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More agility at the front-end of the innovation process

From a workshop with Marco de Polo from the Roche New Concept Incubator in Silicon Valley.

When it comes to innovation design, there is the wrong way, the conventional way and the new agile design way. We thought about combining the most promising elements of these approaches in order to get the best out of it: Quick, but still profound outside-in understanding of unmet consumer needs, iterated with focused ideation sessions and rapid prototyping. The wrong way of innovation design – which can be ignored – has been proven to fail. It builds on a common myth in innovation to let a thousand flowers bloom and goes like this: Brainstorm as many ideas as possible first, develop a solution in the lab, run some functional tests and then launch. Innovations developed like this have a high risk of failure because the customer is not part of the process.

The conventional way has been widely applied by many companies. It works sequentially whereby the customer requirements are first identified, followed by a specification phase, the development of a prototype and some tests before market launch. While this approach seems sound, because of a careful selection of the right innovation focus at the beginning and quantitative consumer testing of design features, it is slow and often misses the target. There is a risk that design details are neglected because of only a few interactions with the customer. The new way can be described as Agile Innovation Design. Many start-ups in Silicon Valley follow this approach, originated by software developers. The core idea is to iterate rapidly between design and customer in order to steadily improve the initial quick and dirty prototype. The hope is that with enough iterations all relevant customer requirements are discovered.

While the new Agile Innovation Design approach has many advantages, like for example its closeness to the customers and its speed, there are also some pitfalls. The most important ones are:

  1. Wrong focus at the front-end of the innovation process due to an initial inside-out perspective?

  2. Political, technical or lead-user biases, ignoring the true unmet customer needs during the customer iteration phase, lengthening the process or leading to suboptimal solutions?

  3. No or limited possibility to iterate realistically, like for example in pharma or banking or when it comes to innovative business model prototyping

Isn’t there a way to merge the two approaches? We thought there is. It builds on the two principles:

  1. Running an iterative blitz approach at the front-end applying agile design principles to ideation One week customer needs exploration modules are combined with one-week ideation sessions. The customer modules identify the important unmet jobs-to-be-done in a quantitative way, which then serve as input for the ideation sessions. The concepts from the ideation sessions are immediately validated quantitatively during the following week with the results serving again as input for further ideation sessions.

  2. Maintaining the job-to-be-done thinking all along the design phase until the launch Once the innovation focus is defined from a customer point of view, let the designers do many design iterations. However, to avoid biases, put a customer advocate next to them, making sure that the job-to-be-done thinking is maintained and the results from the customer insight modules are respected. This approach will bring agility principles to the front-end of innovation and will ensure that design remains on-track.

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