Why innovation is not a numbers game

How many innovation projects can I juggle at any one time? What’s the optimum number before I lose the plot… and the patience of top management? 

People are often fixated on figures and stats. They worry whether senior management will take innovation seriously if there isn’t a broad and impressive spread of projects. Equally, they fear that too many projects will stretch their limited budgets and resources too thinly to be of any real value. 

In truth, though, these issues are of secondary importance. Innovation is not a statistical juggling act – nor is it a numbers game. It’s a process for delivering disruption… at speed. The priority is not the numbers but the process. 

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Steve Blank and Peter Newell, crystallised this thinking very succinctly:

“In reality, for innovation to contribute to a company or government agency, it needs to be designed as a process from start to deployment…  

What organizations need is a self-regulating, evidence-based innovation pipeline. Instead of having ideas vetted by committees, they need a process that operates with speed and urgencyand that helps innovators and other stakeholders to curate and prioritize problems, ideas, and technologies…

This prioritization process has to start before any new idea reaches engineering. This way, the innovations that do reach engineering will already have substantial evidence — about validated customer needs, processes, legal security, and integration issues. Most importantly, minimal viable products and working prototypes will have been tested.”

In the final chapter of the book, we expand on this thinking but, right now, we want to share the thought process of a true disrupter. Over the years we have worked very closely with many leading innovators. One in particular, though, has taken greater calculated risks and delivered more disruptive projects than anyone we know. His very intuitive approach to innovation makes fascinating reading…

For 10 years, this remarkable individual ran the IT function for a data-driven marketing and loyalty analytics giant. He was a secure senior manager in a highly successful company – but he also had a deep and growing concern about the future. He feared that his company was no longer nimble enough to seize the initiative and run with the latest innovations. And he finally took these concerns to his Board. He persuaded them to set up a ‘skunk works’ team to explore opportunities in three key domains: Legislative Change… Emerging Consumer Trends… and Technical Innovation.

Make no mistake, this gambit was a huge personal gamble. He put his credibility and career on the line. He resigned as Head of IT to lead a tiny team working at the outer fringes of innovation. He had no coders, no architects, no testers, no analysts, no project managers and precious little budget. To succeed, he would need to work with the most visionary partners and to deliver very, very rapid results.

Right from the outset, he had one guiding principle for his innovation team: Make a move. Even if it proved to be the wrong move, he firmly believed in the power of traction…

“By pushing and moving forward, you take the business forward. You explore new environments and discover new pivot points. And that’s when you stumble on the unexpected: new constraints, new limitations and, ultimately, new ideas. But you have to make that move to stir up the status quo.”

He also had to deliver fast. Management’s continued interest and funding depended on a steady stream of results. So, he set himself a hugely ambitious target: 

One new prototype per month. 

The fact that he delivered twenty prototype projects in just under two years – and simultaneously launched businesses in Italy and Ireland – proves just how well he kept to this punishing regime. 

Even more remarkably, he achieved this relentless productivity with minimal funding. A maximum of £10,000 was allocated for each innovation project.

Many of his most interesting projects were – and still are – deeply consumer-centric. His primary focus has been to smooth the interaction between retailers and their customers. To develop a much deeper, more real-time and infinitely more cognizant relationship. 

The message:  

What have we learned from working so closely with this remarkable innovator? Here are four take-home lessons that we have taken to heart…

  • First. Have the vision to see how everyday technologies can be adopted and adapted to radically change user experience. You don’t have to invent the wheel to be innovative.
  • Second. Develop a deep understanding of what will make a genuine difference to customers. Knowing how to make the CX uniquely and personally memorable is paramount.
  • Third. Value tight timeframes and even tighter budgets. Curiously, when projects are stripped to the bone, it often gives teams a sharper focus. When deadlines are unbending and funds constrained, you can’t afford costly diversions or delays.
  • Fourth. Learn to love abstraction… be comfortable working with an ambitious set of ideas rather than a finite brief. At the outset of many projects, the language of design and innovation is full of ambiguity. Objectives are often only half-formed and free flowing…

Teams must behappy working with incomplete briefs and fluid concepts. IT teams, especially, must have a real (and rare) talent for creatively bridging the disconnects between parties.

But this willingness to work with abstraction also has to be married to a disciplined engineering rigour and first-rate project management. 

When all of those qualities come together – then you create something very special.

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