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What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger: Lessons from Running Your Own Internal Incubation Program

There is hardly a technology principle, more frequently quoted than Moore’s Law. His prediction of an exponentially growing technological evolution has proven true and reached every industry — from healthcare to retail, government to education. Design has not remained immune to this accelerated change. On one hand, as technology disrupts traditional communications, transactions, business models, designers’ outcomes-driven approach and focus on user-centered experiences becomes essential in retaining and enhancing our humanism. That is why demand for designers is high, companies rush to build (or acquire) internal design teams, and proclaim their commitment to becoming design-driven organizations. On the other, the accelerating rate of change is forcing us to evolve ourselves. To remain good designers, it is no longer enough to imagine and create constructs. We need to be able to give our ideas shape and form quickly and bravely discard them if they are not strong enough, or invest in them when they show promise. We need to become makers. For design consultancies, this is not a question of choice, it is a question of survival.

At Artefact, we have embraced that not as inevitability but as an opportunity to become better designers, better consultants and better entrepreneurs. A year and a half ago we launched our internal incubation program, Startefact. In a nutshell, Startefact called for new ideas — hardware, software or a service. Everyone who works at Artefact could vote on the ideas they believed in. Over the following year and a half, we dedicated time and resources to take the winning ideas to the next level. The breadth of ideas surprised us, and that first round of Startefact resulted in something we built –the Purple locket, the BrakePack backpack, something we launched –the Civic IQ commenting platform, something we experimented with –the Token payment bracelet. We are still putting the finishing touches on one or two of the winning ideas… And we just kicked off this year’s Startefact round.

And then it dawned on us — we are a team of designers, who believe in rapid ideation and iteration, who are passionate about building ideas into products, and whose nature is to constantly experiment. Incubation and innovation is part of who we are, yet the challenges we encountered were not trivial. For organizations a bit more set in their ways, a bit less committed to innovation or a bit bigger than ours, this process must be much harder. So, in the spirit of learning from experience, here are the lessons we gleaned from running Startefact and the changes we are making to the program:

On the journey of making something real, be prepared to give up some control.

Innovation is a messy process. While we hoped we retain control in the process of running Startefact, we realized that early in the process we have to embrace ambiguity and the outcomes that might happen. We had a vision of our end goal, but we could not anticipate all the challenges and discoveries along the way. We had to be ready to pivot from one week to the next as we dived deeper into building out the ideas. But it is that ambiguity that also accelerated our learnings. Working on Purple and trying to source a circular display introduced design challenges that made us go back to the drawing board.

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BUT: Use themes to deepen learnings and constrain unpredictability.

When we did the first pitch fest, we did not put any guidelines in place and as a result we got an extremely wide range of ideas — from a video game to a bottle opener, a school curriculum book to a digital photo-editing platform. Our method of crowdfunding filtered out many of them. Yet if our goal was also to accelerate learning, and get better at spotting a winner, we needed to ensure that ideas we invested in built on the skills and knowledge. That is why in this year’s Startefact, we introduced themes so that we can deepen our expertise in areas like education that we believe that are ripe for innovation.

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Ideas are fragile — nurture and protect them.

The chemistry of innovation is delicate. You have to resist the urge to create idea barriers too early in the process because these barriers could crush something unique and valuable. At the same time you want to provide some guidelines to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. Finding the right balance between freedom and direction, between a broad exploration and deep analysis gets easier the more often you go through the process but is never a hard wired process or timeline.

BUT: Accelerate the process to reach to decision points with confidence, faster.

One way to counterbalance the effect of unexpected curve balls is to compress the time frames and work more tightly as a team to actually build prototypes of the ideas as quickly as possible. This year, we are running Startefact in two-week sprints. At the end of each sprint, we take stock of where we are at and try to objectively determine if we want to invest more time in developing the idea or if it is time to move on. On the flip side, a higher frequency of throughput requires a bit more sophistication in terms to how we schedule and plan the program.

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To go from making to shipping, you need partners.

We are a company of 60. We have diverse talents and can go pretty far in building products and even launching a company. But the distance from building a prototype to going to market can be impossible to cover without the right partners. For hardware like Purple, that means engineering, manufacturing, distribution, brand and retail partners — each pursuing their own innovation priorities, at their own pace.

BUT: Even with the best partners, you would go nowhere without internal commitment and collaboration.

It is easy to dedicate resources to a program like Startefact when times are slow. But when you have a solid pipeline of client projects, or are under pressure to ship a product or maintain your current offering, it is easy to justify pausing or giving up. But innovation is like exercise — to see results, you need to commit to it and make it a priority. You also need to create the conditions for people to collaborate and share ideas, so that all that chemistry can happen. We would not have been able to create BrakePack without the direct collaboration between designers and developers, who worked through the software and hardware challenges as a team to come up with a solution that worked.

Try. Learn. Repeat.

The value of being a maker is as much the final product, as it is the process itself. If you make learning part of the program’s goal, then even setbacks become a source of knowledge and experience that otherwise you would not have acquired. And often the process itself gives you an idea that is worth nurturing. We set off on our first incubation program somewhat blindly, but with enthusiasm. Two years later, we have converted all the insights and lessons we gleaned from the experience into a tool, code-named Project Helium. It is the synthesis of running Startefact and working with partners who share our entrepreneurial spirit on their own innovation efforts. And it is something we continue to refine and continue to learn from. That is the business of innovation.

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Artefact is a responsible strategy + design firm. We help you harness the power of design to make change + do good.

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