The skill and prowess of the Venetian glass blowers led the world in glass manufacturing for over 500 years. Such was the extent of their knowledge and capability, the Maggior Consiglio, or Great Council, sent them to the island of Myrano and forbid any of the glass blowers to leave the island. This allowed a high degree of collaboration and specialisation which provided the platform for many world firsts, and hundreds of years of innovation.
It is interesting to reflect on what the ancient Venetians achieved and how it is relevant in today’s era of digitalisation and tech innovation. I believe there are three key lessons:
Innovation is a journey
Rarely, is innovation the result of a single “big bang”. It’s more a series of small mistakes that leads to knowledge and often very small incremental improvements. Over time, the aggregation of these small steps leads to change and innovation being perfected.
Innovation is often driven by a culture or body of knowledge that strives for a better way. We have all encountered organisations that have driving change and innovation as their basic culture. For example, For many years 3M has created systems, organisation structures and a work environment that encourages resourcefulness and initiative. And we all love the post-it note!
Behavioural change drives successful innovation
One huge stumbling block stifling innovation is our ability to accept the change and achieve the required behavioural response to the innovation. This has prevented many a business case delivering as promised. We have all seen the best ideas implemented poorly, which means the innovation can become dysfunctional, and sometimes even worse than the status quo.
Innovators often forget about the appropriate change management required to get users/customers to take up a new way of delivering a service or a product. This can take time too. It took Citibank 25 years to get 25% of its customers to use ATMs. The Venetians would have been forgotten if their sales people and agents could never convince customers to use their products. Imagine being asked to drink from a brittle glass when you were used to drinking from a tin cup!
Disruption Vs innovation
People sometimes confuse disruption with innovation. Innovation makes an existing solution better, whereas disruption transforms an existing approach into something new. Fintech and Insurtech has seen many disruptive strategies rolled out over the past decade. The measure of a disruptive approach is to get the customer to perceive a radical change in the essence of the product or service. Facebook banking is a clear example of this. Bankers and insurers often despair at the slow pace of disruption and the multiple ways that are being developed to essentially solve the same problems.
Interestingly, the demise of Venetian glass making dominance was driven by defectors becoming competitors rather than any disruption strategy. These new world glass manufacturers took the accumulated knowledge from Venice and extended on it. A traditional way to speed up innovation.