This past week I had the honor of delivering the keynote at the Knowbility John Slatin AccessU Conference in Austin, TX. My presentation demonstrated a number of case studies in the area of inclusive innovation, as well as a few practical examples from various endeavors.
During the Q&A afterwards, Molly Holzschlag (of MollyDotCom fame) asked a question regarding my daily activities — how I get started, how I connect with other participants, how I drive innovation among peers and colleagues, etc. My response wasn’t great, so I’m going to take a moment here to answer her question more fully.
In my view, creating and launching a new digital innovation product generally occurs in three steps: Gap Identification, MVP Iteration and Market Development:
First you have to locate your problem — some need in the social or commercial marketplace to be addressed. The accessibility arena is especially rich with gaps to fill on behalf of people with disabilities. A great start are daily news feeds. Is there an area of exploration in which an underserved population can benefit from a new offering? Is there something of particular interest to you personally?
Research everything you can about the problem. Talk to key thought leaders within the space, ask them questions, soak up all the knowledge that’s out there. When I first started working in accessibility twelve (!) years ago, I spent months asking people with various disabilities about all sorts of everything: their frustrations, their victories, what they desired, what they wished technology would do for them. These conversations have framed my thinking to this day.
The next step is to run a miniature version of SWOT/PEST analyses on your problem. It doesn’t have to be a formal process, just something to help suss out and clarify your thinking. Most people are familiar with SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). A PEST analysis examines the political, economic, social and technological factors that constitute a problem’s micro-attributes.
At the conclusion of this step, you should feel confident describing the problem in a succinct 30-second sound bite. You should also have key data points to support your rationale, as well as recent news articles detailing its timeliness. An assumption here or there is appropriate at this early stage, as that’s usually where innovation is derived.
Once you have a problem identified and some potential thinking around it, you’re ready to begin prototyping.
I’m a believer in MVP (minimum viable product) prototyping, because it allows things to progress at an advantageous cost point with easily attainable effort. I had a great discussion Tuesday with Karl Groves on the value of the Agile methodology, which emphasizes collaboration and adaptative evolution over feature sets derived from rigid requirements. The Agile approach suits the MVP model well.
Since the best way to solve a huge problem is to break it into manageable goals, I tend to increment the MVP in a series of versions (which I call v.1, v.2, etc.) Remember that each stage is iterated with the intention of achieving the next level. MVP v.1, for example, might just be a Powerpoint slide or one-pager to present to your supervisor to collect her input. MVP v.2 might be a storyboard or screen flow to deliver to project teams.
In a typical project, I usually have a fairly defined milestone in the future I’m trying to target. It might be a stakeholder presentation to solicit funding, or a pilot program to test on authentic users, or a small clinical trial for a medical device. In all cases, the purpose of MVP is to build a series of success stories that collectively operate as a proof-of-concept. The end result is something you’d feel confident putting in front of potential investors.
The most important aspect of MVP is to iterate not only the prototyping, but also the learning. You’ll discover new things along the way that alter your original thinking or even force you to change course. This is part of the process and should be expected. Adaptive thinking is a tremendous asset to innovation teams; the Zen proverb “bend like a reed” applies here.
This is where things get fun. At each stage of the MVP, you are honing the message you want to deliver. You should have a very firm idea of how your offering will benefit your identified target audience. You should also be able to predict and meet objections, and to be very open about what you’ve discovered along the way.
It’s at this point where the innovation question evolves from “what if?” to “so what?” Always frame your MVP into a definable context: can you identify a business need to which your offering can bring value? What is the desired outcome for potential investment groups? Can you promise a short-term return on investment, and what is the long-term benefit?
Here is some top-level guidance I’ve learned in the past few years about pitching innovation:
- Invest in yourself. If you haven’t been willing to put your own funds into the endeavor, it’s difficult to expect that others will.
- Be honest. Admit what you don’t know. Emphasize what you do know. Back it up with numbers.
- Care. Bring authentic passion and knowledge to the table. Investors are more likely to fund an idea with confidence, if the concept resonates meaningfully with the person driving it.
- Have a goal in mind. Be very specific: “I want to take this current MVP and test it on x number of users, which I will then translate into x commercial opportunity.”
- Define your targets. Don’t just say “people with disabilities,” for example. Narrow the swath to a segment culled from your research and intuition.
- Ask for the order. This is Selling 101. Respectfully present your offering as an opportunity to do something great together. If you’ve done your preparation, this should come easily.
A Final Thought
The one item I haven’t yet addressed from Molly’s question is how I connect and maintain relationships with stakeholders. To be honest, there’s no magic bullet other than to be genuine and sincere in all communications. I personally value integrity above all else in my personal and professional relationships. I’d like to think that people who work with me do so because they share my value structure and moral compass, and they’re willing to demonstrate that with me as we achieve great things together.