The world of marketplace needs, consumer needs, and internal corporate politics can be highly nuanced. Yet, ultimately, innovation must deliver definitive solutions. What are some key “tricks” to managing ambiguity?
Step Forward: Take a step, any step. In the face of ambiguity, it is better to take some action rather than no action at all. Indecision kills innovation. The inability to carry an idea forward — or to kill an idea that’s not worthy of pursuit — will drain the organization’s resources, both human and financial. Instead, taking action will bring you additional information that will either confirm your direction or suggest a different path.
Prototype: Back in the dot-com days, companies tended to operate in “stealth mode” when developing new products and ideas, hoping to avoid tipping off competitors to a potential market opportunity. Since then, however, the lean startup methodology has proven that it’s more effective to get feedback from customers early and often, giving them prototypes to test and respond to. Although most people think that prototypes apply only to physical products, prototypes can apply to new services as well. For example, the Mayo Clinic uses a fast prototyping approach to test new patient services and processes. The clinic has a room, dubbed “The Hub” in which doctors, designers and even external partners like insurance companies work together to create new ideas. For instance, The Hub creates reconfigurable prototypes of patient check-in counters and examination rooms. Any team that develops a new service can observe the prototypes in action through glass and via video.
Crowdsource: Another way to disambiguate a situation is to get input from employees. Idea management software lets employees submit innovative ideas, vote on ideas they think are the most promising, and build upon or refine existing ideas to improve their robustness. This process reduces ambiguity by enabling a broader, more diverse array of participants to contribute their opinions, information and expertise.
Postpone: Postponement is a viable risk management strategy in many situations. The way to apply a postponement strategy during the innovation phase is to implement steps that move the idea forward but give you leeway to make adjustments or modifications later when you have more information. Companies such as HP do this routinely, especially when developing products for international markets. They build a version that could be sold in multiple markets and wait to customize it to be country-specific once they have more market data. This staged approach lets them move forward while delaying commitment to a specific market until the last step.
Modularize: A final tip for managing ambiguity is to pursue a modularity strategy. Modularity not only saves money in production, but — and more important — it gives you the opportunity to swap out one option in favor of another based on customer preferences or new technologies that appear during the lifecycle of your product. Motorola is pursuing this strategy for smartphones. Specifically, Motorola’s Project Ara consist of the phone’s basic structure — an “endoskeleton” — to which various modules can be added. These modules include a typical choices such as a keyboard or display, or they can be new options like a pulse oximeter. The modularity gives customers flexibility and adds to the smartphone’s longevity.