Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Fail fast and frequently

The role of games, play and not being afraid to take risks were the major order of the hour in this breakout session led by Ruth Wells.

Innovation is one of those things that can be surrounded by management speak and a feeling of something I should be doing, but I don't know where to start. Or maybe that's just me?

To start the session Ruth led us on a journey of what innovation is and how it comes about? We discussed the role of games and play; that innovation is chiefly the meeting point between insight and invention and one of the ways to gain this meeting is to be free to play.

How much time do you get in your working day to play?

We discussed this in small groups and it was clear that the "doorway discussion" was quite important in publisher working environments, but for others who worked more remotely, there was quiet contemplation time, but less option for collaboration. In other organisations there was little or no time for this sort of play, unless it was taken out of personal time such as lunch breaks.

We then watched a video from Steven Johnson about the creation of good ideas. This introduced the concept of the slow hunch. The very best innovations are cumulative ideas that evolve over long periods of time, and during this time ideas are thrown out, reworked, refined and incubated until the innovation is born.

Hunches cannot progress in a vacuum, they are usually part formed and need collisions in order to fuse into ideas. The great driver of scientific progress has been collaboration and the internet, mobile devices and the increasingly sociability of the world around us offers many new ways to connect with people who have that missing hunch we are looking for. Chance favours the connected mind.

The group then talked about how chance can be enabled within our organisations, including creating the right spaces and dedicated time for people to come together. Much like the doorway collaboration, a coffee area can provide inter-team discussion and spark new innovations by providing a fresh perspective on problems.

Then we discussed company culture of allowing play and discussion and the drivers to this sort of experience:
  • a concise company mission
  • an understanding of organisational values
  • the strategic goals agreed and aligned
  • clear business objectives articulated
  • an understanding of the need for project planning and resources
  • buy-in from organisational leaders
It is not enough to say Go Innovate! the culture must come from the top, and be accepted from the employee to the CEO.

We then talked about workshops as a means of achieving the culture and collaboration. One group suggested that a sort of speed dating for innovation, or as I thought a musical chairs scenario, could work very well to mix up ideas between different employees from different departments.

It was explained that capturing the results of workshops and closing each idea that was opened, no matter how off topic, was as important as the process of idea generation itself. The ideas that were left after this closing process need to be followed up and acted upon.

As a summary of how enable this kind of culture, Ruth gave us the key points for leadership on innovation:
  1. Encouragement
  2. Leading by example
  3. Create space for discussion
  4. Actively feedback on ideas
  5. Direct but do not control
  6. Accept the potential to succeed AND fail
  7. Provide resources and mechanisms to deliver ideas
I've highlighted point 6 as this was the major take home message from the session for me. There is no point trying to create a culture of innovation if you cannot allow those innovations to fail. Pursuing ideas involves risk, an evaluation of that risk is important in projects, but the idea generation in itself must be free of this risk assessment, lest it be curtailed by it. Ideas can be closed before the project stage if the risk is deemed to be great.

In order to highlight the importance of failing we watched a snippet of this presentation from Tina Seelig from the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, entitled Fail Fast and Frequently, where she explains that if you are not failing sometimes then you are not taking enough risks. As long as you learn from failure then what you are doing is worthwhile.

After a short departure from talk about gameplay into an actual game, where we passed around bits of paper with ideas on about the function of a publisher rather than the form, the discussion moved onto ideas as a response to a problem without a solution.

Radical ideas can be like gambling and it makes sense for many organisations to not want to or not be able to gamble, therefore in closing out ideas it is important to have a common set of evaluation criteria.

These will help with the creation of a roadmap to move your ideas and innovations into projects, put your ideas into a four stage funnel:
  1. filter
  2. research more detail, consider the implications, lifetime costs
  3. develop
  4. provide ongoing support or abandon
Note that in step 4 there is still the possibility of an idea being closed. If at any point during the delivery process costs are expanding beyond the worth of the idea then it should abandoned.

Finally, Ruth outlined some top tips for innovation in organisations:
  • define process and strategy first
  • define what innovation means to your organisation
  • do no harm, but don't be anti risk
  • prototyping can avoid technical ambiguity
  • look at innovation as a function of your whole business

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