Avoiding the digital innovation ‘valley of death’

John Drever | 16 Sep 2016 | Comments

Taking new technology, good ideas and fundamental research through to deployable systems and new capability is fraught with difficulties. Most innovations do not actually make it through the ‘valley of death’. The problems are well documented: lack of funding, lack of real user involvement, lack of resources, etc. But is there a solution to this challenge?

I am currently leading a project for Atkins in Niteworks – a Defence industry partnership which is governed and funded by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) – to develop a new operating model to help overcome this particular challenge. The model is being piloted on a project to take advantage of new hardware and software currently being trialled on the submarine HMS Artful to rapidly deploy new software-based capability.

This work is based on a concept developed within Niteworks called Continuous Capability Evolution (CCE). This approach has been successfully used on some of the most innovative and fast-moving digital projects I have seen in recent years.

The operating model we have developed to represent the CCE concept is employed alongside Agile techniques (replacing the old ’top-down‘ processes) driving continuous evolution, i.e. there is always a pipeline of work underway at various stages of development.

Avoiding the digital innovation valley of death


The model introduces three major new elements to the organisation:

  1. A fully integrated digital Innovation Hub: This is part of the business-as-usual (BAU) organisation, charged with inspiring new ideas, functionality and ways of using the existing systems. The Hub acts as both the conduit for innovation and as ringmaster, initiating research, hackathons, forming new ideas and projects. Innovation is the new BAU, driven by ideas, technology, research and user needs.
  2. User and innovator programme accelerator: This is an event organised by the Innovation Hub bringing together the users and innovators to dynamically assess new ideas, requirements and technology. Inputs to this decision accelerator include customer aims, prototypes, UX mock-ups and designs. Outputs include roadmaps, research aims and projects.
  3. User domain technology platforms: In this example there are three distinct user domain platforms:
  • A research and development (R&D) platform, similar to the deployed system but with next generation hardware and middleware for use in the lab to try out new ideas and new technologies
  • A User Experience (UX) platform that is a close representation of the deployed user system to test the impact of new prototypes with real operators and users
  • The real deployed platform.

There may be many more platforms depending upon the service, but the important point is that the flow of new ideas across all platforms is continuous. On this specific pilot project, for example, there might be several R&D projects, some UX experiments and a few new deployed updates active at any one time.

The benefits of moving to this model are:

  1. More efficient R&D expenditure through better conversion of ideas to new capability
  2. More beneficial engagement of users with relevant content
  3. Better supply chain engagement and innovation pull through
  4. The ability to engage new suppliers and small/medium enterprises.

Although the approach is being road-tested on this pilot project, the model is widely applicable across many problem areas and both Atkins and the MOD are looking to employ it in other environments. I look forward to seeing how this innovative approach helps to take new ideas from inception through to the creation of deployable systems and new capabilities, across Defence and beyond.

I’d like to close by thanking the MOD for their permission to use this work. This is Crown Copyright ©, reproduced with permission.