How to innovate under pressure

Placing bets on short-term outcomes can feel safe, but are you securing the long-term future of your business if you are not investing in innovation? After all, growth does not come from standing still, and, according to McKinsey, “prioritizing innovation today is key to unlocking post crisis growth.”

The usual reaction to an uncertain macroeconomic situation is to continue working on proven successes. It’s safe to repeat and optimize what you already have. In the short term, sticking to the basic roadmap may provide short-term growth and gain. 

Innovation under any circumstances is a business driver: “It’s the catalyst for short-term success and long-term growth.” During the last recession, according to McKinsey, innovative enterprises outperformed the market average by over 30% and had accelerated growth over the following three to five years. Economic downturns, according to Accenture, are opportunities to innovate with new technology at scale, leading to five times faster growth for companies that continue to invest.

Here’s how you can use uncertainty in your favor and turn pressure into an engine for innovation. 

Play off a plan to find your innovation sweet spot

Start with the priorities

While building a predictable roadmap is hard, development works best with a plan to level set expectations internally and with customers. You can’t do everything all at once. Start by identifying deliverables that are key to business outcomes and future investments to secure your big wins. Then align the deliverables by prioritizing a related set of core initiatives that can help create focus for the entire team. This will ensure delivery to outcome, as well as speed to market.

This is where you also create space for your long term innovation in your roadmap. Based on your top priorities and market stage, you can decide how much investment in long term innovation is right for you. But it is important that some space is created in your roadmap.

Create space for iteration and innovation

Getting your features in the hands of your customers fast is the key to being competitive. The sooner your customers can use your product and share the feedback the faster your team can pivot to innovate in the product. You can reassess where and how you invest, can move quickly based on customer feedback and invest differently if needed — taking feedback from releases and changing your roadmap if need be to shift quickly.

Pave a productive path

One predictable way to harness an unpredictable resource is to empower developers to be their most creative and productive. Developer productivity is key. If organizations need to do more with less, an essential condition for innovation is to pave the developers’ path, clearing away the “underbrush”. That is, if you give them components that make their apps work safely and securely, they don’t have to stop what they are doing to worry about sourcing or developing non-core functionality. If innovation and growth are critical – it’s not even a debate. Let your developers focus on core development, pursue creative ideas and bring in trusted third-party solutions, whether that means migrating to something new or adding a completely new component to the mix. 

Let’s use identity and authentication as an example. Your app requires secure identity management and authentication, but like many companies, identity isn’t your core business. You may also have a legacy or ailing authentication system in place that won’t do the job any more. As the threat landscape gets scarier, anything less than vigilance and rigid maintenance of your identity system poses a potential threat and can slow your innovation. (Learn more in this on-demand webinar.)

When trying to move at the speed of your developer team and of market demand, to put the burden of identity security and data privacy considerations on a third party whose whole existence and expertise is enabling a secure zero-trust posture can save both time and cost creating space for investing in innovation 

Nonprofit organization, Kiva, experienced this journey. Relying on an identity solution built in-house, they recognized that their future growth depended on decoupling developer ideation and productivity from maintaining an identity and access management system. Spending time and resources on securing identity took their engineering focus on what mattered to them – and to their lending partners. Maintaining and continuing to build trust was a central business consideration, leading them to select an identity platform to help build that trust without having to divert resources from innovation to achieve it.

Four principles for innovating under pressure

Innovating under pressure requires weighing up the kinds of considerations that Kiva asked themselves: What is most important to your organization, and how will you get there? Four key principles guide the innovation-under-pressure drive: 

1. Identify top areas for big impact, and see if you can invest in one or two. Do not spread it around or dilute the effort if trying to solve for something meaningful. In tight times, this is even more important.

2. Share the why with the team, and get people involved in where-to-invest decisions. Teams are inspired by the impact and outcome. Sharing the key focus areas, whether you’re pursuing feature innovation or across-the-board operational excellence, helps make your team aware of and participants in everyday innovation. As you share the why behind the priorities you are creating, the team will come back with their perspectives on how and what to invest in.

3. Create space where teams can collaborate away from the heavy pressure of delivery. Make sure it is secure. We do this with a hackathon, small team collaboration for brainstorming – create new collaboration opportunities. Innovation has to be part of your yearly plan.

4. Innovation should be part of day-to-day conversation across the organization. This can be part of blog posts, activities, and even in emojis we use to express the wins. Innovation needs to be top of mind in everything we do and talk about, including awareness-building both internally and externally, from how we communicate to infusing our feature development with new ideas to paving the path to key aspects of software development, including investing in long-term success. Incorporating feedback cycles as part of your investment in innovation is key. And to get customer feedback, speed to market is key to tap into a continuous flow of feedback from your customers.

Actions that concretely drive innovation

Reaching the organizational maturity that enables these innovation principles seems easy enough, but it requires concrete actions to make innovation a priority in the team’s day-to-day work and mindset. 

1. Get out of the way of developer productivity and unleash developer creativity, which helps get new features and ideas built faster, and leads to faster time to market and market feedback. This requires asking important questions about innovation in a constrained environment. In an article I wrote for The New Stack, I pose some of these questions, such as what the trends and technologies are that will allow developers to focus on innovation in a tougher economic environment. What does this mean in practice? Enabling developer efficiency,  offloading non-core development and tapping into trends that deliver 10x delivery, such as low-code or language-agnostic solutions, are ways to get there. For many developers, taking advantage of third-party solutions, such as identity and access management, as one example, helps keep developers productive, onboards new developers faster and lets all developers contribute in a meaningful way faster and without distraction.

2. Manage tech debt as it builds; don’t let it accumulate. As much as we might think we are moving faster by letting tech debt accumulate, it is short-sighted and stifles idea development, feature creation, and time to market, eventually bringing your releases to a standstill.

3. Dive into understanding the customer and their needs, pain points and demands. Who are your customers? Who are you innovating for? Tapping into a fast feedback loop of how they adopt and use your solutions gets you on the path of creating the right things rather than something you think you should deliver. It’s not really innovation if it does not serve a need or land anywhere.

4.   Be willing to educate when your work is groundbreaking. Even the most exciting and useful innovations often require educating both the developer community and customers of what they stand to gain. Tech innovation often comes with a change in mindset and “the way it’s always been done”. In the case of passwordless, convincing people to forgo passwords and abandon the persistent idea that passwords are not the safest, most secure means of verifying identity is the biggest challenge to overcome. 

5. Don’t let non-core components take a back seat. Sometimes in the face of feature development it is easy to forget about trust, security and compliance. Don’t let these take a back seat in the excitement. One breach or security incident, and innovation is the least of your problems. Use third-party solutions for components that are not core to your business, to keep your innovation – and value-add to customers – on track.

6. Focus on your people and their part in the long-term future. Innovation comes through the right people – onboarding, hiring practices to bring the right people into the organization, and making sure they are onboarded – and on board – fast. Demotivation sets in when people – and teams – are not nurtured and encouraged to innovate and look toward the future. Retention is key and investing in retention through collaboration and planning requires people staying and feeling comfortable, knowing their role beyond moments of business uncertainty. Make sure that your people understand that there is a long-term plan and roadmap that involves them.

Keep feeding and inspiring the innovation mindset

Innovation is built on the work of engineers who thrive on tackling a good challenge and want to see their products and features in the market swiftly, being used to solve real-world problems. Supporting an active innovation practice regardless of – and possibly in response to – pressure jumpstarts a number of positive side effects, such as faster feature development and release for faster time-to-market gains. 

Speaking of faster time-to-marketing gains, learn how to get to market faster in our latest whitepaper, written specifically to support you in this macroeconomic moment — and set you up for growth.