“Innovative companies question their successes”

Interview with Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer about innovation and sustainability

Innovation 24 Mar 2022
People in front of an illuminated display watching a 3D printing process.

When is a company innovative? When it develops new products? “Not only then,” says Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer, expert for innovation management and managing director of Innolytics AG: “Innovation is about more than just creating new products.” In this interview, the author and keynote speaker explains what sets innovative companies apart, where they tend to focus on for their innovations in addition to products, and what the future of innovation looks like in open, networked, and dynamic systems.

Dr.  Meyer, innovations have always existed. Would you say that the extent to which people are trying to consciously and proactively innovate has changed?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: Absolutely. Three trends can be identified that shape the current approach to innovation. Firstly, we are seeing increasing competition worldwide in relation to innovation. Today’s good solution is tomorrow’s average one, and by the day after tomorrow it is already obsolete. Secondly, we are noticing that the definition of “innovation” is becoming broader and broader. Innovation is no longer just about products; innovation for sustainability and innovative business models are also a part of the picture. The third trend is digitalization, which is a real game changer. It forces us to fundamentally rethink a lot of things: How we develop, offer, and market products and services.

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer, expert for innovation culture and innovation management


Today’s good solution is tomorrow’s average one, and by the day after tomorrow it is already obsolete.

Does digitalization drive innovation? What other drivers are there?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: Digitalization is an important driver. We are at the point where supply chains and production have been digitalized, but now we need to take the next step. Software now no longer just supports us; it can take data-based decisions for us. I see the topic of sustainability as another driver. Sustainability is a major growth market for the next few years and in some instances will lead to radical changes in production, sales and logistics – there will be changes everywhere.

What is the key to the success of highly innovative companies?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: Companies need to find a way to resolve the conflict between conserving and renewing. Innovative companies question their successes. Traditional management theory advocates exactly the opposite: You look at where you have been successful and then try to grow within this area of success. Successful companies also think three to five years ahead, and this includes being open to sometimes allowing an innovation project to hold back short-term success. You need a clear vision.

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer, expert for innovation culture and innovation management


Companies need to find a way to resolve the conflict between conserving and renewing.

How important is it for companies to have a culture of innovation, and how can you create such a culture – also in the long term?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: A culture of innovation is the key driver of change for companies that want to evolve. It ensures that new ideas and projects are successfully implemented. The day-to-day approach taken by managers can create a culture of innovation. It’s about encouraging employees to generate new ideas, to question the tried and true, and to make sufficient resources available for these processes. A culture of innovation also includes a culture of error and with it the will to learn from failure. And it is important for people to have a goal-oriented approach rather than a process-oriented one. With a focus on process, you follow all the workflows to the letter and change very little. If you’re goal-oriented, you’re looking to achieve a certain objective and so you have to make changes along the way to get there. Both approaches are often at odds with each other and ultimately senior management must lead by example.

A group of four employees standing around a table and exchanging ideas.

Just as relevant as a positive attitude towards failure and a good leadership style is a diverse team.

What are the challenges in establishing a culture of innovation?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: Innovation always happens in two ways: There is top-down driven innovation when it comes to tapping into new strategic business areas and developing products. But the real challenge is in allowing the whole process to work in reverse, meaning bottom-up. For this to work, employees need consistent guidance, they need to be asked questions, and they need encouragement to become entrepreneurial thinkers.

Does innovation have to be a collaborative process, or is it also possible to innovate in isolation?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: It’s a combination of the two. You need isolation if you want to focus on something, but at some point, you will want to present your innovative idea to others and test it. What does the market say about it? And what do customers think? You then take the input and keep working on the innovation. It’s important to maintain this balance between collaboration and isolation.

How important is open innovation?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: Open innovation, or the active strategic use of the outside world, is important when it comes to increasing innovation potential. There are various aspects to open innovation, and as such it is important at different levels. You could collaborate on a B2B level, for instance, and join forces with start-ups or other companies. And then there is the B2C level where you could collaborate with consumers. However, if you choose to collaborate, one element is essential: mutual trust. And with both approaches, you need to clarify in advance where the opportunities for collaboration lie and where the limits are. Very few consumers are in a position to develop a new business model, but they can provide input on things such as product design.

When was the last time you came up with an innovative idea?

Dr. Jens-Uwe Meyer: My last innovation was three hours ago. One of my developers implemented a new feature in a software program. We are surrounded by innovations all the time, but we don’t always recognize or appreciate them. You will always be able to identify your key successes if you look back and ask yourself the question: Where was I one year ago and where am I today?

Checklist: How innovative is my company?


Do our leaders encourage or stifle innovation, and how do we hold them accountable?


Are we doing everything we can to connect people and teams with diverse backgrounds and experience?


Are we ready to explore open innovation strategies and scale new external ideas into the business?


Is our innovation strategy aligned to our wider business and sustainability goals, and is it agile enough to shift focus as the world changes?


Have we integrated our innovation activity into all parts of the business, or is it siloed within R&D?


Are our innovation teams ready for agile, digitally enabled ways of working?


Do we have the skills and capabilities required to develop innovations that stand out in the digital world?


Are we using the full potential of digital data and analytics to track the reception of innovations by consumers and are we agile and bold enough to implement adaptations quickly?


Do we have a radar to track the latest customer and technology trends, and a way to understand how these trends converge?


Are we genuinely tolerant of risk, and do our employees feel that they can fail?

Source of the checklist: Survey “Cultivate the new – Innovation for the long term”, The Financial Times LTD & Henkel (2020)