Agile Innovation

There is no magic process that guarantees innovative output. Innovative products, processes and business models are a function of having people with imagination in a company.

Although innovation can exist in almost any company environment, many companies are unwittingly incorporating their innovation efforts into environments which devalues or distorts innovative ideas. If you were to design an environment that would nurture innovation, how closely would that mirror the average Australian company?

There are however, companies that are seeing consistent innovative output. From startups who make innovative ideas the core of their business, to some of the world’s most valuable companies whose stock is built on their reputation as innovators.

These consistent performers have the same recurring values that help them draw out innovative ideas, strengthen those ideas and follow them through to execution. Agile innovation is a collection of five signifiers that enable ideas to flow through the company without distortion.

The five key principles of agile innovation are: desire, acceleration, insight, focus and pollination.

Desire

Desire to innovate is the foundation for agile innovation. Whether that desire stems from a need to combat emerging market threats or to strengthen an already strong market position,  a desire to innovate signals that the company is ready for innovation to become part of their core operations.

If there is no value placed on capturing innovative ideas, it is very unlikely that ideas that are floating around the company with be collected, validated with insight and executed.

The two essentials for cultivating a desire for innovation are: Setting the context for innovation and assigning cascading targets and expectations.

Setting the context for innovation is about communicating the value of innovation to the company. This declaration encourages employees to have a voice about what the company could be trying. This process is about providing value to the ideas that are not currently being voiced within the company.

Once a desire for innovation has been communicated it must also be displayed. Assigning cascading targets and expectations for innovation is a tangible display of proving the value of innovation to management. This is as simple as by putting targets, performance indicators and incentives against innovative objectives. Innovation needs to be a responsibility for all management if it is expected to generate consistent output.

Accelerate

Accelerate is about aggressively pursuing insight and validated learning without involvement from non-essential parties. Pursuing acceleration is deliberately not inclusive of governance processes. The reason being, keeping the team small and agile allows a swift and direct path with customers for validation. In large companies, departments charged with governance processes like legal, marketing and IT can halt or stop new ideas from getting off the ground. Accelerating towards validated insight shortcuts months of time spent designing by committee and in endless debate cycles.

Due diligence is a great thing for a product entering the market but total overkill for an idea that has not yet been validated. The slower an idea moves through the company the more risk it accrues. Insight and validation provide a lens to weigh all new concepts through, as such these milestones are aggressively pursued. Having acceleration as a key focus of the innovation cycle keeps ideas lean, allowing far more ideas to go through the innovation cycle every year.

Insight

The majority of companies have no shortage of ideas floating around. However it is not until these ideas are matched with insight do we know if they are good ideas. The key to progressing these ideas through the innovation life cycle is to validate them with customer. This maturation process strengthens the positioning of an idea to the point where it can now stand the internal rigours of governance as a product or process.

The old adage ‘Only the strong survive’ is a harsh reality for something as venerable as an untested idea. Making the customer the point of validation for an innovative idea takes the decision making process and makes it objective. This aids further acceleration around validating ideas by removing the guesswork around ideation.

Because we learn more as we progress through a project, the start is always the most ignorant place in a project life cycle. The Insight principal acknowledges this, and seeks to gain insight with the end user as quickly as humanly possible to understand the value of an idea.

Focus

When the Accelerate and Insight principals are operating within a company, they create a continuous flow of validated ideas. If you can produce 12 validated ideas in 6 month period, you have created the enviable problem of choice. Which ideas should be actioned?

Although you want as many validated ideas flowing through the business as you can, you want to be very strategic about which ideas become a reality. Having limited budget and unlimited validated ideas brings a strategic focus to make sure the company is pursuing only the best innovations.

Pollination

During the late 70’s Kim Jong-il amassed one of the world’s largest personal film collections, which included over 20,000 bootlegged titles. Due to his position as the head of the state’s propaganda and agitation department, Kim was the only person the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) authorised to view this film collection. This position provided Kim Jong-il with a unique perspective on the state of the North Korean films of the time. Speaking privately to a kidnapped South Korean film director and his wife, he described the films that DPRK were producing as “increasingly repetitive and dispiriting”. Kim’s omission illustrates the imperative of inspiration through external sources in creativity.

Encouraging external influences to participate in innovation, bring perspectives that are are not blinkered by company thinking. This is about involving people that have not been taught how to think about a certain problems. As people are exposed to a company’s inner working they acclimatise from having their own perspective to “knowing better”. Domain knowledge is also crucial to have throughout the innovation process, however it is most powerful when augmented with external sources that bring “fresh eyes” to a project.

Innovation that operates within the current restriction of a company is bound to result in incrementalism. Framing the innovation conversation around possibilities rather than restrictions, steers it towards something new instead of a solution within the current set of limitations. The distinction is subtle, but the outcome is the difference between innovating within business constraints and innovating within market constraints. The latter is where a lot of the games changing innovations originate.

Summary

Ideas are naturally occurring in people, our role in bringing these ideas to life is to provide a platform from idea to validated opportunity with as little distortion as possible. The five principles of Agile Innovation provide a structure for nurturing and developing innovative ideas in business. We have seen these principles give companies the best possible chance at consistent innovative output.