How to ignite innovation and empower more sustainable solutions

BrandPost By Will Allen, Fellow, Global Innovation Team, Iron Mountain
Sep 25, 20236 mins

This is how breakthrough ideas and innovations are born-and how customer and ecosystem validation and sustainability take flight.

Man Using AI
Credit: Iron Mountain

Some moments in life are indelibly etched in our memory. I will never forget one evening several years ago. In fact, I can point to the chair where I sat when it happened. My wife, three children, and I were eating dinner together. Suddenly, an idea sparked in my brain. I grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper from the kitchen counter and began diagramming my concept. New ideas can be fleeting, so I was begging my children to bring me more paper, fast. They were all laughing at me because it wasn’t the first time that dinner had been interrupted by an “aha” moment.

Earlier, my manager challenged me with a complex technical question underpinning an inflection point for our organization. My dinner drawings captured at a high level how we could solve the technical challenges associated with this opportunity. Ultimately, we fully vetted and deployed the solution I mapped out, which launched a whole new business for our company. This is the process of invention, which leads to innovation that secures an organization’s future and can change the world.

For organizations, invention (creating something new) that leads to innovation (creating positive business impact) requires a team effort and an ecosystem-wide iterative process peppered with dependencies, discoveries, and iterations along the way. Knowing this upfront helps companies get innovation right. That’s important because businesses thrive on innovation—and without it, they risk obsolescence.

From invention to innovation

My team’s mission is stimulating breakthrough ideas and accelerating the development of greener, more sustainable solutions that drive value for our customers. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of “sparks,” yielding over 90 patents in my career, and have seen and helped many innovations come to light. But moving ideas forward, or “operationalizing innovation,” can be tricky. And bringing to fruition solutions that shift industries is becoming more difficult. According to research, “papers, patents, and even grant applications have become less novel relative to prior work and less likely to connect disparate areas of knowledge, both of which are precursors of innovation.” 

This suggests that, to deliver innovation, we have to work closely with our technology and process users to get solutions right. My team and I use a rapid learn-and-pivot methodology known as “compassion-driven innovation” to stay connected with our customers and ecosystem while addressing underlying concerns such as security, customer and user experience, and sustainability. Using this methodology helps us to de-risk our customers’ journeys into digital solutions.

Woman climbing stairs

Iron Mountain

Innovation requires a holistic, connected, iterative approach; without it, even the best ideas can fail. Here’s a three-pronged litmus test. Innovations must solve problems by:

  • Being customer-centric. Does the innovation solve a real customer problem? Does it add unique value? Does the customer experience improvement warrant their investment?
  • Working within an ecosystem. Is the ecosystem in place to make the innovation viable from the outset? Do we have the resources to leverage the ecosystem?
  • Doing so responsibly. Does the innovation contribute to a better world?

Customer-centric innovations

Innovations must meet customers at a specific point of need while being financially viable and differentiated from other options. Earlier this year, our team was researching a new solution called Digital Pathology On Demand (DPOD), which enables pathologists and researchers to collaborate using digital slide images. This solution has the potential to completely transform pathology. Recently, I spoke with a doctor at one of the world’s leading cancer hospitals about our DPOD pilot. He was thrilled because the solution addresses a huge unmet need that has been hindering pathology. With DPOD, this doctor said he could practice medicine and not worry about huge files, scanning, and physical asset management while simultaneously gaining access, speed, and collaboration.

Tapping into an ecosystem

Many people focus on the spark of invention. However, that spark must be nurtured within a highly interdependent ecosystem, including customers, influencers, end-users, partners, and beyond-for innovation to occur. 

One of the most valuable and widely adopted innovations of my lifetime, the cell phone, could not be used without its enabling ecosystem. For example, when cell phones were introduced, they were large, heavy, and awkward to hold, but still “mobile” because they were wireless. One of the biggest drawbacks was that they were not able to roam. If you left your neighborhood and went across town, the phone would not work. When the cell tower ecosystem evolved, the ability for cell phones to roam delivered mobility, and cell phone adoption skyrocketed.

Innovating for the greater good

Increasingly, enterprise leaders are shifting focus to innovations that help people and our planet. For instance, environmental sustainability is now among CEOs’ top 10 priorities. The surprising benefit-beyond environmental ones-is that sustainability initiatives often generate positive financial returns for organizations.

Organizations face two key environmental challenges: 1) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in product design and creation, and 2) to ensure that products can be recycled or reintroduced into the circular economy. Innovations must help answer these two needs. The big question is how organizations can approach wide-scale change and advance sustainability goals for themselves and others. To help answer that increasingly important question, I suggest you read our sustainability paper here.

Catalyzing your next family-dinner ‘spark’

Innovation is a powerful tool for organizations and our world. Using three guiding principles to ensure innovation is viable helps to harness its incredible potential. Is it customer-centric? Are the ecosystems-internal and external to your organization-in place to make it viable? Does it contribute to a better world?

Next time you’re sharing a meal or time with your friends or family, I hope you experience an “aha” moment. Although that spark of brilliance is thrilling, remember the litmus test. And keep a pencil and paper handy.

Learn more about how to accelerate sustainability.

Read about sustainability innovation and tomorrow’s engineers.

Learn about Digital Pathology On Demand.