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Why you want to invest time upfront in an innovation project

Are you a Chief Innovation Officer who’s planning the innovation project initiatives of your company for the year ahead? Or are you a manager assigned to spearhead a concrete innovation project in 2020? Or perhaps, are you likely to be invited to take part in an innovation project as a team member in the coming year? Whatever the case, make sure that you commit enough time to the project to be able to produce meaningful innovation results. In particular, resist the temptation to skip the critical front-end process stage of the innovation method that you use to run the project (and to rush the project forward towards idea generation). Here’s why.

Background: Planning and timing an innovation project

At the beginning of a new year, many companies also start new innovation initiatives. They assign a project manager with knowledge of the case to lead a particular innovation initiative and then use internal innovation facilitators or a professional innovation company like Thinkergy to run the process-side of the project. Then, these innovation process experts employ a structured innovation method (such as the Creative Problem-Solving (CPS) Model, Design Thinking, or our X-IDEA innovation method) to guide the innovation teams through the various stages of the innovation project. 

Given increasing constraints on budgets, time, and people, some innovation project managers may feel tempted to skip the initial process stage of the chosen innovation method. (This front-end stage is called “Problem-Clarification” in the Simplified CPS, “Inspiration” in Design Thinking, or “Xploration” in X-IDEA). They suggest their innovation facilitator to take the project case straight away to the second stage and start with Ideation. Beware! You’re likely to miss out on vital insights related to your project case—and to create ideas for the wrong challenge.

What happens at the beginning of an innovation project?

Let me explain the process flow and work activities at the front-end of an innovation process method with the help of Thinkergy’s X-IDEA innovation method and its first process stage Xploration.

As with all other stages of X-IDEA, the initial Xploration-stage applies the BE-DO-HAVE concept of Zen Buddhists to guide an innovation team through the different work steps at the front-end of an innovation project. How does BE-DO-HAVE unfold during Xploration?

Adopt the mindset of an Xplorer (BE). Then, DO take three steps to Xplore your case, thereby avoiding certain X-Traps (cognitive biases such as the confirmation trap):

  1. First, XPRESS your initial perception of your challenge, and what you know and don’t know about the case. 
  2. Then, C-A-L-M-ly  XPLORE your case with the help of Xploration thinking tools relating to four possible paths of investigation (Check-Ask-Look-Map): Check out facts, assumptions, and rules related to your innovation case. Ask lots of provocative and even “stupid” questions. Look at the situation from different viewpoints, such as considering the wants, needs, and concerns of customers and other stakeholders involved in the case. Map out and visualize essential information.
  3. Finally, XTRACT new evidence (to close identified knowledge gaps) and your Final Challenge, aside of other target outputs. 

At the end of Xploration, and before beginning with Ideation, HAVE these X-Outputs: Insights, Initial Ideas, Final Challenge, and ideally also Idea Evaluation Criteria. 

Why investing time to do Xploration is so important

1. Uncover and close knowledge gaps

The British author Aldous Huxley noted: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” He’s right. Therefore, one principal aim of C-A-L-M-ly  Xploring an innovation case is to uncover knowledge gaps and perceptual blind spots related to the project.

During Xploration, we systematically capture a team’s conscious unknowledge (“We know what we don’t know”) and—more importantly—reveal its unconscious unknowledge (“We don’t know what we don’t know”). Later in the Xploration-stage, the team collectively sources information to close the identified knowledge gaps and turn unknowledge into knowledge. By the end of the Xploration-stage, you will have a much better and deeper understanding of your innovation project.

For example, Thinkergy helped Mattel in Bangkok to improve a problematic production planning process for its toy car production. During Xploration, we mapped the “customer journey” of a new toy design undergoing the production process. The exercise visualized all actions, departments, documents and outputs involved at each phase of the production planning and production process. Among others, the teams realized that they didn’t know about the purpose of certain complicated forms used in the planning process and later found out that these forms led to errors as not all workers on the factory floor can read.

2. Gain novel insights into your case

The German playwright and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.” By thoroughly Xploring their innovation case, an innovation team inevitably stumbles upon novel insights related to their project. An insight is a deep—and often sudden—realization of the true nature of something. 

Depending on the innovation type underlying the case (e.g., product innovation, strategy innovation, or customer experience design, among others), such novel insights may relate to new trends, unnoticed wider user needs, newly emerged materials or methods, new possible partners, archetypical customer groups, and others. Typically, novel insights either emerge while debriefing a particular Xploration tool (such as Customer Portraits or Empathetic POV) or while digging out fresh information to close the identified knowledge gaps.

For example, Thinkergy worked with BMW AG in its Research & Innovation Center in Munich in an innovation project focused on developing car interior concepts for luxury cars for Asian markets. During Xploration, we first helped to unearth 75 critical insights into Asia’s luxury car market. After briefing all BMW delegates on our Xploration learnings, the two innovation teams were ready to engage in insights-based ideation of car interior concepts appealing to four identified target customer segments.

3. Keep track of initial ideas

“Everything begins with an idea,” said American author Earl Nightingale. While Xploring an innovation case, it’s inevitable that some team members already get ideas on how to possibly resolve the perceived challenge. Such initial ideas may automatically pop up following the realization of a vital novel insight, or while applying a thinking tool, or while answering Xploration questions. In any case, we want to capture any idea emerging during Xploration, because a few of these early-stage ideas contain enough value—and create enough momentum—to carry them to real-life implementation. 

For example,  a few years ago, Thinkergy supported the infant formula company Mead Johnson on a regional strategy innovation project. During Xploration, a Vietnamese brand manager proposed an initial idea for a more playful product and packaging presentation targeting toddlers. She subsequently designed this initial idea into a full-fledged concept during the Development-stage and then pitched the top idea successfully during the Action-stage.

4. Find out what’s your real challenge

While facilitating more than 150 X-IDEA innovation projects during the past 15 years with Thinkergy, I learned one thing for sure. The final challenge definition that the innovation teams come up with to frame their problem or the innovation opportunity at the end of the Xploration stage almost always differs from their initial perception of their innovation challenge. In other words, Xploration ensures that you go on creating ideas for your real challenge, and not for some initial impression that misses the point of what’s really going on. As the American inventor Charles Kettering put it: “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”

For example, in 2017-18, we helped Covestro AG in Leverkusen crack a taxing innovation case related to a high-margin product that was about to lose its main application due to technological innovation. The innovation project manager had framed the initial challenge as follows: “How to find new applications for (brand name of the high-performance polycarbonate)?” After one year of Xploration with an intense workshop and follow-up work sessions, we reframed the final challenge in an entirely different way: “How to make (brand name of the high-performance polycarbonate) more findable for our identified target customers?” In other words, while the initial challenge definition focused on “finding needles in a haystack,” the final challenge reversed this aim (“How to attract needles to the haystack?”).

5. Define idea evaluation criteria

At the end of the Xploration stage, the innovation teams or the project manager typically present their learnings to a management team sponsoring the innovation project. This interim review meeting is the ideal moment to get senior managers’ consent to a set of idea evaluation criteria for the project. Later on, the teams apply these criteria to select the most promising concepts during Evaluation (X-IDEA’s fourth stage). Moreover,  in the final Action-stage, a management panel also uses these criteria to assess the fitness of the pitched top ideas before giving their approval for real-life implementation. 

Idea Evaluation Criteria can be broken down in “must-criteria” (knock-out criteria that an idea must comply with) and “want-criteria” (criteria assessing the market potential and ease of implementation of an idea).

Conclusion: First invest time to understand your innovation challenge, then resolve it

Abraham Lincoln said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Likewise, if you plan to undertake an innovation project in 2020, make sure that you dedicate sufficient time to the first, investigative stage of the innovation process that you use (such as the Xploration stage in X-IDEA). How much time is sufficient? Depending on the importance of your project, this can be as little as a day and as much as a year.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2019. The article is published in the Thinkergy Blog on November 21, 2019. It will be re-printed in the Bangkok Post on November 27, 2019.