Monday, September 29, 2014

Innovation should change your perspective

I've been thinking a lot about innovation lately.  Well, I guess I've been thinking about innovation for over a decade, but for some reason the thinking has migrated from operational to philosophical.  I've long wondered why innovation is considered a transactional activity rather than a engaging philosophy or "way of life".  Too many people view innovation as something to do only in emergencies, when a competitor steals a march and wins new customers or introduces a new product.  Otherwise it's steady on, life as usual, and ignoring or avoiding innovation.  I think some of focus on the everyday is brought about by rewards and recognition, some based on the emphasis we place on productivity and efficiency, and some of the perspective is caused by the way we look at innovation, as a transactional, occasional opportunity rather than a way of thinking or living.

Is innovation an interrupter or a way of life?

I was thinking about this recently because I had one of those "shower" moments.  It happens I wasn't actually in the shower - I think I was mowing my grass.  But I had one of those minor epiphanies.  It went something like this.  Why aren't we more concerned about the role our companies, our solutions and our products play in consumer's lives, rather than the jobs we can do or the needs we fill?  It's almost another Maslow's hierarchy, I thought:  needs and jobs versus roles.  The best analogy I can come up with is the difference between a hammer and a carpenter.  A hammer helps me do one or a handful of "jobs".  That hammer can be replaced with others tools as situations warrant, and if the hammer is superseded by another device, the hammer is just an outdated tool. However, a carpenter has a vital role, offering broader solutions and doing more than filling in for just one job.  A carpenter has a role to fill with me, creating better solutions, and if I build a relationship with that carpenter, he or she may create a role that sticks with me for a very long time.

We innovators talk about customer "needs" to fill, or using Christensen's philosophy, "jobs to be done".  But I think we should be thinking about how we become indispensable in the ROLES that we fill in our customers' lives.

But this requires a new philosophy

Is innovation meant to create new products or services, to fill unmet needs, or to help spot and suggestion solutions that drive to larger value propositions?  The answer is yes to all three questions.  The real question is:  what is our philosophy about working with customers, and how we leverage innovation to drive more value.  The vast majority of firms doing "innovation" today are trying to discover new products that solve a customer need.  As soon as the customer has solved that need, another need will emerge that we and others will seek to satisfy.  You get a little credit for solving a need, but like a tool in the toolbox you'll need to prove your value proposition all over again when the next need arises.  However, if you have a vital ROLE in the customers' lives, you don't have to compete with the occasional tools.  But to take a vital role in a customer's life, you've got to do more than satisfy one need, and you've got to migrate with the customer, or create solutions on a consistent basis even before the customer is aware of the need.  This suggests continuous innovation - innovation as a way of life, rather than an occasional interruption from the everyday.

Innovation as a "way of life"

What would it look like if innovation was a "way of life" in your organization, rather than something strange and unusual that is thrust upon the organization periodically?  Rather than resist innovation, it's unusual tools and methods, your teams would gladly embrace innovation activities.  They'd be comfortable using the tools and methods, and understand the rationale and scope of effort.  They wouldn't see innovation as a disrupter of regular processes, but a "way of life" and "how we do things around here".  This would mean, for many companies, a rethinking of the culture and perspectives that people have about their work, and their skills.

Clearly we'd need to understand how quickly innovation is occurring in our target segments and markets, and we'd need to match or even innovation at a slightly faster pace, constantly evolving but also anticipating the sudden forks in the road or disruptions that require an entirely new product or service.  We'd also have to recognize that innovation is more broadly based than we like to admit, and we'd create new channels, new customer experiences, new business models and other solutions as readily as we create new products. 

3 Philosophies on Innovation
What's your team's philosophy on innovation?  There are really only a couple of answers.  First and worst, that innovation is risky and someone else should do it.  We're "fast followers".  Abandon hope, all ye with this philosophy.

Second, and somewhere in the middle, is the recognition that innovation is important, but encounters resistance because it interrupts a really nice operating rhythm.  We know we need to innovate, but gosh darn it we can't find the time, and only innovate in emergencies. 

Third, and frankly few firms are here yet, is a philosophical leap.  We view innovation as a "way of life" and our teams have adopted this perspective.  They believe that innovation is important, and is at least as important as good operating rhythm.  We want to innovate consistently and take on an important role in our customers' lives, not just settle for solving occasional needs or jobs.

If you buy into this philosophical change, your next question should be:  OK, how does a leopard change its spots?  How do we change the way our folks think about innovation?  How do we adopt this idea of innovation as a way of life? 

The simplest answer is:  it's complicated.  Not because it's necessarily difficult, but because it takes a long time.  The message need to come from the top and be constantly reinforced.  People need to see resources and dollars flowing to projects and activities based on this philosophy, and they need to see that over time, and in every corner of the business.  You can't expect to change the dominant philosophy with one project, in one small corner of the business, while everyone else ignores the activity or pretends it isn't happening. 

I've said it before but it bears repeating.  Either innovation changes you, or you change innovation.  The latter outcome dominates and causes so much of the grief that innovators feel.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:08 PM 0 comments

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Going with the flow

If you've ever been working on a task or a project when time passed by in an instant, or so engrossed in a hobby or game that you forgot to eat or sacrificed sleep to continue, there's a good chance you were experiencing "flow".  Flow, that is, as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimum Experience.  For those of you who have experienced "flow", or who have been in the groove, or have been so engaged in an activity that time slipped by almost unnoticed, you know what it feels like.  You are doing something that you enjoy and find intellectually challenging.  Your worldview narrows.  Few things can distract you.  And you are operating at near peak performance.

Flow occurs when you are engrossed in an activity that you find challenging and stimulating, and at the same time an activity where your skill level is very high.  If the activity is challenging but your skill level is low, the result is that you feel anxious, because you are aware that you aren't doing a good job.  If, on the other hand, you have a high skill level but don't find the work challenging, you experience boredom.   Flow occurs when an individual is engaged in an activity that is meaningful to that person, challenges them to do their best and calls on their experience and skills.  This is why "flow" happens so often when we are pursuing hobbies or activities we greatly enjoy.  It also explains why flow happens so rarely in most people's professional lives.  They are either afraid to be challenged - seeking only to perform in tasks where they have great skill, or their managers and executives don't challenge them, leading to boredom.

I reach flow when I am deeply engaged at innovation, but I know that isn't the case for a majority of people.  There are two major issues that block people from doing innovation well, much less achieving flow.  The first is skill level.  After over a decade of working on innovation tasks and projects, many of the innovation tools are second nature to me and my teammates at OVO.  We are constantly learning new tools and expanding our knowledge.  We are working with clients to discover what works best and what doesn't work so well.  Our skill level is relatively high, and hopefully getting better all the time.  Contrast that with the average middle or senior level manager, who is called on to manage people, processes and dollars.  A manager or executive who is constantly pulled from one topic to another, never developing expertise in any specific industry or function, and who rarely or almost never gets to contemplate new ideas or the methods and tools that support innovation.  These managers and executives are expected to innovate, but don't have the time or availability to develop the skills.

The second barrier is challenge and engagement.  While many innovation experts love the challenge of creating new ideas, most managers and executives don't enjoy it.  Creating ideas is fraught with risk and peril, requiring a lot of experimenting, mistakes, recursive work and learning.  It can be messy and uncertain, and most people don't find it engaging or challenging.  They find it frustrating and confusing, and want to return to clear cut processes and predictable workstreams.

In simpler terms, the vast majority of people trying to do innovation will never achieve flow, primarily because the challenges are too off-putting, leading to anxiousness or fear, and secondarily because their skill levels and focus are limited.  They recognize that they don't know what they don't know, and don't believe they have time to learn the tools and skills appropriately in order to do a good job.  There's a reason so much innovation activity in large corporations results in ideas that are similar to existing products.  The lack of engagement and lack of skills leads to anxiety and apathy, and since no one enjoys living in those conditions the innovation teams resort to creating quick and simple ideas so that they can return to something that's closer to flow for them - the sameness and predictability of their day to day work.

If you want your teams and your company to be good at innovation, if innovation and its resulting benefits are important and valuable to your company, you need to help people reach this concept of "flow".  That means giving them interesting, challenging and engaging challenges or problems to focus on, and ensuring they have enough time and enough skill to do the work well.  When these factors exist, innovation can flourish.  When any of these factors are missing, innovation will be conducted as a brief foray into enemy territory.  The team will be anxious and uncomfortable until they are relieved from duty or return with relatively simple ideas.  Their goals aren't to create anything truly new and different, but to return to familiar and comfortable work and routines.

Executives are always asking questions, seeking to understand how their people and teams can become more innovative.  Tell them it's all about flow.  Creating interesting challenges and developing people with deep skills and the time to deploy those skills on the interesting problems.  That's what will create innovative people and creative cultures.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:57 AM 0 comments

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why leadership development is critical for innovation

It's been a summer of reconnecting with old friends and colleagues.  A few weeks ago I drove to Richmond, Virginia to reconnect with a good friend I hadn't seen in a few years.  Last weekend I drove to Greenville, SC to see my daughter in college, and to visit my college roommate, Brett, who I hadn't seen in a few years.

Brett is in the leadership development and coaching business, working with senior executives and CEO to help them grow as people and leaders.  As we discussed his business and mine, I realized that we shared many commonalities.  When he works to help executives improve their leadership capability, he is changing their perspectives and helping them model new behaviors.  When we work with our clients to build new innovation competencies and capabilities, we are introducing new perspectives and tools, and asking people to model new behaviors.

At one point in the conversation, it really crystallized for me:  any good business is built on strong processes, culture and people.  It doesn't matter how good your ideas are, or how interesting your technology is.  If you don't have these core concepts well-defined and well-implemented, no technology or interesting new idea will carry you very far.  Conversely, if you have strong culture and processes and people, you can direct your focus in any direction and count on good success.  That's what Richard Branson and others like him do:  build a vision, align people to the vision and then work to sustain the capabilities and culture.

What many entrepreneurs try to do is to build neat technology and "scale up" a business quickly, ignoring or avoiding the work to develop strong internal capabilities and processes, or to develop a cohesive culture.  While some of these businesses may grow quickly they can't scale and often topple, because the core belief systems don't work or they don't have strong supporting infrastructure.  You can't tack on beliefs and culture and processes after the fact.  Whether you like it or not you are building and sustaining corporate culture from day one, and everything you do adds to that culture or reinforces it.

Many executives speak about innovation as if it were an external phenomenon that they can adopt or bolt-on to their existing businesses, never realizing just how different and foreign innovation is to the daily operating methods and models.  Innovation can't be imported and internalized, it needs to start from the inside, as a communicated belief system, which infects the culture, and is replicated in the tools, training and workflow that people receive and regularly use.  Innovation must spring from the people in the organization, rather than being forced on them.  Innovation can't be directed from above or dictated to people and cultures that aren't comfortable with the risk or aren't familiar with the tools or methods.

At the core of any well-run company are these three interlinking and interwoven factors:  strong, committed people who are living and enacting a corporate culture that directs the way they think and act at work, supported by well-developed processes, methods and tools.  Once you understand that these three factors are the linchpins to corporate success, you'll then understand why we talk about innovation capability or competency.  You can run a successful innovation project occasionally without changing the culture or introducing too many new tools, but it has little impact on the culture in the long run.  To engage a culture and change the thinking, the focus and the tools of the people within the company, you've got to engage all three of these factors.  A quick survey of any of the really successful innovators will demonstrate that they have cultures that are engaged and focused on innovation, strong people who understand their roles and processes and tools that support innovation.

So, what does this all mean?  Innovation is a cultural phenomenon, driven by engaged leaders who are willing to show people why they need to innovate, and who are willing to invest in the tools and training necessary to help their people succeed.  Without strong leadership and deep commitment from leaders, innovation simply won't thrive.  With this in mind, much of the innovation challenge in corporate America is a leadership development issue.  GE has recently published its "barometer" of corporate executives that delves into the purpose and understanding of innovation.  As is almost always the case, the overwhelming majority highlight the importance of innovation, and note that the top needs in their companies are to:
  1. Understand customer needs and anticipate market evolutions
  2. Attract and retain the best talent
  3. Adapt and implement emerging technologies
These are issues of process and culture (understanding needs, market evolutions and technologies) and people (finding and retaining the best talent).  How are they doing at these stated goals?
The survey goes on to point out that 29% of executives believe their firm is doing a good job identifying customer needs, and 27% believe they are doing a good job retaining talent.

There's a huge gap between what executives want, and what the business is willing and capable to do.  Of course changing a company and culture takes time, but clearly the leadership of these organizations needs to do a much better job modeling the behavior they want to see from their staffs.  Less than a third of corporations think they are doing a good job on two of the most important components of innovation success.  Is this because they are unaware of the focus areas and their importance, or because these areas aren't constantly highlighted and improved?  My guess is the latter.

Another factor that demonstrates that executives may be signalling the wrong message is another finding from the barometer.  According to the research, 74% of American executives believe it is best to protect the core business profitability as much as possible when innovating.  This is likely to lead to more emphasis on existing products for existing customers, leading to less growth and less differentiation and far fewer new products.  When executives ask for "safe" innovation that extends existing products, they are signalling their intentions and goals to their staff and reinforcing corporate expectations and culture.  

Innovation has many meanings.  It could be an activity, a capability, an outcome, a description of a new product or service.  But ultimately it needs to be thought of as a leadership development goal.  We need leaders and executives who understand the purpose of innovation, who can communicate the purpose and set appropriate investments, who will model the behaviors they expect to see from their teams.  We need a new generation of leaders who have been trained and have experience with innovation, not just those who have experience with efficiency.  Innovation is critical to leadership development, and leadership development is critical to innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:35 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It's the time and the season for innovation

Time has been on my mind a lot lately.  That usually because we've been busy, and time seems to accelerate.  When I was a kid, a day seemed to take forever.  Now it seems that the day rushes past, and I can't get anything done.  I look back and wonder where the day went. 

Corporations are constructed of lots of individuals who have their own time opportunities and constraints.  The more people, the more constraints and interruptions, the less time to do something new and different.  Of the three most significant barriers for innovation, culture, time and risk, I still remain convinced that culture is the most pernicious barrier, but time is the easiest scapegoat.

I've written ad nauseam about culture.  Corporate culture is really quite fascinating.  No startup on earth starts out deciding to gain some market share and then clamp down and defend it.  Startups and entrepreneurs want to "put a dent in the universe" but somewhere along the way professional management, hierarchy, risk controls and a lot of other factors weigh down the original startup and make them complacent, defensive and slow.  Perhaps firms like Thermo Electron and Gore have it right - to keep the operating units to a small enough size that they remain hungry, nimble and creative.

Seasons
But I didn't plan to write about culture today.  Instead I wanted to write about time and its relationship to innovation.   Time has a curious relationship with innovation.  First, there's no appropriate time for innovation, as if corporations have "seasons".  Of course they do.  There's the sprint from the first of the year until the end of the first quarter, the recovery and rush to the end of June, the slack months of July and August when everyone is on vacation, the recovery after labor day to rush to Thanksgiving, after which little of interest gets done until New Year's swings around.  Trying to start innovation activities in any of these seasons is fraught with peril, but for different reasons.  Arguments against starting in the first quarter are that you may distract the company during its important implementation of new strategy.  Arguments against starting in the second quarter are that we are still evaluating the results from the first quarter, and anyway summer vacation season is coming.  In July and August no one wants to start a new project or effort, because so many people are away.  After Labor Day people realize that a lot is left to be done before the end of the year, including developing the annual plan, so folks are distracted by that.  And nothing of much value gets done after Thanksgiving except office parties, so no need to start a new project then.  There's no "season" in the corporate calendar that's conducive to innovation.

Hours
In a resource constrained organization, what's the most precious resource?  The answer is time - time from very capable people who face multiple competing demands.  Time is precious, yet time is of the essence of innovation.  Innovation requires that good people with a clear goal spend time thinking - not doing - so that they can create new ideas.  Yet this is the last action that people are comfortable with.  They want to move quickly, to do something, and move on.  Contemplation, creativity, deep experiential learning are simply not how they operate.  There's no season for innovation, and even when it is imposed there is no time, yet time is the very essence of innovation.

What would we use that time for, you ask?  Why, to introduce new skills and new perspectives or new ways of thinking.  Time to experiment, contemplate, actually daydream.  Time to connect disparate ideas and create completely new solutions that aren't obvious on the surface.  Time to reflect, to digest customer needs and respond with really interesting new ideas.  But until people have time to do this, innovation is a box-checking exercise in which we race to complete the activity, eager to demonstrate we've successfully completed the task.

How might we change this?

Let's first assert that we could set aside "innovation seasons" within a corporate calendar.  The first quarter of the year is definitely a time for innovation, because innovation is so intertwined with the new strategies.  It must be part of the launch of a new year, to implement and grow the impact of the strategies developed the previous fall.  The second quarter compounds with more innovation, as the organization hits its stride, and builds on success or on the "failures" of the first quarter.

Summer becomes a time for even more radical experimentation, as we set aside time to contemplate larger, more disruptive opportunities and build goals that will inform the annual planning cycle.  Fall incorporates innovation into the annual plans, and the holidays become a time of introspection, evaluation and internal focus for improvement and skill building.  In fact every season is innovation season, because innovation becomes simply part of the fabric of the way we work.

Time becomes less of an issue because innovation is no longer an interrupter or interloper, but part of the strategy.  Good individuals are still pulled between competing priorities, but now innovation has the cache of integrated strategy, so it gets more time and more visibility.  As people become more engaged and more experienced, a happy accident occurs - they become better innovators, requiring less time to complete incremental assignments or allowing for more disruptive innovation activities.  The risk and uncertainty falls because they are more experienced and because innovation is a core capability rather than a bolt-on activity.

How unlikely is the situation I've described in the last two paragraphs?  Not unlikely, not even that improbable.    A generation of new executives and managers who understand the risks of an all-out focus on efficiency are already coming to grips with the need for more balance between efficiency and innovation.  Incorporating innovation into the fabric of daily operations won't happen suddenly but will happen as product lifecycles grow shorter and shorter and competition from all sides increases.  The race to the bottom is ending; we can't get much more efficient, but we can get much more innovative.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:25 AM 0 comments

Monday, September 15, 2014

RIGHT NOW or AS SOON AS?

When is the best time to innovate?  We get this question all the time.  Some of our clients know they need to innovate, and what's more they want to innovate RIGHT NOW.  Typically the "right now" crowd has encountered one of two conditions.  Either they are getting crushed in the market by a new competitive product, or they are crushing the competition.  Most "RIGHT NOWers" are on the far ends of the bell curve, well ahead of the competition and planning to stay that way or well behind the competition and forced to make a definitive move.

If you know your statistics, and, let's be honest, who doesn't enough a great statistics discussion, you know that in a normal distribution a vast majority of the population lies close to the mean.  That in turn tells us that the vast majority of companies aren't in the "RIGHT NOW" mindset.  They are in what I call the "AS SOON AS" mind set.  That is, they'll get around to innovation as soon as the markets improve, profits increase, customers pressure them for new products, and so on etc.  The "AS SOON AS" businesses are operating on a historical premise that will inevitably catch up to them.  That premise is the concept of "steady state".

Steady state is the point in a process where things are at an equilibrium, all inputs and outputs as expected, all environmental conditions normal.  In other words, normal working order - no surprises, no changes, no abrupt transitions.  Most organizations argue that they need to get to "steady state" - the ability to think and work without those pesky interruptions and dastardly competitors - in order to think about innovation.  They need less distraction, more focus and more time to consider innovation before implementing any action.  This "strategy" is doomed to fail for several reasons, most of which have to do with circumstances far beyond their control.

The urgency and pace of change has increased, and as it increases many other factors and conditions change as well.  Consumer appetites and expectations change.  Competitors change.  New products and solutions emerge.  The frequency and pace of interruptions, dislocations and new entrants increases.  I'm sure in the not too distant past that Kodak had some good ideas about how to compete with the growing impact of digital photography on the film business.  They were simply waiting for a breather, a pause in the pace of change, so that they could catch up and do some good thinking that would lead to innovation.  The problem is that once the whirlwind starts up, it feeds itself.  Technology is rapidly changing and will continue to do so.  The advent of social media means that more people are aware of new ideas and solution in less time than ever before.  A more highly educated population with more disposable wealth means we can adopt new solutions faster than ever before.  There's no time, no pause, no breathing space.  And if you think you've found some breathing space, you've probably simply stumbled into a solution space that's been abandoned, like finally releasing a Betamax upgrade only to discover that everyone's gone VHS.

In the comfortable, familiar past of Happy Days, Leave it to Beaver and the age of Disco, the pace and tempo of competition was much more sedate.  In those days you could anticipate competitive change, spot the rise and fall of good products.  Long product lifecycles weren't a luxury, they were the reality.   In a protected market with few competitors you don't need a lot of innovation, you need a lot of marketing.  As the world changed and more competitors entered, industry didn't need innovation, they needed to cut costs.  They needed more efficiency.

But what do you do when every firm and every competitor runs full speed on high efficiency, but consumers demand new solutions?  The breathing space necessary to think above the fray of incessant competition isn't coming.  You've got to be good at two wildly divergent things simultaneously:  you've got to be good at holding down costs, building and delivering solutions effectively, and you've got to be good at creating new products and services based on unmet customer needs that may lead you into new markets or new business models.  You've got to constrain the scope of your business at the same time that you explore all of the boundaries or adjacencies.  And this is where most businesses fail today.  They don't believe they have time to do both.  And they are right.

There is no steady state - no breathing room, no competitive pause.  You know you need to innovate, but you put it off, joining the "AS SOON AS" crowd, safely tucked into the majority.  But what that majority doesn't recognize is that the expectations and means are shifting.  Increasingly we aren't talking about a bell curve, but a curve that has shifted to demand far more innovation.  Now, what will you do in an organization that is optimized for efficiency and needs time to shift gears to even consider innovation, much less put it into practice?

Recognize now, today, this moment, that your organization has to be ambidextrous, doing both efficiency and innovation exceptionally well.  It's like juggling a fragile egg and a running chainsaw at the same time, while being pelted by body blows by disinterested customers and aggressive competitors.  The sooner you realize that "AS SOON AS" is today, and that the opportunity to sit back and think about innovation isn't coming, the better for your business.  I hear people talking about innovation as if it is a choice, and to a certain degree they are correct.  Innovation is a choice in the same way that you have a choice to continue your business or shut it down.  Once you realize that there is no choice, and there is no breathing space, you'll arrive at the only real conclusion:  it's time to create a sense of urgency and passion about innovation, or to go into another line of work.

And yes, I know your people are busy, occupied with lots of important stuff.  I know the customers, regulators and competitors are demanding.  If you think they are demanding now, about your existing products, just wait until they discover you don't have anything new coming out of the funnel.  Their reactions will become a vicious circle from which you will not escape.

Right now versus as soon as is a Hobson's choice.  In fact there really isn't a choice to be made.  It's either RIGHT NOW or NOT AT ALL, with all the issues NOT AT ALL contains.  
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:57 AM 0 comments

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mash-ups and collisions at the periphery

My good friend Paul Hobcraft encouraged a dialog from some of his friends on the idea of the innovation "mashup".  That is, good things may occur when two technologies or capabilities are connected or combined.  I want to concur and further explore his idea.

The best marketing ad ever developed for a "mash up" is for the Reese's Peanut Butter cup - one of my favorite snacks.  As many of you who may be old enough to recall, the setting was that one individual woudl be eating peanut butter, another eating plain chocolate.  Through many different machinations, the two would collide, and one would get peanut butter on his chocolate, while the other got chocolate on her peanut butter.  Both recognized a great combination.  Then the ad would cut away to the obvious - the combination already existed!  We didn't have to create it!

Anyway, as Paul notes there's a lot of talk today about "mash ups", which are interesting but I think difficult to plan for or execute.  Mash ups are easy when products or services are simple to combine.  It's not that hard for a music producer to borrow or lift one track from a song, such as a bass line or drum beat, or for a food manufacturer to add chocolate to peanut butter. These mash ups are simple, and may be found by identifying lead users who are already modifying existing products and creating new ones.  The value of easy mash ups may be to find lead users who are already creating new solutions with existing products.

However, you can't "mash up" a pharmaceutical, or an airplane.  There's too much complexity and too much at risk.  Adding peanut butter to chocolate is one thing; mashing up a new airplane wing without significant design and trials is another.  That's where innovation at the periphery may come into play.  We know that a lot of innovation occurs when technologies or capabilities are imported from other industries or solutions, or when two adjacent markets or technologies intersect or collide.  A good example here is air bladders in running shoes.  When looking for better cushioning for shoes, many different solutions were tried (and many are still being tested).  One designer happened to see air bladders used in a completely different solution and thought - why not?  The bladders were "imported" and used in soles, which was strange and unusual at first, but now commonly accepted.

How does peripheral innovation happen?
How does innovation at the periphery, or "collisions" as I like to call them, happen?  Your designers and product developers must be willing to ask themselves "how do people in other situations or industries solve a problem similar to the one I have?".  It's only when the solution set is expanded to consider how other companies (or even other industries) solve similar problems that you can begin to imagine a different solution - one that you can "import" from another industry or technology, or one that can be a "mash up" in Paul's language.  But these don't happen until we move away from very narrow definitions and scope.  Imagine if the shoe designer said to himself - one inch of foam in the sole seems to provide good cushioning - why not go for two inches.  If cushioning = foam, and one inch of cushioning is good, then eventually we'll all be running on platform running shoes, five or six inches off the ground.  Of course there are other constraints.  Height and weight being just two that might lead someone to a different alternative.  Then the question becomes - how can I get more cushioning with the same or less weight, the same or less sole height, regardless of the technology?  Now the scope expands laterally, to potentially encompass new or different technologies, and likely technologies that are from other industries.

But there arises another problem.  In the age of tight budgets, efficiency and specialization, most people don't have many insights or networks into industries or even companies other than their own.  They don't know "who" is solving a similar problem, and don't have the contacts, networks or relationships to discover who is solving the problem or how it is being done.  In fact a whole new breed of consulting firms has been spawned to do technology scouting or to create intermediary bridges between firms that need solutions and firms that have solutions.  Good innovators have broad networks that span companies and industries.  Today many people lack the ability to identify solutions in other industries and demonstrate how those alien solutions may contribute to a better product in their organization.

Complexity Problem
There's another problem with "mash-ups" and it has to do with increasing complexity and interdependence of solutions.  The more complex the solution, the less likely a simple "mash up" will be successful, but the more likely that new solutions or technologies imported from other industries or solutions may make a significant difference.  It's a strange conundrum, but one that has parallels in nature.  Overly specialized animals, like the Irish setter, have been bred for years to have specific traits, but the breeding program has relied on interbreeding, so few new genes have been introduced.  This leads to an animal that has some interesting superficial traits but many genetic weaknesses.  Our businesses are the same way - overspecialization has led to hyper efficient organizations that lack breadth and creativity.  Specialization discourages learning from other industries or importing new ideas, while at the same type reinforcing sterile internal concepts.

We need far more capability to perform "mash ups" in the creativity and design phases of innovation, and to learn and incorporate ideas and technologies from other industries, in the same way that cross-breeding for desired traits is also healthy for animal populations.  What's your organization doing to encourage you to learn more about adjacent industries and import ideas, technologies or solutions?  Or, more to the point, what cultural barriers exist to keep you from doing just that?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:39 AM 0 comments

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Good innovators get the big picture and the minutiae

Pity the poor innovator, especially those in large corporations.  They are constantly whip-sawed between competing narratives and perspectives.  In one moment, executives are complaining that no one stops to look at the big picture, to bring them new ideas that are "game changers".  In another, subsequent moment, the same innovators are slammed by people who want them to "get their heads out of the clouds" and create something immediately useful.  Good innovators are constantly buffeted by these two competing storylines.

What's interesting is not that they are buffeted, but that they should EXPECT and further WELCOME the demands to look simultaneously at the big picture and the minutiae.  That's because good innovators should be able to hold several different kinds of ideas or perspectives simultaneously, (called by Roger Martin "associative" thinking) and, what's more, should gather new insights or create new solution because they are adept at associative thinking.  Rather than "switching" from one perspective or viewpoint to another, good innovators should recognize that it's in holding these different perspectives simultaneously that will create great new ideas.

The Big Picture

We fail so often to consider or contemplate the "big picture".  Often times innovators fail to think "big picture" for very long because they aren't sure the big picture is really their domain.  They default to the expectation that senior executives are contemplating the big picture - strategy and the like - and that they should focus on more operational and tactical innovation.  Little could be further from the truth.  While executives may contemplate the big picture and develop strategy, it's innovators who become the bridge between that vision and realizing the vision with new products and services.  If the vision exists, take it on and start building.  If it doesn't, don't shy away from deeper contemplation.  The "big picture" is where interesting ideas lie, where industries and solutions intersect, where unmet needs emerge.  We lose these insights when the aperture shrinks and tunnel vision sets in. Innovators need the courage, the foresight and the ability to contemplate the big picture, rather than quickly whistling past the graveyard to move to more comfortable vistas.

The Minutiae

Far too frequently innovators end up in the weeds.  They don't feel they have the approval or the charter to examine big picture issues, even though executives demand it, and they feel the urgency of their workmates and the time pressures inherent in publicly traded companies.  What have you done for me lately, and why can't you innovators solve this immediate problem?  It's too easy, and too comfortable to fall back into working on small bore ideas and to ignore the big picture.  No wonder that many ideas seem to disappoint, or to reflect ideas or solutions that already exist.  We all move very quickly into our comfort zone.

The problems with crossing over

On the few occasions when innovators do manage to get to spend time on the "big picture", they often become subject to complexity creep.  By that I mean that they can identify interesting problems to solve, but they fail to scope those problems carefully, or those problems have great internal complexity.  Just because we identify one big problem to solve or opportunity to address doesn't mean that it should be solved through one solution.  The Texas Rangers (the lawmen, not the baseball team) used to have a saying:  "One riot, one ranger".  But that doesn't apply to big picture opportunities.  We can easily define and scope one big opportunity that by all rights should be divided into multiple innovative projects or solutions - moving from the big picture to the "medium picture" to solve several components simultaneously rather than trying to solve it all at once with one magical solution.  It is in the movement from scoping to solving that most innovators fail in this regard.  For those who can keep their eye on the "big picture" they need to know when to break a potential need or solution into components that can be resolved in smaller batches, simultaneously rather than in one fell swoop.

Another factor that must be considered is the use and nature of the innovation tools.  For the most part, whether you are focusing on a very large and disruptive opportunity or a very incremental solution, the tools remain the same.  What changes is the depth of the investigation and the amount of risk or change that may occur.  So, in some regards it's good to be well practiced at incremental innovation, because you'll have great familiarity with the tools.  The barrier for most of these teams isn't tool knowledge, but perspective and confidence.  They know "how" to innovate but aren't comfortable with the "why" and the "what".

The truly engaged innovator

The best innovators are those that are well practiced at incremental innovation, who understand the process and know the tools, but who are equally comfortable translating strategy and "big picture" needs into actions for new disruptive ideas.  It's the marriage of people familiar and comfortable with the methods, tools and processes of innovation who are also comfortable with defining or translating the strategic visions and identifying disruptive new solutions who will be the best innovators.  The challenge most organizations have is the yawning gap between these skill sets.  Most executives are relatively good at defining strategy and managing day to day execution, but aren't experienced innovators.  Most innovators are relatively good at incremental innovation but don't feel as though they are allowed to translate strategy or are uncomfortable with larger, big picture opportunities and risks.  Until we develop innovators who are a blend of both capabilities, innovation will continue to revert primarily to incremental solutions.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:03 PM 0 comments