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Overcoming Barriers to Digital Innovation

Published on Wednesday, 6th November 2019

Olly Willans, Founder and Creative Director at Torchbox, has written the below article for Charity Comms, looking at the common barriers to digital innovation and how to overcome them. There's some actionable recommendations for any organisation looking to improve their offer or engage with new customers through digital products and services.

Charities are starting to innovate digitally. Innovation teams are spluttering into life, and some charities are building new digital products and services that will reach new audiences, create new potential income streams and increase their impact. But it’s slow, hard going. Why is this?

Do charities have the desire, the imagination? Do they have the vision at board level? Is risk-aversion the big blocker? Do funding models stymie innovation? Or do previous failed attempts mean they’re once burned, twice shy? Frankly, do they have the guts?

All of the above and more is probably the answer. But, here, I’ll focus on overcoming the barriers to charities adapting the type of modern, agile product development process that drives digital product innovation from the civil service to Silicon Valley.

The money issue

Let’s kick this off with money. In charities, procurement teams and budget holders like to know what they’re buying. They like big specs, clear outcomes and fixed costs. They’re less keen on Minimum Viable Products (MVPs), iterative development, testing learning and pivoting – uncertainty. Unfortunately, that difficult stuff is at the heart of agile project development.

If you aren’t ready to totally change the way you procure, a starting point is to break projects into small, affordable chunks. Assuming you are working with an agency partner: start with an innovation workshop; if that works take an idea forward in a ‘design sprint’ (roughly £15k to £25k); iterate on it; run story mapping to build a roadmap. Make each stage a micro-tollgate like a mini government service standards assessment. This way projects actually get started so they can gather momentum, and they ‘fail fast’ if they aren’t worth pursuing.

An example of this in practice is MQ Mental Health who are building a new product to engage the public in mental health research. MQ leveraged the prototype we built with them in a design sprint – to attract funding to build an MVP. MQ have funded this whole product development one step at a time, using the quality outputs of each phase to help engage the funders of the next. This can be slow, but at least it’s moving.

Think outside the box

Be creative with the process too. We recently ran a Design Sprint with Sue Ryder (who are building a new in-browser video service to provide bereavement counselling and support ) with a ‘money back guarantee ’ – if they weren’t completely satisfied with the design sprint, they wouldn’t pay a penny. This gave the procurement team the confidence to sign off the initial phases of the project, while both teams got stuck into it with extra enthusiasm.

Creating a product culture in the charity space is tough. There’s not much experience about, yet experience is a really valuable component. We believe that the critical piece of the puzzle, is an engaged, skilled, empowered, client-side product manager. A good product manager keeps development aligned to business objectives and holds delivery teams to account, whether internal or external (this is particularly important when working ‘agile-ly’.)

So what can charities do?

This may all sound challenging for most charities – accepting more risk, changing funding and procurement models, developing an effective product culture – so let’s make it simple.

Here is a formula that might help you kick start innovation in your organisation:

  1. Identify a project or service to innovate on, or a well-shaped challenge (make it one your CEO is interested in).
  2. Start with a design sprint. Make sure people know about it, getting people excited is often enough to knock down the other barriers.
  3. If there’s enough enthusiasm to move it forward after the sprint, find a good Product Manager or get some training and a mentor.
  4. Work out what an MVP looks like, and get it done (try and limit an initial build to six weeks – three two week sprints).
  5. If creating a product culture seems a step too far, develop a KPI dashboard you believe in for your website, and take a genuine, iterative approach to developing it, as that can be a great stepping stone to creating a truly embedded product culture in the future.

Finally, try to remember agile projects can (and do) fail. Particularly, if you don’t have the right processes, people and culture in place. And failure is scary in the charity sector; especially if it threatens your public image. Nevertheless, ‘fixed scope’ innovation is an oxymoron. Leaders need to be brave enough to be prepared to fail.

Well-run product development processes, as outlined above, fail early, which helps. Something that doesn’t help is annual budgets. Ben Holt said in his valedictory post about the Disruptive Innovation Lab at Cancer Research UK, “disruptive ideas need to impact strategy with an eye on the future, not the annual planning cycle” and that is something we should all try to keep in mind.

Innovation products need a new, flexible ‘as and when’ funding approach, one where funding is aligned to goals or outcomes, rather than ‘project scope’ and that is something the sector will have to keep working towards. 

Torchbox run a free Charity Digital Innovation Series of breakfast events. Here you can see the details and video of their last one, for Heads and Directors of Digital - where the discussions were on this same topic of challenges and success of Digital Innovation. Keep up to date on all Torchbox events on Twitter. 

This article first appeared in Charity Comms.