Jess Martin

⚠️ Warning! This is an in-progress research note exported directly from Jess's note-taking system. The ideas in this note are still under active development.

Last Updated: November 26, 2020

Analogies for Innovation Teams

I see an innovation team as a combination of a forward scout and a mapmaker.

Why a forward scout?

The forward scout, in a military expedition, moves out from the main force, investigating anything suspicious, and regularly bringing back reports of what they discover.

A talented scout should:

  • have a good "nose" for what needs exploration versus what to pass over
  • be persuasive in their reporting, communicating accurately and compellingly about what lies ahead
  • cover a lot of ground, not fixating on one area for longer than is necessary
  • excel in communication with other scouts, knowing that they can't possibly cover all the territory on their own
  • be willing to tread far from the comfortable when the occasion demands it
  • scout forward, but also backwards as the "interesting stuff" may just as easily lie in the direction the main force has already come from
  • ensure the area where the main force is planning to move is adequately explored, since that's the area where exploration will be most relevant
  • re-route the main force to more profitable routes when necessary

Why a mapmaker?

The future is famously free of maps. The dedication of Ernest Cline's futurist extravaganza Ready Player One reads: "For Susan and Libby, because there is no map for where we are going."

Maps are abstractions that make meaning out of the territory. The map is not the territory, but rather a projection that helps a group of people to visualize some important aspect of the territory. Maps make it possible to gather round and converse about the territory via a shared artifact.

Practically what does that mean?

With the ideas of scouting and mapmaking in mind, the innovation team should interact with the main engineering team in three primary ways:

Cast vision

Convey a sense of the scope of the "whole territory" in order to expand the vision for what's possible.

This might take the form of:

  • more general, "shape of the future" presentations to the company
  • research reports summarizing historical research and existing research being done in industry and academia
  • visionary demonstrations and "scripted interactive" demos that provoke ideas of what's possible. See Microsoft's 2016 vision demo for the HoloLens

Champion new directions

Champion specific promising product directions via "maps" and create space for productive conversations.

This might take the form of:

  • interactive prototypes that demonstrate a specific possible future that engineers can play with in order to understand.
  • research reports with embedded interactive content. See the excellent work done by Ink and Switch or MakeSpace's website for examples.
  • talks that pull together multiple prototypes See any of Bret Victor's talks, but, in particular, Inventing on Principle.

Collaborate closely

Facilitate direct collaboration with engineering whenever engineering finds themselves in uncharted territory.

This might take the form of:

  • "office hours" for innovation team members that can be booked by engineering team members.
  • "working out loud", ensuring that all of our work is done publicly and visibly to the company and, ideally, the rest of the world. As Alan Kay puts it, innovation isn't just a team sport - it takes an entire league.
  • facilitated innovation sessions that mix innovation team members with engineers in order to discover the future together.
  • embedded innovation team members onto specific product teams for short stints.

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© 2021 - Jess Martin