Innovation Engineering training: fast food and fast thinking
Picture the scene: ‘Eureka Ranch’ in suburban Ohio; a meeting of professional minds from such diverse backgrounds as supermarket giant Walmart, Hawaiian culture programme INPEACE and Canadian fish company High Liner; a super-charged week of 12 hour days with exercises timed against the clock and assignments graded in real time; a ‘no whining’ policy in place; and American-sized food portions and a self-serve M&M bar that would keep us fuelled throughout.
It was the scene of our ‘Blue-Belt’ training in Innovation Engineering last month. IE is a world class innovation system deployed by power brands like P&G and with $8 billion worth of innovations in active development. The claims are no less impressive than its calibre: increasing speed to market by up to six times and reducing risk by 30-80%, and they have data from more than 20,000 innovations and 33 years of quantitative research to back it up.
We arrived having already completed around 13 hours of assignments but with a hunger to immerse ourselves in the system and put the theory into practice. Day one, we were presented with an equation (don’t worry, what follows isn’t a lesson in algebra)…
MU stands for two words at the heart of the IE system: Meaningfully Unique. It seeks ideas with a purpose that are genuinely new and different. Why so important? Well 50% of companies’ profit growth comes from leap innovations – those with a longer-term view, carrying bigger risks but crucially bigger rewards. A nostalgic reference to brands like Nokia and Yellow Pages helped crystallise the point for us; brands can never rest on their laurels and expect to remain relevant in consumers’ lives if they don’t innovate.
So what does meaningfully unique equal in the equation? Well the first part is stimulus (S) to the p0wer of diversity (D); the need for rich stimulus from people with different experience, expertise and thinking styles, to help cross train our brains. The system helps nurture curiosity to truly understand a company’s offering, market and audiences, and to use it as insightful stimulus for idea generation – casting diverse minds to think about problems differently. As leader of the IE movement and our mentor for the week, Doug Hall, puts it: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” The bottom part of the equation is driving out fear (F): creating a culture of suspending judgment, coaching innovators to let go and think big, and reducing fear of failure systematically through rapid test and learn cycles.
The week ensued with a jam-packed agenda of lectures, stimulus and exercises to help us understand components of the system and give us hypothetical briefs to put them into practice. We worked through the 3Cs: the sequential stages of create, communicate and commercialise.
In the create stage, we learnt the importance of setting the strategic mission to get alignment amongst leadership. We played with tools that helped us think laterally about stimulus and super-charged idea generation through ‘spark decks’ – positioning disruptive insights next to divergent questions. Exercise after exercise was done against the clock – mind mapping, throwing dice to free associate, doing ‘brand takeovers’, using random items as unrelated stimulus… Uncomfortably fast at times, they demonstrated speed removing boundaries and allowing people to think bolder and looser. If you’re not getting good ideas, simply go faster. We reached ideas that verged on the ridiculous – one of my personal favourites being the ‘gerbil vest’ – but each one teaching us skills along the way and being received with rapturous applause by the group (one of the people skills we learnt to help bring people on the innovation journey).
In the communicate stage, we learnt to define candidate ideas through problem, promise and proof – keeping concepts sharp and killing mindless marketing. IE indoctrinates the principle of ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ – the constant pitching, reworking, testing and, at times, abandoning of ideas. It looks early at meaningful unique scores, death threats and Fermi estimations (or ‘fag packet calculations’, explained delicately to the Americans in the group) to quantify the value of ideas. An evening task saw us create and communicate ideas for a new pizza that would later become our dinner – pitched to and scored by Cincinnati’s pizza king, Gary Pizzelii.
In the final commercialise stage we got our hands dirty with some statistical IE tools for price estimation and sales forecasting, and learnt about patent filing. We prototyped through poster tests and even a paper-aeroplane exercise to teach the process of ‘PDSA’ (plan, do, study, act) cycles.
A group task on the last day helped us stitch all parts of the system together, with a brief to come up with a new bike. And yes, David really is smashing a tomato in this picture, in a bid to demonstrate the safety features of his concept…
Now a month on back at our own Edinburgh ranch, we’ve had time to reflect on the inspiration and learnings from the ranch and formulate them into our own blend of innovation system – ‘Guy & Co-creation’ – which we’re already putting into practice for clients. Just as no two (patented) ideas are the same, neither are two clients, so we’re flexing Guy & Co-creation to add value in different ways depending on their objectives and resources. From leading the whole leap innovation process for Border Biscuits, to supporting veteran IE practitioners Edrington on their test and learn cycles for new whisky concepts.
Meaningfully unique is at the heart of our agency proposition – whether that be through innovation, brand or integrated communications. We’ll look forward to sharing more of Guy & Co-creation in action as the year progresses.