6 tips for creating an environment of systematic innovation

Building great products and getting them to market fast is a great passion of mine. Nothing gets me more fired up each day than waking up every morning knowing that my team is infusing our company with entrepreneurial spirit, delivering agile and lean startup principles at scale, via our very own process: our global Product Lifecycle. The Product Lifecycle (PLC) is our award-winning framework for product development and investment, designed to allow Pearson to become lean, agile and nimble, and help us stay ahead in a fast-moving industry.

That’s how startups are built to work — at pace, with close relationships to their customers, and able to pivot and iterate quickly based on what users are telling them — which is why startups have been able to shake up the world of business with such impact. For a large, established company like Pearson, it can prove a bit more challenging to cut through the status quo and build-up of bureaucracy that can stifle innovation, if left unchecked. Challenging, but not impossible.

Creating this framework was a real labour of love. A highly, international motivated team of talented colleagues spent 18 months developing, improving, iterating, testing and validating these tools and practices, working closely with colleagues from across Pearson. Just in case anyone is still labouring under the misapprehension that innovation in big companies happens regularly by accident, by magic, or through the sheer force of good ideas, I wanted to share with you a few tips from our experience.

1. Invest in your processes

Creating a real culture of innovation doesn’t happen in isolation — companies need to invest in changing their underlying processes, tools and best practices, especially in developing a culture of discovery and allowing talent to flourish in the right way. Anyone can be an innovator, and that mindset must exist in all parts of the business. For us, that meant gradually integrating the new PLC framework into existing processes — and, in some areas of our business, replacing the process altogether — giving us the ability to react to change quickly, to stop initiatives and reallocate resources or to react in a timely fashion to a new opportunity.

2. Validate. Scale. Repeat

Whatever your business, you’re going to need a scalable, repeatable process for product development and governance. We know the odds of new ideas falling flat are high; if you think of the number of ideas or startups that actually work out as perhaps one in every hundred, it’s imperative to have a process that allows you to move from idea to testing to implementation to validation to growth, and you need to be able to repeat that success again and again.

3. Find the best fit for your business

It’s important to have a framework for innovation that tallies with the stage of your business, too. If you’re a startup, it’s more important that you be able to focus on how you invest in early stage ideas and what indicators you use to determine whether they are successful. For a large corporate like Pearson, our framework has to be suitable both for testing early stage ideas, where we’re asking for early evidence of business model and customer or user need, and for assessing the education services we’ve been producing for some time, where we’d track more traditional product performance metrics.

4. Teach your people to fish

The success of your process will live or die with your people. Change on this scale can’t and won’t work simply by issuing a directive from the top down — it’s going to need serious buy-in from the people who keep the lights on, too. We found it useful to make the PLC as tangible and as relevant as possible for our colleagues, often by stepping back from delivering the message ourselves. Developing a group of trusted early adopters who are able to demonstrate the process to their peers is far more effective than pinging out an all-company email. Similarly, our training programme is one of the big reasons we have been so successful — the “train the trainer” model can work very well, as can nurturing active internal communities to help share best practice between practitioners.

5. The customer is always right

Your focus must be on validating the business model as early on in the process as you can. It’s all too easy to get overly attached to what you think is a great idea, or to become bogged down by internal politics, wasting valuable time, effort and resources on something you haven’t tested with your intended customers or students. Instead, validate your assumptions early and often with those who will use your product and learn to fail fast. When it comes down to it, if no one is willing to pay for your product — and it’s not solving a real problem for your users or customers — then you have a real problem.

6. Use your external community

We found it useful to look for partnerships and support outside Pearson — external validation of your work often helps to convince internal stakeholders. It also keeps you sane — other companies will be facing similar challenges as those you’re coming up against, and learning from others is always useful.

For us at Pearson, the overall focus must always be on helping students and supporting teachers to achieve the best possible learning outcomes. In the belly of our business, that means building products that we know will be effective for teachers and students, and incorporating a means of measuring that impact — all of which the Product Lifecycle enables. I could not be more proud of the work we do, and winning the Corporate Entrepreneurs Award for Best Innovation Program this year has been a real validation of our efforts. But even more importantly, I’m proud because I know our work is helping Pearson have an impact on learning at scale and will ultimately help students do all sorts of things — learn languages, get their dream jobs, find their passion for lifelong learning — the list goes on.

This blog was originally published on PearsonLabs.com

Sonja Kresojevic is an SVP at Pearson, overseeing the development and implementation of the Global Product Lifecycle. Follow her on Twitter at@sonjak18.