June 9, 2020

"We need a rethink on innovation labs"

A wave of investment in labs and hubs hasn't given companies the innovation results they wanted, says Mark Curtis, head of innovation at Accenture Interactive.

Kimberly Eynon

5 min read

Mark Curtis is a serial entrepreneur and innovator. He founded Curtis Hoy, which transformed radio advertising in the 1980s and 90s, and then founded CHBi to explore emerging interactive media. CHBi created, among other things, Yell for Yellow Pages. 

In 2001, he cofounded service design consultancy Fjord with Mike Beeston and Olof Schybergson, which was acquired by Accenture in 2013. Curtis remains chief client officer at Fjord and is also head of innovation and thought leadership at Accenture Interactive. 

He's a big proponent of putting human experience at the heart of business and his book, 'Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age', asks what costs technology has for us as human beings. 


He shared his thoughts about how companies should be rethinking themselves post-Covid with Sifted: forget the innovation labs, these haven't worked; to build a true innovation culture you need habits, ritual and stamina. 

How do you define ‘innovation’?

The classic definition of innovation is ‘the new way of doing things that adds value’. For example, technological innovation could mean lower costs for a more personalised service. A more modern interpretation of innovation defines success where human experience is at the heart. Looking again to our example, more human centricity might mean a better interface or a clearer proposition where technology is concerned. I would argue what’s more important to consider is experience innovation — that place where you join the dots of human business and technology.

If you make a set of assumptions, how does the innovation industry look in 2025?

I think we’re all wondering what many industries will look like in five years’ time. Right now, we’re facing a period of uncertainty. We’ve got disease uncertainty — wondering how we defeat Covid-19, economic uncertainty — questioning what the recession will look like and when it will end, and, of course, human uncertainty. How do we react to those mammoth challenges? As a result of Covid-19, we’ve already seen behaviour change at a scale not experienced in our lifetimes. So, predicting what 2025 will look like is a high-risk exercise in fiction.

Over the next five years, we’re going to be focused on experience imagination.

What one might say is that, over the next five years, we’re going to be focused on experience re-imagination. The pandemic has been the biggest shared experience globally of our lives. And it’s made us more conscious of the experiences we’re having as a result of the need to alter habits. Pretty much every experience you can think of has been changed by the pandemic — except for brushing your teeth — and every business is having to reconsider the experiences customers and employees have.

What is your best communication or corporate storytelling tool when trying to get buy-in from corporations?

Personal stories. But you have to be careful to use them only in an illustrative way. You can’t extrapolate from one interesting observation to an entire population. They illuminate the truth, but they are not the truth.

How do you challenge yourself and your team to ‘think outside the box’?

An obvious tool for challenging one’s thinking is to approach it from the customer’s perspective. Another is to ask, ‘if you knew the answer, what would it be?’ That can be very powerful. I try that on my children from time to time. Unfortunately, they can see it coming now! But in meetings, it works very well. It forces you into a zone where you’re starting from a more positive place.

Ask, ‘if you knew the answer, what would it be?' That can be very powerful.

What is currently not working in corporate innovation?

Two things need addressing and they’re interrelated. First, the wave of investment in innovation labs, hubs, centres and the like within businesses peaked a couple of years ago and many of them, sadly, cannot be said to have been worth the investment. Therefore, a rethink about how those relate to the core business is required.

A huge problem is lack of stamina.

“Secondly, a huge problem is usually lack of stamina. And the financial aspect of Covid-19 has naturally had an impact on that. Most companies have gone into crisis mode and initiatives that look like they have long-term ROI are not currently in fashion. We will come through that, probably in a few months, but it’s a long-term problem for organisations that may struggle to support the stamina required to make innovation happen. At the core of that is that they’ve not invested in creating an innovation culture.

What advice would you give to a new head of innovation — what do they need to get right from day one?


Focus on habits, rituals and stamina. A real innovation culture will have all three of those.

What is the best advice about innovation that you have been given?

Don’t get bogged down in trying to define innovation!

What book has been most helpful to you in thinking about corporate innovation?

There is no one book, but I find cultural examples of innovation the most inspiring of all. What Picasso did in art, what Stravinsky did in classical music, what punk did for popular music. The bravery and energy and wilfulness that marks those individuals and their actions out — I find those inspiring and heroic.

Who are fellow thought leaders in innovation that you admire? 

I’m more interested in reading thought leadership around human issues. The thinking of Robert Putnam, the sociologist who wrote Bowling Alone and Our Kids, and Edwin Catmull, the American computer scientist who cofounded Pixar and is the president of Walt Disney Animation Studio, is what I’m studying.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made related to corporate innovation?

Being too early with an idea.