June 17, 2016

The Gravitational Slingshot of Innovation

Lauri Pulkka

Doctoral Candidate in Real Estate Business, Aalto University

Ksenia Avetisova

Head of Enhanced Reality Lab & Strategic Innovation Lead, Data-Driven Businesses, Tieto

Innovation is more than invention: it is the process of applying an idea or invention into practice. The nature of this process is changing. Firms are increasingly specialised and inter-dependent. Innovation is becoming more inter-organisational and non-linear. 

This is made evident by the emergence and growing popularity of concepts like open innovation, networked innovation and ecosystem. One thing they have in common is that they highlight the importance of collaboration, that no firm has truly game-changing potential on its own. But to succeed, it is not enough to simply get together. Managing innovation in an inter-organisational setting is difficult. For an idea to really take off, momentum needs to be built and maintained.

By momentum we mean the perceived energy and enthusiasm associated with pursuing a goal. Its impact on innovation is best described through an analogy. Let’s say you want to send a satellite to another solar system. Because of the gravitational pull of the sun, it would require virtually impossible amounts of fuel to shoot out in a straight line. Instead, you would use the gravitational field and orbital speed of planets to gain momentum for your spaceship. This is called the the gravity assist maneuver, and it is being used all the time, because it is the fastest and cheapest way of launching stuff far out into space.

But you are probably not in the satellite business. Let’s rather say you want to develop a novel service and introduce it to the market. According to the analogy, the idea for the service is the spacecraft and its path is the innovation process. Momentum is gained by interacting with different supportive actors, represented by planets, who have varying resources at their disposal. In addition to gaining momentum, these interactions can also redirect the path of the process. The goal is ultimately to gain enough momentum to reach escape velocity, that is, to achieve commercial success for your service. And just like with space travel, the gravitational slingshot of innovation presents an overall smarter approach to innovation compared to going at it unassisted.

Suspiciously simple, right? Reality, of course, is more interesting. Through an example of collaboration in innovation between Tieto Experience Hub and Fazer Food Services we illustrate the process in 3 main steps: how an idea can take off, gain momentum and enter the market.

1. Conception of the idea

The case with Fazer Food Services is interesting because the innovation process started well before there was an idea. Rather, the process started with what their leadership team wanted to achieve: to find new digital means to drive the business forward and ahead of competition. The push to try new ways of working, engaging customers and identifying partners led Fazer Food Services to experiment with the hackathon method, which is a part of the Tieto XHub innovation program. We’ll illustrate the case using the gravitational slingshot model of innovation.

Gravitational slingshot of innovation: case Fazer Food Services and Tieto XHub:


The process started with the core project team of Tieto Experience Hub doing some ground-work on the project. In the figure this is represented by the line orbiting Fazer Food Services. The early phase of the project was mainly about planning and alignment, getting different departments and units to define common goals and identify best path to achieve them. Challenges in this stage included tight deadlines and managing a large number of stakeholders and simultaneous streams of ongoing work. High motivation of all team members and fast decision making allowed to achieve the targets and move forward.

Involving the value network was central to successfully setting up the CXHack event. Invited jury members, startups and university program partners created buzz and generated interest around the event. The main challenge at this stage was identifying potential partners that could provide most value and getting them onboard. Success was ensured by an aligned communication efforts of the combined Fazer Food Services and Tieto XHub project team.

2. Gaining momentum

The CXHack event brought together large amount of stakeholders in a two day hackathon event, aimed at solving the challenge of continuous feedback collection at catering restaurants. Due to its intensity, the hackathon worked great for building momentum. The atmosphere was described as “electric”. The event also presented a great puzzle of complexity, which was solved by distributing responsibilities to certain team members and real-time coordination from the core team. A flexible agile and lean approach worked very well and allowed to execute the event and manage all stakeholders expectations correctly.

A Technical Proof of Concept (PoC) was created by the Tieto team in collaboration with the Fazer Food Services team and with steering from the inventors of the idea. The creation of the PoC answered some questions but raised many new ones for the actual pilot. Mutual investment of time and effort into creating the PoC was the key to making it happen fast after the hackathon took place.

Amica restaurants requesting the service to be piloted in their locations following the CXHack allowed Fazer Food Services to take the next step and together with the Tieto team to run the pilot. A common difficulty with open innovation events is that there is no continuity. Concepts in many cases remain as a collection of ideas that serve more as inspiration for internal teams than as real roadmaps for innovation. Due to high interest and multiple requests from the restaurants of Fazer Food Services, the decision was made on the leadership team level to run the pilot in two selected restaurants.

3. Entering the market

In the end, the market success of the service is in the hands of the users. The customers and restaurant staff decide whether this innovation brings value to them or not. The PoC is running until midsummer. So far the guests have been gladly participating in providing contextual feedback on a daily basis, giving guidance to the restaurant staff on immediate and long-term improvements to customer service. The end result is not yet known, but we are excited to see whether this solution is scalable and able to substitute the current feedback collection process for all 1200 Amica restaurants in the Nordics.

Main takeaway

The role of momentum in innovation is often overlooked, while the importance of resources and capabilities is sometimes overemphasised. Innovation is routine-breaking per definition; it forces you to develop new capabilities anyway.  And in the modern economy you can tap into the global pool of resources through collaboration. Therefore, what you think you are currently able of, your current capabilities, should not really be a limiting factor of innovation. Momentum, however, is always needed to overcome the resistance to change and various obstacles that present themselves in every innovation process.

How to do it then? The hackathon is a great method for gaining initial momentum because it is all about enabling an energetic, enthusiastic and creative atmosphere. The challenge, of course, is to maintain that enthusiasm among different actors, whether they are external partners or different units of your firm. No one solution fits all, but rapid prototyping and getting quick customer feedback are techniques with a proven track record of keeping things in motion.

The gravitational slingshot analogy aptly illustrates how innovation depends on interactions with supportive actors. It is intended to be generalisable to any innovation process and offers a visual model for partners to discuss shared goals and potential ways to reach them. Collaboration in innovation may be tricky, but it is necessary to realise those out-of-this-world ideas.

Read more about Tieto Experience Hub and “Gravitational slingshot model” or contact us for further discussions.



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