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The Innovation Investment: How to Manage Innovation for Better Results

Product development teams can be structured and nurtured toward innovation. Learn where to get started to avoid innovation mistakes. The investment pays off.

Heather Benoit

November, 3 rd 2019 | 8 minute read

Innovation. If you work in new product development, that single word is your mantra.

“We need to be more innovative.”

“How do we innovate here?”

“Our competitors are out-innovating us.”

Oh boy. What does that even mean? Innovation isn’t something you command to happen. It’s not something you can predict with absolute certainty. It’s an intangible creative endeavor. And while it can occasionally come quickly and abundantly, many times it is unpredictable and difficult to realize. On those occasions, it can be difficult to understand what went wrong.

These are the three most prevalent innovation mishaps:

  • Innovation is slow: Sometimes innovation comes too slowly and you miss an opportunity. Whether your competitor beats you to market or you’re not able to include a key feature before a product launch, your team just didn’t make it happen in time.
  • Innovation is misdirected: Sometimes innovation is just plain off-the-mark. Your team is working hard, solving problems – just not the right ones and the work is wasted.
  • Innovation is absent: Sometimes, worst of all, innovation just doesn’t come. Projects stagnate and what was once an interesting challenge becomes a place where your team gets stuck in a dry spell.

Hurdles to Innovation And How to Move Past Them

So why is it that sometimes our teams are laser-focused, idea machines and other times not? And how can you move your team past these ruts and into a more productive space?

Here’s a look at the top contributors to stagnating innovation and the investments required to overcome each.

Uncertainty

Contributes to idle time, indecisiveness, and wasted efforts. Results in slow or misdirected innovation.

Uncertainty & Your Process

Product development is uncertain. This is something we all know but frequently fail to fully appreciate. There are so many levels of ambiguity in early stage product development that it can be paralyzing for even the savviest groups. Your team has enough to think about without having to figure out how to think about it. Give your team an advantage by defining a process that brings clarity to the fuzzy front-end.

Your innovation process should:

  • Incorporate a structured system for defining problems and deciphering their dependence on one another
  • Include reliable and accessible ideation techniques
  • Provide a framework for decision-making
  • Bring clarity through experimentation
  • Prioritize learning quickly
  • Include metrics for measuring the success of the process itself

The first, and maybe most important, step is to clearly articulate what problems need to be solved, how they relate to the project, how important they are, and expectations for solving them. This sets up a clear target, provides a priority scheme, and frames the amount and type of effort that is to be applied. The next step is to provide a collection of ideation techniques to your team. Brainstorms are a staple of any innovation process, but there are countless other methods available: competitive collaboration, empathy mapping, attribute mapping, Osborn checklists, etc. Each is valuable and effective for a particular situation, and your team should know how and when to use each.

Once your team has started generating ideas, it’s important to start evaluating them immediately. Your process needs to provide a structure for ranking concepts and determining which are most viable. Tools like success-drivers or cursory user needs can help here. And, of course, the next logical step is to test out the ideas. Your process should encourage your team to build mockups and experiment frequently.

The number one directive for your team should be learning very quickly. Go fast. Fail fast. Iterate fast. Many teams mistakenly design prototypes for performance instead of investigation, and it slows everything down.

The last point here: Your process needs a feedback loop. You must measure the performance of your innovation process. Many of these activities provide a very tangible way to measure the success of your process. Count the number of unique concepts at the end of a brainstorm – the more the better. Measure your prototyping cycles. At this stage they should be a few days to a week – not longer.

A healthy system generates lots of concepts, minimizes time between iterations, and provides a wide variety of ideas.

Uncertainty & Your Team

When it comes to navigating uncertainty, your team is an equally important factor. You’ll need a mix of staff with the right assets to effectively manage this type of work.

To best innovative, your team should:

  • Be comfortable with ambiguity
  • Have both big-picture and detail-oriented thinkers
  • Include a mix of experienced and inexperienced members

Even with a robust process in place there will still be many unknowns, so your team should be comfortable not having all of the answers. Personalities that have an inclination toward discovery and exploration will thrive, while others may be more susceptible to getting bogged down. Likewise, your team will also benefit from including different types of thinkers. People that reason through high-level questions can leverage that thinking to uncover conceptual patterns, apply knowledge contextually, and coordinate activities for the group. Team members who sweat the details will be essential for fleshing out the particulars and applying them to specific designs. Each type of thinker can help fill gaps in the collective knowledge.

Experienced staff are reliable in times of uncertainty and great at working through the viability of technical challenges quickly, but they are often susceptible to the pitfalls of being, well … experienced. There is a certain bias that comes with knowing how to do things that can be limiting. On the other hand, inexperienced staff don’t know what they don’t know and can contribute by asking naïve but important questions. A good mix of experience among your team will ensure that designs are conceptually sound but not overly burdened by prudence.

Risk

Contributes to fear-based decision making, misguided efforts, and conservative design. Results in misdirected or absent innovation.

True innovation lives at the intersection of creativity and risk. It cannot exist without both, thus your R&D culture must support both. High-risk, high-stakes situations lead to conservative actions and kill creativity. Despite internal pressures and company norms, a risk-tolerant culture is crucial to fostering innovation.

Your innovation culture will ideally:

  • Separate the success of innovation from success of the product
  • Tolerate risk and be comfortable with failure
  • Focus on speed over quality
  • Be transparent
  • Encourage curiosity and exploration
  • Inspire the pushing of boundaries

It can be difficult to justify taking a risk when no data exist to ensure you’ll find any amount of success. There are usually no little warm-fuzzy feelings to convince you that any of this is a good idea, and worse yet, your program or career may be on the line. If performance bonuses, promotions, the respect of peers, or anything else along these lines is tied to the success of how well a prototype functions, you’re going to end up with a prototype that looks a lot like your last device.

Your team will only take as much risk as they feel comfortable with losing, so it’s best to detach success of early-stage prototypes from everything else.

Good innovation requires a bold, open-minded approach to problem-solving, which requires a certain amount of confidence and security to pursue. If your culture is overly analytical and quick to pick apart an idea, you’re likely shutting great ideas down before they are even spoken. Teach your team how to defer judgment until the appropriate time and how to ask guiding questions. Instruct your team on the difference between constructive feedback and criticism. Similarly, cultivate a culture of curiosity by encouraging employees to learn about other perspectives, industries, and technologies.

At the end of the day, you want your innovation team asking “why not, why can’t we do that?” Good innovation tests boundaries as much as it tests concepts and prototypes.

Broken Frameworks

Contribute to lack of creativity or original thought, overly-constrained thinking, and incremental design. Results in slow or absent innovation.

Framework #1: Innovation is Product Development

We frequently view innovation through the lens of new product development. Innovation is not product development. Innovation is a tool we use to create novel ideas and bring value to companies. It’s entirely possible to do either one without the other. If you want to be innovative, you have to be deliberate with the choices you make and how you view innovation.

This means finding opportunities to disconnect innovation from the rigors of business-driven demands, such as project budgets and schedules. Dedicating even just a few hours a week to ongoing developmental efforts, free from project pressures, can lead to more robust innovating.

Some companies provide ample resources to really smart people and set them free to explore their ideas without the pressure of getting a product to market. For most companies that’s not a viable option, but your process should still support discovery and play. This effort may not be directly applicable to a project, but it will enlighten your staff, spark their creativity, and just might lead to something significant down the road.

Framework #2: Innovation is a Solution

Innovation is not about solving one very specific problem. It is about pushing out of comfort zones in thoughtful ways and finding entirely new avenues of exploration. It is easy to get too boxed in too quickly if your team is focused solely on finding a single solution. Challenge this by forcing your team to solve problems on a mild-to-wild spectrum. Solve for the conservative approach (mild) and the radical (wild) one and even a few in between. This forces your team to push boundaries and detach from concepts when they otherwise might not and can lead to impactful discoveries.

Committing to the Long-Term Innovation Investment

To be effective and consistently innovative, the best teams realize that innovation requires a broad investment. It’s requires structuring of your process, your culture, your entire frame of mind. And what’s more, the teams who have the highest returns on these investments understand that there are no guarantees. Innovation, much like the stock market, has its ups and downs but, with enough time, the investment always pays off.

About the Author

Heather Benoit – Engineering

“Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit.”
-Baltasar Gracian