Thursday, July 26, 2007

Behind every successful corporate innovator...

If you've followed our writing closely, you've probably noticed a significant focus on the "people" and "culture" aspects of innovation. That's intentional, since we believe that the people within your organization and the culture they exist within are the most significant enablers or inhibitors to innovation. In fact, one topic I'd like to consider today is why good people with great ideas often fail within an organization.

Innovators - those people who are able to generate the next best idea - are often people who are unafraid to "color outside the lines" and challenge existing corporate culture, norms and beliefs. Generally speaking, they are a bit more rebellious and open to new ways of thinking than their compatriots. These capabilities are what make the individuals innovative. However, these very strengths can cause a lot of these folks to fail.

With apologies to Goldwater - what many innovators fail to recognize is that zealotry in the defense of a great idea is a vice in many firms. Being convinced that you have a great idea is noble, but it does not change the fact that as an innovator, you must still work within the existing frameworks, approval processes and timeframes within the firm. Too often, innovators try to violate these norms and find themselves stymied. While it's easy to buck the existing norms when talking about a hypothetical product or service, attracting resources and changing budgets and priorities for a new idea is a lot more difficult.

In firms with a very strong culture, we like to marry an "idea" person or innovator with a culturally savvy individual, who can help build bridges and who knows where the informal power structures are located. Combining a person or team with real zeal for an idea with a person who can act as a bridge builder and interface to the existing power structure can result in a lot more success for the idea. In a rational world, great ideas would be judged on their merits alone, and in some organizations I think it happens that way. In the vast majority of businesses, however, conflicting priorities, existing projects and limited budgets mean that an idea, no matter how good it is, needs to get support from a broader audience before it can even be considered, much less moved forward into development. Too many innovators simply don't have the skills necessary to identify potential sponsors and build support.

Behind every successful corporate innovator lies a person or team who helped smooth the way. If you are an innovator and find yourself impatient with the decision making process or the work involved in building support and rapport internally, identify a sponsor or senior manager who knows the organization and understands how to get things done within the corporate context. On the other hand, if you are a person who understands how things get done and wants to get more involved in an innovation role, acting as a champion for ideas and building consensus is a very important aspect in most organizations.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:34 AM 3 comments

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Competent Innovation

I've been working on a guidebook for individuals and teams who are just starting out their innovation initiatives and interviewing clients, colleagues and friends about what they think makes an innovation initiative successful. One of the most consistent answers has been the question of whether or not the ideas dreamed up align to core competencies.

Now, this has left me in one of those "on one hand, on the other hand" situations. Strategically speaking, core competencies are the things you think you do well, and quite possibly better than other people. Therefore, it makes sense for your ideas to align to and reinforce your core competencies. However, this approach also means ignoring opportunities outside your comfort zone and doubling down on the things you do well.

Wait for it - here it comes - on the other hand, innovation should be about creating new products and services the market needs and wants. So, using your core competencies as your scope or boundaries may cut you off from significant opportunities or new markets. The question in my mind should be - do we have the competency or can we partner for it or acquire it quickly?

Another way to look at this is to consider the iPhone. Now, Apple does not have core competency in phones - but it does have a lot of core competency in handheld consumer gadgets (iPod) and in computing - especially in the user interface (thanks Xerox Parc). So, Apple could have chosen to ignore the booming cellular phone market, since cell phones weren't in their core competencies, or could choose to redefine their competencies as all handheld computing devices including phones. Then, they needed to partner with someone for the phone electronics, while they developed a handheld platform marrying the phone, the music player and a number of other capabilities. Again, it's the same formula as the iPod - a little later to market with a nicer design and user interface, and a more complete solution. However, in this case Apple is tied to ATT for a while. It will be interesting to see if ATT can live up to the expectations true Apple lovers have.

Anyway, the point is - yes, you do need to consider your core competencies when you generate and consider ideas, but don't define them too narrowly or you'll likely miss a great opportunity - one that exists at the intersection of your capabilities and anothers.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:13 AM 3 comments

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How long has this been going on?

Many of you may be familiar with the DLP - the "digital light processor" that is the core of many of the latest projectors and big screen televisions. Texas Instruments is attempting to place its brand on projectors, televisions and other equipment in the same manner that Intel places its Intel Inside branding on PCs.

The DLP is a technological wonder - a silicon chip with millions of tiny mirrors, controlled by a microchip. This configuration creates a very large, bright, clear picture. DLP enabled devices have been on the market for a few years now and seem to be selling well.

Why do I tell you about the DLP? To give some indication about the time it takes for a new innovation to reach the market. While equipment with the DLP inside have been on the market for about six or seven years, the Digital Light Processor has been under research or development for over 20 years. I worked at TI briefly in the mid-90s when it was believed that the DLP was going to be the next big thing.

Senior Managers often roll their eyes in disbelief when we talk about a two or three year window from the time we set up an innovation process to the time when they'll realize significant benefits. Yet careful examination of any new process or product and its origins will indicate that our predictions may be optimistic. Why does it take "so long"?

First, if an organization does not have a process, the process must be agreed upon, defined and implemented. Since any process will step on someone's toes, everyone must be brought in and convinced or coerced into agreement. Then, once the process is in place, ideas must flow through the process and through the normal product development cycle and approval cycle. There's nothing really new or earth-shattering about these conditions and facts. Why then is it so hard for senior managers to accept?

Because they need the new products and services NOW. They don't care about development times, approvals and so forth, and frankly often don't understand the development cycle anyway. They are focused on quarterly results and reacting to new products and services that enter the market from competitors. Two or three years may as well be a lifetime in some industries. However, dragging your feet on developing and implementing an innovation process just prolongs the time it will take to generate new products and services.

The only way to combat the eye rolling is to deconstruct a product or service and demonstrate the phases and steps an idea moved through to become a new product or service. Using historical data about the existing products and services can create a baseline. Using that baseline, then the team can begin to explore ways to shorten the timeframes.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:11 AM 2 comments

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Making ideation productive

A significant problem that may firms face is generating ideas that matter. Many firms I work with will tell me they have plenty of ideas - often the problem is that none of them are very good ideas. So the challenges of innovation begin with generating ideas that solve specific problems or identify new opportunities. There are several ways to do this:

First, move from reactive innovation to proactive innovation. Many firms have open brainstorming or an open suggestion box. The outcomes of both of these approaches is great in the short term and fairly devastating in the long term. Open suggestion boxes will receive hundreds of ideas about a wide range of concepts that for the most part have little to do with the opportunities and challenges the firm faces. Rather than wait on ideas that individuals want to submit, the firm should become "proactive" and reach out to the employees for ideas on specific topics. Moving from a reactive stance where you receive any idea from any person, to a proactive stance, where the innovation team targets a specific problem or opportunity, means you may receive fewer ideas, but the ideas you'll get will be more specific and actionable.

Second, you should frame your opportunities or challenges. State specifically what Problem, Opportunity, Threat or Trend you want to address. This Problem, Opportunity, Trend or Threat framework is one we've developed and believe works well, but you may develop another framework. Again, this approach may reduce some of the volume of ideas, but will result in ideas that can be implemented and fit within the context of the needs.

Third, prepare your team. Many times brainstorming or ideation is seen as a short vacation from work - there's little preparation and most people know little will be done with the ideas once they are generated. Instead, send your participants pre-reading materials and homework. Help them arrive informed and aware of the key issues and challenges. Demonstrate how the best ideas will be assigned for further evaluation to demonstrate the ideas won't simply die in a file folder.

To use a food analogy, you wouldn't expect to be able to create a gourmet meal by selecting items at random from your grocery store aisle. Instead, you'd select a recipe, obtain the specific necessary ingredients and prepare the food as instructed. Every step in place and has it's purpose. Brainstorming and ideation follow the same logic.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:34 AM 5 comments

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Myths of Innovation Book Review

As you can probably tell if you've been following the Innovate on Purpose blog lately, I've been doing quite a lot of reading and commenting on books about innovation. As innovation takes hold of corporate America as more than just a fad, there becomes an interest in exploring how innovation works, why it works and how organizations can make it work in their operations.

So far, in the last few weeks I've looked at books that were about innovation and marketing strategy (Hidden in Plain Sight), books about the payback or returns on Innovation (Payback) and several other books. All of these books provide a view into the wide world of innovation. The book I've just finished takes an interesting tack - that of a commentary on innovation itself.

The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun is not a book about famous innovation fables - although there is some debunking going on in the book. No, Myths of Innovation looks at several commonly held beliefs and attempts to provide a social, historical and economic analysis of the "myth" and then consider what's true, and what's not true, about that commonly held belief. Berkun looks at innovation myths such as:

  • Epiphanies - do ideas spring up from the "whole cloth"?
  • Innovation methods
  • Whether or not people love new ideas
  • The myth of the "lone inventor"
  • Whether or not the "best" ideas win
There are plenty of commonly held beliefs or myths around innovation, which Berkun does a great job investigating. What's great about his book is that it is not advocating for or against innovation, but putting innovation in a context. He simultaneously demonstrates that innovation is simpler and less complex than we believe, and often more complex and difficult than we believe. His book is less a "how to innovate" book and more of a social commentary on innovation from an interested observer's point of view. He mixes a lot of history and commentary in the discussion of each myth.

After all, anyone who can include the famous Lloyd Dobler quote : "
I don't want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed.
has got to have the confidence of his material while retaining a tongue planted firmly in cheek.

This was probably one of the most interesting books I've read about innovation in quite a while. There's no story, no plot and very little "how to" in the book - more a historical and social commentary on innovation over time. Myths of Innovation reminds me of some of the "popular" history books by authors like Stephen Ambrose, who point out all of the economic, technological and societal factors that shape important technologies or events. However, Berkun writes with a style more in line with Berkeley Breathed than Herodotus.

This is a great book if you are interested in innovation and want to learn more about the commonly held beliefs and how to overcome them. It is also an interesting commentary on innovation from a societal and historical point of view, and keeps a very sardonic undertone - almost as if innovation were a politician who needed to be taken down a few pegs. A few reviewers have argued there's nothing "new" in the book - but that's just the point. Apple didn't invent the MP3 player - they recognized a number of technologies that needed some packaging to create a great consumer application. Likewise Berkun didn't create innovation methodologies and doesn't advocate for them - he just points out some of the "emperor's clothes" issues about innovation given real world examples that we are already familiar with - it's not the individual concepts that are important, but the commentary and perspective.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:19 PM 2 comments