Innovation projects are challenging to manage. They are mostly characterized by an unclear return on investment (ROI), and their key development requirements are often uncertain, especially at early stages. If new technologies are targeted, these also add a further layer of complexity to the project. When approaching decisions on innovation, historical or comparable ROI data are in most cases not available; and under such uncertainty conditions, executives can become very uncomfortable. As a result, hesitation and doubt seem to be common feelings shared by innovation governance boards; sometimes to the extent that critical decisions are constantly pushed back until the window of opportunity finally closes.
STOP WAITING, START ACTING!
One leading method to avoid these stasis mechanisms is found in agile and iterative approaches. Through agility, solution concepts are simplified to the essence and incrementally tested under conditions that are as close as possible to production. An agile approach reduces the upfront investment and at the same time achieves valuable insights into the technical feasibility and the related business case of an innovative idea; therefore de-risking it. Special attention is required when planning the first iterations of an agile project. Three questions are particularly important and deserve the attention of managers:
The answers to these questions are vital in the initial phase of an innovation project, and should be tracked in a living document. To achieve this we developed a dedicated innovation project canvas.
The canvas provides a complete overview on the first steps of an innovation project, and serves as a basis for discussion, summarizing the critical information on one page. The canvas should be filled by addressing one column at a time, therefore describing:
The project vision is made of an assessment of the current situation, the identification of the target users for your innovation efforts, and a precise identification of their needs. Innovation is easier when it addresses real needs or pain points of clear defined target users. In this step it is all about understanding the current situation and build up empathy for the users as a basis for the development of desirable solutions.
The scope of deliverables and objectives should be reduced to the essence. Reducing complexity is of uttermost importance to make innovation project manageable, especially at the very beginning. A good thought experiment to achieve such a simplification is to pretend to have a limited amount of resources of 2 full time employees working on the project for 2 weeks to complete a first iteration of the product. The deliverables should be defined so that at the end of a hypothetical 2-weeks sprint, a srtipped-out working solution is available to be tested with potential customers. Particular attention in this phase is must be directed to the learning objectives, or better to the definition of the important hypotheses that should be confirmed, tested, or demystified to ensure the feasibility of the system being developed, from a technical, business and also usability perspective.
As a last step, it is now time assign a team to the project, and define the key activities so that the iteration can start. At this stage you can actually perform a gap analysis between the project vision and the success criteria, therefore bridging the two situations and committing resources. The canvas also demands you to make an explicit choice regarding the project trade-offs. In particular, it is necessary to choose two elements among scope, quality and time as non negotiable, and leave at least one of them loose. This choice is important to clarify the project priorities and therefore, agree on which elements to speculate in case of pressure.
As a simple tool, the innovation project canvas provides you an overview on the most important aspects of your agile innovation projects. At EMBRIO we successfully use it to plan most of our customer and internal activities. We hope it can be helpful for you as well to accelerate your quest to innovation. Do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you want to know more about it.