When I was coming along in school, back in the dark ages when we still used the wide tablets and the short, fat pencils, we were taught a fair bit about writing. Unfortunately, little of that learning gets reflected here. One of the items we were taught was how to write a great introductory newspaper article. As I recall, the first article had to include all the major “Ws” – Who, What, Why, Where, When, and of course How. I can’t tell you how frequently we use this same thinking when working with a client to define an innovation effort. Or how often those same clients gloss over or forget what they learned in elementary school.
The Five W One H way of thinking is old school, but it is an exceptionally useful device. You may have seen it used as an idea generation technique, which it can be, but that’s not what I’m presenting it for today. Rather, I’d like to use it as a way to frame an innovation effort. Far too often teams make assumptions or think that someone else has thought through these items. The innovation teams are so eager to start with what seems to be the “real work” of innovation – generating ideas – that they neglect all of the strategic framing. And as any good Confucian scholar can tell you, everything important happens at the beginning.
So let’s take these in order and understand what we should know before we start.
What: What are we trying to accomplish with the innovation effort? What are the goals and measures we’ll use? What risks are we willing to face? What sacred cows should we avoid?
Why: Why are are innovating? Why not keep doing what we are doing? Why does an innovation effort make sense? Why innovate around this particular issue or opportunity?
When: When do you want results? When can we have the people and budgets we need? When can we get started?
Where: Where should we focus our efforts? Where in the future is our target? Where are the prospects and customers we should consider?
Who: Who is the financial sponsor? Who will adopt or commercialize the ideas? Who is the ultimate customer of our ideas? Who is the final arbiter in case of disagreements? Who will staff this project?
How: How should we work? How will the existing tools and techniques be helpful? How can we use new techniques? How do we deploy innovation in our business?
What Really Happens
If we were good at remembering elementary school English class and applying the techniques, we’d ask these questions and wait to get good answers before we start an innovation effort. In my experience, having witnessed good projects and not so great projects, many projects that struggle fail to ask and understand some of these questions. Either they assume someone else has the answer, or the team is in too much of a rush to get started, or they doubt that anyone has the answer, so why waste time.
What will happen if your team hasn’t asked these questions and gotten answers, or failing that made up your own answers, is that someone in authority will question why the work is being done, or who authorized it, or how you are using tools or techniques. Without a good answer, your entire project is delayed or placed at risk. Innovation is a very easy project to derail, because it’s different and risky, so entering a project with unknowns is simply asking to be derailed.
Ask, often and repeatedly, for good answers to the Five Ws and one H at the beginning of the project, and confirm them occasionally during the project. This ensures you have a firm grasp of the scope and commitments necessary for the project to be successful and can defend your team from the inevitable attack by someone or something that is threatened by the innovation effort. You will be questioned, and your ability to respond quickly and precisely, with evidence, is important. Even if you can’t get good answers, answer the questions yourself as best as you can and seek validation. Some definition, even if your team develops the answers, is better than none.
While this may seem like a lot of work up front, it will dramatically simplify your efforts downstream by framing the problem effectively and providing the means to answer those individuals, or systems, or policies that will seek to derail or distract down the road. Further, having these answers will help the team when it comes time to decide which ideas are valuable and how to evaluate them.
The Tools You Need
As the famous saying goes – All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten. For innovation, that may not be quite right. You may need some tools from fifth or sixth grade English class. Don’t be bamboozled by all the tools and techniques available for innovation, and don’t be shy about asking these important questions before you start. The tools are simpler than you’ve been led to believe, and the questions you ask up front will save you significantly down the road.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.