Emily Claypool: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining our HVL Launch & Learn series. Our last session on EIR programs went well—if you did not catch it, it’s located on our YouTube channel.

Today, we’ll be talking about building ideation and innovation into your development process. I am Emily Claypool, the Director of Marketing and Communications at HVL and we’re joined today by two of our panelists.

Hunter Strickler is the director of Venture Operations at Harmony Venture Labs and has been an advisor to numerous early-stage startups throughout the state of Alabama. A Birmingham native, Hunter has co-founded and led two technology startups, Visify, a leading provider of online training and compliance solutions for the commercial transportation industry, and Clutch!, a game-day parking platform serving some of the largest brands in sports. Hunter is an avid sports fan and can be found cheering on his two daughters or his alma mater, the University of Alabama.

Next up is Trevor Newberry. Trevor is the Director of Product Delivery at Harmony Venture Labs where he oversees the validation and development of new ideas and concepts. Prior to HVL, Trevor owned and operated Newberry Consulting Services and worked with first-time and non-technical founders to help them turn their ideas into software products.

Thank you both for joining us today. We’re about to jump into our conversation on building ideation and innovation into your development process. Everyone who’s attending, you’re welcome to submit questions in the Q&A chat throughout the session, and we will address those at the end. All right. So let’s kick things off for our panelists today with a broad question. What is innovation? How would you describe that?

Trevor Newberry: Starting with a softball question, right? There are a million different ways to define innovation. But I like to keep things practical so that people can understand..

The key to understanding innovation is first finding the right opportunity and having a solidly defined problem. And second is having a solid ideation process. With that, I mean—not just sitting around and coming up with ideas, but actually having a process for exposing outside-the-box ideas by determining the thinking style that works for you and your team.

The unspoken implication here is that innovation can’t be separated from conversations with customers and end-users. So, to do innovation well, you have to be engaging the people that you’re building products for, so that you’re innovating to serve.

Hunter Strickler: I think that’s exactly right. Personally, one of the big shifts I’ve had along the journey has been this idea of thinking about the way that we innovate or ideate through the lens of the problem.

That’s paramount versus the solution. I think we tend to think like—if you want to think of the next big thing, you start with some solution and then start iterating on which of these solutions is preferable. The problem here is that you skip the step of really living with and understanding the problem space in a very acute way. 

I think that there’s no substitute for asking the right questions on the problem side first and focusing there. This way, the solutions tend to come out of a deeper understanding of not only the problems but the current solutions available and where the trends lie in that industry.

Trevor Newberry: Yeah. What’s that quote—a problem well defined is half solved? I think it’s something to that effect.

Hunter Strickler: Well if it’s not exact, we’ll give you the credit for it.

Emily Claypool: That’s good stuff. So piggybacking off of innovation, what is ideation and why is it important to product development?

Trevor Newberry: Ideation is exactly what it sounds like—it’s coming up with ideas. But it’s a lot harder than just coming up with ideas. We like to say that ideas are cheap and frankly, ideas themselves are not worth much. But how they feed into the product development and innovation process is really the secret sauce there.

When we talk about coming up with ideas, we want to be really smart about the process we’re using and how, especially as we’re working with teams, we’re constructing the right environment and having the right key inputs to come up with some really solid ideas.

Emily Claypool: So, would you say that there’s one right or wrong way to come up with ideas? And why is it important to the development process?

Trevor Newberry: There’s like a million of them. I’ve recently been doing a lot of research on this and there’s just a lot of different ways to do ideation.

One of the key takeaways for me has been that leaning too heavily into group ideation is a recipe for failure. It’s in the combination of individual or asynchronous ideation with group and ideation where things start to happen. 

There’s a lot of reasons for this. A lot of cognitive biases come into play when we solely rely on getting everybody in a room or in a Zoom room and say, here’s a problem, now come up with ideas.

There’s a number of reasons why the ideas that are generated there tend to be somewhat middling and really aren’t reaching for the stars like we’d want for them to.

Hunter Strickler: Yeah. And this is a challenge for us right now too. I mean, this is something that we spend a lot of brainpower on trying to figure out the best methodologies. We’re still learning but I do agree with Trevor that the layman’s thinking on this is to just put everybody in a room, come up with a big problem and just start brainstorming. And in many cases that tends to backfire. I think the most effective tools that we’ve found so far are a nice blend of a group environment paired with guided instructions for each individual to do separately.

We carve out time and space for people to sort of think through the particular problem and solution and ideation process. This way they come up with their own answers independently without the influence of the group. Then they present and get the group collective feedback. From here, we rinse and repeat.

Trevor Newberry: And keep in mind that what we’re talking about here is group-based ideation. So when we’re trying to help groups ideate successfully, individual ideation runs in too.

If it’s just you tackling a problem, it runs into its own problems. It’s important to be aware of the fact that it requires a little bit more intention and process to successfully guide a group through generating ideas.

Hunter Strickler: And we’ve spent a lot of time thinking through the methodologies and the what, but it’s also important to consider who is in the room. Considering what perspectives they are bringing, and collecting the right mix of different perspectives to see different angles of the problem is just as important. 

Trevor Newberry: The second half of your question is why is it important to the product development process. And the quick answer here is, well, how else are you going to figure out what to build? In the context of our industry, the long answer is that software is, as Marc Andreessen put it years ago, eating the world.

Software is incredibly powerful these days. As technology progresses, it gets a lot easier and faster to write software and create software products. So, having the right direction at the beginning of that process is paramount. I worked with a project manager a couple of years ago that I would ask on behalf of a client, “is that possible?”—and she would say “Trevor, anything’s possible.” And that’s a problem for product development. You do need a target and direction. Good ideation is one of the earliest steps in providing that direction for product development.

Emily Claypool: As we’re talking about group ideation, what are some tips for cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset that aligns with innovation? How do you champion a culture that encourages innovative practices?

Hunter Strickler: I think it depends on the environment. I have been involved in more traditional small businesses where new ideas really need to follow a particular process up a chain of command. Ultimately, the decision-makers have to sort of sign off on that. But, when you think of the startup framework where it may just be you and a co-founder, then that kind of entrepreneurial mindset oftentimes comes from playing off of the strengths of each other and holding each other accountable.

As I think about it here in Birmingham, there are lots of good tools and resources available such as Innovation Depot and others that help nurture the startup ecosystem.

One of the nice things about where we live is that people are open, friendly, and willing to help. The secret sauce in developing the right mindset is about reaching out and connecting with the right people who have an entrepreneurial mindset and have gone through some of the journeys that you may be seeking to go on as well.

And there’s always going to be other tools out there—no shortage of podcasts, books, and all sorts of educational platforms. But it really takes intentionality to take your current environment and try to layer on top of that a culture that encourages the innovation process. That tends to be harder at larger, more established companies. But I would say the larger you go, the more intentionality needs to be put in.

Trevor Newberry: Yeah. And speaking specifically on how an entrepreneurial mindset relates to ideation, being an entrepreneur requires a willingness to be creative, and to iterate constantly not being afraid of failure. You have to be able to see failure as a necessary part of the process of product and business development.

And ideation can provide something of a safe space for that as well. The context of trying to generate good ideas or ideas that expose threads that we can tag on, I think lends itself really nicely to that process of thinking in an entrepreneurial fashion.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and a lot of chaos in the earliest stages of product development. And that’s not for everybody. I think that being okay with that also ties in nicely to people who naturally have an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s not just let’s start a company and make a billion dollars. But let’s start the process. Let’s start doing the work of developing a really solid product, which can take a long time and a lot of effort and is full of ups and downs.

Emily Claypool: Yeah, I was going to ask, and I think you might’ve answered it but there might be a little bit more insight. You have a team who has the buy-in, they’re excited to innovate with you, but maybe have some pivots within the team or changes along the way to the process. How do you keep people motivated to keep working towards the end goal? Are there any tips or tricks that you’ve learned along the way that may help the audience with that?

Trevor Newberry: Yeah, it’s hard because you’re constantly on a tightrope. You want to create an environment that’s psychologically safe to fail, right? I mean, it is a necessary part of the process but one of the things about being an entrepreneur or having that mindset is to also be action-oriented.

And this is something that, working with someone like Shegun has really, I’ve learned a lot about. I’ve come to believe that being action-oriented and gaining momentum is a number one priority in these early stages. When we talk about ideation, whether we’re adding a feature or building a brand new product, we say we’re at zero and we need to get to one.

I think that as long as we can continue to show progress on the initiatives, then that tends to be kind of filling that tank back up, as opposed to when you have to have a hard pivot when something just falls out. Which can take away from that tank of motivation and engagement. 

Anytime that you’re able to keep the team and the idea itself moving forward, I think that that adds to that tank as well.

Hunter Strickler: Yeah. I mean, we wrestled with this on our team too. There’s a lot of iteration and pivoting—a lot of failing, and fast. And I think a lot of it comes down to expectations. If you’re going through this innovation process, your team needs to know that there’s inevitably going to be a lot of false starts.

And a lot of changes of directions as you learn more about the market and the customer and all kinds of factors along the way. I think that it’s helpful to level-set expectations and make sure everyone understands that this is going to be a bumpy road. And that is actually a healthy part of the process, it’s not something to be discouraged over. If you set clear expectations from the start, when those kinds of bumps arise, the team is in the right mindset to keep working towards the end goal.

Think about it. You’re trying to make a bet on a future that doesn’t exist. A bet that with your product, you’re going to solve a problem and make it better. And that itself already requires a certain comfort level with ambiguity and unknowns.

Trevor Newberry: I think that ideation can help reinforce that mentality and that culture on the team as well.

Because ideation is kind of a sloppy process, it can be a little all over the place. And so the more comfortable we make the environment with having to make quick changes, the better prepared your team is to overcome the challenges.

Emily Claypool: That’s great. So what are some actionable steps to implement into your innovation or development process that help create those rituals for yourself and your team?

Trevor Newberry: The first thing to remember is that group brainstorm is a broken process. It’s not something that I recommend to anybody. It doesn’t mean that you throw out group work altogether. It means that you need to be a little bit more nuanced and understand the psychology of groups when it comes to ideation. 

One of the techniques that I found to be really helpful is called brainwriting. It’s a pretty simple process that allows for a combination of individual ideation and group ideation as if you’re going through a single exercise with a group of people.

In that, you create a chart and have everybody come up with three ideas around the problem. Again, having a well-defined problem is a must. If you don’t have a well-defined problem, don’t start ideating. It’s a mess. 

Every member begins to write three solution ideas individually across the top row of your chart. Afterward, you can do one of two things. This is where you start to incorporate the group mentality. You then discuss these ideas, not in a critical way, but by explaining your thinking. And repeat the process with everyone in the team. Virtually, you can do that via zoom using something like Miro or in person, you can start the piece of paper. When you’re able to write three more ideas right below that, the trick is to iterate on a previously written down idea. So you can 1) come up with three brand new ideas or 2) see something that someone else wrote before. Something that fixed your interest and you can iterate on that.

You can go through that process with up to six people. And I think you can do something like 180 ideas in 30 minutes. The beauty is that it combines individual ideation and group conversations around the problem to help sort of spur new ideas.

That’s one method that I’ve found to be incredibly helpful. It’s easy to introduce to a team, easy to understand. You can get it off the ground and up and running in 10 or 15 minutes of explanation.

Hunter Strickler: I have another technique that I’m not so sure that Trevor is a fan of. So, Emily, you may need to mute him so he doesn’t run interference. 

Something that I’ve done in one of my prior startups that we actually got a lot of great input and insights out of is what Airbnb calls their 11-star experience exercise. The premise is that if you think about the customer experience on a traditional scale of one to five, you would say:

One-star experience will be arriving at your destination after you booked your trip through Airbnb. No one’s there and they take your money. That’s awful. One star, do not recommend, never use again. 

We tend to think of the ceiling as five stars. This experience would be one where everything works, it’s a fun time, everything was great. 

But what the Airbnb founders did is they said, what if we blew the roof off of our ceiling? Let’s design an experience that is literally impossible. It is so amazing that it’s not even feasible. 

So they came up with 7, 9, 10, 11-star experiences. And then they ended up working backward from there to what is actually reasonable considering their resources and capabilities.

This process helped them stretch the limits on what a five-star experience should look like because they were designing, not for the five-star as the ceiling, but the seven or eight or nine stars. 

Just to give you a quick example. The 11-star experience that Airbnb founders designed initially was one where you arrive at the airport and Elon Musk whisks you away in his helicopter.

You ride an elephant when you land through a parade of people to your destination. One of the attractions is you go back to Elon Musk and he takes you on a trip around the moon—and that’s really ridiculous. But you get the idea. Once they had identified the problem with travel and where they wanted to lean in, they’re like, how do we create a mind-blowing customer experience? And how do we design it with that 11-star rating as the target?

Knowing we’re never going to get Elon Musk to take them to the moon, they worked backward from there and said, how close to that crazy great customer experience can we really get? 

We actually did that exact exercise a number of years ago, and it helped stretch our boundaries when thinking about solutions.

Trevor Newberry: Actually, I think that’s a great idea. I think maybe we put the cart before the horse a little bit here and describe what ideating solutions looks like.

And it looks like a diamond, right? Just like a diamond, there is a diverging and a converging component of that. When we’re ideating, we’re living in the divergent component, and what that means is we’re thinking pie in the sky. Regardless of the method, you’re using, you don’t want to anchor against reality. You want to anchor against the endless possibilities. Even if it’s not feasible, you’re just thinking of any crazy, moonshot, or totally ridiculous idea you can shoot out. And I think that this is a hard thing for people to learn.

But it’s really valuable because, as Hunter was saying, you can start working backward from that point into: why would that be an amazing 11-star experience and how can we replicate that with the tools that we have today? How can we start working on something that turns into curating experiences? Like Elon Musk taking you around the moon.

And Airbnb has done an amazing job with that. That sort of customized, highly-tailored experience. For example, “Airbnb Plus” rooms are more expensive than nice hotels to stay in. We work backward from the spirit of that. It’s important to note that you can only really do that when you diverge wide enough.

You start by capturing everything. And then you start to identify the threads that we want to pull on and convert back on one or a discrete set of solutions. So that’s really what that process looks like: a diamond.

This applies to both the problem and the solution side of the process. You can do that when thinking through what are the problems that exist. You’re going to converge on a problem and then think through what solutions can we come up with following the same train of thought as before. Diverge there, and then you reconverge on the solution.

That’s called the double diamond framework for anyone that’s interested, you can look that up. It’s useful as the background on why we would want to engage in these exercises. We had one to 108 ideas in 30 minutes. You’re not going to act on 108 ideas, but you need volume. You need lots of ideas, lots of inspiration to start working off of.

Emily Claypool: Great frameworks for all of us to dig into! As people are going through these processes, what are some inherent risks that entrepreneurs need to be aware of?

Hunter Strickler: Well, I think the risk is that as great as these group exercises are, they can also delay actually deploying the product and getting it in front of customers. You can do all the whiteboarding in the world and be no closer to actually launching your products than you were before you did all these fancy exercises that we just went through.

The Lean Startup Process by Steve Blank is a great resource about this. The way he frames the process is with the phrase “get out of the building.” And we’re firm believers of this. You have to talk to customers, you have to do that all the time. All the whiteboarding, brainwriting, mind mapping, 11-star experience writing, and all of that double diamond stuff is great. But ultimately, it has to come into contact with real people who would pay real money for your real product.

And I think that tends to be the risk. We do lots of thinking, lots of consensus building with our team, and not a lot of bringing the products to contact with customers. And that really is where the rubber meets the road.

Trevor Newberry: Couldn’t agree more. You know, discovery needs to be a continuous habit for product teams.

I said that looking over here because there’s a book that I’d recommend everybody called Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres. She’s sort of the lead thinker on that, but the spirit behind that is absolutely true. And it’s hard. To be totally honest, it’s something that I don’t get even close to enough time to do any given week. It’s a real pain point for me right now because we’re building products and I know I need to be in more direct contact with the people that would be using this product, it’s just time-consuming. It’s a discipline, you know? Learning to carve that time out, delegating some of the responsibility so that you can have that time is really important. But as Hunter said, one way or another, all of the ideating needs to come into contact with the customer. 

And even before the idea, the problem has to come from the customer, too. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen founders make in my time has been that they’re just like: “Hey, this seems like a good idea. Let’s have a mobile app for this. Let’s hire a development shop.”Now we’re dropping six figures on a product and not once have they gone out and said, “Hey, is this a problem that you even care about?”

It may be a problem that people don’t care about. Yes, it may annoy them but that doesn’t mean they are willing to pay for a solution. It’s like tying my shoes, it’s annoying and it takes a long time but I’m still just going to tie my shoes.

I think what Hunter was saying about being action-oriented is probably the biggest risk outside of not having enough contact with your customers. It’s continuing to be internal facing, looking inward, doing all this ideation, which is really fun and can be really rewarding.

But then you’ve got to get out and get something in front of people. It’s a balancing act. And I think it’s helpful for teams to think down the lines of, “we’re going to do two or three rounds of ideation once we have a problem, and then we’re going to go build something. And if it flops, it flops.”

Emily Claypool: Yeah. Speaking of flopping, when do you know when’s the right time to ax an idea? Is there a certain trigger or triggers that you’ve experienced where you’re like, okay, we need to table this, move on?

Hunter Strickler: I think this iterative process that we’ve been discussing where you’re doing some ideation, you’re getting it in front of customers—really translates into something like micro experiments. We have a hypothesis that needs to be validated. We’ve done some ideation. We think we’re onto something. We think we understand the problem based on some customer discovery sessions and interviews that we’ve done.

Now, we’re going to actually go and take this proposed solution in a very elementary format. It doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out. Think about the smallest unit of value that you can create with your available resources and go put it as quickly as possible in front of customers to get their actual feedback.

In terms of killing an idea, I’ve done enough of those iterations and the commonality here is: I’ve created an MVP, I’m putting in front of customers, and get feedback that’s not really resonating. I’ve tweaked it, iterated, done it again. And basically, I’ve kind of exhausted my list of the types of experiments that I can do. 

At that point, it’s not necessarily that it’s a bad idea. It could be a timing issue. The market isn’t ready. It could be that this just needs to be picked up down the road when the dynamics are different. Or it could be that you need to actually go back to the drawing board. And based on these customer discovery interviews and interactions with customers, create a new set of potential solutions through a different lens. 

The problem that I see often entrepreneurs make is that they fall in love with their idea, and then they go out and they’re so biased towards their one solution. To where they can’t actually integrate the constructive feedback and criticism from the customers into something meaningful. It feels like an attack on them. And they’re going to just keep going for it.

I think this whole process that we’re trying to discuss today is really a sort of an aim small, miss small approach. It’s finding ways to get it in front of people, get the right feedback and make the tweaks.

And that really de-risks the whole thing. So, you don’t feel like you’re so far down this road with all your blood, sweat, and tears that you can’t kill it. It becomes your process to make iterative changes and think about it in that frame.

Trevor Newberry: Yeah, I think this is one of the reasons that we are a big proponent of rapid prototyping.

It’s really about shots on goal. When you kill an idea is when you’ve received definitive feedback that no one cares about this. No one is going to pay you for it. As you’re conducting discovery interviews and prototyping, you should be honest with yourself when you’re getting feedback that makes you realize you’re way off base. And that’s when you decide to kill it.

The key is those rapid iterations and putting them in front of people. Whenever someone has a chance to put their hands on something, that’s where you get the richest and detailed feedback. Discovery interviews are important. You should do them, but as soon as you can get a prototype in front of somebody, and I mean like a flipbook or a paper notebook where you’re drawing what the app might look like and asking people to put their finger where the button is, get these prototypes into people’s hands. It’s a critical step for understanding whether or not you’ve actually nailed the problem, or if you need to go back to the drawing board.

Emily Claypool: Yeah. So, what I took away from that is that it’s really about getting in front of your customers quickly. And getting out of your own way in terms of the psychology of your idea by not being beholden to it in one version, knowing that it can change.

Trevor Newberry: There’s a saying in the entrepreneurial and especially in the software development world that states, “learn to love the problem, not the solution.” And I think that’s critical. Good entrepreneurs understand that when people care about their problems, they care about solving problems or removing pain or even adding pleasure to their lives in some way. That’s where opportunities lie, and that’s what you need to fall in love with and work towards solving. If you focus on that, the solution will take care of itself. 

Emily Claypool: Perfect. Any final thoughts for the group on any of these topics? I think that was a very good way to tie up our conversation.

Trevor Newberry: Yeah, I would just say that when it comes to innovation and ideation, they’re a few buzz words. Don’t let it intimidate you. It’s a continuous practice. Talk to people, try to put prototypes in front of people. That’s a really hard lesson for a lot of people to learn.

Delivering something that maybe doesn’t work or getting bad feedback on it is difficult. It’s tough to move beyond that. But I would encourage people to do that. I think it’s a good practice in just day-to-day life, even if nothing ever turns into a software product. Having that muscle well-developed is really important. Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s part of the process.

Hunter Strickler: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I would just add that knowing yourself, knowing your own risk tolerance, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses that you could bring to creating new ideas and innovating goes a long way. Understanding who I need to surround myself with as I go through this process and this journey. If I’m thinking about new venture creation or I’m part of an existing team and we need some outside perspectives on this. Who should we think about inviting into this process that maybe has a different perspective or a different skillset or a different set of strengths than our current team has?

Think about how you complement this with other voices, other perspectives to really help refine or fine-tune the ideation process as you move through it.

Trevor Newberry: And we’re always here too. If anyone has questions, personally, I love having these conversations and I could talk for another 45 minutes pretty easily on it. So reach out. I’d love to talk through this.

Emily Claypool: Well, thank you both for all of your insight today on innovation and ideation. I just dropped it into the chat, but if you have any other questions, we offer our office hours program. It’s a free program to connect with members of the HVL team and talk through questions that you might have about the startup process.

You can also check out our social channels, LinkedIn and Twitter. Thank you for joining us. Have a great day!