This article has been written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification credential at iVia: a program founded by Notre Dame University, Whirlpool Corporation and Beacon Health System.
Re-innovating your innovation processes is not an easy task, especially when there are multiple perspectives to consider. By taking a hard look at our discovery phase and applying a new methodology around insight development, John Deere has reinvented its approach and is advancing a winning innovative methodology and culture.
John Deere is dedicated to those who are linked to the land – farmers and ranchers, landowners, builders, and loggers. Since 1837, John Deere has developed and delivered innovative products of the highest quality to customers around the globe. That's why John Deere reaches out across the world with factories, offices and other facilities in more than 30 countries and employs over 67,000 employees world-wide. Our founder was best known for his innovative product, the first commercially successful plow. And so it is today as the world’s leading manufacturer of farm and forestry equipment, a major force in construction equipment and additional supporting businesses in turf, financial services, power systems and intelligent solutions. This past year John Deere was named one of the world’s top 100 innovators by a leading business-media group, based on our patents and proprietary technology. In our eyes, innovation is a business multiplier and our ability to translate innovations into profitable solutions is key to our growth and that of our customers.
Early in the 2000’s John Deere put together a methodology that would be the beginning of our Accelerated Innovation Process or AIP as it is known today. The AIP was well defined and allowed for a fast and efficient way to move a nascent idea through the business aligning with other processes and management systems. After years of iterating and making the process better, there still seemed to be something missing: a well-thought out deeper dive prior to ideating around an opportunity. But where to look, what were others doing, were we alone? Innovation as a discipline does not have the traditional following or educational opportunities as competencies like quality or accounting. As a practitioner in the field of innovation, pulling together disparate pieces of educational opportunities or best-practice sharing is the name of the game. That is until an opportunity to learn a new methodology and innovative tools in the Certified Innovation Methodology program came to fruition.
The Certified Innovation Mentor program was presented as an opportunity to be part of a small select group of innovators putting together a concept and fashioning it into a well-developed program. Not only was it a chance to learn in an academic setting, but it put practice into action and planted a seed that grew into something beyond what was currently available. A side benefit from being part of the program was the shared passion, a thirst to learn more, to share participants’ experiences with each other and learn others’ practices and experiences inside and outside the classroom.
John Deere has been learning and sharing with companies as long as it has been an accepted practice. The Certified Innovation Mentor Program allowed the participants to share our approaches and lessons without being guarded or reluctant when sharing our companies’ ‘secret sauce’ or internal competencies. It also gave the group an opportunity to take a good look for complementary parts, the pieces that improved performance, things that would make our companies’ global innovation more impactful. This included ways to improve our creativity approaches, idea generation and cataloging, and the methodology and processes we were currently utilizing. One of the most impactful was the use of insight generation prior to an ideation event; it stood out like a lighthouse on the banks of a rock-filled, impossible to navigate port. On the surface the Certified Innovation Mentor Program’s Unified Methodology looks much like any other process I have seen. However, when I dug deeper, I learned the inner workings and got my hands dirty; that is where the golden nugget was found.
Delivering value to our customers in a way that helps them improve performance, increase uptime and decrease their cost of operation is an aligned goal within John Deere. So any change to the number of processes that govern those value propositions must be carefully and thoughtfully put into place. While changing a local process like the stage-gated Accelerated Innovation Process would also have consequences, it would not be felt as broadly as if we had changed other processes that have enterprise-wide implications. We did know that if proven successful and valuable, we could develop a strategy for rolling out the new and improved process to the broader organization.
Our first task was to take what we learned from the Certified Innovation Mentor program’s Unified Methodology, plus numerous external benchmarking activities with fellow mentors and blend it into the Accelerated Innovation Process. Our environment within innovation allows us to try new things, fail fast and learn from those failures. We understood that while there were some redeeming qualities in our Accelerated innovation Process, it lacked the up-front power that the Unified Methodology brought in the insight discovery phase. We identified one of our projects and quickly moved to make insight discovery an integral part of the process.
The project I targeted was perfect for this type of methodology. It has plenty of public hype and internal visibility, yet there seemed to be many questions on what it meant for the business. Sure there were other things we have done in the past for enterprise wide innovations, like gathering resources and influencing without authority, but this really seemed different. The core innovation team received the approvals to pilot the new methodology and we elicited the help of folks around the enterprise to be part of the insight teams. The insight teams felt their roles were better defined and that their work was actually leading up to something that was going to make a difference. Rather than just looking for the crossroads of customer needs and the potential of technology, we used linked insight lenses that made sense for our project and broadened or stretched our perspective around the opportunity. Rather than looking through a bi-optic lens of customer needs and technology potential, we looked through five lenses: customer, dealer, technology, competitive and beliefs. After weeks of intense, challenging work we came together at the Innovation Lab, which utilized the insight discoveries to come up with hundreds of quality ideas, which then became dozens of concepts.
“Great, another ideation session!” Most people can relate to a time they were called into a meeting and told, “All right people, we have a problem and I need your ideas.” Good luck, especially if your brilliant plan was conducted on a Monday or Friday. Besides the obvious here, there are times when we go blindly into ideation with little or no pre-work to get our brains moving. Our first challenge was to calm the masses, let them know it was not ‘ideation as usual’ and set the stage with a strong communication strategy around why we were doing this, how it was going to be done and what we expected as outcomes. Our communication strategy to the iLab (innovation lab) participants included small blasts of information, with sneak peeks of what to expect, while building the excitement.
We also knew there would be concerns regarding the incumbent processes. John Deere is a business that has well established processes. These processes allow us to deliver on our customers’ needs and return shareholder value. Changes are not necessarily greeted with open arms; almost always there is a level of skepticism and scrutiny that each new addition or change to processes is put under. At the same time we needed to strive to better our processes and not make wholesale changes. The key for us was to bring in the key stakeholders of the processes, especially those stakeholders at the key intersection points of new versus established, and educate them on the advantages and demonstrate the process. Once the stakeholders saw the changes in action, they were put at ease knowing that the product in the beginning of their process point was going to be more robust and complete.
One of the other challenges was introducing a new process or methodology. Even if it is someone else’s best practice, you need to be selective about what to implement. More is not always better and bringing in more complication can have damaging effects to morale and results. Finding the key intersection points was key, along with knowing where the points fit and where they made little or no sense. Communicating these intersection points and clearly articulating the advantages to the business leaders proved to be the winning formula.
As mentioned we can and most always do come out of a brainstorming session with ideas. The real question is the quantity and quality of those ideas. Normally we would produce a few concepts worthy of a second look or deeper dive. Doing a more robust discovery from multiple perspectives prior to ideation helped us with our divergence to generate higher quality ideas and consequently with our convergence to create higher quality concepts that drove higher level themes or dimensions. The blending of the Accelerated Innovation Process, other internal processes and the Unified Methodology resulted in a more robust way to generate customer and business insights, ideas and concepts. Additional themes were drawn out through the enhancement in the processes, leading to opportunities in areas we may not have looked to in the past. The opportunities allowed us to look into spaces we normally found to be out-of-scope or that were not our core. At the same time it helped us develop a larger set and more robust alternative concept pool to draw from to populate the latter deliverables in the key internal processes. Undoubtedly the process improvement will lead to more opportunities for us to not only answer our customers’ articulated needs, but will give us fodder for customers’ unarticulated needs we so desire to fulfill.
There are many things that I liked about how we tackled this challenge. The first was putting together insight teams that were diverse, yet had the desire to work on this outside their normal workloads. Their passion to learn and develop the deeper insights, descriptions and thought starters proved to be key in the work to be done. Second was around building the infrastructure to conduct the Innovation Lab. We intentionally looked for people inside and outside the company with a passion in the area or a desire to learn more, not only about the technology that was central to the opportunity we were exploring, but the discovery process as well. This inherently led to folks who wanted to create quality work that helped the iLab participants generate great outcomes. Third was to use multiple methodologies to bring the linked insights together and generate ideas from them. We smashed, we let pigs fly, and we even reversed our brainstorming to come up with hundreds of quality ideas that made the event fun, engaging and one of the best brainstorming sessions in a long time. And last but not least, we designed our outcomes to align with important deliverables within our enterprise wide processes for delivering on customers’ needs.
My suggestions for fellow innovators are few, but timely.
- First, build your innovation on a strong insight driven foundation. As I mentioned earlier we tend to brainstorm around what we know or jump to a solution; it takes discipline and process to keep us honest and true to the cause: to purposely hold back from ideation until we understand the environment in which our opportunity exists.
- Second, look for the right blend of content, context and communication to take your ideation to the next level.
- Third, understand that your need or innovation flavor as I call it, may be different; find it, research it, find someone who has been there and done it and connect. There is not one innovation practitioner that I know of who is not willing to share their knowledge.
- Fourth, spend time putting together teams that have passion around your project or process. We all have many things to do and almost no time to do them. However, if there is a strong desire to be part of something greater, it shows in the work.
Finally, make the teams active in the rest of the process. Most of us, arguably all of us, want to see our work succeed and grow into something that has positive impact. I still remember the first successful project I worked on and the feeling I had of accomplishment when it went into the market, the “I helped make that” moment. The moment can occur whether you’re introducing something into the market or making a change in your internal processes. The effects can be lasting and can help grow an organization’s innovation culture to new heights.