September 13, 2022

Slouching Towards Innovation

The Streams, Feeds & Artifacts of Innovation Work

A lot of innovation work revolves around shiny objects - maybe a slick interactive prototype, or a concept video. A lot of innovation projects never see the light of day.

Maybe what’s needed are fewer shiny objects and more trails. Fewer artifacts and more paths. Less high concept innovation and more cabinet of curios.

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The first innovation project I worked on at Google Creative Lab was a 5-year vision for “The future of search”. We ended up creating the shiniest of shiny artifacts - a 15 minute live action video showing a day in the life of this future search world. We filmed some segments at the Museum of Natural History in New York. I almost broke a dinosaur bone carrying a lighting stand. We used the same special effects company as the Star Trek movie.

The Google Creative Lab knows a thing or two about failed innovation. When I worked there in 2012 it seemed like the majority of their innovation projects failed. There was a lot of work that never became more than a slick video and a beautiful presentation. I can only think how many projects have been concepted and shelved in the decade since.

I can’t speak to how the Creative Lab is now but back in 2012 it was very disconnected from the rest of Google. Sat in an ivory tower (almost literally!) this distance and separation was, I think, part of what enabled the team to work on weird and wonderful projects without oversight. But it was also the downfall of many of the projects that tried to bridge the gap and inform the main corporate strategy of Google proper.

From new kinds of shopping ads to a vision for the future of search - things that tried to influence the core direction of Google products inevitably “failed”.

But I put quotes around the word “failed” because innovation is a funny kind of work.

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As a consultant, I worked on an NYT R&D project - I was part of a team that researched, scoped and designed some new travel verticals for the Times. We pitched the project in Feb 2020. Not a great time for a travel project in hindsight…

Like I said, I know a bit about failed innovation.

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I think a lot of people who work in innovation get frustrated. Frustrated that their ideas don’t get absorbed by the main business. Frustrated that their prototypes don’t get funding. Frustrated that their ideas aren’t heard.

The further you are from the core business the more freedom you have, but at the expense of influence. The closer you are to the core business the less freedom and creativity you have, but the more influence you have. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Is innovation work just a game of percentages? Take a bunch of swings and eventually some of the ideas might stick? Is your “hit rate” even the right metric for an innovation lab?

The funny thing is that a lot of innovation projects “fail” - they don’t get funding or don’t get built - but some part of the innovation work eventually bleeds out into the world. Sometimes it’s as small as a logo, or a name. Sometimes it’s a unique interaction pattern. Or sometimes the innovation is swallowed whole, consumed and only years later emerges on the product roadmap. Imperceptible, the impact of the innovation work only visible to the team that worked on it.

A lot of innovation work only fails if you measure it the wrong way.

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Managing innovation work is about controlling narrative as much as it’s about controlling cost/timing/project management.

We had a custom-built project management solution at the Creative Lab (I think it was called OTIS?). It basically stripped away any of the kinds of features that you might expect in a project management tool and reduced every project to a weekly 100-character status update, paired with a link to the latest creative work (presentation, design, video, etc). Every Monday morning the Creative Lab leadership team would huddle around and review the status updates for each project.

At the time I don’t think I understood how powerful narrative is inside large organizations. I thought building a business case, modeling out impact and so on were how you got buy-in and budget.

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One of the most interesting innovation projects I was part of was with my friends at Part+Sum. I was part of a week-long innovation workshop with P+S employees, external advisors, client team members and customers. Essentially, this brings the client into the innovation work for a week1.

Inviting the client into the innovation work itself (vs just showing the shiny object at the end of the sprint) I believe makes the work better but also means the client is more invested in the end result.

Innovation work that fits the client’s business model and constraints. And that the client is invested in bringing to life. Embracing from the beginning the idea that the innovation work is far less likely to be shipped “as is” and more likely to be subsumed and assimilated by the larger organization, the impact bleeding out over time.

And here, in this innovation sprint model, the impact is as much the prototypes created as it is the experience of the employees directly of the innovation process.

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I’ve been reading The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process in which Manuel explores the idea of a “space of flows”:

The space of flows is a high-level cultural abstraction of space and time, and their dynamic interactions with digital age society. The concept was created by the sociologist and cybernetic culture theoretician Manuel Castells to "reconceptualize new forms of spatial arrangements under the new technological paradigm"

I like this framing. And I think it fits innovation work well. What if we placed less emphasis on the shiny object and more on the “space of flows”?

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Professional work is all about streams and flows - we’re almost a decade into the stream-ification of work. Slack heralded an era of realtime notifications, channels (as virtual spaces to work in) and flows of work.

And shiny objects aren’t really designed for flows. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

So a lot of companies are trying to figure out how to adapt their work to flows and streams. How to remember things for longer periods of time. How to capture learnings that compound instead of getting washed away.

How do you adapt innovation work in a post-document / post-shiny-object culture?

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Talking about the “space of flows”… two new approaches to feeds that caught my eye:

Campsite.design from Brian Lovin - “The home for your design team’s work-in-progress”. Essentially a feed for your design team. Interesting.

Constellate from Brie Wolfson - “Treating organizations like the (mostly) online communities they now are”. This is early days but I love how Brie articulates the challenges and opportunities for knowledge production and knowledge consumption inside organizations:

I think we’re entering the stream 2.0 era of professional work. Video feeds. Algorithmic feeds. Social feeds. Stock and flow. The next era will feel different from the last - and it’s not just a feeling, the format, approach and narrative for work will change. And it’ll happen fastest for the types of work that are already narrative based. Like innovation.

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Here’s a thesis I’m toying with:

Innovation work should start with narrative. Create a perspective on the world and from there develop a set of research / data / prototypes / experiments that all ladder back to your narrative.

This narrative-first approach to innovation feels designed for a professional world that is increasingly a “space of flows”.

Of course, it’s harder. Because most innovation teams don’t have a perspective on the world. They don’t have a thesis or core insight about how the world is changing or where things are headed. Instead they get obsessed with new shiny things.

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Anyway, I’ve always been interested in innovation work that straddles the venn diagram of business impact, creativity and narrative. Get in touch if you want to chat.


This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.