Innovation. It’s brought up in articles, at conferences and in board meetings. But how can we innovate in companies that still don’t have the flexibility or the right mind set?

Julie Cottineau, former VP of Brand for Virgin USA, brought the idea that we are all entrepreneurs to Columbia University’s Brite Conference this morning. Innovation isn’t just for new businesses so how do we bring it to the heart of an established company?

When you consider innovating your brand, what stops you from moving forward? Cottineau highlighted five main roadblocks that halt innovation in organisations:

  • How will this get approved through my organisation?
  • Our competition will probably beat us to it
  • It seems interesting, but maybe need more data. This leads to testing, which can lead to the idea losing steam.
  • This could be risky. Can we afford to fail?
  • Why hasn’t it been done before? What’s the catch?

How do we overcome these roadblocks?

Cottineau gave us five strategies to consider with the understanding that we’ve heard it all before. What we need to do though, is learn from it and act on it.

1) Passion

Great brands started with frustrated people. Dyson, Tom’s Shoes, Ben and Jerry’s all wanted to make something better as they saw a need there. They saw it in themselves.

Cottineau used a Richard Branson quote to emphasise the feeling behind that:

Whenever I see people getting a bad idea, I want to step in and do something about it. I look for opportunities where we can offer something better fresher and more valuable.

“If you are working on something,” continued Cottineau, “you better passionate about it. It has to be something that keeps you up at night.”

2) Take a fresh look

Lateral thinking is important when you’re looking at innovating at the brand level. You may think what if Delta was to twist with Starbucks? They could turn around the seats so people could chat.

That’s not necessarily possible for an airline to physically do but last week KLM introduced social seating. This allows you to find out if someone in your Facebook or Twitter network is on the plane. You can then choose seats to sit with someone you are interested in talking to.

3) Be useful

Companies need to think more about being useful and not about being innovative. If you do that, you put your consumer into the centre. You have to think – how do I help these people?

Examples like Pinterest, Zappos, Airbnb, YCombinator, Apple, Nike, and Starbucks where brought up. You need to look at how you impact your consumers along the whole journey. It’s not just about the moment of purchase anymore but extends to before and after purchase now.

4) Live in Beta

Google gives employees 20% time for personal passion projects. AdSense is a product that came from it and it’s now a two billion dollar product for them.

You may have to look to sides of the project in order to innovate. Or you may have to change your model as you go in order to salvage what could potentially kill your product.Virgin did this with Freefest. The economy was on a downturn and they were afraid no one would come. So they changed the model. Instead of charging for tickets, Virgin gave the tickets away if someone donated or gave their time to a charity. They got sponsors and the event was a success. This wasn’t something they thought of a year out. It was something they did on the fly.

5) Fail smarter

It’s scary to consider but only 1 in 10 companies you see today will exist in 3 years. Virgin cola, for example, was a tremendous failure.

It sounded good on paper but it failed. The learnings? Virgin is about experience like airlines and health clubs. “There are only 6 experiences with a cola and,” Cottineau joked, “that includes burping.”

How do you starting thinking like an entrepreneur?

Cottineau left the Brite Conference audience with a great exercise to help companies think about their brands in new ways. A way to brainstorm about the direction of your Brand in three easy steps.

First choose an inspirational brand that you are passionate about, focusing on one that is a great problem solver. Then identify a pain point you want to solve. Think big. What is the fundamental thing that will make a difference in your company?

Finally, twist the two for inspiration and actionable ideas. To do this, you’ll need to imagine what would happen if your inspirational brand was in charge of solving your problem for you?

It’s this kind of thinking that could lead to new ideas for brands. In the right conditions, this could move companies forward. Of course, those five initial roadblocks aren’t going away anytime soon.

But as more brands have c-level change and open themselves to entrepreneurial ideas, we may see it’s those brands that will be able to successfully navigate our current volatile landscape.