Thursday, May 25, 2023

Identifying and overcoming the innovation resistance

 All good stories need a protagonist and an antagonist, the "good' character and the not so good character to develop tension.  Eventually, in any story, the tension is resolved - the protagonist wins (in the happy ending stories) or the antagonist changes sided, or the antagonist wins (unhappy resolution).  Every story with any meaning or tension has these two opposing forces. 

So, it seems strange to suggest that there are innovation protagonists, and innovation antagonists.  We are led to believe that "everyone" wants innovation.  Everyone likes new things, new ideas, new experiences.  But with every new creation, something or someone is put at risk.  Even people who claim to like and appreciate innovation can become resistant or antagonists to innovation when new ideas threaten their cherished products or positions.

Why innovation is like Star Wars

I grew up with Star Wars, with Luke and Darth Vader as the key actors.  I guess it's not strange that Luke is always shown wearing a white shirt and Darth is always depicted as wearing a black cape.  Much like the old westerns where the good guy wore a white hat, and the bad guy a black hat.  

The strange thing about innovation is that there are Lukes - people who really believe in the power of the innovation force, as a means for good, and people who, mostly in the moment, see innovation as a threat, or a force to be managed or turned to their own devices.

I don't think anyone sets out to be a Darth Vader for innovation intentionally, but many people play the role of Darth when innovation threatens the projects, products or positions that are important to them. Let's consider why, and when, innovation becomes a force that will create resistance and Darth-like characters may emerge.

What causes the rise of the Dark Lord of innovation?

Innovation seems to be a very positive force, creating value and opportunity, creating new products and services that most consumers want and need.  Like ice cream and puppies, it's kind of hard to imagine that anyone would resist innovation, and I suspect that even the people or teams who do resist innovation often find themselves in an uncomfortable situation - resisting a force that they know is meant for good, but in the moment appears as a threat.

There are at least three instances where innovation resistance will arise, and it will arise mostly within a company (although sometimes from external actors) and mostly will arise as a reaction to a perceived threat. 

The "locked in" people and products

You've encountered this before.  Some people are resistant to change, even when you can show them a better and brighter future.  They resist change, and its uncertainty, not necessarily the idea or solution itself.  To these individuals or teams, change itself is the enemy, and innovation is simply another attempt to create change that they will have to deal with.  The language of these folks is:  "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".  Change of any form creates challenges and uncertainty.  These individuals revere the past glory of their product or company, and are very concerned about the future.

The leaders of products put at risk by innovation

In the zero sum game of most corporate budgeting, a new product needs to get funded, and those funds almost inevitably come from an existing product.  Rather than recognize that all products go through a life cycle, some product managers become affixed to their products, and seek to defend them from all new opportunities and ideas.  While these individuals aren't afraid of change and are in fact often open to innovation, innovation that threatens their sacred cows will be fought on all fronts.  The language of these people is:  yes, let's innovate, but not at the expense of my product.  In another setting, these resistors can be innovation champions.

The bean counters

Another segment of the population that will rise to fight off innovation are the people who wield the letters R-O-I like a light sabre.  If an idea cannot guarantee a specific return on investment in a ludicrously short time frame, the idea must be rejected.  These individuals evaluated nascent ideas on impossibly stringent metrics, that they often don't hold even existing projects and products to.  Their language is about investment and risk, while they miss projects and products that have enormous sunk costs.

Defeating the innovation resistance

It's crucial to anticipate each of these dark forces arising to do battle with your ideas, and to understand who will attack your ideas and how to either win them over or to defeat them.  The most difficult to win over are the people who simply resist change, because these individuals often aren't fighting fair.  Like Sith Lords, they show up in multiple disguises and with unusual weapons, but their ultimate resistance is in their lethargy, their foot-dragging and their disdain for change.  The simple fact is that a corporate bureaucracy will not change if it does not want to, unless it is forced to, or the bureaucracy is changed.

The most difficult battle will be with the product or project leader who feels threatened in the moment by a specific innovation project.  In these instances, the individual or team whose product is threatened by a new innovation will literally "go to the mat" to save their product or project, resisting innovations that make sense.  In this instance, the only way to win is to bring in bigger guns - the executives who will make decisions and prioritize projects.  

The most subtle battle is with the funders - the accountants and financial people who will want to understand the potential return of the investment in innovation versus continuing to invest in a proven commodity that exists.  Here, you will need to turn their tools against them, to do your homework to demonstrate that your idea has financial merit, that the investment pays off in a reasonable timeframe, and that alternative investments aren't as good as yours.  Which means you'll need to get one of them on your side, because you'll need to bring an accountant or financial manager to a finance fight.

There's no Death Star

Unlike Star Wars, the innovation resistance doesn't have a Death Star and isn't really seeking to destroy the concept of innovation.  Instead, the battle is really more of a thousand cuts, constantly questioning the value, the direction, the focus, the support or the need for innovation.  Instead of one climatic meeting, innovators have to be ready with all their tools all the time to meet and overcome the resistance.  Or, be ready with a lot of Jedi mind tricks to get the management team to play along.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:46 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

You can expect an explosion of innovation in the next 18-24 months from June 2023

 I am going to go out on a limb.  Not a big limb, but any time you make a written prediction that people can come back and check, you put yourself at risk.  My prediction has to do with innovation.  Predicting innovation will seem unusual and risky for many people, because innovation seems so random and difficult to anticipate, like a lightning strike.  But if you understand the conditions that make a lightning strike possible, suddenly the strikes don't seem so surprising.  The same is true with innovation.

Why innovation will flourish in the next two years

Innovation will flourish in the next two years for a couple of reasons.  First, we are going into (perhaps already are in) a recession.  As you look around, you can see many large companies cutting staff, in preparation for leaner times.  People are asking questions about hard and soft landings, about the length of the recession and so on.  History shows that most recessions are relatively short, about 18 months, and the economy often rebounds with great strength.

But I'm not forecasting recessions, I am forecasting innovation.  Another thing we know about recessions is that lots of new companies get created by all the people who are released from larger firms.  People start up businesses and pursue ideas that they would not have done otherwise.  While startup money is tighter in a recession, expect thousands of new companies to be created.  This will lead to new products, services and business models.  To be honest, this isn't a prediction as much as it is a recitation of fact - almost every recession in the last 40 years has led to immense innovation.

There are some other factors to consider that make this time period different, however.  First is artificial intelligence, ML and ChatGPT and all of the new technology that will make people obsolete.  Just as the loom did not replace all workers - in fact created more jobs - AI will not replace all workers but create new roles and new jobs, as well as new products, services and business models.  

Innovation creates and spawns new adjacent jobs as well.  New technologies and new services require new marketing and sales channels and messages, new support structures, new payment mechanisms.  The interwoven layers of technology will create new jobs.  New robots require maintenance techs to ensure the robots are working correctly and programmers to improve how the robots operate.  

Creative destruction

What we are going to witness over the next few years is what Schumpeter called "creative destruction", which means that new ideas will reach the market as new products, services and business models and will destroy existing industries and jobs.  That sounds scary, and it can be, for those unwilling to understand the emerging possibilities.  In every transition from one technology to another, people have rebelled.  The printing press was considered a threat to copyists, the automated loom to weavers.  And the people who held those jobs were right - those jobs were under threat, but other, better jobs emerged.

We are likely to see creativity unfold in ways we've rarely seen previously in these tectonic technology shifts, because we have layers of technology that other technology is built on - computers support the internet, which enables machine learning and artificial intelligence.  We are gaining exponential benefits from previous investments in innovation, going up a learning curve.  That learning curve and its impacts will have difficult implications for some jobs but will create other opportunities as a by-product.

We are likely to see the destruction of jobs and industries as well.  Increasingly, white collar work will become threatened by the power of artificial intelligence, and there could be a resurgence of high-tech blue collar jobs.  Machines can already read x-rays as well as humans, and much more quickly and far less expensively.  Plenty of white collar jobs gathering, analyzing and making sense of data will be at risk.  


There are gaps, however, in this possible future, the biggest of which is the growing gap between those who are dialed in to new technologies, either as the technologists or knowledgeable users, and those who do not have the skills or capacities to understand or harness the strength of digital transformation.  It's becoming critical that we rethink how we educate people and how we introduce them to what is about to occur in technology, so they can be involved either in the creation of new AI and ML, or at least become knowledgeable about how to use and deploy these tools and other manifestations such as robots.  If too many people are left behind, unable to create these technologies and uncomfortable or uncertain about their implementation and use, a widening gap between those who understand and control technology and those on the outside will threaten the stability of the markets.

There is a huge opportunity here, and when opportunities emerge, there is another opportunity for innovation.  We cannot afford to create two classes of citizens, one that has access and understanding of emerging technology, and one that is cut out from any engagement of technology other than as a consumer.  I think we'll see a lot of innovation around education and training people to become more adept at the development of AI and ML, user experience solutions to simplify the interface to AI and ML, and methods to learn to use AI and ML more effectively.

Whole Product

Finally, there is the "whole product" model to consider.  Many of these emerging technologies are used by scientists, technologists and early adopters.  As fans of Geoffrey Moore know, that market represents only 10-15% of the total market - the larger segments are in the early majority.  As the title of his book indicates, these technologies need to "cross the chasm" from technologists and early adopters to the early majority of customers.  What the early majority wants are complete products, easy to use, with plenty of support.  Thus, creating the whole product for AI, ML, robotics and other technologies creates an entirely new industry and valuable opportunity.  AI and ML will need to leave the back office and the lab and become everyday products used by people everywhere, and to do that, those products and technologies will need to consider user experience, support, interface management and a host of other challenges that technologists skip over.  Why do you think there are so many LinkedIn posts about how to create useful prompts for ChatGPT/

Will we see it as an opportunity or a challenge?

Innovation is about to unfold in ways we cannot appreciate, due to the stacking of proven technologies to lead to greater computing advances.  Further, a host of people leaving larger companies will be starting their own companies, creating a range of experiments that will pay out over the latter half of 2023 and into 2024.  Emerging AI, robotics and other technologies will feel like an assault on existing jobs and industries, and a wave of protectionism is likely, but ultimately futile if past is any indication.  We will need to ask ourselves:  is all this change an opportunity or a challenge?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:33 AM 0 comments

Monday, May 22, 2023

My innovation journey (so far)

 I think a re-introduction is in order.  I've been leading innovation work for close to 20 years, writing about it on this blog and in my book (Relentless Innovation).  I've made some great friends along the way and been influenced by a range of great innovation thought leaders.  Over the last year, I needed to take a step back, to focus on some other things, and to get a new perspective.  Too much time at the innovation coal face was making me a bit cynical.  I'm ready to dive back in, to write about innovation, to lead innovation projects and to build up an innovation competency in the firms where people want to get good work done.

My innovation journey

My journey started in a rather inauspicious way.  A good friend and I were eating lunch, and talking about concerns that there wouldn't be any good or interesting jobs for our kids, because of the usual technology advances - robotics, automation, machine learning and other factors.  We felt that to remain competitive, larger companies needed to recapture the sense of wonder and adventure that working in the "front end" of innovation would create.  My friend, who founded OVO Innovation with me in 2004, was really passionate about the idea of reviving innovation in corporations.  I have to admit, I was skeptical at first.

Doing new things in large corporations is difficult.  There is too much pressure to toe the line, to continue to work in highly efficient and well-understood processes.  Market evidence will tell you that most of new product innovations fail in the first year.  Most managers will ask:  why take the risk?  Managers can squeeze out a few more percentage points of profit on existing products without significant risk.  Any innovations kicked off now will only pay off - if they pay off - down the road.

But, we got started, getting some initial training from Tim Hurson, who wrote Think Better, a great book on innovation thinking, creativity and facilitation.  We won a few small projects at first and had the idea that what companies needed was a great place to store and manage ideas, so we built an online idea generation and brainstorming platform, and an idea management solution, which completed with industry leaders BrightIdea and Spigit and Imaginatik back when.  What we quickly realized was that while companies could acquire and use our software, they lacked the infrastructure, the processes and the teams to do anything with ideas, so we quickly scaled up a consulting capability, more focused on how to do innovation, rather than how to capture and manage ideas.

Innovating on Purpose

With this learning in mind, we created a methodology called Innovate on Purpose, which was meant to illustrate that innovation is not accidental, it isn't something that happens only in R&D and isn't a black-box activity.  Defining a process and the meaningful steps, and training good people on the thinking styles and tools can accelerate innovation and, more importantly, make it a repeatable activity.  In other words, rather than consider innovation an unusual, once in a lifetime accident, we believe innovation can become a more consistent process within a business, easily taught, frequently repeated and far more successful as teams experience innovation work and come up a learning curve.  We simply need to take some of the fear, risk and uncertainty out of doing innovation.

We worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies, mid-sized companies and even some startups, to deploy our methodology, to build innovation competency teams and implement processes.  I'm happy to say that many teams and individuals we worked with are still innovating, but certainly not all of them.  What we found over time is that frequently innovation is simply a word that executives and corporations want to use to appear to be creating new products and services, while neglecting the people and the investments necessary to create new products and services.  Just as "green-washing" takes place to make companies appear more ecologically friendly, so to does innovation theater happen in many companies, to make it appear they are doing more new product development than they are in reality.  This practice, of course, has led to its own moniker - innovation theater - and to rising cynicism on the part of people who want to get more innovation done.

The next shiny object

I started to get a little frustrated and perhaps a little disillusioned a few years ago, when I was asked by an executive in a company I was working for to blend "digital transformation" into our innovation offerings.  Digital transformation was becoming the hot buzz word, and I worried that it would detract from innovation - creating new things of value - to switch the focus to digital transformation - implementing systems and technologies to cut costs.  And you can guess which version is winning.  Digital transformation can be innovative, but most digital transformation is about cutting costs using technology that exists.  Not too innovative.

Now, of course, there is a new buzz phrase - machine learning and/or AI, especially focused on ChatGPT.  Many businesses are now trying to grapple with what generative AI or applications like ChatGPT will mean for their business.  It's not a wonder that many executives, confronted with significant wage and cost inflation, a divided economy, trouble in China and a major focus on AI, are not quite certain where to place their bets.  Any investment in innovation, or digital transformation, or AI, or reworking a supply chain, will take time and mean there is less investment for other activities.

Innovation still remains

However, one thing is certain:  except for champagne producers, every company needs to create new products and services in order to stay relevant.  Whether those products, services, business models and customer experiences are leveraging digital transformation, or are delivered through artificial intelligence, we still need to spot ideas, ensure they align with emerging customer needs and to take risks creating new products, services and business models.

When we finally cut through the noise and begin to identify what is real, what drives value, what creates new products, services and business models that customers want and are willing to pay for, at higher margins than existing products, we'll see that innovation is still as vital as it ever was.  This is illustrated in some way by the number of entrepreneurial firms creating new products, services and business models.  Will larger firms continue to focus on their core products, ignoring the need to innovate, as time compression and customer demands makes the near future more volatile?  I think we'll need to watch carefully.

To end, I'll just note that the revered management thinker Peter Drucker said that businesses really only have two important functions - marketing and innovation.  According to Drucker, everything else a business does is a cost.  Let's get back to doing the important work - innovating products, services, experiences and business models.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:24 AM 0 comments

Monday, May 15, 2023

Relying on outdated tools or conditions

 In uncertain times, where do you turn for insight and answers?  Most often, it seems, we turn to what we know and trust.  Older tools and models that have proven themselves over time.  In the uncertainty we face today (this post was written in May 2023), many business leaders are facing uncertainty about what strategies to implement, what plans to make.  Inflation is still running high, there is a significant amount of political uncertainty in the US, a war in Ukraine and rising tensions between the US and China.  

Supply chains that once seemed so efficient now seem easily disrupted.  Costs, for people and equipment are rising.  When we face all of these uncertainties, what tools or methods help companies understand the current state and plan for the future state?  What do managers turn to for answers?

There are several answers, and none of them are perfect.  Many managers and executives will look to the past, to see if there are lessons learned from previous, similar episodes in history.  Others will look to their education and the frameworks and tools they learned in college or graduate school, to help them understand the markets and their shifting demands.  Still others will look forward, to try to understand what the future may bring, and how to prepare for an emerging future that is unfolding.

I've written previously about VUCA - Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity - and how the military and government will use a VUCA model to begin to decipher what they are facing.  Today, there are several factors that business face from within the VUCA framework:

  • Volatility - in the US, there is volatility in the market, especially with what has traditionally been a relative rock of stability - the banking industry.  As SVB and now First Republic go under, a cornerstone of the US economy now seems more uncertain, more volatile, and that causes concern not just for businesses, but for households as well.
  • Uncertainty - in an economy with high inflation (well, high compared to what we've experienced for the last 30 years), there is a lot of uncertainty about what the Fed will do, what results its actions will create, and what the near future will look like from a growth or recession point of view.  No one has great certainty now, unlike just a few years ago when interest rates were approaching zero and the market was growing.
  • Complexity - many businesses are unraveling or rethinking systems, processes and supply chains that have been implemented in the last 20 years.  China, once a low-cost production location, has become more expensive and a competitor, both on a business level and on a national level as well.  
  • Ambiguity - This is the one factor that I think is less worrisome.  I don't think our challenges are ambiguous.  We may lack the correct models or frameworks or experience to decipher them, but that makes them complex, not ambiguous.
With all of this said, let's go back to the three ways managers often try to interpret their setting and the risks associated with each.

Looking to the past

The last time we had high inflation in the US was during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  While our recent inflation was challenging, it was nothing compared to the inflation of that era.  It makes sense to review what managers and executives did in that time, but that insight comes loaded with a lot of freight and uncertainty.  The 1980s were an inflection point in the US, a shift from the more liberal 1970s to the Reagan economy in the 1980s, where tax rates fell and spending on military and technology increased.  Also, the 1980s were the beginning of the end of the Cold War, where the US was increasing spending and the USSR was going bankrupt trying to keep up.  There were two "poles" in the world at that time.  China was a low-cost producer of inexpensive goods, and Mexico was just beginning to take advantage of NAFTA.  

What the Fed did at that time is what the Fed is doing now, raising rates to slow inflation, which led to a recession.  In some regards, history will repeat itself now.  But, as Mark Twain said, history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  Meaning we can learn from the past, but we should not expect the present situation to repeat itself exactly.  

Understanding the present and especially looking forward to the future based on how governments and businesses reacted in the 1980s does not take into account the tremendous changes that have happened since then - the establishment of the EU, the advancement of the internet, the rise of China and the diminishing Russian economy and threat.  We should use the past as an example, but lift only those learnings that are still relevant to today's environment.  Relying too heavily on lesson from the past, when the past conditions were so different from today's, introduces ideas and concepts that may not be relevant or useful.  

Relying too heavily on lessons from the past can lead to mistakes, what the military calls preparing for the last war, and failing to understand that the next war will be different.

Looking to your frameworks

Many executives in charge of businesses today were in graduate school in the 1990s and 2000s.  This meant they learned at the feet of Michael Porter and others and were educated on the concepts that were prevalent at the time.  As a reminder, Jack Welch was held up as an avatar of great business competence during and immediately after this period, only to see GE break into several parts when it was realized that most of GE's profit came from financial engineering.  Tool like Porter's Five Forces and newer models like the Business Model Canvas can provide frameworks for analyzing situations, but this analysis requires deeper thinking and more complex synthesis in a time when inflation is higher and VUCA factors are more extreme than when we were in graduate school.  Note that I used a tool in the introduction - VUCA - and provided some basic analysis.

Again, nothing wrong with applying the frameworks we learned, as long as we apply them in the right way and take away lessons that align with the world we live in, and do the deeper analysis that is required.

Looking to the future

My bias is always to look back to the past, to leverage my tools, but also to try to understand what is going to happen next.  Understanding the future, what is likely to unfold, and to move proactively to address emerging needs and challenges is both profitable and risky.  Risky because the company needs to place bets on what future will unfold and what new opportunities or threats could emerge.  Profitable because getting these bets right, investing and moving into new opportunities or spaces before competition means higher revenue and margins.

The problem with looking to the future is that so few people understand how to do this work well, and too often we simply forecast the existing conditions into the future - what I like to call straight line future.  We'd like to assure ourselves that we can understand the future, and in the absence of good research and thinking, the best way to forecast the future is to determine it will be more of the same.

Which tools to use?

So, in one instance (looking to the past) we have rock solid evidence of how decisions played out, but the circumstances today are likely different.  In the instance of the frameworks learned in college, those too may be relevant for a specific timeframe and competitive state that may or may not exist.  When considering the future, the most necessary and relevant information is to understand future conditions, but we have the least experience and least amount of trust in that data.

Which suggests that most companies ought to get much better at understanding trends and scenarios, interpreting market conditions and future actions, and analyzing competitor actions.  If relying on the past is dangerous due to shifting conditions, and relying on frameworks could be situational, then understanding the future playing conditions is probably the best approach.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:35 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

ChatGPT did not write this blog

 There are a lot of folks thinking about the implications of ChatGPT, the new AI that has many writers worried about losing their jobs.  I've seen posts online where people provided prompts to ChatGPT and found the resulting document to be comparable to a well-written, college level paper.  Which has led, inevitably, to the claim that AI will replace humans and take their jobs.  All that is left now is for the Luddites to grab their spanners and wreak havoc on the knitting machines.  

As someone who writes a lot, I am concerned about any AI with the ability to write or argue points in the same manner, voice and frequency that I do.  In fact, it might be interesting to load all 1200+ posts I have written and train an AI to simply continue to write posts for me, while I while away the afternoons sipping pina coladas.  Don't judge me - I like coconut.  And, yes, some jobs are likely to be replaced, but in case no one has noticed, AI has been writing short new snippets and even full-page web articles for several years.  Daniel Pink wrote years ago that anything that could be broken down into a defined process would be first outsourced and then automated.  Years later, what we are discovering is that anything with patterns and some descriptive underlying logic, like a language, can be automated.  This does not mean the end of humans, or even copywriters, because the AI still requires interesting prompts.  In other words, it knows HOW to write, perhaps even more effectively and fluently than we do, but it does not know WHAT to write, and in many instances, it may miss the point about WHY to write at all.

Having a specific point of view is vital.  After all, would you rather read a piece about the English language and its uses from Orwell or Churchill, or Mick Jagger?  Orwell and Churchill understood the use of language, first to shape how people think (Orwell) or to move and motivate people (Churchill).  Jagger uses language as a way to evoke thoughts or emotions and to entertain people.  And, yes, you could create an AI that became expert at mimicking Orwell - what would he have thought of that?  A whole book could be written just about the speculation about how Orwell would have reacted to ChatGPT and its potential use or disuse.  But AI cannot replace Orwell, because Orwell had several characteristics that the AI will never have - lived experience, a point of view, ideas about the current state and visions about the future.

A single AI won't have all of these facets - at least not yet.  It would take several AIs working in tandem, all trained to Orwell's writing style, perspective, politics, life experienes and more, to adequately reflect how Orwell wrote, and to begin to try to fully replace Orwell.  Not saying it isn't possible, just very difficult right now, when AI could be put to better use.

Where is the creative spark?

A good friend of mine likes to say that all programming code is a derivative of the original line of code ever written.  Likewise, most music is derivative of original notes and beats that humans created thousands of years ago.  The beats per minute may change, the instruments may change, the different chords and keys may change, but eventually all music is derived from an original source.

So it is with most things.  I like Hemingway's books and find his style and usage and word choice interesting.  It is the combination of his choice of words, his characters and his settings, as well as his point of view that make his work interesting.  So, is the creative act the process of putting words on a page, words that have been used again and again for centuries?  Or is the creative act in the selection and choice of words, the short sentences and the long, run-ons?  Where does the actual creative spark lie, and what creates or generates that spark?  Because ultimate that's what will differentiate humans from our AI partners. Note that I say partners, not overlords, as some will suggest.  If and when multiple AIs are joined together, all of which can do very different things, and all the AIs band together to work against us, we may be in trouble, but fortunately that's a problem for my kids' generation to solve.

Weavers, whip makers and copy writers

So, yes, some jobs and roles will be threatened by the onset of AI in language processing.  Just as manual weavers gave way to automated looms and whip makers were out of business when the automobile became popular, creative destruction as envisioned by Schumpeter will continue.  Innovation and technology will create new capabilities that replace or in some instances destroy jobs and even industries.  We can stand athwart history, fighting the emergence of new technologies, or we can adjust and reframe capabilities to take advantage of new opportunities.  The Luddities tried to destroy the weaving machines.  Less is recorded about the demise of whip makers, although I am sure they did not go silently into that good night.  What will those of us whose occupations and incomes depend on developing great copy do?  Perhaps we'll learn to train machines and AI to do the bulk of the work for us and put the final touches on ourselves.  Is what AI is doing really so different from what James Patterson is doing - writing story outlines and having other authors flesh out the story?

One day, an AI may write this blog, but if it does, I'll provide the context and the prompts and the ideas and will probably rework the draft.  You'll be able to tell it's my own work when there are run-on sentences, misplaced metaphors and poor subject/verb agreement.  But hopefully the good ideas will shine through.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:19 PM 0 comments

Monday, January 16, 2023

Why campfires are the perfect analogy for innovation

 I grew up in Scouting and really enjoyed my time as a scout.  What I think most of us enjoyed the most were the weekend campouts, where we could sleep in tents, roam in the local forest and, best of all, build fires.  I've never fully understood why boys are so attracted to fire.  Perhaps it is fire's potential destructive nature. Perhaps it's the concept of controlling such an awesome power.  Perhaps it's just cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over an open flame.  All I know is, we loved to build fires and cook over the open flame.

Campfire 101

Every scout knew that a good fire begins by preparing the ground, scraping away the dead leaves to expose bare soil, so that when the fire was burning, it was contained in a small spot.  We'd often gather rocks to contain the wood in a small circle.  These were simply good practices and safety measures.

Next, we'd spread out and gather as many small dry twigs as we could find for kindling.  You need something to catch fire quickly, that doesn't take too much effort to get started.  Then your kindling will burn hot enough and long enough to allow larger branches and eventually logs to catch fire.  Good fire-makers know that the wood - kindling and the larger logs - needs to be good and dry and ready to burn, not freshly cut green trees full of sap, but older, dead logs that have dried out.  The older, dead and dry wood catches fire more quickly and burns more cleanly.  Once you have a real fire going, you can burn green wood, but fresh, green wood kicks up a lot of smoke.

If you've built your fire correctly, preparing the ground, building up your dry kindling with good dry branches and logs ready, a few small sparks will be all it will take to get your fire going.  We used to challenge each other to see who could start a fire with the fewest matches.  Some more intrepid scouts had learned to create sparks by striking flints.  I've even once witnessed someone start a fire with a fire bow, but that takes a lot of work.

So, what's this interesting flashback to scouting days have to do with innovation?  A lot - and we forget far too much of the symmetry.

Innovation and campfires

There's a reason so many innovation tools and methods are associated with light or fire.  Ideas are often considered "sparks" that will catch flame to create new ideas.  When scouts are striking matches or striking flints, they are creating sparks directed to their kindling, in hopes that the spark will ignite the kindling and then the rest of the wood.

When you are generating ideas, through individual work, or brainstorming, or some other means, you are sparking ideas.  While idea generation can often seem challenging to introverts or people who don't think of themselves as "creative", it is the easiest activity in the innovation realm.  Anyone can do it, anytime, in any location, with little preparation.  And, often, that's what's wrong with idea generation - it can be too easy to do - just like striking a match.

As I noted above, we would never strike a match without first preparing a fire circle and building a good platform of kindling.  A lot of preparation went into building the right conditions for that spark to catch up a flame.  Yet in most businesses, we are apt to go into an idea generation activity with little preparation, and with little connection between ideas generated and how they will be realized.  There's often a big gap in companies between idea generation and the work necessary to develop an idea into a new product or service.

As scouts, we'd build a small mound of kindling, ready to catch the spark, with more wood prepared to feed the fire as it grew.  As innovators, we need to have the right conditions, the right preparation, but also the right next steps for a good idea.  Who will manage the idea?  What are the processes to develop and validate the idea?  Who will build a prototype and test it?  These concepts need to happen BEFORE the idea is generated, not afterwards.  Too often, we expect that simply generating good ideas will be enough - that ideas have value in and of themselves and will mature naturally with little help or guidance.  No, ideas are like matches that flare for a moment but will burn and die unless they become the spark for something else.  

Wet wood

Scouts know that dry wood matters when you build a fire.  It's far simpler to ignite dry wood than wood that is wet or green.  The same concept applies to innovation - using the right people and setting the right conditions and ingredients matter.  Working with people who are not ready to innovate, or who have doubts about the ideas, is like trying to catch wet wood on fire - it is possible, just not the best approach.  Here, we can also talk about corporate culture.  If the culture of the business is to focus on existing products, to avoid risk, then you are metaphorically working with wet wood.  It is as important to describe how ideas will evolve and mature as it is to find the right people with the best motivations and help them overcome any corporate culture or challenges to innovation or innovative thinking.


We scouts didn't get good at building fires by doing this occasionally, but by trial and error and by learning from our peers and our scout leaders.  We had our scout manuals to tell us how to build a good fire, and we built fires every time we went camping, because that was the source of heat, and how we cooked our food.  And yes, we did challenge each other to build fires using the fewest matches (or no matches).  To earn one specific merit badge, you were sent off into the woods by yourself to build your own shelter, to find and cook your own food, for a weekend with a knife, a blanket and two matches.  Believe me, you learn to build your fires carefully when you have a limited supply of matches.

Starter Wood

Those of us who had a little more experience would often carry a few shavings of what we called "fire starter".  Fire starter (or what some call fat wood) comes from the joints or roots of an old pine tree, filled with resin, which catches fire really easily and burns very hot and fast.  It acts as a catalyst for the other kindling and will burn even when other wood won't.  You may find that you need a catalyst as well - someone from outside your group, or perhaps outside your company, to spark ideas.  Or, you may want to have your team read magazine or web articles about what competitors are doing or new emerging technologies in order to spark creative juices or create a competitive challenge.  Smart innovators will use any catalyst they can to engage their audience and create heightened competitive challenge.

Campfires and Innovation

So, there are at least five ideas to take away from this reminiscence:

  1. Ideas are sparks, and without the right preparation and good processes and responsibilities defined, you are wasting your time generating ideas.  Build your firepit, stack your kindling and know how to fuel a fire before you generate ideas.
  2. Sparks don't burn wet wood.  Find the right people, prepare them, help overcome cultural objections.  Establish the best conditions possible, in the room and beyond the initial meeting.
  3. Nobody does this right the first time.  It takes practice to learn to build a fire with a single match.  It takes practice to learn to generate and manage ideas.  If innovation is important in your company, it will be something that you practice and do regularly.
  4. Have a clear purpose.  While this discussion may sound like it borders on pyromania, we also knew that our leaders would send us home if we started fires that did not have a purpose.  Fire is a tool, useful and occasionally dangerous, and not to be invoked lightly or carelessly.  When we started a fire, we had to have a purpose - warmth or cooking.  When you do innovation work, you need to have a clearly defined purpose, that everyone understands and agrees on.
  5. Identify a catalyst or create a challenge.  We'd use or find fat wood whenever we could, because it made starting the fire easier.  You may need to introduce a catalyst who can generate ideas that your team would not normally consider or produce information or a competitive challenge to push your team to be more creative.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:11 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Will you shape innovation, or will it shape you?

 There's a famous quote about tools we use, which says that we first shape our tools, and then they shape us.  Meaning, I think, that we are natural creators, meant to solve problems, to create new things.  When we create new things, they become valuable and in demand, and to a great extent, at least initially, unattainable until produced in mass quantities.  Once attainable and proven useful, those tools change the way we live and work.  Thus, the tools we created and shaped will eventually change and shape the way we live and work.  If you doubt this is true, look no further than the iPhone.  What was an incredible innovation is now changing how we work and live.  And to some degree, creating new humans with more flexible and useful thumbs!

Through creativity and innovation, from the earliest origin of man, we have been creating and shaping tools - fire, sharpened sticks for tools and weapons, the wheel and thousands upon thousands of other tools and devices.  Now, we are surrounded by the evidence of centuries of innovation:  indoor air conditioning on a hot summer day.  Automobiles that can travel hundreds of miles on a single electrical charge.  The ability to sit and write a blog that others may read (or ignore) at their leisure.  And all of these tools and services are built on dozens of other innovations, that we all too casually accept and ignore.

The question I'd like pose today is:  when do we stop shaping innovation and when does it start shaping us?  One of my biggest concerns is that we are losing sight of the power of innovation, and its ability to constantly change (and often improve) our lives.  To a great extent, we are becoming complacent, waiting for others to change or improve or modify our lives, rather than dreaming up big ideas and developing them ourselves.  Too many times we've outsourced the development of ideas to others, waiting for them to take the risks, to scale the ideas, rather than get involved and participate in the learning, experimenting and yes, sometimes failing process.  This lack of larger engagement in innovation and creativity means that the development of interesting new products and services is left more and more to people who are willing to take risks, and those people, unfortunately, may include people who don't care about risk or who don't care about you.  Facebook, as an example, has proven to be an exceptionally valuable innovation that generates a lot of social interaction, for good and for bad, driven by Mark Zuckerberg, who, it seems, is happy to share your data with anyone for payment.  And Facebook is just one example.

When people become passive, and when we fail to innovate, we risk turning over innovation and creativity to people who don't have our best interests at heart, but more importantly we risk abdicating the act itself to others, and eventually to machines.  While I recognize that this sounds futuristic, good innovation often involves the combination of unexpected features or solutions in new or novel way.  Artificial intelligence can spot and discard thousands of connections that would take humans years to even consider.  A significant amount of drug discovery is already working in this way.  

The advent of innovation by AI does not preclude people from working in innovation and certainly won't prescribe the activity, but as long as we continue to focus our attention in the educational system on rote memorization and de-emphasize risk taking and creativity, the more and more these acts become acts of rebellion or resistance against a system, by people who do not fit into the mainstream.  This is not to suggest that there will be an "us vs them" mentality, but most good innovators are somewhat outside of the mainstream, and the current environment and movement to more automated methods of innovation may make it even more so.  

Plus, there are some innovations and some breakthroughs that simply require human involvement and innovation.  While AI can combine existing capabilities and molecules to decide if a new combination has value, AI (at least not now) can't imagine new possibilities, new services and business models, new experiences that consumers value.  There are entire vistas of innovation possibility out there, waiting to be explored and, yes, monetized, if only businesses would be more active in seeking out the possibilities.  Yet, most companies stick within a very narrow range of new product development options, unable or unwilling to shift the frame and think differently.  Little wonder, since the population seems to be moving in that direction as well.

The dystopian future of Terminator is bleak but unrealistic.  Machines and AI will become more powerful, but the relationship will be symbiotic, just not in the way of Terminator or The Matrix.  We will become more dependent on machines and AI for more of our thinking and even our creativity if we aren't careful.  True creativity and innovation are almost purely human characteristics, exceptionally difficult for machines to create, but these acts aren't always useful or beneficial.  However, in the right conditions they lead to new learning and new discovery.

The question is:  are we willing to relegate our lives, our thinking and our innovations to a small group of people who continue to work and innovate, and to machines and AI that won't explore all the innovation possibilities and options?  Will we be happy with a continuous supply of incremental and safe ideas that aren't all that interesting and fail to explore new opportunities?  If what I am saying as a warning seems to reflect the current reality, then get ready for more of it.

If you want more, if you think people and society is capable of more, then start by training your kids and students in creative thinking and innovation.  Encourage them to explore beyond the rigid academic boundaries, to combine new thoughts and new experiences.  As Heinlein said - specialization is for insects.  We need people who are open to new ideas and new experiences, who will push further into creativity and innovation, to re-invigorate innovation in society, in government and in business.

And it cannot come soon enough.  Otherwise, complacency, lethargy and satisfaction with the current state will settle in, and we'll create an entire generation of people who are completely satisfied with staring at photos and short video clips on a handheld device.  Oh, maybe we've failed this generation.  Maybe they'll recognize that life and experiences and risk beyond the handheld are out there and reject the trap of social media to go well beyond.

It's time to move beyond relying on Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried and other "innovators" to create new things.  SBF didn't create, he merely masked a Ponzi scheme and bamboozled a willing press.  We, all of us, are responsible for what we want to buy, consume and experience.  Stop waiting for others to innovate, stop waiting for the next band leader to bring the music to town.  Start innovating on your own, in small groups, with your friends, with teams at work.

Start defining and shaping your own innovations, rather than waiting for someone to sell you one of theirs.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:06 PM 0 comments