Published: 20 October 2016

Happy experimenting

Project Officer Kris Henley at Surrey Business School examines the guiding principles for companies looking to take advantage of digital innovation.

Over the past few months at Surrey Business School’s Centre for the Digital Economy (CoDE) we have spent a great deal of time working with businesses from many domains which are looking to understand their capacity for new product creation, to develop their potential for innovative thinking, and to shorten the time from ideas into value. For the established organisations, the engagements often start with a simple question:

Why aren’t more of our ideas getting off the drawing board and into our customers’ hands? There seems to be a blockage in our innovation pipeline.

Of course, every company and every domain is different. So we’ve looked at this problem from many angles, and come up with varying ways to frame the challenge and address the concerns. However, at the heart of the issue, we believe that there must be a fundamental shift in approach for organisations to successfully improve their innovation capacity. We often refer to this as adopting a discipline of Agile Innovation Engineering. That is, a measured, purposeful set of practices that demonstrate stakeholder value in short, time-boxed iterations.

Key to an agile approach to innovation is embracing a culture of experimentation throughout the organisation. Traditional ‘pipelined’ thinking for promoting new ideas, based on long-term lock-in of a complex business plan, must be replaced with a spirit of discovery, adaptability, and re-targeting made necessary by the buffeting any idea will receive in early customer feedback. As Mike Tyson succinctly put it: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth!”

It was with this in mind that I was particularly intrigued by a recent article by Michael Schrage in the Sloan Review promoting ‘Experimentation & Scaling’ as the successor to ‘Research & Development’ in large corporations.

The main conclusions from the article look like a great summary of the kinds of lessons we have been learning as we develop Agile Innovation Engineering: blending design thinking, lean start-up practices, and agile principles in our corporate problem-solving engagements. To expand on Schrage’s key findings, innovation is enhanced when organisations:

1. Resist the temptation to over-analyse before acting (“analysis paralysis”) and engage in a wide variety of low-cost experiments

2. Spend less time in the search for the ‘perfect’ idea, and rather focus on finding interesting questions that lead to testable hypotheses

3. Use constraints (financial, technical, environmental, legal, etc.) productively to spur creativity and inventiveness

4. Bring increased transparency and interaction with stakeholders by inviting others to participate as early and often as possible in experiments

5. Explicitly balance priorities across internal and external stakeholders via open discussions

6. Emphasise the need to obtain insights into interesting questions about the detailed demands of product delivery that can sidetrack an experimental approach.

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