To improve innovation, use fewer words.

Everyone knows innovation is difficult, but there’s no best way to make it easier. And everyone knows there’s plenty of opportunities to make innovation more effective, but, again, there’s no best way.  Clearly, there are ways to improve the process, and new tools can help, but the right process improvements depend on the existing process and the specific project.  And it’s the same for tools – the next tool depends on the existing toolbox and the new work required by the project.  With regard to tools and processes, the right next steps are not universal.

But with all companies’ innovation processes, there is a common factor – the innovation process is run by people. Regardless of process maturity or completeness, people run the process.  And this fundamental cuts across language, geography and company culture.  And it cuts across products, services, and business models.  Like it or not, innovation is done by people.

At the highest level, innovation converts ideas into something customers value and delivers the value to them for a profit. At the front end, innovation is about ideas, in the middle, it’s about problems and at the back end, it’s about execution. At the front, people have ideas, define them, evaluate them and decide which ones to advance. In the middle, people define the problems and solve them. And at the back end, people define changes to existing business process and run the processes in a new way.

Tools are a specialized infrastructure that helps people run lower-level processes within the innovation framework. At the front, people have ideas about new tools, or how to use them in a new way, define the ideas, evaluate them, and decide which tools to advance. In the middle, people define problems with the tools and solve them. And at the back end, they run the new tools in new ways.

With innovation processes and tools, people choose the best ideas, people solve problems and people implement solutions.

In order to choose the best ideas, people must communicate the ideas to the decision makers in a clear, rich, nuanced way. The better the idea is communicated, the better the decision. But it’s difficult to communicate an idea, even when the idea is not new. For example, try to describe your business model using just words. And it’s more difficult when the idea is new. Try to describe a new (untested) business model using just your words. For me, words are not a good way to communicate new ideas.

Improved communication improves innovation. To improve communication of ideas, use fewer words. Draw a picture, create a cartoon, make a storyboard, or make a video.  Let the decision maker ask questions of your visuals and respond with another cartoon, a modified storyboard or a new sketch.  Repeat the process until the decision maker stops asking questions.  Because communication is improved, the quality of the decision is improved.

Improved problem solving improves innovation. To improve problem-solving, improve problem definition (the understanding of problem definition.) Create a block diagram of the problem – with elements of the system represented by blocks and labeled with nouns, and with actions and information flow represented by arrows labeled with verbs. Or create a sketch of the customer caught in the act of experiencing the problem.  Define the problem in time (when it happens) so it can be solved before, during or after. And in all cases, limit yourself to one page. Continue to modify the visuals until there’s a common definition of the problem (the words stop.)  When the problem is defined and communicated in this way, the problem solves itself. Problem-solving is seven-eighths problem definition.

Improved execution improves innovation. To improve execution, improve clarity of the definition of success.  And again, minimize the words. Draw a picture that defines success using charts or graphs and data. Create the axes and label them (don’t forget the units of measure). Include data from the baseline product (or process) and define the minimum performance criterion in red.  And add the sample size (number of tests.) Use one page for each definition of success and sequence them in order of importance. Start with the work that has never been done before.  And to go deeper, define the test protocol used to create the data.

For a new business model, the one-page picture could be a process diagram with new blocks for new customers or partners or new arrows for new information flows. There could be time requirements (response time) or throughput requirements (units per month). Or it could be a series of sketches of new deliverables provided by the business model, each with clearly defined criteria to judge success. When communicated clearly to the teams, definitions of success are beacons of light that guide the boats as the tide pulls them through the project or when uncharted rocks suddenly appear to starboard.

Innovation demands communication and communication demands mechanisms. In the domain of uncertainty, words are not the best communicators.  Create visual communication mechanisms that distill and converge on a common understanding.

A picture isn’t worth a thousand words, it gets rid of a thousand.

Image credit – Michael Coghlan

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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