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The Trouble With Innovation

The Trouble With Innovation

. 4 min read

Several years and one company ago, I found myself in a mid-project meeting with a group of clients from a large hospitality company.

We were sat in an innovation room that could have been plucked directly from the d.School – every single furnishing came from their catalog.

Sitting at the reconfigurable high top tables were the CMO, CTO, and Chief Innovation Officer of the company. From our side: our embedded Strategist had made the trip in with two of her developer colleagues from the on-hotel-premise digital laboratory that we'd designed, spun up, and staffed in order to resolve a longstanding innovation gap.

After we presented what we'd learned from a month of ethnography and live prototyping with users at a destination, the CMO dragged out what looked like a massive, landscape-format book. He quickly turned to a page and pointed out that we'd validated another consultancy's two-year-old prediction for a new digital service.

The “book” was a massive deck of ideas from a well-known innovation firm, and, holy crap was this thing impressive. Its pages contained every single idea that you could possibly create on the topic of hospitality, each with a sketch, implementation ideas, risks, and assumptions. Done and paid for, inside the company.

And yet almost none of them were being tested inside the firm, let alone seen by actual customers.

I brought this story of inaction back to my colleagues, and they found similar instances of the exact same thing within their clients. Internal innovation teams and consultancies were coming up with amazing, valid, sometimes disruptive ideas, but the firms remained stagnant. Something – perhaps the same thing – across all these firms was preventing them from approving, funding and supporting these innovations.

Nearly three years into running August (and perhaps six years from the d.School presentation day), we’re still supporting innovation, but in a completely different way than most. There are no labs. We do not present new ideas to senior leadership teams, and there is no convincing skeptical stakeholders to buy in. Most teams we work with lack designers and researchers. Almost none have the word “innovation” on their business card. But the work is innovation, and the methods restructure how the work gets done and reframe stakeholders’ engagement in that work.

Teams

The first step is to ensure that the team works well. This does not need much trickery – just simple adjustments from the norm.

We ask teams to use rounds whenever possible, asking each person on the team to respond to a prompt without interruptions. This pushes folks to consider perspectives beyond their own, and this mindset of inclusion is pervasive. The mindset, when shared, asks the team to bring customers and stakeholders in; to put finance at equal footing with marketing; to upend traditional patterns of power. With this skill in hand, teams can include outsiders easily, which lays a foundation for a multidisciplinary team composition.

Instead of waiting until the end of project to harvest learnings (or, more typically, blame) in a post-mortem, we encourage teams to stop periodically to retrospect and improve intentionally. For this, we like to ask three simple questions: “What worked?” “Where did you get stuck?” “What might we do differently next time?” By asking these questions, in this order, teams adopt a holistic mindset toward ongoing, incremental improvement, which extends to beyond how the team works and into their product. Teams that retrospect frequently do not need to be reminded to continually improve their work.

With a simple method to include all voices in discussions, and rapid cycles of improvement to teaming practices and group output, it’s usually safe to start bringing in new, and perhaps unfamiliar, disciplines onto the team. We’ve found that multidisciplinary teams rapidly accelerate the team’s progress by incorporating divergent feedback early on in the process. When Legal is on the team, they help solve tough challenges, rather than giving teams a “hard no” at the final stage-gate. Counterintuitive – but we’ve seen it work more often than not.

Stakeholders

But again, the problem is rarely the team (they want to work in a better way). And it’s almost never the idea’s fault. Whilst I hate to throw them under the bus, it’s usually stakeholders’ fault. And when I say stakeholders, I mean bosses.

The typical rhythm for innovation teams is unproductive: do good work in the margins of “the day job” for several weeks (or months), and then scramble like mad to produce a report for the project sponsors. The report is typically poorly received, and the weeks (or months) of distracted innovation work are tossed out. We’ve seen that teams working in multiplayer mode have more success with stakeholders because their documents and tasks are available to anyone who needs or wants to see them. We ask leaders to pull knowledge from the team’s public documentation, and make considerate comments and suggestions without derailing the team’s progress. It’s essential that leaders learn to accept unfinished and imperfect work, and we see mindsets shift as the weeks progress.

Beyond accessibility, maintaining a consistent, frequent cadence of demonstrating working product and seeking advice ensures that direct feedback can be incorporated into the team’s output before (or instead of) making a grand reveal. It’s the leaders’ job to make this cadence work. Teams readily adopt and adjust their cadence to match the pace required by their purpose – choosing and not deviating from dates and times that work well for key team moments. But leaders frequently either: a) intervene in between the team’s designated moments; or b) don’t provide high-quality feedback in the moments that matter.

The last job for leaders to do is to reset their expectations for decision-making. Most leaders expect to be convinced by their team that a given course of action is correct, assuming that they have good data about what will work (and what won’t), and that their career experiences give them a sense of guidance that the team just doesn’t have. Particularly when it comes to innovation, where solutions will necessarily deviate from the company’s sense of “normal,” leaders should help the team adopt a consent even over consensus mode of deciding. Unless explicitly asked to do so by the team, stakeholders should avoid critiquing the minute detail of a proposed approach, instead restricting their input on decisions to vetoes on a clear set of criteria, such as project budget, or team mission. Instead of “should we do this?” ask, “Is this safe to try until we get more data?”

So. Whether it’s a change management program or a brand refresh, consider using new methods and tools with existing teams, rather than looking for outsiders to solve your pressing problems. This approach has a nice bonus “gift with purchase” — happier, more engaged employees.

More on that soon.