Wednesday, July 19, 2006

To Boldly Go ...

OK so it's an over-used, quite possibly over-parodied split infinitive, but "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is probably one of the best known statements from television. It's also an imperative in many businesses that are trying to become more innovative.

Because the final part of the statement is "where no man (person) has gone before". That is, we've got to do some things in our business (define and sustain innovation) that few people if any have done before. In many cases there are no roadmaps that others have left behind, and a confusing, ever shifting set of "experts" who offer their approach for innovation. How does your team create a sustainable innovation process and method when there are (admittedly) few good role models and guides?

First, decide what it is you want to accomplish. Captain Kirk and the Federation wanted to seek out new life forms. Your goals may be a bit more modest, but still fraught with risk. You'll probably have a goal of creating a method for your teams and the ones that follow you to become more successful at innovation, bringing new products and services to market faster and more effectively.

Second, ensure what you are doing is in line with the corporate direction. Kirk and his crew had some specific instructions about their work, and usually remained within those boundaries. Innovation is not a free pass token - your work needs to align and support the strategies of the business. It is helpful to have a strong senior leader on board as well, for connection to the management team and to indicate the buy-in of the management team.

Third, go boldly. Recognize that your team won't always know the answers and sometimes even the questions. If there were recipes for this stuff, every company would be a great innovator. In fact, many stories about innovation you'll read about were the result of many attempts and failures, and sometimes dumb luck. If you don't try something, you'll probably never fail, but you won't change anything.

Fourth, take along a crew with a range of experiences. Star Trek had a subtle message for us just based on the makeup of the crew. Where else on television could you see an alien, a Russian, a man of Japanese descent, a Scot and whatever Kirk was, working together? How about Uhuru as a member of the management team? Clearly, Kirk could call on a wide range of capabilities and experiences. He had what we'd call today a "cross-functional" team, with a range of insights and viewpoints. Too often we load up with a lot of people from one perspective or one business function.

Fifth, adapt on the fly. Kirk's instructions were rather vague. Explore new worlds. Seek out new life and new civilizations. Within that, I guess, he was rather free to adapt to the situations he and his crew found himself in. If you think about it, that makes sense. Adaptability is very important when there's no clear roadsigns or processes. For innovators in businesses where there's no existing process, learn to adapt.

Sixth, work on something that will have short term benefits and long term value. Kirk's mission was to seek out new worlds. I don't know the rest of his defined tasks, but the Federation was probably seeking out inhabitable planets, planets with resources that could be used, civilizations with knowledge that can be shared. Just the first discovery of any of these kinds would prove some benefits of the voyage. But his longer term goal was an interconnected, peaceful galaxy, as much as possible. For innovators, the best approach is to define a relatively quick "win" but build your processes and methods to deliver long term value.

Seventh, leave some breadcrumbs or a roadmap. Kirk was constantly talking to the computer to create his ship's log. Frankly, if I'd been on the bridge I think I would have asked him to use a microphone, rather than just bellow it out. However, Kirk was capturing the things his team learned and passing it to others to leave a legacy. Innovators within businesses need to define their methods, successes and failures so the next team doesn't have to go where no one has gone before, but can more quickly gain success based on previous experiences.

Who said you can't learn anything from watching TV?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:41 AM

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