Reverse innovation: Back your car into the highway

Reverse innovation: The action or process to use innovation methodology to build a solution that for various reasons already has been presumed.

(Thanks to Ash Maurya for enlightening conversations on this subject.)

It happens all the time: We already know what to build, or we’ve quite possibly built it already.

Highway with whale

It’s not an elephant! (but it’s huge)

In the corporate world, reverse-innovation is usually rationalized as follows:

  • We finally have time / budget to pursue that solution we’ve been dying to pursue for years
  • Customers have asked for this solution since the beginning of mankind
  • We need to develop this solution to support our market position / strategic objectives / visionary goals
  • We have all this technology, and we don’t quite know what to do with it..
  • We already know this solution will be a success (it’s freaking obvious)

Now, all we have to do, is to turn that thing into a successful product..

Innovation, by the way, is to understand customers without picturing a solution first. Imagining what to build is however easier, because you don’t have to understand other people first. It doesn’t matter if you’re an investor, a high level manager, a PM, an engineer, a designer or a business developer: Make no concious choices about your thinking, and your inner builder will do it for you.

Reverse-innovation will limit your search area, it will bias customer dialog, and it will make you less open to good ideas. Reverse-innovation is the root cause of so much corporate resource abuse, but what the heck – I’m feeling pragmatic today.

Let’s say someone else has alrady made that choice for you. You’re gonna reverse innovate, whether you like it or not. How do you make the best of it?

Acknowledge your method of choice (and prepare for termination)

Prepare yourself, your team and your stakeholders that this (great) idea may have to die.

Say the words outloud: “We’re technology first. We’re reversing the process.” Then, establish three prerequisites that must be true, for this idea to successfully evolve into a flying product. The prerequisites should not be about your product, it should be about customers and markets.

Example idea:
Let’s say your idea is to build a “Spotify for books” – a subscription based product that streams inspirational texts to customers. Most people would agree this product would never fly unless:

  1. Users are ready to buy book subscriptions
  2. Users are ready to read texts on an electronic device
  3. Users are ready to give up physical books

Make sure you communicate these prerequisites, even if current circumstances don’t allow you to validate them right away. Repeat yourself in meetings, write it on the wall, put it in the tag-line of your email, and so on.

(Should circumstances change in the futere, these are the prereqs you will go ahead and validate before you do anything else)

1. Build: Brainstorm value propositions

Find unique value propositions that tell customers how your solution will make them better off.

According to Ash Maurya (the Running Lean guy) a “unique value proposition” (UVP) is a “single, clear, compelling message that states why we are different and worth paying attention to”.

Here’s how to run The Reverse UVP Workshop:

  1. Build a list of customer segments (15 mins)
  2. Make proto-personas for top three segments (2-3 hours)
  3. List problems you may solve for each persona (15 mins)
  4. Write at least 20 UVPs targeting these problems (the rest of the day)

Select the UVPs you most firmly believe in, plus a couple of UVPs absolutely don’t believe in, to the next step:

2. Measure: Test conversion

Test your value propositions on customers.

Create ads, infograhics, promo videos or landing pages where users are exposed to your value propositions, and can express their interest in some measurable way.

  1. Get out of the building and show your artwork to people who fit the personas. Goal of this step: Make sure they *get it* (expose issues with usability, language, imagery and so on)
  2. Publish your landing page and give it some traffic (buy Facebook ads, send the link to email lists you may have, and so on. Avoid any PR to get attention at this time)

Example conversion goals:

  • At least X out of Y interview objects must say they “do have a problem with this” whatever problem your product is trying to solve – without you trying to prime them in any way
  • At least X out of Y customers must sign up for early access to your product
  • At least X shares out of Y impressions of our promo video over Z days.

Remember, there’s no proof more worth than the number of customers willing to pay for your product before it’s available.

3. Learn: Go big or go home

If your value proposition tests fail, have a serious discussion about your reverse-innovation strategy.

Silicon Valley HBO series

They always come in groups of five..

Together with stakeholders, revisit the assumptions you outlined in step 1 and use supplementary learning from the outside world to see what else is out there. Chances are good you’ve stumbled across other needs – without a solution in mind.

With the right learning in place, you may be able to switch from reverse to fast forward.

Related posts from @hauge2:

Anders Haugeto (36) is software engineer, experiment designer and entrepreneur helping the customers of Iterate innovate faster. He shows intrapreneurs how lean thinking helps their mission in life – disrupt yourself from within.

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