Innovation Process

I’m at the European Innovation Academy (EIA) in Turin this week, where 258 university students from around the world are immersed in a three-week program to learn how to bring innovative products and services to market.

The framework used by EIA is an amalgam of methodology developed by Stanford, UC Berkeley, Google, and others. While many people think of this as a process to be used by a brand-new startup, I think it is equally effective as a framework for existing companies to use in creating innovative products and services.

Here’s the general process we follow at the EIA:

  • Ideation:
    This is the free-form process of coming up with ideas. In the EIA program the 258 students came up with 58 different ideas last week, and then they organically formed teams of 5 around each idea (five people is usually just about the perfect size for an innovation team).

  • Problem-Solution Fit:
    Successful innovation depends on finding a real problem to be solved, and then developing a real solution. The EIA program encourages students to think about problems as being along a continuum from “mosquito bite” (not that much of a problem) to a “shark bite” (a very big problem) – obviously bigger problems offer bigger opportunities. Ideation involves iterating on the problem and the solution until you have come up with the right fit and have come up with a good solution to a significant problem.

  • Prototyping:
    The next step is to build a prototype. At the EIA, they believe in starting with a paper prototype (even with digital products). Building an early prototype allows you to further think through your innovation, what features it needs to have, what the salient user benefits are, etc. (one of my favorite maxims is that good engineers built prototypes to show something, while great engineers build prototypes to learn something).

  • Business Model Canvas:
    The Business Model Canvas has become a well-accepted tool for entrepreneurs to use to brainstorm about their particular business model, where the risks are, what the important drivers are, etc. The EIA uses a variant (the same variant I use at Stanford) developed by Ash Maurya called The Lean Canvas, because it uses nomenclature that is a little better aligned with Lean Startup Methodology. For me, the Canvas helps to expose where the risks are with your particular business model. And exposing the risks helps you to know where you should focus your energy.

  • Customer Development:
    This is the process developed by Steve Blank and popularized by Eric Reis, and can be summarized as “get out of the building and test your assumptions”. Many new product ideas have failed because they were based on assumptions that turned out to be wrong. The Customer Development process can be broken down into Customer Discovery (interviewing prospective customers in order to really understand their needs) followed by Customer Validation (validating that your particular solution fits actually fits those needs).

  • Marketing Strategy:
    For most startups, marketing is really customer acquisition. The leading case of startup death is lack of customers, and the second leading cause of startup death is that CAC (customer acquisition cost) ends up being greater than LTV (the lifetime value of a customer). So it’s important to think about this early, if you would like to prevent premature startup death!

  • Build and Launch MVP:
    A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is an initial product that only has the minimum features required to viably address some customer needs. Again, the purpose is to learn. By getting an MVP into the hands of a few customers, we can learn from them in a way that helps us to develop a successful final product.

  • Iteration:
    Successfully launching and maintaining a new product or service in the marketplace requires iterating through all of the above, over and over again. Companies like Google and Facebook are trying out new product ideas and features every day, seeing how the market reacts to them, and then adjusting accordingly. Rapid iteration on the processes above is the key to launching and running any venture in today’s marketplace.

Using this process at the European Innovation Academy this week, 58 teams are going from a napkin-sketch of an idea to a launch-ready, investment-ready venture in just three weeks.

Most importantly, we’re having fun doing it! Having fun and launching innovative new products and services.