Who loves Neapolitan ice cream? Admit it, we all do. The chance to get three of your favourite flavours out of just one scoop is too good to miss, lest you’re one of those fussy eaters that digs each third out of the plastic tub in turn. Yet this most nostalgic family favourite also happens also a great metaphor for the modern innovation process. Allow me to explain.
Innovation, in arguably its purest form, always starts out with a business challenge; an issue or shortcoming in terms of a product or service that requires a level of disruption and fresh thinking in order to solve it. In the early phases, you should, tough as it sounds, avoid solutionising and focus instead on understanding the challenge in minute, immersive detail. If someone has explained the challenge to you, that’s not nearly enough knowledge to begin with – go see it, experience, live and breathe it for yourself before looking at how to disrupt it.
Examples of this are many, with Uber perhaps being the best, most infamous poster-child. The company name could almost appear in the Oxford English Dictionary under disruption: the taxi industry hadn’t changed in decades, was opaque in terms of how costs are calculated (and how they vary from city to city) and seldom made any positive impact in terms of customer service. But what so many fail to realise is that Uber’s solution of cheaper, transparent fares and immediacy via our devices was just one facet of its biggest business change weapon; that as a car owner, you could monetise its existence by using it to drive others around.
Occasionally, a business may come into contact with some technology that it doesn’t know what to do with. The danger is that you try and find a home for a solution that doesn’t have a problem. This can often happen when tech needs to make its way out of a laboratory and into the real world for some testing. Embrace this; you’ll not only learn about something new and emerging that may (in future) make an impact to your business, but you’ll be helping some engineers too.
I’ve experienced this first hand, when working on a trial with a startup who had devised a clever indoor wayfinding solution using augmented reality. Like many in this area, the app worked by first requiring an indoor scan and the two developers I was working with said that appending multiple scans of the same area wasn’t currently possible. They said merging the data was, at that stage, too complicated to work through. But one evening, while in their hotel room in the midst of their scanning phase with us, they cracked it, introducing new code that would merge the scans. The next morning, we met again and their excitement was infectious, as they demonstrated how they could now merge data sets. As one of their engineers said later, their solution was not one they could have devised back at base.
For me, at the time we did the trial, the tech was too early and needed a lot of refinement and other, less exciting features such as APIs so we could share the data out. But both parties gleaned a significant amount of insight. The icing on the cake was capturing photos and videos from the work which was then put together as a video – so much easier to talk through and share than merely writing a document about what you’d seen.
In some instances, it’s arguable that if enough of a solution or technology is well known, understood and appreciated, you just need a regular IT project to go and deliver it. But in my experience, and this is more of a growing realisation as opposed to years of expertise, the fact that a business isn’t currently utilising a mainstream technology is no longer an excuse to fast track it away from an innovation process.
As an example, how about wireless device charging? Samsung have made this available for the Galaxy S6 and above for a few years now, while Apple have recently joined the party in the iPhone 8 and X models (nothing like watching Cupertino playing catch-up). Charging standards will materialise quickly now and you could reasonably assume, today, that the tech is a given; a problem that has been solved, provides a crumb of improved user experience and will quickly filtrate down into existing and new infrastructure across different industries.
But what if this is the first time your business has come into contact with it? It’s a different story. However established it might be, you don’t understand the bearing it might have on your operation or customer service. I was talking to a friend about this recently, and gave the somewhat silly example of bolting a supercharger to your car’s engine; superchargers have been around since the 1920s and their benefits are well-understood, but how it will fit into my little runaround and work correctly? You’d still need to experiment.
Innovation is the process of change through improvement, and the point here is that there are different themes as flavours. You need just need to choose the right one at the right time, much like scooping out your favourite ice cream.