Your Innovation Backlog is Your Guide: A Conversation with Tereza Nemessanyi
We’ve been thrilled to recently bring Tereza Nemassanyi to our team as our new CRO. Tereza brings more than just experience to the Keboola team from Microsoft - her unique perspective and constant devotion to speaking on innovation is the kind of thought leadership that excites us. We sat down with Tereza to get the scoop on her approach to innovation and how she thinks the innovation backlog can be the key to business growth.
How do we define in clear language what an innovation backlog is, and how should a company think about it in relation to the organization’s goals or wider aspirations?
Picture your IT projects lined up in a queue. The attention and effort invested in them is not at all ad hoc; the queue is constantly scrutinized to determine which initiatives get advanced in line, and ultimately, executed. Not unlike the line at the DMV, if people (projects) are served quickly, the line moves fast and you can serve more people. And a line going out the door means a lot of unhappy people. In innovation, picture this line out the door as a whole bunch of great ideas, informed by real experiences and paid employees — ideas which may never see the light of day. The length of that line equates to ideas that never occurred, learnings which never happened, new cost savings or productivity which was not tested and implemented, new revenue which was not pursued. And for an employee, that great idea that died on the vine is a source of de-motivation - questions that perhaps I’d be listened to elsewhere. So, I’d say that your project backlog - the sum total of undone projects - is a proxy for your organization’s effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) to innovate. And zero backlog? The opposite: ideas are given a chance to test their mettle.
Why would an innovation backlog be abandoned?
Resources are tight and days are long. It is comfortable and logical to focus energy on efforts that are proven and yield expected results. In contrast, the backlog is a queue of initiatives that we don’t know yet if they’ll yield results. It seems like no cost in kicking the can down the road. And if you make the effort to run a test or make a change, and it yields nothing (or, worse, some damage) - it’s very easy to ask “why did we bother?” And finally, there is often no one “throat to choke” for an untested idea - these tend to be decided by committee and lacking transparency. So it’s hard for the broader organization to pinpoint exactly where and how a good idea met its demise.
Are there barriers that can discourage a company from creating an innovation backlog?
It really requires the organization’s leadership to embrace a culture of testing hypotheses, and measure attempts and not just outcomes. Similar to a batting average in baseball - you have to track attempts as well as outcomes, so you can weigh the motion occurring underneath. The first place to grow your outcome is not with the success rate on a small number of projects, but rather, the full volume and throughput of projects. You need to feed the machine and understand that even when you miss shots, you are growing your innovation athleticism.
Let’s say a company is very messy and disorganized but wants to start somewhere, what is their first step?
Step 1 should be innovation sourcing. This can take place over the course of a few weeks, months, or really just a few days. Basically, they should take the time to generate a list of ideas, problems, and technologies that they can all agree would be worth investing in. From there, it’s important that people start getting out of their offices and talking across teams about this list - there is a high chance that the problems and solutions may look different to whoever is looking at it, and you want to make sure the decision-makers are aligned in all possible ways. No matter how messy and disorganized things may be, this first step should always be seen as a way to pump the brakes and get some perspective.
If put in the form of steps, wherein the process do you think most companies get tripped up the most?
I think an inherent problem, or rather challenge, posed to any company is getting themselves aligned on big-picture ideas like principles, innovation culture, shared beliefs, processes, and budgets. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of people in an organization, and they all have different ideas and perspectives on what is going to work. The toughest piece of the innovation backlog puzzle to nail is getting everyone committed to the concept of throughput, speed, and an agreed and transparent set of criteria for managing the backlog queue. And as long as the candidates in the queue meet the agreed criteria, there should be a joint commitment to getting them ALL done - regardless of who owns each one. It’s a commitment to teamwork and a shared process that will lift all boats.
What questions should a company be asking itself when sorting its innovation backlog? Is there a roadmap for prioritization?
Great question! There’s so much that it can be overwhelming to start, and every company seems to be inherently somewhere in the process with or without previous steps. I like to lay it out clearly in my own set of rules:
Rule 1: Innovation Inertia is REAL. It takes considerably greater resources to start from scratch - and you still won’t go as far - compared to taking something already moving and accelerating or expanding it. Maintain enough investment and importance that you retain the talent that drives your learning. If you stop, your energy and knowledge will disperse and require inordinate resources later to catch up to where you are now.
Rule 2: Do More With What You Have. Imagine new ways these data sources can be combined, reused, recycled or upcycled. Doing so is going to make you smarter, your customers spend more, or help make them become stickier. We’ve found massive breakthrough opportunities on the cheap by reassessing and combining data across an organization’s silos.
Rule 3: Build Metrics for Attempts, Not Just Wins. Similar to a baseball batting average or volleyball hitting average, over time, win stats increase as attempts increase. That’s the learning effect. It’s not just that you can’t get Wins without Attempts. Its that the more you attempt, you’ll win disproportionately more. It makes a difference.
Rule 4: Prioritize Your Data Project Backlog. Your backlog is where great ideas go to die. A huge backlog means you’re already losing to your competitors; a clear backlog shows that ideas and innovations have been put into production, and is ready to ramp to bigger things at the first sign of opportunity. Explore all practical methods to drive velocity and clearing out of the small ideas to make room for more; there are terrific tools today which radically compress time to get things done.
Rule 5: Encourage and Celebrate Small Innovations. When bigger innovations aren’t happening, it’s critical to give attention to small innovations that come from “thin air”. These add up - are core to an innovative culture - and drive momentum. The more you cultivate a culture that celebrates small wins, the more you open yourself to experimenting your way toward the bigger wins.
Tereza is already bringing great ideas forth that has changed the way we do things at Keboola for the better. We look forward to many new ventures with her guidance and bringing that knowledge to our customers. If you are interested in how Keboola can help you manage your innovation backlog through the power of data, drop us a line.