Book Review: Beyond the Obvious
That's why I was pleased to see Phil McKinney's new book, Beyond the Obvious, and have a chance to read it. McKinney, until recently, was the CTO for Hewlett-Packard and led a significant amount of innovation at H-P, and in roles prior to H-P. McKinney is unusual for a senior corporate executive, in that he has traditionally been very open with his thoughts, publishing a blog and a series of podcasts about innovation. So I looked forward to his book.
Beyond the Obvious, Killer questions that spark game-changing innovation, takes a new and unique approach to the challenges presented by innovation. Rather than present a specific methodology or toolset, McKinney starts at an almost philosophical position by asking questions. You have to like any management book that starts with a quote by Voltaire, rather than Drucker or Porter. Phil states early on that "the first step to freeing yourself to find innovations is to recognize that the knowledge you currently have is insufficient, and that you need to go out and discover new information that will lead you to new products or concepts". This is exceptionally important. Many organizations want to start from a position of certainty. They make statements rather than ask questions. Good innovators are naturally curious and willing to learn more. The best way to do this is to explore and ask questions. Yet asking questions is not in our corporate nature, unless we already know the answer.
Phil talks about challenging assumptions, getting beyond "business as usual". In Relentless Innovation I defined how powerful business as usual is, and what a barrier it can be to innovation activities. Phil describes business as usual as mental "handcuffs" that keep people locked into the way they've always worked. Questions break this cycle.
Phil also talks about "jolts" and weak signals - basically a way of talking about disruptions and spotting them by watching for trends. Jolts are disruptions but also opportunities for innovation.
In the final sections before diving more deeply into the killer questions he addresses the issue of corporate antibodies - those people and beliefs that stifle innovation. He addresses four kinds of corporate antibodies for innovation:
- Fatigue (tried that before)
- No risk ("no ROI", "no funds available")
- Comfort ("don't rock the boat", "we've always done it this way")
In the next section of the book Phil defines his FIRE methodology: Focus, Ideation, Ranking and Execution. Basically a high level innovation methodology.
Focus is about making the right decisions - key questions: who (customer), what (product) and how (function). Phil argues too much emphasis is placed on customer and product, and not enough on function.
Ideation is about generating ideas based on key questions.
Ranking is, as its name suggests, ranking or prioritizing ideas, especially weeding out influence and bias
Execution described a gated funding system to advance good ideas while keeping costs and risks low.
Once the FIRE methodology is introduced, Phil shows how each step of the process is managed and governed by asking good questions. Who is your customer? What criteria do they use to select your product? Who is using it in unanticipated ways? What is your offering? and so forth. A lot of good questions to use to drive the ideation and ranking of your ideas.
Toward the end of the book Phil provides insights into how he runs innovation workshops and then provides a couple of very nice case studies where his Killer Questions approach has been used.
Phil hits the nail on the head when he advocates approaching innovation from a discovery and questioning point of view. Far too often many firms attempt to start from certainty and move to certainty, rather than starting from questions and exploration. Phil's Killer Question approach is very helpful, using key questions and changing perspectives and assumptions. This is a methodology that can be used by individuals or by a large group.
Phil incorporates a lot of innovation best practice, including trend spotting and scenario planning, and even incorporates questions that begin to uncover customer needs that may be unclear or hidden. His advice on execution, using a gated funding model to keep costs and risks low, is in line with best practices.
There's much to take away from Killer Questions, especially the questions, but I think Phil's informal style is suitable only for people who are exceptionally skilled or confident in an innovation leadership role. I can easily see an innovation consultant leading a client through this process, or a very senior executive who buys into the questioning approach. There's not enough detail or definition to build an innovation capability or discipline based on what Phil has written. It would be difficult for a firm to adopt this model without strong facilitation, since there's little definition of the process.
Phil's Killer Questions and his questioning approach will definitely be adopted by many firms. I'll be incorporating some of his questions and his approach in our OVO innovation methodology. However, without a strong, confident innovation leader who can encourage people to question their assumptions and work within this approach, it may be difficult for some firms to replicate Phil's success.