October 18-20 | Tucson, AZ

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Good Read: The Benefits of Taking a Slower Approach to Innovation

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
The annual summit for research institution gap fund and accelerator programs, including proof of concept programs, startup accelerators, and university venture funds

The Story

In our experience, managers tend to focus their innovation efforts on processes that are either large in scale (new products and business models ) or swift in development (hackathons, rapid prototyping, or emerging platforms). There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, as both approaches can pay huge dividends. But there’s also another type of innovation that is more gradual and smaller in scale.

We call it slow innovation.

Slow innovation projects can be just as impactful in the long-term. However, they are difficult for organizations to propose, prioritize, and fund. Their scope and pace often run counter to the rhythms of company goals. Their extended timelines struggle to weather leadership change. And, for those managing such projects, it can be difficult to sustainably guide them through circuitous organizational terrain.

Having managed a department at Univision’s Fusion Media Group meant to champion such approaches — which showed promise but failed to have the staying power necessary to have true organizational impact — we want to share some lessons we learned along the way.

Several people have toyed with the phrase “slow innovation” over the years. In our use, though, we mean to evoke the work of cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken in books such as Chief Culture Officer, where he distinguishes between “fast culture” and “slow culture.”

Fast culture is the realm of trendspotters/coolhunters, who monitor social data to find hourly trends and the new lingo of the month. Fast culture is often about rapid response to a new blip on the radar, leading to a win for companies who can mobilize and capitalize quickly. Fast culture drove not just the meteoric rise of Buzzfeed but its continuous remodeling process. It’s the realm of fashion houses that know to make fewer chokers and invest in more crop tops. It’s recognizing the word of the year and using it in your ads way before Oxford Dictionaries confirms it as such.

Slow culture — or, in this case, slow innovation — is the realm of pattern recognition: searching for emerging developments outside the organization’s immediate line-of-sight or that may be happening steadily, but not rapidly. Slow innovation focuses on changes that you see coming but that may not be ready to transform your business immediately. It’s understanding, for example, how automation and self-driving cars will slowly but radically transform job markets and proactively building new strategies to address those changes.

The major benefit of slow innovation is prescience; if you’re patient and committed, slow-innovation projects could alert you to an idea, trend, or gap in the market that would have otherwise appeared to “happen overnight.”

A decision like World Wrestling Entertainment’s move to launch its own digital subscription service in 2014 and cannibalize their profitable pay-per-view television business might be seen as a quick reaction to market forces. But the continued success of such a seemingly risky move shows that the WWE Network was backed by two decades of watching their audience do things like trade tapes of old matches (and, later, posting video online). The company began experimenting with various models for engaging those particularly dedicated fans. So a move that looked like hopping on a trend bandwagon was actually the result of a slower process of observation and innovation.

The nature of slow innovation poses challenges, however. While slow innovation processes might lead to transformative business endeavors, they are not widely detected from outsiders. And, when the transformation eventually happens, the “slow innovation” work over the many years prior often gets written out of the popular understanding of what happened. That only furthers the gap in investment between innovation that is fast and big, and projects that start small and build slowly.

Further, since slow-innovation projects are often tackling issues that are “#6 on the list of priorities,” they aren’t likely to impact business this quarter or even this year (if at all) — making it hard to get buy-in from management.

And it can especially be difficult if you need to convince others that current ways of thinking may not hold as true as they thought for much longer — because problems with current approaches might barely be perceptible in current month-by-month, or week-by-week, trends.

The biggest challenge of all may be inspiring colleagues throughout the company to find the time, amidst their travel and deadlines and calendar appointments, to consider themselves a co-conspirator in slow innovation work. If managers are going to be successful in creating a culture of slow innovation, they have to be catalysts of the process, not owners.

We experienced the benefits and challenges of running a “slow innovation” group first hand when we were hired by Univision to head their Center for Innovation and Engagement in 2015. In the 20 months that followed, our mission was to focus on questions related to the company’s long-term reputation, focus, and business model — no matter how it was measuring success that quarter.

In the process, we learned some lessons that will help those interested in fostering a deeper commitment to slow innovation:

Set internal expectations carefully. Most importantly, do all you can to make sure all your key internal stakeholders understand what you do, and why you’re doing it. Slow innovation is harder to conceptualize than projects aimed at responding to fast culture. If you don’t manage it carefully, other leaders in your business may have mismatched expectations for what KPIs should be assigned to your work. And this is why slow innovation work might be especially vulnerable when it is time for cuts, as ours was.

Claim your wins. The downside of running a department aimed at creating wins for internal clients is that it’s easy to find yourself unintentionally stripped out of the narrative when word spreads about the project, internally and externally. Let other teams feel the ownership of this work. But make sure you get proper internal attribution for your part in it.

Invest in relationship building internally. Finding important slow culture patterns and translating those discoveries to your teams only works if teams know you, trust you, and can see the patterns you’re describing. Running an innovation center like this is only viable if and when people are motivated to call on you and work with you.

Know that the best “slow innovation” work will happen outside your walls. You can’t have delusions of grandeur in this work. For us, it was especially important to acknowledge that the best work on finding these cultural patterns was going to come from people at a vantage point better suited to wholly focus on slow culture than we were, whose view was less obstructed by shifting corporate priorities or this month’s performance goals. Our primary role was often not being the discoverers of a new cultural pattern but rather the translators of those discoveries to our teams. This meant following the work of academic groups, non-profits, startups, and other partners.

Keep budgets lean. This work needs not be expensive on its own. You’re there to be a catalyst. Start small. Try to encourage experiments that other teams see enough value in to fund within their budget. If you incubate an interesting function that starts to grow, move it somewhere else in the operational infrastructure. Invest your long-term budgets in a strong core team, in opportunities for education and inspiration, and in strategic external partnerships.

Don’t forget that seeing isn’t observing, and hearing isn’t listening. To detect projects worthy of slow innovation, it requires not just recording that some noises were heard but actively listening to what those noises seem to mean in their cultural context. Above all else, it means developing an active process of filtering, synthesizing information, and trying to detect patterns that might emerge.

Be rigorous about fostering serendipity. You’re not going to discover interesting paths by only asking the questions you already know how to pose. Time, and energy, has to be dedicated to finding the unexpected. For us, that meant connecting the dots across internal teams doing work that they didn’t initially see as related. It meant bringing internal teams together with external thinkers/projects. And it meant moving teams out of their comfort zones and into unexpected spaces and conversations (at universities, at conferences, and on other such field trips.)

At Univision, we weren’t able to embed ourselves deeply enough in the culture, nor translate our value strongly enough, for the department to be seen as indispensable in the time we had. That means we only came away with glimpses of the potential long-term impact a slow innovation investment can have. But those glimpses strengthened our belief in the potential and our resolve for encouraging more investment in slow innovation.

Source: The Benefits of Taking a Slower Approach to Innovation

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