Friday, April 30, 2010

Innovation Failure Points: Strangled in the crib

I am going to start a multi-part post today thinking about innovation's failure points.  Too often all we hear about are the innovation successes, yet if the statistics are right, there are far more "failures" than successes.  I believe it is more interesting and more informative to consider the failures rather than the successes, in that every failure is instructive, while most successes are situational.

So, rather than looking at a successful result and assuming the process was valid, let's consider innovation as a series of interconnected links, and find the likely failure points for innovation in that chain.  As we look at weak links in the innovation chain our first stop is at the beginning.

While we all claim to want more innovation, all too frequently innovation is strangled in the crib.  As innovation consultants, we receive calls on a regular basis to talk to prospective clients who need innovation help.  I suspect that about one-third of the firms we speak with who express an interest and a need for innovation never get beyond the investigation stages.  There are a number of reasons for this.

First, most organizations don't have the bandwidth or intestinal fortitude for innovation.  What they want is a "quick win" to demonstrate that they are "innovating" and that will suffice.  What's interesting about these simple innovations or "quick wins" is that if they are so apparent or so evident, why haven't they been done already?  Many of our initial sales discussions are educational events for our prospects.  I find that to be part of the process.  Together we are exploring work that the firm doesn't do well, and doesn't have much experience with.  That means we need to discover the rationale for the work, the internal skills and capabilities, and the assistance needed.  As we discuss scope and effort, many firms determine the investment is larger than the firm is willing to bear.

Second, there is a tremendous amount of inertia within most organizations that is difficult to overcome.  Even if you can find the resources and the funds to conduct an innovation effort, the existing processes, commitments and work schedules make it difficult, if not impossible, to get up to speed with an entirely new project or process.  When teams consider the disruption to their regular work, combined with the need to learn new tools and investigate new markets, the work and the resistance to the work seem almost overwhelming.

Third, in surprising number of firms, the strategic goals of the firm are murky at best, unclear at worst.  In these cases, when there is no clear strategy, any idea may possibly be a good idea.  Without clear strategy, getting direction and understanding what's important is difficult.  Innovation teams spin their wheels, leaping from one concept to another concept, never quite sure which ones are the best.  Very quickly the team realizes it is spinning its wheels and demands clarity or disbands.

Fourth, there's innovation "for show" and innovation "for go".  Right now any Fortune 500 that's not talking about innovation is already behind the curve.  Pick up any quarterly report or annual report and you'll see a tremendous amount of discussion about innovation.  A significant portion of the talk is "for show" - a head nod to the Street to signal that the firm understands innovation, but not a commitment to actually do anything.  Innovation for show is about a marketing push to raise the firm's stature, but not about commitments to innovation teams or processes, and will quickly create even more cynicism about innovation.

Fifth, there are the sacred cows.  No senior executive wants to see their "cash cow" or stable business upended by some crazy new idea, so most executives will agree for innovation in someone else's patch.  These barriers get built up to defend existing businesses to the extent that there's often no opportunity for innovation other than external, white space innovation.  Since the work doesn't impact existing businesses, executives feel free to withhold support, funds and resources.  Having established an environment where failure is almost inevitable, even the most sincere innovation teams will drop the tents and head home.

Innovation is probably one of the most difficult initiatives to get started, and many programs die in their infancy, before they really have a chance to get started.  Strangely, once proven, innovation initiatives can be very hardy and weather the cutbacks and storms associated with the ebbs and flows of business.  The first failure point for innovation is right at the beginning - understanding what it takes to innovate, and committing the people, resources, funds and executive involvement necessary to get it off the ground.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:49 AM 12 comments

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Idea Management: Drop Box or Water Cooler

As a consultant who has participated in a lot of innovation projects, it's become fairly clear that there are at least two kinds of idea management systems deployed by firms.  I'll discuss them briefly and use the analogies of drop boxes and water coolers to stand in for these two competing concepts.

I'd first like to say that any systemic, enterprise wide, continuous innovation program needs to be supported by idea management tools.  Whether you choose, in alphabetical order, BrightIdea, Imaginatik, Intuit, Spigit or some other software application to help you capture and manage ideas, it is important to have some mechanism to capture, manage, and evaluate ideas.  And yes, I know there are other software products on the market.  These are the few I happen to be most familiar with.  Have questions about innovation software?  Contact us, and we can help you.

So, let's turn to the concept at hand:  idea management as drop box or water cooler.  Historically, idea management systems have resembled drop boxes.  An individual submitted an idea, to a "suggestion box" or some other drop location, and in many cases never understood if anything happened with the idea and had little communication about the idea again.  The premise was that someone would look at the idea and determine if the idea was valuable or not.  End of story.  Even today many innovation programs work this way.  A real or virtual drop box where individuals can submit ideas that are evaluated in secrecy, by experts, who decide what or how to implement.

As the concept of group action and social media has grown, the idea of innovation as a community activity has grown as well.  Crowdsourcing has become a new phenomenon, and many of the software vendors have followed suit.  We at OVO believe a software application should enable the capture of ideas, yes, but also enable the interaction with ideas and discussions, debates and conversations about ideas.  This is important because few ideas are ever implemented as they were conceived.  The best ideas are usually those that a group of people massage and "build on" to improve.  In the case of the drop box, that is very unlikely to happen.  In the case of idea management as a "water cooler" that is the intent.  If idea management is analogous to a water cooler, that means that an engaged set of people are actively working on and discussing/debating ideas.  This social activity improves the value of the ideas, makes the process more visible and transparent and increases engagement of the employee base.

Or at least that's what it should do.  Because many firms implement software to support innovation initiatives hoping to achieve the "water cooler" outcome, but forget that most of their employees are familiar with the drop box model.  We've taught people over time that they should drop their ideas in the box, like disposing of their trash, never to be seen or heard from again.  Even if we deploy systems that enable conversation and interaction, we won't get interaction and community engagement unless we set expectations for it.

I recently talked to a firm that had deployed a software application to capture ideas and had requested ideas from its community of employees and customers.  In three months they'd received a little more than 30 ideas.  Just because the system exists doesn't mean we've created the environment for a water cooler program to exist.

We advocate the concepts behind "water cooler" innovation.  This means an engaged team or community actively interacting with ideas.  To get that interaction, someone has to set the expectation.  While we expect the interaction, it isn't necessarily going to happen without encouragement or prodding.  This means influencing the culture, changing expectations about interacting online (and offline, by the way), establishing some rewards and recognition systems and communicating frequently and clearly about expectations.

Another thing:  don't expect that everyone is going to rush in and add ideas.  Our experience shows that for all the folks invited, about 20-30% of those invited will add ideas, and probably 15% or less will add multiple ideas.  That's not failure at the start - that's simply human nature.  The more aggressive and more adventurous will add ideas while others watch to see what happens.  If you reinforce success, you'll see those numbers increase.  But you can't expect that people who have been trained to the drop box model will actively engage when you roll out a "water cooler" concept.  It requires more than an interesting challenge and a new software application.  It requires executive commitment, communication, rewards and recognition and reinforcement by the top folks to recognize the success within the community, and encourage more and more of it.

You want the water cooler model for innovation, but your people are likely comfortable and expecting the drop box model.  After all, the drop box model is what they are used to, and requires little commitment and little engagement (and little risk) beyond submitting an idea.  What can you do to create virtual water coolers of innovation?  While any of the applications above can help you implement a water cooler model (in fact many of them are designed that way), evidence shows your folks don't have to use the features.  Even in a software application that's designed for community engagement, many people can simply show up, drop in an idea, and leave.  That's not a software issue - that's a cultural issue that has to be addressed outside the software.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:50 AM 4 comments

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Innovation by the hour

I was working with a client recently on some innovation activities and he said to feel free to take another hour or two on the project if that's what was needed.  That comment made me think about innovation and its relationship to knowledge work.

In many organizations we have an expectation that a certain task should take a certain number of hours.  In many ways, while we'd like to think we've moved beyond "piece work" mentalities, we know it should take x hours to process a "normal" purchase order or y hours to complete a certain document.  Many of the tasks and activities we have have built into them an expected effort and amount of time to complete the task.  That thinking is more pervasive than you might believe.

When we begin to consider innovation activities and tasks, it can be very difficult to determine how "long" a project or activity may require, for several reasons.  First, there aren't a lot of established "norms" about the effort, so while we as consultants have expectations about how long it should take, the client has few previous experiences to compare to.  Unfortunately, there is an expectation that a consultant will "pad" their hours, so any recommendation we make is automatically cut by one third.

Second, since innovation is not something people do every day, they are more hesitant and less confident doing the work.  This means they often seek approval of the work they are doing when they don't need to, and seek approval from executives who aren't really sure what the work is either.  This often dramatically slows and lengthens the process.  Third, we usually have to train people in new tools and techniques.  You can't simply toss someone into the deep end of the pool and expect them to swim effectively, and you can't ask someone who hasn't been actively innovating to suddenly become an expert.

Fourth, unlike many other kinds of projects, in an innovation project there is often someone working against you or to undermine your work.  Inevitably with innovation, there are people who weren't included or feel threatened by the potential result, and those people work quietly but effectively around the edges of the project, sowing doubt and uncertainty.  This means the team often has to slow down to reassure wary sponsors.

Finally, some innovation work simply can't be put on a clock.  Can you tell me how long it will take to get a couple of really good ideas?  If you can put that work on a clock and do it predictably, there is a huge market opportunity for you.

Until we have a real innovation "science" with reasonably accepted standards, trying to measure innovation by the hour doesn't make sense.  There are too many uncertainties, too many unknowns and too many processes and people working, if not against you, then certainly not to speed your work.  As processes and methods become more defined, and the teams become more proficient, then innovation metrics and timeclocks will make sense.  But innovation is not piecework and never will be, and the sooner we eliminate that line of thinking, the better for all of us.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:24 AM 2 comments

Monday, April 26, 2010

Innovation is winning the "next" war, not fighting the last one

One of the challenges that many firms have is that they are focused on "winning the last war" - in other words, they believe that the future will look a lot like the past, and so they gear up to fight the same battles over the same turf as they've done previously.

This concept, as you might have guessed, comes to us from the military, where for countless generations armies and generals have planned and executed elaborate strategies to win a war that wasn't going to be fought.  By preparing for the last war, they unintentionally spurred innovation by their enemies to create entirely new forms of warfare.  Therefore, after World War I the French built the Maginot line, determined to keep the Germans at bay on the French eastern borders.  This was a tremendous alignment of fortresses and static defenses that would have forestalled the broad fronts and trench warfare of World War I.  Countless resources were invested in the Maginot line, which the German High Command totally ignored.  Instead they opted for, and prepared for, Blitzkrieg, rapid warfare to bypass static defenses and fight before the other army could deploy.  In the case of World War I, the French had prepared for the last war, and in a way probably spurred innovation in warfare by the Germans, who could not successfully attack the Maginot line directly.  The French prepared entirely for the same war and doubled down on those strategies and tactics, while the Germans innovated and planned for a completely new type of warfare.

The same thing is happening today in very different spheres.  The US Federal government is tightening down privacy rules and requirements, and many large health and financial institutions are investing tremendous sums of money to keep all individual and consumer information secure and private.  Meanwhile, consumers and other web savvy individuals are increasingly opening up and "living life in the open" on the web.  Two recent articles caught my attention to this trend, but there have been many more.

First, there was an article in the NY Times on Sunday about individuals using Blippy, Swipely and FourSquare to publish where they were geographically and what they were purchasing.  One individual noted his gasoline purchases and his nose job!  Now we can follow anyone in real time and understand what they are purchasing, where they are spending time, and their most intimate thoughts, and in some cases we can even watch them live their lives online.  Note that even a disclosure of some credit card information on Blippy which happened recently hasn't encouraged individuals to end their living online philosophy.  I think many of these consumers see this as simply a cost of doing business and living out in the open.

One reason is that Blippy immediately responded to the issue and worked with its partners to try to shut down the publication of information.  They did so in an apologetic and more importantly, transparent way.  These small firms are earning the trust of consumers who have turned away from larger institutions that are spending far more on security but are not very transparent.

Could it be that for the younger consumer larger firms and even the government are "fighting the last war" on privacy and data security, rather than looking ahead to what consumer want and what the environment will look like in the near future?  If we all live in a virtual data nudist colony, with no privacy but lots of transparency and rapid repair of any breach, what should banks and health care firms focus on?  Not defensive security but rapid response and more transparency about the inner workings of the organization.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:18 AM 2 comments

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Innovation: Science or Alchemy?

Fair warning:  today's post is a philosophical debate about the direction and focus of innovation as a tool to create new products and services.   Too often we in the innovation space take for granted how different and unique the tools and processes we bring to bear are for many in corporate settings.  We also don't always understand how these tools and methods depart from the traditional, comfortable methods of many of our clients.

We stand today, 2010, at a crossroads from an innovation perspective.  Innovation is going to become either a reputable science or a disreputable side show, and there are two constituents that will direct the outcomes.  Innovation consultants and others who offer innovation services are one group that will dictate how innovation is eventually accepted and perceived, and our prospects and buyers in firms large and small are the others.  In just a short time we'll all have to agree that innovation is a science, with repeatable experiments that create real results, or innovation is alchemy, a mystical philosophical magic that promises gold but delivers lead.

Alchemists, you'll recall, were (to some extent still are) people who seek to convert base metals to gold.  They worked in secret, always on the brink of discovery of a chemical compound that would instantly create riches from the most common metals.  The problem with alchemists is that they consistently overpromised and underdelivered.  They cloaked their methods in mystical thinking and secret formulas.  They often substituted small amounts of gold that they possessed to demonstrate the ability to convert base metals, and then demanded greater and greater compensation to convert more metal into gold.

We as innovation consultants and practitioners, in partnership with our clients, need to establish clear understanding and expectation about the "art" and "science" that we propose to do.  Like alchemists, we propose to turn simple insights and ideas into winning new products, services and business models, faster and more effectively than firms have done in the past.  We employ radical tools and creative thinking in ways that are new and different from what many in corporate American have experienced, and there are many within corporate America who believe we in the innovation space are charlatans, out to make a quick buck rather than create a true innovation science.

In some cases those feelings may be correct.  When IBM runs an advertisement that shows a team lying on the floor in the dark "ideating", people may believe that seems odd and strange.  While I've been in the innovation space over six years, I've never had my clients lie on the floor in the dark.  Perhaps that is valuable, or perhaps IBM was making fun of these uncertain approaches.  But when we as practitioners introduce radically new ways of creating insights or ideas, we need to also demonstrate the value proposition and the outcomes.  Recently I saw that Imaginatik has released the ability for its clients to capture ideas using mobile devices.  This has both a positive and a negative connotation.  If we are capturing ideas on the go because people are now more mobile, then that's reasonable.  If we are promoting that technology because "you just never know when someone will have a good idea" then that suggests that innovation is unmanageable and is a black art after all, which could only contribute to the thinking that innovation is alchemy.

We need to demonstrate that innovation is a repeatable process, a science, based on useful tools and techniques and linked directly to important corporate goals and strategies.  Innovation is simply a tool to accelerate the development of valuable and useful products and services, and a method to identify emerging opportunities or threats, hopefully before they are realized.  What alchemists understood was that kings needed wealth to cement their power and project force, so they attempted to create a simple, easy way for kings and rulers to acquire gold, knowing it was a sham.  What innovators need to understand is that executives need new products, services and business models to sustain competitive advantage, and we need to demonstrate our methods are more science than alchemy. 

Our buyers need to help as well.  Rather than consider innovation a sideshow where everyone will run around wearing funny hats and talking about outlandish concepts the firm can't possibly accomplish, people within the corporation need to clearly state corporate objectives and strategies and determine which efforts can be accelerated by placing their best thinkers in a process that accelerates idea generation.  Sure, we may occasionally use mystical tools like creative thinking and idea generation, but those tools are harnessed to an important end goal and used within a repeatable innovation process.  If our buyers approach innovation as an impossible last resort to change the business, rather than a respectable business method to improve and change the business, then we and they have already failed.  An innovator cannot create interesting, useful ideas that will be implemented in a business, any more than alchemists can convert lead into gold, if the participants in the business aren't committed to the tools, don't believe change is possible and remained locked in old ways of thinking. 

To create an innovation science, two things have to change.  We, the innovation practitioners, must demonstrate the tools we use are practical and reasonable, and our methods are repeatable and deliver value.  We need to strip away any magic and demonstrate the value of the methods, tools and processes we use.  This doesn't mean that we don't on occasion use a wide variety of tools and techniques that a firm finds uncomfortable or different.  The definition of insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.  We need new ways of thinking to solve new problems, we just have to demonstrate that they work and are based on science and process.

The second thing that must change is that our buyers and business partners, the people within businesses who need innovation, must change.  They must understand that innovation isn't a black art or a side show, but a process that requires commitment, communication, cultural change and, yes, some new methods and tools.  Until innovation is viewed as a consistent, repeatable business process that happens to have some interesting tools and techniques, and not a brief interlude by a "tin hat" brigade, innovation will be viewed as more alchemy than science, and most reasonable people should be expected to reject alchemists.

As I wrote earlier, innovation as a strategic tool for growth and differentiation, stands at a crossroads.  In the next few years it will either be accepted as a reputable science and incorporated as part of any operating business model within larger corporations, or it will be regarded as an interesting sideshow, more alchemy than science, and while possibly valuable, too strange or different to be adopted consistently.  How this gets resolved is based on the results we innovators can deliver, the tools and techniques we use and the expectations and commitments of our clients to adopt the thinking and methods we recommend.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM 16 comments

Monday, April 19, 2010

Businessweek's "obstacles" to innovation

Businessweek has published it's annual Innovative Companies" article, which is supported by a survey and some assessment of the state of innovation.  It appears to demonstrate that most of the innovative firms in the US are larger, Fortune 500 firms, and that the rest of the world is rapidly overtaking the US as innovators.  There is even a statement that "innovation does not have to have anything to do with technology" which I am sure is surprising news for many of you in the innovation space.

As you can tell, I'm appreciative for the research but find it very cursory at best.  Businessweek seems to scan the horizons for large, successful firms it can talk to about innovation, and many of those that have had recent successes are likely to participate.  IBM is quoted, along with usual suspects like Starbucks, Apple, Research in Motion, Toyota, Proctor & Gamble, 3M and Nokia.  It's quite possible that all of these firms are very innovative, or quite possible they are the ones talking about their innovation work and able to get on the radar screen of Businessweek.  What's really telling is the four obstacles that were defined for innovation success.

The article lists four obstacles for innovation success:

  • Slow development times
  • A lack of coordination
  • Poor innovation productivity and metrics
  • The difficulty of getting good customer insight
Now, ask yourself this question.  How can firms that are supposedly doing so well at innovation have the first three barriers?  If innovation is really important, certainly CEOs and executives can create incentives and re-organize their operations to speed up development times of good ideas, and improve coordination across the organization.  These first two barriers are barriers for firms that AREN'T innovative, and one would hope that these barriers had been solved by innovators.  The only firm the article quotes that seems to have solved this challenge systemically is P&G.  The article mentions cross-functional teams at Southwest Airlines as if this is a new invention.  Certainly by now we understand that diverse teams with different perspectives create more valuable ideas.

Poor innovation productivity and poor metrics simply point out that few companies have a truly systematic approach for innovation.  Every idea is considered in its own right, rather than following a consistent process for generation, evaluation and selection.  Good processes and incentives will define and reinforce good metrics.  The reverse is also true.  Metrics are also difficult to define because innovation in one firm or at one time can be incremental product change, and in another firm or at another time could be disruptive customer experiences.  Given the diversity of ideas and implementations, the timeframes and the challenges these diverse ideas face, it can be very difficult to get a good handle on measurements and goals.

What's interesting to me is the last obstacle, which in my mind should have been the first mentioned.  Poor customer insight should be the first order of concern, not the last.  Too many firms still innovate from the "inside out" extending their technologies rather than confronting the consumer base and understanding their needs.  Ethnography involves interacting with customers and prospects at a level of vulnerability and qualitative assessment that too few organizations are willing to attempt.  Instead they simply double down on existing products and extensions, and existing technologies.  This obstacle, too, indicates a poor understanding and focus within these larger firms about innovation.  It's great that they are beginning to understand that customer insight is necessary - what took them so long?

My beef with reports like these is that they focus too much attention on firms that are probably marginal innovators at best, but able to gain awareness with the press.  There are so many great innovation activities underway in firms of all sizes that identifying the "best" innovators is nonsensical.  What the article points out is that even among the firms we hold up as "innovative" there is still a long way to go to embed innovation practices and capabilities that will become endemic, and managerial thinking and practice needs to adapt to a new innovation reality.

Until we understand that culture and leadership drive innovation, and innovation can and should be managed as a consistent business process which can impact all facets of the business, from products and services to business models, we face the keyhole problem, describing the contents of a room while peering through the keyhole.  Our perception of the room is framed by the narrow view we achieve through the keyhole.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:24 AM 3 comments

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What if innovation was the norm?

If you've spent any time around innovators, you'll know that a lot of good happens right after someone utters the phrase "what if".  There's so much potential and possibility in those two words.  With a sentence beginning "what if" we can release ourselves from preconceived notions and the way we usually do things, and explore a different reality.  What if is powerful.  What if is liberating.

So, I was thinking that often innovation is considered to be the exception in a business, and that got me thinking - what if we flipped the hypothesis?  What if innovation was the regular course of business, and some boring status quo constraint was the exception?  Today we run our businesses based on a don't vary, don't fail, don't risk constrained model.  What if our business model was infused with innovation, and we looked with surprise when someone wanted to retreat to safety and security?  What would that look like?

A business that took as its first imperative an innovation focus would be constantly striving to understand customer wants and needs, especially the needs that aren't fulfilled or even recognized.  For a firm focused on innovation, the first priority would be to discover new opportunities and create new products and services to meet unmet or unarticulated needs.  Note that the ideas would have to solve an important, relevant need, as no one wants to create products or services that aren't useful or aren't necessary.

A firm that took innovation as its "norm" would encourage a lot of experimentation, research and investigation.  As compared to a traditional firm, time investments would almost reverse.  Where traditional firms place a significant amount of time and investment in development, manufacturing and launch, a truly innovative firm would place much more time and emphasis on trend spotting, understanding needs and piloting/prototyping. 

A firm truly focused on innovation would require a significantly lower investment in sales and marketing than a traditional firm.  Any firm that really understands the needs of its customers, tests its ideas rapidly and creates differentiated products and services will draw consumer to it.  It won't need as much investment in sales and marketing because its brand, its products and its customers will do that work for it.

A firm that was focused first on innovation would constantly have to renew itself - relying on new employees, new perspectives, new relationships to constantly gather insights and to stay relevant.  The culture would have to be anchored around a set of innovation principles rather than reinforced by long term employees. 

The people in such a firm would be an interesting mix of creative, energetic, opinionated people who are networked widely and have an extensive set of interests, experiences and education.  Unlike most firms that recruit for more people who reflect their existing workforce, a truly innovative firm would be constantly seeking new skills, talents and perspectives.  The man in the gray flannel suit would be welcomed, but only one or two, thank you very much.

As I've outlined it, I can think of some sectors or firms that achieve a lot of these characteristics, mostly in consultative firms, marketing agencies and branding firms.  While these firms are often very good at the "front end" they often aren't responsible for the development and delivery of new products and services, so their "backend" skills may be a bit suspect, and that's where all of the constrained thinking and resistance to variation occurs.  But just think about the possibilities of your firm, or any firm, deciding that innovation is the standard and safety and conformity are the exceptions, in opposition to what usually exists.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:16 AM 7 comments

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Interview with Lem Lasher, CSC Chief Innovation Officer

I had the opportunity recently to interview Lem Lasher, who leads CSC's Office of Innovation.  I learned a lot about the investment CSC is making from an innovation perspective.  Frankly, I was surprised by the investment they are making and the gains they are making from a strong commitment to innovation.  Here's the recap of my interview:

While I've had a chance to visit 3M and talk with innovators at Dell and other firms, I don't usually think of large consultancies as hot beds of innovation.  My image of CSC was of a large business and
government consulting firm, primarily focused on outsourcing and large government
contracts.  That image informed my expectations:  a slow moving organization
just kicking off an underfunded and misguided innovation focus.  Since I have experience working in a large
consulting organization, I know how difficult it is to build and sustain a new capability
or competency, so I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at the focus, investment
and work that the Office of Innovation within CSC has accomplished in the last few years.

Office of Innovation
CSC formed its "Office of Innovation" just about five years ago based on the recognition
that a consulting firm needs to bring new thinking and new ideas to its clients, as
well as using innovation to reinvent itself.   While other large consulting firms like
Accenture, EDS and Deloitte have made some attempts to become more innovative, CSC has
clearly invested a significant amount of time and resources, and has created an innovation
capability and focus within the Office of Innovation and throughout CSC that makes CSC
a leader in its space.  The Office of Innovation's scope is to generate ideas and
develop intellectual capital for CSC.  It offers its services throughout the
corporation and reports to the chairman of CSC.  Lem Lasher helped to develop the Office of
Innovation over five years ago,  The office has several key focus areas:

  • the Leading Edge Forum which conducts research
  • the Ideation Practice which runs ideation events internally and with clients
  • a Catalyst group which acts as an information depository and knowledge management center
  • a fully developed idea management and social media application
  • Extensive relationships with over twenty academic institutions and other third party partners

CSC is actively engaging its staff, customers, academic partners and third party partners to participate in its
innovation activities, and doing its best to communicate its findings with this same network.

CSC's Innovation Model and resourcing
CSC has a highly distributed model of innovation.  The Office of Innovation emphasizes open innovation and is responsible for setting the stage for innovation.  In this role it creates tools and techniques and
supports the lines of business for innovation.  Through its partnerships with academic institutions and software/hardware partners CSC generates a lot of research and insight into future trends and new ideas.
The Office of Innovation has over 70 staff members.  Many of these people work not only
with internal innovation efforts but have "line jobs" as well, to assist CSC's clients
with innovation.  This is a significant investment in innovation.   Lasher believes that over 10,000 people within CSC have participated in innovation events and activities.  This demonstrates a broad commitment to innovation throughout the organization.

Linking back to the theory
One final concept that I found interesting was the commitment within the organization to understand the "intellectual underpinnings" of innovation.  Lasher felt that if the executives and staff didn't understand the theories of innovation then they couldn't engage effectively, so Lasher has spent a significant amount of time educating his teams on the work of Clayton Christensen, Henry Chesborough, Joseph Schumpeter, Peter Senge and others.  He is a fan of creativity and relies on de Bono's Six Thinking Hats principles.

CSC has made a significant investment in innovation and it appears to be paying off.  Their focus on open, distributed innovation is one of the more robust that I've seen, and they are relying on their partners and academic institutions as well as their employees to generate new ideas.  CSC's model is worth keeping a close eye on, and hopefully they'll continue to talk about their successes and the challenges they've faced.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:24 AM 2 comments

Monday, April 12, 2010

Innovation is solving problems without constraints

As a person who started out as an engineer, I know that most engineers like to solve problems that are useful to society.  Often this means that there are tradeoffs and constraints associated with any problem.  Cars that get higher gas mileage may need to be lighter, but lighter cars don't survive crashes as well as heavy cars.  So when we are presented a problem to solve or an opportunity to address, we often start out by trying to define the constraints.

These constraints could be based on technology issues, but are often based on other factors, like legal or regulatory issues, pricing or cost issues, distribution or transportation issues and so forth.  When we as innovators agree to work within a set of bounds or constraints to solve problems, we are like the kids in kindergarten who are encouraged to "color within the lines" - that is, we accept the constraints and our thinking is guided by nudging right up next to the constraint, but never violating or ignoring the constraint.  In this manner the constraint conforms our thinking and becomes a barrier.  We don't challenge the constraint but accept it, and that governs the outcome.  Since every other firm in the same space or industry is challenged with the same constraints, most of the solutions look very similar.  We've become prisoners of our own thinking, happily limited in our degrees of freedom by constraints we've accepted.

Now, good innovators will tell you that what we need to do, at least temporarily, is to ignore the constraints and push beyond those barriers to generate solutions, then examine our recommended solutions to determine if they can deliver the same, or better, outcomes while conforming to the constraints, or changing the constraints to offer an even better solution.  This approach considers the most optimal outcome, then seeks to determine whether or not it can fulfill the original constraints, or if those constraints can be changed.  Innovation happens when someone in an industry, or, more typically, someone outside an industry who rejects the group think within the industry, decides to set aside the accepted norms and constraints and to think more expansively about the problem or opportunity.  Then, with a number of possible solutions in hand, the innovator seeks alterations that will allow the new idea to fit within the constraints, or seeks to modify the constraints based on the value of his or her solution. 

Recently I heard the VP of Innovation from RJR talk about their process for setting innovation guidelines.  He called it a "fence setting" exercise.  After all, we all want to know the "space" where we can innovate.  His team is responsible for setting the "fences" which dictate the important "space" where the teams should generate ideas, but I suspect their approach is probably less focused on specific constraints and more focused on providing strategic guidance.

A combination of fence setting - to direct teams to focus their efforts on strategic innovation spaces or markets and unconstrained thinking - to move outside of the "color within the lines" mentality that limits our thinking - will drive new ideas within your organization that have real value.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM 3 comments

Friday, April 09, 2010

Innovation success is based on enthusiasm

One of history's greatest quote machines, Winston Churchill, once said that success is based on going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.  I'm going to borrow that quote today and apply it to innovation success.  Innovation success is based on going from "failure" to "failure" without a loss of enthusiasm.  Here's what I mean by that.

Probably the biggest roadblock to innovation in most firms is what I like to call the failure expectation.  I've rarely been in any firm that didn't have any ideas (if so, go ahead and close up shop).  I've rarely been in firms where people thought they weren't creative, and most firms have been "innovative" at some point in their history.  This means that every firm has the opportunity to innovate and some experience at doing so successfully.  What inevitably creeps in is the fear of failing - not just at innovation, but at any new change or experience.  This fear of failure isn't relegated to innovation alone, but to any significant change.  The two easiest ways to kill an idea are to trot out the old saws 1) "The last time we did that it (fill in the blank) or 2) "We've never done that before".  Both of these statements, which you will hear in every firm that attempts to innovate, indicate that safety and comfort and status quo have become more important than discovering needs and changing as the market demands change.

What sustains innovation over time is the ability to fail occasionally, which is an ironclad certainty, without a loss of enthusiasm for the concept of innovation.  I say that failure is an ironclad certainty because with innovation we are placing bets about our ability to predict the future and fulfill new or emerging needs.  Sometimes we'll be right and win big.  Sometimes we'll create products or services that seemed to meet unarticulated needs but miss the window, or don't quite solve the problem.  When those misses occur, your firm has three choices:  sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn't happen, punish all those involved and promise to never let it happen again, or learn from the mistakes and apply the learning at the next possible moment.  In the majority of firms I've worked with, the prevailing sentiment is either sweep it under the rug or punish all of those involved.  Both of these responses speak to a lack of enthusiasm, as if to say, "well, we tried that and it didn't work.  We won't do that again."

Edison didn't quit when the first several hundred filaments didn't work.  Jobs didn't quit when the Newton failed in the marketplace.  Abraham Lincoln didn't quit after he was rejected by the voting population the first three times.  In each case these individuals moved from failure to failure using the learnings to create a success.  Your organization must do the same to build a sustaining innovation culture.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM 2 comments

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Innovation Training works when ...

We at OVO deliver innovation training for our clients.  Surprisingly, it's a service we are frequently asked to deliver, and a service we get great feedback on.  You might think then that we are aggressively selling this service to our existing customers and to our prospects.  If so, you might want to keep reading to understand when we think innovation training works well, and when it is just an exercise to demonstrate innovation activity.

First, let's consider training delivered in any organization.  Most people have some awareness of the tools and methods they use to do their jobs, and some welcome the chance to brush up on those skills or learn new skills.  Unfortunately, training budgets are often the first items cut when times are tough, and there's clearly been fewer training dollars budgeted in the last two years due to the slowdown in the economy.  Most training, therefore, had to deliver real payback quickly, which meant that most training in the last few years has been focused on helping people do their jobs more effectively or efficiently.

And, in many ways, that is helpful.  If we can find ways to help people do the jobs they are already doing in a more efficient or effective way, then they can take on more work or deliver higher quality goods and services.  Since productivity has gone up while employment has fallen, that has happened.  What makes any training along these lines successful is that we are REINFORCING an existing job or process and helping people improve skills they consistently use.

Now, let's look at innovation training and the opportunities and challenges associated with it.  Innovation is something that most organizations do haphazardly at best, with few defined processes or methods.  That means we have to train people on specific tools and techniques, as well as on processes.  Even tools and techniques that are fairly regularly used, like brainstorming, are typically misused and need to be relearned.  So we are introducing a range of new methods and skills.  Add to that the fact that since most organizations aren't structured to support innovation consistently and haven't been aggressively innovative in the past, we are also introducing new skills and changing what is important for people to do.  Rather than REINFORCING existing skills, we are INTRODUCING new skills that may, or may not, be reinforced when people go back to their jobs.  This should give you some indication of when innovation training is valuable.

Innovation training is valuable when it is immediately followed by opportunities to implement the tools, techniques and methods as quickly as possible after the training.  When we reinforce existing skills and knowledge, people return to their jobs and implement that training fairly quickly.  When we introduce new skills and knowledge in innovation training, the recipients need to return to their jobs with the expectation that they'll implement the new knowledge quickly, on meaningful work.  Otherwise the training doesn't "stick" and everyone reverts to their comfortable processes and methods.

When we deliver training we try to reinforce the concept that the tools are useful in many situations, and we ask people to bring real world problems to solve into the training.  We also recommend that the individuals who receive training are expected to work on innovation activities as quickly as possible after the training is complete.  This reinforces the training and allows the team to exercise their new knowledge and skills.  Even if the organization doesn't have an innovation initiative, it is helpful to attack a new project using an innovative approach to allow the team to use its new knowledge.

Training people on new skills that aren't immediately put into practice is less than useless - it can be damaging.  Once the team sees the power of innovation tools and techniques but is denied the opportunity to use them, they can become frustrated and cynical about innovation as a strategy.  Training for training's sake is OK when you are reinforcing existing skills, but off-putting and disheartening when introducing new perspectives and skills that won't be implemented.

One other point needs to be made here.  We are often asked to provide innovation "training" to teams for one hour in a team meeting.  This is work we almost always refuse.  It is barely possible to introduce one tool or technique in an hour or two, much less give the team an opportunity to try it out in real time.  We can possibly introduce an innovation method or process to the team, but can't expect them to learn how to apply these skills in such a short period of time.  Would you suggest that people can learn bookkeeping or how to operate a sophisticated piece of equipment in just a few hours?  Why would you provide such a limited amount of training for what can be a strategic initiative that needs real commitment?  Simply by limiting the time you indicate to your teams the amount of commitment to the endevour.

Innovation training works when teams are convinced that the skills they will learn will help them in their existing jobs or in new initiatives, and when those skills are put to use immediately after the training on assignments that have strategic importance.  Innovation training works when the participants are given the time they need to learn the tools and the chance to try them out in practice before implementing them in the real world.  Focus, commitment, engagement and time are critical to innovation training success.  Otherwise we are training people on tools that they won't have a chance to implement, wasting their time and creating greater cynicism about innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:48 AM 4 comments

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Back from Vacation - Preparing for Innovation Conference

Just back from a long, well deserved vacation in Costa Rica.  What a beautiful and diverse country.  In just a few miles you can travel from the beach, to a volcano, to a rain forest.  The Costa Ricans have done an amazing job preserving much of their country as parks and encouraging eco-tourism.  The diversity of flora and fauna is fairly incredible.  Our guide in the rainforest told us that there are more species of trees in Costa Rica (basically the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined) than in all of Canada and the United States combined.

But, all good things must come to an end, so we returned yesterday, slightly sunburned but well rested.  Now to turn our attention to an innovation conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on April 10th.

The Innovate Carolina conference is being presented by the Carolinas PDMA chapter and graciously hosted by Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC.  We have an incredible lineup of speakers and panelists and this is a great opportunity for anyone in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina who is interested in innovation.  We've left plenty of time for networking and have perspectives from the state government, not-for-profits, academics and large and small businesses.  If you are interested in attending, please see the website:
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:11 AM 2 comments