What are innovation speedboats – and how do you scale them to your need?

What are innovation speedboats

By Erik Korsvik Østergaard, 23. November 2017

You might have heard the term “speedboat” when talking about innovation. These constructions are often seen as fast, fun, and flamboyant, with dedicated locations, lot’s of post-its and freedom, and a boheme-esque interior design. These speedboats are a modern and popular approach to radical innovation in large organizations.

But, how do you scale that thinking down to your own situation, if you do not have that kind of funding, man power, or organizational surplus? And, what IS an innovation speedboat really?

The mysterious Project-X speedboats

As a reaction to the strong and omnipresent technological development, several companies have formed more-or-less secret innovation projects, often code-named and categorized “ProjectX”. Some of the famous Danish examples are MobilePay initiated by Danske Bank (and now a self-propelled legal entity), the ISS Corporate Garage, and the LEO Pharma Innovation Lab. These are huge investments, and require a strong management dedication, funding, and support.

The term “speedboat” is a mental picture that is in contrast to a “supertanker”. A supertanker has steady pace, and is hard to turn. The direction is set, the range is long, and the inertia is high. In contrast hereto you have the speedboat: small, movable, but with short range and only a very small crew.

The analogy to organizations is immediate: The supertanker is your well-oiled production apparatus, with LEAN, with targeted organizational structures, and with a dedicated focus on the goal. The speedboats on the other hand are your experiments, explorations, and innovation projects.

These speedboats are most famous in the larger companies, but the thinking can easily be translated to your own department or the SMB’s.

The characteristics of an innovation speedboat

Launching a speedboat – or a small fleet of them – requires that you know why you do it: Why are you initiating an innovation activity? What are the characteristics of it? Have you mapped your innovation activities at all? Take a look at this blog post on how to Map Your Innovation Spectrum.

Also, it requires that you get rid of the “innovation alienation”, that is, the fixed thinking that innovation is something that happens in R&D, requires special skills, and some kind of Eureka-moment. Innovation can and should happen everywhere in your organization, focusing both on products, processes, and organizational dynamics (for example, be innovative with your leadership).

A speedboat must have:

  • A quest
  • A crew
  • A time frame
  • A learning objective
  • Freedom

The quest is your task. Maybe you want to investigate the benefits of using Microsoft Teams instead of Yammer. Maybe you want to justify the roll-out of a new performance management system. Maybe you want to understand what virtual reality can do for the real-estate industry. Most likely you already have a bunch of ideas (crazy or matured), that you can prioritize and get started on. If not, then you can facilitate a hackathon, a meet-the-customer session, or get inspired from attending a future oriented technology festival. The quest is then some kind of phrasing of what you’re curious about, and what you want to pretotype, prototype, or explore.

The crew should be between 2 and 6 employees. No-one must work solo, because we deliberately seek to make sparks fly by joining forces with somebody who sees things differently. And the team must not be larger than they can share two pizzas for lunch (a term often credited to Jeff Bezos) to ensure relationships, smooth communication, and the right amount of professional intimacy. The different roles on the speedboat varies depending on the quest, but might cover user experience skills, technical skills, and business skills. They should be assigned to employees with diversity in e.g. age, background, cognitive approach, gender, and “am I good at starting, driving, or closing projects”-skills.

The time frame is important and often overlooked. It’s a great idea to limit the time frame for the activities, say, to 10 days or 100 days: Your quest must end within 10 days, where I expect you back to report your findings. Clearly, the activities and the expectations with regards to the depth, credibility, and documentation relies on the nature of the quest, and the maturity of the idea – and this indicates how long a time frame you should give for the quest. But, make sure to be firm with the time frame.

The learning objective is something that for example Eric Ries has taught us how to establish. In his book “The Lean Startup” he calls it validated learning. Your learning objective is highly correlated with the level of maturity of your quest, and the mapping in the innovation matrix. The crucial part is that you have to present a concrete finding. It can be a head-to-head comparison of value-creation between actual usage of Microsoft Teams vs. Yammer, with measurements of time usage. It can be the results of a vague pretotype, with a qualitative interview of a few employees; or it can be a business justification with results from a prototype and indications of value creation. The bottom-line is that you must have a learning objective; and you must present a finding when you return home from the quest.

Last but not least, the speedboat needs freedom to approach the quest in new ways. One important thing is to mutually agree on the level of delegation and mandate, and the funding the the speedboat can use. Once the speedboat heads out on the quest, the management team should avoid to interfere and control the activities. Surely, this is not a carte blanche to just do as you want, and the management team is rightfully obliged to get reports and feedback in regular intervals; just as we do when we work in sprints in the Scrum-framework. Don’t leave the management in the dark. They DO have the overall responsibility for everything in the organization. (Also, quit calling it “a steering committee”. Use the term “Advisory Board” instead.)

Go sail!

Launching speedboats does not require huge investments. It is something you can start right now, using the few rules above.

It does though take a bit more facilitation and care, when you have a fleet of speedboats, that work together to investigate a larger, coherent business transformation or radical pivoting.

If you’re in doubt, you can always launch a speedboat as a speedboat.

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