Visually Thinking Our Way Through the Innovation Obstacle Course

David Elfanbaum, Co-Founder & Vice President, WWT Asynchrony Labs

David Elfanbaum, Co-Founder & Vice President, WWT Asynchrony Labs

Morten Hansen, Business Professor and Author,  describes innovation as a three-link “value chain” of idea generation, idea conversion and idea diffusion. For those of us in the trenches, it’s more like a three-link obstacle course. Ideas must be generated, converted into useful new products, services, processes or businesses, and hopefully adopted by enough people to make a difference. There are minefields along every step of the way; from developing the new product or project idea from conception (generation), to gaining executive and stakeholder support (conversion), to successfully managing the project to completion and marketplace success (diffusion). A single misstep can blow the emerging innovation to bits. Game over. Zero points.

Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that the vast majority of innovation initiatives fail. The Doblin Group, a global innovation firm, reported that 96% of all innovations fail to even return the cost of capital.  And Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen noted that  95 percent of consumer products fail. The cost of failed innovation isn’t simply the waste of resources. For instance, unsuccessful service innovation can sabotage brand loyalty.

With these odds, why are the majority of market-leading CEOs prioritizing not just incremental innovation, but riskier “disruptive” innovation? It’s simple. The alternative to innovation is stagnation, irrelevance and ultimately extinction. The combination of ever-shrinking technology cycles and the ongoing explosion of new products, services and vendors has made continuous innovation a requirement just to stay afloat, let alone get ahead. Keeping up with current competitors and staying ahead of lurking disruptive startups, is like rowing upstream through the rapids. If you stop pulling on the oars, you’re going to fall behind or break up on the rocks.

Visual Thinking

Visual Thinking is a proven methodology for improving the success rate for innovation. Visual Thinking Frameworks, also called Gamestorming or Innovation Games, are facilitated group processes that can support the entire cycle of innovation including idea generation and prioritization, strategy and tactics, stakeholder alignment, decision making, marketing and change management, and the definition of success metrics. Although innovation frameworks have been used to create hundreds of different processes, most of them follow a similar flow:

• Start With Why. Each process is designed to address a particular goal. Even before a session begins, simply doing the work of thinking about its purpose helps the organizers gain clarity on the outcomes they want to achieve. The more clarity and concreteness around the central purpose of a session, the better the outcome.

• Select Or Design The Appropriate Processes. Simple goals may only require one process to achieve. Others may use a string of processes, each providing insights or priorities that lead to the next. This Gamestorming Cheat Sheet from Brynn Evans provides one click access to dozens of processes for communicating core concepts, ideation, seeing from a different perspective, making decisions and other outcomes. Many processes use metaphors to help bypass mental models and cognitive biases that stand in the way of clear thinking and openness to new ideas.

• Have The Right People In The Room. Ideally, there should be one or two representatives from every key stakeholder group related to the questions at hand. It’s also helpful to include people who are not directly involved, but have familiarity with the surrounding context. Partners, customers and colleagues in other departments can provide outside points of view that aren’t predisposed to the status quo.

• Generate Individual Ideas. Traditional group brainstorming sessions can actually inhibit divergent thinking bypromoting conformity. Most Visual Thinking processes start with an exercise that directs each person to silently capture their initial ideas on sticky notes or some other medium before interaction begins that might influence their thinking.

• Create A Shared View. As information is created during Visual Thinking processes, it is gathered and displayed visually for all to see. A visual representation ensures that everyone is agreeing or disagreeing about the same thing. If there is disagreement, talking about post-its on a wall is more precise and less emotionally charged than face-to-face exchanges. Visual Thinking processes are designed to encourage deep conversation, while mitigating the kind of negative emotional responses that can arise from disagreement.

• Categorize And Prioritize. Once everyone’s ideas are displayed visually, similar concepts are physically grouped together. The grouped ideas are then named as categories. Instead of starting with categories and fitting items into them, natural groupings are discovered that may not have been otherwise explored. This is called “bottom-up categorization.” Since there is always more potential work to do than a group has time for in a single session, prioritization is important.

• Decide And Commit. One reason typical meetings don’t create results is that traditional business project methodology requires a complete plan in place before kicking off an initiative. Visual Thinking sessions operate like Agile development iteration planning sessions. Action items are created that reflect the prioritized activities that can be performed at the present time, or within the time between the current session and the following one.

• Capture, Organize And Share. As the session progresses, facilitators photograph the shared views. In many processes, someone is selected to capture key ideas that come up during conversations.

• Follow Through. Even the most enlightening sessions will fail to product the intended outcomes without ongoing follow through. It is important to schedule follow-up meetings to evaluate progress related to commitments made during the session. When dealing with big challenges, long-term initiatives or complex issues, a series of ideation processes over time is often a valuable strategy for success.

You can benefit from Visual Thinking by starting to experiment with some of the processes outlined in the books and steps mentioned above. But creating the level of sustained innovation needed to compete in today’s environment requires the establishment of a formal innovation program. Depending on the organization, this may include the creation of a department dedicated to the establishment of the tools and resources needed to create an enterprise-wide culture of innovation. It is also possible to take a bottom-up approach and begin with a “train-the trainer” program one department at a time. In either case, top executive support is essential to make the cultural shift needed to break from the status quo.

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