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