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Countless articles argue: To remain competitive, companies need to consistently build their innovation portfolio. Value-oriented improvement and new developments must permeate the business. This article discusses a structured approach, known as a Rapid Innovation Cycle, which brings a repeatable process to innovation, empowering individuals to contribute more and organizations to look beyond themselves—all leading to a higher success rate.

Whether your innovation challenge is product, process or business model oriented, business problems all benefit from a methodological analysis to separate experiential bias from business need. Continuous improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma (many more exist) enable practitioners to refine their existing solutions, but do not offer an effective conduit for management of novel and unconventional thinking.

While many still feel that a systematic approach to innovation is impossible, innovation practitioners know how repeatable processes can be applied to achieve innovation objectives. A Rapid Innovation Cycle provides a process for leading teams through the front end of the innovation journey.

The objective of the front end of innovation is to precisely identify the unmet customer needs and identify the right ideas and to test them fast and cheap. On the other hand, the back end of innovation focuses on perfecting the right idea identified through the front end process. The key task during the back end process is “design for X”, where “X” stands for parameters such as performability, durability, reliability, manufacturability, robustness, environment, cost, serviceability and maintainability.

Rapid innovation: From define to demonstrate

A Rapid Innovation Cycle (RIC) kicks off with a series of workshops, each typically lasting three to four days, followed by project work between workshops. The main goals for the four key phases are:

Phase 1: Define and scope the innovation opportunity.
Phase 2: Discover new ideas.
Phase 3: Develop design concepts for experimentation.
Phase 4: Demonstrate the innovation through piloting and prototyping.

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The kickoff workshops are spread weeks apart with several weeks of project work in between to allow for adequate time for data collection, analysis and follow up study. Each workshop dictates the path and agenda for the follow-up work and research, which are necessary to ensure the validity of the outcomes and to prepare participants to be most effective during the next session. The time between sessions also serves as an incubation period: non-trivial problems require careful consideration and study.

Before the first workshop, it is advisable for workshop facilitators to meet with business stakeholders. It is important to identify the right participants who sufficiently appreciate the business need. Participants should be familiar with the opportunity and have adequate domain knowledge.

The pre-session also helps to narrow down the scope of the RIC; too wide a scope would set participants up for failure whereas a narrow scope would likely lead to problem that could be easily solved without the need for an extensive process. For example, finding opportunities to grow revenue across your company using one RIC is extremely broad. It would be impractical to consider this as a viable mandate. However, finding two or three specific products to focus on would set your teams up for success. Which products to focus on would depend on changes in the environment, your business and product life cycle maturity.

To better understand how a customer would choose a solution, outcome expectations, also known as hiring criteria, are also considered.

Phase 1: Define and scope the innovation opportunity

How many times have you been involved in an innovation project that started at ideation, rather than problem identification? To avoid wasted time and energy, the goal of phase 1 is to determine the exact nature of the innovation opportunity from a customer’s perspective.

The problem definition is ideally expressed in the form of a Job To Be Done (JTBD). The concept of the JTBD, popularized by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, helps move innovations beyond simply improving current solutions by helping teams to understand what a customer is trying to get done, in a solution neutral way. That is, in consideration of what a customer would want from the problem or process under consideration, no particular solution is implied, so as to avoid personal bias. For example, a JTBD could be: clean clothes.

To better understand how a customer would choose a solution, outcome expectations (OEs), also known as hiring criteria, are also considered. OEs are a solution neutral formulation of those items that matter to a customer while they are trying to get a job done. For example: Minimize the time it takes to remove wrinkles from clothes after cleaning.

In addition to identifying the innovation opportunity, the first workshop plans the management of the people influenced by the proposed new solution. Executive sponsorship of the initiative should be clear and respected and a detailed stakeholder analysis completed. A communications plan is also essential: Who needs to be informed of this project’s initiatives and goals? What should be communicated to them? Who should be communicating?

Follow up work from the first workshop will be for participants to validate the JTBD and OEs. The validation process typically involves reaching out to customers to obtain their direct feedback as well as (if the JTBD calls for it) performing ethnographic studies. Ethnography is an anthropological tool repurposed in the world of marketing to build a deeper and emphatic understanding of customer needs. Ethnography is followed up with qualitative discussions with customers. The under-served outcome expectations are identified through quantitative methods by evaluating the importance and satisfaction of outcome expectations.

Armed with real-world customer feedback and having had time to study the problem domain, participants will be eager to share what they have learned.

Phase 2: Discover new ideas

While being armed with real-world customer feedback and having had time to study the problem domain, participants will be eager to share what they have learned. It is often the case that the problem, as it was understood by RIC participants, was perceived quite differently by customers. This valuable feedback allows participants to refine their focus and spend time on crafting solutions more appropriate to customer need.

Phase 2 focuses strongly on exploring as many ideas as possible to solve the problem under consideration. The main activity in kickoff workshop 2 is ideation in all its various forms. Traditional brainstorming, coupled with other ideation facilitation techniques (such as Brainwriting, Random Word, SCAMPER, etc.) are used as needed to help participants document their knowledge and brainpower. Depending on the problem at hand, the targeted application of stronger problem solving tools such as TRIZ and biomimicry may also be considered. Ultimately, the goal is to generate a large number of ideas and concepts.

An ideation activity is completed for each of the JTBDs and underserved outcome expectations identified in Phase 1. As Linus Pauling said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.”

Ideas and concepts should be continually affinitized. This activity helps participants to familiarize themselves with the ideas proposed by others and as a method to de-regularize the ideation. Participants often share the same knowledge and experience, and as a consequence come up with similar ideas. Being aware of this helps participants to be open to ideas that may not be in line with their personal knowledge and experience.

Ideating for several consecutive days is a tiring activity! Frequent breaks and entertainment in the form of humorous videos are effective in keeping teams energized—the workshop structure should be kept fluid and interesting.

Towards the end of the workshop, participants are given the opportunity to select their preferred ideas. The selection can take many forms, from simple multi-voting to more involved evaluation, such as the Impact vs. Effort Matrix, Pugh Matrix, and Analytical Hierarchy process.

As an outcome from this workshop, all ideas and their prioritization should be captured electronically. This will make it easier for participants to review their ideas during the following weeks of project activity and before the third workshop, as well as complete any research necessary to assess the viability of their ideas.

Phase 3: Develop design concepts for experimentation

The Develop phase is aimed at building on the core set of ideas identified in the previous phase. The ideas are re-formulated into concepts by considering the functions that the intended solution should perform. At this point, any one idea from the corpus of ideas, or combinations of ideas, may be used to formulate a concept. Concept solutions are then vetted by participants based on their viability, while considering business goals and resources. The best solution concepts are then further developed by understanding their details and implementation requirements.

The second aspect to consider during the third kickoff workshop is the change and people management necessary in order to ensure the success of the newly proposed solution concepts. The communications plan from the first session should be revisited, as well as the stakeholder analysis. Activities such as a Force Field Analysis help to understand potential failures that may cause the project to not succeed.

More traditional continuous improvement control techniques help to consider the risks of the newly proposed solution. Never underestimate the use of an FMEA (Failure Mode & Effects Analysis) on an untested idea.

Where the first phase started with a high assumption-to-knowledge ratio, at the end of the third phase, the situation should be reversed. At this point, project participants will have gained considerable understanding and domain knowledge. With a number of solutions concepts to pilot, the business is still in the favorable position where any one (or more) of the new concepts can be selected for further consideration and development. The RIC process is ultimately “fail friendly.” In other words, it is much more economical to opt-out of an idea up-front than to go through its lengthy development and only then realize that it is not an adequate solution. The output of the Develop phase is the detailed design of a minimum viable product, process or business model. The design at this juncture is not perfected or robust. The objective is to create a quick prototype (simulated or real) and perform experiments.

The data collected helps us understand and eliminate the assumptions we made throughout various phases of the Rapid Innovation Cycle.

During the follow-on weeks of project activity, detailed designs are developed of the minimum viable product, process or business model architecture. These designs are not intended to be perfected at this stage but created for experimentation so that many assumptions can be converted into knowledge. The deliverable of this phase is the design of a prototype.

Phase 4: Demonstrate the innovation through piloting and prototyping

The Demonstrate phase is aimed at turning the prototype design into a working or simulated prototype and collecting data about the design through experiments. The emphasis is to learn cheap and learn fast. During the planning session of this phase, we will carefully create a project plan with experimentation objectives, methods and scope of experimentation along with milestones, budget and resourcing. A control plan and reaction plan are created to deal with various consequences. The data collected helps us understand and eliminate the assumptions we made throughout various phases of the Rapid Innovation Cycle.

At the end of this phase, the team will review the lessons learned with various stakeholders. If the opportunity is valid and the ideas are viable, it is now ready for back-end design where the ideas are perfected. If the ideas are not viable, the team must decide to iterate or abandon the project.

Learning fast and cheap

A Rapid Innovation Cycle is an effective way for companies to execute their front end of innovation projects. Through this approach, organizations are able to precisely determine unmet, solution neutral customer needs, generate the right ideas, and learn fast and cheap about their viability. As you will find from teams who have participated in such events, bringing this repeatable process to innovation not only empowers individuals and flexes organizations to look beyond themselves, but also results in the development of the best ideas into new designs that customers actually want.

By Dr. Phil Samuel & Riaan Brits

About the authors

Dr. Phil Samuel is chief innovation officer for strategy and innovation consulting firm BMGI. He leverages more than 20 years of experience as he works with organizations to insource creativity and increase organic growth potential. Phil is a dynamic speaker and author whose deep expertise has earned him the reputation of an industry pioneer.

Riaan Brits has more than 12 years of experience in software development and data analysis, and is a principal with strategy and innovation consulting firm BMGI. With expertise in analytics, development and TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving), Riaan enjoys finding simple solutions to complex problems.

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