Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Innovation - fast and slow, for the right reasons

For quite some time we've been hearing about how important it is to do things quickly, with many new adjectives placed in front of the word "innovation". These words include adjectives such as "lean", "agile" and "rapid", to make the point that innovation should be stripped to its bare components, move as fast as possible and create minimum viable solutions.  What has worked in more traditional settings - manufacturing, process improvement, etc - is now being applied to innovation.  And to some extent that's good - innovation can't afford to get bogged down in lots of red tape.  But we ought to ask ourselves when it is important and necessary to move quickly, and equally what factors cause work to move slowly.

When to move slowly

You'll be a bit surprised, I know, to find out that my first point is a bit contrarian.  That is, not everything in innovation should move quickly.  In fact I've often said and written that to move quickly you first need to move slowly, or at least move with good information.  Far too many innovation activities start with ideas and move quickly to create minimum viable products, but these activities lack good understanding of the emerging future and lack customer insights and needs.  Moving quickly without important context is just failing faster, and failing without appropriate learning.

There are not nearly enough people or resources dedicated to understanding the emerging future, or tapped to understand unmet or unarticulated needs.  If the previous sentence is true for your company, then moving quickly through these activities, skipping them because you already "know" what's going to happen or just ignoring them in order to move faster isn't helpful.  You can move quickly to do innovation work if you are constantly updating the context in which new ideas should be generated.  You should not move quickly if moving quickly simply means ignoring customer needs and emerging trends.

Why innovation efforts often move slowly (part 1)

Innovation work often moves slowly for a number of reasons, that in reality are easily addressed.  These include:

  • Uncertain scope
  • Assigning people who are unfamiliar with innovation methods and tools
  • Assigning people on a part-time basis, or on top of their existing jobs
  • Working on ideas that cross internal silos where processes or communications are lacking
  • Lack of funding for innovation programs
These bullets are always true, and always slow down innovation work.  Innovation itself is not necessarily a slow activity, it is often slowed by factors beyond the control of the innovation team.  Address the factors around the innovation activity and innovation can move very quickly.

Why innovation efforts often move slowly (part 2)

But what really causes innovation to move slowly are factors like disruption and risk avoidance.  If your organization has a well-defined and reasonably profitable business model, how anxious will the leadership team be to see you generate a wholly new business model or a product that cannibalizes existing products or services?  Executives can't be faulted for asking for more validation, more data, more customer tests when existing, profitable products or business models are at stake.  Risk avoidance and current revenue are often more important than potential profitable products and services.  No amount of lean tools or agile methodology will change that.  Only management commitment and cultural change will address those issues.

When can you move fast?

You can move fast in innovation work when you:
  • Have capable teams, trained in innovation work
  • Have a clear project scope and anticipated deliverables
  • Have the people and funding you need, and no more
  • Have management flying air cover for your work and your ideas
  • Have a good understanding of emerging trends and customer needs
These factors will accelerate your "front end" work - that is, getting from opportunity to requirements.  You'll also want to address a large gating factor - how to get new product and service ideas into a packed product development process.  Innovation may move quickly, but the clog in the system is often in a transition from really good, validated ideas moving to new product development projects.

A minimum viable product is just that, minimum and barely viable.  Finishing and scaling an MVP is what drives real revenue, which means a good idea needs to go through the front end relatively quickly, and go through product development and market launch in a timely fashion as well.  Understanding the entire process, from opportunity identification to market launch is what will ultimately make innovation faster.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:48 AM


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