When you look for innovation inspiration, it’s natural to look at others that have been successful. Netflix, Google, Disney, SpaceX, and more have all risen to the tops of their industries by producing innovation after innovation. And while it’s exciting when Google announces that they’ve developed an assistant that can make phone calls to schedule appointments for you and pass as a real person, it can also be somewhat deflating. Of course Google can do that. They have billions of dollars and 80,000 employees. How could little ol’ me ever hope to do something like that?
Fortunately there’s hope. None of these companies started off with a billion dollars. And even though they’re all in different industries, there’s one thing they all did from the very beginning. They learned how to evolve. Rather than come up with one big “disruptive” idea over night, they found success through evolution. By starting small and then taking one small step at a time, they got better and better.
It’s one thing, though, to commit to making small continuous change, but it’s another thing entirely to know what to change or how to change it. Without any kind of direction, you’ll wind up in an endless spiral. Fortunately there are three tried-and-true methods for finding what to change: feedback, retrospectives, and research. Through these methods you can ensure that your changes are taking you in the right direction, setting your organization on the path of true evolution.
Marshall Goldsmith, author of a number of leadership and management books, famously declared that “feedback is a gift.” Gathering feedback is the best way to improve the result of your work. It’s an opportunity to learn what is and what isn’t working about your design. Sure, as you’re designing, you’ll see things you don’t like and areas for improvement, but you don’t have all the good ideas; your teammates have some pretty good ones, too. The reason is simple. Everyone has a different perspective on your organization’s purpose and the people you’re designing for, so they come to the table with a new set of ideas. So how do we ingrain this habit in our culture to the degree that everyone is asking for feedback all of the time? We create organizational practices that encourage our teams to ask for feedback week after week.
Create multiple formal and informal mechanisms for gathering feedback. The first and easiest place to get feedback should be from your team and your organization. We’ve found this to be so valuable that we have a weekly, company-wide meeting for the sole purpose of gathering feedback. It’s a standing meeting with an open agenda, so anyone can bring their project forward for everyone to weigh in on. This can be anything from important prototypes of your core product to organization processes to a new piece of art for your space. Remember, everyone in your organizations is designing so everyone needs feedback. At these meetings, the person or people presenting will show off their idea and then everyone else will respond with their feedback. It’s important that the people presenting take the time to respond to each person’s thoughts after they’ve had time to carefully consider them. Responding to someone’s feedback shows that you value that person’s ideas and will show them that investing their time in giving you feedback was worth it.
As great as your co-workers are, they can never replace getting feedback from the actual people you’re designing for. There are tons of ways to do this, and they tend to vary based on what industry you’re in or what design problem you’re faced with. For example, if you’re in software design it’s possible (and a good idea) to record every session that your users have with your software so that you can easily look for trouble spots. This isn’t as easy when you’re designing a lesson plan for your next history class or you’re designing the next great art museum. However, just because it isn’t as easy doesn’t mean these designers are off the hook. It’s still possible (and still a good idea) to observe how your students are reacting to different classes or watch how the flow of people moves through your art gallery. Every organization needs to build their own practices into their weekly flow for observing their users. Beyond mere observation, every organization needs to regularly have conversations with their users. This should be fairly easy and really fun. When we are truly aligned with our organization’s purpose, we tend to have personal relationships with some of our users so that we can reach out to them at any time.
As we set up these practices for getting feedback from our team and from our users, we create an expectation that every design project goes through these processes before being released into the wild. The good news is that as you build in these weekly practices, everyone on your team will start getting more and more comfortable with the feedback process. It will start getting so easy that everyone will really start to embrace all of those other more informal mechanisms as well - like displaying your work around the office or talking about their project over a beer in your communal space. While every department will still have skill-specific feedback loops such as design reviews and code reviews, everyone across your organization organization-wide feedback loops. (For more tips on feedback check out these 8 lessons from the bestselling book on feedback.)
More than just improving the designs themselves, innovative organizations also focus on improving their processes. The principle of kaizen constantly implores us to do a better job and this can feel particularly demanding, especially at the beginning. So where do we start? How do we find a way to continue to improve without feeling so stressed and overwhelmed that we shut down our kaizen efforts altogether? Well, there’s no better way than to just keep taking a good long, hard look in the mirror (and when you’re getting ready in the morning doesn’t count). The practice of holding retrospectives are a way for us as a team to look in the mirror.
Retrospectives are team meetings in which you look back at how things have been going recently and come up with ideas to improve your processes. The details of how and when these meetings are run can vary depending on the team and circumstance. One common format is for every member of the team to take turns talking about what has gone well, what didn’t, and any ideas they might have for improvement. Larger teams often solicit topics of problem areas and vote on the most prevalent ones in order to make sure they have enough time to discuss the meatiest issues. At the end of each retrospective, teams should have a list of action items that they can take back to improve their processes. Occasionally, these aren’t flushed out enough, and you’ll have to spend some more time outside of the meeting coming up with ways to improve that specific process. As you continue to run more and more of these retrospectives, it’ll become easier and you’ll naturally find yourself changing up the format of them. This is a good thing. The format of your retrospectives can and should change.
When should you hold retrospectives? There were two schools of thought. The first is that they should be held on a regular, fixed schedule. Depending on the cadence of your organization, this can range between two to four weeks. The second school of thought is that they should be held on demand. After all, if something really bad goes down, why wait three weeks before discussing it? On the other hand, if you go weeks without a major crisis, you could be missing the opportunity to make important incremental improvements. Having ridden this pendulum back and forth a few times, I can confidently affirm that retrospectives should be held both regularly AND on demand. Hold them every few weeks, and, if a crisis comes up, once you’ve resolved it, hold another one then, too.
Trickier than the timing is coming up with the actual ideas for improvement. No need to fear, though! Coming up with an idea to improve your internal processes (and thus make your teammates’ lives better), why, that’s just designing, my dear Watson! Process design, in fact. The trick to process design is to visualize all the steps in the process, hone in on the trouble spots, and then understand the root cause of what went wrong. The best way to get to the root cause is through the five-whys method. In this method, you don your best toddler cap and relentlessly ask why something happened until you get to the root cause of the issue and pretty specific idea on how to improve that process.
One final trick to retrospectives is to avoid switch tracking. Switch tracking is when you unwittingly mix up multiple issues into one conversation. For retrospectives to be effective, make sure that you’re only talking about one issue at time. When things go wrong they often are interconnected. When we are talking about these issues it can be really easy for the conversation to move from one problem to another without even knowing that you just moved to another problem. When this happens, stop the conversation, make sure that everyone knows that these are two separate problems and then have one conversation at a time.
Retrospective meetings can often feel like they’re part of some 12 step program. They’re cathartic. They’re challenging. They emphasize sharing with your peers and building camaraderie. And they recognize that the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem.
As powerful as retrospectives are, they’re only one half of the equation when it comes to improving your processes. Other teams in other organizations have faced similar problems to some of yours and have already come up with brilliant solutions. No need to reinvent the wheel. Beg, borrow, and steal what you can from their experiences to make your team better on the cheap.
Even if doing research wasn’t your favorite thing in school, this kind of research is actually pretty easy and can be kinda fun. A lot of high-functioning teams, ones that have worked hard to solve their process problems, actually like sharing what they’ve learned through mediums like blogs (like this one!) where they frequently post about the lessons they’ve learned. Whether your field is software, architecture, medicine, or education, find the smart people in your field and see what they’re posting about. Of course blogs, aren’t the only places people write. Books are still a thing, and they’re chock full of great ideas . Watch TED talks. Join forums. Go to conferences. We’re big fans of conferences and try to go to at least one every year. Not only do you get to hear valuable insights from industry leaders, but you also get to talk with fellow compatriots and swap war stories. Every conference we go to, we’re on the hunt for ideas for new tools and processes we can take home with us.
In a way, it’s sort of like shopping on Black Friday. People are excited to be selling you lots of cool-sounding ideas, but you’d be crazy to take home everything they’re putting out there. So how do you tell the life-changing purchase from the next pet rock? The answer is organizational fit. A blogger or conference speaker could be touting the best idea in the world - but only in their context. What works in one organization could, for another, be a flop or worse -- a total disaster. Ok, so finding what “fits” is the key. But how are you supposed to know which ideas will fit? You don’t. You can never know ahead of time if a process change or a new tool is going to work out for you. Any time you introduce a change like that, it needs to be treated as an experiment. You have to be willing to walk away if it doesn’t pan out. But just because these changes can never be surefire doesn’t mean that they have to be total crap shoots either. The key is to look for other people and organizations that share your principles. These organizations are more likely to have come up with practices that will fit with your organization and propel you forward, so you can fulfill your purpose faster.
From Struggle to Habit
Evolution can be exhausting. It requires constant change. But all that effort is worth it, because it’s the only way to go from where you are today to where you want to be and join the innovation pantheon with the likes of Netflix, Google, Disney, and SpaceX. The key is to build rituals in your organization around Feedback, Retrospectives, and Research. Then you can turn evolution from a struggle to a habit.