How to Tackle Your Most Visionary Projects

Four Steps for Transforming Uncertainty into Clarity

Categories in Learning & Impact, Tips

I’m the kind of person who finds meaning in exploring the unknown and inventing new things. But I’ll be the first to admit: although I have the drive and skill for tackling intimidating projects — navigating the unknown is inherently destabilizing.

As the Head of Learning Design at e180, my role is to create experiences for e180’s partners and to support innovation within e180. But innovation — breaking with norms, in pursuit of things we once thought impossible — gets uncomfortable, fast.

I knew that if I wanted to continue guiding e180 and its communities to new spaces of innovation, I needed to do so with a sense of clarity in order to build trust as we embarked on these projects together. I needed a process that could fortify the wild, and often unpredictable experience of creating something new.

After months of trial and error, our team has landed on a way of working through internal innovation that suits our needs as a collaborative, lean, and impact-driven company.

© Jordan Madrid

I’m happy to share our 4-step innovation framework with you now, in hopes that it provides some valuable insights on how you can begin to structure an innovation process of your own — no matter what kind of resources you’re working with.

Step 1:

Identify your goal, and formulate your one-line vision statement (i.e. what is your project and why do you want to pour your resources into it?)

Our goal: To create a yearlong, community-organized Braindate experience and supporting technological platform. We would specifically design it for two purposes: for leaders looking to use knowledge-sharing events to grow and strengthen the fabric of their communities, and for individuals whose projects and learning quests would be best served by yearlong peer learning and human support.

This was our vision statement:

How might we offer community-driven, autonomously-organized knowledge sharing events so that we democratize the ability to organize these events and increase access to knowledge sharing around the world?

We’ve structured our statement to identify and link our goal (the product we’re working towards), and the intended impact of that product.

Step 2:

Work with your team to identify all the different facets of what success will look like for your project. I like to call these dream outcomes.

For example, e180’s Product and Experience departments identified that, once we’ve reached our goal, we envision that users will have a vibrant universal profile that reflects more of who they are as a self-directed learner, as opposed to an ephemeral profile built only to facilitate their experience at a one-off event.

In the end, the list was more than 50 items long, with about a dozen dream outcomes identified per department. (You’ll find that the number of items will vary significantly, depending on the size and complexity of your project.)

Step 3:

Launch a prototype as soon as possible.

Once we listed all of the known dream outcomes for this new product, our vision crystallized (which felt awesome!) but we all shared this daunting thought: “When do we start learning about how to make each of our listed outcomes happen?”

At first we thought we should do research about each outcome and then build something when we had enough clarity. When we tried that, it felt like tying dental floss to a boulder and tugging it along…

Cue the moment of truth: Our CEO pushed us to book a test event with our coworking space– a perfect learning ground for community Braindate events because it resembles our future target market and was super accessible to us. With a real prototype in front of us, we would be forced to decide which of the dream outcomes were the most important to learn about or test at this moment in time.

Step 4:

Embed simple learning strategies into your prototype.

Now that you’re facing a real scenario and deadline, chose the handful of dream outcomes that you want to learn about first.

Then, create a simple, data-driven learning strategy for each one: think of a measurable way to evaluate whether the dream outcome came true, or, if you got some clarity about what the next step should be.

Some learning strategies are exploratory and others are more for concept validation. It depends on how much clarity and confidence you already have about what it takes to achieve the dream outcome you selected.

For example, when you are deep in the unknown, you could ask your users an open survey question (“If you could name this event, what would you call it?”) or organize a 1-hour (friendly) ideation competition with your internal team.

Once you land on a fair assumption, enter validation mode: you could ask your users (or whoever your end stakeholders are) a closed survey question (“Did the event’s title correspond to the experience you had?”) or build a low-fidelity prototype for them to really test.

Tip: start with one learning strategy per department– it’s got to feel doable!

No matter what, make sure to validate your most important intended outcome with your stakeholders: despite its rough edges, did your prototype offer enough value?

For example, we asked our attendees this question after the event: How likely would they be to attend another such event?

Four months later, we’re moving onto our 3rd community Braindate Event prototype. We’ve deployed over 20 learning strategies, of which 10 generated invaluable insights, and already struck an 86% projected return rate. Not to mention the team-wide sense of achievement and drive to continue learning by doing.

Our Braindate Event in collaboration with Aire Commune in Montreal.