Disciplined Innovation Through Uncertain Times

Posted by Robert Slater on May 4, 2020

Robert Slater is Innovation Strategist at SlickLabs Innovation who leads motivated teams through the innovation process to deliver engineered solutions. Today he shares with us his insight on implementing a disciplined approach to innovation.

NOTE: I hate “you should” articles, so I only write about what I do.  This may not work for you, but hopefully it helps you find your sweet spot between critical/creative thinking and measured action.

Over the past month of the “quarantine era,” I’ve seen people in my various networks speculate on “what’s next” in healthcare, politics, and/or the economy. Me, I stay out of it. Primarily because it ends up being a holier-than-thou finger-pointing-exercise steeped in incomplete data. If I’ve learned any hard lessons in entrepreneurship and innovation, it’s that speculation is a fools’ game. What we do know is the environment is driving change across many industries. What we don’t know is how this will play out and what the new normal will be. I, for one, am trying to focus on what I do know to make the best decisions I can for my businesses. I don’t know how things will eventually turn out, but I do know it will be harder to stay afloat if I am undisciplined and let speculation control my businesses. Here are a few things I am doing to make sure I control what I can to the extent the circumstances permit.

I don’t engage the news.

As an engineer, it’s in my DNA to want an infinite data set so I can build a perfect understanding of the world around me. Unfortunately, the news has become a massive distraction and it’s hard not to get sucked into the swirling vortex of opinions. To combat this, I took a page from Tim Ferris: I just listen to my friends’ and associates’ discussions of what’s going on. I am on probably 6 hours of zoom calls every week and, at a minimum, the first 5-10 minutes of the call is the mandatory discussion of current events while we give Fred from accounting “a few more minutes to join.” If you value your time as much as I do, then this alone could be a game changer. And Fred, you’re really starting to piss me off.

I focus my time.

The easiest way for me to keep my focus is to remind myself who I am and what I do to filter through the value-add items that need to be done. I keep it simple:

I am a military officer, engineer, and entrepreneur. I help teams solve hard problems.

I am a USAF Reserve Officer; my job is to help our Airmen solve problems by connecting innovative small businesses with USAF SBIR funding. I am an Engineer; my job is to solve complex problems by using basic scientific principles. I am an Entrepreneur; my job is to solve problems that create a positive economic impact. To bound my play area, I also know what I am not. I am not a doctor, an economist, a politician … I think you get where I am going with this. I only work on problems I can help solve and equally reject any problems I cannot solve and those people I cannot influence. It doesn’t mean those problems don’t exist, but I only have so much time and I need to spend it where I can provide the greatest value. With so much volatility going on, little exercises like these help me stay the course and avoid getting off track.

I innovate only where necessary.

This past month hit us with the hard reality that even great preparation can’t account for every scenario. It has highlighted a lot of weaknesses and gaps we didn’t know we had. As an entrepreneur, I want to fill these gaps if that means creating new jobs, saving businesses, building communities, etc. However, anything not related to who I am and what I do puts everything I’ve worked on and everyone I work with in jeopardy. So how do I pivot/innovate in through uncertainty?

I keep it simple. I keep it disciplined.

I wrote a LinkedIn article on how to innovate that covered disciplined innovation in terms of designing like an artist, building like an engineer, and leading like a general. In all honesty, I am not interested in the artist side of me right now. It’s important to maintain that creative curiosity, but I am more focused on leading/executing through these tough times – now is not the time to be dorking around with speculative business models or unproven features. My favorite/cleanest way to approach any pivot or innovation is the Heilmeier Catechism. Simple questions that really help me decide if I am pivoting out of speculation and hope, or pivoting to fill an economic need. Once the decision to pivot is made, a great tool I use are Objectives and Key Results. This is an essay unto itself, but in a nutshell, it helps identify goals, aligns teams, and holds everyone accountable to the objective’s success. If you’re a super nerd, read up on Dr Andy Grove for the history of OKRs!

Unfortunately, the previous economic boom turned innovation into a catch-all buzzword relegated to bean bag chairs, ping pong tables, and kegs in the kitchen. While fun and great website fodder, the lack of discipline and accountability didn’t help us build better innovators prepared to step up in these critical situations. The good news is, however, that innovation is pretty simple … it’s just not easy. There are multiple ways to think about and implement a disciplined approach to innovation in your company, I’ve provided only one such way to get started fast. While these times are certainly going to test us, I am optimistic and personally looking forward to the success of those gritty innovators who make it happen.

Robert Slater

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