REDX Spot: A Process for Building Innovative Horizontals That Empower Bold Solutions

Dr. Elina Kallas, University of Tartu, Chair of Entrepreneurship, Faculty of Social Sciences, Tartu, Estonia

Vidyangi S. Patil, Author, Blogger and Independent Researcher, San Francisco, USA

Sai Sri Sathya, Founder of S20.ai, Bengaluru, India

Abstract:

The process of innovation is often considered chaotic and riddled with unexpected challenges and outcomes. This article demonstrates how to mitigate the risks of failure during innovation by implementing a systematic and structured approach to opportunity recognition while mapping innovative solutions. Using a counterintuitive approach, going beyond the design-thinking philosophy and not focusing on problem-solving first, we start with spotting, scoping, and fine-tuning opportunities for innovation. Forty-two percent of innovation failures are due to ill-defined problems and those that do not meet market needs (CB Information Services, 2018). Our approach intends to bridge this gap.

We introduce the opportunity spotting (Spot) process, which is part of the Rethinking Engineering Design eXecution (REDX) platform launched years ago by the MIT Emerging World initiative to tackle social entrepreneurial challenges, with the larger goal of impacting billions of people. The Spot process, partly inspired by similar, successful approaches at Flagship Pioneering, XPRIZE Visioneering, and Singularity University’s need-finding processes, was piloted in various settings, starting with workshops for the development team of a small company to large community events, also at REDX AI clubs where thousands of college students are executing the Spot process to identify opportunities and problems that can be solved using AI. It also manifested in local governments adopting these solutions and in award-winning optimized and efficient ways to build innovative horizontals and empower bold solutions. In addition, this approach created waves when it was successfully applied to the Kumbh Mela, a religious Hindu gathering of 30-million people stretching across 21 days, with 0 casualties, resolving many pop-up city challenges (details can be found on the MIT Emerging World homepage).

The biggest question that arises for the community of entrepreneurs and technologists is how to make the best use of emerging technologies, not only for addressing existing problems but also for finding novel ways to deal with challenges of a higher scale and impact. The Spot process has highly practical implications, as it gives clear guidelines on how to find a grand opportunity for innovation, analyze it, and map the likely solutions that leverage emerging technologies. Managers and innovators can simply follow easy and comprehensive guidelines to replicate the process.

Introduction:

Co-authors from MIT Media Lab have been using a novel platform for innovators to rethink engineering design and its execution. In the prevalent Silicon Valley-like entrepreneur-rich ecosystems, 9 out of 10 startup ventures are failing [1] due to a high density of solutions being built for ill-defined problems while real problems, such as lack of infrastructure, education, access, and mobility exist elsewhere. For example, failure abounds in African countries with exploding populations, where there is a lack of timely solutions and expertise for the deployment of relevant solutions [2]. In rethinking this allocation of capital and manpower to solutions, and choosing problems that can drive impact, we are practicing a scientific method for innovators to go about building products where getting the process of innovation right precedes entrepreneurship and profitability.

Rethinking Engineering Design eXecution (REDX) is a four-fold process: Spot–Probe–Grow–Launch, which starts from defining the idea (Spot), followed by the process of building functional proofs of concept (Probe), fully functional products or devices (Grow), and then concluding with the successful deployment of the product (Launch). In this article, we focus on the first phase of this process, that is, Spot.

The REDX Spot Process in a Nutshell

Concluding the Spot process will provide a clearly defined and well-scoped problem statement that is evaluated for the limits of current practices, the proposed novelty of the solution, the list of stakeholders, the feasibility and impact of the solution, and a measure of its success, risks, and payoffs. A sample problem statement at the end of the Spot process could be, for example, how can we improve artificial intelligence (AI) and imaging to improve the cost and safety of autonomous vehicles using a do-it-yourself (DIY) sensor package?

The REDX Spot process is about identifying and clearly defining the problem statement using the step-by-step Spot process (see the following Chart 1). The first step entails identifying broad areas or domains for opportunities (e.g., health and well-being, smart city traffic mapping, driverless vehicles, and so on). This is followed by shortlisting and scoring respective topics for investigation in a chosen domain, mapping stakeholder and resource dynamics among chosen topics, in turn, helping score the problem-solution fit for impact and feasibility.

Chart 1. REDX Spot process

Conducting the Spot Process

We present the REDX opportunity-spotting process as a step-by-step tutorial with comprehensive guidelines. The spot process can be conducted in a cross-disciplinary or domain-focused team or set of teams. We suggest that the plan allocates at least one day of the workshop to the Spot process. It can also be divided, and implemented, across different days, which gives time for ideas to incubate. Despite the fact that we encourage flexibility while implementing, the main steps presented in the chart should not be overlooked in order to achieve optimal results. A detailed and structured process description, along with an example, is included to help in understanding what steps need to be performed and how.

1. Picking a Grand Opportunity

A grand opportunity is chosen from a broad spectrum of disruptive opportunities yet remains realistic, achievable, and actionable; it presents a challenge that can bring about a significant shift in society. The REDX brainswarming process involves defining domains for grand opportunities, mapping topics for grand opportunities, and choosing one grand opportunity.

REDX proposes bottom-up co-innovation, that is, we begin by restating the problem for higher impact and outcomes. This is accomplished by engaging participants at the grass-root level in rethinking traditional solutions to societal challenges. Finding and articulating a grand opportunity consists of the following steps (see Chart 2):

Chart 2. Process of Picking a Grand Opportunity

2. Defining Domains for Grand Opportunities

The domains for REDX are presented as broad sectors, such as health, environment, transportation, infrastructure, and so on. Examples of grand opportunity domains are presented below on Chart 3. First, it is necessary to identify broadly stated domains, where there are multiple opportunities to innovate for impact. Usually, these domains include emerging technologies, new trends in research, entrepreneurship, and business models. A moderator can predefine domains; else, as an alternative, the team can engage in dialogue and come up with a list of domains.

Chart 3. Examples of Grand Opportunity Domains

3. Topics Qualifying as Grand Opportunities

This phase of picking a grand opportunity involves narrowing down domains for a grand opportunity and listing the corresponding technologies associated with each domain. For example, the domain could be driverless cars, the technology could be imaging, and the end goal could be improving safety.

Create multiple teams and distribute the domain names paired with technologies among teams. The topics should be articulated as challenging, and, most importantly, actionable (actionable = SMART, or Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound [3], OKR, or Objectives and Key Result [4]) statements. The way the statements are formulated is crucial. Ask team members to come up with several topics that reflect on “what if” specific technology is available for a specific domain. Alternately, the team can consider that specific technology can impact a chosen domain. In composing statements like this, it is important to remain realistic and quantifiable. Statements should not reflect unreachable goals or aim for too broad an impact (good and bad examples are listed in the following Chart 4).

Chart 4. Examples of Grand Opportunity Topics

1. Shortlisting One Grand Opportunity

This phase in the Spot process involves narrowing down the list of topics or including only those topics that are specific, measurable, and actionable.

After choosing a specific domain for the grand opportunity, various topics are formulated by team members within the chosen domain. In the example given above, several topics have been generated for a grand opportunity. Following a discussion, the grand opportunity that is the most feasible, impactful, and actionable can be chosen. For example: How can AI and imaging be used to create a safe and seamless heterogeneous self-driving vehicle system? This grand opportunity is chosen from the domain (self-driving vehicles), uses the technology (AI and imaging), and is measured for its impact on creating a safe, seamless, and heterogeneous driving experience.

Chart 5. Example of Grand Opportunities

2. Analyzing the Grand Opportunity

After a grand opportunity is chosen, a deeper context-based analysis of what this opportunity entails is performed. The process of investigating the grand opportunity culminates in a Findings Plot.

The analysis and fine-tuning of the grand opportunity includes scoping the problem and solution statements and mapping the resources and the dynamics involved; it concludes in a findings plot. It is the most important stage and involves the brainswarming process. A thorough analysis of the grand opportunity is often underestimated in traditional approaches to entrepreneurship causing startups to fail, as most startups end up choosing problems that are not the need of the hour or have a limited impact on people’s lives.

This stage of the REDX process involves four steps (see Chart 6): Resource Map, Problem Canvas, Solution Canvas, Findings Plot.

Chart 6. Process of Investigating the Grand Opportunity
  1. The Resource mapping: Grand opportunity investigation starts with analyzing the different resources and stakeholders that are related to the opportunity. It involves an initial study of the opportunity.
  2. The Problem Canvas is a tool for mapping the problems with available techniques and technologies to help discover known or unknown relationships that exist. Problems are derived from the grand opportunity and present co-existing challenges. Techniques and technologies are chosen from emerging and novel technologies in an effort to foster innovation.
  3. The Solution Canvas is a guide for determining, among all the listed solutions, which one can create the most impact and value.
  4. Finally, the Findings Plot is a graphical representation of the options combined and graded for efficiency. This, in turn, will indicate the level of impact and efficiency of the finalized option.

3. Plotting the Resource Map

This step is about analyzing the relationship between resources and stakeholders in realizing the grand opportunity. An interrelationship diagram emerges from this phase of the grand opportunity investigation.

A resource map helps look at an opportunity from multiple angles. Resource mapping enables the evaluation of how stakeholders, that is, people and organizations fit into the big picture in the context of refining the problem statement; in accounting for pre-discovered breakthroughs and possible risks related to the opportunity; and users and beneficiaries who are supposed to get value from the opportunity. Plotting the resource map requires the team to be focused on analysis — using available resources appropriately, for example, using the Internet for information searches or using a collaborative software or platform (e.g., a shared document), as required, for mapping results.

For efficient workflow, we suggest dividing different topics among team members. After the initial phase, where information gathering occurs, the findings are graphically represented. For this, the suggestion is to use flip charts or large whiteboards, post-it notes, different color markers, and so on. A graphical representation helps in visualizing the key aspects of defining the problem domain and clearly mapping the relationship between analyzed aspects — how people and organizations are related to breakthroughs and risks and how the latter are impacting users and existing use cases.

Resource mapping uses a technique called brainswarming instead of the traditional process of brainstorming ideas. It is a process where the generation of ideas and solutions does not solely rely on divergent thinking, that is, considering the free flow of a variety of creative solutions to a problem but also integrates convergent thinking, that is, an approach that focuses on a well-established answer to a problem in all phases of the process. The brainswarming technique is effective because team members work in parallel, generating solutions faster, and a visual history of their team activity encourages both introverts and extroverts alike by giving them a platform to express likely solutions in tackling technical challenges, new product development, business process mapping, and so on [5].

While summarizing the process, the team needs to get a better idea of the scale of the grand opportunity by accumulating as much information as possible (written on post-its) for the following categories:

People and Organizations

  • List organizations, companies, startups, government organizations, and other partners that are related to the grand opportunity.
  • Identify the main people (stakeholders, customers, and interest groups) and the venture capitalists (VCs) related to the opportunity.
  • Locate the type of data, information, and other published material available for the chosen grand opportunity.

Breakthroughs and Risks

  • Think about the breakthroughs that can emerge from the opportunity by investigating current and future trends.
  • What are the main payoffs, results, and benefits from the opportunity?
  • What is the measurable impact?
  • How do regulation, biases, and other frictional forces influence the opportunity?
  • What are the possible financial risks?
  • What are the execution risks and limiting factors (time, distance, and lack of existing infrastructure)?

Users and Beneficiaries

  • Who are the potential users who benefit from this opportunity?
  • What are the existing use cases?
  • Who might pay for the solution? Who might be sponsors?
  • If possible, speak with experts to get a clearer understanding of the opportunity.

We suggest creating an interrelationship diagram (see example) to graph the relationship between users and use cases, their connections to people and organizations, and the main influencing discoveries and risks. The grand opportunity is written on the top of the chart and resources are placed on post-its at the bottom of the chart. By finding different ways of addressing the opportunity, and combining those with resources, interactions will be visible that will indicate the problems to be addressed and the challenges to be faced.

Brainswarming is mostly used in this stage of the process. The team members are encouraged to execute the tasks associated with the brainstorming process silently and separately. When all resources are mapped and placed on the chart, the discussion is initiated to find relationships between resources such as stakeholders, technologies, risks, and end-user solutions. Actually, the most challenging part of this stage is to find interrelationships, and keeping the chart organized will help to come up with options.

Creating interrelationship diagrams using brainswarming

Our example shows how to create the resource map for the grand opportunity that we chose to work on (see Chart 7). While executing the brainswarming technique, the grand opportunity topic should be presented on the top of the worksheet, to define the area of interest and focus. For each category, relevant keywords should be collected from existing knowledge or information search and analysis.

Chart 7. Example on Plotting the Resource Map

This part of the brainswarming should be performed individually by each team member (per the topics assigned early on in the process). Followed by this, team members should discuss the results and, if needed, add, remove, or move the keywords around; most importantly, finding interrelationships between them. While mapping the relationships, the problem areas could be identified (refer to the example where the problem areas include insurance policies, security and communication, traffic and safety, and user experience). Fine-tuning the problem areas requires working with unpredictable results and divergent thinking (exploring many possible solutions) could be helpful here in generalizing relationships. These problem areas will serve as a basis for the next step in the spot process.

Creating a Problem Canvas

The Problem Canvas is a guide for associating problems with available techniques and technologies to discover the known or unknown relationship between them. This is the most important part of the spot process.

Filling in the Problem Canvas involves three steps:

Step 1: List all the problems associated with a grand opportunity. Write down these problems as challenges and express them in keywords. Problems are defined after leveraging insights, interrelationships, and the findings obtained from the resource map.

Step 2: List all the problems associated with the given opportunity. Write the problems as challenges expressed in keywords. Make a list of all the techniques/technologies that could be leveraged in creating solutions. Do not be limited to personal comfort zones or the opportunity for picking technologies — be open to trying out newer, emerging technologies. It is also possible to borrow approaches to technology/techniques from other disciplines, for example, driverless car imaging can borrow the imaging techniques used in medical imaging or cell phone cameras

Step 3: In a table, associate each problem with the techniques/technologies listed for proposing a solution. Try to fill in each cell; account for the fact that there might be more than one option.

Creating a Problem Canvas is the most creative part of the process. Secondary problems can emerge from existing problem areas in the resource map, and they can be placed on one axis of the matrix. The 10 most promising options should be chosen by using voting or some other evaluation technique (in the example showcased, voting was applied on the chart and popular options were marked with a dotted oval, see Chart 8).

Chart 8. Example of Creating a Problem Canvas

Takeaways from the Solution Canvas

The Solution Canvas scores options by their level of impact, that is, the cost incurred, the time required to implement the solution, and the reach.

An assessment of impact might not only include cost and time but also include other factors, such as the availability of resources and/or technology, competition, the availability of a suitable ecosystem, supporting regulations, and so on. Reach refers to all groups of people who will benefit from the solution. The team should write down as many groups as they can think of and which segment will be most impacted within the “billions” of end users.

While filling in the Solution Canvas, the defining parameters, namely,, cost, time, and other factors, should be evaluated on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 indicates a very low impact/outcome and 10 indicates a very high impact/outcome (i.e., the higher the score, the better the expected outcome).

In the chosen example (see Chart 9), the teams ended up choosing up to 10 of the most promising options. Following that, the Solution Canvas was filled.

Chart 9. Example of a Solution Canvas

First, options for solutions are listed in the evaluation canvas, and each option is evaluated in terms of cost and time of implementation (where 1 means that the solution is very cost-efficient and 10 means that the solution is very costly; 1 means that the solution can be implemented quickly and 10 means that the process is very slow).

Note that the scores from evaluation should be summed up (e.g., business potential, innovativeness, resource availability, and so on) and the score that emerges should reflect summarized scores representing impact. Counterintuitively, the lowest score has the highest potential and vice versa. For example, a DIY sensor package and risk prediction for insurances achieved a lower total score, indicating a larger outcome. The last column represents the reach, that is, the size of the population benefited by the solution. In effect, the larger the scope of beneficiaries, the higher the reach. In the chosen example, the highest reach could be attributed to beacon devices for people.

Using a Findings Plot

The findings plot helps define a specific solution to a well-scoped and well-defined grand opportunity statement. This will, in turn, guide the final problem statement, that is, the outcome of the Spot process as a whole.

The Findings Plot demonstrates the efficiency of a chosen option. All options that were mapped in the Solution Canvas should now be represented on the Findings Plot. One axis represents cost and the other, time. The impact is shown by the word cloud of the different directions of reach to visualize the breadth of impact that each option has. The higher the significance of the impact, the larger the area under the word cloud (see the example in the findings plot below).

For our example, we chose six top scoring solutions (see Chart 10). These solutions are represented using the time-cost axis based on the scores from the Solution Canvas, and the size of the bubble indicates the reach — the bigger the size of the bubble, the higher is the reach or impact. In our example, risk prediction for insurances achieved the best score, but, in reality, its reach was not comparatively significant while the DIY sensor package had a better score as well as a higher reach. The findings plot highlighted that the solution worth focusing on was the DIY sensor package. Note that the solution here is more specific than the grand opportunity topic and focuses mainly on using imaging to increase the safety of self-driving vehicles.

Chart 10. Example of Composing a Findings Plot

3. Summarizing the Findings

After the Findings Plot is created, the teams should compose a one-page document about solutions (see Chart 11). We suggest the following guiding questions: Why? Who? What? How?

Chart 11. Process of Summarizing the Findings

WHY — Grand opportunity

How is it done today?

What are the limits of current practice?

WHO — Who cares?

If you’re successful, what difference will it make?

WHAT — What’s new?

What are you trying to do?

Why do you think it will be successful?

HOW — Map users, resource requirements, risks, workarounds, and milestones

What are the risks and payoffs?

How much will it cost? How long will it take?

How to measure success?

Outlining the results in a one-page format will enable the summarizing of the most important steps and emphasize the highlights and results of the process implementation. The summary thus generated can be presented to partners, customers, top management colleges, investors, and so on.

The REDX process was described for driverless cars, but with the guidelines specified here, it is easy to replicate this process for problems across multiple domains and technologies. The authors of this article hope that it will be useful, prompting an exploration of opportunities for disruptive innovation in existing or new business or research.

References:

[1] https://www.cbinsights.com/research/startup-failure-reasons-top/

[2] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23322373.2018.1428020?journalCode=rajm20

[3] https://hbr.org/2017/01/3-popular-goal-setting-techniques-managers-should-avoid

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OKR

[5] https://hbr.org/2014/06/brainswarming-because-brainstorming-doesnt-work