You may have played the game of “telephone” as a child. Your teacher sat the class in a circle and whispered a sentence to the first kid, who whispered it to his neighbor, and so on until the last child in the circle told the group what she thought she heard. Inevitably, this final sentence was markedly different from the original and was usually also wildly incorrect (hence the hilarity of the game).
This distortion is due to a concept called cumulative error. Organizations fall victim to the same phenomenon in innovation. When implementing new customer offerings and experiences, an original idea is often inadvertently manipulated as it moves through development. The game here is called “silos,” and it too results in cumulative error. A new concept is developed and, when ready for execution, is passed from department to department in a process not much different from “telephone”: a number of individuals, each tasked with sharing and repeating a phrase, will invariably distort it slightly as it moves along. Organizations liken this process to a manufacturing assembly line, which is effective when repeatedly producing a known item. However, when developing something new, this rigid and linear approach falters since there are no precedents for reference.
Business case developed? Yep, pass it on. Product specs outlined? I’m good, next. IT integration? On it. And so on through legal and compliance, training, and marketing.
Loop-backs and check-ins may occur, but they often involve the department before and after you in the assembly line, rather than the full roster of stakeholders. The end result is a highly produced, ready-for-scale solution — executed incorrectly.
This missed opportunity in execution occurs because the original intent of the idea was not maintained. The shape of the offering evolves as each subject-matter expert makes inevitable tradeoffs, editing embodiments and adding or subtracting features and language until what made the concept compelling to customers is left in tatters.
The fix is fairly straightforward, although it requires abandoning the assembly line approach and embracing a new way of structuring teams and working to develop customer-centered ideas for launch.
As a result of coaching clients across industry and geography to maintain the intent of their ideas as they bring them to scale, I’ve observed four common characteristics of successful innovation implementation teams.
They’re a tight-knit core. The first step in maintaining the intent of an idea is to build a cross-functional implementation team that is co-located and works together all the way through launch of a pilot, or minimum viable offer. Ideal team sizes will vary based on the concept being developed, but the most productive teams range from 5-9 people. The larger the group, the harder it is to align
communicate with speed. (Remember how long you had to wait for your turn to whisper to your neighbor in telephone when the circle was the size of a kindergarten class?) Similar to a Scrum team in software development, this model allows for real-time collaboration and quick decision-making.
They represent customer needs and the value proposition all the way through launch. Ensure your team has a member from the original customer learning and concept development work to serve as the voice of the customer throughout the development process. Their role is to identify, document, and socialize the “non-negotiables” from a customer point of view, to serve as guardrails that protect the intent of an idea as tradeoffs are discussed.
One team we worked with in an insurance company included several members who participated in the original customer research and concept development phases. They advocated for customer needs, protecting the integrity of the idea as decisions were made to ensure it would continue to resonate with end users. During pushback from legal on changing product names, the customer advocates were able to find a compromise by simply adding brief, approachable descriptions. However, they held the line when it came to assigning customers randomly to call center employees. Dedicated call center support was a critical aspect of the concept learned during customer research and had to be protected.
They use experiential storytelling to keep key decision-makers informed. Leadership and subject matter experts need to understand the “whys” behind customer-facing decisions so that as a pilot goes to market, the right elements of the concept are kept. While documentation can be helpful, it is often dense and rarely referenced by senior people. Instead, the team needs to put senior stakeholders in customers’ shoes.
For example, to support a client team at Holiday Inn focused on redefining their lobby experience, we built a full-scale foam replica and, in partnership with the internal implementation team, led tours for the project’s key stakeholders and sponsors. Experiencing the concept firsthand allowed them to understand how it addressed customer needs. This served to reinforce the customer “non-negotiables.”
Other methods of visual storytelling might include sketched user stories and narrated animation sequences. In each of these instances, the original intent of a concept is represented through a story-based artifact, which each stakeholder can access and reference, so that it never changes. While a verbal or even a written narrative can morph slightly each time a different person recounts it, a video or a sketch can travel without getting distorted.
They work with prototypes, not vague, abstract, or digital-based tools. Too often, the traditional assembly line implementation process relies on documents to generate discussion, and share information and progress. These tools simply cannot represent the design decisions, rationale, and imperatives the way a prototype can. Whether it’s a storyboard sketch of a shopping experience, 3D-printed model of a consumer product, or clickable PDF to mimic an on-screen offer, the creation of an artifact to interact with benefits all involved.
The core team should build this prototype together, forcing them to debate the merits of their suggestions and understand the implications as they decide what to include and what to remove. Once aligned, the prototype serves as a stimulus for customer testing and ultimately, in its refined state, as a detailed, experiential set of requirements for building for launch. The specificity of particular choices represented in a prototype allows for robust discussion and iteration among subject matter experts that Excel and PowerPoint alone simply cannot do.
“Telephone” makes for a fun children’s game because the outcome is so different from the input. But such surprises aren’t fun in business. Instead of playing “silos,” use these four principles, so that when your new offering comes to market, it’s exactly what your customers want.