Thursday, May 24, 2007

Outrageous constraints drive innovation

Suppose I offered you a million dollars as a reward, on the requirement that you produce a baby from a standing start in one month. As we all know from the old saying, nine men can't make a baby in a month - so we have assumptions about the time necessary to produce a baby.

Does that type of thinking infiltrate the way we work in other aspects of our lives? Sure, there are some gestational issues with producing a baby in less than nine months, but do all the time frames and other constraints we constantly live with have to be accepted as givens? One exercise we like a lot when innovating is to relieve a constraint or place an outrageous constraint on an idea and open up a new line of thinking.

For example, do you think it's possible to build a two story, 3 bedroom house in less than a week? Generally speaking, most firms will tell you six to nine months. However, a television show put the challenge to several firms to see if they could organize themselves to build a habitable, up to code house, in less than one week. With careful planning, staging of the necessary equipment and materials and working round the clock, they did it. But this is something few people would have requested, given the fact that we all "know" it should take 6 to 9 months. Alternatively, suppose we placed cap on the maximum cost of a passenger automobile at $5000 and left in place all the safety requirements and other constraints. Could that car be built, and if so, what would it take? Can you imagine creating a car that costs only $5000 and selling it in the US or in Europe? You'd practically have a disposable car - every three or four years simply donate it or recycle it and buy a new one.

When you consider your ideas and the challenges and opportunities that face your organization, you can't help but bring along the cultural expectations and "limitations" that you live with daily. A great way to break out of these and consider entirely new markets and opportunities is to relax or constrain certain variables about the idea, then ideate to see what's possible given that new set of criteria or constraints. A $5000 car that meets all US Federal guidelines would open up an entirely new market - and new use and expectations for automobiles. Being able to build a house in five days, if packaged correctly, could create an entirely new market for rebuilding after storm damage, earthquakes and other calamities. This would help people get back in their homes quickly instead of living in trailers or other temporary housing.

Often when we ideate, the unbounded and unstructured nature of brainstorming will lead us to ideas that while interesting, are not feasible. When using a constraints-driven approach, you can open up new opportunities and new markets by constraining or relaxing just one or two variables. The next time you are considering a new product or service, ask yourself - what are one or two assumed constraints that if dramatically changed would create an entirely new opportunity?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:51 PM 26 comments

Traveling without a map

I've just received an email from a noted expert in the field of new product development, which offers me the chance to attend a seminar on speeding up the idea to product process. The email tells me I'll learn new ways to make Go/Kill decisions faster and eliminate time wasting activities in the idea to product process. While I agree these are important things to know, I suspect that most people already know and implement these things. What takes a significant amount of time, psychic energy and attention in the idea to product process is trying to figure out what is strategic and important in a wide range of business opportunities and focusing on just those things.

In most organizations I've worked with, just about anyone can tell you how to take an idea from early concept to productization very quickly. The challenge isn't understanding the steps, but in defining a repeatable process. Even with a repeatable process in place, the next challenge - and in my mind the biggest - is getting a sense of which problems or opportunities are the most important to solve, and identifying the best ideas to solve those problems.

Why is this the "hard" part? Well, it is sort of like traveling without a map. If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. Management teams have not been specific enough about their expectations for differentiation, growth and change in their organizations. Look at the most "innovative" firms. They have either charismatic leadership (Apple) or exceptionally clear guidelines for growth and differentiation (3M, P&G). The words and directions from these management teams filter down and create an understanding within the product teams and business units that focus the team on the right topics and help to drive out good ideas. Without good communications, clear goals and alignment to strategy, an innovation team or process will struggle - not because they don't understand the process, but because the range of options and considerations is simply too large. Innovation teams and initiatives need clearly defined scope and outrageous expectations to help them focus on the right ideas to bring to market as new products and services.

The challenge most of these teams face isn't structural or process per se, but the fact they deal in a significant amount of uncertainty due to poor goal setting and communication from their senior management teams as to what is important and how to prioritize the opportunities and challenges they face. Sure, go ahead and apply "lean" thinking to your process and eliminate time wasting activities. But until you have clear, concise goals and scope, your team won't speed up the idea to product process. When you are traveling without a map or destination in mind, every crossroad is appealing and no path is clear.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:40 AM 37 comments

Monday, May 21, 2007

Charter Member

For a while now I've been working with some clients and prospects who've had a hard time getting their innovation initiatives off the ground. It seems that everyone's on board with innovation, and the senior management team is engaged and supportive of innovation, yet several teams have really struggled to demonstrate any accomplishments.

It turns out that what was common across these near failures was that no one had ever really defined what the innovation team was supposed to do, or what innovation means to the organization. This is one of those sad but funny items that make you scratch your head.

On one hand, everyone agrees that innovation is important. On the other hand, everyone has a slightly different definition of what innovation is. Therefore, the team gets many important requests that pull it from one idea to another with little overlap or respect for other ideas or previous work. So one manager's important incremental product idea is worked, then another manager's disruptive service idea. At some point the management team shows up and says - what have you done for me lately, and the innovation team has a real grab-bag of efforts that are disjointed and not complete.

What these folks need is a charter. A charter for the team details what the team's goals and responsibilities and roles are - what it will and won't do. If the organization can't get behind a definition of innovation, then the team can do the next best thing and define its scope and boundaries. This lets the team say "yes" to some projects and "no" to others, and create a more rationalized work effort and portfolio.

This seems evident, right? Yet you'd be amazed at how many teams just start out working on the first project that comes along, and then get sucked into the second, and third, and fourth projects, none of which have any relation or bearing to the others. Once you're in the whirlwind, it's tough to stop and realign.

If you don't have one now, create a charter which details what your innovation team plans to do - it's focus, priorities, resources and responsibilities. It's as important to say what you won't do as it is to define what you will do.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:15 PM 27 comments

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The politics of innovation

You may be wondering what "politics" and innovation have in common. I was thinking that innovation in many firms is a proof of the "tragedy of the commons" concept in economics - but no one wants to read a blog post about economics, and much of the challenge of innovation is about beauracracy and culture, not economics.

Wikipedia quotes Aristotle as saying that "That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it". Likewise, innovation, while "important" to many different groups and functions within an organization, seems to suffer from a lack of attention and focus.

Lately, I've spent a fair amount of time working with firms to help create innovation programs and central innovation teams. This work inevitably meets with concern from other existing teams and initiatives. These groups believe that either

  1. "Everyone" should participate in innovation or
  2. Innovation is already a responsibility of one or several teams or
  3. Innovation can't be managed at all
What happens is that while everyone claims to think innovation is important, and part of their charter and responsibility, it rarely gets done. That's because the urgent (meeting quota, achieving the quarterly numbers, etc) always takes precedence over the investment that innovation demands. Thus, the innovation tragedy of the commons - everyone claims to think innovation is important and that they are busily working on it, when in fact no one does.

This problem alone is enough to establish a central innovation team that is managed and measured on innovation results. I'd rather place all my eggs in one basket, and watch that basket very closely, than hope that a broad cross-section of the organization is going to spend time on something they don't believe is urgent.

This is not to say that innovation should be "owned" by any one group within the organization. Clearly, there are teams, initiatives and product or service groups throughout any organization that are capable of innovation and that should be innovating. But if there's not a team that's consistently measured on innovation, little innovation will get done.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:18 PM 34 comments

Monday, May 07, 2007

Innovators are dangerous

I'm too young to have had the "opportunity" to watch the young Elvis on television. Then again, even folks older than me almost didn't have the opportunity. Elvis's blend of rhythm and blues and his hip gyrations almost kept him off television. Like most innovators, Elvis was considered dangerous. Did you ever think you'd read about Elvis and innovation in the same post?

Innovators are dangerous because they are attracted to big opportunities that require risk, and they are uninterested in the status quo. Innovators seek out change and new opportunities the way a moth is attracted to a flame. And if innovators are interested in risk and in change, that puts them in a strange spot in many organizations - running counter to all of the thinking, the reward systems and the culture. Most organizations are very interested in limiting risk and working as they've always worked - resisting change as much as possible. So you can begin to understand why innovators are often considered dangerous within an organization, and why many firms think innovation is difficult or impossible to accomplish.

Sure, entrepreneurs can innovate because there's less structure, organization and culture, and everyone knows that entrepreneurs embrace risk to disrupt a market. Why can't that same thinking take hold in medium and large organizations as well? It just seems too dangerous and too risky.

Here's a great experiment for your firm. Examine the ideas you are pursuing and ask yourself - which of these ideas are really "dangerous"? Which of them expose our firm to a lot of risk? Which one of these ideas, if implemented well, would significantly change our firm or our industry? Dollars to doughnuts, I'll bet those ideas are few and far between. But it doesn't really matter. If your firm isn't considering risky or even dangerous ideas, you can bet your last dollar that someone else is. You see, it's not only important to consider what your ideas are and which ones you are willing to consider, but also to consider the ideas and risks that your competitors are willing to consider. To some of your competitors, what seems dangerous to you seems reasonable to them. Any opportunity you dismiss as too difficult, too dangerous or too risky could become the product or service that takes your firm by surprise eventually.

As my skiing friends say, if you're not falling ocassionally, you're not trying hard enough. You've got to go find the Elvis in your business and, as difficult as it may be, encourage and reward them rather than discourage and isolate them. If you don't embrace the risky and the dangerous, you can't innovate. And if you aren't innovating, you can expect to see your competition pass you by.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:05 PM 26 comments

Innovation as a discipline

One of the biggest challenges facing innovation teams and managers in many businesses is the sense that innovation is innate and should "happen" without a lot of fanfare or organization. In some sense, this thinking is correct - innovation should be a consistent, sustainable activity. The problem is there's no organized way to accomplish innovation in many firms.

So, most firms create a big kickoff and talk about how important innovation is. They run ideation sessions and brainstorms and congratulate themselves on generating some new ideas. But what happens far too often is that there's no mechanism to consider, evaluate and move those ideas into new product or service development, and even if there is momentum in this regard no one bothered to alert the product or service development teams that a whole flood of new ideas is approaching. So few new ideas get converted into new products or services.

We like to advocate innovation as a discipline, defined, regulated and constantly in action. This effort takes time to implement and to instill within the culture of an organization, but the more deeply the concept penetrates, the greater the chance for success. If innovation is to become a sustainable practice and process, how should it be implemented? Let's look at other sustainable initiatives and processes for clues.

Many firms have implemented Six Sigma programs to identify and fix quality issues and eliminate unnecessary costs. These programs are constantly in work, identifying issues and suggesting corrections. Black Belts are working with process teams to identify the challenges and recommend solutions. These are evaluated and implemented. The Six Sigma teams did not happen overnight - people were identified and trained and the company was educated on the program and encouraged to use this approach to improve. Training, identification of key employees and the ability to implement the recommendations mean that people believe in the Six Sigma process and sustain it.

Look at your sales team and sales pipeline for examples. Sales leads are constantly presented to the firm and sales members qualify and move those opportunities through a pipeline where the opportunities are evaluated and eventually closed or rejected. There's a defined methodology that the sales team uses to move prospects through the sales pipeline, and a clearly identified team and set of goals.

What's consistent about these examples is that they both represent a defined process that people understand and have been trained to use that demonstrates measurable results. When we talk about innovation as a discipline, this is exactly what we mean. Rather than hope that ideas are created and evaluated, create a process and educate people on how it should work. Rather than wait for ideas, create the environment for teams to generate ideas and manage those ideas. Innovate consistently, rather than periodically or when the well runs dry.

Innovation is the initiative most likely to drive new organic growth and differentiation, yet too often there's no definition or process associated with innovation. Innovation can become a discipline in any firm, and when that discipline takes root, great things can happen.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:15 AM 21 comments