This was a fascinating conversation, and a long one as Peter was hugely generous with his time, so I’ve put some links below if you want to jump to particular elements of the interview.
Kinneir Dufort is a consultancy based in Bristol that develops products and brand experiences in sectors ranging from healthcare and consumer goods, to B2B and industrial products.
Peter’s background and experience made this a wide-ranging conversation, but I was struck by a few elements particularly: one was his discussion of innovation as an uncomfortable process, and the other was his thoughts on the Internet of Things and the challenge of making it relevant and useful to the individual customer.
So, Peter, how would you define innovation? What exactly is it?
I don’t have a single answer to that question – it’s such an all-encompassing term. At its broadest sense it means businesses who want to create some kind of progress: people want to advance their business and come up with new things as part of that process.
But actually, everything that we do here as a business is a form of innovation – design is coming up with something new in the same way that innovation is coming up with something new. The work that we do is very product-centric but we look at it from a very broad perspective, so it might involve looking at the service or the brand as much as the product itself.
What we’re looking for is to generate not just new ideas, but big ideas, ones that have impact for our clients. The process we go through is to help explore and look for new ideas, but then to boil them down and make them as strong and as valuable as possible. So the simple version is that innovation for us is about helping our clients to create big ideas for differentiation and growth.
There’s a lot to unpack in there.
There is a lot, and it took a long time to get to that point! Some of the other descriptions of it that I think are good are ‘creating new value’ which is great because it’s broad, but also because it’s focusing on the end result. Another one is something like ‘the uncomfortable process of disruptive change’.
What I like about it is the uncomfortable process part, because in reality while everybody talks about wanting innovation, getting there can be incredibly uncomfortable. It often means that you’ve got to do things differently or look at things differently – it isn’t as simple as having a great idea and the world changes for you, that’s just the starting point. One of the big value providers of innovation is not just having the idea, but making it have impact in the real world.
Why do you think innovation has suddenly become incredibly important?
I don’t think it’s sudden, personally, I think it’s been having a slow march for the last twenty years. I started working with a specialist focus on innovation about ten years ago at ?What If!, and they were well-established even then.
I think what’s happened is it’s gone from being very driven by consumer marketing led businesses, and now it’s trickled down into many more industries. A lot of the methodologies and processes were born in the FMCG space, but have expanded and adapted and evolved. Simultaneously, the other end that it came from was around improvement innovation – manufacturing improvement, technical development processes. And those two things have now come together and merged and become something else.
So is there a difference between product innovation, service innovation, and business model innovation?
Doblin has identified ‘Ten Types of Innovation’ – what’s interesting is that they recognise all the different types of innovation that you might do, including the very process-orientated end of the spectrum, where it’s not about things but about how you do things. And then there are types that move into the product or offer part of the business, and there’s the innovation around how you are communicating, selling and marketing. All three are equally valid in terms of creating value.
A lot of innovation happens without creating anything new – you just sell it in a better way. Equally you can innovate behind the scenes, where the buyer of the service doesn’t see any particular change, but actually you’ve made your processes better or more efficient, and the value is extracted for you as a business or an organisation.
We’re doing a lot more in the process space lately, particularly in the last year, mostly driven by client demand. There is a great fit there because we do technical development work, so we understand processes, there’s a natural synergy between us being able to look at the process and saying how it might change.
Is there a standard process for how you approach a project – is there a separate innovation phase, or is it woven into everything you do?
Essentially, we do four different types of innovation. The first is what I would call strategic innovation, where we helping set future visions of where businesses are trying to head, and understanding the impact of future technologies.
Then we do product-centric innovation, planning and developing future products.
Thirdly, we identify new market opportunities, and these can come from a number of angles. For example, we might know the consumer but want to identify the next thing we can help with in their lives or it could be that clients want to find new ways to apply their existing technologies to uncover new markets.
And then finally we often help with direction setting, using innovation tools to explore ambiguities in their market or business to define challenges and set a series of directions for further exploration and development.
In terms of how we work, there is a separate team, but it’s small relative to the size of the business. As such, we work very collaboratively with the other parts of the business. I’ve done very technical-led pieces where I’m working with electronics engineers and mechanical engineers, but also very insight-led work where we work with our research and insights team as well as our designers to look for creative opportunities. Part of what we do is to look at the different angles from which we should examine a challenge and make sure we’re bringing together the different aspects.
You mention that you’ve worked on very technical-led projects – what would be the justification for starting with the technology? Presumably it’s always got to come down to meeting the user needs rather than what’s possible technically?
I think it depends on the nature of the challenge as to where the user is in the process. Quite a lot of our projects are in the medical space where the challenges are being driven from a medical angle, because we’re trying to do something with a particular drug or a particular mechanism to achieve an end result. In that instance the user wouldn’t be the driver, you’d factor it in later in the process.
Other challenges exist where the way the product operates doesn’t include much user interaction, for example a piece of equipment. And so the user-interaction part, which is important for us to design for, is only a very small part of the total system of how it works. If you’re developing a new insulin pump, for example, there may be a particular challenge about how the pipe connects to the device, and that can be quite a technical challenge, whereas actually how someone wears it becomes a very user-centric challenge.
If everything at Kinneir Dufort is essentially innovation, are all projects led by the innovation team?
No, we tend to get involved where the brief is more ambiguous than a specific design or technology brief, where we need to be quite exploratory to understand and undercover new needs before we can come up with new solutions. The other reason we would get involved is where we need to get lots of different perspectives. A big part of what we do is fostering collaborative creativity, bringing different parties together including clients and their partners.
It’s interesting that you mentioned ambiguity. Do you think that’s one of the reasons why innovation as a discipline is on an upwards march – that clients realise that they can and should start from a much more ambiguous brief?
I think the growth of the space has allowed people to be aware that you can get help even when you don’t have a clearly defined challenge, or the challenge is clearly defined but you don’t have a clear route in terms of how you’re going to get to an answer. Clients are definitely more open to the fact that there are processes and people out there who can help navigate that ambiguity.
And is that where the process becomes uncomfortable, trying to find that route through?
There is a bit of discomfort about going into the unknown and challenging the status quo, because for most businesses the reason they’re successful is that they’ve created an efficient system, an efficient way of doing or thinking about things.
Innovation proposes challenges to that efficient system, for example a new product that no longer fits with their manufacturing processes. The march of technology is a classic example: many products are having technology added to them, but the business that makes those products may have never had a technology capability: kettle manufacturers have historically never made technology other than to make the water hot, and that’s what they’re good at. That’s an uncomfortable situation, they know that they should be thinking about it, but they also don’t know what to do about it, and they don’t have the in-house skill to respond to that challenge.
I suppose there can be a tendency to just bolt it on and not really think through the user experience or the quality, or whether people actually want their kettle to be Wi-Fi-enabled.
You do get some examples where there’s an available technology so people put it in, just to see if the market has an interest in it. They’re rarely a big success story but occasionally you do get some winners.
I’ve seen many briefs over the last five years which have wanted to use wearable technologies and now the internet of things which is a fascinating place to explore, but where there are some very serious questions that need asking. Interestingly, it’s been mostly pushed by the consumer space, but I’ve seen much better case studies in behind-the-scenes services and equipment, where you can make things more efficient. And it’s interesting for us because we work across both spectrums – lots of very consumer facing work, but also a lot of industrial clients where they are looking for efficiency in their processes.
Yes, I suspect that no one has found a good use for the internet enabled kettle as yet, but you can see how in manufacturing you could introduce quite a lot of efficiency by having self-reporting service requests, for example.
Yes – and it particularly supports the shift into service model innovation. If you’re supplying products, knowing how your product is performing in the field is incredibly valuable for you as a business. One of my favourite examples is about bins. A company developed a smart bin for public spaces that completely changed the way the way they were serviced. They had sensing technology which could tell you when they needed to be emptied, and that information was then fed into the route planning system for the maintenance team. So instead of a standard process where every bin was checked on a regular basis, you could now only empty them when they needed it, which leads to some interesting economies of scale. This is a great example of the first wave of value being generated.
I like that example because it’s a public sector initiative, so the privacy question is not a problem. Do you think that this kind of public space is where some of the more interesting things are going to carry on happening?
I think a lot of the early success stories have come in those sorts of areas, where the technology is being put into large scale applications, and can be deployed at a system level. Often it breaks down where it’s one person with one kettle, it becomes very limited to look at it from that perspective. The value often comes when you’ve got more things working together.
So the value of kettle data is when it can be correlated with demand and supply from the national grid, and therefore can you change people’s kettle use to mean that we’re optimising our energy production. It’s not really about you having a kettle and being able to turn it on with your phone.
No and let’s face it, a button is just as handy. You’ve mentioned collaboration several times, and it seems that innovation has the potential to join up lots of disciplines. Are you seeing more collaborations and partnerships forming across organisations as well as among disciplines?
Historically organisations have worked in isolation to build their power centres and their capabilities and knowledge, but increasingly there is a dependency on other parties and building those relationships, We recently ran a workshop with two businesses in the same sector who realised it would make more sense if they designed their non-competing products together, and now we’re trying to define a future vision for them.
I want to talk a bit about the kind of people who work in the innovation space. I notice that you’ve got a background in engineering as well as design, is that unusual, and how did that come about?
It depends on whether people have actively sought out work in innovation, or whether they have ended up there. I know people who have done it deliberately and ones for whom it was an accident – I probably arrived at it by the accident route. I went into engineering because I was interested in how you solve problems and come up with new things. I was interested in things that changed the world, which is why I studied aeronautics and astronautics, but what scared me off was that they were such big projects, you could spend ten years working on one development cycle. From a career point of view that meant only having two or three big projects in your career, which is why I shifted into design because it gave me a faster change cycle.
And how did you find that change from engineering to design, is it much of a jump?
I was lucky, I went on a conversion course specifically for engineers who wanted to move into design, and it addressed the mindset shift really well. A lot of what I do here is about that shift: helping clients be more free in their exploration and not apply purely rational thinking. Being rational is important, but there’s often a conflict between pure creativity and trying to find new ways of doing things: as soon as you start analysing ideas you find ways of shooting them down.
A lot of what we do in our processes is separate out those two elements: first of all you need the freedom to create without judgment, and then we’ll do the judging later and pick out the ideas that might work.
Ah yes, separating out divergent and convergent thinking. How do you tell if people are going to be good at that? I’m interested in how you recruit people to work on your innovation team, what are the skills you look for?
It’s incredibly hard, I think is my short answer. Because this business is product-centric, they do need an understanding of products and how they’re designed, and the technical development end of things. But you also need the ability to help uncover where needs are coming from and the consumer perspective, and then another important element is being able to help other people explore both those spaces.
Part of what I’ve been trying to do since I’ve been here is work collaboratively across our business because I believe most people can contribute towards innovation, even if some people have a more natural affinity for it. There’s a number of people in this business who’ve worked on a lot of innovation projects, but who wouldn’t be classified as innovation specialists. In fact they’ve done a lot of it and are very good at it.
And is there something that you look for in terms of personal qualities – a mindset or an attitude?
I think one of the key things is to be a strong team player, and that’s both in terms of being able to work with people from different disciplines, but also knowing how to get the best out of them, and how to play different strengths at any given moment within a challenge. And, as part of that, I suppose a shift away from a dependency on you being the one who has to crack every part of the challenge.
I think the skill is being able to work out before you start the challenge who is going to help solve it, and then how you get the best out of the team. You’re playing a kind of guiding and steering role, making sure you’re not getting bogged down in the detail and you’re focusing on the big idea.
What advice would you give someone starting out in their career now, looking back on what you’ve done so far?
Innovation must be incredibly difficult to teach, because you can teach the process and the principles, you can teach creative exercises, you can teach how to do an evaluation, you can teach how to do insight work going out and exploring the challenge, but really most of it comes from the doing. So I would advise people to choose where they want to start and start doing as soon as possible. Ultimately you’ll migrate to covering more of the process, but there are many different ways in depending on what you like doing.
One of the biggest challenges is that there’s lots of different ways of doing it. There are core principles that most people play by, but there are quite a lot of flavours and variants in terms of different organisations who promote different ways of delivering innovation work.
When you started here five years ago, were there already innovation processes in place?
At the time they were more constructed as product offers, for example an exploratory programme and another which was more of an innovation accelerator approach. And we still do a lot in both those spaces, but what we’ve done since is look at the consistent elements across all of them, so there is more of a framework whether it’s a very small project or a large project. There’s still a need to make the approach bespoke to the challenge, so I suppose we’ve shifted to more of a tool-kit mindset.
Not just focus groups then?
In the innovation space we’ve kind of stopped doing anything focus-group based, pretty much since I joined I think.
So can you give me an example of some of the ways in which you can engage with consumers that aren’t the diabolical focus group?
One approach is where we want to create one-on-one interactions in a speed-dating methodology. We’ll have a series of stations which have different topics or different ideas that we want to talk about. And then we have short but intense conversations with consumers: they come to your station, you talk to them about your particular thing, get feedback on that, and then they rotate. So you get six or eight view points, but they’re not influenced by what any of the rest of the groups thinking.
And I imagine you don’t get the kind of people that are dominating the conversation, and people who don’t feel they can speak up.
Exactly. Everybody has to contribute, and everybody has to spend all of their time contributing. So actually you’ve got six conversations or eight conversations, running simultaneously. It’s quite exhausting but you get a lot more out of it as a result.
And is there an emphasis on the consumers engaging in this to give you a quick, visceral reaction, rather than spending too long thinking about their feedback…?
Yes, so it tends to be better suited to moments where you’ve got early ideas and you want to get an initial reaction, So it’s less about “do you like this yes or no?” and more about “What do you think about this? What’s interesting? What else could we do?”.
Another approach we’ve developed recently is to take the moderator entirely out of the process. We set up a room, rather like gogglebox, and have small groups of twos, threes or fours, and then set them a series of questions with different roles that they then play out. This facilitates a more natural conversation around set topics: it gets much more light-hearted, and then we can introduce concepts, and get them to talk about what they think about it. It’s less about us, it’s more about them and their interactions and their thoughts.
So what’s next for your role here? What are your current challenges in terms of where you want to take Head of Innovation?
I suppose for me it’s been about embedding innovation principles, and making them widely accessible across the business. That’s partly why I’ve focused not on building a separate business unit, that operates as an innovation arm, but making it part and parcel of as many pieces of work as possible. As a business, trying to communicate all the different things we do has been one of our challenges, and being able to communicate the innovation element is tricky.
Another interesting challenge for the innovation space is not allowing processes to become fixed – you have to innovate your own innovation process. So one of my drivers is to make sure we’re always looking at new ways of doing things – it’s an interesting challenge.
We get to work with some fantastic challenges, so I suppose the simple ambition is that we continue to grow the ways in which we can help our clients explore their ambiguities, and for some of the tools and techniques to be applied across more challenges.
It’s interesting that you use the word ‘challenges’ – is there a difference between a brief and a challenge?
It reflects what innovation is about, which is trying to look at problems in different ways. The brief might be what you’ve been asked to do, the objective is where you’re trying to get to, and actually those two things might not correlate initially. The challenge is looking at the objective and trying to define that in terms of what needs to be achieved and all the different elements that we need to think about.
One of the core elements of the creative innovation process is to say, what is the challenge that you’re really trying to solve? That can evolve, so sometimes the output of your first phase of work is a better definition of what the challenge is.
Finally, what do you think is particularly exciting in the industry at the moment?
One of the things that I’m pleased about is that the role of design in the innovation space is being increasingly recognised. Fifteen years ago, if someone had an innovation brief and they asked who they should see, it was unlikely that they’d be told to go to a design agency. But in fact while the design process and the innovation process have developed in parallel they are very similar. The design process has always been very user-centric, and the early part has always been quite exploratory in its nature. I think there’s much more recognition across businesses of the term ‘design thinking’ and how it relates to innovation.
What excites me about our work is where we’re able to support not just in having the ideas, but also realising them. I’m most proud of work we’ve done where we’ve been able to apply multiple perspectives to a challenge, and we’ve created value because of that.
Also published on Medium.