What it takes to be an innovator (part 2)

Part 2: Developing your idea from chaos to flow

Frame your challenge

Big dreams present enormous challenges which, if not framed into a specific mission or tasks, will end up wasting your effort as well as the effort of others involved.

Realize however that time is on your side, so start with a minimum viable product that satisfies your most urgent needs, then allow incremental improvements to grow the product exponentially (similar to a snowball effect).

Asking yourself: “what would we do if we had no money” or “what would we do if we lived in the Middle Ages?” also helps to frame the challenge and to make sharp decisions early on. Framing a challenge doesn’t mean you have to give up on your dream, it is just the first step towards realizing them.

A call for structure

As soon as an idea takes root, innovators are asked to provide planning and structure. Resist the temptation to do so, or else your focus will shift away from the innovation and into bureaucracy. Try to find out what the real purpose of the person/reason of the question is:

  • Is it to satisfy a need for control so as to mitigate risk (e.g. fear of “missing the bus” or being put aside; risk of diversion of the department’s resources, etc…)? In these cases, the person hasn’t likely accepted the innovation and giving more structure will not necessarily solve the problem
  • Is it to gain a better understanding, to study the feasibility, to develop or to implement the innovation? In this case, the person has accepted the innovation, and one good way of involving this person in the development is to let her/him add structure (instead of you!)

How to deal with complexity

We live in an ever increasingly complex world. Most organizations approach their environment by tightening planning- and control procedures (as in a simple or complicated environment, see below). The trick is to assess the environment your innovation challenge is part of, and to respond appropriately.

Dave Snowden developed the Cynefin model (2002) and distinguishes between 4 types of environment:

  • Simple: e.g. a repetitive production model can be controlled, measured and optimized. Once a best practice is found, it can be applied to other factories
  • Complicated: this kind of environment can be optimized with the help of experts, but offers no standard solution
  • Complex: this environment cannot be optimized because it changes continuously, so all we can do is to stick to certain patterns (normal, paradox) and to progress through experimentation and improvisation
  • Chaotic: this environment is created by an unexpected event and can only be dealt with by reacting

The innovator will likely have a tendency to consider her/his environment as complex. However, is the situation always as complex as we think it is? Often we tend to complicate things because we’re afraid of the consequences. And we devise solutions which lead to even worse consequences (take e-mail for example!). Such a situation isn’t necessarily complex, it just demands “guts”, i.e. leadership!

Make a roadmap

Plans disappear in a drawer because of a lack of involvement caused by the perception that the challenge is either fuzzy or lacks urgency. Yet plans are beneficial in that they align schedules as well as stakeholders’ interests. So try to find a minimum of structure (too much structure shifts the focus away from the innovation challenge) and seek to provide a maximum of clarity. Choose a suitable methodology and collectively make a realistic schedule including challenging milestones, agreeing on which of these are fixed and which of these are flexible. Without challenging deadlines we tend to use more time than necessary. Plan those things that need agreement, but not more (Keep It Simple Stupid). If roles and KPIs need to be part of the planning effort, make sure that people are comfortable with them, so you can trust things will get done.

Choose your method

There are many different business models and methods to develop your innovation to the next level, each of these having their own merits and deficiencies. One method is Design Thinking. Design Thinking is a tool used to find a solution to complex problems, based on user behavior. At its core, it is an iterative process that calls for user interaction and experimentation based on insights gained from this user interaction. Founded on the premise that users actually behave differently than what they say they do (not because they lie, but rather because they are not consciously aware of what they’re doing), the first step is usually to observe/ interact with the users while in action. Using this empathy, you try to gain insights into patterns that stand out, and assess their impact on the solution to be found. Once you have formulated the “wicked problem”, you use ideation (another word for brainstorming) to come up with new (versions of) solutions. You then select the most promising solution and develop a prototype to see how users react (not as much what they think of it, but how they experience it). After remodeling the prototype (iterative process once again), test a working model with the user, making sure the user’s feedback is unbiased. If this works, you can implement a production model (which most likely will need improvement on a continuous basis). What applies for products is also relevant for services (…).

Create flow

Flow is a state of mind characterized by complete immersion into an activity with energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of performing this activity. Flow cannot be enforced because it contains both reasoning and emotion, but you can consider certain elements in your innovation project that can enhance flow. Although obvious for the most part, they are often overlooked and include (1) the conviction that you can fulfill the task at hand (2) the environment is conducive to concentration (3) there’s a clear and unambiguous goal (4) there’s instant feedback (5) there’s a fine balance between quality and execution (6) there’s a feeling of personal control – or rather, you’re not worried to lose control (7) you are motivated to do the task because it fits your purpose.

Flow cannot be controlled unless you don’t worry about it, yet it can be seen as a measurement for the effectiveness of your innovation process.

Timing is everything!

Throughout the innovation process you may be asking yourself repeatedly: am I doing the right thing? Often though, timing is as important. So how do you take care of that? Realize that you’ll need a kind of incubation period for people to consider the implications of the innovation in terms of “what behavioral changes will this bring”, or “how should I interpret/perceive this change”?

Timing is different from scheduling in that it’s a matter of maturity: whereas planning deals with aligning deadlines and activities, timing is about using the momentum. The best way to start fine tuning your timing, is to be highly aware of how much energy it will cost you to “connect” with people. Determine which moments your stakeholders are comfortable to look at your proposal in an open and positive way, and align yourself with those moments, just like surfing the waves!

Another thing that may help to speed up the innovation process is to create a sense of urgency (a word of caution here: some people may experience urgency routinely as “negative” stress and may not follow…).

And don’t forget to support people at each step of the way; don’t succumb to the temptation to announce the next step until you’re sure they are ready for it. Finally, it’s always good to celebrate the achievement of a milestone collectively – it motivates those that are behind and at the same time it warns others to “hold their horses” so that everyone is on the same wave.

Maintain the momentum

Nothing is more frustrating than to see an innovation initiative (you’ve immersed yourself into) collapse. There are a few ways to help “maintain the momentum”, some more difficult than others:

  1. Document your findings for others to read: this may prove to be quite cumbersome because some “intangible” information (e.g. build-up of personal expertise, attitudes, relationships) cannot be easily expressed in writing and it remains to be seen if people take the time to read your stuff
  2. Ensure top management’s support by advocating a sense of urgency
  3. Make sure the “fun factor” doesn’t disappear, for example by highlighting positive results and/or involvement of individuals or teams
  4. Give other people a (shared) responsibility for continuation
  5. Involve a larger audience to the consequences of your innovation initiative
  6. Celebrate milestones and/or putting in place rituals that give exposure to the initiative

Try to analyze the chances of survival of your innovation before you apply any (or preferably a combination) of these ways as each of these require a sustained effort on your behalf. If you’ve come this far doubting whether your innovation initiative fits into your job description, you may want to rest your case!

Nevertheless, throughout your journey, it’s always useful to remind yourself of the reason(s) why you want to keep your initiative “alive”: is it to put yourself into the spotlight, or is it that your initiative has become obsolete?

In part 3 of this blog, we’ll see how we can create a platform for acceptance to your innovation.


Source: “Baanbreker” – Rutger Slump & Simon Douw (2015)