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John Watton leads the global marketing team for Expedia Affiliate Network (EAN), which provides private label solutions to the travel industry.

He is also a member of the judging panel for Econsultancy's Innovation Awards, choosing from this shortlist

I've been asking John about encouraging innovation within companies, and what he will be looking for from awards entries. 

What makes something innovative?

I sometimes think people confuse "innovation" with "invention", and get hung up on creating something completely new.

Innovation to me is about taking something existing and transforming it in a way that radically enhances the function or design of that "thing". It can be an improvement, a new twist or the combination of things that were never combined before.

How do you build an innovative company, or foster innovation within your organisation?

I get frustrated when companies start up a separate innovation department. Innovation should be part of your operational DNA. It can't be taught, it has to be experienced. You can only build innovation by measuring, experimenting and learning.

So if you're not measuring the impact of marketing, start. Then encourage experimentation and A/B test the hell out of everything. Be positive about mistakes, and celebrate successes. Employees will get used to a culture of taking chances, thinking differently and ultimately innovating what they do.

Are most stakeholders happy to go along with innovative ideas, or do you have to work hard to persuade them to take chances?

We're all intrinsically conservative. Especially in businesses with shareholder expectations. You have to work hard on measurement and ROI. You have to build trust with your key stakeholders. Innovation is practically impossible if you have no track record to build trust upon.

In politics, lobbying firms are hired to convince stakeholders in advance of a vote of a bill. Do the same in your job! Think like a lobbyist. Identify your stakeholders. Understand their concerns and then work up to innovation by delivering great results to each and every one of them. 

Get them in a position to be your biggest advocate when you want that innovation vote.

Can any company become innovative? What are the barriers to innovation within organisations?

Of course. In my experience it’s harder to get innovation through larger businesses, just because you have to convince/get the buy in of more people.

But you can't generalise. I've worked in some innovative small businesses, as well as much larger ones. With the proliferation of low cost, open technology the traditional barriers of technical, effort & financial issues are no longer valid. What remains is personal - job protection, fear of the unknown, comfort zones. 

How do you persuade them to take risks and embrace innovative ideas?

Difficult. It varies, but I like to use the old classic of Moore's "Crossing The Chasm". Think of getting innovation into your business like getting a technology solution into market. Group your stakeholders into Moore's market segments and treat them just the same.

Why is innovation so important in digital? Is there still plenty of scope for new innovation? 

Innovation is important as digital continues to be the new frontier. We can only learn and advance by trial and error. No one knows the answers, and it’s all to play for.  We need the innovators to help us move forward.

What will you be looking for when you judge entries to this year’s Innovation Awards?

Measurable results linked to definable business objectives. I never lose site of the commercial realities of working in marketing.

That said, I am a sucker for cool creative stuff...

What are your top three innovations for 2011?

For how it has transformed my life, Ocado (convenience, service), Naked Wines (for combining start-ups and retailing) and Kindle (a lesson in how focussing on doing one thing well is no bad thing)!

What do you see as the major trends in digital / multichannel for the next 12 months?

The combination of mobile, social and local in innovating how we shop, search and buy. The death of the digital or social media department. The coming together of SEO+SEM teams. Why are they separate?!!

Graham Charlton

Published 4 January, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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