Innovation is not research
Sharlene McKinnon Sharlene McKinnon
March 5 7 min

Innovation is not research

Let’s imagine that you work for an established company. Your competitors are nipping at your heels; they’re stealing customers with new and innovative ideas. And, when you take a closer look, these competitors seem like they’re years ahead of your company.

So, you think: let’s create a research lab where we come up with new ideas, quickly catch-up to our competition, and win back market share. We’ll hire a bunch of researchers, sit them together in a room, and the ideas will flow from their brains. We’ll add developers to the team and innovation will flow magically from their fingertips.

Should be easy, right? It turns out, of course, that it’s not that simple.

Innovation is not research. Innovation is a strategic endeavour that takes time. It is an outcome of research, hard work, and a culture that enables creative thinking, risk taking, failure, and learning. It’s true that companies that do research make it look easy. They market their successes and showcase the last mile of the innovation process; however, it’s what happens in the years before the last mile that’s important. The outside world only gets glimpses of the small percentage of useable ideas that make it to the finish line. And, long before a company makes it to finish line, they have made a conscious decision to invest in risk.

Learning How to Take Risks

Taking risks is hard, really hard! Risks pull people out of their comfort zone and make them feel uncomfortable. But this feeling of discomfort can help someone identify the difference between a risk and something that is simply hard to implement.

It’s these risks that could potentially become the next evolutionary change. And, only by taking the “risks journey” will you move towards something big.

In the Applied Research Lab, we affectionately refer to this as wading through the manure to find the flower. We start projects to test theories and kill them equally as fast because they’re not viable or valuable projects. You have to try numerous things (wading through the manure) before you find something that works (the flower). And, throughout the process you constantly learn and grow as a team.

In the beginning, ideation is an organic process that starts at a baseline and organically improves the level of knowledge and ability for the team to test new ideas; and, as you grow the maturity of the team, the distance between 0 and 100 becomes faster.

Innovation is easy in the beginning when there is no baseline, but this gets harder as a company matures. With maturity comes the need to continually grow and evolve, to constantly push people to new levels by moving quickly and learning from failures. Evolutionary leaps accelerate this process.


Ideation cycle

Our Ideation Loop: Find & Understand the Problem → Ideate Solutions → Do (Start, Fail, Learn, Restart, Fail, Learn, etc.) → Make a Decision (Kill, Keep, Pivot, Share)


In the Applied Lab, we actively track the risk and value of each project and idea on a scale of 1–5 using a predefined set of criteria (e.g. a well-known solution vs. highly theoretical). Through the process of evolution, you should see an increase in the risk level of ideas and a decrease in the amount of time needed to validate each of these ideas. This is trackable and will help identify whether or not an idea is too risky for the maturity of the team—or not risky enough.


Ideation cycle

In the beginning, it takes teams longer to validate an idea because they are less mature. But, as they hone their ability to experiment and understand the problem, they get faster at validation.

It’s at this point that you can increase the riskiness of ideas with the understanding that if you introduce too much risk in the beginning, it will cause teams to flounder and become paralyzed; and, projects will drag on indefinitely as they struggle to understand the problem space.

Conversely, to give ideas that are too simple or vanilla to a mature team creates a lot of chaos as they rapidly kill ideas and pivot frequently. The secret sauce is understanding team maturity and the risk/value level of a problem.

Innovation involves everyone

Innovation involves all people in a company: leadership, HR, managers, developers, scientists, R&D, sales, etc. If the people who control the money, make decisions, or sell the product are not willing to take risks, then how can you create space for people to innovate?

Years ago I worked for a small 50-person company who accidentally built an 8-person lightning in a bottle team. This team could move mountains in a company that had difficulty doing a mediocre software release once a year. There was a constant stream of laughter and flow of profitable product ideas coming from their pod.

For some reason, the right combination of people, working on the right combination of work, in the right working circumstances, with the right challenges created an anomaly within the company.

What did leadership do with this gem? They broke the team up and scattered them throughout the organization. The thought was that by breaking up the team, each of these individuals would bring their special magic to other parts of the organization and create a profitable, successful, innovation-focused company.

In actuality, the result was that every member of that team quit within 3-months of the change.

This was a hard pill for the company to swallow and in the end, this small lesson helped them take a look at the bigger picture and ask: What are we missing? What did we learn from this? Are we capable of innovation?

What they discovered were blindspots in culture, people, and an overall lack in understanding of the state of their company. This was a company in a state of decline. And, as a company in a state of decline (meaning your teams are working to simply keep the lights on), it’s nearly impossible to truly innovate. Pressure is on people to get work done for paying customers and not create the next moonshot.

For them, innovation needed to start years ago when the company had an appetite for risk, the money needed to invest in new ideas, and when they had the time needed to go on the innovation journey.

Innovation is an outcome of research

Innovation is not research. Innovation is a strategic endeavour that takes time and is an outcome of research, hard work, and a culture that enables creative thinking, risk taking, failure, and learning.

And, when you’re on the innovation journey, it’s important to keep moving forward, to fail, and to continually learn and push boundaries. Without doing this you will not gain the learnings needed to move forward.

Simply skipping to the finish line without taking the risks journey means the results will be mediocre. Without putting care and effort into understanding teams, maturity, risk, and readiness, you end up wasting effort during the rigorous process of building a resilient team.

Finally, be honest about your objectives, the state of your company, and your true willingness to invest in risk. Then ask the question: Where do we want to be in 2-years? And, what are we doing to invest in this future? Depending on your answers, this journey could take much longer.

Sharlene McKinnon’s multifaceted IT career includes time at ThoughtWorks, Google, Ticketmaster, and Warner Bros. Currently, she is the Program Manager for the Applied Research Lab at Element AI.