Secrets to unlocking innovation — embrace the fuzziness!

For larger organisations to be able to act like startups they need to be comfortable with the unknown.

I was recently invited to take part in a global leaders innovation day at a 6,000+ employee, £1Bn revenue-generating company.

The theme of the day was about how data can be used in order to innovate.

I spoke about “embracing the fuzziness” — a subject we often brought up with our team as we grew Kahoot!.

Larger organisations often cite startups who are nimbly and rapidly disrupting their business models. They know they need to be more like them, but have no idea where to start.

Embracing fuzziness is a fundamental mindset for organisations to stay relevant.

Innovation is inherently fuzzy

Genuinely innovative products and services disrupt the existing norms, creating new and improved human behaviours.

However, every human being is different. Not just demographically or through extrinsic behaviours, but also intrinsic motivations or desires. Creating new behaviours is hard.

On top of that, the world is constantly changing around us. What’s relevant one minute becomes completely irrelevant the next. If you go on pure assumption, you’ll likely fail.

Can data alone drive innovation?

Data feels powerful because it is absolute. However, as Andrew Chen says “data can’t hold all the answers, because metrics are mostly a reflection of the product strategy that you have in place”.

Data can, however, provide unexpected surprises - and real innovation embraces the unexpected.

So when used in an informed way, rather than driven way, data provides the signals that allows you to focus in the right areas and uncover deep behavioural insights — where innovative solutions exists.

During the above-mentioned innovation day, different startups were regularly highlighted because they’ve placed data at the heart of their business models.

This is a strategy that of course makes sense for larger organisations to adopt (especially as they often have a lot of data!). But it still requires an effective user-centric process in order to create truly world-changing products utilising that data.

What happens when we treat innovation as an investment in the user?

Being genuinely user-centric is hard for organisations that have never had to function in this way.

The end user isn’t always the customer, or enabler of products, and is therefore often neglected. Misunderstanding this usually leads to companies becoming marketing-led, rather than product innovation-led, sending them on a slippery slope to irrelevance as the product they’re marketing becomes obsolete.

Being user-centred means putting the user first. It doesn’t necessarily mean asking the user what they want, or implementing what they ask for.

They should be included at every step of the process, building a deep understanding of them as unique humans, not just when they’re in the mode of using your products.

To innovate in this context, we believe you should ask yourself, who do you want your customer to become? That’s when real behaviour change happens.

Design Thinking as a process for innovation

Innovation needs a smart process that enables you to discover the human needs behind your business needs. We believe in Design Thinking.

Paraphrasing Suzanne Howard (Partner, Founder and Dean of IDEO U):

“Design Thinking is an approach for creative problem solving, and a methodology that helps you feel comfortable with the complexity of creating something new to the world. Design Thinking allows you to put human beings first, whilst finding sustainable solutions for the business.”

Design Thinking methodologies have underpinned much of our past work — not just Kahoot! — but also launching other startups, or new businesses for established brands (such as Mercedes or Unilever).

To support the methodologies we’ve developed, we use a number of exceptional tools to facilitate the innovation process. These tools are all available and designed to be easy to use and collaborative. Each one helps frame the business problems with human beings at the heart — including Gamestorming exercises, Business Model Canvas and Hook Canvas… amongst many others!

Setting fuzzy goals

To effectively run these processes, it’s important to set “Fuzzy goals”, and align colleagues around them.

A goal needs to be fuzzy because when you have a vision of what success looks like, it’s impossible to have all the answers for how to get there, or to know what shape or format the new solution will enter the world in.

Innovation will never be a linear journey. Therefore it’s important to embrace failure fast and often.

If you simply map out a detailed plan and execute it, you will lose a lot of time, money and emotional energy.

Data will underpin many of the experiments that enable you to see if you’re on the right track, or need to change direction.

Your users and customers should be with you at every step of this journey. They will provide the human insights to align to the quantitative data and vision, to deliver real value.

This approach helps create demand at scale through your products. Because, in a digital world, growth is no longer the sole remit of the marketing team. “Build it, then sell it” isn’t the best approach.

By working directly with users from the beginning of the design process when creating Kahoot!, we were able to create organic growth even before the platform was released!

Marketing became everyone’s job. Reducing silos and having cross-disciplinary teams helps create the culture that empowers everyone to make decisions with user-centric impact and growth in mind.

How can organisations create the cultural shift needed to innovate?

It’s clear that if you’re not a startup, behaving like one is extremely hard. The predictable part of the business needs to keep doing what it does, and even previously innovative startups can lose their culture for innovation as they mistakenly feel they’ve “made it” or shift focus to new markets.

For innovation to thrive, a safe space needs to be created where experimentation and new approaches are accepted, and people are comfortable exploring the unknown.

Leaders need to empower the smartest minds in their business to discover the right way to make it happen for that organisation, and give them access to the external support and mentoring they need to help create this cultural shift.

Through our combined experience at We Are Human, we’ve seen this approach work time and again.

If you’ve got this far… thank you for reading! I’m only just starting out on Medium. Over the coming months I’ll be expanding on the themes in this article, sharing more practical tips and examples we’ve taken when growing Kahoot! and other companies.

I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find it!

We Are Human creates purpose driven organisations striving for social and commercial impact. We are mostly known for co-founding and incubating Kahoot!, “the world’s fastest growing learning brand”, launched in August 2013. By May 2017, we had scaled Kahoot! to reach 50 million people around the world every month, along with our co-founders and a highly dedicated team.