Organizations that struggle with new product innovation typically don’t fail because their leader isn’t a visionary. It’s not that the team isn't creative or smart. It's because, as humans, we favor routine. Innovation takes most of us outside our comfort zones and often requires new skills and behavior change.
Before we start working with organizations on creating processes to support innovation, we encourage the leadership team to first examine their culture and skill sets to make sure that they have the people and environment to be successful. Or, what we call focusing on people before processes.
Here are the 7 things we recommend leaders do:
1. Start with a Strong, Well-Articulated Vision
The CEO and leadership team must first articulate a strong, clear vision for the innovation strategy. A great example of this comes from Jennifer McCollum of Linkage, Inc. Linkage is a leadership development consultancy that specializes in assessing, training, and coaching leaders. While the company had evolved over its 30-year history, it still relied on a people-intensive, highly customized services model. So, Jennifer began to develop a strategy of “productizing” its services to help the organization scale and grow.
Jennifer started by anchoring the organization around the ambitious vision of impacting leadership effectiveness and equity in 500 organizations by 2022. Setting this goal would require the organization to innovate and get out of the business of highly customized services. This very clear vision is memorable, measurable and is what is guiding the entire organization through a true transformation of its business model.
2. Plan for Behavior Change from the Top Down
While a strong vision is necessary, it is not enough. Leadership teams must also model innovation-friendly behavior. For example, the Linkage leadership team developed The Linkage Way, an outline of specific behaviors to help change company culture one behavior at a time.
Behaviors such as:
To help reinforce the behaviors, each week a member of the leadership team shared their experience witnessing or practicing one of the organizational behaviors. The Linkage Way is now rolling out company-wide. Employees from all divisions and at all levels share their experiences with The Linkage Way organizational behaviors on the internal chat board.
3. Hire and Develop the Right Skills
Organizations also need to acquire the right skills either through training and development or hiring. For example, bringing in new talent and also working with outside consultants and trainers to teach the rest of the team critical product innovation skills.
What do we mean by “product innovation” skills? These competencies include being able to:
We also recommend finding people who can work with uncertainty and doubt such as “Chaos Pilots,” a clever label for people who can “create structure within chaos and take action.”
4. Make Room for Diversity of Thought
Once organizations start to bring in new skills, we have to make sure that new hires don’t suffer “organ rejection” from the rest of the organization. When you commit to bringing in new skills, you also need to commit to welcoming and leveraging the diversity of experience and thought. We recommend investing in training leaders on how to practice inclusive behaviors including how to create “psychological safety” on teams. Read more about building an agile team in this Harvard Business Review article.
5. An Organizational Structure that Facilitates Collaboration and Agility
Even if organizations have brought in the right skills and are inclusively allowing these skills to flourish, functional silos can kill innovation. You can read more about this in The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett. Innovation tends to flourish in cross-functional teams because these teams have more diversity of perspective and can act more rapidly to develop and test product ideas.
6. Company-Wide Technical Acumen
For most organizations, “new product innovation” means using technology to create new products. As such, technical acumen, also known as digital fluency, is an incredibly important competency. Not just for our teams tasked with innovation but for the entire organization. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) describes the importance of digital fluency well: “If the growth in digital talent outpaces the ability of the rest of the workforce to keep up, the company as a whole will be left behind.”
7. A Test-and-Learn Mindset
Last, but definitely not least, organizations need to develop a test-and-learn mindset that is applied at every stage of the new product development process. Read more about this approach here.
A test-and-learn product design process is a new way of working for many of us. But the payoff can be significant. A recent survey of 170 executives who work in R&D, strategy, and new product development roles at large public companies found agreement on several benefits of taking a test-and-learn product design type of approach:
Consider asking for help
True innovation is hard but a necessity in a fast-changing environment. It requires getting outside of our comfort zones as well as new skills and behavior change. We are here to help.
Find out what to look out for next when designing tech-enabled services in 2021, read our white paper on the Top 7 Product Innovation Mistakes to Avoid in 2021.
A few years ago, I read the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The book describes how to use design thinking innovation practices to help people proactively explore and change their lives to make them more meaningful. More fulfilling. More joyful.
At the time, I had a deep longing to do something entrepreneurial, yet impactful, and I also wanted to start thinking about how my life would change as my children grew and became more independent. I thought the Design Your Life approach could be helpful because design thinking, when done well, helps us overcome constraints. And I felt very constrained. Constrained by my own expectations of what 'success' looks like, constrained by my mortgage, constrained by family demands on time.
To overcome constraints, design thinking helps us think more creatively and to experiment before committing significant resources to an idea. By applying the same innovation practices that I now coach companies through, I was able to "innovate" my life by charting a path to co-found Vecteris, to become a certified yoga teacher, and to be much more deliberate in how how I spent my time with my family. I have evolved the process a bit, bringing in ideas from Ayse Birsel's book, Design the Life you Love, and Danielle LaPorte's book The Desire Map.
Since we are very nearly post-pandemic (I hope), I want to share the process I use in case you want to step back and reimagine what might be possible in your life, both professionally and personally. What do you long for? What do you want to keep in your life post pandemic? What do you want to shed?
This process is not rocket science, but it mirrors the tried and true innovation process that I use with business clients and it has been so helpful for me to realize dreams I thought impossible, ultimately creating more joy in my life.
Step 1. Define the Problem
“Life innovation” work starts by defining what is working in our lives (and what is not). I do this by keeping an energy journal (suggested by Burnett and Evans) for 1-2 weeks. The journal aims to identify the activities, people, and places that give us joy (and those that drain our energy).
My first energy journal that I completed in 2017 revealed that the time I spent teaching, writing, and coaching was incredibly satisfying. The time that I spent creating reports and other administrative tasks was, to be honest, soul-sucking. A huge “a-ha” was how rewarding I found the time I spent doing work that elevated and empowered other women – whether through mentoring or helping to organize a women’s employee resource group.
One of my friends, an executive at a large consumer goods company, kept an energy journal and she realized that the flower arranging class she was taking as a hobby brought her immense joy. Being able to make flower arrangements for her friends, take them to parties, and using them in her entertaining made her happier than she ever thought it would.
The energy journal is a great tool to uncover ways to innovate our lives to bring us more joy.
In addition to tracking the ups and downs of daily life, I also reflect on the quality of different areas of my life using a dashboard method. Ayse Birsel talks about it in her book, as do Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Think of this as the same as scoring the different products in your product portfolio to help you determine where to focus improvement efforts.
It helps to think of it as a gas gauge on the dashboard of your car. Ask yourself, how full are you on all the different components that come together to create a well-lived life? How full are you on love? Relationships? Health? Spirituality? Financial? Career? Hobbies? In your physical environment?
The first time I did this, I realized I needed to focus on improving career satisfaction and spending more quality time with my boys.
The dashboard and the energy journal ultimately helps us identify the areas where we feel like we have the most opportunity for improvement.
Step 2: Generate and prioritize ideas
The next phase is to ideate and plan. To get started, I use mind mapping, a way to consider and present ideas visually. It is a thinking tool to structure information to analyze, comprehend, recall, and generate new ideas.
I recommend starting with a central idea and then building from there. As I mentioned, one of the things that brings me deep joy and gives me energy is doing work that elevates and empowers other women. So, one of the maps I developed centered on that. Each of its branches represents how I can directly help other women or actively contribute to larger social movements that empower women.
For example, after identifying that volunteer work could be a path to bring me more joy, I accepted a position on the board of Women Helping Women, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit that helps people affected by domestic violence.
The politics branch on this mind map is another one I've been heavily focused on both in the 2018 and 2020 cycles, using my time, money and connections to help support female candidates.
A finished mind map can help you see patterns or put disparate ideas together. It helped me realize the breadth of ways I could incorporate this passion into my life. For example, I could make it a crucial part of my work or include it as part of my volunteer time.
Step 3: Design Prototypes
After brainstorming all of the ways that we might bring more joy into our lives and spend more time doing things that give us energy, the next step is to develop three versions of a “roadmap” for how life might unfold for the next 3-5 years. I like using the three roadmap versions suggested by Evans and Burnett:
My first ones focused on career, passion, and travel I could do with my family, but I've seen roadmaps that only focus on health, relationships, and finances. Here’s my five-year roadmap from 2017. It is remarkable that most things on my 'Shoot for the Moon' life have come to fruition. I should have dreamed bigger.
Step 4: Test the Prototypes
We build our life roadmaps around hypotheses that we need to test. For example, will I enjoy being a business owner? Would taking a month-long RV trip across the country with my teenage boys actually be fun? Or, in the case of my flower arranging friend, is there a limit to how much she loves flower arranging? Could this be a full-time career or just a hobby?
The first step in this phase is to test all of our ideas using prototypes or minimal viable products. For example, before renting an RV for a three-week cross-country trip with two teenage boys (it was pre-COVD, but yes, still, I honestly thought this would be a good idea), I prototyped it by renting an RV for a night and driving to a nearby campground. We hated the experience and I'm so glad we tested it before packing up for three weeks.
My flower arranging friend decided to test being a full-time flower designer in Paris by enrolling in a two-week course at a floral school in Paris. It turned out that it was not as much fun as she thought it would be. Now she knows the limits of her love for flower arranging and still finds joy in it by keeping it a hobby rather than a full-time endeavor.
Step 5: Take Action & Iterate
Product roadmaps are only dreams without detailed plans to implement them, to paraphrase Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“A goal without a plan is just a wish"). Similarly, 3- to 5-year life “plans” are only dreams without more concrete action steps.
Borrowing a page from lean innovation principles, when setting life innovation goals, focus on milestones, so what will you do next week, next month, next quarter to move towards your vision.
We may also want to do many things in our 3- to 5-year life plan that may require small daily or weekly activities to achieve. For example, if I want to climb Mt Kilimanjaro next year, I need to book my guide and start my training plan this year.
Finally, we need to measure our progress. I find it most useful to protect time on my calendar weekly, monthly, quarterly to review my goals and plan my action steps. Here is the planning cadence that has been helpful for me:
Most of this is done independently. But, independently doesn’t mean alone. I have found that having the support of a group of people or a person such as an accountability buddy is vital for making our "life innovation" dreams a reality. In 2018, I started a Friday morning 30 minute phone call with an accountability buddy and it has been a game changer for me. We hold each other accountable, talk through obstacles we are facing, and offer feedback and encouragement along the way.
Again, I wanted to share my experience because it has worked so well for me in designing creative ways to pursue my dreams, despite constraints. Whether in life or with our businesses, it is rare for true innovation or transformation to happen without some "process" and my process follows the steps I outlined: defining the opportunity, designing and developing ideas to try, testing those ideas, creating plans, evaluating what is working, and continuing to iterate.
As always, if you want help innovating your business, please reach out.