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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Coworking. Not just for trendy freelancers and startups.

Earlier this week I was reading an article about the rise of coworking spaces in recent years. In case you’ve never heard of it, coworking is the practice of individuals or small teams working from shared office space. Aside from enabling these groups to have a flexible base of operations without committing to fixed leases, these spaces have created flourishing communities and helped connect and inspire people from differing professions around common goals.

This had me pondering – couldn’t the benefits of coworking office space be applied to absolutely anyone, not just freelancers and startups?

For a while now the technology has been in place where people can work from literally anywhere (see the definition of digital nomad if you want to be green with envy). I’m at a point where I could do a large chunk of my job armed with just an iPad and an Internet connection. So why aren’t we encouraging more staff to spend office days in places other than their desk? Especially faced with mounting evidence that the traditional office environment is bad for productivity.

Yes, it’s good (essential even?) for staff to spend time with their colleagues to foster those working relationships that are so crucial to getting things done and making the job enjoyable. However, I think it’s equally important to work in different spaces to shake off the ‘default’ mindset of plodding through routine, doing what you’ve always done before.

So, speaking from experience of my own sector – what if we had shared working space for all the Housing Associations in Cardiff? How many serendipitous conversations and relationships would be forged simply by sharing the same working area whilst doing the daily email trawl?

Let’s throw the net wider. Why not open that shared office space to Housing Associations in Wales? What sort of ideas might get swapped over a cup of coffee in the kitchen?

Let’s go broader again – why not open that office space to Local Councils and Health Boards? What common struggles could we talk about over lunch? What sort of connected approaches might we start defining?

Whilst we’re at it, why don’t we host regular unconferences in this space to help flesh all these new ideas out to find wider support?

Obviously, there’s a whole raft of logistical challenges to solve. But I think it illustrates that working in this sort of environment could result in huge opportunities for collaboration and connecting the dots across multiple sectors. In a broad sense it’s all about removing barriers (physical, hierarchical, political, organisational) to prevent people toiling in isolation, duplicating or expending effort in the wrong areas.

In this way we might be able to get on with the business of tackling the wicked problems that matter most, together

Email isn’t evil. How we inflict it on each other might be! 

Email arrived with the dawn of the Internet in 1971. Despite its death being predicted multiple times over the years, it remains the primary means of communication for most in the workplace.

It has hung on because of its insane levels of flexibility. I’ve seen email used for..

  • Formal communication
  • Instant messaging
  • File transfer
  • Document archive
  • Notification center
  • Post It Notes
  • Task list
  • Workflow
  • Team management
  • Collaborative working
  • News letters
  • Surveys
  • Image gallery

Because we can use it for this multitude of things, doesn’t mean we should.

The underlying problem is that you have no control over what you receive in your inbox. Anybody can send you anything. By making email a centralised repository for absolutely everything, we end up entering into servitude with our inbox.

Each working day involves whizzing through incoming email, trying to pick out what requires action on your part and what can be ignored. Some people try and limit themselves to pre-defined blocks of ’email management’ time. But many more work with their email open, chirping away in the background like a hyper active budgie.

Independent research from Atos estimates that the average worker spends 40% of their time just managing incoming email. Worse still, much of this time is gauged to have no measurable benefit.

There’s plenty of strategies to try and wrestle email under control. Inbox Zero, enforcing people to write briefly with well defined actions, discouraging the dreaded mass CC (and its moustachioed evil brother BCC). These all stop short of tackling be larger issue. We need to just stop using email.

Well, I say stop, but there are some uses for it that are unavoidable. Try and sign up for a website without using email for verification – devilishly tricky. Also, in terms of a one to one communication platform for external contacts it’s hard to beat for ease of use.

Inside our organisations however, we can make massive strides to stem the flow of internal email chatter. For every point on that list I made above, there’s a better dedicated web service or application that can handle it properly.

“Ah – but aren’t we just distributing the workload elsewhere, not actually reducing it” I hear you cry. True, some of those tasks we need to do as part of our jobs, they are unavoidable. But by placing them into clearly defined systems we’re forcing ourselves to treat them as different entities. By virtue of them not all being in the same place, we’ve got half a chance of managing time effectively on each task and not getting interrupted by the chirp of unrelated incoming email.

Email absolutely has a place, but we should really try not to inflict it on each other quite so much. Especially inside our places of work.

You want Innovation? Learn to love failure!

Innovation – a huge buzzword that has been doing the rounds increasingly for the last year or so. Technology is driving change at such a rapid pace that organisations are looking to embrace a ‘culture of innovation’ in order to be more responsive. But what does that actually mean?

In order to innovate, you need ideas. Where do these ideas come from? Traditionally the appraisal process (where line manager reviews staff performance and sets objectives) should bring ideas out into the open and get them into the business plan. In terms of sourcing ideas that are truly revolutionary that doesn’t seem to happen.

Why is that? Is it because people are not able to generate ideas ‘on demand’ during that yearly mandated period? Is it because organisational hierarchies subject anything new or challenging to ‘death by committee’? Is it because we’ve been fed a steady diet of risk aversion since the beginning of time? Is it because fluid innovation and rigid business strategy are almost opposing concepts?

I’m fortunate enough to work in a progressive organisation that is trying to make strides in these areas. But any organisation that has a rigid hierarchical structure will suffer from some or all of these road blocks to adopting a culture of innovation. It is a symptom of our workplaces being designed to tackle predictable tasks in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Let’s be really clear though, innovation is no magic wand. It is actually an inherently wasteful process that’s jam packed with failure. Even if you subscribe to a ‘fast failure’ model where you iterate rapidly through different decisions and directions you’re still working on projects that may never come to fruition.

However, we’re deluding ourselves if we pretend that there’s no failure in our normal working lives. We fail all the time, large and small, but most people have gotten good at mitigating it, spinning it or burying it. That’s a shame because we only really learn how to change things for the better when we can understand what went wrong.

So, what’s more desirable? – An intensive period of controlled failure that will deliver some valuable data in terms of what not to do. Or to continue on as we are, applying bandages to failing systems and processes and pretend that everything is okay.

Unfortunately, innovation is not just something that can be turned on like a tap. People need a sandbox in which to play and develop ideas without the crippling pressure to generate results. The key is to keep the invested resource (be that time or money) to an absolute minimum to start with. Fail fast, document your findings, move on to the next iteration or idea. Speed is essential. If you assume that 90% of the concepts you evaluate are destined to be shelved, you need to work your way through the chaff to get to the wheat as rapidly as possible. Even the chaff has a use. Imagine how valuable a few months worth of discarded ideas would be? Can you see any commonalities? Are we trying to do something we’ve already done before? Will this idea work now that external factors have changed?

Much of this thinking comes from the Silicon Valley start-up scene where small teams of developers try to capture the next technological zeitgeist before anyone else. The methodologies of Agile development are finding their way into mainstream thinking. Much of it is common sense. Build a minimum viable product (a workable prototype that has the core features) and release it. If it’s a success, iterate and build on top of what you’ve got. For those startups working long hours with meager initial funding, the key is to get to a functional product to market with as little resource wasted as possible before anyone else. That sounds pretty desirable no matter what sector you’re in huh?

Obviously, most organisations don’t have the luxury of a department dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. But in truth, I think it should be part of everyone’s job description to make it happen. It can’t radiate from one corner of the business or be demanded from the top. People need the time, authority and framework to go and experiment.

In order for any of this to work the stigma around failure needs to go. All the greatest innovators are prolific failures. What separates them from others is that they push forward and keep learning from their mistakes in search of a greater understanding. In essence, this is the sort of culture we need to start baking into organisations (particularly the public & third sector) to unleash that stored potential for creative problem solving in staff which is otherwise largely untapped.

Working Out Loud

I can’t stand buzzwords and business speak. So, on the face of it I should’ve avoided ‘Working Out Loud’ at all costs.

I stumbled across the term whilst researching the use of Yammer within various organisations. At first glance, it seems like the sort of snake oil that social media “experts” pedal whilst promising MASSIVE ENGAGEMENT and HYPER-CONNECTED SYNERGY.

Upon further reading though, it actually turned out to be a very practical approach to working that makes a lot more sense in our ever more connected lives.

So, what does ‘Working Out Loud’ actually mean?

“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that – when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.” – John Stepper

As someone who works in IT, the bulk of the workload can be largely invisible to the majority of the organisation.. unless something goes horribly wrong! Additionally, if those around you can’t grasp the technical challenges involved it can be hard to get recognition for a job well done. In an attempt to do a little bit of PR, I started making progress updates and decision processes more visible via platforms like Asana and Yammer. In essence, this is one of the core practices of Working Out Loud. 

Working Out Loud IS NOT about bragging to the rest of the organisation about your achievements. It’s about giving your colleagues an opportunity to work with you. In some way it’s also about encouraging those serendipitous conversations where you’re struggling with the exact same problem as someone else in the organisation, albeit from perhaps a different perspective.

Working Out Loud does require a good dose of honesty. If you only share your roaring successes, you’re depriving people of valuable lessons learned when you’ve failed. And actually, if you’re being open and transparent in the way that you approach work, you should have reduced your chances of huge catastrophic failures because somebody should’ve steered you in a different direction.

Obviously the effectiveness of Working Out Loud largely depends on the culture of your work place. If your organisation isn’t very open, you may find that there’s a great deal of resistance when you try and lift the veil on what you’re doing.

Working Out Loud can also be threatening to traditional rigid ‘top down’ management structures, perceived as trying to circumvent the chain of command or going rogue!

But Working Out Loud doesn’t have to exist purely inside the work place. The same principles can be applied to Social Media. If you can’t work transparently inside your workplace, why not try and connect with others with similar interests in other organisations?