When it comes to innovation, aim high

Tuesday July 9 2013


When the great adventurer, George Mallory, was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he replied: “Because it is there.’’

It is with this attitude of exploration that an entrepreneur should launch a business. To achieve anything, you have to want to break new ground.

Whatever sector your company is in, you should always keep an eye on your competition: What they are not doing well, you should do better. But what will excite and delight your customers is if you offer something completely new and revolutionary.

Among the Virgin businesses, Virgin Galactic is the obvious example of a company that has achieved this, as we are literally reaching new heights in the commercial space industry.

The drive to build a challenger brand comes from a team’s innate desire to push the boundaries. One of the best ways for an entrepreneur or manager to go about sparking these innovative ideas among employees is to organise contests or go after prizes.

They unleash people’s competitive instincts and give them the impetus to go the extra mile. Our decision to launch Virgin Galactic was partly inspired by the Ansari X Prize.

When the engineer, Burt Rutan, safely launched SpaceShipOne, his reusable manned spacecraft, into space a second time, he proved that he had solved the problems involved. We asked him to design our spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo.

When prizes are linked to wonderful causes, they can often be especially motivating for a team. This has definitely been the case with the Virgin Earth Challenge, which I have mentioned in this column: A $25 million reward to anyone who invents a scalable, sustainable way of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Some climate change experts say that if we were able to extract the equivalent of Europe’s total carbon emissions yearly, we could maintain the Earth’s temperature at its current level indefinitely. While the judges have not yet found a winner, a supportive community of entrants has sprung up that is driving innovation.

World’s toughest problems

I was delighted to serve as a judge recently on the Google Global Impact Challenge, where we awarded four nonprofits grants of £500,000 each, along with technical assistance from Google, for projects that will use technology to tackle the world’s toughest problems.

(SolarAid, for example, is intent on eradicating the polluting and expensive kerosene lamp in Africa by 2020.) I am also chairing the jury for the annual Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, which awards £500,000 to the entrepreneur who presents the best product or service that reduces greenhouse gases.

It has been wonderful to see how, for startups that are venturing into the unknown, the encouragement of a well-known organisation can be a huge benefit (though, of course, big financial rewards certainly help, too!)

Both of these prizes have their roots in the Longitude Prize, which is celebrating its 300th anniversary next year. It was set up by the British government in 1714 as a reward for whoever could come up with a simple way to pinpoint a ship’s longitude.

Inspired by this story, British officials recently announced a new contest asking entrants to determine the greatest challenge facing humanity today, and then, once that question is settled, offering £1 million to whoever invents a solution.

The idea is an unusual one, but its wide scope could be a masterstroke. If a problem seems to be unsolvable, setting up a contest can be a catalyst for innovation.

But rewards should not just be reserved for people who win global competitions. To encourage the everyday innovation that will keep your company a step ahead of its rivals, recognise your employees’ achievements by providing daily encouragement and help, and also prizes that they can aim for in the long term.

At Virgin, our people work toward individual goals, and there are incentives connected to them. Outstanding employees are celebrated at our annual Stars of the Year banquet.

There are team goals and rewards too — achieving something as a group can be far more satisfying and productive than doing so on your own. What prizes can you offer that will spark your staff’s creativity?

If you are launching a startup or want to bring some new life to your established business, take a look around at the various prizes on offer and consider entering some competitions.

The recognition your company could gain from winning an important or interesting prize could make your team and business soar.

And if you do not win? Well, you will have fun trying, and is that not the point?

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group of companies. Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Send them to [email protected]