Category Archives: Blog

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.


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.

There’s Meaning In The Making

Want employees to find more fulfilment at work? Get them closer to the things you make and the people you make them for.


I recently watched the CEO of a packaged goods giant talk about the challenge of competing with the Silicon Valley for the best young talent in the US. After the talk, people in the audience were chatting about the coolness of startup culture, the lure of huge exits and replaying the excuse that only small businesses can really offer these things. I’d say there’s a third factor that matters more: these smaller businesses put employees closer to the process of creating value (the making real things for real people) which makes working for them more fulfilling.

The closer people are to the value businesses create, the more fulfilled they are, but as businesses grow, they put distance between the creation of value and most people’s day job.

On one of my favourite projects, a Fortune 500 company wanted a new product created from scratch in 8 weeks. In this instance, that wasn’t a lot of time, so they asked us what it would take to speed things up. We suggested relocating their New York-based team to a pop up studio in Bangkok for the duration of the project, putting them in the middle of the region they were designing for.

Over 8 weeks, we travelled across the region, spent time in the homes and lives of the real people we intended this solution to serve, engaged monks and traditional medicine experts for inspiration and insight, experienced the complexity of traditional retail up close, worked through 29 iterations of a solution and ended with an awesome product that’s now a real thing in market.

We’d solved a business problem, but we’d also watched a senior team come alive with a sense of purpose rooted in how their organization delivers value to the world.



Businesses create value by making useful things for real people. People in business derive value from their proximity to that process.

Smaller businesses have always kept people closer to the process of creating value. The first businesses made things in actual workshops, knew their customers because they sold to them directly, and responded to their needs intuitively. It’s no surprise to find that the introduction of job satisfaction surveys corresponds to the rise of the assembly line. Work that disconnects us from the bigger picture of how businesses create value for real people just isn’t satisfying.

When I watched the CEO on stage talk about competing with the Silicon Valley, it seemed to me that this competition is really about proximity to value creation. Smaller companies (even those with billion dollar valuations) have a habit of keeping employees closer to the making of products and the people that use them. That closeness benefits everyone: being closer to the process of creating useful things for real people leaves employees more fulfilled and results in products that are better designed to suit the needs of everyone.

Big businesses approach the creation of meaningful products and the creation meaning for employees as separate functions. The reality is that the former feeds the latter.

Maintaining that connection gets tricky as businesses get bigger, but it’s not impossible. We regularly work with companies that are creating innovation labs dedicated to eliminating distance between their employees, their consumers and the process of creating new products.

After years of putting distance between their people and what they do, businesses are re-connecting the dots. The result is more meaning for people at work and a learning that the closer we are to the things we make and the people we make them for, the more fulfilling work becomes.

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.