Thursday, September 04, 2014

Good innovators get the big picture and the minutiae

Pity the poor innovator, especially those in large corporations.  They are constantly whip-sawed between competing narratives and perspectives.  In one moment, executives are complaining that no one stops to look at the big picture, to bring them new ideas that are "game changers".  In another, subsequent moment, the same innovators are slammed by people who want them to "get their heads out of the clouds" and create something immediately useful.  Good innovators are constantly buffeted by these two competing storylines.

What's interesting is not that they are buffeted, but that they should EXPECT and further WELCOME the demands to look simultaneously at the big picture and the minutiae.  That's because good innovators should be able to hold several different kinds of ideas or perspectives simultaneously, (called by Roger Martin "associative" thinking) and, what's more, should gather new insights or create new solution because they are adept at associative thinking.  Rather than "switching" from one perspective or viewpoint to another, good innovators should recognize that it's in holding these different perspectives simultaneously that will create great new ideas.

The Big Picture

We fail so often to consider or contemplate the "big picture".  Often times innovators fail to think "big picture" for very long because they aren't sure the big picture is really their domain.  They default to the expectation that senior executives are contemplating the big picture - strategy and the like - and that they should focus on more operational and tactical innovation.  Little could be further from the truth.  While executives may contemplate the big picture and develop strategy, it's innovators who become the bridge between that vision and realizing the vision with new products and services.  If the vision exists, take it on and start building.  If it doesn't, don't shy away from deeper contemplation.  The "big picture" is where interesting ideas lie, where industries and solutions intersect, where unmet needs emerge.  We lose these insights when the aperture shrinks and tunnel vision sets in. Innovators need the courage, the foresight and the ability to contemplate the big picture, rather than quickly whistling past the graveyard to move to more comfortable vistas.

The Minutiae

Far too frequently innovators end up in the weeds.  They don't feel they have the approval or the charter to examine big picture issues, even though executives demand it, and they feel the urgency of their workmates and the time pressures inherent in publicly traded companies.  What have you done for me lately, and why can't you innovators solve this immediate problem?  It's too easy, and too comfortable to fall back into working on small bore ideas and to ignore the big picture.  No wonder that many ideas seem to disappoint, or to reflect ideas or solutions that already exist.  We all move very quickly into our comfort zone.

The problems with crossing over

On the few occasions when innovators do manage to get to spend time on the "big picture", they often become subject to complexity creep.  By that I mean that they can identify interesting problems to solve, but they fail to scope those problems carefully, or those problems have great internal complexity.  Just because we identify one big problem to solve or opportunity to address doesn't mean that it should be solved through one solution.  The Texas Rangers (the lawmen, not the baseball team) used to have a saying:  "One riot, one ranger".  But that doesn't apply to big picture opportunities.  We can easily define and scope one big opportunity that by all rights should be divided into multiple innovative projects or solutions - moving from the big picture to the "medium picture" to solve several components simultaneously rather than trying to solve it all at once with one magical solution.  It is in the movement from scoping to solving that most innovators fail in this regard.  For those who can keep their eye on the "big picture" they need to know when to break a potential need or solution into components that can be resolved in smaller batches, simultaneously rather than in one fell swoop.

Another factor that must be considered is the use and nature of the innovation tools.  For the most part, whether you are focusing on a very large and disruptive opportunity or a very incremental solution, the tools remain the same.  What changes is the depth of the investigation and the amount of risk or change that may occur.  So, in some regards it's good to be well practiced at incremental innovation, because you'll have great familiarity with the tools.  The barrier for most of these teams isn't tool knowledge, but perspective and confidence.  They know "how" to innovate but aren't comfortable with the "why" and the "what".

The truly engaged innovator

The best innovators are those that are well practiced at incremental innovation, who understand the process and know the tools, but who are equally comfortable translating strategy and "big picture" needs into actions for new disruptive ideas.  It's the marriage of people familiar and comfortable with the methods, tools and processes of innovation who are also comfortable with defining or translating the strategic visions and identifying disruptive new solutions who will be the best innovators.  The challenge most organizations have is the yawning gap between these skill sets.  Most executives are relatively good at defining strategy and managing day to day execution, but aren't experienced innovators.  Most innovators are relatively good at incremental innovation but don't feel as though they are allowed to translate strategy or are uncomfortable with larger, big picture opportunities and risks.  Until we develop innovators who are a blend of both capabilities, innovation will continue to revert primarily to incremental solutions.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:03 PM


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