This is a 2-part article where I’m sharing everything I know on how to turn ideas into action. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read part 1 first.
In part 1 I talked about why we need innovation, what types of innovation there are, and what forces drive innovation within an organization. In part 2, I go even deeper discussing the innovation process, how to lead innovation, the ways in which we can evaluate innovation and successfully commercialize it.
How to choose the best innovation process?
There are many 5 steps, 6 step and 8 step models out there. Sometimes, they are specifically focused on an industry or function. They all illustrate the same sequence of activities, but my personal favorite is the Design Thinking process.
It’s a model inspired by the way that designers tackle wicked problems. It’s also very simple to adapt to any industry, and simple enough that even children can follow it.
The Design Thinking process was made for innovative collaboration, and also illustrates the cyclical nature of the activities.
Let’s break it down:
First, we need to understand who we are creating this innovation. Empathy plays a big role in the innovation process on a conscious and subconscious level. To know what it’s like to walk in their shoes, we need to understand them. Following them around, studying their behavior and asking smart questions can help us define the problem we will be solving, and also get inspired to create something that will make their lives genuinely better.
Once we’ve done our research, we can start ideating/brainstorming. Often, teams actually start with brainstorming, and that is OK. It’s a good way to get all your ideas out of your head and leave all your preconceptions on a piece of paper. Just be sure to brainstorm again after you get to know your customer. Find out more about the art of successful (and efficient) brainstorming in our how-to-guide.
Once you have all your ideas laid out, you can move on to prototyping and testing. Your first prototype can be (and probably should be) a simple drawing. As long as this allows you to illustrate and test the main features, it will serve its purpose. Because the Design Thinking process is cyclical, naturally you will create more elaborate prototypes with every next cycle, from digital layouts to 3D printed models.
You might have noticed that I never mention competitive research in the process. Knowing what the competitors are doing is nonetheless important, but it has a way of leading teams into a “let’s be better than SoAndSo” or, a competition mindset. In my experience, it can prove to be quite counterproductive especially at the beginning of the process.
I actually recommend doing one cycle of the DT process without doing any competitive research at all. Sure, the team will be disappointed to find out that their initial ideas already exist, but I argue that it’s better to start being purely creative and discover the existing alternatives later on.
Teamwork always made the dream work
The most important thing about the Design Thinking process is that it’s very inclusive. It really focuses on teamwork and collaboration and also pushes everyone in the team to focus on the user. That is exactly how great innovations are created.
Whether your innovation is coming from an acquisition, a partnership, internal efforts or open innovation, you can use the Design Thinking process to facilitate the further development of the product, or align remote teams in a unified trajectory. Read more about the applications and how to implement the Design Thinking process here.
Delivering excellence through ambidextrous leadership
In all your innovative efforts, there will be one key player that will make or break the efficiency of the innovation process, and ultimately, the success of the innovation itself. The process is only as good as its facilitator: the project/team lead.
The team lead has a very important role, and it is not to come up with all the best ideas. His job is to help the action team be fully dedicated to the project. In order to do so, he needs to balance external influences and internal tensions, and often, to get snacks.
Senior managers sometimes focus so much on the numbers that due to complexity and fear, they can take the idea in a completely wrong direction.
But their inclusion is necessary because their decisions impact everybody involved. They need to be informed about progress, confident in the team’s ability to deliver and their decisions need to be aligned with the goal: ultimate customer delight.
On the other hand, the members of the team need to work harmoniously. Diverse teams are best for innovation projects because everyone brings in a different perspective, but the more diverse a team is, the more turbulence there will be. To create a great innovation, there needs to be unity – both on an organizational level and within the team itself.
The leader’s role in creating unity is connecting all the different people involved, providing motivation and creating an environment for rapid learning – the focused and efficient iteration that fuels the development of an innovation. To do so, he needs to be quite ambidextrous.
When choosing a person for this task, I recommend seeking the following:
- Trustworthiness – ideally the team should already know him and trust him
- He needs to have a knowledge foundation in the field enough to understand what everyone is talking about, but also an interest to learn even more
- He needs to be driven not by title or power, rather by passion.
Frankly, these should be the traits of any leader. He is essentially a therapist, an advisor, and the bearer of both good and bad news. Building a strong and passionate team always comes down to the leader’s influence.
And for that reason, if you don’t possess these traits naturally, you can start implementing specific activities to change your leadership style to become more trustworthy and inspirational yourself.
How to evaluate innovations?
The scariest thing about innovation (from an established organization’s perspective) is the risk that innovation will not be worth the investment. To ensure that you can turn your idea into rational action and that idea will be viable and profitable, we need to continuously evaluate it at every stage of the development process.
This is my favorite evaluation tool – one that I’ve introduced to many of my friends and clients and seen their faces light up. Why? Because although it’s a no-brainer, having a structured model often helps us remember all the steps we need to take to succeed. Without further ado, I present to you the Stage Gate Model.
The model goes hand in hand with the Design Thinking process, and can be adapted to the specific stages that your organization will be going through systematically.
The gates are simply elevation pit stops where we decide whether an idea is a “GO”, a “STOP” or a “TERMINATE”. The STOP ideas can be left on the shelf for another day, but the ideas that meet the harsher fate can also be revived in the future.
Essentially, at every gate we ask the following 2 questions: Are we doing the project right? and Are we doing the right project? Doing so, in parallel with user feedback, will significantly reduce risk and ensure that we are not letting too many “bad seeds” through the gates, thus stopping us from wasting valuable resources on projects, only to bust them later.
Unleashing the solution (Commercialization)
The closer we get to the finish line, the more we have on the line. Passion also grows tension and it can be very difficult to stay objective to launch. Furthermore, people get tired and stop pushing for excellence. Or, they get stuck in perpetual iteration cycles and endlessly postpone the launch date.
As a result, what happens is the idea gets lost in the piles of other products, or the guy next door launches something slightly less perfect much faster, and gets all the credit for the idea. Unfortunately, nobody cares about innovations that didn’t pique their interest, and apparent “copycats”.
What can we do to avoid both of these equally bad scenarios?
In my year of experience working with innovation, I’ve had the first-row seat watching both scenarios unfold. And teams that have done everything right up to this point, losing steam when it’s time to show the world their work. But, they are not to blame.
The truth is, launching an innovation requires a different set of skills than those that are necessary to develop the innovation. Designers and visionaries can be great at creating products and platforms that are better than anything else out there, but they simply don’t know how to tell a story around them.
On the other hand, the whole organization tends to get sucked in the “behind the scenes” perspective. so much so that they simply can’t see the innovation objectively anymore. The antidote to both of these: the fresh eyes of an outside expert.
The truth of the matter is: Launching an innovation is just as difficult as creating it. It requires creative storytelling, deep understanding of consumer psychology and a knack for
approach innovation (or in less fancy terms: 21 century sales)
Start innovating – turn ideas into action
Even if you have a very innovative marketing team within the organization, and odds are, you do, you need to form a new action marketing team that will research, develop, test and execute the launch strategy. Most organizations simply can’t afford to do that and enlist the help of another team to help them extend their edge in this last but very crucial step.
As the greatest commercial innovator of our age put it: “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He had a natural knack for storytelling and also understood communication trends like nobody else.
Even so, he still sought out help from other experts, like the father of Design Thinking David Kelley, and his team to design the first Apple mouse, as well as marketing specialists such as Guy Kawasaki, who helped Apple launch the Macintosh.
If you need help launching innovation and don’t necessarily have the Apple budget, you might want to consider enlisting the help of a boutique Innovation Agency. Reach out to us and we will be happy to give you a free consultation. The world needs more innovations now more than ever, and the only way we can have a real impact is by knowing “how to turn ideas into consumer action.