Let’s Get Real About Innovation Hurdles

by Chris Roberts

Let's Get Real About Innovation Hurdles

This is a brief case study for meaningful & constructive conversations about why things aren’t working within our innovation efforts.

Quick intro

I’m passionate about helping people take their best ideas to market, and I’m fully aware that ideas can come from anyone or anywhere. But to get to market is often a complicated process full of ambiguity and setbacks. If we want to drive real and efficient innovation process, regardless if it is incremental or disruptive, we have to be realistic and proactive about the hurdles that stand between us and success.

All too often we don’t have these conversations because we are overly excited about the idea and eager to get execute, or we simply don’t know how to have the conversations. The not knowing how is the part to which I want to focus. Anytime we start going down the road of what isn’t working or what problems should we expect people get nervous. That’s a hard conversation in which the failures or shortcomings of others are on display, and it takes a considerable amount of trust for people to be candid and the right environment or structure for it to be constructive.

Similarly, articulating issues in a way that correctly frames a problem and in an objective way can also be extremely difficult for people. Sometimes we need different viewpoints to help us understand a problem, and often problems (especially when created by others) elicit an emotional response in us. These factors can be roadblocks in an of themselves to enabling real conversation.

So, how might we do this? A great starting point is a human-centered design (HCD) approach which emphasizes a prominent role of your end users along with key stakeholders in your innovation process. This approach humanizes the problems and solutions we go after, provides an ecosystem view of the complexity, and establishes just enough structure to help people think clearly.

Those of you who are familiar with HCD will know that there are numerous methods at our disposal to understand people and the ecosystem they reside in, even still, attempting to articulate and focus in on roadblocks can be tough.

 

LPK Roadblock Cards

A method for meaningful discussions about innovation roadblocks

I’m always on the hunt for new HCD techniques, especially considering the problems I outline above. Recently, I came across a new method through an introduction to a leading brand and innovation firm, LPK. This method is a card game aptly named, “Roadblocks to Innovation,” which they created to help their clients overcome and eliminate the true roadblocks within innovation. According to LPK this card set is “a tool to help inspire teams to rapidly identify, discuss and solve their leading causes of innovation failure.” The cards provide participants with three categories of roadblocks: organizational, project, and idea levels.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, for me it did, and the timing of this was perfect as our company was working on the ideation/execution stages of our 3-year strategic plan. As you can imagine, there is a lot of effort that goes into this planning and most of our initiatives impact numerous parts of our business. Accordingly, to be successful we also have to collaborate with a diverse set of people and skillsets to realize our vision. As you can imagine, going after the right projects can be tough. So, we decided to give this card game a try to see if it would help us make the right decisions. (spoiler: You should too!)

 

Innovation Roadblocks Workshop

First, we played by the rules

A key area of our planning focused on technology, so we decided to start there. Within our tech team, we already had a wealth of data points to work with thanks to recent surveys, feedback from other departments, and also a series of hands-on activities from an IT department-wide meeting. Even still much of our conversation was focused on ideas and not enough on the underlying issues and knowing what was between us and success was still vague. We needed to dig deeper.

We decided to host the first card game with non-management roles to provide a perspective that would cover more of the majority of our team. We ran two separate one hour sessions with two different groups of people with interdisciplinary roles. We followed the instructions provided by LPK, which resulted in a lively and engaged discussion with our team members.

Not only were our team members able to clearly articulate the problems they face, but the card game also provided the right amount of structure to help facilitate a constructive conversationthat would have otherwise easily turned into a big complaining session or people would have been afraid to say.

A few additional things stood out to me. First, the gamification of this method helps defuse the potential conflict of the topic at hand. I could tell that our participants were a bit more at ease and engaged when I said we would play a card game. Also, the cards provide the right balance of being on-point and concise. Everyone was able to read and digest the content quickly and then respond effectively. Lastly, the game offers a bit of democratization by giving participants turns to prioritize and discuss the cards. This left a feeling that everyone was able to contribute to the conversation and a few of our participants even thanked us for helping to give them a voice.

We walked away with a lot of great insights for our company to use as we continue planning; however, what I regret is that we didn’t plan enough time to also talk about ways to solve these hurdles. I’m a big fan of co-design especially when you have a chance to leverage the same group of participants to identify issues, then solve for those issues. When we do this again, I would most likely do at least a two-hour session to ensure time for ideation.

 

Roadblock Card Instructions

Next, we made this digital

Like many companies today, our workforce is spread out all over the world, so the need for remote collaboration continues to be more and more relevant. Another group we wanted to run through this method had a team that was almost entirely remote, so we decided to digitize the card set. One of our designers helped me quickly scan in the cards and place them in a Mural board. We then invited the team members to the board and gave them instructions that were slightly modified to accommodate a remote meeting. Our guidelines…

 

 

I had a hunch that moderating this kind of game remotely could be tough, so we decided to separate out the initial evaluation and prioritization of the cards from the team discussion. My biggest concern was managing the discussion, which is a real art when it comes to remote meetings. While it was helpful to stagger the approach from a moderator standpoint, I think it ended up stripping away some of the gamification that makes this method so successful. Thankfully our participants this time around were very familiar with working with each other and already had a certain amount of trust established. I think this went a long way in helping to have a valuable conversation.

We ran this activity with two groups and in both cases had a lot of participation both from a prioritization standpoint, but in capturing feedback before our conversation which is most likely due to the mechanics of how Mural works. So when it came time for our teams to meet much of the discussion was fueled by comments people made in the Mural board. It provided an opportunity for us to dive a little bit deeper into some of the issues and have a more fruitful discussion about potential solutions.

Again, we walked away with a lot of solid insights and ideas that helped shed light on organization challenges that were beyond this team’s control, as well as project level considerations that they could resolve. Many of the participants followed up with me afterward to share that they felt engaged and excited to be tackling issues head-on, as many of them have been involved in projects in the past that stalled if not derailed by many of the issues we discussed. It was exciting not only to name the issues, but have a strategy in place for how to deal with them.

 

Additional considerations…

I really can’t say enough good things about this tool — it’s well thought out and easy to use even if you are not an expert facilitator. If you are thinking of using this tool, here are a few additional considerations…

Since running these activities I learned that LPK offers a digital version of the cards, so if you would like to give it a go digitally this will save you the legwork in digitizing the cards.

This tool could easily insert into Design Sprints at either: 1.) the beginning when you are considering business needs as it could help you prioritize any solutions that your team generates; or, 2.) at the end as part of the idea validation which could set your team up well for success when you move into executing on your validated concept.

Similarly, if you are working in Agile, this could spice up your team’s retrospectives which can sometimes be stale. While my focus was on a proactive approach, LPK recommends that these cards can be used to help you evaluate progress mid-project, as well as at the end of the project.

What do you think? Have you used these cards? How did it go for you?

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Chris RobertsChris Roberts facilitates the process of innovation for organizations, helping them to take their best ideas to market and ensuring that they have real, recognizable value. Leveraging the power of human-centered design, he leads teams in solving complex issues, crafting actionable strategies, and creating exceptional, holistic experiences for people.

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