On running digital office/innovation lab

“Change or perish” — this mantra is not new to most companies.

Most large corporations have long had different variants of internal R&D departments to continue staying ahead of competition. A famous example is Xerox Labs whose prototype of Mouse was adopted by Steve Jobs to be part of Macintosh.

But in the past 10 years, the innovation game has changed as a result of explosion in digital technology advancement. The cycle of new technology and adoption is so fast that a nascent technology that your R&D team plans to work on might be obsolete by the time the prototype comes out 3 years later.

As a reaction to this new paradigm of innovation, some foresighted companies have put in place a much leaner, faster innovation program in the form of Digital Innovation Lab. These internal innovation labs typically follows Lean UX methodologies and work with internal business units to create Proof-of-Concept (POC) / MVP / Prototype solutions to solve a business unit/customer’s pain point. (Read here to see the difference between the three: https://tapptitude.com/blog/poc-vs-prototype-vs-mvp-app-development/)

In Singapore, innovation labs have started to be commonplace for financial institutions, telcos and media, retail & FMCG industry, and have even increasingly been adopted by industries that are typically slower in taking up new technology: Manufacturing, Construction & Engineering, Biochemicals, Oil & Gas.

Over the past few years, 2359 have worked with a good number of innovation labs. Here are some of our key learnings should your organization be running one:

1)

Technology should not take precedence over problem solving: if all it takes is building a simple, practical solution (e.g. a web form that works) or even adopt an existing solution (e.g. using Facebook Workplace), then there is no reason to custom build a complicated bespoke application with A.I. or Machine Learning spin on it.

2)

Real breakthroughs requires more than deploying cutting-edge technology — it entails working closely with stakeholders and customers and iterate on the nitty-gritty details needed to get a product off the ground. For example, for a new truck driver tracking solution to work, instead of simply putting in global positioning technology, we need a deep and nuanced understanding of the working condition and process of driver and business customers receiving the goods, device and truck limitation, etc.

3)

Process is important — perhaps, even more important than what your lab delivers.

Structure and process can be the antithesis of innovation — but if practiced and applied well, they form the backbone to your innovation lab.

  • Get business owner in before the start of POC
  • Form, test, validate hypothesis for every POC.
  • Practice Lean UX principles.
  • Human-centric design practices.
  • Ship often and ship fast. If something takes longer than 2 months to build, perhaps you need to break it down into smaller pieces.
  • Test and iterate relentlessly. Get feedback from users.
Essentially, the success metrics of your innovation lab is driven by Process + People. Getting the process right is half the battle won.

4)

Hire entrepreneurial, hands-on people. Hire project managers / entrepreneur-in-residence / digital hacker who are comfortable with ambiguity, intellectually agile to pick up new domain knowledge, and with deep empathy for users and business units.

Get and empower people who can take full ownership of a problem, collaborate with colleagues from different departments, and most importantly, drive through barriers and walls to get things done.

5)

Reality check: there is a huge gap between developing a POC and moving it to an enterprise-grade deployment-ready application.

A great POC with tested hypothesis and great user feedback might suffer a stillbirth when it is being deployed and scaled up into production.

Here are some potential causes:

  • UX Process issue: the POC solves a problem in a test environment but does not actually bring enough value in real-world.
  • No political will / business unit’s support: a business owner might be open and keen to having a trial of a new POC, but when it comes to facing the reality of deploying and scaling up, having to go through arduous internal processes and immense amount of work to collaborate with different stakeholders and departments — all these on top of the business owner’s day-to-day work and quarterly KPI — it is easy to see why great POCs might lose political will and momentum.
  • Internal processes and walls: corporate processes are a part of reality of big companies. But if it is faster to give birth to a human baby (9 months) than to go through internal IT security and legal/compliance clearance, chances are a good product will lose steam. If it takes 2 years to integrate the POC onto the company’s system/platform, you can bet your good dollars that it will become obsolete by the time it reaches the hands of actual users.
  • Ownership continuity: as a project get passed on from POC phase to deployment/scale-up phase, if the ownership behind the project changes (due to process, or change in personnel or priorities), the key learnings and passions for the particular POC will not translate well in KT between departments and personnel.

6)

The innovation lab works as a catalyst — but it should not be treated a stand-alone entity that produces “innovation” in vacuum. In fact, if you see an innovation lab with way too many fancy toys — robots, 3D printer, Google Glasses (a few years back) — chances are the company treats the innovation lab as a playground for show rather than a catalyst of bringing real, applicable change.

To achieve that, sponsorship / Political buy-in for the innovation lab needs to come from C-suite executives. The innovation team needs to be empowered to hit and break walls, if needed.

7)

It is common to hit roadblock and walls within your organization in term of buy-in support, internal processes and structure, integration and distribution pain.

Ask why the wall exists. Know what battles to take, and which to avoid. Keep your eyes on the prize — solving problem, even if the solution is not as comprehensive and clean as you intended it to be.

Before a POC is started, foresee and plan out these potential roadblocks and momentum-killers. Also, you should start thinking if there might be any distribution and deployment issue. For example, a mobile payment solution might bring convenience to consumers, but if the transaction fee is too high to be adopted by merchants, the project will not take off.

If you are interested to bounce idea with like-minded partners, do give us a call.