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Creating an Innovation Engine

Building a culture that fosters innovation and forward thinking

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These days, everyone wants to be innovative. But bridging the desire to be innovative with actually producing innovative products and services is where it becomes tricky. And contrary to what some might lead you to believe, it’s not simply a matter of tapping into genius, or some kind of muse. It involves approaching problems thoughtfully.

To innovate doesn’t mean to succeed. In fact, it requires a willingness to try new things—and potentially to fail. But that bravery is what enables innovators to achieve greatness. And it’s been part of the foundation of Axon’s own product development from the very beginning.

Although innovation doesn’t have a rigid formula, there are certain steps you can take to help the process along:

In brief, the general plan looks like this:

  • Start with empathy for your customer and the experiences in your target market that you would like to transform. Most interesting problems have already been tackled, but many of the existing solutions are riddled with workarounds that beg to be re-architected.
  • Identify goals & metrics that can provide timely feedback on whether you are on track to achieve transformation of those experiences. List out assumptions that you're okay making and assumptions that you're not okay making.
  • Embrace freedom and support failure as you conceive and test ideas against each other. Don't forget to constrain a few boundary conditions or budgetary considerations.
  • Be allergic to overly complicated Gantt chart plans but don't be allergic to planning in general.
  • Test ideas repeatedly with steadily increasing rigor as they improve in fidelity and be prepared to pivot to other arrows to hit the target, or even change the target.

On Innovation

At Axon, we start with real, interesting problems and work backward from the experience we want to deliver. It is important to be excited about your chosen problems. If the business case is bulletproof but boring, it will indeed be more difficult for you to achieve great results. You might think that solving a difficult technical problem and pushing the limits of science feels good, but in truth, you may lament that your effort was never appreciated by a real user.

During discussions and interviews with potential users, be a detective who investigates what tasks the users need to accomplish and how they have organized their lives around them. This is not that different from classic field research and here much can be gained using methods from anthropology (e.g., ethnography and the quiet immersion of yourself into another culture).

Don't underestimate the importance of going outside your comfort zone to build networks with diverse industry experts or areas that seem estranged from your primary focus. Have coffee with weird people. And read weird books or play weird games (e.g., This can be a bit of a time sink but will eventually pay huge dividends. If it's weird, that means most folks are not doing it - which could be a potential advantage over the competition and the genesis of a great idea.

At this point you should have a well-formed problem space that lends itself to a bounded solution space with some constraints on variables such as product size, cost, etc. Completely blue sky thinking can lead to imaginative but impractical solutions and is usually not fruitful. Spinning your wheels for long stretches and sacrificing some long nights and weekends is a pyrrhic victory. If you can develop clear requirements and metrics to measure, there will be faster decision making and less byzantine adjustments on the path to transforming the customer experience.

One of the primary villains to creative problem solving: confirmation bias. Entire organizations have slowly dissolved into obscurity due to this phenomenon. Essentially, it manifests itself when an actor with good intentions reaches a conclusion very early on based on scant evidence, preconceived notions, and stereotypes. The decision maker then inadvertently massages all the data amassed from that point forward to match their first impression. This is not to say that forming an early hypothesis with what you have is bad. But clinging to it and driving the struggle bus all the way to disaster town is very bad. This is easy to spot when the actor is clinging to familiar stereotypes (such as the supposed rules about how all middle class consumers or all enterprise sales reps behave) but you will need to exercise constant vigilance to detect it otherwise.

Brainstorming, Design Review, or Concept Review is fancy industry talk for the same thing.

  • The charter of this exercise should begin with a problem faced by the user and the belief that it is a problem worth solving. The spirit of the exercise is courage in the pursuit of the right answer, and not caring about being right yourself.
  • A wide variety of thinkers across the organization should be invited to the ideation session. It's been said that the Apple finance team helped conceive of the circular iPod click wheel. Attempt to psychologically strip titles from senior members of the team and democratize the playing field, but do assign an owner of the project. At Axon it is not uncommon for an executive to start to launch into a soliloquy before being overruled by a new college hire.
  • Some of the best thinkers in history have not performed well among a group of loud monkeys jockeying for the podium. A larger group should be separated into groups of 4-5 and there should be some way for ideas to be quietly entered onto a running list shared with the group.
  • Time pressure is okay and can be good. Results or cost pressure is not okay at this stage - suspend judgement of ideas until the ideation is complete or creativity will be killed. This is actually a lot harder than it sounds.
  • At some point fairly early on in this process, the group will begin to feel they have exhausted all possibilities. But there are probably still more ideas gestating and the central idea tracking document should be enlarged over the next few days until there are hundreds of ideas and it's hard to look at the list without laughing. It can help to center your thinking on first principles: the few natural laws and scientific limitations that truly define what is possible.
  • Next, cull down viciously to the top 20% ideas, or combinations of ideas, and breathe a bit of life into them with some more detail and rough sketches. Then trim off the bottom half again and begin to prototype and play with the favorites. The top 3-5 ideas should really get to become alive in the form of testable prototypes that real users can play with in the field and yield quantitative results. You can apply an idea from the medical industry (double-blind, placebo controlled studies) and divide similar cohorts of users into testing different prototypes to ascertain which solution seems more effective.
  • Inevitably you must choose your favorite baby to proceed with a more expansive/expensive development process, but if you have done this properly it will be a hard choice and you may find yourself secretly hoping for a bad test result so that the other ideas get to advance to a higher fidelity prototype. For complex products that take months to years to develop, this should look like a traditional waterfall process when zoomed out but like an agile process when you dive into any particular phase of development.

The role of a manager throughout this process is to have regular one-on-ones with their direct reports to ensure that they are not losing sight of company-wide strategic goals and the higher mission of the org. The manager must also watch that the team is not becoming addicted to experimentation and continues to drive to a final decision based on agreed timing.

A very quick line on the industrial design process: a great artist is one who can make the audience feel something. A master artist can elicit a particular emotion, but a reasonable goal is to achieve an emotional response from your user.

As the org builds a history of solving several interesting problems, start to form a list of the most talented problem solvers across the company and allow that group to meet regularly to review all the knotty conundrums that the team is currently unraveling. This avoids the situation where your best solvers are limited to contributing to only one project at a time.

After you have completed the development process, remember to give a lot of airtime to the mistakes & failures that yielded painful but valuable insights and bestow recognition on those who dared to learn new things. These are often called postmortems or less macabre “lessons learned” and “epic fail” reviews. At Axon a few bad ideas have been later adapted into good ideas for other programs. You may want to avoid language such as “celebrate failure” or “embrace failure” since it can engender a vibe that runs counter to a reasonable company goal of being accountable to produce results. But everyone involved needs to know that failure will be well-tolerated so that great ideas do not die an ignoble death trapped inside the mind of someone hesitant to speak up. Life may be short, but we are survived by our ideas, the legacy of how we treated people, and our ability to make the lives of others a little better.

Photo by Jason Leung