4 Tips for Working with Your Digital Innovation Shop

We see more and more big companies seeking out firms like ours that specialize in digital product and service innovation.

These engagements usually focus on conceiving and creating one of two things: an extension to an existing product or service or an entirely new line of business. In either case these companies are looking for a new and uniquely digital perspective on their business.

Odopod has successfully completed a number of these collaborative innovation engagements. Along the way we've learned a few lessons that may help you avoid common pitfalls to get more out of these collaborations.

1) Be un-brief. Immerse them in your business.

In the first weeks of the engagement your partner's team will want to absorb an array of essential information. Preparing a brief might be your first instinct.

Relying only on a brief to initiate an innovation engagement can be counterproductive because it editorializes information prematurely. The typical brief has been shaped over many years by the needs of communications initiatives. Its extreme focus is designed to convey a concise set of product characteristics to a specific audience.

In contrast, innovation is driven by insight which can come from many sources — observing users, talking to employees or applying new technologies. To feed this process augment the briefing process with experiences that provide a more complete picture of the business, including its culture.

Recommendations:

• Allocate extra time at the beginning of the engagement to immerse the team in your business
• Look for unorthodox, experiential ways to introduce them to the business

• If your factory is state-of-the-art, take them on a tour and introduce them to the operators
• If your product is edible or drinkable, set up a tasting with an expert
• If your hiring process is unique, have a few of them interview
• If your customer service is excellent, have them listen to customer support calls

• Don't hold back — share the pain points, known opportunities, competitive pressures, and aspirations that are top of mind for you, encourage others to do the same
• Expand the standard stakeholder interview process to include non-stakeholders that can help the team understand the business more fully
• Introduce them to your language: offer a crash course in the vocabulary and recurring topics


2) Draw a small box. Define the territory you need to explore.

While you don't want to constrain the briefing process you will want to clearly define the territory for exploration. The innovation process can be applied successfully to both a broad problem space, like identifying new lines of business, and to a narrow one, like incremental innovation for an existing product.

Some clients want to avoid bounding a territory for the engagement. They are concerned about limiting the potential of the engagement and feel as though important ideas might be missed if they articulate boundaries.

While the instinct to keep all potential areas of exploration open is natural, it can dilute your results by creating lack of focus with your partner's team and spreading them too thin.

Recommendations:

• Define the territory you'd like your partner to explore in terms of what you need from the engagement for it to be considered successful
• Collaborate with your partner before the engagement begins to further refine the territory
• Don't worry about the box being too small. The best firms always push at the edges. It's built into the process

3) Preserve some independence. Don't integrate internal and external teams.

It is increasingly common for companies to have internal innovation teams or "labs" that are responsible for running external innovation engagements. If you're in one of these groups you probably know that close collaboration with your partners can be especially productive.

That said, the desire for close collaboration may lead you to consider fully integrating your internal team with your partner's team — uniformly sharing responsibility for key activities and deliverables. You may want to reconsider.

Integration can present challenges in aligning the pace, organizational structure and working style of the teams. Trying to reconcile differences may lead to inefficiency and detract from the desired outcome.

In addition to the operational challenges, you also run the risk of losing some of the fresh, objective perspective that you get from an outside team.

Recommendations:

• Don't make integration of internal and external teams a requirement. Instead look for ways to collaborate closely
• For projects that demand integration be sure to allocate time before work begins to design a working relationship both groups believe is viable

4) Contract flexibly. Describe scope as modular, changeable priorities.

These engagements sometimes take unexpected turns based on learnings from user research or in response to early stage work. The good news is that the turns are usually towards more fertile territory.

For obvious reasons the legal documents that govern most client-vendor relationships are not designed for flexibility. They are designed for predictability.

Look for ways to structure your partner engagement to be nimble and respond to new information without requiring you to haggle over formal change orders. Look for ways to describe the scope of the project as modules of work with clear priorities as to what should be done first. With this model you can swap out pieces of work more easily.

Structuring the engagement in this way will be less frightening than a time-and-materials approach (which can lack clarity of scope) and can be less contentious and time consuming than dealing with formal change orders.

Recommendations:

• Collaborate with your partner on a Statement of Work that is based on ranked priorities, each correlated to a small, medium or large bit of work
• Establish the idea of project priorities with both teams. If everyone knows the priorities can change they'll be more open to the idea when it's important

Lastly, tinker with the process.
In order to identify, conceive and create innovative new digital services you must approach familiar problems from a new perspective. The tips above represent ways to apply that same line of thinking to the engagement of an innovation firm.

By carefully rethinking the way you structure and manage the engagement you are more likely to get the results you need.

Comments

  • Matt Olpinski says:
    Posted: 08.08.12

    This is a really insightful article. Thanks T.

  • Karen Franklin says:
    Posted: 08.20.12

    I like the thrust of the article that examines the merits old processes and explains why and how they lose their strength in today's digitally orientated environment. I especially liked the argument for creating boundaries for discussion and how the lack of boundaries can spread an innovative thought too thin. I never considered that before and I think it probably is true. Thank you for a new way of looking at succeeding in partnerships.

  • Karen Franklin says:
    Posted: 08.23.12

    Hey, I just wanted to tell you that I used #2, small box, in a presentation I made for a client yesterday. I've just started freelancing as a web copywriter and my first gig is to help a struggling print shop in Berkeley dramatically increase their online invisibility. In my presentation to the Marketing rep. I described the process of improving the website as ascending a narrow staircase and as we move forward in making improvements to the pages it will be as though we are climbing up that staircase, one step at a time. The visual really worked and having the parameters of the project narrowly defined gave us both a lot of comfort. So thank you for the idea.

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