Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What limits innovation in established companies

Sometimes, as an artist or writer you have a great idea and you have the chance to be part of the creation.  Sometimes you'll find that others have beaten you to the idea, and your job is to extend the idea, improve it and make others aware of the original contribution and your offerings.

Some days I'm a creator.  Some days, today for instance, I'm publicizing Gary Hamel's recent post in the Wall Street Journal about Innovation.  Not that Gary needs a significant amount of assistance with publicity, but when someone gets it right, we need to point it out. Not with a flashlight but with a search light so everyone can see.

Gary started his post poking fun of some of the innovation lists - which firms are the "most innovative". As he notes this is like comparing dancers - which is "best" - ballerinas or people who dance the tango?  Square dancers or break dancing?  Are we talking about classical interpretations or best new introduction?  Sometimes I think this is akin to the arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Anyway, the real value of Gary's piece lays hidden over two thirds of the way down, when he starts talking about what limits innovation in established companies.  He says:
  • Few, if any, employees have been trained as business innovators
  • Few employees have access to the sort of customer and industry insights that can help spur innovation
  • Would be innovators face a bureaucratic gauntlet that makes it difficult for them to get the time and resources they need to test their ideas
  • Line managers aren't held accountable for mentoring new business initiatives or lack explicit innovation goals
  • Innovation performance isn't directly tied to top management compensation
  • The metrics for tracking innovation (inputs, throughouts, outputs) are patchy and poorly constructed
  • There's no commonly agreed-upon definition of innovation and no way to compare innovation across teams
These are his words, pulled from his post.  The words I've highlighted with italics and bold and underlining (perhaps overkill) are the key ones.  If I were to take Gary's words and place them in order of sequence and significance, I'd say:

  • Define what innovation means and how it aligns to corporate goals and objectives
  • Establish an innovation strategy - Need Seeker, Market Reader or Technology Driver
  • Establish metrics and measurements for innovation
  • Incorporate innovation goals and measures into annual plans linked to evaluation and compensation
  • Train people throughout the organization on the tools and techniques of innovation
  • Establish a well-defined innovation process that all ideas follow
  • Encourage trend spotting and scenario planning as a way to gain insights
If you look at this list it seems daunting, and unreasonable if you want to create one new product or service.  Yet the additional work to change the culture and make it more innovative, beyond the work necessary to simply grind out one new innovative product, is not that pronounced.  Doing the least expecting the most is rarely a positive strategy.  If you want to be truly innovative, plan to do more to get more.

But you know this already.  The difference between creating innovative products and services and wanting to be more innovative is commitment.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:37 AM 5 comments

Monday, November 29, 2010

Innovation Zombies

Zombies, or the concept of the undead, seems really potent right now.  We've had a number of movies featuring zombines lately, and a new well-received TV show on AMC highlights the zombie phenomenon - The Walking Dead.  I'm not sure why there's a sudden resurgence of interest in zombies, but I am sure that zombies are damaging your innovation capabilities.

Remember that on TV and in the movies, zombies are people who are undead - not really living, and not really dead.  They seem to resort to cannibalism and pursue the living.  Most zombies move lethargically and don't really threaten the living until there are a large number of zombies crowding our heroes, which is when the fun begins.  Everyday objects like chain saws or electric guitars become the equivalent of light sabers in zombie movies.

But in real life, especially in your innovation efforts you face dangerous zombies that threaten good ideas and good intentions, and crowd out your best ideas.  These zombies are the "undead" ideas - ideas that didn't get approved or funded, and no one bothered to kill.  By my estimate most firms have hundreds of these undead ideas laying around, just waiting for the right opportunity to spring up into that quasi-undead status. 

When executives say "we have plenty of ideas" they are usually referring to these zombie ideas, only they don't recognize them as zombies.  Since they are still "on the books" or in the pipeline, executives assume the ideas are still viable, when the rest of us know they are zombies at best that should have been killed outright long ago.  These zombie ideas crowd out good ideas, distract the teams and enthrall the executives, so that innovation becomes much more difficult.

What's needed in most firms is a good zombie killer - perhaps like the role Woody Harrelson played in Zombieland.  Using a wide array of instruments he killed more zombies in more ways than the plague in London.  What you need is to find your Woody Harrelson, the person who can make decisions and actually kill all the zombie ideas that are clogging up your innovation pipeline.  By conservative estimate 75% of most innovation pipelines are ideas that have been killed previously or should have been killed, and these ideas continue to attract attention and investment.  And with what appears to be a relatively robust pipeline, why generate or work on more, new ideas?

Whether your firm is just getting started in innovation or has had an innovation effort for a long time, one good way to start your work is to first kill all the zombies.  Then you'll have a real sense of the breadth and depth of your innovation portfolio and you'll know where to start.  By killing all of these useless ideas you open up opportunity and oxygen for new thinking and new ideas.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:13 AM 2 comments

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why innovation matters now

As the economic downturn settles in for its second year and promises to hang around like a slacker twenty-something on the couch, there is a growing divide between the innovation haves and have nots.  Firms that were relatively innovative before the economic slowdown have for the most part sustained a high level of innovation investment.  That's not uniformly true, however.  You can easily find firms that were investing more heavily in innovation before the downturn that have significantly reduced that investment.  However, the firms that weren't investing in innovation activities previous to the downturn are now even more unlikely to start a program or initiative until they see the faint rays of light at the end of the downturn tunnel.

This means that the innovation winners - firms that get all of the attention like P&G, Apple, 3M and so forth - will continue to pull away from their nearest competitors and gain more market share and higher returns, not to mention better market returns.  When the economy turns a corner and begins to rebound, the differences in product and services offerings will become even more apparent, as firms that have been cutting and "holding on" won't have much new on offer.  Their only real opportunity will be to cut costs to attract customers as they can't compete with new products or services, so will become a permanent second class.

History also tells us something about recovery from recessions or depressions.  These downturns inevitably spawn many new startups.  You've heard previously about many leading companies, Dupont for example, that were created in the dark days of the Great Depression.  These firms are birthed in the most difficult and trying times, and they are optimized to thrive in the dark days, and have their finger on the pulse of customer needs in a way that only a firm struggling to offer one product or service in a downturn can achieve.  Right now, all around the globe, thousands of people are being asked to leave their jobs in large, established firms and are pursuing their dreams or passions out of either vision or desperation, and those individuals are creating innovative new products and services, born out of the ashes of this downturn.  Some will make it, some won't.  But what's true and has been demonstrated before is that these innovators will take a significant portion of the market as it recovers.  That means the firms most likely to be successful in the next few years are firms that are heavily investing in innovation now, and firms we aren't even aware of right now, the new innovators.

If this logic holds, then innovation is the key to survival for larger firms, and the driving force for growth for new firms.  Coming out of the recession - and it will end - those firms with an active passion for innovation will accelerate away from the firms too focused on efficiency and cost cutting.  Innovation is the competitive advantage.

We can also predict a few other things based on history and downturns.  Coming out of the recession, many things will change.  Out of any major downturn, people will question the status quo, what was received wisdom before and during the downturn.  For example, look no further than the size of the average house in the US.  Recent surveys indicate that respondents believe they can be happy with a house over 20% smaller than what was indicated just before the downturn.  Out of any downturn people recalibrate their needs and expectations and shift their behavior.  We can expect that there will be a return to thrift, a demand for more meaningful experiences and less conspicuous consumption for quite some time after the recovery.  Firms that understand these shifts - those firms in existence today and those just getting started now - will move quickly to position themselves to offer innovative products, services and experiences that meet these customers in their new expectations.  Firms that are right now holding on and cutting investment in innovation will offer products and services that were deemed appropriate before the downturn to customers with new expectations and wonder what went wrong.

Innovation is also important for our state and federal governments.  After several years of spending on a number of important new programs and foreign wars, the growing deficit and looming federal debt are forcing us to consider changes in policy and programs.  Currently most of the response is tinkering around the edges - we aren't in enough pain yet.  But it's not hard to forecast that what's happening to Greece and Ireland can happen to us, especially if many countries continue to proceed down the path to what lead to the Great Depression - currency devaluation and trade sanctions.  Our state and federal governments need new thinking and innovation to reset expectations and offer the appropriate services within budgets we can afford.

In the US, our university system has been the envy of the world, but over the last decade or so seems to have lost its way.  The fundamental lack of innovation in entities that should be a crucible for innovation is astonishing.  Many universities are facing severe cutbacks in state funding and are forced to raise tuition, while the overhead and administrative costs have grown dramatically.  Many have fought the advent of distance based education and "for profit" universities, while many students have sought out these more innovative solutions.  Universities need to turn the focus inward to consider how to innovate their models, which for the most part are unchanged from the 11th century.  Costs rising twice the pace of inflation are simply unsustainable, and with an average four year graduation rate dropping as low as 50%, these are investments that aren't worth the cost.  Universities should be open, dynamic, flexible organizations for innovation and change.  Instead they've become closed, fixed, inflexible machines that sustain long tenured administrators and faculty at the expense of new ideas and growth. 

To a certain extent, all the major organizations of our economy are standing around, waiting for something to emerge, a savior from the distance.  The solution is here, right in front of us, for every industry, academic program or institute of higher learning.  We need innovation in our businesses, in our governing institutions and in our academic settings.  The needs are obvious, the demands only rising.  Rather than scanning for longer term impossible solutions, let's get busy with something we know that works.  Innovative thinking and applied creativity translated into new products and services for businesses, new programs and new ways to govern for political entities and completely new ways to teach and to learn for academic institutions.  This isn't a pipe dream - it's a requirement.  The amount of pain we endure is based on how long it takes us to understand that innovation will be what creates the new value propositions that we need.

And yes, I'm guilty of asserting that many of our needs can be solved with just one tool.  If that makes me a snake oil salesperson, I'll wear it with pride.  Einstein, quoted here many times before, said that you can't solve new problems with old ways of thinking.  To solve new problems, you need new ways of thinking.  We aren't asserting the solutions, just challenging everyone to assert new ways of thinking to create the new solutions.  It's time to get innovative people.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:09 AM 3 comments

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What Rockmelt tells us about innovation

Here's an interesting question.  Why is there so much innovation around internet browsing?  Why is it that we have Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chromium, Safari, and now RockMelt, and sure to be others right around the corner?  Why so much innovation in viewing web content?  What does innovation in the browser space tell us about innovation in general?

After all, it's not like we haven't been here before.  Netscape was the original internet browser, and worked reasonably well, but was overwhelmed by Microsoft when it decided to get serious about browsers and incorporate a browser in its operating system.  Firefox and other open source browsers were a response to IE when the open source market really took off, and now Firefox represents a large proportion of the browser marketplace.  Google entered with Chromium, but really hasn't had the impact I'm sure they wanted.  It will take firms like Rockmelt and others to extend the Chromium platform and break away from the Google mothership before people get too invested.  Why create another Internet Explorer monopoly tied to Google rather than Microsoft?

But that's all history.  The real question is - why is there so much innovation in what should be a relatively uninteresting space?  Most browsers are free or exceptionally inexpensive, so the return on the development is relatively low.  Developing a new browser isn't necessarily difficult, since the builds for Firefox and Chromium are available as open source projects, but I suspect maintaining a good code base and incorporating the changes necessary over time for the browser is difficult.  Customers are certain to be demanding as the browser - whichever type or version - is becoming the real operating system of work within computing, especially mobile computing and work in the cloud. Clearly the number of potential customers acts as a driver for new development in the browser space. Let's examine the browser market and see what it portends for innovators.

Looking forward:  Trend Spotting and Scenario Planning.

If you are interested in building a browser, you have to compete with at least three established entities:  Microsoft's IE, Firefox and Safari.  However, you also have to understand the incredible changes that are occuring in the IT space.  People are using the web, and accessing the web, from everywhere and every device.  That means the browser has to do more, and in many cases do less, on a wide range of devices.  Trends suggest this will only increase as we access the web from our phones, mobile devices and eventually our cars.  Why isn't there a browser built into my car now?  Certainly there will be shortly.  These trends tell us that browsers need to be more flexible, lighter weight and able to run on a number of platforms. However, at the same time they need to be able to connect to and run social media applications that are growing and becoming more complex.  Rockmelt's theory is that the browser is the social media operating system, and Rockmelt is built specifically to integrate with Facebook and other social media applications.

The nice aspect of the browser space is that there is a lot of change, and more than likely, a number of secondary market segments.  Browsers for cars or vehicles, browsers for mobile devices, browsers for kiosks and stand alone computing centers.  Browsers for people who are active social media users, browsers for people in corporations that can't connect to social media applications.  There are a significant number of market niches and it will be interesting to see who identifies the critical needs in each niche and solves those needs successfully.

Which brings us to:  Customer Needs.

Innovation is about solving a customer need in a new and interesting way, or solving a need customers weren't aware of.  Rockmelt is trying to do both - improve the browser and reduce the "back and forth" between tabs or screens.  Can Rockmelt reduce the overhead associated with your contacts, your friends and your social media interaction within the browser?  Will that integration be important to you?  That will be the $100 million dollar question.  When does the browser become more than an operating system component?  What customer needs are the most important?  For example, Safari on the iPhone doesn't support Flash.  Will that eventually hamper the iPhone as a platform, or will new applications arise to fill the void left by the absence of Flash on the iPhone?  Will Android or other platforms and browsers win?  What are the important customer needs?

I'd argue that we need a better lightweight browser on the mobile devices that loads quickly but is robust enough to handle most sites that provide high data throughput and high picture resolution or video streaming.  But we also need browsers that reduce the back and forth, toing and froing across tabs. 

Once Rockmelt, Safari and Firefox developers spot new trends and understand new customer needs, they can generate ideas for new products and then develop those new browsers.  Once the development is near completion, they can then test those browsers.  And here, the browser developers have an advantage - easy beta testing.

Prototyping and Piloting
This is something that Google learned a long time ago:  create a team of believers willing to try out the code, and make it dead simple for them to use it and give feedback.  Of course it helps Google that most of their code doesn't even need to be installed.  Rockmelt will need to be installed on your machine, but you have the opportunity to try it out in a limited beta.  This rapid prototyping and piloting, combined with customer feedback, means Rockmelt can distribute the testing and final production of the browser and gain valuable feedback quickly.

Will Rockmelt succeed?  Have they spotted a need in the browser space that must be filled?  It's pretty clear that the browser is becoming the operating system interface rather than just a component.  Does Rockmelt effectively combine the operating system nature of the browser with tight and seamless integration to social media?  Is that valuable to a large number of consumers?

We get to watch and witness the attempt to create a new browser and document a case study on innovation.  Rockmelt represents all of the factors necessary for innovation:
  • A committed team of individuals
  • Who have spotted what they believe is a relevant, important need
  • Aligned with industry and societal trends
  • Developing ideas
  • Quickly prototyping and piloting the product with customers
  • Gaining feedback and insights
  • Preparing the final packaging
The question remains - is what Rockmelt offers different enough, and valuable enough, and easy enough to acquire and use that it will make a big difference in the browser space?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:20 AM 5 comments

Monday, November 22, 2010

Failure must always be an option

I chose the title of this point tongue in cheek, because I have a great friend in the military and his signature is FINAO - Failure is not an option.  In the military, when every decision is life and death, that mantra is correct.  In innovation, however, failure must always be an option.

I've been scanning Twitter posts and other blog sites and I see that many commentators believe that acceptance of failure and "failing forward faster" is imperative to innovation, and for the most part I agree.  What's missing is a deeper investigation into the issues surrounding "failure".  How does an organization "accept" some failure when FINAO in most cases?  You know a subject is getting some attention when the cartoonists have something to say about it.

The problem with failure - either accepting it or rejecting it - is in defining it.  Today, in most firms, failure can be defined in using these criteria:
  • No one wants to fail because it reflects badly on them and their careers
  • Failure is a one time deal - it's cataclysmic and ends badly
  • Failure is an end point - a terminal destination
  • Failure is ridiculed, mocked and reviled.  We tell cautionary stories about previous failures
  • The culture rewards success and ridicules failure.
  • Failure is costly
  • Failure is unpredictable
In these instances, only success is viewed as a reasonable outcome.  Status quo is accepted with some grumbling and toleration, and any other outcome is means for dismissal.  And that's what potential innovators face in many organizations.  If we can't guarantee success, go back and try again, or worse, do something to cut costs or increase efficiency.

When you hear people talking about the importance of failure, or when you read people writing about the importance of failure, they are correct but incomplete.  We all understand that failure is important to innovation, but we need to understand how to create the conditions in which failure is acceptable.  Clearly, if failure is considered a worthless, terminal condition then it can never be acceptable.  However, if we can establish some of the characteristics I've listed below for failure in an organization, then we may be able to create meaningful failure:

  • Failure is contained and inexpensive
  • Failure is considered a likely outcome
  • Failure is not an end point and isn't terminal to the effort
  • Failure is considered part of the process of learning and developing
  • Failure is predictable - in fact we assert the likelihood of failure
  • Because it involves learning, advancement and was predicted, failure is accepted or celebrated
Think about the shift in mindsets revealed by the different thinking and reactions to failure.  The cultural bias toward catastrophic failure can be tempered by a smaller, contained failure that is part of the learning process and ultimately leads to new insights, knowledge or a new product.  Rather than one big, risky, unplanned failure, we create experiments with lots of small, contained and somewhat predictable failures that lead to greater success.

Strangely, the situation I've described is what we'd expect in an R&D lab, but don't plan for or tolerate anywhere else in most organizations.  Controlled experiments that advance our knowledge and prepare the first to make better decisions leading to better products - that's valuable.  Perhaps we just need to reframe our language.  Rather than "failing forward faster" we need "rapid, controlled experimentation".

No matter how many times innovation experts tell you that failure is important and must be part of the process, that doesn't really matter until someone tells you how to make failure more acceptable in your organization, so that you can be allowed to fail occasionally.  What managers hate more than failure is uncertainty, unexpected costs and risks.  If you can demonstrate that your experiments remove uncertainty, reduce costs and risks, controlled failure will be tolerated or even accepted. Heck, you may even win an award for it.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:23 AM 4 comments

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Five Uncertainties of Innovation

Let's face it.  Innovation isn't hard, it isn't complicated, it isn't unattractive work.  Innovation is really difficult because it is new and fraught with uncertainties.  Since we've been trained to abhor vacuums and uncertainties, many firms shy away from innovation, and use excuses like "It's too hard" or "The pay-off is hard to predict" or a number of other arguments, which are all really about uncertainties.

I'm a great artist again today, stealing the concept of "Five Uncertainties" from Patrick Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  There are probably more than five uncertainties where innovation is concerned, but that sounded like a good, round number.  Today we'll examine five key uncertainties having to do with innovation, why they block innovation, and how to deal with them for innovation success.

Strategic Uncertainty

Probably the most common cause of "innovation failure" is strategic uncertainty.  This is fairly easy to recognize and occurs in one of two forms.  Either the corporate or business unit strategy and goals are vague, or the innovation team ignores clear strategy to pursue its own goals.  The first case is the most common, and the strangest to me.  Why do we pay gobs of money to senior executives who are so poor at communicating their strategic goals?  An innovation team that cannot obtain clarity about strategic goals typically spins its wheels, since all paths and all directions seem equally viable.  Without a clear strategy, there's no clear targets or goals. 

Solving this uncertainty is easy and dangerous.  First, ask the executive sponsor of the innovation effort to clarify the corporate strategies and goals.  If he or she can do that, you are in the clover.  If they can't, no worries, the team merely needs to assert what it thinks is important and ask for acceptance.  If you can't receive clarity about strategic goals top down, assert them back at the executive(s) and tell them you'll start the project on based on your sense of what's strategic in two weeks if no answer is received.  Whether you create it or the executives create it, you need a clear strategy.

"Outcome" uncertainty

What we are calling "outcome" uncertainty deals with what the team is supposed to produce.  Incremental products or disruptive services?  It's not enough to say that a team should create something innovative - the team needs to understand the acceptable range of options.  If the executives want a new physical product to sell, then say so.  Narrowing the scope actually helps the team.  Allowing the scope to remain broad and poorly defined is a recipe for disaster. 

Someone - the sponsor of the project, the potential implementer of the solution, needs to indicate what kinds of products or services should be delivered in the project, and how incremental or disruptive the solution should be.  Again, if you can't get that information from the executive team, then the innovation team must assert it.  Otherwise your result will be a jumble of incremental products which appear uninteresting or disruptive services which appear to be impractical.

Communication uncertainty

This is one of the strangest uncertainties - when an innovation team is formed and tasked, but no one bothers to communicate goals or outcomes to the rest of the organization.  Everyone not on the team is constantly sniffing around, trying to understand if the innovation team will cannibalize or disrupt their sacred cow.  Most interact with the team with high suspicion at the least and active disregard at the worst. 

Your team can't work well in isolation and won't work well in active competition with the rest of the organization.  Communicate your purpose and goals quickly and continuously.  Better to have one or two active enemies who fear your team will disrupt their activities than an entire organization suspicious of your intentions.  This one always boggles my mind - surely we receive far too much communication, but on unimportant topics, while we avoid talking about or communicating about strategic topics.

Success uncertainty
As we all know by now, innovation often means failing, and hopefully learning something new that can be used in the next product or service.  That's easy to say and very difficult to accept.  Most firms are very comfortable implementing projects and activities that have a high likelihood of success, which is why many firms do the same things over and over again with diminishing returns.  They understand how to do them and can count on at least some minimal, but almost guaranteed success.  Nobody wants the black mark of "failure" on their permanent record.

We can't guarantee success, and we can't eliminate the uncertainty that haunts an innovation project, but we can reduce the uncertainty of success by building in the processes and techniques that will make innovation more effective, and doing the research necessary to spot important trends and emerging markets.  In other words, we can increase the likelihood of success by investing in the right tools, techniques and methods, and perhaps partners, who can make innovation more successful.

Commitment uncertainty

Another one of my favorite uncertainties about innovation is commitment uncertainty.  This is the queasy look that many innovation team members get when they realize how much learning and work is required to do a good job on an innovation project, and they sheepishly admit that they have a "full time" day job, and that innovation is something they can commit about 4 hours a week towards.  They are forced to choose between a commitment to an interesting project they know is important but probably won't impact their compensation or evaluation, and the pressing needs of day to day business which is far less interesting and valuable, but how they'll be compensated and evaluated.  At this point only the true believers still have the fire in their eyes.

Your firm can eliminate commitment uncertainty by recognizing the people who are on the innovation team and ensuring they can commit the time necessary to be successful on the innovation project.  You can assure yourself of greater commitment by recruiting volunteers, who may not have the "right" titles but want to be part of something larger than their day job.  You can eliminate commitment uncertainty by building in a measure of innovation into the evaluation forms, so people need to demonstrate innovation skills and outcomes to advance.

Here are five innovation uncertainties and how to address them.  As I noted at the beginning of this article, innovation isn't really all that difficult, doesn't require tremendous expertise, and has well defined methods and processes.  While these and other reasons are given for avoiding innovation, I firmly believe that the ultimate barrier for innovation is the tremendous amount of uncertainty that swirls around the effort.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:49 AM 3 comments

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To Innovate is to Choose

Analogies are a powerful tool in an innovator's arsenal.  We use analogies to understand how other firms or other industries have solved a particular problem, and then evaluate that existing approach or solution in light of our challenges.  Here's an example.  We were working with a firm that makes lawn mowers, and the goal was to improve the result of cutting your lawn. We wanted a smooth, even cut.  One of the most significant aspects of a smooth cut is not under the control of the firm that makes the lawn mower:  how sharp the blade is.  That's the responsibility of the owner, not the firm that made the mower, yet the blade sharpness drives a significant portion of the ultimate satisfaction of the lawn mower owner.

So we asked ourselves, what analogies exist for keeping a frequently used blade sharp with minimal interaction from the owner?  Clearly we could have the owner intentionally sharpen the blade, or create some self-sharpening device.  But the analogy that seemed the most apt was from the razor blade companies.  Couldn't we create a "disposable" blade for a mower that could be used several times and then thrown away? Analogies make for great idea generation techniques.

The analogy for today is about the difficulty of innovating, because innovation forces a team to choose.  The original statement is "to govern is to choose" which is variously attributed to JFK, Charles de Gaulle and others.  The origin is less important than the meaning.  This statement is meant to indicate that governments have the duty to allocate the funds they receive according to the decisions they believe will best affect the country.  Some factions will receive funds, some won't - the choice is part of governing.

Innovation has a very similar conundrum.  There are always far more good ideas than the resources necessary to fund and develop the ideas.  Therefore, idea selection is about making choices in the face of limited information which could be wrong in hindsight.  That's one of the first problems with innovation - we ask people to make hard choices with limited information about products or services that may, or may not, be successful.  Innovation has another challenge to most executives when it comes to choice:  innovation requires a very different set of commitments and choices than the status quo.

Imagine an existing product or service.  The product manager is usually confronted with choices about color, or packaging or pricing.  Relatively distinct choices that will have incremental impact to the existing product.  Now consider a product manager or executive asked to make choices about a product that doesn't yet exist.  Every choice he or she makes is risky and uncertain.  Most executives are uncomfortable in this situation and seek to limit options and choices, seeking clarity and safety, or at least consensus.  This is why most "innovation" seem so bland.  Once we remove risk from the equation and bring consensus into the equation, we've watered down the product or service to the point where it's not innovative anymore.

The risks associated with the choices were too great initially, and the compromises made to avoid hard choices watered down the final product.  To innovate is to choose, much like Chicago voting - early and often - often with poor data and only a gut intuition.  Perhaps beggars can't be choosers, but innovators must be.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:57 AM 3 comments

Monday, November 15, 2010

Innovation: Doing the impossible with no resources

During this most recent downturn, but similarly to other downturns, at least while I've been in the workforce, is the concept of "doing more with less" - that is, wringing more output or benefits out of the same, or often even less, inputs and resources.  This idea hasn't become a slogan, but a working reality for many businesses.

That's the nature of the beast - it's far easier to cut resources and costs to sustain a certain level of performance than it is to "invest" in new people or new products in the hope of increased revenues, especially as the economy has people pulling in their spending.  For good or for ill, the new management mantra is "do more with less".

In light of that admonition we need to understand how to get innovation done.  US businesses can't continue to cut, and cut, and cut, people, ideas and capabilities without doing long term damage to competitiveness and innovation.  The economy will bottom out, will turn around and the firms that are investing - to whatever degree possible - in innovation will be the ones best positioned to take advantage of the upturn in the economy.  As I've written before, there is no "good time" for innovation.  When times are bad it's easy to argue that the additional investment isn't worth the cost.  When times are good innovation risks distracting the team from its core purpose or takes dollars and resources away from the money making products and services.  Frankly, it's easy to make the argument that innovation costs too much or distracts too much in almost any market condition.  Yet firms that fail to innovate will fail to survive.

So the question becomes, in an era of "more from less" when it is easy to dismiss innovation investments, how can innovation get done, since the alternative to no innovation is obsolescence.  This gets us to the title of the post:  in this economy, regular operations is doing more with less.  Innovation takes that a step further to doing the impossible with nothing.

So then the question becomes - can we "do" innovation with little cost that has a big impact?  Let's assume for a minute that you can create really viable, really interesting ideas that will have a significant impact on your business.  Now, what's the investment necessary to 1) identify the idea 2) manage it effectively and 3) bring it to market.

Let's deal with a few "truths" rather than myths.  First, innovation does not have to cost a lot of money.  For a recent client we led an innovation program, which included third party research and ethnography and had two full time and one part time innovation consultant on the team, combined with seven client team members.  We generated hundreds of ideas that were managed, evaluated and prototyped.  We arrived at ten practical, game changing ideas and implemented three of them.  The total outlay for the client in "hard dollars" - that is, not counting their resources costs, was about $350,000.  If any one of the three ideas selected and implemented does anything close to our expectations, the return will be over $50 million in new revenue.  So innovation can be done rather inexpensively.

Second truth:  Your team can do a lot of the work, if you'll allow them to.  Rather than "outsource" innovation, train your teams and engage your own people rather than teams of consultants and third parties.  Or, use open innovation and work with your clients, partners and others to generate ideas.  It does not need to cost a lot to generate a lot of good ideas, and your teams or your clients and partners can do this work with you and for you.

Third truth:  Your teams should "own" this work.  If you consistently outsource all of your innovation work, it costs more and has less chance of being implemented and accepted.  If you can engage your internal teams and give them the freedom and tools necessary, innovation costs less and is more likely to be implemented and accepted.  You get two wins:  exciting ideas at less cost, and a more engaged workforce.

Fourth truth:  You have to assign the "right" people and give them the best tools and training.  When I say the "right" people I don't mean the most experienced people or the people at the right level of the hierarchy.  I mean the people willing to make change who have great ideas.  Typically they aren't the most senior people.  The most senior people often have the most to protect, and aren't willing to change.  If you can find and assign the right people, then give them the right tools and training.  Don't ask them to do this work without some investment in the right innovation skills.

Fifth truth (and the one that is self-serving):  Find a trustworthy innovation partner who will guide your team and train your team rather than asking them to "go it alone".  An analogy is in order:  when the west was settled, wagon trains left regularly from St. Louis.  While there were clear "wagon trails" and some maps, every team took a guide, who recommended where they should stop, what daily progress they should make, where the "rough patches" were and so forth.  I suppose many people wondered if they needed a guide when they could follow the wagon tracks, and abandoned materials along the way.  Similarly, I'm sure many organizations will argue that they can read a few books and attempt this without a guide.  Many firms I've talked to that tried this approach ended up in logical but predictable dead ends.  I'll argue that it makes sense to acquire a guide, as long as you also intend to learn from him or her along the way.

The question eventually becomes - can we afford to eliminate our investments in innovation and simply rely on cost cutting?  I think most firms will answer in the negative.  If that's the case, what's the best investment we can make for minimal cost that can achieve great innovation outcomes?  From our experience, if you are willing to invest the time of between five and seven people for six to eight months, and hire a guide, your firm can create really valuable innovation without a lot of cash outlay.

Clearly, we believe that every firm should have an innovation budget, just as many have an "R&D" budget.  But in the absence of that, every firm should be investing in innovation.  You can effectively manage your innovation investment and get great returns, but you can't get a return if you don't invest at all.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:07 AM 3 comments

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The three key components of an innovation culture

Good artists borrow and great artists steal.  Today I am a great artist, and stealing from another.

At a recent speaking engagement which I attended virtually through a Twitter stream, Rob Shelton described an innovation culture as being made of vision and metrics and motivation.  I thought this was an excellent summation of the attributes of an innovation culture, and I'd like to tell you why.  I'll also tell you one other component I'm sure Rob talked about but isn't explicitly in this list.

Even the order of the attributes is important.  Vision is first.  Vision in this definition describes some strategic goal for the organization that can be linked to innovation.  This is where many firms fall down.  Vision is such an ephemeral thing that we often skip right past it.  Then we are left using innovation as a one time tool, rather than an ongoing capability.  And as we've discussed here before, innovation is simply too risky and too uncertain to do well once.  To define an innovation culture, you need an overarching strategic vision that is then linked to innovation goals and outcomes.  No vision, no innovation culture.  And if you can't get your management team to document a vision, create and publish one of your own.  The absence of a vision from above does not excuse the absence of an innovation vision and strategy at your team level.

I'd argue that in precedence order motivation comes next, and I'd describe motivation as composed of what people WANT to do, what they are COMPENSATED to do and what they'll eventually be EVALUATED on.  Note that these can be very different.  I may want to innovate, but I am compensated based on the evaluations I achieve doing my regular job, creating a significant conflict.  Part-time innovators are very familiar with this dilemma.  They want to innovate, but their advancement and pay is based on the work they do in their "day jobs", not the work they do in innovation.  This is often very de-motivating. 

Rob's last attribute was metrics.  We all know the old saw "what gets measured gets managed" and innovation, for it to become the consistent process we want it to be, needs to be quantifiable at some level and demonstrate regular, measurable results.  I'll argue that in the early stages of innovation we need different measures and metrics than we'd use in more traditional projects, but also that eventually we need to demonstrate a measurable return on the investment.

So, if I can create a consistent, sustained vision for innovation that links to strategic goals, and appropriately motivate my teams to innovate, understanding their need for clarity around compensation and evaluation, and I apply the appropriate measures and metrics, will I be able to create an innovation culture?  You are certainly on your way, but there are two other things that are necessary.  The first is simple.  Can you sustain this effort for more than a quarter?  Culture is created over time - you can't wish it into existence in a matter of a few weeks.  So a sustained commitment is important.

The second item is the one I wish Rob had included explicitly, and that is communication.  While most employees in most firms feel inundated with messages from their management teams, I honestly believe you can't communicate enough about innovation.  Here's why:  innovation is risky and uncertain and ambiguous.  People don't like to work in those conditions.  To lessen these issues, clear, consistent communication helps tremendously.  Hearing the messages from the executive team, and the everyday management team, that innovation is important, sustains the team and reduces the ambiguity.  Seeing the work rewarded, publicly, helps sustain that communication channel.

Your firm needs a culture that encourages innovation at the least, embraces innovation at best.  Examine the aspects that Rob noted and I have detailed.  Which one of these attributes is missing from your culture?  Start with the most strategic - vision and strategy, and work your way through motivation and metrics.  Once those are defined effectively, start communicating and sustain the effort.  Your culture will shift, slowly at first, more quickly over time, to a much more eager embrace of innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM 2 comments

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Innovating designed products and experiences

There's a good, short article in today's Irish Independent which states that people want designed, not designer products.  While I doubt that many people are going to rush out and give up their BMW cars or Breitling watches, I suspect that the notion of "designed" products, services and experiences is really the next big opportunity for innovation.  And the real opportunity isn't in the designed product as much as it is in the designed service and experience.

We still live in a mass customization world, so while your product may be mass produced it can be customized, and perhaps even designed, for you or someone like you, in your particular segment or market.  What I believe can be even more readily designed, however, is your service, your experience and the solutions, extensions and offerings around the base product - what you might think of as the "total experience".  This is the real innovation sweet spot.

After all, any product that you acquire will eventually become older or lose its usefulness or charm.  A new version will emerge or a new product will arrive to knock the existing product off of its "Feeds and Speeds" pedestal.  If all you care about are the base features of the product, you'll jump as soon as the new product is fast enough, or has enough new options.  If, on the other hand, you experience a completely designed experience that wraps the product or service into a complete offering, replete with extensions, services and experiences, you may be less likely to leave an antiquated product that has linkages to a total solution for then next "feeds and speeds" winner.

Most companies miss this concept entirely.  They spend their meager innovation dollars on creating the next features and attributes winner - what I am referring to (tongue in cheek) as the feeds and speeds winner.  While that accomplishes some short term innovation leadership, it merely teaches the customer to look for the next inevitable winner of the feeds and speeds race.  What we should be innovating - what's more valuable and more differentiable - is the experience.  Can we create a total experience, linking the product or service to other services, support, third party apps and other networks, that is so compelling that even if the product suffers a bit over time, the consumer remains committed?

Many firms over-innovate and over-engineer the "product" and under-innovate the services and attributes surrounding the product, trying to create the most "efficient" processes, support and services.  This creates the worst of both worlds - customers trained to care about feeds and speeds who expect the minimum "experience" and usually get it.  Feeds and speeds are easy to copy, experiences aren't, yet other than Nordstrom's, Virgin and a few other firms, most organizations simply don't think about innovating experiences, much less designing them from the customer's perspective.

Want a simple, powerful and sustainable innovation?  Design the customer's experience to delight and sustain the customer, rather than spending all your innovation effort on the speeds and feeds.  As Microsoft Word demonstrates, we typically can't consume all the features in the product, and they often get in the way of what we are trying to do.  Microsoft would be much better off improving the help function, the user interface and extending the solution to new social media uses rather than adding new features.  Plus, designing and building a sustainable customer experience is differentiable.  While Target, Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penney may compete with each other, they are all very similar in experience, while Nordstrom's stands alone.

Increasingly customers want designed products, but take it one step further. Use innovation to create designed experiences.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:30 AM 6 comments

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Book Review: The Other Side of Innovation

As a consultant who believes the emphasis on idea generation is wildly overblown, and that there is far too little focus on idea execution, I was glad to hear that VJ Govindarajan and Chris Trimble were developing a book focused on "solving the execution challenge".  Frankly, all the flash and sizzle of trend spotting, understanding customer needs and idea generation is interesting, but it's in the idea management, evaluation, selection, prototyping and commercialization where all the heavy lifting gets done, and the real value added.

I've really struggled to wrap my head around The Other Side of Innovation.  What can you say about a book that is correct in all its recommendations yet doesn't seem to add anything new to the discussion.  Everything that the authors talk about is absolutely correct, and perhaps needs to be rehashed again and again.

In the introduction the authors use a mountain climbing metaphor to think about the focus on the exciting "summitting" but point out that achieving the summit is only half the job.  What's left is the less interesting but equally important dismount.  Similarly, innovation requires both the generation of ideas and the evaluation and implementation of ideas, with implementation usually receiving the short shrift.  This assertion is absolutely correct, but is it new?  Implementation, whether it is focused on new ideas or an update to an existing product or service, is always the "hard part".  The authors pursue a consistent definition of innovation, looking at several different models:
  • innovation = ideas + execution
  • innovation = ideas + motivation
  • innovation = ideas + process
But they don't seem to have a definitive answer.  Again, interesting, but does this add to the conversation?

Next, the authors note that there are two kinds of "teams" in most firms.  The Performance Engine, which is the portion of the business focused on the day to day execution of the business - creating products, shipping products, etc.  This is the portion focused on earning profits, doing things consistently and efficiently.  In many organizations, an innovation team will be formed.  The authors call this the Dedicated Team, and they note that many of the things the Dedicated Team does is in direct conflict with the Performance Engine.  The Innovation Team talks about "breaking all the rules" which "sounds like breaking the Performance Engine".  There is direct conflict between the goals and expectations of the two teams.  Again, this is 100% correct but not a new observation.  Anyone who has created a new project and attempted significant change within an organization with a strong executional culture knows about this conflict.

Having convinced the reader, and themselves, that innovation is different from standard operations, the authors then divide the rest of the book into two sections:  building a team and running an disciplined experiment.

In the section on building a team, the authors examine the needs and requirements of the Dedicated Team (the people who are full time on an innovation effort) and the relationship between those people and Shared Staff (and yes, the authors capitalize all of these teams, as if they are new or different).  The authors talk about the dilemma an organization faces - to continue efficient operations while managing the possibilities and distractions of an innovation project.  Their conclusions:
  • Because ongoing operations are repeatable, while innovation is nonroutine, innovation leaders must think very differently about organizing
  • Because ongoing operations are predictable, while innovation is uncertain, innovation leaders must think very differently about planning
The authors provide descriptions as well about how to decide what work belongs in a Dedicated Team and what work can be accomplished in Shared Services.  They also identify a number of "traps" when building an innovation team:
  • Having a bias for insiders.  Recommendation:  hire more outside people
  • Adopting existing definitions for roles.  Recommendation:  new titles and new innovation space
  • Reinforcing the dominance of the Performance Engine.  
  • Assessing performance based on established metrics.  Recommendation:  new metrics
  • Failing to create a distinct culture.  Recommendation:  Choose the best aspects of the culture.
  • Using existing processes.  Recomendation:  Invent new processes
  • Succumbing to conformity.
Finally, in the first section, the authors talk about managing the relationship (partnership) between the innovation effort and the Perfomance Engine.  They say:
"..the Performance Engine has more power than you do.  It is larger.  Not only that, it has the stronger case for spending resources.  Its arguments are more quantifiable, with shorter-term and more predictable returns on investment.  You, on the other hand, can do no better than promise the possibility of a big, long-term payoff."

That, again, is 100% accurate and fairly obvious, as are the proscriptions the authors make to solve that dilemma.

Section Two of the book argues that one of the challenges of innovation is that creating a new product or service should be thought of, and managed like, a scientific experiment.  The authors go so far as to break this into three sections:  formalize the experiment, break down the hypothesis and seek the truth.  This, again is correct but perhaps overly emphasized, as we've found that planned "experiments" using rapid prototyping that engage prospects and are conducted in an iterative fashion are exceptionally valuable.

Strangely, I found the most valuable contribution of the book to reside in the conclusion, where the authors address the attributes of a good innovation leader, what they call a "supervising executive".  They state that the individual must possess four attributes:  must be able to get the initiative off to a good start, must monitor interactions with the Performance Engine, stay closely engaged in the learning process and finally, shape the initiative's endgame.  To accomplish these goals and to innovate successfully, the authors argue that the "supervising executive" must be:  1) powerful 2) broadly experienced and 3) in a position to serve the long-term interests of the company as a whole.  Note that they don't think you should assign the role to just anyone - but someone who has respect and power across the organization, who has a "breadth" of experience.  They prefer people who have experience preferably in several business units if not in several markets or industries.

The last part of the conclusion reviews what seems almost de riguer for most innovation books - a debunking of a list of innovation myths.  Scott Berkun did this better in his Myths of Innovation.

Strangely, while the book addresses many topics that are necessary, it skims over items we've found to be exceptionally important in idea execution.  Several that come to mind that aren't discussed in any detail include:
  • Defining and publishing an innovation process that describes how ideas will be evaluated
  • Defining and publishing a set of evaluation criteria so people understand how ideas will be evaluated and the critical criteria
  • The importance of rapid prototyping and active customer engagement in this effort
  • How to select the best people for idea execution
  • What skills an idea execution team needs and how to train them effectively
  • How to transition an idea from a Dedicated Team to a product or service development team
These are all critical factors in the execution phase of an idea, yet are brushed over or not mentioned in the book.

As I said earlier, this book was a real struggle for me.  For what the authors decide to focus on, the book is 100% accurate but doesn't seem to break any new ground.  Yet there are many factors within the idea execution phase that the authors either ignored or chose not to focus on, which seems strange, and they overly emphasize the importance and commitment to experiments.

I'm sure this book will take its place on the shelf with many other books about innovation.  It is true that there are far fewer books about execution, so that in itself may propel this book to increased popularity, but I'd have to argue that books like Robert Tucker's Driving Growth through Innovation or Davila and Shelton's Making Innovation Work are just as good. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM 4 comments

Monday, November 08, 2010

Government's Role in Innovation

I saw an article recently, highlighted by Richard Florida, that suggested that the incoming Republican-led House of Representatives will reduce spending on scientific research.  The natural conclusion from that assertion was that therefore, there would be less funding for "innovation".  It's interesting to consider how funding for basic R&D within government labs impacts innovation, and what role we want the Federal government to play in innovation.  Further, it's interesting to note that articles are being written which make assumptions about how funding will be allocated in the future, when we don't yet know the priorities of the incoming legislators.

First, let's put a few facts on the table.  The Federal government has invested a tremendous amount of money in basic research - much of that in several key areas:  health, space and defense.  In the 50s and 60s, at the height of the race for space, and in the 80s during the height of the cold war, the government was responsible for driving a significant amount of new research, which led to new products and services.  As a person who worked in the semiconductor industry, however, I can tell you that much changed in the late 80s and early 90s.  Once upon a time the government would do the research and ask private industry to fulfill the vision with new products.  Today, in many cases, private industry has far more capability than many in the research labs can conceive.  The government in many cases is just waking up to "packaged" software rather than commercially "off the shelf" software, or COTS, as an example.  In many areas the lead on innovation has shifted from the government to the private sector.

This shift coincided with a shift in budgetary priorities at the national level, beginning with a "peace dividend" in the Clinton administration.  We "downsized" our military and our military investment, and with growing demands from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the investment in primary research as a percentage of the budget has fallen.  NASA has fallen on hard times and struggles to define its mission, leaving the US as a hitchhiker at best if we return to space.  What's more important now is that the government, once a funder of research and innovation, becomes the organization that defines the needs and establishes the environment for innovation, so that the private sector can respond.

The risk is that the opposite happens - that we follow Japan in a planned economy, with a federal bureaucracy picking industrial policy and technological winners and losers.  In the 80s Japan's famous MITI agency selected technologies and standards and directed innovation and research in key areas.  This allowed countries like South Korea to steal a march on Japan.  In this country, we run the same risk, with examples like the FCC picking and choosing frequencies and technologies.  The government - at all levels - has a role to play in innovation, but it's not the role they believe it is.

The role the government should play is to identify the big problems that must be solved, or the big opportunities that must be addressed, and create a playing field where anyone can respond.  Today, to work with a federal agency requires the services of contracting agencies which understand the forms, bureaucracy and minutiae that the machinery demands.  This is off-putting at best for innovators and blocks many individuals and firms from working on federal issues.  Further, the federal government could encourage innovation by changing the treatment on the valuation of intellectual property and intangible capital.  Today we have the ability to write off or depreciate physical assets, but lack the same clarity and rules about the value and timeliness of intellectual property.

While the government, whether that is the federal or state government, will continue to be a source of research dollars in many different fields, but the funds available will by definition dwindle as our governments tighten their belts and confront ever growing demands for services.  The governments will have to make a shift from being a prime funder of innovation to communicating the important problems to solve, and creating the environment for innovators and entrepreneurs to succeed.  This may mean freeing up the entrepreneur and changing the incentives and tax policies on smaller and larger firms, and creating different accounting methods to incentivize innovation.  But for us to sit around and hope that more money will be available to drive more primary research from the federal labs is risky at best, regardless of the administration.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:48 AM 2 comments

Friday, November 05, 2010

The real product of innovation

I think we've been thinking about innovation all wrong, at least conceptually speaking.  I don't mean that terms like "incremental" or "disruptive" are wrong, or that techniques like crowdsourcing or "open innovation" aren't often effective.  What I think many firms are getting wrong is their expectation about outcomes, regardless of the tools and techniques.

You see, what they miss is what innovation should produce - a new mindset, and what they expect - no demand - is far more tactical.  A new product.  What could become a complete transformative effort ends up as a Quixotic effort to squeeze out one small, discrete new product.  And once that's done, often the firm reverts right back to its existing methods and frameworks, having missed the much larger and more powerful opportunity.

It's not all that hard to create a new product, and with the right set of people and the right conditions, it's not difficult to create interesting and even radical new products.  What's difficult is to transform the way people think about the company and it's reason for being - what it produces, what it's opportunities are, what it's place is in the market, and ultimately why it exists.  Yes, I've gone all existential on you, but for a reason.  Many would-be innovators are playing with tools and techniques they don't fully understand, with a commitment level that will only achieve the barest hint of what's possible.  It's as if we are tinkering with the blasting cap on top of the missile that contains a nuclear warhead.  We may get a small bang but miss the opportunity to create exceptionally radical change that was available all the time.

I see CEOs and other corporate executives who talk about radical change for their firm and employee engagement all the time.  They claim to want to set off the nuclear missile.  But most of their innovation teams are so focus on creating just one new product that all they do in the end is tamper with the blasting cap.  The possibilities are there for really interesting, radical change - not just one new product or service but a radically different, more engaged and more capable organization.  One that isn't tinkering with innovation to merely create an occasional new product, but one that is fully engaged and innovative, and spins off new ideas and new products as a matter of course.  Yes, it's the difference between the zen pupil and the zen master, but at least the zen student conceives of a different "state".  Most innovators think they've achieved enlightenment when they've created one new product - missing the fact that shifting the culture and expectations of the firm is the ultimate win.

What most firms really want - faster product development, insightful and valuable new products and services, closer ties to customers and engaged employees - are outcomes that can be achieved by moving much further as an innovative organization.  You can't achieve this in discrete innovation projects - occasional brainstorming doesn't get you there.  You can achieve it if the expectation for innovation is less about the product and more about the culture, the beliefs and the value propositions of the firm. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:51 AM 5 comments

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Finding Lead Users for Innovation

Just when it seems Google has gone and jumped the innovation shark, the smart guys at Google demonstrate that they are still in the innovation game.  I've just learned about Google Slam, and I'm here to tell you it's probably one of the smartest innovation moves I've seen online in several years, if Google is doing with it what I think they are doing.

The title of the post refers to "Lead Users", so let's provide a basic definition for that before we unpack Google Slam.  Lead Users are people who are solving a problem or addressing a new market using products and services that are already available, but they are extending those products and/or services in ways that haven't been "approved" or considered by the firm producing the product or service.  Think Make Magazine, or the folks who hack the Wii remotes to do interesting new things.  Lead Users are people who are creating the "innovations" of the near future.  Spotting lead users and understanding how they are using or manipulating your product or service can give your firm great insight into new needs, new trends and new opportunities.  The concept of a Lead User was developed by Eric Von Hippl, and you can learn more about Lead Users here or in his book Democratizing Innovation.

So, if Lead Users are demonstrating solutions that may solve mainstream problems or address new markets or opportunities, the key question in most firms is:  how do I find them?  How do I find the "lead users" in my market or industry?  Probably the best place to find them is at trade shows and conventions, especially those conventions where the consumers get to demonstrate their application or use of your product.  A good example:  Brickfest, a convention for adult fans of Legos.  Here, adults who are hobbyists can demonstrate the things they've made with Legos.  And the product managers at Lego can observe their consumers and what they are doing/making with Legos that wasn't anticipated.  Here the product managers can see how Legos might be used, and what new solutions the avid consumers are creating, and create new packaging or completely new products based on these creations.

OK, so what's that got to do with Google Slam?  Google Slam is a website that encourages Google users to show interesting and unexpected ways they are using Google products.  One video shows two young women, clearly not of Indian descent, using Google Translation to order Indian food in Hindi over the phone.  Another shows a band singing songs based on Google instant search.  What Google is doing is providing a means for Google enthusiasts to demonstrate new and interesting, or even unexpected ways of using Google tools.  What's more, by creating a "competition", Google encourages these avid users to record themselves and post their ideas or solutions where the Google audience can view the solutions.  Google product managers are watching these as well, and I'm sure are taking away ideas for new features for existing products, as well as ideas for new products.

Most firms have to seek diligently for their lead users, if they can find them at all.  The smart thing that Google has done is to create a "honeypot" for Google advocates who can compete to show off all the things they are doing with Google apps.  All the while Google team members are having lead users deposited at their front door.  This is either the smartest innovation ideas we've seen from Google in quite a while, or I'm asserting a solution that Google didn't intend, but is sitting right there for all the world to see.

Innovations often happen when individuals "mash up" one or more existing tools or capabilities and create new solutions, new information or new insights.  Lead users are people who do this kind of work because they want the best solution possible, even before their preferred vendor creates it.  Now, Google can allow their most avid users to indicate products, solutions and features that will be valuable, and they are doing it as part of a competition or game.  Nice move, Google.  This innovation seems much more in line with what we've come to expect from Google.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:51 AM 2 comments

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Finding the right innovation role - Personality Poker

There's an old saw that suggests that not everyone is creative, but that everyone can innovate.  I'll leave it to other experts to debate whether or not "everyone" can innovate.  I'm not sure that's true.  Too many people are locked into a world view and perspective that simply won't allow for change or disruption.  If that segment of the population were willing to remove their blinders and free up their anchors, then yes, they could innovate.  But they probably won't, and like horses to water they may see the liquid and choose to ignore it.

Today's topic is on finding the right people to innovate and, once that's accomplished, getting them into the right roles.  And yes, this is a two step process.  Simply because people are interested in innovation, which is often difficult enough to find, doesn't mean they are good at all of the roles necessary to bring an idea to fruition.  Luckily, the first part of that equation, finding people who are interested in innovation, should be relatively easy.  Simply ask for volunteers.  This is what we try to do with our clients.  I'll make the claim to the executive sponsors that I'd rather have a few people who are really committed and excited about innovation, regardless of their status or title, than a bunch of senior executives who were assigned against their will or judgment to an innovation project.  Passion beats seniority when seniority isn't committed, and typically fresh eyes and perspectives are more valuable and less locked into the "way things are done around here".

But after we've found willing and eager participants, are they the "right" people and can they do the jobs necessary?  This is really about slotting people into the right roles, understanding their interests and strengths, and matching those to the needs of the project.  This is a bit harder to do, since many people aren't aware of their true strengths and weaknesses.  However, there are a number of tools to help you optimize your team.

I had the privilege of speaking at a conference with Stephen Shapiro, who is well known in innovation circles.  What might not be well known is that he has a new book/game/card deck called Personality Poker to help assess which roles people on your team may fill effectively, and help you discover gaps in the team as well.  Shapiro's work follows a number of psychological assessments and slots people into four "types":

  • Spades - who are analytical people
  • Clubs - who are planners
  • Diamonds - who are creative types
  • Hearts - who are the "people" people
Clearly, a well balanced team has representatives of each of these capabilities.  A team full of Diamonds (creatives) might generate lots of interesting ideas but without a seasoning of Spades and Clubs (analyticals and implementors) the ideas may never move forward.  Conversely, a team overloaded with analyticals may evaluate the problem for days without ever generating ideas.

What happens in many teams is a lack of balance across these skills.  After all, most organizations are well-staffed with Spades and Clubs. Those skills represent the work most firms do well.  Creative skills are often acquired from marketing firms and ad agencies, and the people who act as the glue (hearts) aren't often included on teams like this.  So while great people are assigned to the team, the necessary balance is missing and the team struggles.

Shapiro has taken this a step further by making the assessment a game that teams can play.  Individual players can find cards that they think represent themselves, and can receive cards from others based on how other people see their strengths or proclivities.  In this way the team can quickly sort out the capabilities and interests of the people who have indicated an interest in innovation and begin to balance the team accordingly.

Rather than a stuffy psychological assessment, the team participates in a team building exercise that's fun and has value to the individual and to the team.  The team leader can quickly identify the right people for important roles and address specific areas where there may be a lack of participation or simply few people in the organization with the particular skill.

Personality Poker is available now and I'd encourage any innovation team about to kick off a project to use this valuable tool as a team building exercise, and as a way to ensure the teams are balanced in terms of the four capabilities. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:06 AM 4 comments