A Visual Guide To Internal Innovation Within Distilled

I thought I’d try something new with this post. Something visual. I started sketching with my sharpie and before long I made this.

In this post I want to highlight some of the ways we handle innovation within Distilled. It’s as much an exposing of our system as it is preaching to internal teams within Distilled. Once upon a time we could just innovate all over the place and not worry about it but as we approach 50 people across three offices and time zones we need to think a little bit more carefully.


The essence of Distilled is smart, creative people who excel at getting shit done. Every single person within Distilled generates ideas.
This is an understatement. You could make a comparison between Distilled and a bunch of interconnected neurons firing all at once. Ideas spread uncontrollably through Distilled via gchat, G+, twitter, facebook, email, phone, skype, hangout and memes. There is no way we can put the lid back on the creative explosion. Nor would we want to.
This explosion of ideas is literally the lifeblood of the company. Without them we’d be just like everyone else. We rely on these ideas to drive us forward, hold us accountable and deliver excellence for our clients.
As we near 50 employees across three time zones there’s the possibility of bad ideas and there’s the possibility of too many ideas and too little action.
How do we deal with innovation overload? How do we understand which ideas are worth shipping and which are worth killing? How do we focus on action and ensure we’re producing ENOUGH innovation? Processes!
The whole process begins in the shower. Or on your bike. Having ideas is the first step and it’s important to note that we encourage and cultivate this. Mainly by making memes of each other and sharing them on G+.
This is the step which is one of the biggest changes as we grow from a small company to a mid-size company. We can’t rely on sharing ideas with everyone or we’d all get overwhelmed. So instead grab 2-3 people and give them your idea in elevator-pitch style. What is the idea, why is it awesome, how will we get it done? If all’s well then move to the next step.

MVP or Minimum Viable Product is a crucial concept in the lean startup methodology but I think it applies nicely to any kind of idea. Once you have some excitement and positive feedback of the raw idea itself what’s the best way to bring it to a wider audience? Crucially this doesn’t need to actually be a product. An example of a good MVP would be a wider survey, or a mockup of how the finished idea will look. For best results however you’ll get more bang for your buck if you create something tangible that people can interact with, whether it’s a powerpoint or a webpage the more you can visualize the idea the more accurate the reaction will be.

Data! So you ran the MVP - now it’s time to gather the data. It’s worth thinking about step 4 before you start step 3 - what data are you thinking of gathering? How can you gather it most efficiently? Interestingly here the data can be quantitative or qualitative. You could be gathering opinions from a wider set of people or you could be putting a demo product in front of people and seeing how it converts/performs.

“Formal Review” doesn’t really exist but it’s worth running your idea at this stage past the key stakeholders - whether it’s the sales team, exec team, your line manager or whoever. The point is that hopefully this formal review should be easy and quick at this stage since you’ve already iterated on your idea few times, gathered data and feedback and this step should be a simple manner of minor edits and approval.

SHIP IT! Let’s turn that idea into action. As Steve Jobs once said - “real artists ship”.
That’s the basic process but it’s worth sharing some extra tips and tricks...
“Done is better than perfect” - Facebook has posters with this written on all over their office and it was even mentioned in their S-1 filing. It’s an important concept and the crucial thing to realize is that some ideas require careful launches. But 95% of the time your idea won’t need one. So quit worrying if it’s perfect and just set that baby live! Release it into the wild!
Giving feedback well is a skill. Practice it. When you give feedback you should bear in mind that someone is probably quite attached to their idea. Before you criticize them consider for a second WHY they did it that way in the first place. Also, never ever be “that guy” when giving feedback - always try and provide an alternative solution when you criticize something. This is crucially important, saying “I don’t like it” is not helpful to anyone.
Taking feedback well is a skill that high achievers share. Notice all those iterate loops above? They are necessary to take your original idea and make it better. When someone gives you feedback try and put yourself in their shoes - what is their experience? How did you present the idea to them? Consider the disconnect between the idea in your brain and the idea as it was communicated to them. Remember that there’s definitely something that could be improved about your idea - is this piece of feedback the missing piece?

The Whole Picture In One Image

The obligatory “whole pic” diagram for those who like pinterest. And flowcharts.

Examples of Innovation Within Distilled

To round off the post I thought I’d lay out a few examples of internal innovation within Distilled and how the ideas came about.

Blog schedule

A blog schedule. Woop woop. Doesn’t sound particularly impressive or particularly impactful but frankly this has made a big difference. This wasn’t a top down idea - it was generated from within the company, managed voluntarily and keeps our posting schedule frequent and healthy.

Distilled Labs

We don’t talk about Distilled Labs much. But it’s been one of the most influential and valuable assets we own. It’s a large distributed network of individually-vetted freelance writers. Since it’s initial inception we’ve built out a whole python/google-docs interface to streamline and manage the production of content. The original idea? See above - it was a lightbulb moment that iterated many times. The MVP was a simple email list to go out to all the freelance writers we had on the books. Seeing how effective and valuable that was spurred us to built it out to be more robust and scaleable.

QA process

We write a lot of stuff here at Distilled. Some people internally got annoyed at grammatical errors and mistakes so we created another voluntary service internally for QA - anyone can email the group and request a pair of eyes to look at something with a keen attention to detail. It’s another one of those innovations that grows organically from the people that work here and becomes extremely useful.

So let’s iterate! How do you manage innovation?

Tell me how you guys handle and manage internal innovation so that we can improve our process! :)

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks Tom, that was a really insighful post, and worked really well in that style.

    It was nice to see elements from previous Distilled conferences appear there like MVP and "Done is better than perfect". The line we always have to walk with that particular point ourselves is that as we grow bigger (and no doubt you see this even more) is that people are keen to look for anything done wrong. So the risk of launching a 95% complete item to us is that the 5% poses a big risk if people see it and share it with the world.

    Our view is to have a single project vision when we start and then to work towards that. If something appears that is out of scope, or can compromise the vision that goes in to a separate proposal for future versions. So although what we ship may offer 95% of what we wanted it to do, it would still be 100% quality and totally bug tested and fixed with that in mind.

    Then as you say, it's all about iteration and using a dev server to test new features so we can make that missing 5% a reality, without damaging the live version.

    One question I did have, is at what point you would go to the MD with an idea? Is it after the MVP has been done and tested, or after the elevator pitch to 2/3 colleagues.

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    • Tom Critchlow

      I think I address this in my point about there being two types of idea - those that need a perfect launch and those that don't. In my experience most ideas can be launched with all kinds of holes, errors, bugs and issues and that's fine. The important thing is to notice the ideas that need a really great launch and need to have all the little things fixed for them.

      As for when to take ideas to the MD - that's the formal review step. Bear in mind that not all ideas need to run through the MD (or CEO in our case) but if they need that level of signoff or input then that's the time to do it.

  2. Hey Tom, great post.

    We actually have a similar process here with soft launches and such, since a lot of our customers are franchises under a single brand. A soft launch here in our case may be a test with one account (whether it's an ad creative or change to a landing page for example), and then if it's successful, we may "ship it" to a number of the accounts. Keeping the wheels turning with innovation and testing these ideas is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an SEM!

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  3. Anthony Pensabene

    This is a great post and view into the internal minds at Distilled. Thanks for sharing. I especially enjoy the doodles. They serve as visual stimulants and complements; and, it's a nice touch considering the subject matter. I read a WSJ article from last week on how doodling increases productivity:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303978104577362402264009714.html

    I also celebrate the 'realist' realization that ideas (often) happen at the most untimely of business times. Keep doing good things, Distilled.

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  4. Giev everyone in the office a pack of note pads and get them to stick there ideas somewhere...don't allow people to confer....otherwise the ones with the loudest voice get heard.

    Every couple of weeks pull all ideas together and group them

    Repeat first thing

    Continue....

    The thing to do will become obvious

    Doug

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  5. Tony, you did a great job with this post! Very innovative!
    Visuals are so cool. I have to admit that I skipped the text first. Had to go back and read everything the second time to not miss anything ;)

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  6. Enjoyed this but found it quite disconnected from the "corporate" experience. It felt like the kind of creative process that's worked best whenever, over the last thirty years or so, I've worked in a creative services environment.

    It won't work in corporates. First, because every act of creativity has to create a specific solution to a particular problem. To quote Kevin Godley and Lol Creme before they went off to create curious musical instruments, it's not "art for art's sake", it's "Money for God's sake" (incidentally, anyone seen heard "The Problem" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLZvC3DrgdE&noredirect=1 ?).

    The process outlined above is innovation based. That's a good way to start a business (or kickstart a failing one) but a terrible way of making a good business work better. That's Kaizen (see the cheesy chart here: http://www.1000ventures.com/business_guide/mgmt_kaizen_main.html

    What's wrong with the process above?

    Well, the main thing for me is that it underestimates the importance of iteration: If it gave iteration proper prominence, the process would be circular. "Ship it!" and move on to the next big idea seems to be the message. it should be ship it, see how it survives reality, improve it, re-ship: do again... Once in a while you can inject real innovation but that's always a risky process.

    Even the most innovative companies understand this. Innovation has changed markets (and even created new ones) for Apple - but standardisation and iterative improvement have been the keys to commercial success (itunes, appstore etc, just get better and better, the last ipad looks like the next, and mostly works the same etc, etc...)

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  7. Holly

    I wish you had a "southern lady" to QA all the F-bombs in your posts. No way I can send such awesome nuggets of info to the people I work with. Snag-it and such can only do so much. Yeah, you can say we're a bunch of mothballs. But it is what it is. ;)

    reply >

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