Innovation, as a discipline, has a bit of a reputation. There’s no shortage of books, frameworks, how-to videos, and workshops on the topic, making it difficult to understand how to apply it on our own. Let me set some anxieties at ease and say that innovation is nothing more than doing something new. The scale can vary from an improved process in a small office, to a market-disrupting new product, with all the many points in between.
Of course there are nuances, and challenges, and while you can’t “innovate wrong” you can fail to create something of particular value. This failure can come at real cost, between lost time, unrecovered expenses, and even loss of customer confidence. Let’s look at how we can mitigate those risks, using the example of an ice cream shop. This may seem an odd example for innovation, but remember that improving a process is innovation just the same as new product development. The same rules apply, just at different scales.
First off we need a clearly defined and articulated goal. This is always harder than it sounds, but applying SMART or your favorite goal setting acronym can help. I find the best goals focus not on an output, but instead on an outcome. Having a cup of coffee in my hands is the output of making coffee in the morning. Being awake and personable enough to interact with fellow humans is the outcome.
Turning our attention to our ice cream shop example. “Make the shop entrance less chaotic” is a good place to start the conversation, but it’s a lousy goal. What does less chaotic mean? Is it too noisy, are people bumping into each other, are customers clumping, or something else? “Alleviate the congestion inside the shop entrance” gives us a clear understanding of the outcome we want to achieve, and even some additional information about the scope of the problem: inside the shop.
Next, we need to understand our stakeholders, and what matters to them. While these are two different things, I find that considering both at the same time helps define new details for each. The key is to understand who you are impacting, and what matters to them. A way of framing the question I often come back to is to ask “What about this process creates value for the stakeholder?”
Back to our example ice cream shop, we have our customers, who want to understand what options are available to them so they can make a purchase. But wait, is everyone who comes into the shop there to make a purchase? Some people just want to know what options are available to them, and have no interest in making a purchase. Already we have two types of stakeholders with different needs, one driven by the need for information, the other to make a purchase with that information.
The third step is to understand what metrics, measures, and data you are able to use towards realizing your goal. The level of rigor you should bring to your innovation process will vary depending on the scale of the goal. The amount of metric tracking and data analysis needed to bring about a new flagship product will be very different from a simple workflow improvement. While the former may require objective measures with large sample sets, the former could be fine with a few subjective measures. The important thing here is that we’re making our decisions and determining success based on evidence, instead of gut feelings.
In the context of our ice cream shop, let’s measure the number of people clustered within 10 feet of the entrance. What are those people doing? Are they reviewing the menu and leaving, or reviewing the menu and purchasing? How long are they reviewing the menu? Each of these data points helps you understand what solutions you can try, and provide a baseline against which you can measure success.
The final step, if we can call it that, is to iterate. Do as little as possible to move towards the goal, and check your measures to see if you’ve made progress. Again the scale of your iterations will vary wildly with the scale of the goal. A new physical product may require months of design and fabrication, while a new process in an office setting may require nothing more than an alignment meeting. The intent of iterating is to check if what you thought would work actually does.
Going back to our ice cream shop, let’s try encouraging traffic to flow in a particular direction. Maybe a few signs indicating where to form a line would do it. Perhaps putting a menu outside so people can see it without congesting the entrance. Then wait, measure, and decide if we need to modify the solution, or if it has accomplished what we set out to do. How many iterations will be necessary is going to depend on the cost of further iterations, and the potential benefits thereof.
While that was an innovation process on a small scale, the same rules apply to a larger innovation effort. A new strategic approach, a new product, or a complete overhaul of your organization's way of working will see the same patterns. The timelines will be months or years, instead of hours or days, and the complexity will be that much greater, but the patterns remain.
While that may be the last step, it’s not the last piece of the puzzle. The culture of your organization will have a huge impact on your ability to innovate. If success is the only important thing, then the safe options will always be chosen. If on the other hand, learning new lessons, and attempting new approaches is rewarded, then your organization will be that much closer to innovation as a habit.