Trust the process

One of the most enduring myths surrounding successful innovation is that it is the result of inspired genius, the romanticised lone actor who develops an idea for a valuable new business, product or service through some sort of eureka moment. 

One of the most enduring myths surrounding successful innovation is that it is the result of inspired genius, the romanticised lone actor who develops an idea for a valuable new business, product or service through some sort of eureka moment.

But from the discovery of the microorganism to the development of the atomic bomb and the Saturn V rocket, no breakthrough would have been possible without a series of events in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry that marked the emergence of modern science during the early modern period.

A quote from Herbert Butterfield regarding the importance of the scientific revolution

The scientific revolution enabled us to understand the world around us, explore it, improve it and bring it closer together. It’s been the single biggest driver of improvement in quality of life, and it prioritised three tenets above all else:

  • That observation and experience are the primary sources of knowledge, rather than religious or philosophical context.
  • That knowledge and theories must be questioned and can be doubted, with nothing sacrosanct.  
  • That collecting data through observation and experimentation was the best way to form theories.

These principles were codified by the Scientific Method - a systematic approach to testing theories and proving or disproving them through a widely accepted convention: that every breakthrough starts with a question, that tentative answers are posited in the form of a hypothesis, that experiments are conducted to test the hypothesis, that results are assessed, and that conclusions are drawn ad infinitum.

The corporate equivalent of the scientific method found its way into boardrooms in the early 2000s when companies began to realise that their traditional approach to product development was leading to intolerable failure rates. So they looked to Silicon Valley's VCs and technology companies and began to understand that the best way to develop their next breakthrough idea was to embrace market needs and quickly test lots of ideas by hypothesising, experimenting and refining their way to success.

But 23 years later, even for companies that understand design thinking, lean startup, and agile - their innovation challenges persist. Today, 86% of CEOs say that innovation is critical to their growth strategy, but only 6% are happy with the results they get from their corporate innovation investment.

What's broken?

The issue is that almost every business I speak to understands design thinking, lean and agile at a theoretical level. Still, hardly any of them have found a way to move beyond their core principles and systemise them in practice.

What's missing is a scalable and repeatable process that moves beyond acknowledging the core tenets of these methods and integrates them into the day-to-day operations of their strategy and innovation teams.

How do you make the theory work in practice?

Three years ago at Future Foundry, we codified our process for venture, product and service building in a process called Velocity™. We believed that being able to communicate our approach on a single page would force us to create a systematic, scalable and repeatable model and enable our teams, clients and associates to speak the same language.

The velocity method

For those of you who are struggling to bring the principles of design thinking, lean and agile back down to earth and leverage them in a meaningful way for your organisation, here's how we did it:

Document workflows and decision points:

We built comprehensive documentation that detailed each stage of the process, including the tools we used, roles and responsibilities, decision-making criteria, and key metrics. We also designed standardised templates for standard inputs and outputs, like user research, sprint planning, retrospectives, and experimentation protocols.

Implement a project management tool:

We built a project management tool that supported the method (rather than designing a method to support an existing project management tool) and made sure it would scale with the corresponding volume of client work. It handles backlog management, sprint planning, resource allocation, time tracking, and portfolio reporting.

Develop a training program:

We created a six-week training program for new recruits, existing team members and clients so that everyone understood the process and how to apply it. It includes hands-on workshops, mentoring, and regular 'update' courses to accommodate any iterative improvements we make to the process over time.

Establish a knowledge-sharing platform:

We built an internal wiki where team members could find best practices, experiments and learnings from previous projects. We encouraged them to contribute by sharing their experiences, insights, and lessons learned from completed sprints or projects.

Introduce automation:

We identified routine and repetitive tasks within the process that we could use AI to automate, such as setting up testing environments, code deployments and data collection and synthesis from customer development research.

Conduct quarterly reviews:

We still review the effectiveness of the process every 12 weeks; we consider feedback from team members, clients, project outcomes, and efficiency metrics and adjust the process based on these reviews. This usually results in us updating documentation and decision points (we're on version 4.1).

Taking the time out to document your process, find software enablers, train your people, develop a wiki, automate specific tasks and review everything quarterly sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But, If you want to move beyond a superficial application of these methodologies and mere lip service into having design thinking, lean and agile baked into everything you do, it's absolutely worth it; you'll find there are three huge benefits:

  1. Build muscle memory: Don't underestimate the compound returns of repetition - once you've built a muscle memory, moving through the process becomes second nature.
  2. Speak the same language: Most strategy and innovation teams speak a different language to the rest of their organisation, but a process gives you a transferable framework you can use to get everyone on the same page.
  3. Drive outsized returns: The only way to win in corporate innovation is by placing a large number of bets and using experimentation to see which winners emerge; a documented and widely followed process will help you do this at scale.

Succeeding in finding profitable new business, product and service ideas comes not from waiting for flashes of genius but from the diligent, persistent application of a systematic inquiry, discovery, and application process. It's not as glamorous or romantic as the myth of the inspired genius, but it's this relentless pursuit of knowledge and improvement, deeply ingrained in the scientific method, that you must emulate to drive sustained growth and success in your innovation efforts.

For more advice, recommendations and support on innovating with more speed, focus and certainty, join The Fold, our free membership community for corporate change-makers.

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