Four Innovation Lessons with Staying Power


More than 10 years old, the ABC Nightline episode in which the innovation gurus from IDEO redesign the grocery store shopping cart still offers timeless insights about the innovation process.  Here are a few I have found useful in helping groups understand and move forward on innovation.

Involve more people in research.

Innovation begins with unbiased observation of the end user, watching their actions with the Zen practice of a beginner's mind: In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.


Too many organizations delegate observation and field research to a very small subset of individuals as opposed to engaging a wider cross-section of those who will actually create the improved or new product or service.  Expanding the field research team reduces the likelihood that those not involved in the data collection process will dismiss the observations: "Well that hasn't been my experience."

Involving more people in research also increases what likely gets noticed, as well as the variety of perspectives through which observations will be filtered, reducing the likelihood of groupthink, implicit bias, or confirmation bias.

Identify stakeholders' core needs or wants and optimize your solutions to them.

After observing shoppers in action and talking with store owners and other stakeholders, IDEO's staffers share everything learned, covering the walls with ideas and insights.  They then hone in on four core themes that the reinvented cart should address: safety, finding what you are looking for, avoiding theft, and getting through the checkout faster. 

They break into four groups, one for each of the identified needs, and again generate expansive ideas and possibilities before ultimately combining some of the best approaches from each of the groups into the final cart.  

This constant expansion and contraction of input and ideas, generating possibilities and then selecting ones on which to focus, ensures rigorous thinking limited to the most important needs or wants instead of broader shotgun efforts.  

I find that establishing decision-making rules in advance to inform how choices are made can accelerate the process and help minimize any potential personality conflicts.

Fail often (experiment more) in order to succeed sooner.

This powerful IDEO mantra (shared by most innovative organizations) exemplifies the deep bias for action.  I prefer to reframe it from as failing often (which focuses on the outcome) to experimenting more (which focuses on the process) and expecting and being OK with some things not working as anticipated. 

Once the appropriate level of investigative research is completed, you should rapidly develop prototypes and involve end users in testing them.  This field research yields more powerful learning than a committee continuing to study and perfect a lone pilot effort ever could.  Similar in spirit is an approach known as the MVP, Minimally Viable Product.  But as Seth Godin notes, the MVP may not be appropriate for all your efforts.

Be OK with organized chaos.

Innovation is neither tidy nor predictable, and you can't schedule your brilliant product insight to occur at exactly 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday.  What you can do is ensure that all of your colleagues support a common process and principles that provide focus and self-organization to what could otherwise be misconstrued as chaotic.  

Those facilitating ideation sessions must restrain themselves from unnecessarily shackling the conversations and explorations to a predetermined structure.  Instead they should remain present and intervene only when the group begins to lose focus or energy for a particular stage of the process.


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