News | 28-Apr-2017

The Innovation Series: A Primer

Introduction

Late last year we created The Studio, an innovation department that works across the agency. Not that we didn’t do innovation before, but we felt compelled to create a standalone function that would serve us, our clients and probably the industry as a whole. Here’s why…
 
Firstly, let’s clear up what we mean by innovation. The word innovate” has been destroyed - overused and generalised the world over, generally by companies and individuals wanting to demonstrate a mindset of progression, entrepreneurship and improvement - all that we hold dear in modern society. While overall it is a good thing, we’d rather be pushing for progression through innovation than not, it becomes cyclic in its ubiquity. 
 
So as a starting point we needed to define what innovation means to us. Simply put, we believe it to be the process of creating unique solutions in an attempt to solve more.
 
Defining what our innovation process looks like in a few core principles: 
 
Create systems, not plans.
Make things.
Collaborate.
Invest in people.
Integrate.
Borrow from other disciplines.
Think bigger.
Reverse engineer.
 
Over the course of this series we’ll be expanding on each principle, explaining why and how we implement each of them into our work system.
 
But for now let’s dive deeper into why, how and where The Studio can add value (and why sometimes innovation labs don’t).
 

Why is this a good idea?

The Studio forms part of a bold company vision of relentless progression. Progress is good. It is through progress that we create better solutions for our clients, better environments for our teams, better practices for our industry. It’s about leadership. 
 
We could list a few of the more generic reasons why innovation departments can be so effective, but we’d rather bring to the fore some of the less explored areas which we believe are incredibly important to factor in.
 

The 2nd law of thermodynamics (or the tendency for entropy)

While trying to avoid the complexities of the laws that govern the universe, this is quite an insightful law to understand.
 
At a most basic level, the 2nd law of thermodynamics states that energy will always move from a more useful form to a less useful form and thus there is a natural tendency for entropy. Therefore, in an isolated system entropy never decreases and as such an isolated system will degenerate into a more disordered state.
 
This fundamental idea, applied in an organisational context is that systems will always default back to a state of disorder. 
 
Creating a beneficial order requires sustained energy applied to a specific focus area. The more people (energy) you have aligned and the narrower your focus (area of change), the higher your chances of success. It follows that organisations are in a constant battle against entropy and without a collaborative effort will fall into a state of decay. It is natural that most organisations feel disorganised and that a lack of leadership often manifests itself as the collective focus splinters. There are numerous examples of this in organisations, that despite being comprised of brilliant talent on an individual basis, fail to create brilliance as a collective. Think Apple in the mid 90’s, before Jobs returned and cut the area of focus to just four products.
 
Most companies are in essence a collaborative effort, actively repelling against a state of decay in an attempt to create a beneficial order and ensure that ordered is maintained. When we consider the implications of this we realise that is only through a collective effort that we’re able to cooperate on such a wide scale. Life doesn’t magically order itself into matter, services and products, its default state is one of chaos. 
 
Further to this, we would restrict our ability to effect change if we only considered this at an organisational level. The wider context should be factored in by evaluating industry-wide trends.
 
We designed The Studio with this in mind, considering three opportunities to help mitigate risk.
 

Case 1: A well-defined, clear vision is the starting point for most human collaborative efforts

The 2nd law of thermodynamics makes just about the best case for a shared company vision that you are likely ever to hear. This isn’t the marketing jargon vision, but a manifesto of sorts that aligns a workforce and enables collaboration. A strong understanding of the outside world - the trends, industry behaviours and technologies is essential in informing this vision.
 
Predicting the future is hard and an innovation studio is not a crystal ball. However, it is evident that by researching the potential landscape of tomorrow’s world, understanding the S-Curves” of different technologies and anticipating the future needs of clients, we are able to better inform a vision. 
 
That vision, in turn, creates a common focus for the business and puts our organisation and our clients in the same framework. The higher our energy and the better defined our goal, the more likely our chances of success. 
 

Case 2: Relentless progression

By adopting an iterative progression methodology we create using rapid development cycles (we’ll expand on this later in the post). This essentially means we’re constantly seeking feedback, direction and small wins. This results in an intense focus and energy on each incremental development step, which also provides us with a granular understanding of each component.
 
Throughout these development cycles, we use different processes and experiment in different ways of working which provides us with valuable insights. It’s about constant progression, not only in our work but also in our own systems. 
 
It also gives us a chance to shed what we don’t need, refining and simplifying. This guards against bloat and ultimately the entropy which follows.
 

Case 3: Shared input, shared output

Because most of what the innovation studio does relies on input from a wider community (more on that in a future post) we’re able to identify common themes and potential trends across a wide sphere. This doesn’t mean we do this to go with the flow but there is something to be said about following the path of least resistance. Shared focus means less energy is required at the input to create a favourable outcome, by aligning our focus with that of the people in our community we’re all better off.
 

The order of effects

There is a lot to be said about identifying and understanding the secondary and tertiary effects of our actions. While this is mostly a suggestion of what could happen and not what will happen, there is value in performing it as a thought experiment if nothing else. 
 
Not only does this give us an insight into the wider effects of our work, it is also valuable in that it forces us to think about the potential benefits and opportunities that might occur. This is especially useful when considering the implementation of ideas. 
 
(We’ll detail these effects in a later post.)
 

Our Process

Systems

In business, as in life, there is value in focusing on systems rather than goals. There is a certain beauty in systems. Whereas in most business cases a goal is set and then processes and measurement metrics are put in place to ensure a higher likelihood of achieving that goal, a system does not rely on metrics to decide its value, relying solely on overall functionality. It places an emphasis on the efficiency and improvement of each component rather than the result of those components. 
 
In this approach, we come up with a vision, which generally focuses on the kind of work we want to be producing and why (in our case this is about creating unique solutions and constantly looking to solve more). We set up a system that enables this vision, with each component complimenting the next. We then focus on nailing each one of those components, and if all are functioning well we are creating the desired outcome. Statistically, we’re more likely to succeed because we’re focusing on the environment in which we’re producing results, rather than the results themselves. Creating these systems also means you’re less likely to neglect and ultimately fail in other areas. 
 

First Principles

Reasoning from first principles is critical. Innovation is essentially about constructing components in unique ways to get unique results. Those components are normally already intertwined in some kind of structure. It’s very hard to consider them outside of their current state. So it is essential that one becomes a master at deconstructing. First principles are all about deconstruction. 
 
You take what may be perceived as a complex problem and take it apart bit by bit through questioning everything about it. Eventually, you get to base reality. 
 
Now, by reasoning up from first principles you’re able to construct the components in a unique way, or you arrive at an insight that you otherwise would have missed. That is obviously not as easy as it sounds, and it requires painful amounts of brain power to mind numbingly look at each component individually, but what you eventually get is a concept built on truth, free of dogma.
 
By starting from first principles we’re able to change the way that we think. No longer is it about making a decision based on what might happen, it becomes a case of just making something happen. Throwing off the dogma attached to concepts. It is a momentous realisation that enables people to stop reacting and start creating. It shifts the collective mindset from an observation mentality to a leadership mentality. It doesn’t mean we’re setting the trends, but it means we’re keeping at the forefront of what’s capable.
 

Design+Engineering

There is a two-way process, using design and then engineering practices in our development cycles.
 

Design

Innovation requires the ability to be creative, but creativity without focus is just art. Instead, we require a creative process that focuses our energy on solving a particular issue or challenging the modus operandi. To do this we draw on design principles. There is a lot to be said about the innovation practices at companies like IDEO, Frog and Sonos. Thinkers like Edward de Bono spent much of their lives considering creativity and the ability to think laterally. 
 
Design is where all the creativity lives. It is a process of divergent thinking and coming up with creative solutions. 
 

Engineering

Engineering is design, applied. It is at this convergent space where we apply our design process to the real world. Using vertical thinking systems to construct prototypes. 
 
Overall these two disciplines compliment each other. Design thinking is a highly creative process and opens our minds to consider things differently. It inspires the building blocks upon which any solution is built. Engineering is a lot more methodical, but without it we’d fail to deliver tangible results. 
 

Rapid development cycles

Owing to the pace of change in technology it is essential that we are able to prototype quickly, dynamic enough to tweak development as we go and courageous enough to pull the plug when we realise we’re on the wrong path. To do this we use rapid development cycles that ensure that there are constant feedback mechanisms, iterative development and that each component in the overall system is constantly under scrutiny. 
 
Finally, we have a system that looks a little like this:
The next few posts in this series will expand on these systems and the principles that drive innovation. New posts will be up every few weeks.