How to use agile innovation to propel your business forward

Agile innovation is perhaps a bit of a buzzword. But it also represents something we need to consider doing in business – moving fast and being innovative at the same time. In a world where consumer trends change quickly, agile behaviors to drive progress are necessary.

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I discuss agile innovation in this article, including:

What is agile innovation?

Agile innovation includes human-centric design and a pipeline of ideas and products that is constantly moved forward. Changes and decisions are made quickly – based on new information learned.

“The agile-centric human design linked to innovation helps us make progress,” said Nic Umana, global agile innovation leader at Mars, on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show. “It helps us design innovation that consumers value.”

"We hear a lot about agile, agile quantitative and agile qualitative research. And it's not just about it being fast or cheap, it's about being more iterative."


“We have a community of over 200 people worldwide who work on our pipeline for the next three to five years,” Nic said. “It’s a model where we have to be obsessed with what the consumer wants.”

Agile innovators move from a vetted idea into a minimally viable product (MVP) quickly.

“Get it out into the real world and see if this is something that consumers would be able to find and buy,” Nic said. “And like buying and then repurchase it.”

Read next: How to follow the design thinking process to be more relevant to customers

She said that agile innovation means that companies check in with consumers throughout the development process to see what they like, what they don’t like and make adjustments based on the insights gathered.

"It helps us move more quickly. It helps us fail faster. So it's very valuable for a business that invests millions of dollars in innovation."

“Most importantly, it helps us optimize and learn,” Nic said. “That is the most valuable outcome.”

The importance of flexibility

She described agile innovation as a structured and a modular way of growth.

“That allows us the flexibility to design the right value,” Nic added. “We think through ‘who is the target consumer who has this problem?’ That’s the Pains and the Gains and the Jobs to be Done.”

Using an agile, innovative approach can uncover all kinds of insights:

  • Likes of consumers
  • Unveiling something that isn’t working
  • Uncover other consumers who might be interested in the product
  • And more…

“And then what can we do to make this product even more desirable for the consumer?” Nic said.

Agile innovators also come up with a good volume of innovations, Nic explained. Some are smaller, and some are bigger, but there needs to be a constant stream of potentially innovative tests and rollouts.

Why are companies struggling with agile?

“If you are always at that frontier, it’s a bit of chaos,” said Nic.

It can often be the unknown or the perception that something won’t work with agile. Or that quality might be lacking.

“In the past, especially when I would hear the word agile research. I was skeptical,” said Ashley Shelley, now senior manager, consumer insights at Yahoo, on “Reel Talk. “I had a lot of skepticism with it because I thought I would have to sacrifice the integrity of the research or the depth of the research.”

Ashley doesn’t have those concerns now and uses agile qualitative video surveys to get consumer insights.

“Decisions need to be made, and things are happening,” she said. “And so the perfect tool for that is agile research. Of course, we still use traditional as well but to get that quick answer.”

Also, keep in mind to indeed be agile, sometimes you have to kill a project.

“Really, we have to prove or disprove our assumptions as quickly as possible,” Nic said.

The mindset

Nick Graham, global head of Insights & Analytics at Mondelēz International, said on “Reel Talk” agile is just a mindset shift for large CPG companies.

“If you can take (the agile) mindset but then apply it at scale, which is exactly what we’re trying to do,” he said. “And to me, that’s a compelling opportunity that I think is what we’re trying to push forward. It’s much more of the agile, iterative process and learning as we go. But it is a big mindset shift because it’s not how traditionally big CPG companies operate.”

Doing agile innovation correctly and helping the business goes beyond “buying agile tech” in a rush, said Ryan Barry, president of Zappi, on “Reel Talk.” When that happens, it looks like agile innovation has started, but nothing changes. Unfortunately, that can also hamper companies moving forward successfully as the experience leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Nic explained that companies were not as good at including the consumer in a process in previous models. For example, some companies were consumer-first because they talked to consumers early in the process. But, frequently, they didn’t continue talking to the consumer as the process unfolded.

Strategies to be agile and innovative

To behave in an agile way, we have to have the right mindset and use the right tools. Voxpopme CEO and Co-founder Dave Carruthers said on “Reel Talk.”

“Much of earlier innovation and focus was all based upon more quantitative, survey-based methodologies,” he said. “And really what we’ve tried to do with Voxpopme and video surveys, in particular, is introduced that qualitative nature and quantitative research across all stages of the innovation life cycle.”

Brian Monschein, vice president of research, said on “Reel Talk” that it’s essential to understand how the existing budget can get the best insights possible.

Be okay with agile as an ongoing process.

“In agile, we never know what’s out there and you just have to isolate trying to figure out different ways that you’re going to experiment, ” said Eva Tsai, marketing executive at Google Cloud, on “Reel Talk.”

Be comfortable with ambiguity but also create flexible processes that outline how you’ll go about getting consumer insights.

It also takes discipline and a creative process, Nic explained.

"We now have a cross-functional team that works in sprints."

That includes:

  • different types of communications
  • faster decision-making
  • consensus in teams over top-down decisions
  • using agile software to help teams move faster.

Voxpopme is one of our favorite tools and the tool we often use to explore the conversation with the consumer,” Nic said. “We want to make sure our assumptions are right.”

At the start and throughout the project, be very clear about what the consumer problem is that you are solving.

"The best thing you can do is to get into the real world. Run your tests in the real world."

Teams need to feel safe, know that they can make mistakes, and move forward, Nic said.

Understanding the depth of a project

How agile innovation looks for individual projects depends on the specifics of the project, Nic explained.

“It depends on the complexity of the project and there’s no one-size-fits-all,” she said.

It can depend on:

  • who is involved
  • is the product being developed internally or externally
  • whether it’s a new brand or an existing brand

“There are so many things that can determine the speed, but we can move quickly,” Nic said, adding that it’s much quicker now than the six or seven years it used to take for new innovation to be rolled out.

Is agile innovation easier for larger or smaller companies?

The answer – as is often the case – is that it depends. In theory, smaller teams and companies can move quicker than larger companies that have legacy workflows that are hard to change. But we’ve seen examples of agile innovation and innovation from all-size companies.

Elisabeth Trawinski, director, Insights & Analytics at Reckitt, said on “Reel Talk” that there’s now even an expectation of agile and speed by stakeholders.

“There’s the need to make decisions faster,” she said. “And so I think that where things have changed a lot in the ways that we work.”

Jo Munton, global insights senior manager at 135-year-old Avon, said agile qualitative research helps her get feedback quickly from consumers when that’s needed.

Read next: How to get ready for a product launch with the right consumer insights

Questions to be asked in agile innovation

Nic explained the importance of the right sequencing and asking the right questions. That involves:


Desirability here refers to something that consumers would want.

“You can spend a lot of time working on something desirable for the consumer but what if it’s never viable or feasible?” Nic said.


Certainly, new innovations need to be desirable to the consumer. But they also need to be viable to implement for the company.


“We talk about ‘can we make this?’ and would it be a feasible business model,” Nic said about the importance of the three areas to fit together.

Agile innovation conclusion

Keep an open mind, move at the right speed, and remember that even once a good system is in place, things can change again. As the cliche says “the only constant is change.”

“There’s a lot of places we could go and we should look at the why,” Nic said. That’s what agile innovation helps with.

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What’s a question you’d like to ask consumers?