What does it take to innovate? (Part 2)

We’re continuing to look at some of the key skills that today’s innovators need. In Part 1, I talked about the need to get on the ground and absorb your business challenges in the real world, not from emails or conversations.

For Part 2, it’s time to talk about process. There are many creative sparks and leaps in the innovation journey, but there is also structure in terms of an innovation process. I’ve seen a few and they follow a similar theme; capture ideas, prioritise them, set objectives, research a solution, scope a solution and deliver a demonstrator.

Hoppers: great for sorting animal feed, even better for innovation process analogies. Image credit: Avon Lake Sheet Metal

You may hear the word “hopper” used a great deal. It’s not a reference to the affable Sheriff in Stranger Things, but a simple, visual analogy that illustrates, from any number of challenges supplied, only those prioritised or most-valued solutions that should make it out the other side.

A typical innovation process. Link to SlideShare presentation

This methodology has numerous benefits: each phase helps project manage initiatives, you can build a view of all outstanding projects and it also provides a useful success measure i.e. how many initiatives made it through to delivery from a given number of ideas. It’s a ready-made key performance indicator.

The reason the volume gets smaller the more progress is made is thanks to fast fail. Some initiatives just don’t make it; they miss their objectives, are too expensive, complex or are superceded. It’s a major difference between innovation and project management. With the latter, you have to find a way to succeed, even when things are going wrong.

Within innovation, your expectation of success should be very low. This means that even if an initiative doesn’t make it, you can still bank a great deal of knowledge and insight. And even if it doesn’t get started, there is still an outcome. I worked on a vehicle emissions trial several years ago that failed just before we got the trial scoped. Our supplier pulled out. With a colleague, we borrowed a whiteboard in a meeting room for a couple of hours to timeline the whole trial from challenge collection to its untimely end, and worked out a number of recommendations that (a) would have sped the whole process up and (b) prevent or identify early on similiar failures from reoccurring in the future.

The hopper process also provides a bit of rigor to your innovation function. There are accredited qualifications available for innovation these days, but the process itself is not yet recognised as, for example, agile and waterfall methodologies. This is important to know if you’re building an innovation function from scratch; everyone still does it slightly differently, but the hopper still rules.

Prioritisation is also important. Here, you will want to use a peer group to score the challenges collected against a fixed set of criteria, which will give you a league table of challenges. The ones at the top go into the next phase of the process. The aim is not to discount any challenges – every issue is an issue, right? – but to ensure that innovators are always focused on the challenges with the biggest return, the most support and the best chance of success.

Next time, we’ll look at the importance of setting objectives and measuring success.

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