How we used a Pop Up Shop to Innovate

(A case study in dog-fooding our innovation process.)

“I don’t have the time.”

As a mother who works in innovation, I say this phrase as often as I hear it. (All the time).

I also hear: “What does innovation look like?”, “How do I innovate?”, and “uh oh, Mommy”.

Innovation sounds expensive and time consuming. Like something large corporations do to appease shareholders, not something attainable or sustainable for small & medium-sized operating businesses. And yet, SMB’s represent 99.7% of Canadian Businesses and 10.5 million private sector jobs. I hate to use the “D” word, but if SMB’s get disrupted, the impact to our economy could be devastating.

But anyway, you’re busy. I get that. When my boss Joel Semeniuk (the founder of Horizon Three) asked me to see what possibilities AI (specifically those available from our partner, Microsoft) held for an AI-enabled space, I thought 2 things:

1. Yay, this sounds super cool

2. Yay, one more thing to add to my to-do list

If I can do it, so can you

It’s not rocket science (unless you are innovating rockets), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here’s what I did to make it achievable:

1. I started. Half the battle won, right there.

Transformational innovation starts with an Idea or a Question. Operational innnovation starts with a problem to solve.

I started with a question. What’s available in the Microsoft Cognitive Services suite?
 You might ask yourself, how can we expand our market reach? Or how will Blockchain affect our business model? Or, how can we create a competitive edge for ourselves when upcoming regulations change?

2. I collaborated.

 Collaboration makes things more fun, more productive, and creates better ideas. It also meant I wasn’t on the hook to learn AI development and do all of the work. 
I enlisted some friends at Microsoft Gold Partner Imaginet to help me. We talked about what we wanted to learn and then they took a look at Microsoft’s Cognitive Services suite to see what was possible. What already existed? What could we use? What would need to be built?
The best news is, that they were eager to learn it and we made the time to chat and explore when we had downtime between meetings or during lunch hours. The reality was, that it was a minor time and energy commitment that didn’t disrupt our regular workflow and gave us a bit of inspiration because it was interesting.

Who can you partner with to explore possibilities? Where can you find a little bit of time in your day?

Maybe it’s that lady in accounting, or that guy you always chat with in the cafeteria. Maybe there’s another business you’ve always wanted to partner up with. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to work together and make openings in your day. Don’t worry about asking them. People are far more willing to help out than you would expect.

3. We experimented.
Before typing a line of code, we explored market viability using Strategyzer’s Value Proposition Canvas so we could decide what to start building first.

We came up with a nice long list of beautiful features that would make a perfect MVP for our product. It had the ability to silently detect people entering and leaving a meeting room, could note their emotional state during the meeting, and even determine how long they spent in the meeting room. We thought about how we might run a hackathon and crowd source the features.

Think smaller.

Turns out, that was not minimal enough. We were invited to showcase our MVP (that we hadn’t built yet) at the DisruptED conference. They were looking to explore the future of work. It would be the perfect place to demonstrate our innovation process and test our MVP on new people! But we literally had 40 hours to pull it together, all on our own time. Out went the fancy dashboard. Gone was the meeting room experience.
Instead, we worked on getting the AI to detect a face. Could it recognize the face if the person returned? What could information could it tell about the face, and was it right? How could we test it? Turns out that’s what minimal means.
We burnt rubber for 40 hours. That’s it. In one week, we had something we could test with real users and confirm if we wanted to invest further in the idea.

Instead of MVP, think MVI - Minimal Viable Innovation. It’s the smallest thing you can test.

We ate the dog food. And it was delicious.
 We put this together in what we called an “Innovation PopUp Shop”. I didn’t make this up. Fashion houses have been doing it for years. I was inspired by Nordstrom’s Innovation Lab. But I did think — how could I use the DisruptED conference to validate our idea, get a tad more value out of my development team (and avoid the trap of building and never revising), while demonstrating the innovation process?

We went to the event with some functional code and a KanBan Board. I tested the tool out with real users and the developers live-trouble shooted (because watching developers sweat is half the fun), and began writing new features. By the end of the event, you could talk to the AI, it could talk back, and it could guess how happy, surprised, and angry you were.

Chris Jenkins from Imaginet testing our lastest update.

It also taught us some new things:

  1. Innovation is Infectious
    People were shy to try the AI to start, but as the event wore on even those who didn’t want to use it were curious and excited about how it worked and all the ways it could be used. The more they saw other people use it, the more they wanted to step up and try it out themselves.
  2. Pressure makes Diamonds
     How far would we have gone before running it by real users if it wasn’t for the upcoming event? How much time could we have wasted in building the wrong thing? The added pressure helped us refine our MVP and clarify what we really wanted to achieve.
  3. Minimal means Minimal, not Complete
     By starting with something super small, we learned so much about how users engaged with the AI, their comfort level with it, and gave us the information to decide if we should pivot or how to proceed with our innovation. When (if) we take a next step, we have a better idea of direction, how to measure progress, and what type of investment would make the most sense.

What else is possible for your business? Can you find an hour this week to take your idea just a tad further? How can you start to inspire minds and influence your corporate culture?