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Meet the practitioner!

In conversation with innovation expert Steve May-Russell


Businesses must innovate and have meaningful new ideas to stay ahead of the competition. But how can businesses have these meaningful new ideas in complex situations and implement product development strategies that actually work? This is the question that keeps potential product and service innovators up at night. Fortunately, we have Steve May-Russell, CEO of Smallfry, at hand to help answer this question! Steve is a leading Industrial Design and Innovation Consultant and has presented the creative industries on the UK Trade & Investment’s bi-lateral partnerships in East Asia and is regularly invited to speak to international audiences on Innovation and using Design to develop brands. Steve lectures at Cranfield, Cambridge University, Coventry University and Loughborough, has worked with household brand names like Adidas, GSK, John Lewis, M&S and B&Q, and has lent us some time today to talk through his approach to innovation and what the idea means to him.


Hi Steve, it’s great to meet you! To set the scene, would you be able to tell us about your background in the world of innovation and what you’re currently working on?

Well, I’ve been leading Smallfry; an Industrial design & innovation consultancy; since 1986. Smallfry is a renowned design consultancy that’s been providing strategic industrial design services since 1971. Our team has developed commercially successful products across the consumer, medical, industrial, and service industries since our foundation in the UK’s industrial and automotive heartlands. I’ve also got experience as the Chair of BIDA, have worked with the Innovate UK on Foundation funding, and have worked with several British Embassies, the Department for International Development, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. Now, I work with a variety of businesses across the innovation spectrum, from start-ups, to spinouts, to scale-ups. Whether it’s multinationals, household brand names like Adidas, GSK, John Lewis, M&S or B&Q, or simply ‘Fred-in-a-Shed’ start-ups, we help organisations to implement product strategies that work. Our product and services Innovation Consultancy has tended to fall mainly in the Consumer, Industrial and Medical Sectors.


Innovation can be a bit of an abstract word sometimes… what does innovation mean to you?

To me, it’s very clear what innovation means: The Strategic Implementation of Good Ideas to Add Value. Our definition of innovation revolves around four key principles:

  1. Strategy = A plan to achieve a goal
  2. Implementation = Using a tried and trusted process
  3. Qualified Ideas = Knowing what a good idea for this business must look like
  4. Adding Value = By knowing exactly what your clients want and why they value that


So, what inspired you to get into the innovation field?

My experience and navigation of the field of innovation is a natural consequence of being an ‘Industrial Designer’. Effectively, we’re professional Mavericks. Many people take a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. We’re different. We work with the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, look to see where we can break and improve it”. Every day change brings a better way of doing things and the way we did things yesterday aren’t going to be the best way things are successfully done tomorrow. But, it’s essential to understand that we hold these beliefs:

  • We’re not design Gurus
  • We’re not contractors
  • We’re not artisan or craftsmen

We are commercially astute design strategists, with the creative flair and engineering knowledge to take ideas through to commercialisation. And that’s exciting!


So that’s why you got into innovation, but why is innovation so important in today’s world? What promise does innovation hold?

Innovation is the future lifeblood of any and all organisations. What got you here won’t get you where you need to be in the future. Without innovation, organisations become stale, wither, and die.


And for people looking to innovate better, what do you think the biggest myths around innovation are?

I truly believe that innovation does not need to be that huge fanfare revelatory moment of transformational change. There’s a scale of innovation that our process helps to manage and mitigate. Innovation is there to help you understand your exposure to risk, balanced against the potential rewards.


So, if it’s not a revelatory moment of transformational change, what do you believe are the essential qualities or skills for someone looking to innovate?

People have to have a commitment to innovation, it’s not a one time thing. But with the right frameworks and way of thinking in place, innovators can innovate repeatedly and efficiently. With that passion and faith in the process, innovators can have more confidence in their ability to embrace risk and build their resilience.


Thank you so much Steve for your time. One last question… What one key bit of advice would you give to people, teams or organisations looking to innovate?

Don’t be afraid to fail. Getting things ‘Right first time’ is nonsense within innovation. It’s always worth remembering that Eddison’s team “Muckers” made 1000’s of prototypes before finally getting something worth patenting!


Thank you so much Steve! That was really insightful.

If you found this insightful too, we encourage you to sign up for our upcoming, affordable, one day masterclass that Steve is running at STEAMhouse on how organisations can build product development strategies that work. You’ll get to experience how product development works in some of the world’s most successful companies and learn about where meaningful new ideas come from and understand how they’re formally managed and finessed to create innovations in complex organisational contexts. This session is for individuals and teams who want to bring some rigour to how they develop new product and service innovations, and is ideal for managers, leaders and developers who navigate the complexity of new product development.

We invite you to sign up for the short course here.