4 ways your innovation team is getting stuck

Our Thinking

December 05, 2017

Identify and remove common barriers your innovation team is facing

These days, innovation is top of mind for most corporations — 85% of CEOs rank innovation as a top-three priority. And while innovation is key to company survival, it is also something that most companies struggle with: 81% of business executives are worried about being left behind.

Here are 4 big blockers you may not realize your innovation team is facing — and how to course correct before it’s too late.

 

1. Your team is building what you’ve asked them to build.

We’re all human – and so even the best innovation leaders bring biases to the table. These biases are shaped by past professional experience, company expertise and competencies, and the tools you have at hand.

As a result of these biases, too many innovation projects kick off with the shape of the final product already predetermined by business units or team leads.

This may involve shaping the tools the team can use (“How can we leverage AI to [Insert Problem Here]?”); preconceived notions of what a given customer will want (“We can win the millennial market with a V2 of our product with 100% more emoji”); or even dictating the product the team is being asked to produce (“Build me our answer to the iPod!”).

While constraint breeds creativity, allowing these biases to creep into the innovation process is a surefire way to waste a lot of resources

This fails to counteract the #1 reason that new ventures fail: no one needs the product.

Instead of rushing to build a product or business around a concept sourced from within, first determine whether there is interest from possible users and/or customers.

The best performing innovations start not with product direction from management, but with a customer problem.

Arm your team with a problem area to explore and with a mandate to discover & validate customer problems.

You’ll be surprised by what they discover.

“If execution is problem-solving, creativity is problem-finding.

The problem that you’re trying to solve might not be the right problem anymore. The organization that takes a step back to identify if the problem is worth solving is on the path to breakthrough innovation.”

-Sam Yen, Chief Design Officer at SAP

 

2. Your team is assuming the answers are in the building.

Once your team feels confident they are putting a customer problem front and centre, the next step is to gather the information that they need to build a solution for that customer.

But too often the resources that companies make available — reports, NPS scores, customer quotes — lull teams into a false sense of security that they are getting the “voice of the customer”. Teams begin to rely on this data. They may even be tempted to supplement as needed by using other employees in the company (bias! bias!) for interviews, surveys, or testing.

No matter how strong a company’s data and customer intelligence capabilities are, there is no replacement for firsthand external validation of both the customer problem and the proposed solution.

During the problem validation phase, this means seeking out customers and testing every assumption you have about the customer problem. (It is often best if you can seek them out in the environment they encounter the actual problem).

Steve BlankEric Ries, and our own Ben Yoskovitz have all written extensively on the subject, most of which boils down to:

1. Get your team out of the building and have them talk to at least 20 people.

2. You’ll start to see patterns – double down on those.

During the solution validation phase, this means testing the market. While socializing the idea within the company, researching projected market size, or getting approval from the executive team are all important, these tell you nothing about whether the market actually wants your product.

The only way to learn this is by trying to get the market to buy your product.

Pam from The Office asks, "Umm –  you want to buy it?"If you can’t sell it yet – fake it.

You can get real customer feedback before you have even built your first prototype or written your first line of code.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by building a landing page and/or running some Facebook ads, and then watching for signs of life.

Not only does this force you to find an early way to communicate your product offering to the most important audience (your users) it also gives you the data you need to make an internal go/no-go decision on any given project.

 

3. You’re betting it all on one big innovation project

Your team has stumbled on a great idea. The customer says they want it, the data supports it, and the moment to strike is now. It’s decision time — and you’re all in. You’re going to put budget behind it, push as hard as possible to make it successful, and transform the future of your industry.

Except you probably won’t. Statistically speaking, that one big project is going to flop.

The most successful players in the innovation space know this — and they hedge their bets. Startups pivot. Venture Capitalists and Accelerators play the volume game. Why should your team’s approach be any different?

Depending on your company’s resources, this may look like launching 2 or 200 new ventures in a year. The absolute number matters less than the process change this requires. You’ll shift from a mindset of taking big bets to that of a portfolio approach to your innovation efforts.

If that first idea makes it big — Great! And if it doesn’t — that’s ok. You knew better than to put all your eggs in one basket.

By doing this, you can not only increase the likelihood of success, but reduce wasted resources and time.

 

4. You’re taking on too many new projects, and have no mechanism to whittle them down

Nothing bogs down innovation groups more than a glut of new ideas or projects, all requiring attention, resources, and time – and yet it is as common a problem as the “big bet”.

This tendency to let projects continue even when the chances of success are limited is known as Innovation Drift.

The inability to kill projects in a timely fashion results in wasted resources that could be reallocated to other high-potential projects. But killing a project takes courage. New opportunities gain their momentum at the organizational level and it often becomes difficult for a single individual to take appropriate action.

“They have far too many resources for what is really a concept stage project, and so once you build up the momentum of a million-dollar project, it is very hard to kill it.”

 Babson Insights

Take the onus off your team to combat Innovation Drift, and give them a consistent process to rely on instead.

Companies like Johnson & Johnson and Cisco have created processes to allocate metered funding “rounds” and resources to projects that mimic the culling that investment rounds place on startups “in the wild”.

By establishing a Venture Board that sets milestones for in-house ventures and determines which innovation bets are worthy of more funding, you can take the onus of politicking ideas off your team, and allow them to focus on building

The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.

– Linus Pauling

 

 

TL;DR: Corporate innovation is hard to get right. Why make it harder?

  1. Arm your team with a mandate to, above all else, explore and validate customer problems – even when it takes them in a direction you didn’t expect.
  2. Get out of the building and in front of real customers.
  3. Take a portfolio approach to innovation.
  4. Create milestones for in-house ventures to meet, and a process to tie metered funding and resources to those milestones.

Take these 4 key steps, and set your team up for success. If you can remove the common barriers to innovation success, you’re giving them a head start.

 

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