Making Innovative Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty

Photo by Daniel Oines

Photo by Daniel Oines

Last week I was inspired by the courage and decisiveness of my client team on a health and wellness project. We were at a point of convergence. The team had just completed 30 plus co-creation interviews with our target users and needed to make some tough decisions on how to move forward with our ideas for a new service platform. For the consultants at Peer Insight, workshops like these are always tough.  

Inevitably, the clients' thoughts turn to questions of feasibility and viability, to questions about 'exit strategies' and business owners, to thoughts of abandoning the most risky (and sometimes most compelling) parts of a service concept to avoid failure or criticism in the eyes of their superiors. 

So how do we make appropriately creative, yet informed decisions in the face of all these uncertainties? Well, as with any decision, there is no full-proof method to know what's exactly right, but here are a few principles that will help ease your mind as you dive into a new unknown: 

  1. Break your R&D into smaller investment stages. The larger the investment required, the more daunting the decision seems. Rather than infusing a large amount of money and resources into a project only one or twice throughout the research and development process, set up a series of smaller investment milestones based around your learning objectives. Ask yourself, what's the first thing I need to know or learn in order to make an additional investment in this project? Then set up a plan or design some experiments to gain the knowledge you need. Once you've reached that learning milestone, you'll have enough information to make a decision on whether or not to continue investing in the idea. These milestones help teams make quick decisions because they no longer have to invest an idea or a concept for the long-haul, instead they're only backing it until the next milestone. 
     
  2. Drive to your key assumptions. How do you know what you need to learn to make it to the next investment stage? Defining key assumption around your project or concept will help you identify the metrics you will need to reach to achieve 'decision quality data.' Key assumptions are the most risky or most compelling hypotheses you hold about your project or idea. These assumptions can be about the user, the technology, or the business/organization. Prioritizing these assumptions by the relative impact of their incorrectness will help you define the learning milestones you need to reach first, and in the future. 
     
  3. Look to your users for the answer. You're designing your product or service for your customers, not for yourself, so shouldn't they be the ones to make the decisions around what gets invested in? Often, it's easy for project teams to become enamored with an idea or to only listen to the opinions of their superiors for the way forward and ignore the input of the customers. But resist this urge and review your research data, you might be surprised by what the users are really telling you and by what you missed the first time. 

At the workshop last week, my clients showed great ability as leaders and innovators. They made quick decisions, listened to the users (and their guts), and successfully defined a new service platform to test in a Alpha test. 

While making decisions and putting stakes in the ground can be a stressful activity for an innovation team, using principles such as these helps shift the focus of the decision from a judgement of the competency of the team and to more concrete variables such as user feedback and learning goals. 

What are some of the tough decisions you've had to make on an innovation project? What tactics or tools did you use to get through them? 

Message me: @jess_dugan