In this guest piece, Daniel Bluzer-Fry (pictured below), a freelance researcher and strategist in New York, and head of strategy at Live Safe, discusses how businesses can create an infrastructure that ensures great innovation practice.
As with most innovation conferences today, a focus on agility and design practices was pertinent at Northside Festival in 2017. There were plenty of sessions with people in roles as varied as product managers through to design consultants and CEOs sharing their perspectives and philosophies on the best innovation practices for today.
It’s curious to note that a large proportion of speakers on these topics tend to come from similar backgrounds. Plenty of the emergent thought on ‘design thinking’ and ‘user-centric innovation’ seems to often be championed by people who work in more tech-centric functions or indeed tech companies, which makes for some interesting musings on the apparent tensions between more traditional approaches to research and innovation relative to the buzzing ‘agile’ revolution we see today.
We’re living in a time in which there has never been a more diverse cohort of people finding their way into the world of innovation. Today, we see all kinds of people from different backgrounds finding their way into R&D, from graphic designers and developers through to psychologists, anthropologists and marketers. Upon realising the importance on placing people at the heart of growing a business, it’s unsurprising that more and more folks are coming to the conclusion that knowing how to capture and harness great data is a really important fundamental in our contemporary business landscape.
Yet, perhaps the biggest challenge today lies in cultivating a rounded perspective on how to balance more traditional tools and approaches to developing insights and strategy with the latest shiny tools and frameworks to innovate at pace. And there has never been a greater imperative for decision makers to be discerning with the methodologies and philosophies they apply given the business contexts they find themselves in.
For instance, one of my pet hates is when a ‘design thinker’ takes a podium to package up a one-size-fits-all tool for innovation (i.e. a formula for a design sprint) – “You need to study your user/customer, then test, and iterate etc”. Now, don’t get me wrong – I think there’s a shedload to be learnt from studying the philosophies that emerged on design thinking out of Stanford Design School many years ago, but when innovators present the notion that there is one customer/user to an audience within a cookie-cutter formula to innovation, at best it feels somewhat misleading and at worst it paints them out to be naive. More than ever, in many different verticals, there remains a strong argument that the value in employing a good old customer segmentation can add substantial value to a business’s conceptualisation of their audience, so they can they prioritise different segments, and tailor touch points and messaging in a way that will deliver them a far greater ROI than simply treating consumers as a more homogenous blob (or using shallow delineations like age and gender in an attempt to create some depth and nuance).
Another contextual factor that decision-makers need to be aware of is the internal workings of their business, and how sophisticated the organisation is when it comes to thinking about insights and innovation. One of the great presentations of Northside was actually delivered by Thor Ernstsson, the CEO of Alpha – a company that is doing some very cool things with tech to give other companies the capability to rapidly test product ideas along with a host of different concepts. Its platform allows teams to get feedback on ideas within 72 hours, and having worked with names like AOL, Verizon, Capital One and Cardinal Health to name a few, the platform is proving to be quite useful.
Chatting with Alpha’s co-founder and head of content, Nis Frome, it becomes apparent that Alpha also think very differently about the way businesses need to approach innovation.
“In a lot of ways, we feel like we’re the antithesis of the design sprint” he notes. “We do see the value of the design sprint in an organisation not conducting any research at all, as it’s a great way to get stakeholders into a data driven decision making mindset”.
The challenge of what a business is going to get out of a typical five or 10-day design sprint though is simple for Alpha.
“The problem is that you’re going to run a two-week sprint without knowing what you’re actually going to learn, then get everybody in a room to analyse data on what to do next, and try to fit that into broader planning,” Frome said. “Often when data comes out, it can be inconclusive, which makes it difficult to plan around these sprints”.
Nis went on to raise the challenge that clients may face when testing a hypothesis, only to realise there’s actually a very different problem that needs to be prioritised and reconciled – such as when a financial brand realised that its consumers don’t understand the jargon and language they employ to communicate on their website having gone in to test a raft of design features. To that end, Alpha’s philosophy champions shorter iteration cycles, baking insight discovery into ongoing workflows to give organisations the agility (as opposed to setting ad-hoc meetings with expected outcomes).
So, what’s the best way to create the infrastructure within one’s business to ensure great innovation practice? If anything has really calcified in my mind over the last few days, it’s that trying to answer this question with a confident broad brushstroke answer is trivial. More than ever, marketers and decision-makers at all levels need to be aware of not only the category they’re operating in and what information is valuable, but have an eye across adjacent categories to keep abreast of both the traditional and latest approaches being harnessed to drive innovation. And, perhaps most importantly, there is an imperative to be aware of other key stakeholders within the business, and the overall level of development around being both a data and insight-centric organisation.