Ideation: Tips from a Year in the JHub
By James Kuht
This is the first article in a series of four on my experiences of innovation at the jHub/jHubMed – UK Strategic Command’s innovation hub. They are intended for anyone who is interested or actively involved in innovation or entrepreneurship.
I have attempted to write them in a logical flow, commencing with (1) ideation – hatching a good idea worth pursing, then (2) how to get stuff done and build on these ideas, (3) next covering leadership, anticipating you might be starting to build a team around your project as it grows in scale and (4) covering personal development – which should be a continuous and valuable by-product of your innovation journey for you and your team, but is sometimes neglected.
The structure of each article is intended to give three to five actionable points for each topic. I do not claim to be an expert in innovation, nor that these points are exhaustive, but simply that I believe these principles were fundamental to the success of the teams I worked in – delivering three disruptive innovation projects in a large bureaucracy (the military) in 18 months.
Let us dive in with the first article, on ideation.
What is Ideation?
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”Albert Einstein
Just like authors get “writers block”, “Innovators block”, the sheer inability to come up with any decent innovative ideas, is a legitimate condition too.
I had my most severe bout of “Innovators block” when my previous jHub boss gave me a call one Sunday afternoon and said, “James, I want you to focus only on ‘10X’ ideas – your remit is to only go after the biggest and boldest ideas”. [a “10X” idea is one which would fundamentally disrupt an industry, a product 10X better than what is currently available, and might require a ground-breaking approach to a problem. Think Uber, or Amazon, or self-driving cars]
Sure enough, when you start to try to think up “10X ideas”, it is hard to know where to start! The remit was so vast it felt insurmountable. I had innovator’s block.
After putting it off for weeks and weeks, my boss suddenly asked “what’s going on with your 10X ideas? I’d like to see a summary of them next week…”The answer, of course, was ‘nothing’. Cue the mad-panic-all-nighter to try and formulate some.
Below are a few tips I wish future me could have told lazy me at the time, that would have helped me to ideate more effectively, and saved me the stress. Get ready to re-shape your calendar, grasp some formulas that spit out disruptive ideas, and get ready to execute on them.
Protected time is key
“You are your diary”Stephen Hart, MD of the NHS Leadership academy, interviewed here on the Military Medicine Podcast
The first point to touch on, is the criticality of protected time for coming up with good ideas. Without protecting diary time for ideating you simply will fill the time with meetings and answering emails.
I aimed for 2 ‘premiere’ hours per day. ‘Premiere’ meaning a time when you’re at your most creative; for me, first thing in the morning.
Without this protected time, none of the tools below are going to work. Do it, block 2 hours a day in your diary for a week or two and switch your emails off during that time.
Write a future-back narrative
So, you have protected some time, now where to start?
This tip is unashamedly borrowed from a great book called Leading Transformation. They used this strategy to turn a stagnant US department store (Lowes) into one of the most innovative companies on the planet.
They suggest writing (in science fiction style) a short “future-back narrative”. A sci-fi style vision of what the organisation (or a specific area/problem of it) you are trying to innovate in might look like in 20 years’ time.
Do not hold back!
To give you an example, I wrote a short future-back narrative about combat first aid – envisioning a scene in 20 years-time where medics use AI decision aids to guide their life-saving actions on the battlefield, projected in real-time into their vision using Mixed-Reality (MR) glasses.
Then once you have envisioned something wild, it is time to drill down into two things;
- Which components of your vision are realistically achievable now – perhaps having been achieved in another industry?
- …for those components that are not achievable, what is the step that could be taken now to take us a step closer to that future state?
For the example above, to get to AI decision aids (arguably currently unreachable for the UK DMS – the Defence Medical Services), we needed mass upskilling in AI in the DMS to start harnessing the data we collect to train appropriate algorithms. So, I proposed building a coding/AI upskilling scheme. It is now the biggest across Whitehall. Secondly, to get to a state where medics in the field are wearing MR headsets that allow them to bring up these decision aids when they need them, or perhaps even guide their actions, the first place to start would be developing MR simulation trainers. The use case we felt would have the most impact initially was CBRN, so we developed a CBRN Mixed-Reality simulation trainer which will shortly be the first MR simulation trainer delivered in Defence.
See if you can come up with 10 different ideas for your domain of innovation from this way of thinking – what would a future-back narrative look like for the engineering in 20 years-time (predictive maintenance/AR to assist engineers?), administration/HR (all accessed through a mobile, fully automated?) etc. What are the steps you can take now to take us closer this future vision?
Ok, once you have had some fun with that try out the next tool.
“Why do so many world-changing insights come from people with little or no related experience? Charles Darwin was a geologist when he proposed the theory of evolution. And it was an astronomer who finally explained what happened to the dinosaurs.”Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect
What are the chances that you or I (a Doctor) would come up with a great new military innovation in the engineering space?
Engineers are smart, possibly smarter than both of us, and have more domain-specific knowledge – they know the problems and conventional solutions to them.
Many would argue that the only way we would plausibly outsmart them is by transplanting a solution from another field (perhaps our own) into theirs.
It is at this intersection, where excellence from one domain is shifted to solve a problem in an entirely different one, where some of the most exciting innovations/discoveries happen. As an innovator, this is where you can add the most value – you might be bilingual in tech and medicine (or whatever your subject domain), so have an unfair advantage to come up with game-changing innovations over your purely medical colleagues.
A (very) simple example is taken from Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto. It documents the tragic case of young lady undergoing routine surgery who died following failed intubation, in part due to the tunnel vision of the highly-experienced specialists involved and failure to follow procedure under a high-pressure situation. The late lady’s husband was a pilot and saw parallels between intubating a difficult airway under high-pressure and aspects of flying an aircraft. He noted that a checklist had been introduced to flying long ago and was remarkably effective for reducing critical error rates. Soon after, something similar was introduced for managing difficult airways as direct result of his insight, with a resulting significant decrease in critical airway events.
Aside from this sad example, coming up with some of these ideas can prove to be a fun game.
- Make 5-10 post-it notes of problems you would like to solve (i.e. gate guard for military bases, exiting a station, musculoskeletal injury downgrades, problem drinking in the military, lack of availability of doctor’s appointments).
- Then make 5-10 post-it notes of technologies and how they are successfully disrupting other industries (i.e. computer vision enabling facial recognition on a phone, robotic process automation transforming customer services, behavioural economics interventions to increase tax returns, etc).
- Then randomly match them up!
- It may take some work, but see whether you can solve the problem, using the technology! For example – if you matched up gate guard with computer vision, it is not hard to envisage replacing the soldier on gate-guard with a camera that recognised your face with computer vision and allowed or denied your entry to the based on whether it recognised you (this is fairly plausible – a KFC in China recently enabled “pay by face” – computer vision algorithms recognised who customers were when they made an order, checked they were alive [i.e. to avoid people holding pictures of others up!] then took the payment from their “Alipay” account (Alibaba provided service) automatically)
Emulating the best
My final tip is to think about some of our biggest problems/spend areas in the area you are trying to innovate in and imagine what they might look like if they were suddenly contracted out to the biggest and most technologically advanced companies on the planet that work in a connected industry. This is a sure-fire way to come up with innovative ideas that are already proven in the private sector. Here are a few of my thoughts:
What if Ocado ran military warehouses?
What if Uber ran your Military Transport Platoon?
What if Amazon ran military stores?
What if Google created our Military intranet search engine?
How to choose which idea to take forward
By now you have hopefully come up with a load of ideas. Perhaps aim for 20. There should be a broad range from ‘absolutely nuts’ to entirely plausible.
Open up a PowerPoint/equivalent and chuck each idea onto a slide. Here is a suggested format:
Once you have made your slides, print off all 20 – one idea per page.
Now find a big table and invite your bosses (or respected friends) to have a look at each of the ideas, and rank them on the table, in order of which they would like you to develop further.
You may or may not have found something they are really into – but at very worst it acts as a good range-finder for which way you should be angling your search!
When I did this, my favoured idea did not rank near the top. My boss and I argued about it, and I will try to help you avoid this situation.
- Agree at the start of the process what the output of this will be. Is your boss able to choose 1 or 2 you are going to proceed with, or have you already decided and you are just interested in his/her opinions?
- Appreciate that people have very differing opinions of what constitutes a good idea. Can you imagine when Mark Zuckerberg first pitched Facebook? “err, I’ve made a webpage where you can check out the pictures of other people on campus…” I doubt many people thought that was very 10X, but it has changed the landscape of human interaction, makes billions of dollars a year in advertising & has arguably shaped history. My boss and I argued over whether my preferred idea should be taken forward or not. He ended with a phrase I will never forget:
“We’ve disagreed candidly, but now we’ve decided, let’s proceed wholeheartedly”. Once decided, you have to focus on execution.
Executing on your idea
“Ideas are easy, execution is everything”John Doeer, Billionaire tech investor and author of “Measure what Matters”
This final point is covered extensively in the next article “Getting Stuff Done”, but I cannot stress enough that “ideas are easy, execution is everything”.
The slight steer in the context of this article (which has hopefully lead to some bold and risky ideas) is that if you are going to execute on something risky, try to run small experiments (as per The Lean Startup, a brilliant book) to prove/disprove your major hypotheses early. Do not be afraid to fail, you have got 19 back-up ideas left anyway
So, to conclude – hopefully this article has given you the confidence to block out a couple of hours a day in your diary for ideation and given you a few tools to systematically develop disruptive ideas. Perhaps it is also given you a strategy for whittling down your bold ideas – in the next article, we will tackle how to execute on them.
If you found this article interesting, read what else James learnt at the JHub in his other articles.