I have been a member of my company's innovation unit for over two years now, helping to create various cutting-edge products. I've learnt that innovation is hard work and the chances of creating a successful product are very slim, but I feel that with the right process and the right people, the innovation team can produce significant results for the company.
Here are some lessons that I have learnt:
- Right mix of people: Get the right mix of people with different backgrounds in the team. It's important to have a balance of techie people who understand the technology trends and non-techie people who understand what customers want. Get the team to cross-pollinate ideas.
- Keep the innovation team small and agile: Having a small team helps to keep everybody in sync with each other's products and ideas. You'll never know which product will really take off, and when that happens, you need to reallocate people quickly to make it truly successful.
- Learn everything you can: Read up about as many topics as you can. Nowadays with Google News, that's not hard to do. Attend trade conferences and talk to specialists from all over the world.
- Use the agile development methodology: Develop products in short cycles with incremental rollout of new features. That way, you can quickly test out new products and find out which ones will likely succeed. Improve the product in subsequent cycles or kill it if it's no good.
- Test your product on real people: Get real customers to use your product and get their feedback. Practise "eating your own dog food" by using your own product every day. If something bad about the product really bugs you every day, get it fixed.
- Don't be afraid to experiment and fail: Many innovative products start off as commercial failures. Learn from your mistakes, pick up the best parts of the failed product and reuse them in a future product.
Sometimes you may think that a product is a failure when in reality it's not. If your customers keep complaining about your product, it's a good sign that people are actually using your product and that they depend on your product working reliably every day.
- Protect the innovation team: Naturally there is resistance against any change in the company and its products. Some may feel that the new products will cannibalize the sales of the older products. Also, innovative products don't usually have guaranteed returns on investment; it's nearly impossible to do a good business case for rolling out an innovative product.
The company's CEO or senior management needs to champion the innovation process and protect the innovation team against the factors that hinder innovation.
- Keep the team motivated: Practising innovation can be stressful, with no assurance of success, and team members may often feel demoralized. The innovation team needs to be constantly motivated.
What kind of motivation works in my team? Having a pantry and fridge fully stocked with the kinds of food and drinks that the team members selected themselves.