Over the past few months I’ve explored many of the considerations that go into initiating an innovation practice. We’ve discussed the case for innovation, where to set up shop, sourced talent and laid out the characteristics of an innovation leader. Now, I’d like to pivot and reflect on our innovation journey and the results to date. There is more than one path to establishing and succeeding in the innovation space and ours is but one example. I hope our journey, successes and failures help you create or evolve your innovation practice.
State the case
I began our case for an innovation practice with a simple premise that the rate change brought on by disruptive technologies was so great that it necessitated a look beyond traditional sources of innovation. It prompts us to explore one of the foundations for innovation – world-class institutions of higher learning.
But a premise is not good enough, particularly when what you are introducing is so different from how things are currently done. I invested much time in ensuring I had a practical set of outcomes in mind that I committed to and delivered on. I wanted to set up shop between the promise of disruptive technologies and business-driven opportunities that resulted in value for AARP.
To this end, I created a running list of technologies that included machine learning and biometrics and began to identify how we could apply them to current and future business opportunities within the enterprise. It is easier to come up to speed on technologies and their potential than it is to truly understand how your enterprise works, generates revenue, cost, and value. To be truly effective you have to make it your business to know the business you are in. Remember, technology is but a means to a business end.
Drive towards the business outcome
You can’t establish an innovation practice if the ultimate outcome is anything but business value. I wanted to be a catalyst for big ideas that required disruptive technologies. To explore these big ideas, there were a few practical and critical considerations. The establishment of an innovation practice needed to be fast, cheap and delight its audience.
By fast, I mean that it needed to generate a tangible deliverable, a working model, in weeks to months not months to years. By cheap, the investment needed to be pennies on the dollar. Specifically, low thousands, not tens or hundreds of thousands or above. And lastly, it needed to delight. I wanted every business partner to experience a lightweight journey that took their best ideas, expanded them and delivered a product that exceeded their expectations. In less than 6 months of operation, we were delivering on this promise, creating working prototypes within a semester, delighting our business partners with investments that averaged four figures.
With my work cut out for me and with the trust and sponsorship of my management, we began our journey. It is best described as focused momentum because one can quickly get overwhelmed by the steps and sequence of actions required to get things going. I find it best to describe the process in terms of the what, how, and where.
With the outcomes discussed above, I leveraged my background in product management and focused our what (scope of work) on ideation and prototyping. I wanted our practice to offer the organization a practical ‘ignition’ to their wildest dreams and opportunities to transform the services we offer. I set our scope to practically perfect the art of prototyping. In this regard, we focused on the one question “will it work?”
I had no idea then, but I know now, that offering an organization a way to experiment on the quick and cheap without taking too much time from those that have other day jobs, is immensely valuable. In fact, our business partners invest an average of an hour a week throughout their engagement with our lab, The Tech Nest. This can lead to unlocking all sorts of value from showing the potential of an idea to validating that a particular technology is just not ready for use by your organization.
I also had to quickly establish the how (a framework and process for engaging the business) and the where (location). The where, as I’ve written about before, was a critical and strategic decision. I had a good understanding of the landscape of research-based universities in the United States and what might work for us.
We were fortunate to establish operations at the University of Illinois Research Park located in Champaign-Urbana. Their award-winning Research Park, coupled with a top 10 engineering program, afforded us the establishment of an innovation lab among over 70 companies focused on research and innovation. For the how, we quickly established a framework and process for engaging business partners and executing deliverables with the ultimate outcome of a working prototype. This extended to recruiting talent and interviewing and onboarding students.
The results of our first steps are remarkable. Within 60 days after receiving approval from our CEO, I hired a site director, assembled a team that reviewed 200 resumes, interviewed 20, and selected our first five students. 30 days after, The Tech Nest, was built. The Tech Nest provides a dedicated space to ideate and build prototypes. After 105 days from the start, we completed our first set of prototypes.
If you want to get this much done, this fast, and have it turn out well, you need the ability to identify the talented souls within your organization who are willing to partake in a ‘new and exciting’ venture. I could not have stood up this operation without the assistance of highly talented individuals that gave and continue to give their time to make The Tech Nest a success. I am fortunate to have recruited an amazing site director, Miranda Kemp, with whom I have partnered to make my vision a reality. Our results are a product of her hard work and dedication. We strive to always hire the best and I feel privileged to work alongside some of the best students that not only develop our prototypes, but are there to challenge our perspectives in order to help us achieve the best possible outcomes.
So, what is our progress with establishing a practice that affords our business partners the capability of experimentation? The results speak for themselves across eight semesters of operation spanning two and a half years: 81 students, 33 prototypes leveraging half a dozen disruptive technologies (AR/VR, machine learning, automation, etc.), engaging over six business units delivering value from productivity gains to potential product offerings.