6 Tips on Innovation

I spent 2 days in the FT Innovate Conference in London. For me that means meeting and listening to a whole lot of intelligent, creative, and mad people. And that is usually accompanied by a meteor-shower of interesting thoughts, a mad dance of the synapses. Here are some thoughts no particular order – let’s hope it triggers some thoughts for you too. 


1.  Sustainability as a design constraint. Nike’s Hanna Jones talked about sustainability and environmental commitments as a design constraint that ensures a consumer can buy a high quality Nike running show with no compromise on quality. It can of course be argued whether Nike’s real motives are a desire to do good, or a more cynically motivated need to tick CSR or PR boxes. It is beyond argument, however, that whatever the driver, the approach to design innovation keeping the environmental needs as a constraint is a sound one, as it embeds the thinking all the way back to the drawing board. You might for example argue that privacy or security is similarly at the heart of any thinking about digital products. 


2. Small Bites of Big data. Big Data is all the rage. HBR says that the sexiest job title of tomorrow is “data scientist”. The question for today though, is how much should you be investing in “big data”, whatever it is? I met a number of companies at the event who were struggling with Master Data Management challenges. A major retailer is said to be offering 1% off their bill to consumers in exchange for basic data like email address. That’s 10% of the profits from the purchase. What is clear though is that ironically, big data becomes usable when you can slice it into smaller bits. This can be through the lens of a specific business problem – for example, identifying ways to improve customer experiences or speed of check out, or even uncovering shopping patterns that vary with weather or days of the week. Somebody mentioned that Walmart save about $ 12 million annually if they shave 1 second off the check out time. 


3. Experience is where Products meet services. There was evidence of the eternal struggle between products and services. I’ve always seen products try to add service layers and services try to productise. It’s probably because the ideal customer experience is somewhere in between the two extremes where you have the definition of a product and the human experience of a service. At P&G after seeing Starbucks redefine the experience after spending years trying to improve the product (Folgers), they now have a name for it. The question they ask in P&G is, “how do you Starbucks a category”? As we proceed down this road, we’ll see a lot of companies try to redefine the experience through the right combination of products and services. Two areas you can expect to hear a lot more about in the months to come, are Service Design and Experience Architecture. Stay tuned. 


4. Adding Love to Data: one of the participants pointed out to Philip Clarke, CEO of Tesco that while self service check out had made the Tesco experience highly efficient for her, it had also made it soulless. When you couple this with all the debate about analytics versus privacy or intrusiveness, it seems like we’re halfway through a journey here. We’ve done one part of it, which is made data analysis very muscular. But we need to do the other half, which is to add more human factors to how we use the data. The technologies are possibly there already but we haven’t quite mastered how this needs to work. We need to be able to add love to data and analytics, so that customers can feel truly special, not just well analysed. 


5. Marginal versus big-push innovation. The very eloquent Tim Harford, the “undercover economist” at the FT walked us through the fascinating exploits of Matthew Parker, Head of Marginal Gains with British Cycling (the olympic team). Among his many marginal improvements included better hand washing techniques to help prevent athletes from falling sick, carrying own pillows to events for ensuring good sleep, and the use of “hot pants” to retain muscle heat between warm up and start of race. At the other end of the spectrum is the truly disruptive, big push innovation which typically comes from an absurd idea, such as the creation of a single seater fighter plane, a prototype commissioned in the 1930s by the ministry of defence and criticised, even ridiculed by eminent MP’s including Churchill. History shows that that project created the Spitfire, which is said to have saved the war for Britain. The lessons? For innovation, you need efforts at both ends. Marginal and big push innovations. (not dissimilar to Christiansens argument of sustaining versus disruptive innovations). But the lesson also is that you need to celebrate the disruptive innovators long before they have actually succeeded, i.e. even when they are failing. 


6. Cognitive disruption: A really useful starting point for innovative thinking is cognitive disruption. This is a technique where you introduce a completely different experience to what is expected in a situation. For example, you might expect eye strain after working at a computer screen for a long time. Now imagine that you have a screen which actually soothes eyes, rather than strain them. This is a good way to think about product innovation. Also an excellent way of creating the recall any new product needs, by challenging the users expectation and re-orienting him or her to a new truth. 



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