Thursday, December 28, 2006

It's the bandwidth, stupid!

In talking to some good friends in the innovation community today (Joyce and Renee), I ran up against one of those "elephant in the room" moments of clarity. That is, I finally saw one of the big challenges for innovation quite clearly. It's bandwidth. Really, it was there all along but I was not paying enough attention.

Yes, there are other issues like strategic alignment and repeatable processes, but bandwidth is probably the most crucial. Here's why. Most people who are assigned to "lead the innovation process" start from ground zero. They have to determine what their responsibilities are, how to accomplish this poorly defined task, how to get the rest of the organization to do what they've been chartered to do, and build the processes and tools to help accomplish the task. Oh, and they need to do all of these things at the same time. What often happens is that people flit from task to task without accomplishing much because the prioritizations are difficult and everything seems to be of equal importance.

Also, most firms simply don't assign enough manpower to the job. Giving one person the task of making a firm more innovative is like asking one soldier to storm the beach at Normandy. Even if he or she could accomplish the task, how long could they hold on before they'd need reinforcements?

Another analogy I like is the Yogi Berra concept of forks. You know, If you come to a fork in the road, take it. What do you do if there are eight equally important forks? Can one person adequately pursue all of the critieria necessary for innovation to become sustainable in any reasonable timeframe? I think the answer is an easy "no".

So, to quickly doom any innovation initiative, simply assign one innovation leader with no clear direction and no one to help her. Otherwise, carefully examine the workloads and timeframes and staff the initiative accordingly.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:03 PM 33 comments

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jack's Notebook - an Innovative Novel

There's a new concept arising for business books - books that are entertaining, easy to read and leave you with a much better understanding of a methodology or concept. Patrick Lencioni is probably the recognized leader of this genre. I'd call it the business novel. Authors using this approach mix theory and methodology with a character driven plot.

Leoncini has written several books to examine how teams work together and how to improve meetings using this approach, and I've reviewed the book Follow the Other Hand, in which Andy Cohen uses a magician as the deus ex machina to drive insights for a business owner. Gregg Fraley, a consultant in the innovation space, has just completed a book about innovation focused on the Creative Problem Solving process called Jack's Notebook.

Fraley has several purposes in mind for the book. First, he wants to communicate the methodology and power of the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) technique. If you don't know, Creative Problem Solving was developed by Alex Osborn, who is considered the "father" of brainstorming. You can learn more about CPS and other concepts related to it at the Creative Education Foundation. Second, he is interested in reaching small business owners and entrepreneurs to help them become more adept at problem solving and innovation, so his book is not targeted at the traditional mid-level manager in a large business, although there are topics within the book that are applicable to anyone in business. Finally, Fraley wanted to write a book that would capture the reader's attention, not to become a dry, coffee table book that you "should" have but never read.

Jack's Notebook is a story about a down on his luck guy named Jack who meets a consultant who is an expert in the CPS approach. Jack learns how to think differently about his life and the possibilities to create a new business. Jack also meets a lovely young woman who becomes his girlfriend and who mysteriously disappears. Jack uses the CPS approach and partners with the consultant to solve the mystery and create a new business. That's the simple, one paragraph overview.

Fraley does a good job of introducing the CPS concepts and methodology and interspersing it with the story as it unfolds. The book moves very quickly and has a fairly thin plot, since it is trying to accomplish two goals at once - educate you on CPS and keep the story moving. Towards the end of the novel some of the CPS threads are lost, as the hero is trying to recover his girlfriend. At the end of the book there's a good, short overview of CPS and how it works.

Jack's Notebook is a quick read and does a good job introducing the reader to critical problem solving skills. As I've noted, the plot can be a little thin, and a reader who approaches this book with the traditional "business book" mentality may find that the stories and the examples don't reflect life in the cube farm. Most of the action happens in a coffee shop or in other outside locales and focuses on the efforts to start up a photography business, so there's not a lot of insight into corporate creativity or problem solving. However, a lot of the concepts discussed are applicable to anyone at any level.

If you know someone who wants to be more creative, or who is seeking more ideas or a new process to solve problems or generate ideas, buy Jack's Notebook for them. It is a good read and a great introduction to a very sophisticated but simple process.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:20 AM 41 comments

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Innovation Short Cuts

While I rarely advocate for short cuts, I think there are five or six attributes of a business that can propel it toward becoming a truly innovative firm. If you are in a rush to become more innovative in your business, adopt these concepts:

- Get top management on board and have them advocate regularly the importance of innovation,
even at the expense of short term results

- Welcome ideas from any part of the organization and demonstrate the ability to frame
problems and indicate which ideas are useful. Provide feedback to submitters

- Define a process for capturing, managing and evaluating ideas that is well-understood and
repeatable

- Encourage as much interaction and feedback on an idea as possible. Experiment and
question an idea thoroughly prior to launch

- Prototype early and often

- Seek as much information about the market as possible. Learn to be able to accept qualitative
inputs as well as you accept quantitative. The future can't be measured yet.

- Have your best people work on innovation. Raise the compensation and motivation on
innovation and eliminate the fear of failure

- Treat innovation like an investment portfolio. Nurture some incremental innovations that
pay off in the short run and some risky innovations with a big potential long term payoff.

OK - so in hindsight there really aren't any shortcuts. Doing any one of these things is a good first step, but to quote James Baker, this isn't a fruit salad. You can't say I'd like a little more prototyping but I don't want to impact compensation. To be effective at innovation in the long run, you need to implement all of these suggestions. Fortunately you don't have to do them all at once.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:40 AM 33 comments

Monday, December 11, 2006

"You can't manage innovation"

I was reading Fast Company or Business 2.0 recently and came across this statement from an "expert" who went on to explain that innovation can't be put into a process or managed like a business process. If we assume that this statement is true, then innovation is difficult, costly and episodic at best, done mostly by wild-haired people in lab coats somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

But, just for fun, let's break down the arguments and see if we can determine if this statement is true, or if it might be an overreach.

Some will argue that you "can't manage innovation" because you'll limit creativity. Well, all innovation starts with some creative thought, no doubt. I don't advocate placing hard limits on creative thought, but at some point a good idea or creative thought needs to be converted into something we can do or use. Otherwise it is simply daydreaming. We need to distinguish between formalizing a process that manages an idea once it is created and placing limits on what or how people think - or how they create new ideas.

Others will argue that you "can't manage innovation" because it really does not lend itself to process management the way a more transactional process (like purchasing for instance) does. While I will agree that there are nuances between a purely transactional process and what happens in innovation, at some point we can decide that an idea is valuable and should be managed and evaluated. If we have ideas but don't have some avenues for consideration, some rules or metrics for evaluation, and some defined process, then each idea will be considered, managed and evaluated based on whatever criteria are at hand. Most businesses shudder to think of inconsistency in any process - why should innovation be different?

Others will argue that managing innovation is futile or difficult because innovation is not a "hard" science or process. It's almost like Brownian motion - if we observe it too closely, we by definition have influenced it somehow. Why do we think that innovation and idea management should be done by some other, wall-off process that does not receive close attention and scrutiny? If innovation is going to be one of the engines of organic growth, why wouldn't we want to pay close attention to what is happening and who is doing it?

Finally, others will argue that we can't manage innovation because it is cross-functional and many people are involved. It can be simply too complex to manage effectively. There are too many bureaucractic obstacles and cultural issues. OK, so we can put a man on the moon and split the atom but we can't figure out how to effectively organize ourselves to innovative repeatedly?

Let's face it - you can manage ideas and you can manage innovation. After all, once the idea is created, everything else is execution - managing, evaluating and producing a new product or service. Creative types may not like that, but then every creative agency I've ever worked with had three or four creative directors who generated the ideas and forty or fifty people to make sure the ideas can be executed. People who believe that you "can't manage innovation" are either guarding their turf from unwanted process and scrutiny or are unwilling to view the evidence. It is possible - and should be expected - that we can manage innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:18 AM 36 comments

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Norms and Forms

I was watching a documentary on Blue Man Group last night on television when it struck me that much of what BMG does is to adapt the norms and forms of acting or music and then introduce something new and different. In fact, during an interview with the founders, one of the founders said their goal was to change the form of acting or music.

To be successful innovating, most firms need to examine their norms and forms. What I mean by this is what your firm considers "normal" and everyday, and the forms by which work gets done. The norms create the culture and atmosphere in which ideas exist, and the forms dictate how the ideas are worked. Good innovators are constantly evaluating the atmosphere or environement that innovators live in, and the rules and tools presented to them to help them accomplish their tasks.

A simple but great example of breaking a norm is stereo headsets. For many years, when you purchased any electronic device - a Walkman (that will take you back), an MP-3 player, a television - you received a set of headphones "for free". It was expected that an electronics device would come with a set of headphones. Most of us prompted placed the headphones in the circular recepticle and used a set we'd purchased. Recently I heard that Bose and some other top-line headphone manufacturers were giving away MP-3 players "for free" with the purchase of headsets. Here's an example of turning the tables and breaking the norms. What if we sell the headsets and give away the electronics?

I believe it was Einstein who said we can't solve new problems with old processes and thinking. I also think it's hard to create new products and services and bring them to market successfully with old cultural norms and processes and forms. Innovators in many companies have a dual task - create new products and services AND create the processes and evaluation metrics and cultural norms that push the idea from initial concept to final product. Either one of these jobs is tough - taking on both jobs requires a zealot. That's why most innovators are good for two or three big concepts in their corporate life. It is simply too hard to generate and manage the idea and create the process by which the idea will move through the organization.

Every firm has stated and unstated norms and forms. These are the spoken and unspoken rules, expectations, formats and processes by which things get done. To be truly innovative, your firm will have to examine, and quite possibly change some of its forms and norms. What forms or norms exist that hamper or block innovation in your firm?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:53 AM 36 comments

Monday, December 04, 2006

An open dialogue

Several of you have sent me emails to alert me to a comment spammer who seems intent on alerting innovators to all sorts of great multi-level marketing opportunities. Thanks for your notes.

I started the Innovate on Purpose blog to foster some dialogue, to put some ideas out into the ether and see if anyone else would pick them up and discuss. For a dialogue to exist, we need several people who are interested in the same subject and willing to pick sides and debate their points. Unfortunately comment spammers exist to take advantage of the open forum and paste their marketing messages all over the discussion. Right now I think my blog feels a little like a telephone pole near a university bar - it's just covered with unwanted ads.

To that end I've enabled some comment spam blocking. Not because I don't want comments or critiques of the concepts I'll publish, but to keep the discussion focused mostly on innovation. I think a very logical conclusion to this comment spamming, especially by one person, is an investigation into what amounts to virtual trespassing. If someone I did not invite constantly violates my virtual property, wouldn't that amount to trespass? Of course one could say that I've left the door open for comments. This could be an interesting segment of law - when does comment spam become a legal issue?

At any rate, I hope that those of you who read regularly and comment frequently will continue to do so with gusto. I've been forced to add some basic comment spam filters but please don't let that stop you from participating in our discussions on innovation.

While I find the comment spammers a real nuisance, I also have to admit that they are just filling a market niche by identifying real estate where they can place their ads and billboards. Never underestimate the power of the innovator to find new ways to advertise. Hopefully the blog software developers will be as quick to develop new features as the comment spammers are to create new ads.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:15 AM 34 comments