thoughts on innovation

A collection of my thoughts on digital innovation

Making Innovation Work: The Four Irrefutable Building Blocks of Innovation

The blog was originally published in Sept. 2018

If there is any word that has been overused in contemporary business, it is “innovation”. Innovation has been used to define a wide array of offerings that have some semblance of “doing something different from the norm” or “thinking outside the box”. This over-used word has made its way into the boardrooms, MBA classes, hallways, office cubicles and just about any and every meeting happening in the world of business today. But having spent a greater part of my working life in the management of innovation, I have come to the conclusion that the more people throw around the word, the less likely it is that they are even innovating. Making innovation work goes beyond the usual lip-service and generic ad-hoc programs that increase the brand strength of an organization. 

Innovation is not something that should merely be spoken about, a tradition that currently permeates the corporate innovation clime. Innovation is also not something that you arrive at, like a destination. Rather, innovation is an ongoing phenomena and journey that can only be called one whenever you look back at your activities over a course of time. Hence innovation is highly contextual, and defining it broadly doesn’t help, as contexts are largely unique. 

However, there needs to be a way to make innovation happen or to facilitate innovation. Facilitation doesn’t merely mean managing a process (although processes is one of the elements needed), facilitation mainly constitute the different elements that are combined in the melting pot called innovation. To explore further, it is worthwhile to answer two key questions: 

  • How is innovation facilitated?

  • What key elements should we keep in mind if we want to achieve greater impact and value in our innovation efforts? 

These two questions and their answers is the purpose of this post. 

From my extensive experience both as an innovation consultant and a practitioner, I find that the greatest impact is achieved when a combination of the Four Building Blocks of Innovation are effectively developed and executed. These building blocks are,

  1. The Methodology Block

  2. The Processes Block

  3. The Culture Block

  4. The Tools Block

These blocks apply to both startups and large corporates. They may be applied in different forms to different people and organizations, because they define the fundamentals to facilitate innovation. However, i will aim most of this post to corporate executives and innovation leaders within large organizations who are desperate for impact and value from their innovation efforts.

Here is a quick preview of the four blocks and their definitions. 

The Methodology Block: Methods are the frameworks that define the mindset/approach adopted for carrying out transformational work. Methodology is often a whole set of methods developed according to a theory about how best to go about a specific task

The Processes Block: This is a step by step approach towards building a culture, deploying a methodology, using the needed tools and create lasting impact through a product or services or new business model.

The Culture Block: This is a combination of team dynamics, organizational collaboration, change appetite (usually in a large corporates) and all the other different elements that contribute to, or militate against an effective working relationships between a diverse set of people.

The Tools Block: These are the tactical, hands on elements that help to define thoughts, represent ideas, facilitate collaboration and enable the other three phenomena.

This article provides an overview of each building block and gives you a practical insight into how each building block works. This is a guide to any innovator, corporate executive, startup founder or anyone with enough creative confidence to initiate change in any team or organization.

Now to expatiate further, i will break down each building block and help you find the needed insight into what is needed to make Innovation work for you..

Making Innovation Work: The Methodology Block

I will spend more time expanding on this  as it is the basic building block for the other elements.

In his phenomenal book, The Innovator’s Solution, Clay Christensen (described as the father of disruptive innovation) discusses the risk of adopting a management theory without proper discernment and scrutiny. He outlines key areas to look out for in the adoption of a theory: 

(1) Beware of articles and books urging revolutionary change of everything; 

(2) watch for research that classifies phenomena into categories based solely on attributes or characteristics 

(3) Look for adjectives in correlation statements masquerading as causation 

(4)  Rarely consider positive research findings as final word. 

To read the entire paper,  follow this Link

The same principles can also be used when evaluating methodologies for innovation. Researchgate posits that a theory is a system of assumptions, principles, and relationships aimed at explaining a specified set of phenomena, while a methodology is often a whole set of methods developed according to a theory about how best to go about a specific task. Hence when the theory is right, we are on the best path towards selecting the method or set of methods that will lead to success in innovation. Hence it will helps to define a theory for innovation. From my work with large corporates, startups and small businesses of all kinds, the theory i have concluded on is that innovation is aimed at developing whatever solves a problem or provides delight for a large base of potential users, or a tightly knit base of loyal and influential users.

There are some nuances to this theory that are worth taking note of. First is that your innovation should solve a problem or cause delight for customers (who, by the way,  may not be paying customers). It is also important to note that defining what “job needs to be done”  by the customer is the first step towards solving their problem. Delighting users means exceeding the users’ expectation at certain or all points through the user experience. It is the basis of Intuit’s very well known Design For Delight D4D approach. 

I find that startups are often weary of reading about methodologies. Lets face it, Startups are messy, there are team dynamics issues, market entry hiccups, partnership deals that are make or break and a host of other things to worry about. As long as they have an innovative idea , some perceived pricing model then they are ready to go!. However, if we think about it properly, that in itself if the lean startup methodology of building a business.

Corporate innovation leaders on the other hand have a seeming over dependency on marketing their innovation efforts rather than pursuing lasting impact. Their innovation methodology is often predicated on branding their efforts rather than executing it. Hence, a lot of efforts are wasted on showmanship rather than execution and validation. 

While it doesn’t make sense to adopt a methodology without careful assessment of the particular business context, here are three often deployed innovation methodologies that can be adopted by organizations: Design Thinking; Open Innovation and Co-creation

While each of these three have their merits and demerits, I will risk being a bit prescriptive here and state that the essential mindset that i believe both startup founders and corporate innovation leads should adopt fall under the concept of Design Thinking. I am a firm believer of the concept behind this methodology and the inherent sub-methods that underlie its application.  

Design Thinking as a methodology ensures that we do not begin any creation without first going through a process of defining exactly what needs, barriers and opportunities are obtainable with whoever the offering will be created for or whoever the offering will be impacted by.

A sub-method in design thinking is what is called design strategy. The concept of Design Strategy encompasses methodologies like design research, journey mapping etc. These are the underlying methodologies behind design thinking.

A practical context about how design strategy works in a giving scenario is presented in this medium article  by Randy Gregory.

For startup founders, the lean startup approach, which is can be categorized under design thinking is a good framework to start thinking about and executing your innovation methodology. “Get out of the office” is the mantra here, it is of no use building a product without first validating its minimum viable offering. 

For corporate innovation leads, the challenge is to adopt a design thinking mindset, one that has a brutal focus on solving customer needs and delighting customers with less emphasis on emerging technology or branding. 

Many may argue that design thinking is a methodology for the front end of innovation i.e. that is should be applied for ideation purposes. However, it should be noted that thee most important element in any methodology is the mindset inherent in its build up. Design thinking is an all-encompassing mindset insists on ensuring that what is being built solves a problem that the customer has articulated or one that has been observed - which means that even during the prototyping and build phases, this mindset should be held dear. 

Slack is the communication tool of choice for many companies and teams today. As of May 2018, Slack had over 8 million daily users, 3 million of whom had paid accounts.  To remain relevant the company needs to constantly dedicate time and resources to making sure that the user experience exceeds expectations. So how does Slack do this? Their methodology for executing innovation can be said to be predicated on transparency, constant iteration and a supportive project organizational structure. According to an article by Design Genome (invision’s study of design-driven companies) designers at Slack all work on Pillars or focus areas (such as Core, Search/Learning/Intelligence, etc), with each focus area has various sub-teams. Designers generally lead design on their sub-team, but work very closely with everyone else on their pillar. This organizational structure means that many people get the opportunity to view and critique design work, and that leads to a more transparent and more collaborative process.

Making Innovation Work: The Processes Block

Most dictionaries will define processes as a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. For the purpose of this article, it's the “innovation end” or innovation mandate. However, there is no “innovation end” per se, there are simply actions that lead to more impactful actions. Hence in the context of innovation, i will define processes as just that - a series of stringed actions that lead to more impactful actions … and the journey goes on.

Innovation processes should never be restricted to the solutioning or product build part only. Process should focus on both the front end and back end of innovation, with equal importance attached to both. Within a corporate setting, I find that technology/engineering departments in large corporates have a strong bias towards solutioning, and very little rigour attached to the front end activities. They are incentivised to output the product within the shortest possible time while their colleagues in the other “business” units are tasked with determining which products are most viable to be built in the first place.

In an ideal world, both business and technology/engineering departments’ mandates should work with a strong alignment. However, in real life, they sometimes don’t.  Why they don't and how leaders can begin to create a strong alignment is a discussion for another day, which i will break down more in the future. However, in terms of processes, it is important that we clarify that first and foremost, all interdependent units in an organization should agree on a common methodology.  As stated earlier, this is the starting point of any successful innovation effort. Having agreed on a common methodology, the details of the resulting process can be further developed in the context of the mandate of the unit. The process that results from an alignment of methodology will be more robust and will foster confidence and trust with stakeholders outside the unit. 

For example, Nationwide has been a known brand since the 1920s. But with the proliferation of digital products, there was a clear need for the company to provide some form of digital innovation. Using design thinking methodologies, the team knew that they could transform the entire user experience and put the company on the innovation trail. Hence, they have since adopted a process that reflects that methodology - design thinking. Having aligned all stakeholders to this methodology - through design thinking workshops and communicating the value of the methodology - the resulting process has brought together Business Partners, Engineers and the Design Team. The first step is a project kick-off where the business partners may come with a defined project or the design team may be tasked with researching the need for a product. The next stage is a problem definition stage where UX strategists and design researchers work together with the business leads to further define the problem, this is followed by the first iteration (digging deeper into the problem/opportunity), then an early engagement with the engineering team and then prototype development. 

A possible approach for coalescing all teams/departments and providing a standard reference point for all stakeholders is to create a playbook, or an execution guideline/manual. Within a large corporate, this playbook should be created by the innovation team with inputs from all the other stakeholders who would be involved in the overall program at one point or the other.

Processes generally should not be cast in stone. There are areas of the overall plan that cannot be 100% forecasted before execution commences, hence the playbook may evolve after one or two iterations. This is perfectly OK, the collaborative effort involved in the creation and use of this playbook is where teamwork, interaction dynamics and ultimately culture comes to bear. Culture drives process, and process drives culture. The two elements go hand in had as long as the methodology has been aligned. 

Making Innovation Work: The Culture Block

Culture is everything, you have probably heard that several times. Many plans and strategies cannot survive the nuances of a team or organizational culture. We have all walked into offices only to be greeted by the poster on the wall that makes a grand statement about the mission, value and culture of the organization. These idealistic representations of what the culture should be are seldom reflective of what actually obtains in the offices. The bigger the organization gets, the more its workers are incentivized to keep/maintain the status quo. 

Innovation culture i believe should be a combination of inspirational leadership, trust and transparency, understanding of the processes, and tolerance for diversity of skill sets, working styles and opinion. This may be called the hallmark of intrapreneurship, where the result is that everyone is ready to fail fast, where praises are easily given when earned, when leaders take a little bit more of the blame when things go wrong and less of the credit when things go right. But hey, i am sure you know that this utopian state of organizational culture will be happen in my dreams. We all talk about intrapreneurship, but talk is cheap. In my linkedin article a few years ago, i described why organizations fail at intrapreneurship

My submission is that intrapreneurship or building a culture of innovation within any organization should:

  • Be a methodical endeavour and not merely left to chance

  • Shift from traditional job descriptions to more job missions

  • Become comfortable with working with limited information and iterating along the way- by which subject matter expertise is not as emphasized as risk-taking

 In his August 2017 Harvard Business Review article, Author and Innovation thought leader wrote about how CSAA Insurance group is fostering a culture of innovation among its employees. Innovation, rather than being a department siloed somewhere within the organization has been made a part of the talent management approach, added to the company’s values statement, included as a core competency (and scaled through innovation and design thinking trainings) and used as a decision factor in assessing rewarding and developing employees. The result has been an increase in the engagement of employees in innovation challenges/programs. You can read the full article here

Making Innovation Work: The Tools Block

Tools come in handy only when the methodology or approach, processes and culture have been agreed upon. I have seen a way too many corporate innovation leads make the mistake of relying on a new found tool that promises to be the magic wand that will drive their innovation culture or solve the ever elusive growth problem. They speak of adopting the customer journey map or business model canvas but forget that putting the cart before the horse will only mean zero movement. 

Tools are a commodity today, open source tools and other digital tools are easy to find scattered all over the internet, hence, forget about it being a competitive advantage. Startup founders seem to get this right. They invest more in the fundamental building blocks of innovation and let the task define the tool. Another common misconception i have found, especially with academically inclined innovation managers is a need to stick to the tools “no matter what”, the thought here is that the tool cannot be broken, our process, or our people is/are what needs to be changed. 

My advice is never to stick to a tool for the sake of it, find comfort in dumping the tool if need be, even if it means that you come back to it later on after a few iterations - remember, innovation is never a smooth process, product development is a messy process that needs to embrace all the elements of lean creativity, and agile development.

Again, this is another area where startups excel above their corporate counterparts. Founders are keen to use a tool as long as it fulfils a key need, otherwise, what’s the use. 

For innovators keen on learning the usefulness of the different tools out there and how they can be used in different groups, my innovation tools directory provides a good repository for that. Click here to download the tools.

Digital tools like Strategyzer (for business model canvas) and Murally (ideation and other forms of collaboration) can aid the effectiveness and efficiency of your innovation efforts.

These four elements are not all exhaustive, but they provide the necessary raw materials to derive value and impact from any innovation effort within a large corporate especially. It has often been said the corporate innovation leaders should learn from the startup culture, processes and approach. However, that is easier said than done. Bureaucracy, politics, legacy systems, and the paradox of growing an innovation practice within a profitable business will always pose a challenge, no matter how aggressive innovation goals are. Hence there is a need to have the needed guidelines to enable innovation.

So, ; “How is innovation facilitated?” And “What are the key elements to keep in mind?” Innovation is facilitated  by adopting and executing the Four building blocks of innovation and the most important elements to keep in mind are these building blocks and their relationship with one another. 

Making innovation work is never easy. The challenge for innovation leaders in corporate organizations is to keep all these elements intact and effective at the same time. Speed is of essence, afterall what is the use of perfecting an internal engine that will only churn out non-competitive products/offerings. The burden of making innovation real should be carried by forward thinkers who are obsessed by the need to get things done, and not by theorists who quest for perfection. 

Gbemi Akande