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An innovation case study and 5 Lessons Learned

  • Written by Andrew Foreman,  Digital Enterprise Advisor at Version 1.

    Andrew Foreman, Digital Enterprise Advisor at Version 1, discusses the lessons he has learned  throughout his involvement in various innovation projects.

    I recently joined the team here in Version 1 to help clients with Enterprise Architecture and IT Strategy development. Already I can see there is no shortage of innovation and transformative delivery across the teams in Northern Ireland. We are doing some fantastic work with local clients (more on that shortly) and I have been really impressed by the Version 1 approach to innovation. It is much more delivery focussed than when I first got involved with the innovation process. I’ve learned a few lessons over the years and they look something like this…

    A couple of jobs ago, before working from home was as popular as today, I was a public sector IT senior manager with my own office and wall-to-wall whiteboards.

    I headed-up the Business Liaison Team which meant engaging with business stakeholders and being the first point of contact for new IT requests. Anything big or interesting I put on the whiteboard titled “problems looking for solutions”.

    I was also the technical Enterprise Architect. As such I would regularly engage with internal IT teams, academia and technology vendors pitching their latest tech. The interesting things that came out of those conversations I put on a whiteboard titled “solutions looking for problems”.

    Lesson 1: Keep a track of problems and solutions

    They say that necessity is the mother of invention so keeping track of all the business problems alongside potential solutions seemed to make sense. I still make a note today when I spot a potential client problem or a new technology that may be useful in the future.

    Of course, there wasn’t a direct mapping between the problems and solutions on my whiteboards. The problems all seemed so business specific and granular, and the solutions all looked so technical or irrelevant.

    A bit of innovation was needed to try and marry the items on one board with those on the other, and it wasn’t a job I could do single-handedly. I needed collaborative innovation. At some point in time the whiteboards got full. Then it got interesting.

    Lesson 2: Collaborate with everybody

    The whiteboards worked well. People commented on them when in my office and offered their own views and ideas. But it didn’t really scale. The whole thing needed to move beyond my office walls. We decided to host an innovation forum.

    Dozens of business stakeholders from different departments were invited to an off-site workshop. All had problems looking for solutions. The IT team provided them with everything they needed for innovative creativity; caffeine, sugar and loads of solution ideas.

    Lesson 3: Make it interesting

    The IT department had created a quick-fire process, where each of the tech “solutions looking for problems” were summarised into a single-slide, 60 second proposition. We had about 25 and they included things like image recognition, machine learning and predictive analytics. Each slide provided a synopsis of the technology and a case study of its use in a different sector along with the potential benefits.

    After each 60 second pitch we got the audience to vote in real-time with a score from 1 to 7. It was fun and ran a bit like a game show. Scoring ranged from “1: This technology is useless and would make my job worse”, through to “7: I love it and it would revolutionise my job”.

    We ran the session and did the presentations. The engagement was great. We got the feedback and compiled the scores. Then it got really interesting.

    Lesson 4: OK, so maybe don’t collaborate with everybody

    To our surprise the majority of the ideas attained the full range of scores from 1 to 7. What was going on?! How could the ideas be simultaneously brilliant and rubbish?

    The Myers-Briggs model identifies 16 personality types. In my experience it can be distilled down to just two; tactical and strategic.

    Tactical people want fixes now. They have their own problems with deadlines, budgets and targets. They’re reluctant to go for something that will jeopardise any of these factors.

    Strategic people see more of the big picture. Perhaps they are a bit more of a risk taker. They’ll sacrifice fixing a bit of their current problem if it means future benefits or solving other people’s problems in parallel.

    Now don’t get me wrong – the world needs tactical people. Paramedics, pilots and some of the best project delivery managers fall into this category. In the case of our innovation forum however it was only going to be a success if the attendees embraced their strategic sides.

    I remember when challenging an inefficient looking business process somebody saying “we want to be innovative, we just don’t want to be the first to innovate”. I reckon that was a tactical person.

    Lesson 5: Don’t just talk about it, deliver it

    We used the voting poll to long-list the ideas and used break-out groups to discuss and refine.

    Notwithstanding the tactical sceptics, by the end of the event we had shortlisted 3 promising ideas to take forward as innovation projects. These involved a combination of technologies to address business problems that were now much better understood.

    Unfortunately the momentum and energy of the innovation forum was difficult to maintain as we tried to establish the innovation projects. Other (tactical) projects and priorities appeared resulting in resources and budgets being diverted. Short term innovation proof-of-concepts were rescheduled into medium to long term plans. We did deliver some of these projects (digital image management for example) that offered transformational benefits. It just took a lot longer than I’d hoped.

    Back then I hadn’t considered the end-to-end innovation supply chain. The ideation phase is critical but separation of teams or ring-fencing of resources is needed to make sure that strategic innovation isn’t trumped by tactical delivery needs.

    Here in Version 1 we have a mature innovation engagement process that considers all of my lessons learned. We have dedicated innovation labs who will collaborate with a client team and demonstrate the ‘proof-of-value’ that cutting-edge technology can offer. The Innovation Labs are a value-added service that Version 1 provide to its customers to explore innovative technologies and drive customer success. We have experience in emerging technology and even sustainable innovation. We ask for a client Product Owner but otherwise the resources are independent of the delivery teams so as not to distract from tactical delivery.

    The process was recently used to implement a smart chatbot with an NI Government Department to answer generic FAQs asked by members of staff. The chatbot stored and managed the organisational knowledge in a database and used the same to provide fast and consistent response to any query directed to it. Impressively a back-end dashboard gave information about the performance metrics and usage analytics to improve the performance of the bot and provide insights to the internal teams.

    The Department of Economy’s “10x Economy, a Decade of Innovation” paper provides the direction and encouragement for NICS Departments and NI technology suppliers to embrace new and emerging technologies like this smart chatbot.

    The guiding principles around making a positive difference and supporting a greener, sustainable economy may not always align with emerging tech. For those of you that were at Digital DNA recently you may have seen Ronan Laffan’s (Version 1 Head of Advisory Services) presentation on delivering Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) in a digital world. It included the remarkable statistic that the annual energy consumption to process bitcoin exceeds the energy consumption of Argentina!

    I’m really excited to see how Version 1 will work with NICS departments to deliver this decade of innovation.

    This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download your FREE copy and sign up to receive future digital editions here.

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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