Getting Down and Dirty with Disruptive Innovation

A management team at a large recreation and arts centre was tasked with ‘being innovative’ and it really was as vague as that.  The team grappled with how to produce something innovative and realized that what they really wanted was to be able to have a process for innovation that they could tap into, rather than try to just come up with a new idea which may or may not actually qualify as an innovation.  However, they didn’t really have a budget.

I had just tapped into a new (new to me) process for ‘disruptive innovation’ which was different from the model I had been using and which I found very intriguing and I was eager to try it out with a team to see if it would work in the ‘real world’ with ‘non-design-thinking’ people.  I pitched the idea of running a ‘trial and error’ innovation training in which I had permission to fail and we could learn and co-create this team’s own process for innovation while evaluating the use of a ‘disruptive innovation’ model with a team tasked with delivering programs rather than delivering shiny new gadgets.  I offered this pro-bono, of course. 

What better way to learn a process for innovation than in the context of creating something innovative?  Using the approach taught by Frog’s Luke Williams which is based on Frog’s innovation process and is published in his book Disrupt, Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, I designed a series of workshops that would both teach the concepts while walking us through the innovation of something.  The team had little time to give and due to various limitations, the workshops had to be scheduled over quite a few months.  The benefit is that it allowed the team to take what they had learned and put it into practice- such as observing and researching. 

The team came away with a process for innovating that they co-created with me and Luke Williams via his book.  I created a graphic visual for them that represented their journey and outlined all the steps, which proved very effective for the visual learners in the team, and they developed their own handbook of their process that anyone at their organization could use. Did they go forth and innovate like crazy?  Well…no.  They continue to do their all consuming day-in-day-out work, however, they have some new tools in their toolbox that they can pull out and use at any moment, even when they are not trying to create a disruptive innovation and just need to do some effective ideation at a meeting.

We were all ripe for learning and learn, we did.  We certainly learned what doesn’t work and we also learned what sucks the energy out of a team.  We also learned about some of the key ingredients necessary for an innovation process to fly.

Flexibility:  In the process we also learned that flexibility needs to be a standard ingredient in an innovation process and in the culture.  This is true of the team members and their ways of being, but is also true in the sense that some ideas just don’t fly very far. For any innovation process to work and for an innovation program to be sustainable, the team culture and leadership must remain open to the need to change course on the fly...or to failures on along the way.

Team members:  Not everyone is geared for ideation or innovative thinking and not everyone should be on the team, or at least, thought should be given to when a certain member would become involved. While this team was a bit of a throw together of interested parties from the management team and represented most areas of the organization, not all members were able to step out of their thinking habits and communication traits in ways conducive to the various stages.  Ideation requires a space of non-judgment and non-editing, for momentum to build in the free flow of ideas.  Despite the rules of engagement and discussion around what supports and what does not, some people just would not/could not play the game and curb their rigidity or their need to be naysayers. The good news is that this provided for a wonderful example of what works and what doesn’t and going forward, this team will be better able to pull together the right team members for each of the stages of an innovation project.

Timing:  Spreading the process out over an almost 6 month period didn’t serve the learning very well.  The reason is that things naturally lose momentum over time, especially when there is no real deadline driving engagement. Organizations need to ensure the pathways to innovation are open – timelines should be fairly condensed.  This means that lengthy approval times and the committee process typical in many organizations needs to be re-thought if they are serious about creating a culture of innovation.

Rules of Engagement:  This is really important.  A set of co-created rules – visited and revisited and edited – will be the special sauce that keeps a process humming along (yes – I know – I am the queen of mixed metaphors).  How will the team play the game?  How will the team be during the ideation process?  What are the factors not allowed and how will the team manage it when those factors show up?  What permissions will the team grant the team captain?  These and more must be included at every stage.

Not all templates will work for all teams and workplace settings.  One thing I stressed many times is that each culture is different and if team members aren’t working in the design industry, some steps in a template may need to be modified to be realistic for the context and for the culture and norms of a team. This means we had to let go of some of Mr. Williams’ steps and redesign new ones, or just drop a step or two altogether.

The biggest learning for this team was that they could be flexible with some of the steps and stages of innovation, but some factors must be in place -- the right team, rules of engagement, flexibility, unfettered ideation techniques (e.g. not brainstorming!).

From the perspective of the facilitator, I think that the Disrupt methodology described in Luke’s book was good and yet I look at my ideation facilitation today and see that I don’t use much of his methodology.  Some of it just felt heavy and slowed us all down too much at times when the process really needed energizers.  However, the front end of it offers a unique way to ideate when disruption really is the desire, and certainly, the stages of prototyping and pitching are useful and fairly standard across all methodologies I’ve come across.  I think the most powerful take-away, though, is that the magic isn’t necessarily in the methodology.  It is really in the culture which will either support or suppress innovation….and this is a leadership issue.