Friday, August 13, 2021

The appropriate innovation speed: slow, then fast

As a writer, you are at risk of "jumping the shark" when you start quoting your own material.  However, I could not help going back into my archives to dredge up a post I wrote almost ten years ago, which was entitled Innovation Fast and Slow.  At the time I was writing this post, I was concerned that too many companies were under too much pressure to speed up their innovation activities and generate some interesting new ideas.  Nothing wrong with speed if preparation comes along with it.  Otherwise, speed can kill an innovative idea.

The problem with that speeding up concept was that most companies were starting from zero.  This meant that they had few capabilities, few people dedicated to innovation and few good ideas.  Speeding up a capacity that is basically a dry well can only lead to more poorly considered ideas that won't have an impact.  You cannot speed up what does not exist.  As Newton noted, objects at rest will stay at rest.

When is it appropriate to "go fast"

Today, ten years on, there is more and more talk about rapid innovation, innovation sprints and so on.  The focus is still on speed, because of the three factors I wrote about in my last post - people, tools and time - time is the most precious resource.  And, most executives operate and are judged on very short time periods - quarters at best - so to have an impact, ideas must get to market and prove their value quickly.  Because time is limited and precious, executives want to speed up innovation work, and in doing so we often shortchange the work and are disappointed in the results.

There is no problem with an innovation sprint, or rapid innovation generally, IFF (and for those of you that don't know the nomenclature, IFF stands for if and only if) you 1) have real capacity for innovation in terms of tools, processes and people, 2) you have good insight into customer needs or emerging opportunities and 3) you have a budget.  If you have all three of these factors in place, please, by all means, sprint away.  If you lack any of them, or more likely all of them, going fast will simply lead to a faster crash.

Again, I am NOT saying that speed is dangerous or unnecessary, only that most organizations have artificial reinforcement for speed - because time is a valuable commodity, people have other jobs and the company is evaluated on a quarterly basis - and before you can be fast at innovation, you have to be good at innovation.

Being good at innovation before being fast

Being good at innovation requires the same investment in people, in processes and in culture as does speeding up any other business process.  If you want to speed up procurement, for example, you'll refine your requisition process, cut time from evaluating vendors, work only with the most responsive vendors, train your procurement staff to process purchase orders more effectively, and so on.

But hopefully you can see the fallacy here.  Corporations have people and processes that have been doing procurement work for years.  In other words, they are already pretty good at doing the work, so speeding it up isn't a large lift.  If you don't have experienced innovators, if you aren't familiar with the tools and methods that support innovation, going fast will inevitably fail.

Here's what you need to "go fast" at innovation:

  •  A clearly scoped opportunity or problem with reasonably clear expectations for an outcome
  •  People who have the time and the skills to do innovation well
  •  A method or process that people can follow to touch all the bases and that ensures that the ideas or products recommended can be validated in the market and defended to executives
  • A budget to do this work
  •  An approval process to get ideas from the "front end" to product or service development teams who will actually bring them to life

If you lack any of these, your innovation work will be less than satisfactory.

When to go slow

Finally, no matter how fast you want to go with innovation, no matter how much you are willing to train the team or build the process, you should ALWAYS go slow at the beginning of an innovation activity.

The worst thing you can do is to start with a poorly identified opportunity or problem, or fail to fully understand the scope (incremental or disruptive) or type (product, service, business model) of innovation that is expected.  The second worst thing you can to is to start an innovation activity without understanding customer wants and needs, or what emerging trends or markets are about to unfold.

If you have a good problem or opportunity definition and are reasonably confident of customer wants and needs, your ability to "go fast" is greatly enhanced.  Without this information, which requires some iteration and a slow start, you will constantly iterate back to the beginning to refine your project, or will advance with a lack of data that will cause you to miss the mark in the end.

The wrap up

So, there's a logic tree that ends this post.

  1. 1. You can go fast in an innovation activity if you
    1. Carefully scope the activity and gather important customer insight and
    2. Have a well defined innovation process and people who are good at innovation and
    3. Provide time for the team to work on innovation activities and
    4. Have a budget for the work and
    5. Have a way to transition ideas from the front end into development
If you don't have a good innovation workflow or process, don't understand innovation work or tools, don't have a budget or lack good transition from the front end activities into development, you can of course "go fast" at innovation.  Your team or project is exceptionally likely to fail.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:47 AM


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