The Light Bulb Moment

Our approaches to software development traditionally focus on lengthy phases whereby we understand the requirements, we design the product, we code it then go through numerous test phases until either done or we give up all hope. This traditional approach has few opportunities for feedback and never touches on whether the vision for the project was right in the first place.

Moving forward a number of years, our more contemporary iterative approaches to software development go somewhat further in that they try to get the product in the hands of the users as soon as possible so that we can validate our assumptions straight way. We label these approaches Agile, in that we can react quickly to the feedback we receive, or Lean, in that we remove waste from our process, including the waste of delivering products that are not required.

A project that that is the product of innovation, that exists to produce a product for a new or emerging market, or a product that causes a shift in thinking within an existing market has the most significant need for continuous feedback. This is not just the feedback on whether the products features do what they intended. No, it is much more imperative than that.

Think back to our Saving Lives story. How did this innovative approach become successful? Do you think a group of people got together, had an idea, built it and delivered? They then  sat back and watched the success?

Of course not. An innovation is a guess. It is an analysis of an opportunity that has high risk that it will not deliver the outcomes expected. It is imagining an uncertain future.

In Gamestorming[i], Dave Grat, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo make an analogy from the journey towards an uncertain vision to voyages of discovery:

Like Columbus, in order to move toward an uncertain future you need to set a course. But how do you set a course when the destination is unknown? This is where it becomes necessary to imagine a world; a future world that is different from our own. Somehow we need to imagine a world that we can’t really fully conceive yet – a world that we can see only dimly, as if through fog.

When we have visualized our world we make many steps towards it but the direction is not certain and we need to constantly check where we are and from these results, determine where we go next.

Those that fail to do this may start off in one direction, overcome many obstacles as they travel to their uncertain destination, only to find nothing there or they are back where they started from.

One of the worlds greatest ever innovators learnt this lesson early. Thomas Edison invested time, money and energy in an electric vote recorder. Edison found that the legislative bodies at which the product was aimed exploited the current slow manual process to charm the public for last minute votes.  Edison had assumed that there was a market for his invention but because the recorder would deprive them of this opportunity, the legislators rejected it.

In Edison on Innovation[ii], Alan Axelrod described what Edison learnt from this endeavor:

From this initial popular failure, Edison drew a valuable lesson. He resolved from then on to determine — firsthand — the existence of a market and a need before embarking on any other invention. For him, that lesson was sufficient to turn momentary failure into lifelong success. Nothing, Edison believed, was truly a failure if you managed to learn something from it.

Travelling the route of innovation is different from travelling the common path of business process. The vision and the strategy are not precise so that steps to get there must be different to. We need to provide a framework for creativity and experimentation so that both our vision and our strategy can change as we learn many lessons on our journey to building the product,

The basic assumption of the innovation – the Vision and the Strategy to implement that vision – need to be tested before funds are heavily invested in the product. Edison and the future contingent of innovators treated the approach as experiments with the outcome of learning.

In Lean Startup[iii], Eric Ries describes this as the build, measure, learn loop…

Instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions, you can make constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.

The feedback loop is a means to steer the endeavor towards its mission, it’s vision. The endeavor will commence with a strategy to achieve this vision. The endeavor will build (some of the product), measure the strategy’s effectiveness towards the vision and from those measurements will learn whether they should continue with the strategy or change the strategy to be more effective in achieving the vision.

These experiments shape and fine-tune the product over time and many experiments can happen at once to learn many new things. They are important because they provide the constant feedback needed to verify our assumptions to ensure we build the right thing and not the thing we imagine upfront.

The point we enter the world of developing an innovative product is therefore the creation of the Vision. The identification of the opportunity.

At the heart of innovation is the identification of this opportunity.

This is the generation of the vision and the strategy to achieve that vision. These provide the initial requirements for the product.

This is not all of the equation however. We may have a great idea but fulfilling this requires much more. The characteristics of the innovation team are important. This is not your typical stakeholder and requirements manager relationship.

The environment in which innovation thrives is different from our typical office environment. This is where we generate and test the ideas so is an important ingredient in deriving the innovative product requirements.

As discussed, the experimentation process is key to innovation. This impacts the requirements approach tremendously. It is the essence of discovering the right requirements and is a far cry from our traditional review and approval process.

We also need to ensure future ideas are not lost. Each experiment may produce unexpected results that spurn other innovations. These cannot be lost. Requirements for new products, ideas for new experiments, need to be captured on an innovation inventory.

In order to succeed and sustain these ideas we need to ensure we keep an eye on the commercialism of the innovation. Without investment and a profitable outcome then the endeavor will fail. It is therefore key that the requirements for the product also cover affordability aspects and ideas for ensuring the longevity of the product in its target market.

What I’m getting at is that innovation isn’t just about having a great idea.

The idea is not enough.


[i] Gamestorming, Dave Grey, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo, o’Reilly Media, Inc., 2011

[ii] Edison on Innovation: 102 Lessons in Creativity for Business and Beyond, Alan Axelrod, Jossey-Bass, 2008

[iii] The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, Penguin Books, 2011

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