June 2017

Innovation or stagnation? You decide

In today’s world, technology advances so rapidly that all companies must be prepared to innovate repeatedly or face irrelevance or even collapse. But how can you make innovation part of the fabric of the business as it grows? All firms are different of course, but here’s what we found at Duco:

In the beginning
Successful early-stage companies are innovative by default: if you don’t bring something novel or valuable to the market, you simply won’t get anyone’s attention. This can lead to complacency later, as there is a sense that innovation is something that can be easily accomplished.

In Duco’s case, we founded the company on a series of innovations (natural language rules, novel matching algorithms, cutting-edge user experience, etc) that helped us win our first clients and gain an early market presence.

Scaling up
That early phase was followed by years of focus on execution and refinement as our engagement with clients and presence in the industry grew. The growth phase of a company is stressful in its own way: you need to scale up the machine you’ve built while keeping staff and clients happy along the way. This phase is all-consuming and it’s easy to stop innovating if you’re not careful!

Reaching maturity
There was a time when companies could operate for decades before being threatened by advances in technology. Alexander Graham Bell created the first experimental telephone in 1875 and it took 100 years for the telephone to reach 90% market penetration in 1975. By contrast, the first mobile phone was created in 1973 and it took just 40 years to reach that same 90% milestone.

For a time, the thinking was that being a “fast follower” was a less risky strategy than sticking your neck out. Nowadays it’s no longer always possible to peddle fast enough to catch up and overtake. Going back to the phone example, Microsoft started working on mobile platforms just a few years after Apple and Google, but failed to compete in any meaningful way.

So… keep innovating!
We decided to establish Duco Labs in 2016, a separate team that has its own physical area, budget and headcount. This way, we can ensure that whatever else is going on in the company, we have the space and time in which to innovate.

We appreciate that our technical, product and business staff all have a role to play in this, so we involve them actively in the projects being run in Labs.  The benefits are deep insights from across the company and a natural transfer of knowledge across the organisation.

Key principles of Duco Labs
There can be no innovation without taking risks but we avoid wasting time and money by following these principles:

  • Fail fast: we bring the riskiest parts of any project forward and make sure we flush assumptions out early. This way, we can bin failing projects quickly before they soak up too much time and resources.
  • Use mock-ups: creating great software is time-consuming and expensive, so we use mock-ups and throwaway prototypes to test ideas wherever possible. We make extensive use of tools like FramerInvision and Sketch to create a convincing product surface that we can test with real users.
  • Structure the process: waiting around for inspiration to strike isn’t terribly reliable. Instead, we make use of structured processes such as Design Sprints to help us make decisions and drive tangible progress.
  • Partner with clients: Innovating in a vacuum is dangerous. It’s easy to make assumptions that don’t hold up outside the lab, so we invite clients into our innovation process. We get to sanity-check our ideas, verify they have value for our clients and we gain another highly valuable source of insights and inspiration. We also always use real client data wherever we can!

Finally, be brave

Being innovative takes bravery, as you often have to upset the status quo.  Apple cannibalised its own highly successful iPod product range when it introduced the iPhone, which must have been an uncomfortable decision to make.

Being brave and taking risks doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, but sitting quietly in a comfortable corner will almost certainly ensure failure in the long run. Innovation is the catalyst that pushes individuals, companies, industries and even society forward. Everyone should look to find time and space for it.