Whether you’re a digital start-up or an institutional entrepreneur, three simple heuristics offer an excellent way to determine whether a fledgling innovation initiative should be put out of its misery (and yours). Even if the innovation business case appears compelling and its numbers sound, should these three pathologies appear, don’t hesitate or delay: Kill your innovation effort ASAP.
1) No Pleasant Surprises
Almost all innovation efforts have the hiccoughs and bumps in the road. Design schedules invariably slip and that “quick-and-dirty” prototype ends up costing much more than expected. That’s normal. But listen closely for and pay attention to the pleasant surprises: The coding that takes two weeks to develop and test instead of two months; the material that has more malleability and strength at lower cost; that really smart supplier who makes one of her smarter designers available to collaborate.
The absence of pleasant surprise is not unlike the dog that doesn’t bark: A signal that something that should be happening isn’t. If the innovation idea or proposal really represents a novel value creation opportunity, there’ll be serendipities sprinkled amidst the inevitable unpleasantness. Those “small wins” may not look or feel like much but, almost always, they signal new opportunities for exploitation and advance.
For example, a retailer found that automating how it would send coordinated digital alerts to its suppliers and distribution centers was much easier than expected. Writing, coding and testing business rules turned out to be less risky and expensive than thought. That “pleasant surprise” gave IT, purchasing agents and store managers alike the confidence to create a bigger business conversation around what had once been a purely technical innovation effort.
Pleasant surprises reinforce original enthusiasm. That is fuel. No pleasant surprises means you’ll soon be running on empty.
2) No Deeper Insights
This sounds similar to “No Pleasant Surprises’” but it’s not. Every aspiring innovator has a tacit or explicit hypothesis about their innovation and its desired impact on the organization and/or its customers. Quite naturally, innovation teams bring a confirmation bias—a cognitive decision trap—to those hypotheses. They’re looking for evidence supporting the new product/service path they’re on.
But that’s not good enough. As innovators progress through prototyping iterations and design tests, they need to ask, “Are we getting deeper, richer and more sophisticated insights into our value proposition and how it’s perceived?” Simply hitting benchmarks and milestones affirming that everything’s copacetic is complacency. That’s dangerous.
If innovators aren’t learning dramatically more about their potential customer’s real needs or the “degrees of freedom” their innovation effort enables, they’re doing compliance, not transformation. Innovators who are really innovating are also really learning. Each iteration and test—with and without customers—should be generating nuggets of data and information that facilitate a deeper understanding of what they’re really doing instead of what they started out doing. Innovation journeys should, quite literally, change how they see their original ideas.
I was sitting in a new product meeting at a South of Market social media start-up that had been grinding away on a clever little Facebook app that wasn’t quite getting as much traction or enthusiasm as they had expected. The product leader asked his team, “So what do we understand about our users now that we really didn’t before…?’
No one had a good answer. No real learning was going on. The product was killed. Good.
3) Greater Prospect/Customer/Client Engagement Inspires Little Emotion
Learning curves are important but so are emotional plateaus. The more your prospects engage with innovation prototypes, the more their feelings should intensify around what you’re trying to do. Ideally, they should come to care as much—or more—about your innovation as you do. But if their feelings don’t change as they engage more with your next iteration or simplified UX, you’re in an emotional kill zone. Indifference is death.
It’s even better if prospects dislike the changes you’re making in your models and prototypes because that means you were doing something they liked. You know you’ve got something when prospects and beta partners want to collaborate and contribute to your value proposition. Their actions speak louder than their words. They choose to be more engaged with your team’s innovation journey. They may not be “passionate” but they care. You can tell. Most importantly, they want the innovation to succeed not because they like you, your team or your company but because they “get” and appreciate the value and values your promised innovation represents.
Don’t confuse emotional engagement with focus group feedback or customer satisfaction scores. You want and need to be attuned to any changes they have in their “affective connection” to your innovation. If measurably greater participation and engagement with your prototypes and simulations fail to move the emotional needles of your prospects, they’re not going to commit to you when the real challenges materialize. Customers don’t have to love or even like your prototypes; but they do need to feel that the more they interact with your innovation, the more they get what it can do for them.
If your innovation fails even one of these tests, you know you have serious problems. But if you’re 0 for 3, you’ve struck out. Stop what you’re doing immediately. Passionate innovation champions are wonderful and essential to success. But their passion inherently means they can’t be dispassionate analysts of their babies. The real issues emerge after the charismatic innovation champion leaves the room.
Does the innovation generate the serendipity, insight and emotional engagement that matters? You know what to do if the answer is, no.
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