Tag Archives: Innovation Capability

Baby Boomer

Bridging The Distancing Effects Of Age

As part of Propellerfish’s Coronavirus work-from-home plan, we ask our team members to call their parents and grandparents.

Our projects rarely ask questions about how we can make the world around us more user friendly for our parents and grandparents. This is a big group of people. It’s also a group that, through a mix of genetics and better decisions, we will likely be joining at some point in time. With our team working from home amidst a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the older people in our lives, we asked everyone to call their parents and grandparents. We asked them to check in and listen for insights into the years ahead of us.

The effects of age magnify physical distances.

The physical paths to the things we care about most become longer with age. A short walk to visit a neighbour becomes an investment of a limited amount of energy that needs to be budgeted and replenished. Travelling even short distances comes with risks of falling which limits access to things we care about as we get older. Many of the seniors we spoke to could no longer drive, which transformed small trips into huge distances overnight.

“I can walk around on my own with a walking stick around the house but generally feel breathless after a few steps and then I have to sit down. I’m bored at home, I don’t go out besides medical appointments at the hospital and  functions like weddings. Even that it is a chore to shower and tie a saree and go anywhere.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

The effects of age puts distance between us and the activities that give us meaning.

Seniors talked to us about being distanced from the activities that gave them meaning in their younger years. One grandparent whose primary source of exercise and social interaction came from a regular game of tennis twice a week had to stop after a bad fall. Many talked to us about retirement distancing them from the profession that had given them meaning their entire lives.

Seniors Basketball
“I knew my squash game was in decline, but I didn’t want to give it up. For about 18 months after quitting I was depressed. I realised I was missing something that I’d actually spent a lot of time doing and it was really important to me.” (Tim’s Dad, UK)

Aging puts distance between us and the people we care about.

The seniors in our lives talked about being both literally and metaphorically farther away from the people they cared about. Some had lost hearing and found it hard to connect with the people around them. We heard about how younger people couldn’t relate to their experiences in older age. And obviously, the physical distance they need to travel in order to visit people they care about is harder to travel with depleted energy levels and less access to transportation.

“You can’t hear and it’s frustrating. I’m right there in a room with people and I don’t know what’s happening or what they’re trying to say to me. You’re physically there but you’re still far away.” (Miguel, 96, Miami)
“In the last 2 years especially, I feel more lonely because I’m less mobile. My two daughters live with me but they go to work. I have a helper from India and we talk a lot about the customs and I tell her my stories from when i had struggles.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

Getting older puts distance between us and strangers.

Our seniors felt they weren’t acknowledged by people out in the world the way they were when they were younger. Shop staff are less likely to approach them, people are less likely to make eye contact with them on the street, and they generally feel as though they go unnoticed when out in public.

“A woman I’m in the garden club with asked me, ‘do you ever get the feeling that people treat you like you’re invisible now that you’re old?’ and it’s true. People in stores don’t pay attention to you.” (Retired Nurse, 76, Miami)

The effects of aging create distance between us and ourselves.

Our grandparents talked about feeling distanced from themselves. On the one hand they talked to us about how in their minds they feel like the same person they were in their younger years. On the other, they felt their diminishing physical and mental capacity a constant reminder of the distance between the person they were and the person they are today.

Senior Insights
“Looking at pictures of me 10 years ago, it’s not the same person. If I see pictures on the wall taken 40 years ago, it’s there but I am not there anymore.” (Alex’s Dad, 95)

The Covid-19 crisis is challenging us all to find ways to manage distance from our work, from our loved ones, and from the basic necessities we need to keep ourselves and our families going. As we manage the crisis ahead, let’s think about the members of our communities for whom age has already made the things that matter farther and harder to access. And let’s take a moment to think about how we can play a small part in bridging that distance for them through this crisis and beyond.

Aside from asking staff calling their grandparents, Propellerfish has donated to Meals On Wheels and Age UK who are offering practical support for the elderly in the US and UK during this time. We have also made a donation to Doctor’s Without Borders whose work will become increasingly important as this crisis impacts some of the more vulnerable regions of the world where much of our project work happens.

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

The most clever people in business have a talent for thinking forward. They reframe problems in ways that bring clarity to the beginning of a strategy process. They distill user needs down to precise opportunities. They design solutions that address those needs perfectly. Thinking forward is every consultant’s comfort zone. Thinking forward gets you to a perfect solution.

Unfortunately, perfect solutions struggle in an imperfect world. They are often divorced from the imperfect realities of implementation. They ignore the imperfect personal politics of big organizations. They ignore the very practical imperfections of new markets. Reality eats perfect solutions for breakfast.

If thinking forward gets us to perfection, thinking backwards helps us design for the imperfect reality ahead. Thinking backwards is about starting with end game realities in mind. Its about engaging technical people from the start. It’s about starting at the shelf and working backwards from a retailers point of view around stocking something new. It’s about prototypes sitting on a real shelf during a pilot. It’s about working backwards through every stage of the commercialisation journey ahead of your ideas to ensure those ideas become something real and impactful in the world.

Great innovation is designed for an imperfect world by keeping the full journey to market in mind.

In a world that celebrates the journey to the summit, most of the fatalities on Mt. Everest happen on the way down. Successful teams think the climb through not just to the summit but to moment a climber returns safely to base camp. Innovation teams have a habit of focusing on the summit at the expense of getting back to basecamp safely.

The least popular people in businesses tend to think backwards.

Thinking backwards early on can make you an unpopular voice in the beanbag circle. When it comes to innovation, organizations overemphasize the art of thinking forward. They emphasis is on new ideas as the antidote to business as usual and often shelter innovation teams from the imperfection of the real world. The result is usually a team focused on the summit with no idea how to come down.

Great innovation teams pair the creative vision to think forward with the operational and commercial awareness to think backwards so solutions actually get to market. They are like time travellers with the ability to operate in both the present and the end of an innovation journey at one time. They can think forward to a solution and backwards through implementation at once. They use constraints drawn from thinking backwards as springboards for thinking forward.

Organizations need to equip innovation teams with more holistic commercial skillsets. Put people with a complete view how innovation happens at the start of your journey so teams have more impact to show for themselves in the end.

On The Value Of Half-Baked Solutions

You’re kicking off a project aimed at solving something complicated. Something that’s a priority across the organization. Your 6 month timeline feels short. Your starting point can be interpreted as an inspiring blank slate or a very intimidating zero.

At your first meeting, a colleague suggests solving the problem now. In fifteen minutes.

An uncomfortable silence follows.

This exercise makes most people uncomfortable, but tapping into that discomfort can unearth insights that give projects direction. That discomfort can help you identify the knowledge gaps undermining the group’s confidence and help the team prioritize what questions need answers before a team can arrive at a solution with confidence.

Where does it hurt?

Your team has hastily tackled the colossal challenge ahead in fifteen minutes. Before they present back, ask them to pause and reflect on how they’d feel if they had to recommend this solution to a more critical group of stakeholders within the company. Ask them to write down the aspects of the solution that make them the most nervous in descending order of concern.

Anxiety as a project planning tool

Now ask people to reframe their most fundamental concerns as a question that needs to be answered over the course of the project.  These questions can then become a guide for the learning journey ahead. Meanwhile those early solutions, no matter how rough, are valid hypotheses worth exploring.

Ultimately, innovation is a learning process where our earliest solutions make for better questions than answers. Understanding what makes us nervous about those earliest hunches can tell us a lot about how we can reach an outcome with confidence in the end.

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

Strategy Is A Human Practice

All commercial growth starts and ends with people.

Whether the conversation is about a new system, a technology, a B2B product, a manufacturing process, or a business model, all growth is a result of people doing something they were not doing before. But for some reason, our vocabulary around growth tends to dehumanize it. We focus on what organizations do and the outcomes of clever strategies, but growth only happens when human beings take action.

People make strategy real.

Global strategy becomes real when teams in local markets agree to take action. Marketing Strategy becomes real when consumers choose our products instead of someone else’s. Service Design becomes real when frontline employees adopt a new way of delivering a service. Product Innovation becomes real when a retailer agrees to put your new product on a shelf. Each of these things involve someone doing something they were not doing before.

Where thinking meets doing

The past ten years at Propellerfish has been a front-row seat watching people make growth happen or hold it back in businesses around the world. Our team has championed the realities of local teams on global innovation projects. We have spent time with traditional retailers in India understanding how they think about inventory. We have spent time on factory floors in Germany understanding worker concerns about digitisation. We have delivered sodas to retailers in Nigeria. We have unlocked the potential of a B2B technology by recognising that the current interface is unintuitive to non-engineers. We’ve worked on petrol station forecourts to understand how to motivate staff to deliver better service.

Successful leaders recognise that commercial growth is delivered by human hands and work backwards from the people to make growth happen. Because designing commercial growth around the people who make progress happen brings us several steps closer to making growth happen in the real world.

Alex Marquez

By Alex Marquez

Alex founded Propellerfish in 2009 and is currently leads the team based out London.

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.

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.