You can solve a tough challenge by working alone in your garage or attic for years like how Prof. Andrew Wiles worked on Fermat’s Last Theorem for several years. Alternately, you can throw the challenge to a group of people and solve it collectively. The group can be a couple of friends or a large organization. The challenge could be an urgent challenge like the iPhone multitouch keypad accuracy problem to be solved in a matter of days. Or it could be an automation challenge Tanishq, the jewellery division of Titan, launched in 2008 which might have run for a few months resulting in inventing the diamond-bagging machine over the next few years.
I have been participating in the design of challenge campaigns in the organizations for over a decade and consider them to be a key element of innovation initiatives. Some of these challenges were more urgent like the iPhone multitouch challenge while others were closer to Titan’s automation challenge. Over the years I ended up preparing a checklist that I use when I participate in a challenge campaign design. Not all items in the checklist are useful in all challenges. Nevertheless, it helps to go over them to check if they are relevant in that context.
1. Identify a challenge sponsor: It is important that a challenge campaign begins with a sponsor. In case of iPhone multitouch, the head of engineering was the sponsor while in Tanishq perhaps the business head of the Tanishq division was the sponsor.
2. Identify a challenge theme: The challenge theme may come from the sponsor. Alternately, he may invite challenges from his peers/team members. The theme can be loose like “simplify and automate” or it can be sharper like “get keyboard accuracy to 90%”. I remember themes like “half the time” for reducing the delivery time to half, “single-click cloud migration”. These days Zomato’s “10 minutes delivery” is in the news. The most important characteristic of a theme should be its business relevance. A good metaphor helps make the challenge concrete, enhance its emotional appeal and provide hooks for imagination.
3. Prepare a project plan: Is the challenge expected to run for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months? Whom should we invite? Will there be one round, two rounds, or more? Will there be help in terms of resources for prototyping? Will there be mentoring for idea authors for clarifying their ideas and preparing a business case? Will we have a panel for the final round? How will promising ideas go forward? It helps to discuss these questions and possible options with the sponsor and create a project plan.
4. Know Your Challenge (KYC) workshop: For a “simplify and automate” challenge you don’t need a workshop to explain it. However, for challenges related to emerging technologies or business challenges that are complex or nuanced, it helps to have a workshop where the sponsor and perhaps a few experts articulate what the challenge means to them. They may provide starting points for those interested in studying the topics further. These could be department heads such as sales, marketing, finance, R&D giving their perspective on a challenge area.
5. Announce the challenge and invite ideas: This is the step where challenge is announced and ideas are invited. This could be done in multiple ways. If it is a small team, like in iPhone multitouch challenge, you could announce it in a team meeting. If you want to invite experts or members from outside your team or business, you may want to announce it to your team first so that they get some lead time to submit their ideas before others. If you feel subject matter experts (SMEs) from within the team can come in a week or two later that’s fine too. In the case of iPhone multitouch challenge, this step merged with step 7 of prototyping. Team members didn’t come out with ideas and waited for a go-ahead for prototyping. Ideas were demonstrated through prototypes. In most challenge campaigns I have witnessed, idea generation and prototyping were separate stages.
6. Helping idea authors to clarify their ideas: When people get ideas, they are raw and many times unclear. If you ask clarifying questions it helps them to expand on their ideas. Sometimes people are not sure if their ideas are worthy of submission. Encouraging them helps. When one is playing this sounding-board role, it is important not to be judgmental at this point even if you feel the idea may not work. This is easier said than done and needs alertness. For a large campaign, volunteers may be needed to play this role of sounding board or catalyst.
7. Idea selection: If ideas are posted on a wall in your office, idea selection could mean just doing tick marks. Depending upon the number of ideas, idea selection may go through two or three rounds. For example, ideas posted on a portal may go through a social selection process similar to likes on a social media site. One could also invite a panel to select ideas.
8. Prototyping/experimentation: Authors of the selected ideas are invited to build low-fidelity prototypes. This is a tricky stage because idea authors may not get time to do this work. One way to overcome this issue is by organizing an event such as a hackathon where the idea authors work individually or by bringing collaborators to build prototypes. Prototypes may also include storyboards, wireframes, paper models, CAD models, 3D printed models, scrap material demos, etc. This stage may require organizers to make relevant tools available to the idea authors. I typically get pushback from manufacturing companies saying that this is not practical. However, in most cases, this can be done with some preparation.
9. Selection and preparation for final presentation: After prototyping, there could be another round of selection for final presentations to the sponsor and his panel. In the final presentation, the panel typically looks at return-on-investment potential for ideas. However, idea authors may not have the skills to make a business case. Hence, the idea authors may need mentoring. The campaign organizers may have to facilitate this process of identifying right mentors for finalists.
10. Presentation to the sponsor/panel: This is the final stage. The most important aspect of this stage is the nature of sponsorship for the selected ideas. If you give gift coupons and end the show that sends a poor message. As mentioned in step-2, if the challenge is business relevant, then the sponsorship should reflect that. In the case of iPhone challenge, Ken Kocienda became the feature owner for the multitouch autocorrect function and began developing it further full-time. In the case of Titan’s diamond bagging machine, I am sure there was a dedicated cross-functional team that worked on it as a formal project. Note that the sponsorship doesn’t have to be for the complete implementation. Like a typical venture fund, it could be for a specific milestone of validating certain assumptions be it need, technical feasibility, performance, etc.
Hope you find the checklist useful. Happy to hear your input.
Sources:Titan’s diamond bagging machine story is also described in “The 9 nuggets of innovation” by L R Natarajan, page 16.