Mike Cushing / Blog Innovation / November 28th, 2017

Start an Innovation Snowball, Not an Avalanche

Successful innovators typically have a knack for seeing potential. They envision ideas beyond the whiteboard for what they could be: new products, new features, entirely new business lines. While that vision guides innovation, it can make it difficult for innovators to truly push new ideas forward.

Innovators are given big targets and are expected to deliver results. Build a new business unit. Stave off disruption. Prove a new business model. When we talk to corporate innovators about these challenges, we often see an obsession with complete knowledge about a potential solution before they begin building it. While there’s no such thing as too much knowledge, this obsession with answers can lead to a decision-making paralysis that prevents innovators from making any meaningful progress.

Since they have an end goal in mind, innovators often use “innovation” as a system to avoid bad decisions, instead of a framework to make the right ones. They spend months combing through research and theory to build a foundation to support a preconceived outcome. They research competitors in the space. They run focus groups to gather sentiment about products that don’t exist. They consider emerging technologies and talk to IT about the feasibility of a new product.

Commonly, the insights gathered don’t support the end-vision or fall apart when a prototype finally finds its way in front of actual customers months later. When a first solution goes off the rails in a big way, it can be nearly impossible to get back on track.

So, how can innovators avoid putting the solution cart before the innovation horse? Instead of trying to gather all the answers, just start small.

Tackle Innovation Like Debt

Anyone who has been in debt can tell you it’s a daunting, depressing place to be. You’re faced with countless unknowns, sudden derailments, and a constant barrage from people who demand progress. Without a plan, it often feels (and becomes) impossible to make progress toward a goal.

That may sound familiar to the average corporate innovator.

Through his book Total Money Makeover, Dave Ramsey has made a small fortune and helped millions of people overcome personal debt with his notion of the debt snowball. Just like real snowballs, the system is deceptively simple and grows increasingly powerful with every new layer. Ramsey’s system encourages people to prioritize their debt balances from smallest to largest and focus on paying off the debts one at a time. Make the minimum payments on larger balances to hold them in place while taking big chunks out of smaller debts until they begin to disappear.

Those small wins achieve a sense of momentum in tackling your debt while also enforcing good behavior until, finally, you’re laser-focused on the biggest piece of the pie. Start small and snowball your way to crushing your debt.

The more we talk to corporate innovators, the more I realize they face the same challenges as people struggling to get out from under debt. They try to make progress on all fronts at the same time, without fully considering if they’re making sound decisions. Rather than starting small and building upon a kernel of knowledge, innovators try to pay down all of their debts at the same time.

When it comes to innovation, finding that kernel of knowledge means finding the answer to the single greatest unknown regarding your project. One answer, one snowball to start building. Rather than building dozens of small snowballs by slowly gathering insights, innovators can build layers of knowledge around a fully validated concept. By collecting the right insights that support sound business decisions, innovators build the momentum they need to keep an initiative moving forward even when they hit the inevitable barriers that grow within enterprises.

Find Your Unknown in A Week

Recently, we worked with a traditional manufacturer who realized the viability of its legacy business model would end in 18 months. It wanted to bypass its network of distributors and wholesalers and begin selling direct to consumers through an online platform, but it didn’t know where to start.

Instead of reviewing data and sifting through months of competitive research, they asked us to run a series of design sprints to prove if consumers would complete a real-world task like measuring physical dimensions before making a digital purchase. In five days we developed a prototype to prove consumers would complete a physical task, and in a second sprint we reduced consumer error rate by 98%.

Those two sprints provided the core knowledge to make smart decisions about the project moving forward. Each new layer of knowledge provides a framework for every aspect of the project, from building a brand for the new business unit to choosing a technology stack that meets the client’s e-commerce goals.

Get Rolling

The search for comprehensive knowledge before developing a platform is understandable. Innovators may not face the same P&L standards as core business units, but they still face a gauntlet of stage-gates and internal challenge sessions. Market research and a thorough knowledge of the competitive landscape create a good foundation for the internal pitch deck, but when it comes time to build a business, innovators need the momentum to overcome in-market challenges.

Enduring innovation starts with a snowball, not an avalanche.