room44 innovates

Five years ago, the then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that the Government would invest in the north of the country, to drive economic and business development into a region that, to some people’s minds, had been forgotten for too long.

The idea gained popularity.

And it worked.

Mr Osborne had done something quite clever that, when we analyse it now, shows recognition of a need and behaviour that we’d call consumer-centric.

What did he do? He saw the reality of a situation without bias. He explored ideas to achieve a ROI for everybody concerned. He made funding available for business and public services. He consulted with opposition parties on the ideas before tabling options (call this testing). And he picked his moment.

Maybe more importantly, he delivered the idea to market and it had an effect. As the saying goes – invention is having new ideas, innovation is doing new things.

And then Mr Osborne left government, the energy and interest for his idea tailed off, and now the signs are that this initiative is stumbling. Investment is still weighted in favour of the south of the UK and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is still pushing for funding and wider recognition.

The lesson: pick your champion well.

How do you entrust the strategic future of your growth plan to anyone? Well, perhaps you don’t. In an ideal world, management will do this as a group and be completely invested in your future. But we know that this is a dream. So, it may be necessary for business to put a structure in place that takes responsibility for innovation. And when there’s a structure, there’s a head of that pyramid.

Here’s a few tips on how to pick the person, or decide not to.

Tip 1

Don’t automatically settle on the long-server who is heading for retirement. If this is on your mind, be dispassionate. This person may be the best for the job, but do they have the energy and charisma to draw peers into a process that is creative and challenging? What’s their record of disruptive activity?

Tip 2

Do listen to what is being said around the lunch table as well as the board table. Who is it that says things like ‘did you see that article about…’, ‘I was listening to a podcast about X on the way in today and it made me think about our…’, ‘I missed Killing Eve, I was hooked on that programme about plastic waste…’ and so on? Research forms the backbone of innovation – consuming a wide range of content is a critical skill. If you need one thing in innovation, it’s a ‘question everything’ mindset.

Tip 3

Don’t believe that sending scouts to trade shows is the answer. Trade shows and conferences are exercises in competition awareness and shopping. Everything on a trade show floor is available now. If you want to copy those ideas, go ahead, but this is product development and just puts you where your competitors already are.

Tip 4

Challenge the team. Who is it on your team that asked to subscribe to a journal you’ve never heard of, or who sent you a link to a site that you couldn’t see the point of reading? In their head, there’s an idea looking for a way out. It might be worth having a coffee with them. Maybe everyone you work with reads things published in places you have never heard of.

Ask your team to ‘show and tell’ one day. In a single workshop, we learnt that the client team comprised a national champion speed skater, a skateboarder, a bed-jumper (don’t ask) and a national netball representative. Until we asked, no-one knew.

Tip 5

Decide if you need someone to drive innovation, or if what the company really needs is something different.

The short-term fix may be that you initiate some interest in innovation by appointing a person (or some people). Often these guys struggle to gain influence across departments, because their remit is to introduce change in an environment where efficiency and cost management depend on everything staying the same.

It’s more likely that your business needs top-down leadership and the evolution of a culture that challenges its own practices while being on the look-out for emerging opportunities.

If you want help getting started, that’s what we do.

Future thinking. Future-proofing.

Get in touch and let’s talk. Click here.

We meet regularly to review client responses to questions we ask. It’s one way of being able to form aggregate views of companies and markets that aren’t available to anybody else – even the deep web. When we talk to project personnel, we gather perspectives that are always (literally always) a surprise to the company.

We were talking in the office this morning, and a couple of thoughts led to an interesting conversation, which is that lots of companies are adopting a No Regrets policy. You’ll see the term used more and more in the press and media as time goes on.

‘No Regrets’ policies are management’s way of trying to anticipate every possible scenario that could play out in their market.

In the UK, we have macro factors like Brexit coming our way, and other countries have their own issues: USA, Russia, Spain, Germany… There’s also the problem of not really knowing enough to have confidence in what emerging technology might do to us, to our businesses, to our markets, and to how consumers behave. And, like it or not, consumer behaviour will change.

So, companies are putting together scenarios to try and paint a picture of what their future markets might look like.

One company we know has fifteen (count them, 15) active scenarios in play. Fifteen scenarios constantly being updated and reviewed to make sure that they know as much as possible about what might happen in any given circumstance.

Now, that’s all great. We know there are companies behaving in this way, but what we’re not seeing is a huge amount of definite planning derived from those scenario views.

Lots of data gathering, lots of insight analysis, lots of stats being generated and lots of forecast modelling. We’re not seeing very much proactive strategy development based on this output.

Sure, companies with innovation functions are still scouting for great ideas and buying in concepts. Are the two activities joined up? The evidence suggests not always.

And of course, we would also say that scenarios do not equal strategy.

Management with a fiduciary responsibility is duty bound to act on the basis of evidence. Taking a punt isn’t done lightly and there is no evidence for what hasn’t happened yet. It’s all conjecture.

But waiting and waiting isn’t an option either. There are lots of good reasons for declaring a strategy. One of them is that the business now knows what is expected of it. Individuals start to get interested in the over-arching direction, and intangible benefits begin to be enjoyed.

So, accepting that we can’t know the future, the most viable option is to influence it and drive towards our own targeted outcome. If that needs to change, so be it. Let’s change when we have a reason to but, in the meantime, let’s do something.

If this is keeping you awake at night, don’t wait. Let’s talk.

You might call it scenarios planning, market mapping or simply cutting the risk of innovation. Either way, how you anticipate future market development, how you fit into it and how you cut the risk of innovation, is what sets you apart. It isn’t always a comfortable ride.

This is what Larry Page says: “We’ve long believed that, over time, companies tend to get comfortable doing the same thing, just making incremental changes. But in the technology industry, where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant.

Risk is an integral part of innovation, and knowing what you can do to reduce it is undoubtedly helpful. What doesn’t work is to trust to luck. It’ll all be OK in the end, it’ll come out in the wash, tomorrow’s another day… Here’s another one: hope is not a strategy.

Lots of companies achieve success by seeing an opportunity, assessing the risk, deciding to invest time and effort, and going for it. Some of those that succeed greatly never take another risk. It may seem counter-intuitive to invest hard-earned profit into another speculative project, but history is littered with companies sliding into oblivion because they couldn’t alter course to a new strategic target when things didn’t go to plan. Never forget, just because you assume your market will respond in the right way, doesn’t mean it will.

Innovation demands that somebody take the initial step towards a vision and have the courage and energy to commit. You don’t have to do it blindly, though. There are ways of working smarter to increase your probability of success.

Find out how by getting in touch

Innovation is more than the MVP. It’s all about where you plan to go, not where you start out.

In the maker and entrepreneurial world right now, there is pressure to ship. If you aren’t shipping, you aren’t creating an audience or a customer base.

The minimal viable product (MVP) is the target. Get it out, so it can be working for you – delivering revenue or feedback from customers telling you how it needs to improve.

Yes, the MVP works as a basic version of what might come, but there is a risk. Without a strong brand and a trusted reputation, a bad MVP could do more harm than good.

If you’re a new company with a new idea, an MVP could really get you noticed. On the other hand, it might appear to sit outside of reason.

Product development theory requires makers to establish the context for their innovation product: to prepare the market. As part of this, it is useful to declare the trajectory your product will follow: we’re launching our new product that does this thing today, and next month we’ll add function X to make it even better.

You may not convert all your customers until version 2 is bought by the New Adopters, but some won’t be able to resist the urge to be first to buy: think of the lines in Apple Stores when the iPhone 8 was launched. Do you think the same buyers won’t reappear later this week for the release of iPhone X?

There have been some notable failures by the big brands recently, but they won’t stop the development of better versions in response to feedback. Here are a couple of examples (drop us a line if you want to see more):

1. Google Glass – all those bugs, and comments about looking like a nerd, will evaporate when Google Glass’s functionality has created a need beyond checking Facebook or taking a video.

We know that Alphabet’s X division is quietly developing Glass Enterprise Edition, and the signs are that Glass will be a far better product when the time is ready for consumer release.

2. Oh, how we love to bitch about Apple and love them at the same time. To supplement my Macbook, iPad, Airpods and my iPhone, I so [need] an Apple Watch Cellular Series 3.

But if I buy it in the US, there isn’t a way of connecting with my UK (EU) roaming service. Why? Well, maybe it has something to do with the need to pay EE £5 a month to use it independently.

This won’t turn me against Apple, but I do wonder why they seem intent on making life harder: new connectors, no connectors and now this. We know user accessibility will improve as networks get signed up, but to have an MVP this far into a product’s lifecycle surely hands straight the ball to Android.

3. Back to Google, this time in collaboration with Levi’s. Their brilliant concept of a Levi Trucker Jacket code-named Jacquard had all the cyclists in the room44 office buzzing. We couldn’t wait to shell out for it, until we realised we can only buy it in the US.

So that’s where I went, had the demo, fell in love again and then…unfortunately for the Innovators and Early Adopters, it ain’t quite what it’s cracked up to be.

First off, the smartphone functionality comes down to a cuff that can respond to five gestures – effectively rendering it a hands-free answering device, plus music start/stop. But only in the US. If you buy in the US to use it in the UK, the app ‘may not’ download to a UK phone, limiting the already narrow range of functionality. And on reflection, we decided that cycling with headphones is actually pretty stupid. There are enough cycle-related deaths, without adding to them taking a phone call in traffic by reaching across to swipe your cuff.

Finally – and here’s the clincher – as much as we crave the idea of wearing technology, in its current iteration the Jacquard jacket will only tolerate ten washes. This is a denim, non-waterproof, non-sweat-resistant commuter jacket.

Sexy, yes. Desirable, absolutely. Less than great MVP, totally.

These are all great products in development. Jeff Bezos said, “I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon” and Google and Apple will likely make millions of dollars from these ‘failures’ too. But the discerning Innovator may decide to wait for things to get easier and better value for money.

After all, we do have options.

This is the second in a short series of weekly posts discussing each stage of the Design Thinking process. In the first article in this mini-series I challenged the absolute structure of the process and suggested that our ability to empathise with a subject is something that could be differently described. Stage 2 in our version of the process follows on and looks at insight interpretation. In this article, we reorganise the method slightly and look at the need to see your data differently. To receive our free e-book on how to See Your Data Differently, click here.

To achieve an adequate understanding of a subject, it seems obvious to look for clues in as well as around it. This involves digging into what you know and looking for what you don’t. It doesn’t matter who you are and what the subject is, there’s always something you don’t know about your own market. In a nutshell, this is probably where the value of an outside perspective adds the most value.

Today, the sources of data are many and varied. The amount of data is almost inexhaustible and our ability to read everything has to be questioned. How you decide to approach this part of the process has a direct impact on the depth of understanding. Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely no question that you know your market, customers, competitors. But to design you a strategy that reaches into the future, we must decide what we believe is going to happen.

It comes down to filters and confirmation bias. The perspective that you occupy has a direct effect on how you interpret information. If your search history is loaded with searches for pictures of cats, you’ll get a different set of results than if you regularly look for stories on vegan cookery and yoga.

In fact, the commercial search engines do this automatically. You will always receive a set of search results filtered by Google, or whoever, that the AI decides best meets your need. It’s the same kind of algorithm that decides which adverts you should see.

Adopting a naive attitude to data search is hard if you aren’t truly naive. You can’t unlearn what you know. And so we bring a different perspective to projects. Our relatively superficial knowledge of your business is valuable. In fact, it’s invaluable. To see the world as you see it would be OK. To see it differently is massively useful. As outsiders, our lack of filters is our strength.

Once the data are in and we can discuss what will affect your future, we can get around to ideating. But we don’t make any apology for being focused on challenging your team’s view of the world, the market, your consumers and your competition. Future landscaping and scenarios planning demand it. Otherwise, the best you can hope to do is validate your beliefs – confirm your bias. That may be a good outcome, but our strapline is ‘innovation justified’. If we can help you use insight to reveal a different set of future trends, a different set of possibilities and a different opportunity, your outlook can shift into a strategy, with justification built in.

Future thinking. Future proofing. Innovation justified. It’s what we do at room44. Listen to the audio version here.

To receive our free e-book on how to See Your Data Differently, click here or sign up to receive our weekly ‘Innovation insights’ newsletter published every week.

What will drive you to innovate: motivation or incentive?

Attending industry events is a great way to see exactly where the hurdles to innovation are placed. We know the motivation and the will to affect real change are there at a personal level. But at a corporate level, not so much.

At a packaging industry event in London last week, I saw this demonstrated. Product packaging is notorious as an environmental polluter and as a consumer of natural resource. Visitors to the show were asked to contribute their thoughts to the Innovation Wall (see image). ‘As the industry, we need to lead the way’ and ‘we need to face the challenges of the future now’ are two examples. Recycling was still touted as the panacea to packaging’s environmental impact.

I spoke to packaging manufacturers on the day and, without exception, they said that the only feature of packaging their customers are interested in is the price. Reducing weight, thin-walling and recycling materials are all driven by a single incentive: cost.

These are customer demands, not consumer. And understand the difference: consumers pay the final price for a product that has had its value partially derived from material that goes straight into the bin. Not protective packaging in all cases, but packaging created in a bid to deliver perceived value over real consumer benefit. In a word, marketing. Having established the notion of added value, the task is to meet the profit requirements of retailer customers who provide a route to market for these items.

There is a chasm of understanding that sits between consumers, who want to see a reduction in environmental waste, and the packaging industry that focuses on customer requirement. I’ll quote again from a room44 blog from August (Can you innovate even if you wanted to?) where we quoted a senior executive who said of the plastic pollution issue so often under discussion, “Anyone with any common sense knows the only problem with plastic waste. It’s the morons who throw it away.”

The impact that packaging is having on our planet is catastrophic. Years after ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ was launched as a strapline, the best we can find from packaging manufacturers is: ‘As an industry we need to lead the way.’

If the will really is there to lead the way, there is absolutely nothing stopping them. As a study in who needs to use Design Thinking as a design methodology, the packaging industry is a perfect case study. As a study in inertia, it’s almost unrivalled.

Of course, this is a huge generalisation. On the flip side of the argument, there are some examples in packaging of design thinking meeting great product design:

LUSH has been developing products that used zero packaging. Solidified liquids that are self-supporting: a retailer delivering against consumer demand. We found packaging company people who argued this simply couldn’t work because LUSH must sell so many more units to cover the cost of extended product life. Attitudinally, we see a retailer doing it and packaging guys rejecting the novelty.

Halo Coffee has seen the trend towards convenient coffee consumption and the disaster that laminated and unrecovered aluminium presents. New fully bio-degradable coffee capsules can do the same job as company branded products without the environmental on-cost. Look them up here


As directors of a business that has been successful your job is to see into the future. To know where your competitors and customers are headed and to get there first. To be ready with the solution to a need they haven’t seen for themselves yet. It’s not impossible but the vision of the future is confused. The many conversations that are going on around us are fractured and unclear. No-one knows what the future holds except that we can’t predict it accurately.

To be relevant in the short term and to stay relevant in the medium and short term will take a steady hand and some foresight. It’ll also take some plain talking in a language that everyone understands. Let’s leave the lexicon of the CTO out of it. Let’s discuss the signs that we see that will make a difference to you.

Let’s talk about people, product and function of the things you make and can make. About making whatever you call innovation, productive.

Let’s think about the design of products to meet a real and tangible consumer need that is developing. Let’s be as definite as we can about how our markets are shifting.

Let’s design our futures and set the VR, UX, IT/SQL/Python guys off and running to deliver them. Let’s work through the process of design thinking and write our innovation strategy down. Then they’ll know which direction to run in.

If you would like to know how to start, we’re here to help.

Future thinking. Future proofing, Innovation justified. It’s what we do.

All over your office there are fires burning. Everyday. Everyday you get to decide which ones need stamping on.

All the while, over at the other end of the office there’s the fire that’s burning next to the propane tank.

It’s too far away to worry about. Until it’s too late. Then it’s all over.

The bigger the company, the more people are stamping on fires everyday and the fewer people trying to get to the one next to the gas tank.

This is why average company life expectancy is shortening towards a single decade.

How about you let the small fires burn and start on the big one?

Future thinking. Future proofing. Innovation justified. It’s what we do.

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