Innovation as a Challenge of Discipline
In business, simplicity is the key to a high chance of success, no matter what industry or position you’re in. Keeping your vision reduced to the minimum viable product, whether that’s an actual product or something intangible like an idea or strategy, is essential to maintain focus and communicate effectively to stakeholders and observers. That means coming up with a concise plan you can easily convey to early adopters or coming up with a tight marketing strategy to bring to your team. You may have been reading about LEAN Startup methodology, watching the many instructional videos, playing around with Experiment Board, LEAN Canvas, Value Proposition Canvas, Business Model Canvas and numerous other tools. You might be joining Webinars, attending LEAN MeetUps & conferences, spending time with a mentor and generally receiving loads of advice. You’re trying to absorb the wisdom of gurus like Steve Blank and Eric Ries and you may have discovered brilliant people such as David Bland, Clay Christensen, Alistair Croll, Ash Maurya, Anita Newton, Grace Ng and Justin Wilcox.
If you are part of an Accelerator or Incubator you will very likely be following a rigorous and formalized LEAN program along with many Mentor advice sessions. And there is a fair chance that you are spending so much time studying all this LEAN Methodology content that you find yourself going slightly crazy and not making the kind of progress with your venture that you need to.
One of the most pernicious myths in innovation is that it is fundamentally a challenge of creativity. If we can only help our people be more creative, then the innovation will flow. Framed this way, innovation becomes an attribute. It becomes something innate and predictable. We can only set the right conditions (cue the loft space, denim and other ritual objects) and hope it happens. This is when we start calling for that “culture” of innovation.
Instead, if we frame innovation as a challenge of discipline—of learning to use the right methods, tools and approaches at the right times—then we quickly focus on very different imperatives.
We become students of innovation: We don’t expect someone without training to build a discounted cash flow model or develop a marketing segmentation. Nor would we expect someone new to an industry to already understand its structure and dynamics. So why do we expect our colleagues and leaders to suddenly manifest an ability to innovate? And why don’t we expect them to study innovation systematically—both the methods they should apply in different contexts (e.g., when to use lean and agile methods vs. design methods) as well as meaningful innovations in the surrounding landscape (e.g., what can we learn from companies like Uber)? Like any other business function or discipline, innovation has tradecraft that we can learn, practice and hone.
We measure methods and results: When we start seeing innovation as a discipline, then we also start focusing on what works and what doesn’t—and we set goals and measure results. This doesn’t mean we start asking for a 5-year financial projection two weeks into an initiative. It does mean paying attention to which inputs yield better outputs; did our time spent brainstorming in a room yield better ideas (doubtful), or did spending the same time studying our customers? We start reviewing our efforts, spotting where we made critical breakthroughs and where we missed key insights. This should be the point of “celebrating failure,” which, if we’re honest, is a silly thing to celebrate for its own virtue. We make sure we salvage all possible learning, and see how it can improve both our current business and our innovation capabilities. We also look across the range of innovation initiatives underway, and ask if they’re collectively addressing the right issues. Do they have the right balance of risk and likely return, and are we dedicating enough resources (time, money and people) to them?
We make innovation obligatory rather than optional: Finally, if we can see innovation as a discipline, then we can start demanding it from our organization. We can hold our team and business unit leaders accountable for sponsoring innovation initiatives, and charge our bright, high potential employees with developing. Some of the most powerful innovators in history, ranging from GE to Honda to Google, have connected involvement in innovation initiatives to career development, incentives and promotion—because innovation is what they expect from their future leaders. Innovation also becomes an investment that we start funding programmatically, instead of scraping budget dollars together each quarter, because it’s vital to the ongoing health and success of our business. We stop hoping innovation will happen and start requiring it from each other and ourselves.
That’s why I developed the Minimum Viable Canvas© (MVC) and the companion 1 day workshop for early-stage and enterprise Startups. The MVC is designed to be rapidly understood and is minimal by design, focusing on the most critical elements of idea and market validation. The 1 day workshop is perfect for teams that need to quickly understand how they can ideate, validate, devise and sell their concepts.
The Minimum Viable Canvas© was not designed for a mature business that needs to re-imagine an existing business model. Tools like the Business Model Canvas are better suited for that task.
An extension to my LEAN canvas is my Disruption Canvas. Approach Disruption using a formal process that builds on the “Keep It Simple Stupid” approach of the Minimum Viable Canvas.
For more information visit the MVC website.