2018—Disruption Goes Mainstream

Alayna Van Hall
Product & Service Ideation, Prototyping & Development

I think everyone can agree that innovation and disruption are already two of the top buzzwords in 2018. Companies are increasingly focusing on innovation to hopefully avoid being disrupted by a new technology, market entrant or an existing competitor. It seems if you’re not innovating, disruption is inevitable—forcing innovation in positive or negative ways. Long story short, disruption is the new normal. Constantly driving or increasing value through innovation is table stakes. So, when the RND2018 Innovation Summit hit Chicago, I decided attendance was mandatory.

While attending, I witnessed some of the brightest industry leaders coming together to share best practices and new ways to drive value through innovation within enterprise or mid-sized companies. Presenters included VP of Innovation at Johnson and Johnson, Shawn Johnson; VP of Global R&D IT at Monsanto, Qi Wang; Editor in Chief, IEEE Computer Society, Dr. L. Miguel Encarnacao; Director of Innovation Culture and Habits at Maddock Douglas, Diane Kander; CableLabs VP of Market Development and Project Management, Anju Ahuja (co-presenting with Magnani’s own VP of Strategy and Planning, Christy Hutchinson); VP of Innovation at Leo Burnett, Jeff Ponders; and many more.

The most significant take-away from RND2018 was that at the core of all innovation is the creation of value, which doesn’t happen overnight (and it certainly isn’t magic). It takes a methodical approach, with key success and failure metrics helping to guide the path. Below are the four themes I saw at the RND2018 Summit.

1.     Put the customer at the center.

Put the customer, who is first and foremost a human, at the center of any innovation strategy or vision. Seems like a no-brainer. Yet, many companies are just now reorganizing their internal structure to accommodate this mentality. As innovators and value creators, we have to understand that everyone, whether you’re B2B, B2C, B2B2C, is a human first. And we need to understand and address the emotional drivers of their decisions.

What are those emotional drivers? You can certainly look at the data you’ve been gathering and make a few assumptions, but it’s never that black and white. Humans respond when there’s a need and it’s your job to find out what this problem is. One way to solve for this is through “Narrative-Based Innovation”, which was presented by Anju Ahuja, CableLabs and Christy Hutchinson, Magnani.

Narrative based innovation is driven by story, and it’s especially powerful because stories are ingrained in how we collectively understand and transfer complex ideas. Think of the stories passed down through your family, your religion, your favorite movie, your favorite childhood book, etc. Now apply that mentality to your user journey. What is their story? A story works because it connects with people on a deeper level, and it can also be told over and over without memorizing data sets. It can be told internally to secure funding, to your IT/R&D team to understand the ask without handing them the technical answer, your marketing team to frame communications internally/externally, and, ultimately, to the end user to understand the benefits.

As Shawn Johnson, VP of Innovation at Johnson and Johnson said in relation to the connection of health and wellbeing, “Your mind doesn’t know if it is imagined or not, it is a subjective experience.”

And, I would argue, every innovation project begins with a subjective experience. So, why not convey it in a story, told through the voice of the consumer, about the consumer, to drive a deeper connection and inform your business case?

2.      Always put the R before the D.

Speed is currency at any organization. And as tempting as it is to run full force without doing the proper research, it rarely works. There was use case after use case at the Summit that pointed to failures, with the common learning of always put research before development (not  to say that failure is bad…I’ll get to that in the last section).

Why? According to a number of presenters, when you’re leading a project with your team, and everyone on that team has been at your company longer than six weeks, your collective frame of mind is likely tainted by groupthink. You need to bring in outside resources to share new perspectives and engage with your target audience to ensure that your North Star is actually the North Star—not just the brightest star of the night. Diane Kander, Director of Innovation Culture and Habits at Maddock Douglas, made the great point that everyone needs a “Provocateur” to ask all of the questions that you didn’t know you needed to ask.

Once you ask the questions and frame the problem, doing the proper qualitative and quantitative research to inform your direction is paramount. But once you have this research and looked at the data, you’re in the clear—right? Try again.

Another important perspective presented on this topic came from  Dr. L. Miguel Encarnacao. Even within companies that have big data, data sets that are so voluminous and complex that traditional data-processing application software are inadequate to deal with them, there is often an overall lack of data literacy. If someone presents the same set of data three different ways (for example a spreadsheet, bar graph and pie chart) there are likely going to be three different opinions. It’s of great importance that data literacy be the foundation for any research, data and analytics project. Having more colors and pie charts doesn’t equal successful innovation.

3.      Focus on the value over the innovation.

At the end of the day, innovation is about value for your consumers. Hence, every innovation initiative should be focused on the value provided to the end-customer, but also your company. If you create an amazing product and the end user loves it, but it doesn’t make sense to your company’s bottom line, scratch it.

So how do you determine if it’s of shared value? Simple. The value should be tangible for both your end user and your company—it should solve a problem and drive growth. Here are the three things that matter:

  • Cost
  • Return
  • Speed of return

Qi Wang, VP of Global R&D IT at Monsanto, gave great examples of being intentional about driving value and understanding when to invest in driving value to inform the R&D pipeline. For Wang, it’s not how they do science, it’s how they talk about science.

4.      Fail quickly. “Mastery is a journey, not destination.”

Name someone who woke up overnight with a brilliant idea and flawless execution that didn’t fail 1,000+ times before getting there? Any luck? Companies all tend to like to have processes in place that minimize chaos and predict outcomes as much as possible. If you attempt to do this with your innovation team, they won’t be around long.

Smart, controlled failure is critical to any successful innovation initiative. Jeff Ponders, VP of Innovation at Leo Burnett, illustrated that mastery is a journey, not a destination. In order to be successful, you and your team need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and need to realize that understanding how to fail and succeed are one in the same.

Another great suggestion by Diane Kander was to put pivot indicators in place. Understand the value created (map on Y-axis) and the effort required (map on X-axis) and assess if the two are in-line or heavily skewed one way or another to determine if you should move forward.

Once you have decided to move forward, put failure metrics in place.

One of the greatest talents of innovators is knowing when to pivot or change directions altogether, learning when to say no, and understand that “good enough” is not a standard.

And the main take-a-way: R&D is to bring the energy and focus, because real innovation is iterative and messy.


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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