Doing something new is a human activity we perform all the time. In business terms, this is called innovation. But what are steps we take when we are innovative? This framework proposes a general structure I believe successful innovators follow with varying degress of awareness.
The framework is a personal mesh-up from various sources. There are countless frameworks that explain problem solving, creativity, insight generation, learning, etc. I am not adding anything new to the elements necessary for innovation. Rather, I arranged all the elements in a way that I feel is most helpful for my thinking about innovation. I hope other people will find it helpful, too.
People familiar with the lean startup concept of ’build – measure – learn’ and ’design thinking’ will notice that the framework is an overlay of those two frameworks (which have been inspired by older thinking on the topic of innovation).
What it is all about
The goal of this framework is to decribe the process of innovation in digital product development. It points out those critical steps that are often left out or only done partially or unconsciously.
As it tries to be comprehensive on the highest level of abstraction the framework can be applied to any task of creating something new.
When we start something new, it always begins with a goal, that is something we want to change or improve. Some people (lean startup for example) might say that you start with an idea. Yet an idea is also an implicit goal as the idea means that you want to do something differently. At that stage, any goal is however only tentative. It most likely changes over time. Especially if you start thinking about it – which is what you should do.
Thinking contains five elements. While they are shown in sequence, in reality you do jump back and forth between them quite often – until you have find a tentative solution you believe is worth implementing.
The first step of thinking in absorbing. Get all available input, collect facts, listen and talk to people.
I called the second step Find the core. It is about confirming that you are really understood what your goal is. And why? If you have started with an idea, it is now the time to define the problem and the underlying goal behind your idea. In the creative agency world this is called rebrief. You want to make sure that you deeply and fully understood what you are up to.
Next comes the creative part: generating ideas. It is about opening the solution space as much as possible. Number of ideas counts, craziness is wanted. Yes, most of the ideas won’t survive, but you want to increase the probability to come up with with ideas that make a difference.
Once you have many ideas, you should structure and cluster them. Very often, you go back and forth between generating ideas and structuring them, because structuring itself will generate new ideas.
Now you have a lot of structured ideas, but what to do first? Which solution should you pick? The last task of the thinking part is to prioritize your ideas and pick the first candidate for implementation.
The chosen solution is, however, only a tentative solution. In fact, it is more like an hypothesis as we don’t know if it will really help us to reach our goal. Now, the lean startup cycle kicks in: let’s get acting and start experiments to see if our solution works. As we want to invest as little as possible in terms of time and money, we should find the most critical assumption for our solution.
For those assumption, we have to define tests in a scientific way. This means we formulate an hypothesis for the outcome of the test and acceptance criteria. In other contexts as product development, you might call those tests pilots.
Once done, we run the test and get results.
The last step is to generate so what’s. You have to make sens of the results and come to conclusions. Conclusions might be rolling out the solution, adapting it, trying the next best solution or even change your goal.
Why I found it valuable
The framework gives a checklist of things you should do if you come up with new stuff. It reduces the risk of forgetting something that is neccessary for any innovation. Concretely, it emphazises the following helpful attitudes and behaviours that people sometimes don’t live fully up to:
- Be aware that goals and solutions are tentative. They might change whenever you get new data or insights.
- Have a beginner’s mind: absorbing means to tune into the outside world and forget about your prejudices and assumptions.
- Apply the Toyota way of asking ‘Why?’. Invest heavily to understand what you really want.
- Be open in finding ideas and possibilities. Don’t limit yourself to the ideas you already have (and you know they are right, don’t you?).
- Find common themes behind all the ideas. This will help to see the big pictures.
- You have to say ‘No’ to many ideas. Force yourself to find and argue for those ideas that really promise the greates benefit.
- In implementing solutions, try to minimize the downside as early and keep the solution space as open as possible.
- Define your experiment consciuosly and be honest to yourself – like a good scientist.
- Be fast in testing, have a bias for action.
- Focus on learning.
The term infinity loop should signal that the whole process is iterative, constantly ongoing.
As a mental model I find this more helpful than the linear ’problem – options – solutions’ approach. The framework shows that thinking and acting go together in an emergent process where goal, solutions and evidence/arguments are formed together.
Relevance for product management
The inifity loop of innovation is at the core of what product development teams should do: innovate constantly.
Many people use the ’Build measure learn’ framework of the lean startup movement. While it is of course helpful, for me it put too little emphasis on the thinking part. You can go a long way with thinking and getting clarity before you start spending money on building something. Many teams build – measure – learn things they could have learned through better thinking.
And you have to be aware of the following: when you say ’we test everything’, in that is an implicit decision: what to test first or what to test at all or never. You better make that decision wisely by thinking about it.
Caution: don’t fall in love with a framework. They support, not replace thinking. Frameworks always have a point of view on reality. There are other views as well. Stop using a framework if it doesn’t help to create insights.