Explore first, then innovate
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Explore first, then innovate

Why you need to invest time upfront in an innovation project

Are you a chief innovation officer planning projects for your company for the year ahead? Or are you a manager assigned to spearhead an innovation project in 2020? Or are you likely to be invited to take part in such a project as a team member? Whatever the case, make sure that you commit enough time to be able to produce meaningful results.

In particular, resist the temptation to skip the critical front-end process stage and rush the project forward towards idea generation. Here's why.

Timing an innovation project: At the beginning of a new year, many companies also start new innovation initiatives. They assign a project manager with knowledge of the case to lead the initiative and then use internal facilitators or a professional innovation company like Thinkergy to run the process side.

These innovation process experts employ a structured method, such as the creative problem-solving (CPS) model, design thinking, or our X-IDEA innovation method, to guide teams through the various stages of the project.

Given increasing constraints on budgets, time and people, some project managers may feel tempted to skip the initial process stage, known as "problem clarification" in CPS, "inspiration" in design thinking, or "Xploration" in X-IDEA. They suggest the facilitator move straight to the second stage and start with ideation. Beware! You're likely to miss out on vital insights -- and to create ideas for the wrong challenge.

What happens at the beginning of an innovation project? Let me explain using Xploration. It involves taking three steps to explore your case, thereby avoiding certain traps (cognitive biases such as the confirmation trap):

  • XPRESS your initial perception of your challenge, and what you know and don't know.
  • C-A-L-M-ly explore with the help of thinking tools related to four possible paths of investigation (Check, Ask, Look, Map): Check facts, assumptions and rules. Ask lots of provocative and even "stupid" questions. Look at the situation from different viewpoints, such as considering the wants, needs and concerns of customers and other stakeholders. Map out and visualise essential information.
  • XTRACT new evidence (to close identified knowledge gaps) and your final challenge, aside from other target outputs.

Here is why investing time in exploration is so important:

1. Uncover and close knowledge gaps: The British author Aldous Huxley said: "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." He's right. You need to uncover knowledge gaps and perceptual blind spots related to the project.

During exploration, we systematically capture a team's conscious unknowledge ("We know what we don't know") and -- more importantly -- reveal its unconscious unknowledge ("We don't know what we don't know"). Later on, the team collectively sources information to close the identified knowledge gaps and turns unknowledge into knowledge. By the end of the stage, you will have a much better and deeper understanding of your project.

2. Gain novel insights into your case: The German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: "There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight." By thoroughly exploring their innovation case, an innovation team inevitably stumbles upon novel insights related to their project. An insight is a deep and often sudden realisation of the true nature of something.

Depending on the innovation type underlying the case (product innovation, strategy innovation or customer experience design, among others), such novel insights may relate to new trends, unnoticed wider user needs, newly emerging materials or methods, possible new partners, archetypal customer groups, and more.

Typically, novel insights either emerge while debriefing a particular Xploration tool (such as customer portraits or empathetic POV) or while digging out fresh information to close the identified knowledge gaps.

3. Keep track of initial ideas: "Everything begins with an idea," said the American author Earl Nightingale. While exploring an innovation case, it's inevitable that some team members will already have ideas on how to possibly resolve the perceived challenge. Such initial ideas may automatically pop up following the realisation of a vital novel insight, or while applying a thinking tool, or while answering questions.

In any case, we want to capture any idea emerging during Xploration, because a few of these early-stage ideas contain enough value -- and create enough momentum -- to carry them to real-life implementation.

4. Find out what's your real challenge: While facilitating more than 150 innovation projects during 15 years with Thinkergy, I have learned one thing for sure: The final challenge that teams come up with to frame their problem or innovation opportunity almost always differs from their initial perception of their innovation challenge.

In other words, Xploration ensures that you go on creating ideas for your real challenge, and not for some initial impression that misses the point of what's really going on. As the American inventor Charles Kettering put it: "A problem well stated is a problem half-solved."

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy, the "Know how to Wow" Innovation Company in Asia and beyond. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation - Southeast Asia at Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Email dr.d@thinkergy.com

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