There’s a really well-known book called ‘Great by Choice’ by business management expert, Jim Collins and it’s great. It certainly has a place on my bookshelf.
In the book, Jim talks about firing tracer-bullets, then cannonballs. The tracer-bullets are low-cost, low-risk experiments to figure out what will work. These small shots are designed to calibrate your line of sight until you're ready to bring out your cannonball. You don’t have many cannonballs so when you do fire them, you want to make sure they are going to hit. When you fire the cannonball you’re concentrating your resources into one big bang, and as it’s based on tested evidence it has a much higher chance of working. It’s also worth mentioning that a cannonball is going to take your competitors clean out in the process or push you so far ahead, they find it hard to keep up. This concept of firing tracer-bullets and then big cannons is also described in the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (another great book that I recommend that you read).
They observe that this process of small proven ideas (small bullets) and huge hits (cannonballs) is the way to innovate – and as a technologist, I would agree. As a human, I’m not interested in blowing anything up – not even my competitors. I much prefer to see innovation in healthier terms.
Often people will say ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’ but in tech, we sprint. We sprint over and over again until we’re ready to sprint on the stage that matters - the marketplace - speed matters.
Today’s digital economy is all about speed. Moving forward with technology has its risks – risks to security, risks of compatibility, risks of making the wrong choice – but sitting still is the greatest risk of all. This new age is about how fast you can move and adapt more than anything.
As an innovator in digital transformation, I’m concerned with how processes can be broken down and automated then integrated in businesses. In my day-to-day, my company harnesses machine learning, AI and deep design thinking to make this possible.
Getting your organisation sprinting is creating a safe space for innovation where you can challenge the status quo, make quick decisions and take action. When you start sprinting, it is important to identify all the problems that need to be solved and allow teams the freedom to be critical. It is all about thinking in a new and free-flowing form. At this stage we’re not looking at what competitors are doing, it’s much more about trying to do better with your own product or process. The composer who leads the orchestra stands with his back to the audience, remember that.
Once you’ve mined for issues, it’s time to explore the possibilities. Work as a team to refine and select the best opportunity. You will in no doubt have lots of PostIt notes to collate, scribbles on stray paper and photos on your phone to go through. It’s worth it. Don’t leave any thoughts forgotten, if it was worth saying then it’s worth remembering now.
Once you’ve found that golden opportunity, it is now it is possible to build something tangible. A prototype designed with your discoveries and ideas in mind which can be tested in the field or to a beta audience. When we’re talking about prototypes, in my world, this might be a working machine learning model that predicts potential fraud or pricing, a bot that can answer common customer service queries via multiple channels or a mobile app that can be used by customers to identify your products.
The main event
Depending on the results of the testing, your team may be in a position to head for the main event, launching to market (shoot your cannonball). For some this could be huge, but it could be the case that your launch is a new version or a small improvement. You’re only set to reap rewards and marginal gains could be all that’s needed right now to give you a return on investment for years to come. Who knows where those gains could lead now you’re on the right path. And if you don’t get the results you need head back to your speed work and start sprinting again.
Sprint training tips
It’s important to think about more than what you’re currently doing - are you truly thinking outside the box?
During the sprint try to recognise the biases people carry with them and challenge individuals to think differently about the business, their customers and themselves.
Try and work with people who have the technical expertise to speed up understanding and analysis of key problems. This will bring the right answers on what is possible and what is realistic without stifling creativity.
Try and bring a fresh perspective into the thinking. You have the knowledge to deliver more and better value to your users. Work with people that will help unlock that knowledge with challenging lines of questioning.
When you’re reviewing possibilities and opportunities align everything with your business objectives and strategies.
Often globally-renowned, successful products can appear to the outside like a single creative breakthrough. In fact, most of these moonshots come about from an iterative process based more upon empirical validation than visionary genius. A set of tested and well-timed sprints. Crudely put, before you can design a car, you need to be able to design a skateboard, a bicycle and a motorbike first.
As long as you’re getting there fast, it’s not important how many sprints it takes. You’re building something in the right direction and you’re thinking bigger than ever before.
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