Dealing with uncertainty in innovation

You can’t eliminate all uncertainty from innovation, you have to learn to get comfortable with it.

Uncertainty in innovation is inevitable. Let’s face it: whether you’re innovating a product, service, technology, process, or business model, you’re imaging what the future could be. And the future doesn’t always unfold the way we think it’s going to. There are three major types of uncertainty that can impact innovation:

1. Uncertainty over what to innovate

  • What parts of your business would benefit from innovation?
  • Where are market and customer expectations going?
  • What are your competitors doing?

2. Uncertainty over idea mix or diversification

  • Have you concentrated your efforts too much in one area or spread yourselves too thin?
  • Have you sacrificed true innovation for quick wins or will your long-term investments fail as markets and fickle customers shift?

3. Uncertainty over finding the right approach or solution

  • What are the major components of the solutions?
  • What parts of the process or system have been forgotten?

You can’t eliminate all uncertainty from innovation, you have to learn to get comfortable with it. And the key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to understand and manage it.

Of course, an innovation management strategy can help to mitigate some of that uncertainty. For instance, you may have created an ideation criteria or “hunting grounds” set so that you and your employees know what areas you want to innovate in, thus eliminating idea proposals that don’t align to your strategic goals. Or, maybe you’ve designed an idea intake method to ensure that good ideas don’t get lost and similar ideas don’t get pursued simultaneously. Maybe you’ve even established a process for evaluating those ideas and pushing forward the most promising ones.

But even with those tools, uncertainty can creep into your nice and tidy innovation machine. Since you can’t eliminate all uncertainty from innovation, you have to learn to get comfortable with it. And the key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to understand and manage it.

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And that’s where visual models can be a big help. Visual models—either for quantitative data or for qualitative information—make ephemeral, intangible knowledge easy to understand and easier to share. These communication tools can help you to measure the amount of uncertainty; have a firm understanding of the status of your innovation projects; and prototype ideas with minimal effort or cost. Here a couple of examples of how to put visual models to work in your innovation strategy.


Cone Uncertainty Diagram

Visualize your uncertainty

You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so putting a measurement on uncertainty or risk can help to manage it. Project managers may be familiar with the Cone of Uncertainty, originally developed in the late 1950’s and used by NASA, the U.S. Air Force and others.

The basic idea is that uncertainty diminishes throughout the life of project. It’s high at the beginning, and lower at the end when more decisions have been made and there is less ambiguity. In other words, as we get closer to the future, we are more certain about what it will be like.

Creating your own Cone of Uncertainty that maps your innovation efforts in time can help you to see where your greatest risks lie. In the same vein, you can create an “uncertainty scorecard” that ranks an idea, initiative, or project on several indices. The indices will vary based on your project type, but could be things like:

  • Leadership and team identified
  • Market benchmark and validation complete
  • Technology platform selected
  • Pilot designed and executed

For each item on the scorecard, assign a numerical value. Some might be binary, i.e. 1 = complete, 0 = incomplete and some might be a range like 1 to 5 with 1 being undefined and 5 being decision made. Total up the score and projects with low scores are still quite ambiguous, projects with high scores have more definition and clarity. Once you’ve assigned the scores, you can play around with the data—sorting projects into different groups to see where uncertainty lies, or tracking projects over time to see how their scores progress.


Opportunity Landscape

Visualize your mix and progress

Another way to use visualizations to help manage uncertainty is to look at your portfolio. A key component to innovation management is ensuring that your projects are diversified, and do not overlap or conflict.

So, creating a map that shows how initiatives relate to company goals or market needs can show your idea mix.

Layering information from your Cone of Uncertainty or uncertainty scorecard on top of your portfolio can give you a sense of how your ideas are clustered and how close they are to delivering. In this example, a portfolio of strategies is mapped on two indices: core to stretch goal, and whether the project cures illness or promotes wellness, both of which were corporate goals. Additionally, the bar color and shading indicate how complete the projects are.


Napkin Sketch ThoughtForm

Visualize the solutions

Perhaps the most valuable way to use visualizations is to show systems. Illustrations that help the team to see and iterate an idea, process, or system long before production can rapidly advance the idea and prevent costly missteps.

For example, drawing out an operating model for a new spin-off company can give you a tool to discuss organization and reporting structures, product integrations, system and infrastructure needs, and governance models. These conversations will be more efficient and effective with the use of visual tools to keep the conversation on track.

The only certainty in innovation is uncertainty. And it isn’t always a bad thing. As the old saying goes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” But uncertainty can make for some tense meetings and some sleepless nights. Although it can’t be eliminated, it can be managed. A rigorous innovation management system is the first step. But that alone won’t rid your uncertainty. By using visual models you can manage your remaining uncertainty and sleep easy.


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