When innovators asked us “How do I innovate when everything is changing so quickly?”, we knew organizations needed to innovate the innovation process. The research team at Innovation North embarked on a process to co-create the Compass with some of the most experienced corporate innovators in the field.
What’s Wrong With Current Approaches to Corporate Innovation?
Most innovation approaches (e.g., stage-gate, design thinking, or open innovation) meet customer needs in stable business environments. But, we are now confronting more disruptions than at any other time in history. And, these disruptions are systemic and interconnected, so that one crisis catalyzes another, making it impossible to predict outcomes.
What’s more, by elevating customer preferences above anyone else’s, innovators have created products that may be good for the customer now, but not necessarily good for the world. The systemic impacts of fast fashion, single-use plastics, and social media are certainly profitable for some corporations in the short run, but creating negative unintended consequences for many others.
Watch the video below to discover why we created the Compass:
What Makes Our Approach Different?
There are some important features of the Compass that set it apart from other approaches to innovation.
1. It is Guided by a North Star
The Compass is anchored by the organization’s North Star. Every organization needs a purpose beyond profits: one that contributes to a better society and planet for the long run. It’s what motivates employees to come to work everyday and work creatively. It guides innovators to pursue a purpose beyond profits.
By keeping the North Star in mind, companies build long-term profits, resilient organizations, and contribute to sustainable prosperity for society. It’s what builds support and engagement from community stakeholders.
2. It is Highly Iterative
The Compass is highly iterative, so users are expected to go back and forth fluidly. We don’t call the different parts of the Compass ‘steps’ or ‘phases’. We call them ‘spaces’. We want you to spend some time in each of these spaces, and keep returning to them.
You may be working on framing the problem, when you think of ideas. Or, you may be talking to an expert to build awareness, who gives you a great idea. And, in building awareness, you may see problems and opportunities in a new light. And, every time a problem is reframed, new ideas emerge. A new idea can require building more awareness. And on you go.
We also constructed the Compass in a circle to encourage you to keep turning the Compass – fluidly. By iterating back and forth through the Compass, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn about the system and the good ideas you’ll generate.
3. Problems and Ideas are Nested
Systems problems are not singular. What seems like a problem is often many interconnected problems – what we call an ‘ecology of problems’. A systems problem affects different people and different organizations in different ways. By seeing the ecology of problems, organizations are more likely to create solutions that have more profound systems change.
Too often, innovators are seeking the ‘right’ problem. You may have heard people quote Einstein: “If you have 60 minutes to solve a problem, you should spend 55 of those minutes defining it.” This might be true for engineering, physics, or even computers, but any problem involving people likely involves multiple problems at different levels.
Problems look differently from the perspective of individuals, teams, organizations, the industry or supply chain, and the society or planet. For example, product returns cost customers time and aggravation, they cost corporations money and time, and they bear a heavy cost on the planet, as most go to landfill.
When a problem is seen as an ‘ecology of problems’, many more ideas are sparked. And, ideas can also cohere into an ecology that solves several problems. Our Compass asks innovators to seek not just a silver bullet, but several actions that will catalyze change.
4. Actions are Probes to Learn About the System
As systems are always in flux, it’s important to experiment. Learn about what works and what doesn’t work, before organizations make large investments. Our Compass wants innovators to think about the first few iterations as probes, not products.
You may see this as simply failing fast, failing cheap, and failing early. We don’t. An innovation only fails if you think in terms of success. In our minds, all corporate actions should be about learning, experimenting, and probing. And, some day, you will have learned so much about the system, that the product you launch will almost certainly catalyze systems change. And, when new problems arise, innovators get to innovate again and again.
Start With the North Star
If you’re just embarking on an innovation project, revisit your organization’s North Star. This will guide the innovation project towards a higher, long-term goal that is aligned with the organization’s purpose.
Iterate Through Each Space of the Compass
Once you’ve located the North Star, then work through the Compass. It doesn’t matter where you begin (although we tend to start with understanding the problems or opportunities that are presented).
We call each part of the Compass ‘spaces’. They represent a place in which you spend time and can come back and visit at any time. As you spend time in one space, you’ll find yourself thinking about another space, and want to revisit it and add to those ideas. Like the real world, your understanding of the system and the ideas you generate will change. So, spend time in a space, move to another, and then come back again to visit briefly. The only thing we ask is that you spend time in each space at some point. Having said that, if you want a bit more direction, you could start by framing problems, go to awareness, then build ideas, and finally act on those ideas.
As you explore the systems landscape, you’ll gather more and more insights that will shape where you go next.
End with the North Star
Once you have a set of actions that you want to execute, take a quick look at the North Star. Ensure you that you haven’t inadvertently lost your way.
Watch the video below to see the Compass applied to the challenge of product returns:
Below is a downloadable set of worksheets you can use to apply the Compass to help solve complex problems your organization is currently facing: