Category Archives: Blog

Back End Innovation

Front End Innovation Needs More Backend Reality

The term Front End Innovation implies an unhelpful distance between the concept stage and the hard work of getting products to market. Teams that are great at Front End Innovation, tends to understand that great Front End Innovation starts at the Back End.

If your goal is a product in market, thinking backwards from that outcome helps teams focus their work on what matters at every stage in their work.

It helps you focus on the right things at the right time

Corporate innovation typically means developing solutions that can scale within massive corporate systems. Those systems come with complexity startups don’t typically have to deal with. When we see teams getting lost in complexity, we ask them to pause, let go of where they are in the process and think through the journey of designing a new product or service in reverse, from the moment it hits the market to right now. Thinking in reverse reminds teams of what it really takes to get a solution to market and helps them prioritize the right things at the right times to keep moving forward.

It helps you focus on the right stakeholders

While working with an automaker in North America, the outcome we wanted was a better customer experience. We could have gotten lost in all the ways this could happen. Thinking the challenge through in reverse reminded the team that this outcome sits in the hands of dealers. We redesigned our project to think through the challenge from the perspective of dealers rather than the automaker. The result was a suite of services dealers would be willing and able to deliver well.

It helps you focus your questions

On an consumer goods project, we hit a roadblock when a team could not agree on the details of an ambitious round of consumer research across 3 countries. We paused and all agreed that the outcome we wanted was a successful product on shelf. When thinking backwards through the journey, we realised our biggest challenge wasn’t consumer insight (we had loads of it). The real challenge was that the organization’s existing manufacturing assets limited our landscape of solutions dramatically. We shifted our focus to rigorously iterating around the three products the organization could deliver and a product hit shelves 18 months later.

It helps you focus your consumer research

On a project focused on alcohol occasions, we realized that no matter how great our final product was, it would go nowhere if it was not embraced by bartenders. We designed a week in each market where our first and last interactions were with bartenders. That vantage point helped us ground our work in what mattered to our key gatekeeper before finalising our thinking about what a successful product would need to do in order to succeed.

It helps you create innovation for the real world

An innovation process that starts at the back end is more consider all of the factors that dictate success at those final stage gates. On a drinks innovation project, we involved R&D in our research stage. Being present during those early conversations sparked connections between what consumers told us and an amazing technology that was available through a vendor. That technology became the core of our winning concept early on. The result was a project with an immediate roadmap through their system into market.

It helps you focus on your organization’s strengths

Many organizations respond to opportunities without really thinking about whether they are the player in their industry to deliver. Starting at the back end can give you a healthy dose of perspective around whether this is an opportunity your organization should tackle alone or whether this is better approached as a partnership or through an acquisition.

Amazon has a similar approach to innovation called “Working Backwards”. You can hear our friend Wen talk about that here.

 

If you are looking to put more back end in your front end innovation process, here are six exercises to re-focus on what matters by forcing them to think projects through in reverse.

 

Propellerfish is an innovation and insights firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead innovation projects with an eye on what it takes to get products and services to market.

Responsive Consumer Insight

Better Consumer Insights Through Responsive Design

The process of understanding something complicated begins with more questions than answers. When it comes to consumer insight work, the more we learn, the better our questions get and our best questions tend to be the ones we ask later in our discovery process. Great research responds to new learning. It snowballs, evolves and gets better over time. Yet the dogmas of traditional consumer insight work tend to ignore the power of questions we don’t yet know to ask.

On a project aimed at rethinking a mobile payment platform in India, our clients wanted help understanding why their current solution wasn’t working for their target female user and how they could pivot that solution into something that works.

We planned an intense week of research across about a dozen rural villages in Uttar Pradesh. After day 1, we realized something important: most of these users were illiterate, they did not have phones, and they did not manage home finances.

That night, we redesigned our fieldwork completely to understand what it would take to make mobile financial services work in this region. We broadened our focus from female users to include men since they were the ones with the phones, the home finance responsibility and literacy required to transact via mobile in these communities. We also tapped into local telco agents and street shops selling top up credit. These people knew more about the users than we could ever learn in a week.

Day 2 taught us that the idea of a mobile payment solution was attractive because paying bills was inefficient and took time away from earning a living. We also learned that telco agents had no interest in mobile finance because it required them to keep enough cash on hand for people to cash out and offered an insignificant payoff compared to the other things they sold.

Our week in field snowballed into our final day where we focused exclusively on telco agents in order to understand what we would need to offer them in order to make this commercially viable from their perspective.

A great research methodology responds to consumer insights you hadn’t expected to find

If we had stuck with our discussion guide, we would have come back with a fairly limited insight. Iterating on our methodology in real time meant we came back with consumer insights and principles teams can use to craft actual solutions.

Responsive Research Design puts structure around flexibility the iterative nature of great research. It allows projects to evolve in real time with protocols in place that ensure changes are made methodically by a team that knows what they’re doing.

Here are six things that Propellerfish teams do to help insight projects respond to new learning and get smarter over time.

01. Debrief early and often

Where possible, teams debrief in a standard format at the end of each day, if not after each interview. On global projects, we land a refined picture of the project after we complete fieldwork in each market. This emphasis on landing insights and solutions regularly means missing knowledge and new questions are raised before it is too late to address them.

02. Jump to incomplete solutions

We periodically challenge our teams to land what they’d do if they had to solve the challenge with only the data they captured on day 1. Sitting with an incomplete solution (perhaps a bit uncomfortably) helps teams understand which areas need further exploration so they can solve problems more confidently later in a project.

03. Build in time for less structured exploration

Avoid the temptation to over-schedule your time in market. Wandering streets with a translator can get you surprisingly far when it comes to addressing questions you hadn’t anticipated needing answers to before your consumer insight project started.

04. Engage the people who know your people early

Experts who know a lot about your user are people to speak to upfront. They can help you skip the basics and get more out of your time in field. If a pivot needs to be made to your methodology, you can make that happen early.

05. Hire locals

Global teams are great at piecing together a picture that cuts across markets, but it’s hard to get beneath the surface of a culture that isn’t your own. Hire someone local to keep you in check. These people don’t need to be researchers. We’ve hired our own respondents, friends, and translators to stick with us throughout our fieldwork to ensure we process consumer insight and tweak our methodology through a local lens .

06. Put experienced boots on the ground

It takes experience to know when and how to pivot a research methodology in field. We make sure every team has a leader capable of leading teams towards better research as research is unfolding.

Because insight projects are a learning process, our methodology around those projects should that respond to new learning. Responsive project design allows teams to evolve a project as they learn within structures that encourage the right evolution at the right time.

To learn more about our approach to consumer insight work, read our article on how innovation teams need a different approach to insights.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that closeness is the key to better insights.

Innovation Lab

Successful Innovation Labs Have Something Obvious In Common

Innovation labs within large companies have a spotty track record of lasting more than 24 months. What separates survivors from the teams that fold is an ability to align what they’re doing with problems and opportunities that matter to the organization. If you’ve been charged with setting up an innovation team, our one piece of advice is to start there.

 

“Our innovation lab built a good sandbox of technologies that are the future of this industry but the organization was too slow to adopt any of them.” – Head Of Innovation Lab, Financial Services

 

All organizations are slow, but while they may be slow to adopt solutions in one area they’re probably busy implementing things with urgency in another. If you’re in the slow camp, you’re either (1) working on something transformational with the support of a future focused leadership team or (2) you’re working on something nobody genuinely cares about. If you’re in the second camp, it’s time to reprioritise.

 

“The team had 15 priorities when I arrived. We picked five that had teams needing to implement urgently. We had a launch in 18 months. That impact fuels support and engagement on everything else.” Head Of Innovation, Consumer Goods

 

Start by understanding the organization’s priorities. Too many innovation labs start by ordering 3D printers and looking for startups to hang out with. The successful ones start by understanding the areas of the business that need help and align their efforts with what these areas need in order to move forward.

 

“We didn’t start with startups, we took time and seconded our team to live and work alongside the different functions within the bank. We learned exactly what each team needed and are now incubating startups that solve those problems so the solutions become bank ready.” Innovation Lab, Financial Services

 

Land quick wins. Understanding priorities can help you understand where the quick wins are. You’re going to need some of those in order to have enough momentum to carry you over the longer term. Have some stories to tell sooner rather than later.

 

Finally, realise that success in this role could look a lot more like “mission accomplished” than “job for life”. Successful innovation teams have a tendency to do themselves out of a job. Always look ahead to what a successful innovation lab will set you up to do next.

If you’ve found yourself setting up an innovation unit inside a large organization, check out our article on How To Build A Successful Innovation Centre.

Global Leadership

How Local Experiences Make Us More Global Leaders

I was speaking at a regional conference in Yangon a month ago where someone kicked off an interesting discussion around the role of global leadership in markets that ultimately succeed locally. The question came from someone on a country level team from Pakistan:

Is it better to take a global innovation and adapt it to a local market or is it better to take an idea that’s worked in one local market and export it to others?

The question gets at the natural challenge faced by global leadership: their ideas only succeed if they deliver value at a local level, but local teams often feel global lacks the complete perspective they need to deliver impactful locally.

 

The question kicked off an interesting discussion around the role of global leadership in organizations that ultimately succeed (or fail) locally.

 

I’ve spent most of my career working with global teams. At Propellerfish, I have the privilege of watching global leadereship operate across a variety of initiatives around the world. We’ve had the opportunity to partner global leaders from different backgrounds, in different regions, with different levels of exposure to local markets, and with diverse perspectives on what it means to be “global”. The best of them have a three things in common.

 

1. Their perspective is informed by diverse local experiences

Global executives with experience in local markets have a clearer picture of what it takes to make things happen at a country level. Beyond the operational perspective, executives with experiences living day to day in a developing or emerging market understand the realities of life for the vast majority of people around the world.

 

2. They assemble teams that represent a global perspective

While diversity is a hot topic within organizations at the moment, nowhere is diversity a more important asset than in assembling teams that shape the global agenda of an organization. And when it comes to designing a global team, diversity runs deeper than drawing from multiple cultures, genders and race. It’s about leveraging diversity of experience to shape global thinking that’s grounded in multiple local realities. The ideal global team is a set of people hailing from different cultures, who can pair razor sharp professional skills with first hand experience living and working in different markets.

 

3. They’re based in hubs that share commonality with the markets they serve

While the flexibility of where to base a team with multi-country responsibility may be more the luxury of regional teams than local ones, choosing a baseplace that has more commonalities than differences with markets a team is meant to serve helps shape a more relevant worldview from which to think about global challenges.

 

If you’re looking to shape a set of global leaders that deliver impact locally, or are looking to become a global leader yourself, here are five pieces of advice worth considering.

 

1. Treat “global” as a skillset rather than a title or remit

When assembling global teams, think seriously about the skills you’ll need in order to create solutions that local markets can take forward.

 

2. Foster global perspective through local experience

Some countries have a culture of sending their high potential talent abroad to gain local experiences and perspectives that will make their global thinking more relevant in the future. Building global leaders is about equipping future leaders with local experiences as much as it is about exposing them to global standards.

 

3. Import & Export: Second from the inside out and from the outside in

Most of the investment in creating global leaders is about globalizing people from the centre of an organization, but some of your most valuable global leaders will come from the local markets. Creating a generation of global leaders is as much about seconding people from the global nucleus of an organization to local markets as it is about identifying local high potentials, exposing them to other markets and sharpening their skillsets.

 

4. Base global leadership in markets that reflect the many rather than the few

There are many reasons why a global team should sit in a global headquarters, but we are seeing more and more global teams base themselves in the markets that drive the majority of a business’s growth. Singapore has become a destination for businesses looking to headquarter their global operations in Asia Pacific, a part of the world that is driving the most growth in our global economy. Meanwhile, a regional team once talked to us about their choice of basing their regional team in Bangkok because it delivered both geographic convenience for leading Asia Pacific while also offering employees a day-to-day lifestyle that reflects a Southeast Asian market along with the perks of first world comforts.

 

5. Help local markets see the world from each other’s perspective

 

Finally, local markets that operate in isolation are unlikely to see value in the bigger picture without being exposed to it. Helping local markets become more versed in the similarities (in addition to the differences) that run between them can help them enter regional and global conversations with a productive sense of perspective.

 

If you have a story about how “global” works or doesn’t inside of your organization, I’d love to hear it.

Alex Marquez is the founder of Propellerfish, an insights and innovation agency with offices in London and Singapore.

Experiment: Designing An Innovation Toolkit

By 2015, Propellerfish had partnered with Cisco’s internal innovation teams across dozens of initiatives around the world. The need for support on innovation projects throughout the organization was growing and Cisco’s internal innovation teams realized that volume of requests for their services had grown beyond what they could reasonable deliver.

Propellerfish was starting to see similar limitations in other client businesses. We decided to sit down together and segment out the types of requests on a spectrum. At one end were teams needing help running simple things like workshops. At the other, were teams needing more robust support working through complex challenges. We realized many of the former were initiatives teams could be tackling on their own. With the right innovation toolkit, we were convinced they’d be successful leading smaller innovation projects and innovation workshops without us.

We set out to understand the anatomy of these challenges and realized they had three things in common:

1. The time and resources these teams had to dedicate to the initiative was limited. They needed answers quickly and needed to move on with their day jobs. The right innovation toolkit would help them get the most out of the time they had to dedicate to this challenge.

2. They were situations where the need (or the resources) to conduct any meaningful insight work was not present. Teams were in a position to jump to solutions and weren’t looking for months (or even weeks) of rigorous user research and solution development. The innovation toolkit would need to help them be insightful with the time and perspectives available within their team.

3. A huge part of the task at hand was really understanding what they were trying to achieve with this project – the innovation toolkit would need to force them to pause and reflect on what made them approach Cisco’s Innovation Management Office in the first place.

We developed our first innovation toolkit in 2014 as an experiment. The prototype was basic: a plastic box contained a booklet on process, basic templates for running a session and the stationery people would need in order to complete a working session.

We learned a lot from that first experiment. Specifically, we realized that teams need two things: (1) efficient guidance and (2) structured flexibility.  Efficient guidance in that they needed to understand what they were doing but did not have tons of time to watch an instructional video. Structured flexibility in the sense that every session was inherently different. People needed the ability to customize their journey without compromising on the structure that made workshops run well.

Version 2 was a more polished toolkit that started with a questionnaire about what challenge the team was setting out to solve. Based on that diagnostic, the toolkit prescribed a series of exercises that helped people tackle their specific problem. Instructions were simple and visual. The result was a series of stories where teams felt more empowered to take these types of challenges on alone.

The innovation toolkit has evolved further through experimentation across different organizations and use cases. What we’ve ultimately learned is that the innovation tool kit works best in conjunction with (1) a team that is genuinely committed to doing some of the work on their own and (2) a dedicated amount of remote coaching from a seasoned Propellerfish innovation leader.

If you’re interested in developing a toolkit for your organization, we’d love to share our experiences building innovation capability for organizations around the world.  Please get in touch here and someone from our team will get back to you within 24 hours.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.

6 Ways To Ground Front End Innovation In Back End Reality

Successful innovation first needs to make it to market. Too much front end innovation ignores the backend realities that dictate real success. Here are six exercises to help teams work backwards from the realities of getting innovation to market.

01. Start at the shelf

If you’re inventing a product, walk into a store and go to the shelf you’d like it to sit on with your team. Think through what it would take for the retailer to make room for your product on that shelf and design your journey backwards from there. Even better, engage your retailer on day 1 with the same question.

02. Solve it now

Ask your teams at the start of a project to solve the challenge in thirty minutes, present back, and then reflect on what aspects of their hasty solution makes them most nervous. Those areas of anxiety become a compass for where to focus future work.

03. Write your recommendation in reverse

If your project ends with a presentation to a set of gatekeepers, start your project by writing that presentation. Writing a complete presentation won’t be possible but understanding what knowledge gaps exist will give you a sense for the work ahead of you on a project.

04. Prototype the route to market

We helped an organization design a business unit that would work collaboratively with artists across a range of fields. One of our biggest questions from the start was how a large organization could successfully collaborate with smaller scale artists. To understand how to get this relationship right, we rented a loft in New York and brought everyone together, ranging from our ideal artistic partners to our multinational R&D teams. Together, they spent a day prototyping the 18 month process of co-creating a product and bringing it to market so we could foresee any implementation issues before they happened.

05. Interview gatekeepers first

All too often, we leave the limiting conversations to the end of a project. Having those conversations upfront can focus your team on the realities of back end implementation early on so your innovation is more likely to succeed in the real world.

06. Write The Press Release

Amazon’s “working backwards” process encourages product people to start by writing the press release they intend to use when the ultimate product launches. Once they feel they’ve nailed the press release, then they move forward with development of something they know the world wants.

Next time the complexity of a project feels overwhelming, align your team around what they’re setting out achieve. Then work backwards from that outcome prioritising the things that get you there. The result will be more energy on the things that matter and fewer distractions from the things that don’t.

Propellerfish is an innovation and insights firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead innovation projects with an eye on what it takes to get products and services to market.

Innovation Research

12 Things Great Innovation Research Does Differently

We’ve talked about how innovation teams need a different approach to research. Here are some tips we’ve learned to help you lead projects that deliver the richness of context innovation teams need in order to design products and services for the real world.

 

01. Higher resolution insight work calls for a mix of skills

Getting to higher resolution insights involves a different approach to insight work. It’s more iterative, requires more seasoned people on the ground to make decisions about how to pivot methodology when needed, it calls for more time spent with consumers in more intimate settings and it involves more energy towards pulling the full picture together after fieldwork is over. We will follow this article with a bit more detail on how to run those types of projects.

02. Start with hypotheses

Because innovation aims to deliver solutions, a good place to start is a hunch around what your team thinks a solution needs to do. We begin every innovation project with an understanding of our hypotheses, a sense for what we know that may be driving our hypotheses, and often some early solutions in the form of (intentionally bad) prototypes to probe more tangible around what a solution needs to do. These prototypes are not complete and we do not test them – we use them to learn and then throw them away. More on that later.

03. Use A Responsive Methodology

If you’re committing resources to conducting research, you’re probably know some things and don’t know others. Great researchers embrace the potential power what they don’t know and design a methodology that can respond as teams learn. The more you learn, the better your questions and methodology gets. Leave room in your methodology for your work to pivot and improve over the course of a project. As you learn, your questions become better, you discover people and things you hadn’t thought to explore. This is the secret to projects that come back with diamond quality transformational learning.
Alt: If research is worth doing, you are beginning the process with more questions than answers and probably have more unknown unknowns than you realise. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know and therefore it is difficult to design the perfect methodology from the start. If you design a methodology that evolves as you learn, you can structure your research project to get better, sharper and more insightful over time.

04. Learn in context and leverage context

We’ve talked about how innovation is contextual, run your research in the environments where your users operate, where purchase decisions get made, where your opportunity is at its peak, and where your solution is likely to be used. And while there, leverage that environment. If you run an in-home seated in the living room without actually exploring and interacting with the house, you will miss the opportunity to probe the specifics around how environment shapes behaviour and some of the clues that sit hidden in people’s environments.

05. Take Time To Get Close

The best insights come from getting close, but getting close takes time. We often interview people over Skype or FaceTime before scheduling our time in field. This lets us shortlist a set of respondents we want to spend more time with (hours, days, repeat visits). We then have the opportunity to dedicate the effort it takes to go deep with respondents we think will be the most interesting.

06. Take Breaks // Pause, reflect and pivot your methodology

Great insights come from taking time to pause, reflect on what was learned, and refocus your methodology periodically to ensure your learning gets deeper and richer as you go along. Racing through an insight process, especially where multiple countries over multiple weeks is concerned, runs the risk of learning missing hidden depths and forgetting the nuances you capture along the way without really landing them properly.

07. Think about users rather than consumers

(interaction verses passive) – this is a vestige of market research’s rooted in marketing where people were passive recipients of messages. Innovation is about understanding context and interaction regardless of whether you’re inventing a mobile device or a consumer snack.

08. Design for breadth and depth (aggregators // experts // groups // individuals)

Great insights come from starting broad and then going deep. At the beginning of an insight process, you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, there are likely some really important questions out there that you haven’t thought to ask yet. This is why Propellerfish starts the insight process with people who know more than we do about our consumer, our challenge or our opportunity. This means experts (people with deep expertise around an important topic), aggregators (people who encounter lots of the types of people we are designing for) and sometimes outcasts (people who are in conflict with the status quo around our topic and therefore have some useful insight into it). Starting with this breadth of perspective helps us get up to speed quickly by leveraging the expertise and perspectives of others in order to articulate the perfect questions before we go into field with our users.

09. Be Grounded In Reality

Research that aims to understand users in context and inform the design of real solutions should be designed around replicating reality as much as possible. This means running research with users in the actual environment you want to understand, using real prototypes to replicate real behaviours in understanding how to get a solution just right. A 2D sketch of a product meant to be used in a kitchen shown to consumers in a focus group facility is likely to generate little genuine insight if compared to giving consumers a rough 3D prototype they can use in an actual kitchen while we observe.

10. Be Local

“We are coming to you guys because we want to work with people who don’t think the obvious is interesting.”
Global projects come with a heavy risk of misinterpretation distorting valuable nuance through the lens of a team’s home culture. At Propellerfish, having lived in another country and (ideally) speaking another language is a key hiring criteria, especially when it comes to team members who will be spending time in the field. Having spent time in another culture makes people more sensitive to the biases that skew people’s interpretation. Still, having a local person on the ground is key to capturing a clear picture of how local consumers think and behave along with the relevant aspects of their environments that influence behaviour. Translators can be helpful here if they go beyond the task of translating people’s words and go a step beyond in terms of bringing the nuance of those words to life and pointing out any relevant context in the environment that we would want to understand.

11. Experiment: Make people do things

What people report about their behaviour and how people really behave can paint two different pictures of a particular interaction between your user and an opportunity or problem. A consumer might overlook an important part of an interaction in telling researchers about it because they take it for granted or have never noticed it before. Meanwhile, getting users to do things allows research to experiment with alternatives and interventions early in their learning process to understand which aspects of behaviours can be changed for the greatest impact in designing a successful solution.
Example: On a project aimed at designing snack packaging, we asked consumers to open snacks for us on camera before playing back the video and having them to comment on their behaviours. The result was a more nuanced look at what was actually happening and the ability to ask our users to comment on behaviours that would normally go unnoticed to them.

12. Show and tell

Innovation is a contextual practice and therefore great innovation research brings back a complete picture of the world around  an opportunity including deep insights into what motivates behaviour along with the various human and environmental factors that influence how a solution will work in the real world. As a result, innovation research doesn’t rely on words along but leverages photography and video in order to put some real world context around an opportunity and help solution designers keep that full picture in mind to create solutions that are useful in practice.
Finally, understand the roles and limitations of different types of research

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that the best insights come from time spent close to real people in the real world.

The 24 / 7 Innovation Hot House

On a digital innovation sprint focused on higher education in partnership with Cisco Systems, the team at Propellerfish was up against a common problem: we needed to accomplish a lot in a short time with a group of people whose calendars made coming together challenging.

We had done our homework. We had spent time with our users. We had toyed with early solutions in the field, but there was a lot of work to do in turning early concepts into tangible solutions.

Getting to material solutions involved weaving in the expertise of a diverse group of partners. We needed a couple of working sessions with some prototyping and refinement in between, but people’s schedules suggested this was not going to happen.

We were able to bring everyone together for four short days to get as close to a tangible solution as possible in a short time. We split our team across time zones with our main working team in Berlin supported by technologists and designers at Propellerfish’s Singapore office. This turned four days into eight with work happening around the clock.

Roles were clear by location. The engine of our conceptual thinking was a cross-partner team in Berlin while our prototyping and refinement was done by a team posted to our Singapore office.

The result was magic. After a day of developing solutions on paper in Germany, we would brief the team in Asia who then spent the next day making our solutions real. Apps would show up on our phones and interfaces would appear online each morning when we woke up.

Innovation Sprint Map

Our solution started to become real at an otherwise impossible pace.

We were able to get tangible quickly, have the right conversations about solutions we could hold in our hands, and make agile changes in real time to move our project along faster.

We’ve now made this a regular practice on projects and have learned five keys to making this work.

1. Make roles clear by location: Ensuring that the roles of concepting, making and refinement have clear owners means fewer miscommunications across time zones and the focus you need to move at pace. We recommend the core thinking happen in one location while making happens in another with a seasoned person on the making side to oversee refinement that needs to happen while going from concept to prototype.

2. Maximize distance between time zones. This means you maximize the working hours between handoffs and increase the likelihood that you can overlap at the beginning and end of each day.

3. Have makers in both locations. A written idea on a piece of paper, no matter how specific, is too vague to help a team on the other side of the world get tangible quickly. It also leaves a lot of unexpected room for misinterpretation. Make sure you have a designer or someone who can sketch on site to ensure rough concepts are visual enough to beclear to your team of makers

4. Get your technology sorted early. If you’re building apps, use technology that makes sharing those easy and make sure everyone knows how to use it. If you’re looking at simpler 2D designs, leverage cloud file sharing systems that everyone can use. Have a printer in your workshop space.

5. Show what’s happening on both sides. Glimpses into how each side team works between handoffs creates an air of momentum and excitement; it also helps remote teams empathise with each other’s constraints and needs. Try setting up a web cam that let’s participants get real time glimpses of what other teams are doing.

If you want to learn more about how Propellerfish runs round the clock work sessions across time zones, feel free to drop one of us a line and we’d be happy to share tips and experiences.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.

Innovation-Centre

How To Build A Successful Innovation Centre

Over the course of the last decade, we’ve been asked to work with the in-house innovation centres of many large organisations — we’ve worked alongside them, coached and troubleshot for them, advised on how to govern them, and designed innovation centres for our clients from scratch. We’ve seen (and set up) successful innovation centres with a track record of getting new products and services to market and delivering plenty of commercial impact. For every one of those, we can point to 3 innovation centres that have delivered little to no impact but are rich in practical insight for anyone tasked with setting one of these up properly.

With that in mind, we’ve distilled our learnings into 10 design principles to help you stack the odds for your innovation centre in your favour.

 

01 | Be clear on the business impact you seek

Your innovation centre must support the strategic goals of your business in a clearly defined way. So be clear on its mission — is it there to seize tactical innovation opportunities in the market that are currently passing the business by, or is it there to identify and realise big new opportunities? Give it clear KPIs. Don’t fudge it with a loose agenda and subjective measures of success. And give it a clearly defined scope — focus on a maximum of few key areas valuable to the organisation. Don’t create a pet project receptacle.

Innovation centres that are not aligned to the business’s strategic goals and are not accountable against business impact measures usually fail within 24 months or, at the very least, become the focus of an infectious cynicism within the organisation.

 

02 | Take a long-term outlook

This isn’t a ‘project’, it’s an organisational change so only embark on this journey if you’re willing and able to make a long-term commitment (think 5 years). Consider the business impact you want, and be committed to invest accordingly. Lofty ambitions and low-level resources do not sit happily. Likewise, an open cheque-book leads to inefficiency and a lack of creative endeavour.

 

03 | Build ‘glass walls’, not a mystical fortress

Ringfence budget and resource but share and collaborate broadly. Successful innovation centres are able to plan and execute based on committed resources. Don’t treat the budget as discretionary — you’ll end up paying people to rework plans, rather than deliver real stuff to market.

Having some work separation from the day-to-day of the business is necessary too — that’s what allows an unconflicted focus on strategic goals beyond business as usual. That being said, it’s vital to maintain connectivity and communication with core business. Without this, you risk losing focus on the of the business units’ needs, miss out on expertise to solve presenting issues, and can disenfranchise the business making the ultimate aim of getting to market a battle within the organisation… when the battle should be outside.

We work with a consumer goods innovation centre for a global business who achieve this by the team having two desks — one at the innovation centre and one within the business at the organisation’s Head Office. As a result, the team have the distance they need to incubate, but remain known and in conversation with the business, allowing them to involve their business expert colleagues in proactively moving solutions forward.

 

04 | Create senior accountability and minimise bureaucracy

Create a framework to enable innovation, not slow it down. Too many times we’ve been asked to diagnose why speed to market is too long, or to help unblock an innovation process. What we’ve invariably found is an innovation team spending the majority of their time managing internal politics, and approval processes. The solution is two-fold. Firstly, push decision-making down and manage risk by reporting. Secondly, make sure there’s genuine accountability and sponsorship at a senior level — teams without access and influence will always struggle to make meaningful progress.

 

05 | Design for your organisation, not against it

That said, resist the temptation to build a ‘start-up culture’ your organisation will ultimately crush. Many innovation centres are set up in response to what leaders see as the organisations culture and constraints. And while putting some distance between the organisation and the innovation function may help move solutions in the short term, these teams can also operate under a false premise that those constraints aren’t waiting for them further down the road. Successful innovation centres embrace the reality of the organisation they are set up to serve, constraints and all, to create solutions that are fit to thrive within the scale and complexity of their host.

 

06 | Hire masters of the ecosystem not lone geniuses

Successful innovation requires a variety of expertise and specialisms at different times — from design thinking experts and formulation experts, to business modelling analysts. Correspondingly, successful leaders of innovation centres know how to galvanise the right expertise at the right times. The leader of your innovation centre is likely have a track record of making innovation happen and is a master at assembling the right skills and orchestrating collaboration to get the job done. Don’t hire the person who thinks they can do everything themselves.

 

07 | Develop or adopt agile innovation processes

Make sure you build the skills, tools and processes for fast and effective experimentation. If your processes are lengthy, expensive box ticking exercises, you’re wasting resource and hampering progress. TescoLabs has set up easy access to local consumers who are able to take a product one morning and feedback on it the next. This agile innovation methodology and behaviour serves to quickly turn their hypotheses into actionable knowledge. Don’t get all purist about process — it’s there as tool to help not to dictate. We were recently told of an internal design thinking team that had 6 prototyped high ideas destined for success but refused to move any of them forward because their process called for each idea to respond to single opportunity.

 

08 | Invest in true strategic partnerships

Innovation is no longer a closed system confined to walls of the corporation. Progressive innovation centres forge partnerships — formal and informal outside their organisation. In HBR’s ongoing analysis of P&G’s innovation approach, it reports that over a third of all P&G products now have elements that originated externally, R&D productivity has increased by 60% and success rates have doubled while costs of development have fallen. Organisations we work with collaborate externally in different ways — from retail groups and academic institutions through to suppliers and individual experts. Remember, partnerships work by being valuable to both sides — be prepared to reciprocate.

 

09 | Design physical space to enable the work

This principle deliberately comes late on in our list — too often organisations get stuck into first because it’s a visible and exciting manifestation of ‘innovation happening’. We and those we spoke to for this article (and no doubt yourself) have witnessed the building of ‘showrooms’ whose main purpose is hosting tours and making impressions on visitors. One of our clients went as far as to describe their first innovation centre as the ‘museum of innovation’, a place designed to make senior management feel innovative but did not have a single story of impact to share after three years.

First and foremeost, design your physical space to foster the type of working styles and behaviours you want to see in your team.

 

10 | Engineer some quick wins

Success is not launching your innovation centre, it’s launching something strong to market. Build momentum and your ‘sales story’ by delivering and socialising some early success — it will help the organisation as a whole believe in and support the value of your innovation centre. Without this organisational support, the centre’s job will at best be harder, and ultimately become untenable.

On assuming a new role leading an innovation centre, one of our clients had us tackle a challenge for a business unit with a pressure to launch something in 18 months in a very active marketplace. The organization may not have ranked this opportunity number one, but his decision to tackle it first quickly delivered a new product to market with another on the way for a sizeable business unit. This allowed him to demonstrate immediate impact even when some larger projects were progressing along slower timelines in parts of the organization where he knew the nature of large teams would ultimately slow things down. This team is now four years old, growing in headcount and has proven itself to be a key engine of growth within the organisation.

 

So that’s it — our learnings and those of our clients on how to engineer your innovation centre for success (or as much as we can squeeze into a blog anyway). And, if you’re serious about this, the success is worth the effort — an unconflicted and uncompromised focus on strategic opportunities for the business, accelerated learning and confidence to launch to market, unparalleled consumer closeness and knowledge, the development of broader organisational capabilities, a magnet for attracting and retaining talent, a stronger proposition to valuable external collaborators… and, of course, a very meaningful contribution to your business goals.

If this has got you thinking, and it would be helpful to discuss developing the innovation capability of your own organisation, get in touch with usWe’re always happy to talk to people who are committed to making innovation happen and work better for their business.

 

Kiran Wood
Kiran Wood has been helping businesses strategise, innovate new products and rejuvenate brands for over 20 years. Her track record for creating impact spans sectors and geographies with clients as diverse as BP, Unilever, PayPal, Waitrose and Abu Dhabi Media Company. Over this time, she’s also delivered progressive innovation practices and talent strategies, and coached many innovation practitioners. Kiran is MD of Propellerfish — an innovation agency based in London and Singapore.

Alex Marquez
Alex is the founder of Propellerfish, a company that helps organisations turn strategy into the products, services and business models that move them forward in the real world.

 

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams have helped build innovation centers for multinationals in the US, Europe and Asia.

Human Centred Design

On Insights For Innovation

Over the past 8 years, Propellerfish teams have found that innovation projects need more context and closeness than traditional research is designed to deliver. As a result, a Propellerfish project might involve more time spent in field, the involvement of street photographers and film makers, and a core belief that solving problems in the real world means doing research in the real world. This article is a glimpse into how and why our teams work the way they do.

First, a story.

On a project aimed at inventing mobile technology for emerging markets, consumers talked to us often about space. People in the lower and even middle classes in places like India, China, Philippines and Thailand shared most (if not all) of their living space with their family. As a result, they had little physical space to themselves. They believed that personal space was an important ingredient to nurturing an individual identity. In the absence of space, their mobile phones became their last respite for nurturing a private self.

 

 A consumer in Thailand shares her secret dream of becoming a pop star after we found this photo of her Idol audition while looking through her phone.

 

It’s one of those insights that shines a spotlight on an opportunity, but we needed more. Our team was designing devices that would be used in the context of a whole host of human and environmental factors. They would be sold in street side mobile shops, stowed in cluttered handbags, used to text one-handed from the back of a motorcycle, survive heat and dusty air, compensate for spotty data connections, hide inappropriate photos and video from parents and juggle 2–3 SIM cards. Designing the right device meant designing with a user insight in mind but also designing around a constellation of factors that influence a product’s success in the real world.

 

A home made cash control solution sheds light on the challenges of managing home finances in larger multi-generational households during a project aimed at designing mobile financial services for the rural poor.

 

These types of projects result in rich imagery and video which teams find inspiring, but beyond inspiration this approach to research is rooted in necessity: innovation projects need more context than traditional market research is designed to deliver.

 

Market research is a verbal art.

Market research was born in the newspapers of the 1820s, championed by ad agencies in the 1940s, and has evolved as a primarily verbal discipline. The primary stimulus is a question that is asked, data points are usually verbal responses and most qualitative research reports share recommendations supported by quotes. Words are great at bringing opportunities into focus, but creating products and services for the real world calls for both insight and context.

 

Great insight work should both show and tell: Photographer Tavepong Pratoomwong helps Propellerfish put real world context around an insight into the social side of personal devices in Bangkok.

Spotting an opportunity is a great start

Defining an opportunity for a product or a service calls for a deep human insight into the values and mental models that drive how people think and behave. Those insights are valuable and give projects important direction, but those insights alone are not enough to develop successful products and services.

 

Context helps teams go from opportunity to solution

The transition from an opportunity to a product or service requires a more granular understanding of the human and environmental factors that influence a solution’s performance in the real world. A detailed picture helps innovation teams understand the points of interaction between a user, a solution and the environment to create products and services that are a better fit.

 

A Propellerfish team organises the key factors around an insight during a consumer electronics innovation project.

 

At the end of the day, innovation is a contextual practice and the key role of innovation research is to bring that context into focus. That rich picture makes for inspiring presentations, but it is a necessary part of designing solutions with the real world in full focus. This is the only way innovation teams can deliver products and services that add real value to people’s lives in the real world.

 

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.