Tips on innovation from a year at the jHub/jHubMed, James Kuht
[jHub/jHubMed are UK Strategic Command’s innovation hubs, situated in London, you can read more about this “secretive UK military lab” here. The views expressed below do not represent the MoD and are the authors own]
“Ideas are easy, execution is everything”John Doerr, Billionaire Tech Investor & author of “Measure what matters”
“Getting stuff done” (GSD) sounds so simple but is a skill held by remarkably few.
I’m not talking about simply being given a task to do and completing it, I’m talking about conceiving a project (perhaps taking the ideas formed from blog #1), and then taking it all the way to its completion. There’s always emails in the way, meetings to go to, people to chat to… and someone/something else to blame.
Below are some tips for GSD. We’ll rattle through how you can plot your route to success, inching your way along this route with the simple to-do list, forming a dream team to help you get there and avoiding distractions. Let’s dive in.
Visualise the end-game, and plot the breadcrumb trail to get there
In chess – the most successful players are the ones who can think the most moves in advance and plot their route to achieving checkmate. Innovation is remarkably similar.
So, presuming you have a project, or a project in mind, humour me with these prompts below (perhaps even scribble down your answers) which should illustrate whether you truly have visualised what “checkmate” looks like for your project, and the moves you need to make to get there.
What would successful delivery of your project ideally look like? When will that be?
Who will be there to deliver it? Are they a part of the project team and do they love it?
What are the major milestones along the way? Who will guide it over each of these milestones?
What are the most time-critical jobs to do over the next month to achieve these milestones?
What are the most time-critical steps to take over the next week?
This sort of future-back thinking seems so obvious, but common sense isn’t necessarily common practice.
In my experience if you don’t do this you’ll simply fill your day with easy things – like answering emails or attending meetings – brainless stuff that doesn’t progress your project. Then, all of a sudden, months have passed and you’ve gotten nowhere. That clear inbox is a hollow prize for your efforts.
Pick 5 things to achieve each day
Holding yourself to account on taking these steps is as simple as keeping a to-do list.
Try starting every day scribbling a 5-point to do list each day – 5 things that will take 30-120 minutes and get you closer to project success – and don’t stop until you’ve finished them. Sometimes it’ll be 3pm (woohoo – gym/run time) sometimes 10pm. Personally, I find this acts as a gratifying yard stick of progress through the day, which allows you to hold yourself to account.
One of the first jobs that springs onto most people’s to-do list is building a team and gaining some supportive stakeholders to help them progress their project. Let’s explore this below.
Minimum-but-sufficient stakeholder engagement
“Want to go fast? Go alone. Want to go far? Go together. Want to go fast and far? Go in a tribe.”Modified African Proverb [Mr Barney Green, Vascular Surgeon, added the last part]
This may counter-intuitive to many – but in my experience, the speed of execution of a project is often slowed down engaging too many stakeholders too soon.
Without wanting to sound like an aspiring dictator, truly the quickest way to make decisions is in a democracy of one (or very few, at least), and at the start of a project, when there are many decisions to be made of little consequence, this is the best option. “Go fast, go alone”.
The temptation of airing your great idea to important people early is significant (some nice back-patting) but often stifling to your progress, as each stakeholder will want to shape your proposal (if it truly is a good one) and you’ll soon be crippled with engaging a complex stakeholder map to make simple decisions. You’ll also be accountable to more senior (quantity and seniority) figures if it all goes wrong – the weight of expectation isn’t a good thing for a young innovation project.
Here is a suggested framework for stakeholder engagement:
- Ideation stage: if you truly are innovative, try to push yourself to dive deep in the ideation stage on your own (see “Blog #1: Ideation” for reference), with input from others only when you have a developed idea you’re ready to share. The better state the idea is in when it comes up to feedback, the better quality of feedback you’ll receive, and the better co-workers/secondees/stakeholders you’ll attract (also if your idea is ill-defined you risk undermining your own credibility).
project stage: Once you’re moving towards getting funding, you want to
bring on a small-but-perfectly-formed A-team who will take this project through
the pilot stage too. “Go fast and far, go
in a tribe”. Ideally it will
- a doer (someone who is genuinely going to run the pilot and help develop the project)
- someone who is suitably important to give the project credibility (i.e. ~OF4).
- Ideally (but not always possible) someone who may be involved in delivering the project in the long-term – so that they feel invested from the start, and the handover after your successful board pitch is seamless (don’t underestimate this).
…this, is your tribe.
- Post-pilot stage: Once you’ve ran a pilot and gained some results, you are at the position where you can be reasonably confident of whether your project is a success or failure. This is the time to get the support/recognition your ego has been yearning for – suddenly quotes from 5 Generals who all think your pilot was great will be useful for the board pitch, and you want to really focus on bringing the whole future delivery team into the love-in (beforehand it would have been a waste of their time). “Go [really] far, go in a [big] team”
Getting the best out of your team and your stakeholders
“Life favours the specific ask and punishes the vague wish”Tim Ferris, best-selling author of “The Four-Hour Work Week”
“A problem well-stated is half-solved.”Charles Kettering, Head of Research for GM 1920-1945.
Once you have assembled your team and stakeholders, there will be a variety of tasks you need them to complete, approvals they need to sign-off, and quotes they need to provide to GSD.
To do this, one of the key skills you need is to make it easy for them to say “yes” to your requests, by clearly articulating your asks. Here’s an example below.
When I first joined the jHub, I was in the process of launching a podcast (The Military Medicine Podcast). We needed a star guest for the first episode to launch with a bang – only problem was, I was a nobody, so how could we get one?
My boss asked “why don’t you get General Sir Chris Deverell on it” (Commander JFC at the time)?
“How?!” I thought. It genuinely felt like there was more chance of getting Elvis Presley on.
Bemused, he simply told me to email the General a concise and specific ask. It felt like potential career suicide.
“It all boils down to whether they can answer with the single word ‘yes’” he explained.
The email was crafted as such. A catchy subject line, punchy first sentence, brief body, and the simple ending;
“Please simply reply ‘Yes’ if you are happy to appear on the podcast and we’ll take it from there with your outer office?’
A few hours later. ‘Yes’ appears in my inbox.
A month later we interviewed General Chris, hit Number 6 in the iTunes Chart for Science/Medicine and it is still our most listened episode.
There is slightly more to behavioural science than simply writing good emails, but honestly, it mostly boils down to making it easy for people to say ‘yes’ (or take an equivalent action). If you want to learn more about it (you should), check out “Inside the Nudge Unit” – they offer a 4 step guide to making behaviour change easy, which in brief, is to make an offer/action:
- Easy (i.e. frictionless)
We based the entire design of the jHub Coding Scheme on these principles and now, being the biggest Coding/AI upskilling initiative within Whitehall despite not a penny spent on advertising, it’s hard not to agree that this is the secret sauce to making people say ‘yes’ (in this case, to spending 20-100hours of their free time learning to code).
Saying no gives focus – conferences/meetings/presentations/too many projects
[It seems counterintuitive to progress from a section on making it easy for people to say “Yes” to telling you why you should say “No” to requests, but we’re going to do it anyway 😉 ]
So, you’ve plotted the path to rip-roaring success, nailed your daily to-do list, and have assembled a great team to get help you on your way. It’s a great start, but it’s still going to be a bumpy ride, full of all sorts of blind-sidings and time-consuming/boring tasks (i.e. commercial competitions). This stuff is dull, but the hard yards take you the distance – it is very easy to be tempted to “look busy” by filling time with anything but these tasks.
One thing that is painful to do, but free up valuable time is, trying to go light on meetings/conferences (especially the sexy looking ones abroad!). You will have to find your own balance on this one, but mine was made very clear from the outset by my old boss, H, who, when I asked for permission to attend a conference would simply reply “does it directly increase the chance of you successfully delivering your projects?”. If the answer was in any way shaky, it would be a blanket “no”.
Though this sounds limiting, I genuinely believe it to be one of the key ingredients in the secret sauce for “GSD” – going on receive for a conference for a day is easy, taking your project to the next level isn’t – that’s why so few people have delivered hard projects (although many would give you a whole bucketload of excuses…!).
There really is no sexy way to say it, GSD simply relies on having a clear aim and breadcrumb trail to reaching it, creating a dream team to help you on your way, making it easy for people to say “yes” to your requests, and remaining focus on achieving your aim.
Thanks to Steve Spencer Chapman & Amrit S for reviewing the drafts of this blog and offering helpful feedback
If you’re interested in learning more about innovation in Medicine, we’ve interviewed a number of fascinating guests on the Military Medicine Podcast including; the Director of the ‘Nudge Unit’ Hugo Harper, the British & Irish Lions Doctor James Robson & many more, found on iTunes, Spotify & soundcloud.
jHub/jHubMed Scout, Aug 18 – Feb 20