Navigate with The Compass

When business leaders 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?

We are now confronting more disruptions than at any other time in history. 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 customers now, but not necessarily good for business or the world over the long run. Fast fashion, single-use plastics, and social media have generated considerable money for some corporations in the short term, but have created negative consequences for communities and ecosystems.

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 better communities and ecosystems over the long run. It’s what motivates employees and business leaders to come to work every day and work creatively.

By keeping the North Star in mind, companies build long-term value, resilient organizations, and contribute to resilient and sustainable communities and ecosystems. The North Star generates support and engagement from community stakeholders.

2. It is Highly Iterative

The Compass is highly iterative, so users move back and forth among the four spaces fluidly. We call the different parts of the Compass ‘spaces’ intentionally, not ‘steps’ or ‘phases’. That’s because we hope you will pause in each space, but keep returning to it as you become more and more familiar with other spaces.

For example, while you are trying to frame the problem, you might think of cool new ideas. Or, a key informant in the awareness space may trigger a great idea, or you may discover a better framing of the problem. And, every time a problem is reframed, new ideas emerge. And on and on, and back and forth, you go.

We constructed the Compass in a circle to encourage you to keep turning it. By iterating back and forth through the Compass, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn about the system, as well as the number of good ideas you’ll generate.

3. Problems and Ideas are Nested 

A systems problem is quite hard to frame, as different people see it in different ways. And, it manifests differently at different levels in the system. For customers, returning products is aggravating and takes time, for corporations, returned products cost money, and for the environment, they are often sent to landfills.

A systems problem is actually many interconnected problems – what we call an ‘ecology of problems. Organizations that see the ecology of problems are more likely to find solutions for more profound systems change.

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 data science, but it’s often not true for complex sociotechnical problems.

When businesses can see a problem as an ‘ecology of problems’, they start to look for an ecology of solutions to solve several problems. The actions business takes are not silver bullets, but buckshot that ultimately catalyze change.

4. Actions are Probes to Learn About the System

As systems are always in flux, it’s important for businesses to continuously experiment with lots of smaller actions. These experiments may not turn out as intended, but these aren’t failures – they are opportunities to learn and can save the business significant money. Our Compass invites 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. We see these probes as an opportunity to assess risks and impacts. Some day, you will have learned so much about the system, that the product you launch will almost certainly catalyze systems change.

Start With the North Star

If you’re just embarking on an innovation project, make sure to keep in mind the organization’s North Star. This will ensure that your journey builds strategic coherence and does not go off course. Each new action should push the business towards a higher, long-term goal that aligns with a purpose beyond profits.

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 our team tends to start by framing the problems. The first time through, we move with some speed through each of the spaces: from problems, awareness, ideas, and actions in the first round. But, after we go once through, we move back and forth among the spaces, spending the most time building awareness.

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 and printable set of worksheets you can use to apply the Compass: