Pig Wrestling for innovation

The book, Pig Wrestling: The brilliantly simple way to solve any problem…and Create the Change You need, sets out a model using a pig in a pen as a framework for re-thinking how you approach a problem.

As someone who has been described as the bitterest of cynics and the wildest of optimists, there are occasions, sometimes it’s more interesting to focus on the opportunity than the problem.

Reading the book early one morning my mind started to explore if there was a way of taking the problem model and turning it into an approach for innovation.

Stage 1: Working on the right things

Flowing loops show situation awareness, experience and symptoms and decide priorit focus
Flowing loops show situation awareness, experience and symptoms and decide priorit focus

Before we start trying to develop new ideas we need to have an idea about what is going on around us.

Too often people fail to lift their heads up beyond the boundary of their own organisation or industry to explore opportunities.

Developing a high degree of situational awareness is something that is the heart of Wardley Mapping. By understanding the environment that we’re operating in we avoid solving problems that either won’t exist or are being addressed by others. More importantly, however, we understand how the things around us are changing and what opportunities that this could create.

As an example, whilst the Apple iPhone was a significant technology development and has created significant shifts in so many things, one of the key enablers for its success (at least in the UK) was the willingness of the mobile network operators to provide a financial model that made it appear affordable to an often cash-poor population.

I wonder how successful Apple would have been if you could only get an early iPhone by stumping up £1000 on day one.

The next exploration is around the motivations for change. By being clear about the needs of your customer you’re able to be specific about what it is you want to achieve. In Pig Wrestling we want to be sure that the problems we’re trying to solve actually belong to us. When exploring opportunities, the same applies but we’re looking to see if this is specifically an opportunity for our business or just one that exists and may not be right for us to chase after.

Finally, just as in deciding if a problem is something you should tackle right now, so you decide which of the opportunities you’ve identified are the priority. There will, or at least should be, more opportunity than you have the time, money or people to invest so difficult decisions should be made.

One of the most common mistakes I see people make in setting their strategy is that it is a list of things they’ve planned to do but fails to be specific about the things they have chosen not to do.

There is arguably more value in knowing what you’re not doing than in what you are because it is how you maintain focus and avoid mission creep occurring or pet projects remerging.

Stage 2: Working backwards

Flowing loops show outcome statement, definition of done and generate ideas
Flowing loops show outcome statement, definition of done and generate ideas

One of the traps we can fall into is solving the presented problem which may not achieve the outcome.

Rory Sutherland in his book Alchemy highlights several occasions where engineers have fallen into this trap and missed opportunities.

One of my favourite examples is where he talks about the challenge of reducing the journey time between Paris and London. This is to address a perceived need of the travelling customer to reach their destination faster. Sutherland makes the, probably correct assessment, that customers may not want to arrive faster they may just want a better experience or a more predictable journey. He goes as far as to suggest that if the journey becomes too short it starts to be inconvenient as you can no longer productively use the time for something else.

To avoid this trap, we force ourselves to write an outcome statement.

This isn’t a description of the solution since that is likely to imply we know what we’re doing. This in many ways if a version of the Henry Ford faster horses view. Just because you’ve perceived the solution as an opportunity doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways of achieving the desired outcome which may be more effective.

In the second part, you’re focused on writing a definition of done.

This borrows from the approach that many Agile projects take to know when a development sprint is completed. Scott Berkun in The Year without Pants describes how Wordpress.com took the approach of writing the press release for new functionality before they started work.

The benefit of this element of the stage is that again you are really focused on what it is you are going to do. As you start to generate ideas you can then start to test them against the outcome you want to achieve.

If you deliver what you have written will it meet the expectations of the customer based on what you put in your launch press statement?

Only once we’ve reached this point do we start to generate ideas. Here you need no further input from me other than to stress the importance of letting the ideas come from a diverse a range of people as you can possibly find, avoid group-think, and don’t discount anything at this stage.

Even the most unviable solution will have something to it that will either clarify the opportunity or show you why something else is going to work.

Stage 3: Perspectives and Characteristics

Flowing loops show perspectives and characteristics
Flowing loops show perspectives and characteristics

When you’re developing a new product or service there are likely to be many actors within the system who will experience change or benefit from what you deliver.

Thinking about the approach from each of their perspectives can start to uncover hidden insight and you develop a richer picture.

The questions that someone working in a Finance or HR role may be very different from someone in an operational delivery role. Their perspective is just as a valid but unless you’re deliberate in considering it then you will miss things. In part, this is about our ability to develop empathy with our intended community of users.

Too many technologists who work on innovation focus on their favourite new thing rather than being grounded in the needs of the user. Taking different perspectives approach challenges our own thinking and helps avoid many pitfalls.

From the perspectives, we build we can start to think about the characteristics of the statements we have.

Are the statements facts, assumptions, opinions or things that are unknown? One of my favourite questions to ask any project is “what are your riskiest assumptions and how do you plan to test them?” In asking this we move beyond having a risk register or list of things that concern us and start to really delve into the areas which need focus before we move ahead with the solution.

Stage 4: Comparison

Flowing loops shows compare solutions
Flowing loops shows compare solutions

This stage takes a systems-thinking approach and starts to look not just at the solution that we have put forward but the attributes of the alternatives that we could. By looking at each of the approaches we could take to meet the identified need then we’ll start to identify different trade-offs, benefits and opportunities within each.

If you can start to take a step back from the one that you’ve determined to be your favourite at this stage you may find that a combination of options may be more viable or offer a greater combination of benefits.

The key activity is not to just compare the solutions to each other but look beyond what they initially present and seek ways to combine the advantages whilst avoiding further costs or unintended consequences.

For each of the stages so far, we’re introducing the tools that support us seeing things differently and forcing us to consider alternative information. Human nature is often to back our preferred winner early on in the process and then find it very hard to let anything else emerge.

This process allows us to change our mind, and like all models is about being less-wrong rather than being right.

Stage 5 — Iterate

This stage needs no diagrams and a few words. Each of the stages shown above has arrows because iteration is built into the whole approach. I repeat what I’ve said — this is a method for being less-wrong. You discover things as you go through the stages which need to be fed into the previous stage. There isn’t a start, middle and end.

It is an evolving process that you keep coming back to.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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