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Practical Product Innovation

Today, constant innovation defines our marketplace. Businesses must respond to customer expectations for better digital experiences.  How do leading organisations launch successful new products and respond rapidly to external change? How do they move beyond the desire to innovate to actively be innovative every day?

"Innovation" is such a big word that people often overcomplicate. They put too much emphasis on producing the “next big innovation” and become attached to their ideas and outputs. Instead, the opposite is required. To be innovative, you need to be responsive and adaptable. You need to be willing to try an idea, assess, adjust, and continue moving forward.  

These concepts of learning by doing, failing fast, and adapting to change are all core Agile practices. They are the reason why iterative development exists, and the reason it can be so effective.

These proven Agile principles and techniques can enable product innovation. Using lean thinking, fast feedback cycles, and iterating, you can consistently - and rapidly - bring new ideas into the market.

What is innovation?

The cliché view of innovation is a genius inventor having a light bulb moment. It rarely happens that way. Instead, most innovations are a culmination of small ideas incrementally built upon other ideas, often in unpredictable ways. Steven Johnson describes this as the Hummingbird effect. He says:

“Change almost always comes as a surprise because things don’t happen in straight lines. Connections are made by accident. Second-guessing the result of an occurrence is difficult, because when people or things or ideas come together in new ways, the rules of arithmetic are changed so that one plus one suddenly makes three. This is the fundamental mechanism of innovation, and when it happens the result is always more than the sum of the parts.”

Where the rubber hits the road in a commercial context is when a company is able to translate a new idea into a product or service that customers are willing to pay for.

Thomas Edison wasn’t the first person to invent a light bulb. He just improved it. He was the first astute businessperson to create a longer lasting light bulb and put in place a power grid. When combined together this enabled people to use a light bulb in their homes, whilst paying him money for the service.  

How do we do innovative things?

All the well-known historical examples of innovation are the result of many hours and years of hard work. They resulted from smart people rolling up their sleeves and taking practical steps forward. Here are some small practical techniques that you can do today that will produce innovative results.

Understand and reframe the problem

A lot of people just jump straight to designing and building a product, which stifles innovative thinking. You need to ensure you understand the problem you are trying to solve. Start by understanding your customers’ needs. Go out and talk to them. Observe them in their own context. See what they say or do. Observe the problems they face. This will challenge your assumptions about their needs.

Identify and define what your challenges are. Take the focus away from the solution for a while. “How might we…” statements are a great tool for this. Using the light bulb as an example: “How might we…allow people to see at night”.

These are deliberately open statements. They explain the goal, not a prescriptive solution. They will often reframe your understanding of the problem and open up new possibilities.

Generate lots of ideas

Once you understand the problem or the challenges that your business is facing, you can start looking for ways to solve them. A big blocker at this stage is getting stuck on one cherished idea. Whether it’s one person’s pet idea or just the way a company has always done things, it’s the same result – it stops you trying new things.

They key to doing this without becoming fixated on one idea is to generate as many as you can. Surround that one idea with lots of other good ideas.

Collaborative Design is a great tool for generating ideas. This involves getting everyone in a room together sketching, sharing, and creating a vision. This process embraces divergent and convergent thinking, which is a core part of the creative process. This involves ‘going wide’ and exploring lots of ideas, then converging down to one or two refined ideas.

Design is a team sport. Get everyone involved. Designers, developers, product owners, business stakeholders, and executives. Everyone has good ideas to contribute.

Turn your ideas into insights

It’s important to recognise that ideas are just thoughts. Smart business people don’t spend their money on ideas. They test and validate them, proving which ones work and which ones don’t. Turn your ideas into knowledge. You need to prove that customers are willing to pay money for your ideas, as quickly as possible.

There is a plethora of rapid prototyping tools out there. You can create interactive prototypes in a matter of hours. This means you can generate an idea in the morning and have it in the hands of a customer that afternoon.

Be deliberate about what you test

There are many different layers and levels that make up a user experience, some more obvious than others. People often jump straight to testing the more obvious UI levels like the appearance or interaction. When creating a new innovative product, it’s important to test the proposition or concept first.

You need to start with the questions: "Do people value my proposition?" and "Are people willing to pay money for my concept?" Different prototyping techniques allow you to test different levels, either validating or killing them.


Testing one idea usually inspires more ideas. Learning is an ongoing journey.  Continue to test and try new ideas as you build a product. These could be for improvements, additional features or an entirely new product.

Fuel the feedback cycle. The shorter the feedback cycle, the sooner you can act and adjust your direction. You should be aiming for days or weeks at most, not months or years.

Don’t be scared to fail

Failure is often seen as a dirty word. This paralyses companies and prevents them from trying something new. Failure is an opportunity to learn. Culture needs to be changed to embrace the opportunity that comes out of failing.

Take lots of small bets

Think big, start small. Take lots of small bets. Experiment in small, inexpensive ways. The other way to say this is to ‘fail fast’. The trick to failing fast is to do it in a constructive way. Do it as quickly. Don’t bet everything on one idea. Embrace the learnings.

Get it out there

Launching a live product is the ultimate way to get feedback. You can only test some ideas by putting them in the hands of paying customers.

Be ruthless about what your Minimum Viable Product includes. What is the smallest set of features you can get in the hands of customers? This isn’t about being perfect or profitable. It's about how can we get our customers using our product and how we get their feedback.

Prepare to learn and adapt...quickly

Innovators in today’s digital world aren’t the ones hiding away in research and development labs, privately tinkering away on an idea for years. Nor are they the ones who take two years to build and launch a product to the market. Innovators are the ones constantly trying new ideas. They are the ones who are hooked on the feedback cycle and can’t get enough of that learning fix.

This article was first published in Agile Today.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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