[Blog] Adding value now is fast becoming a must-do

The signals I see make it urgent for innovators to retool and add practical value for their org now, using tools that work already.

[Blog] Adding value now is fast becoming a must-do

Strange signals about the world of innovation are piling up. Today, they snapped into a coherent mosaic picture for me.

Maybe they mean nothing. But my gut feeling is that the system-level changes we keep talking about are actually taking hold, though from unexpected directions.

What I had been seeing already

I previously wrote about innovation teams having to shift their focus to becoming more relevant to their organization now.

But even as recently as a few months ago, I saw it as a cyclical priority for 2024. No longer. It may be a much more fundamental change.

A quick overview:

There already is cyclical trouble

The overall economy is iffy (at least in the U.S. and EU).

  • The U.S. Fed may have achieved most of a "soft landing," but inflation is a lot more persistent than expected.
  • Meanwhile, U.S. hiring (broadly) is slowing down.
  • Specifics differ in Europe, but also look decidedly "meh" overall. E.g., on the one hand. Fiscally, inflation fears are more muted. But major economies, especially Germany, aren't doing great.

Consulting and professional services, writ large, are experiencing major pull-backs.

  • Even in early 2023, McKinsey and Bain delayed hiring to 2024 and EY cut jobs. So that's a year+ ago!
  • On top of that backlog, there are now additional cuts, not to mention major shuffling around of remaining employees.

Innovators–even global-level innovation experts–are feeling the pinch.

  • Personally, I have seen innovation teams' getting pummeled across geographies and industries: Some "merely" get their budgets decimated. Others. are re-org'd to other, more tactical objectives (like becoming a UX team). And yet others are laid off, either in part or in whole.
  • And it's not just "normal" innovation teams. In case you missed it, IDEO, for example, arguably the most famous of global innovation firms, laid off a third of their staff in late 2023 and closed a bunch of offices. That's huge!
  • Even true world-class experts experienced it. I can't find the quote anymore. But even Rita McGrath, hero to Clay Christensen, wrote how terrible 2023 was.

So far, so bad. Then of course, AI showed up as a new shiny object:

AI is not yet eating our lunch

There are plenty of AI experiments, but little value in our specific area of corporate innovation.

  • Some experiments are straight-up applications of core AI tools. E.g., David Bland, co-author of Testing Business Ideas, created "ExperimentsGPT", to apply the principles from the book. He also trained GPTs to recognize and characterize assumptions by desirability vs. viability and feasibility.
  • Others try to automate an entire Design Thinking and Lean Startup Build/ Test/ Learn cycle. Venture studio U+, for example, announced the launch of "the world's first enterprise venture discovery AI." But even that has limits. BTW: If you wonder what that is, they describe it like this:
"[An] AI-driven venture discovery platform does more than just generate a list of ideas; it uses an advanced algorithm to analyze, categorize, and rank these concepts based on their potential for success. It takes into account various factors such as market trends, competitive landscape, and strategic alignment with your focus area. The result is a prioritized list of potential ventures, allowing you to understand at a glance which ideas hold the most promise and align best with your strategic objectives."
  • Finally, there's a vast range of innovation-adjacent or innovation-enabling capabilities. But talk to people who have actually used them routinely (or use them yourself), and you realize that the quality of those tools is not good enough yet, beyond a few very narrow use cases. For example, none of the startups trying to replace PowerPoint appear to gain traction beyond standard decks like startup pitch decks.
  • Ok, a few of those enabling tools work. Interview recording, transcribing, and synthesis, for example, works pretty well by now. But that's hardly world-changing for innovation overall.

Mind you, AI will get there. It's a great fit for classic, low-end disruption that eventually moves up-market. But not yet.

Meanwhile, clients are aggressively calling BS on innovation theater

Relevance to the rest of the company is non-negotiable.

  • Ten important thought-leaders already called this out in late 2023, as I shared then.
  • Since then, the drumbeat has accelerated. Just as one example, Peloton, recently cut loads of jobs and fired their CEO. Why? Company-specific details aside, "Peloton 'simply had no other way to bring its spending in line with its revenue.' The cost-cutting comes as Peloton tries to stop losing money and grow past its identity as a seller of luxury fitness equipment."

Even the most powerful innovators are expected to deliver business value, or else.

  • You might argue that companies like Peloton are merely out of step with user needs or trends. But consider that the same message now also extends to companies like Tesla, Meta, and others whom you might consider exempt from such short-term demands. Even for them, the Wall Street Journal, for example, reports on this demand: "Forget Moonshots. Investors Want Profit Now. CEOs might resist the new investor mantra of Show Me the Money--but if they do, their share price is likely to suffer."

All right. So in total:

Innovation must justify its very existence, right now, for all organizations. If you don't see it in your org, it might just be that you're not in the room when people discuss this.

The new thing

AI is mucking things up more than it helps at the moment

For all the froth around AI, it seems like it's producing a bunch of garbage right now.

  • Even humorists have picked up on AI turning ideas into bland social media content ... which other people then boil down to their essence using yet more AI.
  • This is causing practical problems, for example to content creators (like me 😄). LinkedIn appears to continue to tweak their algorithm, ostensibly to reward high-quality content for niche audiences. Or said another way, it's responding to and attempting to filter out a flood of AI-created junk.
  • I am newly seeing active conversations in forums of people like me just how much of an impact this appears to have.

Interestingly, a range of new solutions seems to emerge

Common factors: Speed, expertise, creation, and results over glamor.

  • For the first time, I have seen professional services people user Notion-created websites even for something as important as their personal webpage, e.g., here. Think about this: Even general-purpose webpage builders like Wix and niche-audience builders like Ghost, on which this blog is built, are now treated as over-engineered. Instead, a mere Notion document gets the main points across and suffices. No pictures, not contact forms. Just straight to the answers in bulleted-list format. Similarly, a consultant I know just shifted from marketing consulting to Notion tool-building and consulting.
  • Other no-code and low-code systems are also growing. Both explicit API connectors like Zapier and built-in functions in tools like the Google Suite are letting organizations create simple solution prototypes that work. No mockups (or AI) required. And if you don't know how to do it, professionals will help you.
  • Finally, even the bar for creating "real" digital tools is getting ever more aggressive. Sure, a full-featured app might still set you back $1 million in salary or dev shop costs. But you can now get a live, single-feature app launched in the Apple App Store in 10 days, for $30k. Mind-blowing. 🤯🤩

What you might do with this

Clearly, this is an evolving trend. And it's hard to make sense of it while in the middle of it.

So first, use healthy skepticism and do your own research: What applies to your world? What doesn't?

💰 Make business value a front-burner topic, core to your creative work

What seems incontrovertible though is that every team that gets paid a salary had better add value in the near-term. So if that is not an explicit part of your team's offering, better add that. 😄

For example, extend your deliverables to include a text-based business case. Want to go further? Add a quick back-of-envelope market sizing estimate. This doesn't have to be fancy but can already show that you add value in ways that people understand.

🏎️ Rip apart "standard" methods ... and re-combine for speed-to-results

I once worked with a premier global innovation agency. They took 3 months to generate design principles, personas, and the like. Then it took another 3 - 6 months, depending on how you count, to get to prototypes. By that point, no business or operational functions had been involved. It was pure customer-facing front-end with no ability to execute. Eventually, senior management lost patience, canceled it all, and just created something incremental themselves. Don't let that happen to you.

For example, if your process follows standard trends & foresights and design thinking steps, with no functional solutions until you get several months into the work, consider creating a simple, hacked solution early in your work, a "Week 1 Solution." It's like an insane Design Sprint, where you deliver the real, functioning core of something useful fast. Then you spend the rest of the time refining and adding features. But it was obvious from the start that you can deliver value because you already have.

🤿 Become expert at less-sexy but useful tools

Banish the "can'ts." A lot of things are possible if you stop telling yourself what you "can't" do. I "can't" ... program, use Notion to create webpages or Airtable to create databases. I can't learn income statements. I can't ... you get' the point.

For example, go on YouTube or some other platform and learn the basics of the automation tools built into Windows, Microsoft Office, macOS, or whatever platform you use. Or hook up Zapier to one of your tools. Maybe use MS Forms or Google Forms to automate something. Become an Airtable pro. Learn to use ChatGPT/ MS Copilot to clean up messy data. The options are endless. But consider what aspects of your work produce tangible value to the rest of your company, and become good at speeding that up.

In the end, you can add tangible value now.

Just value it.

And start.

Want me to help?

Let's talk.