Olivier Usher on implementing innovation with impact


4 mins read

Remember The Great Olivier Usher? He recently shared his unique insight on innovation. To remind you, Olivier is the head of research at Challenge Works, which inspires innovators to help tackle the world’s most pressing social issues, from climate change to poverty, using prizes as incentives. In ten years, Challenge Works has set 84 challenges with an overall prize pot totalling £211.4M. Not bad, right?

Following our first chat on the topic of innovation, Olivier shares what leaders can do to promote innovation in an organisation and make it their critical advantage.

The impact of diversity on innovation

Getting “innovation ready” begins with who you hire, Olivier explains. And this is where employers have the chance to become a more innovative business – by focusing on building diverse teams.

"You need to make sure that you’re stripping out as much bias as possible from the recruitment process. So you get a pool of candidates who have diverse perspectives, backgrounds, viewpoints and life experiences. "

We agree. From our own experience of having a diverse team, it helps to spark novel and unexpected ideas; ideas you simply wouldn’t get if everyone had the same qualities (which would be terribly boring too!).

Diversity in your wider team is also crucial for an enterprise like Challenge Works because of the big issues it’s trying to tackle. “When you’re designing something that deals with disability issues or poverty issues, special efforts are needed to make sure you’re reaching the right kind of representative stakeholders — impartial experts who you can consult – who’ve got a slightly bigger picture. These are the people who can validate your ideas from an ethical and practical standpoint.”

Forging partnerships to boost innovation

Olivier also shows how working with other organisations or charities can level up the outcome of your innovations:

“Most of the programmes we’ve developed have been bolstered by a partnership with a charity or organisation that’s got the relevant expertise,” Olivier highlights. “For example, we recently launched the Longitude Prize on Dementia, which is about using AI devices to help people live at home for longer as their cognitive and memory skills are declining. We partnered with Alzheimer’s Society to make sure we have access to their networks and expertise, driving the impact of the programme.”

We love this insight, as it shows the impact of collaboration (and diversity) on innovation. Pulling different viewpoints, skills, expertise and networks together to increase the scope of innovation and help remove doubt. Having innovation partners also expands your circle of connections to drive action, making things happen faster and more seamlessly.

Making sure innovative ideas are heard

“I think it’s really easy for organisations, particularly as they grow, to get quite bureaucratic, siloed and overly structured,” says Olivier. The consequence for innovation? The people innovators need to share their ideas with don’t have the bandwidth or inclination to take notice.

It means that making anything happen “is a constant uphill struggle,” says Olivier. “I’ve experienced that in previous jobs where I wouldn’t get support from management when I had an idea. Rather my input was often viewed as disruptive. And if a proposal did go off it would never get discussed and die.”

"It’s the “not worth my time” mentality that’s absolute poison for an organisation striving to be more innovative."

Can creating a dedicated research team help? Olivier says “yes” because it creates the inclination and space for ideas to flow when you have a team purely focused on innovation. But he points out that:

“There should be a degree of permeability between the research team and the rest of the organisation. For example, at Challenge Works we involve the programme managers in the research process. It’s the programme managers who will be implementing the programme so they need to be involved in the process; they need to know what they’re doing.”

Of course, not all businesses have the resources for a dedicated research team. In these cases, the focus should be on creating a culture in which innovation can thrive.

Fostering a culture of innovation

Olivier emphasises that it all boils down to who’s running the business. If the leadership don’t have the right attitudes or don’t engage with their employees in an open, approachable way, this is a huge barrier to innovation.

“There’re many cases of organisational leaders who treat the company like their personal fiefdom, and who aren’t interested in being challenged,” Olivier says. “Creating a culture where junior team members don’t have that sense of psychological safety where they can actually suggest things.”

Building on his earlier point, Olivier emphasises how employees need to feel comfortable with sharing their ideas.

"Give people the space to ask stupid questions or pose stupid suggestions. Because sometimes those suggestions aren’t stupid and could turn out to be something really cool. "

At the same time, he points out that you also need to know when to shut down bad ideas. “If you’re not careful, or you’re not a little bit ruthless, you can let the project build momentum. That makes it really difficult to shut down. A lot of people will be disappointed, and you’ll have wasted money and resources. It’s important to strike a balance between openness and a healthy level of scrutiny.”

A final note from Olivier

“As organisations change, the dynamics change too. If you’re not careful, the processes that once made you an innovative organisation start falling to bits. Your teams become less coherent and your working culture becomes less and less effective. That’s why leaders have to be quite conscious, thoughtful and deliberate in the way they evolve their organisation as it grows.”

Don’t miss out on our discussion with Olivier in full — there’s plenty more insight to digest! Listen to the podcast.