Innovation Session: Innovation Sessions

Last December – nearly five months ago – I posted my first innovation session. The idea was one that I had been floating just long enough to come up with a name (which I later found out is another name for a brainstorm).

I was driving home after a surf session one Saturday, a time in which my head is usually very idea filled thanks to endorphins and adrenaline, and I realized that I could practice innovating. It dawned on me that innovation is a mental response and like other responses, it could be trained and strengthened.

I am a strong believer in innovation. Not only do I enjoy it, but it is also the skill set that I will likely depend on to put food on my family’s table for the next 40 or so years. The magnitude of that realization led me to take action and create situations where I could practice innovating and strengthen my innovation response. The resulting sessions have looked like some combination of business plan exercises, hackathons, Google’s twenty percent time & writing a research paper.

What is innovation?

It is a mental response to facing a problem while equipped with limited resources. We do not innovate every time we face problems. When faced with common problems we often rely on common solutions. We innovate when face problems that there is not an adequate solution for within our constraints. We innovate because we are short on money, time, patience, material, labor, etc. This is, I believe, one reason large companies do not tend to innovate well – they aren’t constrained as dramatically by limited resources.

What are innovation sessions?

Now, five months and 13 innovation sessions later, I would like to define what an innovation session is. My main hope is that it will help me stay focused and say no to things that are not innovation sessions. But, I am also hopeful that others will be inspired to find ways to adapt this format and take part in their own innovation sessions.

Goal & Benefits

Innovation sessions have provided me with three benefits. They allow me to:

  1. train my innovation skills by introducing my mind to new and diverse problems, racking my brain for solutions and to exposing the resulting solutions to public criticism.
  2. explore ideas I have for products, visualizations or tools
  3. learn new skills and hone others that I do not use as regularly in my day job

The first benefit was my initial intent – the training of my innovation response. Like we subject our muscles to strain in the gym to make them stronger, I want to submit my problem solving skills to strain in order to strengthen them. I try to present myself with diverse problems to broaden my focus – thus preparing me better for more future situations.

I try to plan each week so that the result is some sort of delivered solution – whether that is a working product or spec. Ensuring I reach this point allows me to present the solution publicly and get feedback. This part of the loop is important – I’ve found that whether or not anyone reads a post or leaves a comment – the knowledge that it is public holds me to certain standard and results in a higher quality of work.

The second benefit is the exploration of an idea. Like many of you, I am constantly coming up with ideas for new things. Often I find myself thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if someone made a…” or “we should build an app that…”. When I have those thoughts I note them as ideas for future innovation sessions. Exploring these ideas is a mental release. The act of testing the idea for four hours often results in the conclusion that the idea wasn’t as cool as I thought – but I would rather find that out than spend years dwelling on it.

The third benefit is the increasing and maintaining of skills. There are tons of tools, programs and languages that I would like to explore but haven’t been able to set aside time for. As I think through projects I will often favor those where I might be able to learn to do something new. Lately I’ve been itching to play with the D3 data visualization language and so it would be a smart bet to guess that you will see animated charts on my blog in the next few weeks.

Additionally there are skills I have that I have to some degree but do not use regularly in my day job that I would like to maintain. I used to do a lot of video editing, photoshopping, internet marketing, programming and blogging but I don’t spend much time doing those as a product manager. I’ve made a conscious decision that these aren’t things I want to do full-time, but I believe they are still useful skills to have and would like to maintain them for future projects I work on. Innovation session are a great opportunity to keep them up to date.

Format

I set aside four hours every Tuesday night for my innovation sessions. I look at as 200 hours a year of fighting status quo.

The goal is to start and finish in four hours – but I sometimes cheat and do some research ahead of time or end up staying up until 2 am finishing something. I need to get better at that because the four hour window is on of the constraints I’ve put on myself to force innovation.

The night starts by defining the focus area and starting to research if anyone else has tried to tackle the problem. I love seeing other solutions as they often give me ideas I can build off of. Sometimes I find a solution so awesome that I don’t think I can improve it in four hours – in those cases I pick a new problem for the night.

The rest of the time is spent racking, hacking, building and writing. I like to write as I design or program to capture my train of thought. Running these processes in parallel allows me to explore a lot of paths quickly in the format that is quickest. I end up deleting and rewriting a lot which is a nice iterative process.

Throughout the session I tend to learn a lot about the subject or the tools, but it is after I ship is when most of the innovation learning takes place. As I get feedback from other people, find out about projects I hadn’t found in my research and think of new ideas myself I start to see paths I hadn’t thought of. In those aha moments where I see something better I must process why I limited myself to one solution and how I can better equip myself to explore more possibilities next time.

Concluding Thoughts

At their core innovation sessions are about solving problems. This leaves the doors open for a wide range of project possibilities. The session focus, blocked calendar time and week-to-week project switching create an environment that fosters a broad learning of skills and a deep learning of innovation.

I’m excited to see where my next projects take me and hopeful that others will be inspired. If you decide to try out innovation sessions, let me know how they go – maybe your first one can be to iterate on my format – I’m sure there are ways to improve it.

Examples

Here are some of my favorite innovation sessions so far if you feel like taking a look at some examples

Building a Better Surfing App With Data

Boardgames + Math: Pass The Pigs

Gathering Data on Myself

Best NFL Team

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