key is to build for what you need in that moment internally and the external landscape.  If you don’t change the approach to address challenges and build on strengths, you’re putting new things in the same machine and expecting different stuff to come out.  The brief might change but if the strategy, culture and ways of working don’t you’ll churn out similar stuff.

It’s amazing what you can do in 12 months! At times last year the task of creating a new Innovation division felt huge and progress could feel hard won but by breaking up the ambition into phased and achievable projects, building a great team and sustaining the drive to see it through we have achieved so much. If I think about where we started in 2021 and where we are now, I am blown away by how far we’ve moved in that time.  If you commit to continually push forward, via lots of small experiments and apply what you learn as you go, it’s amazing what can be created in a short time.

Heather Pearl, is Head of Innovation at Macmillan, she lives in South London and when not leading her team of innovators at Macmillan, she loves spending time with her beloved whippet Ray, pottering in her garden and trying her hand at making new things with various success!  She is passionate about building cognitively diverse and brave teams, tackling new and difficult challenges with an evidence driven and creative perspective and puts the customer at the heart of her work.