A Framework For Innovation

I’m going to attempt to figure out what a framework for innovation looks like for a medium sized organisation (less than 250 staff). This will largely be from my own perspective of working in social housing – so expect this to be slanted towards public and third sector work.

Why?

It’s generally accepted that we need to innovate in order to keep up with the changing environment our organisations operate in. However, innovation has become a bit of an ambiguous term of late. Most people are starting to recognise it’s needed, but how does that actually translate into day to day actions?

I work in IT and innovation often arrives on my doorstep in the form of “How can we do X?” or “Why can’t we do Y” and more often “I’ve seen Z  at <other place> and I think we need to do that too!”. At this point, the emphasis tends to be on action (fix my problem) rather than experimentation (are you sure there is a problem?). Once a project has been defined it’s incredibly difficult to halt or deviate should influencing factors change. The more resource that’s assigned to deliberate on it, the less likely it will be allowed to fail even if all signs indicate that it should. As humans we are pre-programmed with a need to make things work.

“Creativity Loves Constraints”
– Marrisa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

Having a framework to explore new ideas and fail fast(er) should accelerate decision making, inform the business strategy and enable course change sooner in response to demands inside/outside the organisation. A framework for innovation enables experimentation with concepts before there’s a crushing need to embrace them.

I’m going to attempt to figure out precisely what that looks like here. This will be a Working Out Loud exercise, so I’ll be forming thoughts and concepts as we go along. Feedback is always welcome, so if you think there’s a flaw in my logic or that I’m talking gibberish – pipe up! Let’s fix it together.

How?

I thought I’d tackle this by identifying the main activities or themes first and then iterate on each one, adding more detail as we go.

I envisage the journey of an idea would go something like this…

  1. Frame – focus people on a problem or challenge
  2. Collect – a method for staff to submit ideas
  3. Evaluate – some way of initially sorting out the plausible from the unworkable
  4. Test – flesh the idea out and test assumptions without expending too much time/money
  5. Pilot – small scale version of the idea to see if it’s sustainable & viable
  6. Deliver – idea moves from ‘the lab’ over to the business plan

Failure is the norm for innovation, it should be recognised as a standard part of the creative process. Rapid iteration is the order of the day rather than success. This should be communicated to everyone very early on to remove the stigma around failure. Not all ideas will make it through all the steps. In fact, many might only make it through the first two. The idea is to avoid zombie project syndrome and kill anything that has no immediate value as soon as possible. This will allow for a new idea to take its place.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
– Henry Ford

It’s important to document every stage of the journey as changing conditions inside/outside the organisation might allow an originally shelved idea to become viable. Documentation should be good enough so that months or years down the line it’s easy to understand who was involved, what was tested and what made it unworkable. Essentially it’s about building a museum of failed products which keeps newly submitted ideas from re-treading old ground and repeating the same mistakes.

In the next post I’ll be tackling the first step in the process : Frame.

Lots of this work is influenced by @PaulBromford, @ThomasHartland, @whatsthepont and @ShirleyAyres – you should go an follow them all immediately if this topic interests you.

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7 thoughts on “A Framework For Innovation

    1. I think that’s a fair point and not widely accepted however I have no issue with viewing failure as a positive. I always try and instil this within my team. As many others have said I’ve learnt more from my failures than my successes. Good post Neil!

    2. Thanks for the feedback Matt! Good points posited in the blog post you referenced. I shall certainly mull the phrasing over.

      Although I’ve been fairly comfortable with the term ‘failure’ I realise it might detract some from the main point I’m trying to hammer home.. which is the scientific method for finding what works and what doesn’t (or proven and unproven as you put it).

  1. Neil. Particularly given you are in social housing, if you haven’t already I would suggest taking a look at Design Thinking, which is a slightly different way to come at innovation, focused much more on what people need. One of the best known advocates is IDEO, and they provide a free toolkit here http://www.designkit.org/, with a downloadable field guide here http://www.designkit.org/resources/1

    The other thing you need to know is that processes come and go, but the biggest determinant of the success of any innovation venture is not only the process, but the awareness of people involved of their own biases and preferences when it comes to innovation and change. We don’t often get taught this stuff, but it even affects which ideas people choose to share, how they respond to each others’ ideas, and generally how successful an innovation initiative will be. As with processes, there are different models of how this works. One I like is here http://www.viewassessment.com/about-view.aspx

    Good luck with the framework – look forward to the future posts.

    cheers Alan

    1. Thanks Alan!

      I’ve stumbled across ‘design thinking’ before, but hadn’t delved too deeply into what it actually involves. I shall definitely read up via those links you’ve provided.

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