Innovation: Why Starting Points Matter

If you’re looking to measure some form of progress or impact connected to your innovation (a product, service, or policy) then paying attention to the starting point is critical.

Evaluators call this a baseline and it’s maybe the most important line you can draw. A baseline is really the point of comparison for all you do. When speaking about improvements or change, this is the point you refer to when making those claims.

For something so important, it’s remarkable how few organizations capture baselines well. Let’s look at what it means and how you can do a better job of determining your innovation’s baseline.

Setting a baseline

An ideal baseline is set as far back from the present as possible at the start of your innovation journey. However, as many journeys have starts, stops, and tangents it might be that the start of the innovation journey actually ‘begins’ mid-way through a timeline.

If you are already started your innovation journey, the best time to set a baseline is now. It’s possible in some cases to use retrospective data (looking backward) to assess a baseline, however that can be fraught with certain biases that are unhelpful. If looking retrospectively, consider neutral data points like dates and times, concrete descriptions of product work, and use verifiable sources of data (e.g., work activities, prototypes, expenditures) to support that work.

When setting a baseline, there are some other tips we advise to enable you to capture the most possible useful data you can. If you are innovating in a human system, it’s possible that the innovation may have many effects that go beyond the most obvious so collecting the right data to capture these effects at the beginning is key.

  • List out the resources that have been assembled to develop the innovation such as people, space, and other capital (e.g. funds). These are your starting inputs into the project.
  • Gather a project plan or schedule of activities early to help determine what happens after the project begins. This will help determine where deviations from the plan take place, when, and help you trace back what happens if or when those changes take place to the strategy. Capturing deviations is critical because it helps you go back to see what adaptations you make at the end. Without this data, these activities might appear to be random or haphazard.
  • Capture cultural/environmental factors. Using the STEEP-V (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political, and Values) model is helpful in knowing what to pay attention to. One of our clients experienced a major, unexpected removal of funding due to rapidly changing political priorities of a government that was supporting their work. By capturing these broader situational variables you can place your innovation work in a context.
  • Document the state of your organization’s readiness and preparedness, which may also include an assessment of innovation readiness. Many innovations fail not out in the market, but within the design studio. Changes to organizational priorities, resources, and personnel can scupper, delay, or change the plans for an innovation. Capturing the state of the organization is an important point as it will allow you to see where things go off track or where they are enabled because of the organization.
  • Develop a project charter and theory of change. While a project may change direction many times, a baseline assessment can help you reflect the desired outcomes and original purpose of the innovation — which are quite likely to change over time. Having this in place can help explain what changes take place and what adaptations take place.

Baselines are the key point for making any claims of change, improvement, or transformation. They are the point where we say “in relation to what?” when speaking about change.

Give yourself some time and use the baseline assessment as a chance to spur reflective and strategic planning about your innovation. You will be grateful you did and amazed at the results later on.

If you’re interested in learning more about baseline development and its role in supporting innovation evaluation, contact us and we’ll gladly help.

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

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