Sascha Wolter, Deutsche Telekom: Successful ideation for the Internet of Things!

Sascha WolterTechnology isn’t enough without an appropriate idea. But how can we generate ideas that matter? Fortunately, almost anybody can be creative, regardless of being a programmer, manager, or whatever.

Internet of Things, M2M, Smart Home, Wearables, or whichever buzzword you like to choose: it is not initially about business models nor about technology. It is rather a question of creativity and finding (or creating) unmet needs, it is about innovation with a real purpose.

Why

New ideas seldom happen by accident. In most cases it is hard work, according to the inventor of the electric light bulb Thomas Alva Edison “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

Not every innovation has to be ground-breaking with disruptive impact. Continuous innovation of existing products is as important. In fact it is often more promising to prepare legacy solutions for the Internet of Things. For some companies this challenge is an essential issue to safeguard the future.

The Design Thinking Process (Source: http://dschool.stanford.edu/redesigningtheater/the-design-thinking-process/)
The Design Thinking Process (Source: http://dschool.stanford.edu/redesigningtheater/the-design-thinking-process/)

Design Thinking is probably the most popular approach to idea generation. The method starts with understanding the experience of the user and client (empathize) and synthesize the findings (define). This is the foundation for the ideation phase which leads into experiencable prototypes for testing purpose. Finally, the learnings from the testing phase will be used for refinement of the original point of view.

Despite its name Design Thinking it is not only suited for designers – even if some designers might think so. Anyway, there are some alternatives like Hybrid Thinking. Hybrid Thinking is about a multidisciplinary team that also takes in account business aspects. Nevertheless, most methods have in common to focus the user and their needs (User Centered Design). It happens way too often, that people create worthless PowerPoint presentations and Excel sheets instead of just questioning “Why?” Why should anybody in the world like to use my idea? If you are a business guy, just substitute “use” with “buy” here. Anyway, it is alarming, how many products are never used and far less bought because of lacking an unmet need…

Innovation is kind of a bet. Due to the complexity of connected products (aka Internet of Things) it is hard to predict if an idea will succeed. Requirements documents and business plans do not solve this issue. It is much more important to empower the stakeholders to understand the idea. Prototyping is key. It makes discussing the “Why” much more concrete, because prototypes illustrate and prove an idea in a very narrative and accessible way (storytelling).

Creating prototypes is easy-peasy. There are some foolproof coding environments like the free Scratch. For instance, we created a Scratch extension which you easily can use for connected ideas based on Eclipse SmartHome or QIVICON. And for getting into the hardware, innovation kits like the Arduino based MaKey MaKey are a great starting point. It allows you to connect almost every real world thing to a computer, as long as it has a minimum conductivity (even pencil strokes, bananas or dough work). Please note, this is just prototyping and not even close to a finished product. But it fosters creativity and proves ideas very early.

Lack of ideas

What if ideas fail to materialize? Do not worry, ideas just need time and everyone can be creative. Most creativity methods like brainstorming are based on associations. This is best done by creating diversity. For instance, mood boards work well: This is a kind of multi-media collage consisting of texts, images, videos, documents, sound samples or whatever media around the topic. Once all the senses are activated like this, the generation of choices starts almost automatically. A very productive method of idea generation especially while working in groups is the Method 635. To put it simple, the attendees generate 3 ideas each in about 5 minutes. Then they pass these ideas to the next person who develops and refines them in the next five minutes. This will be repeated for all attendees: Usually six attendees generate three ideas which will be refined for five minutes five times, hence the name 635.

Even the best creative technique is of little use if the team is not assembled correctly. According to a study of the RWTH Aachen University, group dynamics inhibits the creative power of the individual members. To avoid that, a group should consist of individuals with ingenuity, domain-specific knowledge (modulator) and tasks motivation (animator). The so-called ideator generates ideas that will be substantiated by the modulator. It is the animator’s task to mediate between the creative minds and motivate them. In practice, it has proven useful to build up a small team from the most diverse people with plenty of ideas and from people with deep industry insights. Additionally, a moderator is helpful, who can deal with worriers. Especially when those involved are not sympathetic and lack understanding of each other, because that restricts the necessary openness and the courage for crazy ideas: So-called idea killers like negative comments a la “This does not work” must be avoided by all means in the brainstorming phase. Everything should be allowed to generate as many ideas as possible. For this you could discard limiting assumptions and pursue new, unusual approaches. Of course, in the end it makes sense to choose from many ideas only the most promising…

Success stories

Indeed, the ideas generated usually will be measured on their business success. Hence, sufficient attention should be spent on both the technical feasibility and the possible business models. This also helps immensely in the discussion with rather business oriented colleagues and clients.

Either way, it’s not just about the process of innovation, it is paradoxically also about failing fast. If failures are recognized at an early stage, costs can be reduced and freed-up resources can be spend for more promising ideas. That’s why preventing “nonsensical” projects should also be considered a success…

At TADSummit I will be sharing my experiences on how I use design-led thinking and prototyping with Deutsche Telekom’s customers, developers, and partners to make business-impacting innovations in an empowering way.

One thought on “Sascha Wolter, Deutsche Telekom: Successful ideation for the Internet of Things!”

  1. Hi Sascha,

    Been a while after the meeting at Thistle Marble last year (SDI), it was a great experience seeing the demo of Iot related builds you showcased at the event.

    Without a doubt, to lead an effective service innovation campaign in a business, a well planned approach that gives room for fail fast mechanism is very key as numerous ideas will have to be tested in the nursery and the structure should give room for cancelling non effective ideas and to grow highly impacting ones.

    However, most businesses are still stuck in their old ways of thinking; demanding that service innovation based projects should follow the standard project delivery chain that would have consumed a lot of resources, wasted time and energy as well.

    Keep ud the great work, will connect to the summit remotely and looking forward to your presentation again.

    Regards,

    Damola

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