Problem-focused innovation process at De Beers
Innovation should be focused on problems first, ideas second, and should follow a structured process. Here’s an example from the mining sector
|Image of the De Beers AUV from Sonardyne.com|
A few years ago, my then colleague Ian Corbett published a really interesting case study entitled “Learning for the long view – A case study in enabling learning to deliver breakthrough innovation in the offshore diamond mining industry” (part of an Ark Group report on Organisational learning).
The context to the study was the need for the mining giant De Beers to radically improve their ability to map the seabed offshore Namibia, in order to understand where the offshore diamond-bearing deposits might lie. Use of a small submarine had already told them that the seabed morphology was highly variable, even over short distances, and that an order of magnitude improvement in mapping resolution was needed if they were to be able to predict where diamonds could be found.
They needed to, and eventually managed to, develop a highly innovative technology involving an Autonomous Underwater Vessel (pictured). This was done by setting up a diverse and motivated Innovation Team that was willing to challenge the barriers of what was currently known, using a structured Innovation process
The steps in the innovation process are listed by Ian, and illustrated with quotes from the innovation team themselves, as follows:
- Setting the challenge – “The team felt the responsibility the company had given them to basically design their own future around a leading technology. They felt the gravity of it and responded in kind.”
- Enablement through leadership support – “Any organisation can do anything they put their minds to, the crucial thing is putting your mind to it in the first place. And the crucial thing about that is uniting as a group and saying ‘This is the thing we are going to do’. It’s the attitude and unity of vision that you create to do it.”
- Team leadership and the creative process to deliver deliberate innovation. “Once a team crosses the threshold and commits to action, their ability to manage the creative process then determines future success or failure”.
- Attention to team dynamics.“We compared our (personal) profiles – it immediately became apparent why we were experiencing conflict. Once we were conscious of our different styles we could manage our relationship more effectively.”
- Designing and enabling creative networks for accelerated learning. Here De Beers built a deliberate innovation network of three types of actors – Users; Product developers; and Knowledge sources.
- They also applied a structured Innovation process of divergence and convergence, similar to the one shown in this video
- “Managing people down” at the end of the project was also key – “Few people can probably fully appreciate what this team has done –it has been brilliant, brilliant. And it’s all [been done] through the learning experience.”
Ian offers these lessons for building and managing a breakthrough innovation project.
- Make sure you really understand the challenge you are trying to solve;
- Build dynamic learning networks with the best people you can find who ‘fit’ the team culture;
- Select the right team members and ensure there is a well-balanced mix of cognitive diversity;
- Make sure you have a committed sponsor with a facilitative, supporting outlook that understands the importance of helping to ensure progress;
- Make sure the team understands what is at stake and ensure they see the importance of the task they are being asked to do;
- Help the team to understand how work style influences the ability to deliver different phases of the creative process;
- Create a high-trust environment that provides the team with freedom to determine how to do it and the autonomy to make it happen; and
- Most importantly, trust the team – and share in the joy of their success.