Numbers Are Telling Your Innovation Stories: Are You Listening?

by Jessica Wettstein

Numbers Are Telling Your Innovation Stories: Are You Listening?

In today’s market, companies that do not innovate do not thrive.

Innovation has become a crucial component of a successful strategic plan. Therefore, I packed my bags and headed to the Back End of Innovation (BEI) conference, ready to hone my innovation skills. In collective acknowledgement of the difficulties of this end of the process, those of us tasked with implementing innovation come to BEI to revive the energy and strengthen the enthusiasm we once felt when the idea was conceived at the front end of innovation.

As someone working on the execution side of innovation, my role is to think about numbers. Managing innovation against performance measurement, I analyze numbers on a daily basis, applying market segmentation, quantifying opportunities, determining the technology readiness levels of innovations, and identifying current resource gaps. I understand that, while vision powers innovative thinking, numbers are needed to make decisions about those innovations.

Sometimes, it takes someone outside of a role like mine to remind me of exactly what those numbers represent.

Enter Malcolm Gladwell.

I was struck as I sat listening to Gladwell’s keynote speech, I am probably not alone in admitting that. Given his propensity for eliciting emotion from statistics, I imagine every audience member entered that the room expecting to have some aspect of our worldview turned on its head.
And he did not disappoint.

Amidst a sea of quotable takeaways, here are the two biggest things I learned.

Successful innovation execution tells a story.

“Numbers have stories, and if you don’t know a number’s story, then you don’t understand the number,” he began.

Individuals involved in innovation execution (the product planners, the business unit managers, and so forth), may not think of themselves as storytellers, but every insight gleaned, every experimentation tested, every number assessed, tells a story about who we are, what we want, and how we think.

Now, I have often heard explanations of what a number is, but rarely why a number is. I learned that if you refuse to interrogate the numbers and never ask why, if you never learn their stories, they will never reveal their true insights to you.

Numbers are how organizations gauge success. But, can we really understand the success we are gauging when we don’t even understand the numbers that we have set up as our own metrics? Innovators have an obligation to interrogate the numbers to determine if our metrics are telling the right story, telling the true story.

In his BEI case study presentation, “Rejuvenating a Stale Category,” Michael Graber, Managing Partner at Southern Growth Studio and Former VP of Innovation at Hunter Fan, said something similar: “The truth is always at hand if you go out and look for it.” The onus is on innovation implementers to do just that, to constantly scrutinize the data and look for the truth in the numbers, to talk to our customers and observe them in their daily routines and understand their unique pain points. These numbers then construct the parameters in which innovation can succeed and predict deviations from the norm to provide meaningful insights.

You must understand your metrics.

Gladwell also introduced the idea of power versus speed testing. Power tests measure depth of knowledge and ability to apply understanding, and speed tests determine how quickly you can get through the test achieving the correct responses. Gladwell told us to think about this in terms of the proverbial Tortoise and Hare. A power test results in different winners than a speed test, because they are measuring different things. They are different metrics.

For example, a product management schedule is a power test, measuring the value of an innovation, with a speeded component, determining how quickly you can get that product to market. So, if an organization is to successfully implement new product development, they need both the Tortoise and the Hare. You need the Tortoise (chasing strategy) and the Hare (chasing this month’s metrics). If you only have Hares, that speed constraint hides the genius of the Tortoise. Constraining the schedule prevents thoughtful exploration and distorts the organization’s outcomes. But, without the Hares, you won’t be able to keep the lights on while you bring your innovation to market.

As a whole, this conference seemed to turn numbers and processes on their heads. I realized I am so rooted in results and outcomes that I sometimes forget why we have processes set up in the first place.

There is value in context.

By illustrating how numbers need a backstory and that misunderstanding can lead to false metrics, Gladwell showed how context is key for accelerating learning and, therefore, accelerating innovation.

This made me think of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and how it can provide a current state view of what’s happening on a packaging line in a deeper way than just an output or productivity metric. When I talk to my customers, if they only have one number to reference for what is happening on their line (their output), then there is no context around which to pinpoint problems and determine a root cause. But through connected devices, giving us metrics across the overall line, we can use those numbers to understand the full story of the packaging line, providing a better view of how the various steps of the process are working (or not working) together and where improvements can be made.

Using these two key takeaways, I have been able to view my role in the process through an entirely new lens. This numerical context provides insights that drive innovative thinking because they tell a story and ask “why?”, “how?”, and “who?” throughout the process. I provide context because I give the numbers that fuel innovation execution a narrative voice. And, by doing so, I extend the energy and the passion that accompanies the vision created at the front end of the process. I show that the numbers themselves are parts of a whole, driving forward clear and informed decision making.

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Jessica WettsteinJessica Wettstein is responsible for creating a future vision of Videojet’s marking and coding products. As the Director of Product Planning, she leads the Product Planning team in understanding customer needs, leveraging industry insight and defining winning market requirements for the next generation of new products.

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