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Innovation fundamentals: Using time effectively

Innovation fundamentals: Using time effectively

I’ve been writing an occasional series on some of the fundamental building blocks for innovation success – at least those that I think are critical, intangible and often overlooked.

I’ve written previously about having a bias for innovation in your cultureseeking and finding important and unmet needs or opportunities, and introducing discovery and exploration in your innovation process.  These concepts all have something in common, which is the next building block I am going to discuss:  time.

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Good innovation, like good cooking or the development of a human being, takes time, and time is something that is so constrained that most innovation projects simply compress time into manageable blocks, and in doing so compress and constrain good ideas.

There are at least four concepts of time I want to discuss that matter to innovation:  elapsed and committed time, development and launch time, and the opportunity window. All are important to understand and all are critical to successful innovation.

Time, in several dimensions

When I am talking about time I am actually talking about several different “kinds” of time.  There is first elapsed time – the time from the first recognition of an opportunity or need until the product comes to market.

For most companies, the preference would be that all innovation projects last no more than 88 days – a project should begin one day into the quarter and finish to deliver outcomes one day before the same quarter ends.

This is one reason why ideas like agile and rapid sprints seem so compelling.  We have an artificially imposed time constraint on innovation activities, forced upon us by the financial reporting mechanisms of the stock market.

There’s another time that is also important.  That is the time that individuals and teams can commit to any specific innovation project.  Employees in most businesses are fully loaded with plenty of existing work and responsibilities, and most will prefer to focus their efforts and energy on their day jobs rather than new or unusual innovation work.

If people cannot or will not commit the necessary time to an innovation activity, then it will either fail or the scope will decrease to meet the time they can commit. This means a lot of interesting and reasonably important activities like problem and scope definition, exploration and discovery, trend spotting and customer insight work are hurried or in most cases avoided.

So, time is being compressed from beginning to the end of the project (the elapsed time is constrained) and the time committed to a project by individuals and teams is being constrained (total committed hours by team members).

Time is a valuable commodity

If time is money, or if time is a valuable commodity, and increasingly time is not invested in innovation activities in at least two dimensions, what is the logical conclusion that people assigned to innovation tasks should draw?

That time is better spent in other activities.  This is a relatively simple and obvious conclusion and a message that far too many companies are sending to their innovation teams.

But what about lean startup, rapid sprints, agile

But aren’t there entire methodologies that are meant to get to good ideas faster?  Agile, lean and rapid methodologies meant to accelerate the innovation cycle?  The answer is:  yes, properly implemented and resourced, concepts like Lean and Agile can be introduced into an innovation process, but the concepts should not simply take time out of the equation.

For example, the idea of short sprints that result in viable, testable concepts and prototypes makes sense as you build to a larger solution.  But what often happens is that the first sprint creates a solution that is “good enough” and little discovery or incubation of ideas happens after the first sprint.

Too often companies are taking the philosophy of agile and lean and using those concepts simply to remove time from an activity, without fully engaging all of the rationale of the approach.

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Take all the time you need

The best advice I can give here is that teams must have the right to frame a problem correctly, explore trends and emerging needs and gather customer insights.  These activities take both 1) elapsed time and 2) project team member time and commitment in order to be completed effectively.

This isn’t news – we all know and understand this, and simply accept the inevitable when the elapsed time is shortened or the commitment levels of team members is reduced.  Likewise, as these reductions happen, the scope and potential outcomes are most likely to be reduced.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that more time equals better ideas.  In fact, sometimes moving quickly with a really interesting idea is the best answer, because it gives the existing culture and bureaucracy less time to fight back.  In that regard, we can see that often the time that is most critical is not elapsed time but the amount of time committed by engaged employees, who are hopefully following a defined process and not spending time-fighting culture and bureaucracy.

It is the case that a few really deeply engaged people, who have the permission they need to explore and discover, talk to customers and identify needs, and the skills to generate ideas and create rapid prototypes can create really interesting new solutions relatively quickly (in elapsed time).

But these teams often have people who are spending significant time on the project and who are relatively senior and experienced in their area of expertise.

Development and launch –  time innovators don’t control

However, even if you can get to a really good idea quickly, there is another time that matters, and that is the time a good idea sits waiting to transition into development, and the time it takes to fully realize and launch a new idea as a new product or service.

It’s often the case that the real-time culprit in this regard is simply how difficult it is to get a new idea into product development and then through the product development process.  This is especially true with tangible ideas in areas like medicine, medical products, food, pharma and other areas where oversight is high and the regulatory burden is high.

Getting to a good idea can be a relatively short affair.  Getting a product to market can take years or even decades.   Again, agile and lean development and launch processes are important, but there’s not nearly enough focus on reducing product development time, which brings us to the final time consideration:  the opportunity window.

Opportunity Window – the clock is ticking

One of the final aspects of time for innovation is the opportunity window.  That is, there is a sweet spot for new technologies, products or services.  Introduce a new product too early, or before customers are ready or recognize a solution, and you create an expensive beachhead that others will profitably exploit.

Introduce new products or technologies too late and you enter a red ocean, where many of the early profits have been harvested, and all that’s left is to compete on price.

The “smart” play is to be the second or third player to introduce a new offering, allowing the first or second player to establish the need and solution and educate the prospect base.  Every company wants to be the smart fast follower, but most spend far too much time defining and validating a market, so they enter too late.

The opportunity window is increasingly important because new technologies and solutions rise, gain market share and fall out of fashion very quickly.  Whereas product life cycles used to be measured in periods of decades, new products are now in and out of fashion in 18-24 months.

This means entering the opportunity window early, with the right product or service, is the only way to gain the lion’s share of the profits.  Again, an issue of timing.

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Who determines or controls the pace of your work?

Here’s the vital question – who controls the timing and pace of your innovation work?  Corporations have people whose responsibility it is to manage people resources, funding and equipment, all of which are important inputs to any project.  But who controls and sets the time element?

Or do we simply revert to the time commitments and expectations of familiar projects, and try to reduce time commitments to innovation to get back to the day job, or to cut costs and scope?  If “time is money”, then why isn’t it managed as such?

Getting the time right for innovation, across these and other considerations is critical to sustained innovation success.

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