Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Gaining a different perspective

It's said that Ginger Rogers was the best dancer in the world, since she danced with all the great male dancers and did everything they did, except she did it backwards and in high heels. This says a lot about her talent, and also a lot about her perspective. She expected to do things as well as the male lead, just with a very different approach and with a unique set of challenges.

What strikes me about corporate innovation is that everyone wants to play the male lead. They know the part, they know the steps, they know the music. It's a comfortable part already defined and it leads right back to the same place. The comfortable, well-known roles don't provide the perspectives that are necessary and don't introduce any new music or new moves, so eventually what started out as innovation becomes the standard issue waltz back to regular business as usual.

No, to innovate one must obtain a fresh perspective, a new insight. Imagine if you will taking Ginger Roger's role in those famous musicals. She had to trust her partner to lead her in directions she couldn't see, and match his moves while moving in an uncomfortable direction and gait in shoes that had to have been uncomfortable. That has a lot of parallels for innovators - moving into spaces we aren't quite sure about, being led by our customers and markets in uncomfortable directions using methods and techniques that perhaps we aren't expert in, to end up in a completely new place.

What is often interesting is how similar many innovation programs are to work that is underway in a business that is not innovation. The same project management tools are applied, the same staffing models are used, the same team facilitation, the same meeting spaces, the same data, the same perspectives. In the midst of all this sameness we are expecting something radically new and different? Who are we kidding? For innovation programs to succeed, we need to gain a new set of perspectives.

Start with your product perspective. Perhaps instead of examining your capabilities and determining what to create based on what you can build, what we like to call inside out innovation, perhaps you should consider what unmet or undiscovered needs customers have and determine how to deliver those products and services - innovating based on what customers want and need, not necessarily what you are expert in doing. If your starting point is always "what we know and are good at" then you can't create dramatic change.

What would happen if you innovation team was formed differently? Perhaps you invite customers as a regular part of your innovation team, from the outset. Or perhaps you meet differently, in a shopping mall or airport lounge rather than the office. Or perhaps you decide from the outset to cannabilize or eliminate one of your best products, to understand how to leapfrog to the next best thing. Any, or all, of these approaches would raise alarm bells with most management teams, and they should. But if your innovation team isn't pushing the envelope and radically reconsidering everything, then you are likely to end up right where you started.

OK, so perhaps you can't overturn years of corporate culture in one initiative. Could you meet outside the office ocassionally? Gain more direct customer insight by visiting customers rather than reading market research? Circle your desks and co-locate your team to encourage more brainstorming and innovation team development?

Let's start becoming Ginger and worry less about being Fred, then we'll be more open to innovation possibilities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:09 AM 3 comments

Monday, October 20, 2008

What do you do after the brainstorm?

We get calls quite frequently from companies that want us to help them facilitate a brainstorm or idea campaign. Since we've run a number of them, we have consultants who are familiar with facilitating the brainstorm and we have a methodology that helps ensure a successfully defined and conducted event. One question we typically ask, however, often ends with a lot of silence on the other end of the phone. That question is - what will you do with the ideas after the brainstorm is complete?

You see, a brainstorm should be a beginning, not an end. Too many people see the event - the brainstorming meeting or the idea campaign - as the desired result, rather than just a beginning step in a process to build new products or services. Generating good ideas is not necessarily easy, but with the right preparation and facilitation you can generate hundreds of ideas, and rank or prioritize those ideas to identify the top 10, or top 20. What becomes more interesting, and adds more value, is the next step.

Once ideas are generated, you need to have a mechanism to consider them, evaluate them, and determine whether or not to create pilots or prototypes, and what the mechanisms are for commercialization. Without those subsequent steps, your ideation session is just creating ideas that for the most part will never be considered after the event. Probably one of the most important questions you can ask when you are invited to a brainstorming event is - can you describe for me how these ideas will be worked once the brainstorm is completed? In three months, what will be the result of these ideas? If you can't get a good answer to questions like these, then the session is either not well planned or the outcomes are uncertain, and both instances are problematic.

On the other hand, if you ask those questions and get confident, specific answers, then you should attend, because your ideas might be the catalyst for something even better. The important issue isn't the idea generation, but the work you do after the generation and how that work is managed and who is responsible for doing that work.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:23 AM 3 comments

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Innovation is not a bolt-on solution

I had the opportunity to read and review Do You Matter by Brunner and Emery, a good book about the importance of design thinking and successful companies. In a nutshell, Brunner and Emery advocate for the importance of design thinking throughout the organization, top down, starting with incorporating design thinking in your strategic thinking and how your organization is structured, the products it creates and the services it offers. Only by permeating the culture and organization with design thinking will your team succeed, according to the book.

The authors use the example of Motorola to make this point. Motorola, they assert, has a powerful engineering culture that did create some interesting cell phone products, but was never really a design-centered firm. After success with the RAZR, the authors say "Motorola tried to apply the veneer of the product (RAZR) to other products" rather than approach each new product from a design perspective. I like the mention of veneer, which in the furniture industry is marketing speak for a thin slice of nice wood on top of some cheap hardwood or pressboard. Motorola could not succeed by applying a veneer of design, and ultimately design thinking can't be bolted on at the end of the product development cycle either.

Reading this, it struck me that the same things are true for innovation. A firm can't be consistently innovative by applying a thin veneer (a couple of brainstorming programs) on an existing product development process, or by bolting on an initiative or cross functional team to existing processes or capabilities. To innovate successfully, innovation needs to be part of the culture and the DNA of the organization, consistently deployed in the same manner, rewarded and measured, and considered a vital part of the strategy and outcomes of the firm. Otherwise, like design applied after the product is developed, all you are left with is lipstick on the pig.

In reality, we all know that bolt-on solutions or those attempted with a half-hearted approach will fail. Attempting to use these approaches with concepts like design and innovation will fail even more spectacularly since design and innovation are closely liked to culture and strategy. Without a strong, consistent commitment to these capabilities, design and innovation projects will fail to get traction and will never be taken seriously. Probably the worst thing that can happen to either of these concepts is to be labeled the "flavor of the month".
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:55 PM 1 comments

Monday, October 13, 2008

The innovation paradox

I heard an executive recently in an organization we've been working with say that the more they try to fit innovation into the expectations and organizational issues of their organization, the more difficult it becomes to do any innovation. Whereas before, when innovation was treated as a pilot program with little oversight or bureaucratic attention, the innovations seemed to flow rather regularly. If you've ever worked in a large organization, this should not be a surprise to you, yet it is a constant source of frustration for many would-be innovators.

The innovation paradox is that the more your firm pays attention to innovation, the less likely it will be to be successful at innovation. That's because, like any other foreign organism, the culture and bureaucracy of your organization identifies an external intruder that has not aligned itself with the organization and function of the rest of the body, and tries to force the innovation program or capability to adopt the decision making processes, risk tolerances, timeframes, perspectives and "best practices" that are part and parcel of the rest of the organization. Your innovation process, after all, will surrender to these pressures or will die. That's really too bad, since most of these cultural and organizational structures inhibit the organization from innovating well in the first place, and were probably the reason that innovation was placed in a petri dish outside of the regular processes and culture.

The more you team focuses on innovation, the less likely your team is to be successful - unless you can either create an artificial environment for innovation - think a greenhouse or "bubble" where the regular rules don't apply - or you can change your management culture and bureaucracy to embrace the processes, decision methods and risk tolerances of innovative firms. At that point the bubble is not necessary. As a management team, kicking off an innovation project or program without the "bubble" in a traditional, conservative, risk averse organization is usually a recipe for failure. That's because as soon as the program or initiative seeks to work with others, it will have to align itself to the needs and expectations of the bureaucracy. What's the charge number? Who said you could work on this? What's the return on investment? Why should we attack that market, and if we do, what happens to our existing products? Can you define your product or service and give us a three year projection within +/- 10%? Soon these questions, and the funding process and the risk tolerances, will force your team to work in the same patterns and processes as every other business function, and your innovation team will fall apart because you can't deliver innovations in an incremental, risk averse environment.

Rather, perhaps like the character in the Douglas Adams book, innovation is like learning to fly. In one of his trilogy Arthur Dent learns that flying is learning to throw one's self at the ground and intentionally missing. It has to do with ignoring everything you know to be true and taking the risk. Innovation in many firms is so different from what people do everyday, how they plan, make decisions, fund projects, staff resources, that it is an antibody that will be conformed or killed. Your best hope in many cases is to create an environment where you can prove the value and change your culture, rather than hope to adopt the existing culture and innovate from within the existing mindset.

The problem with executive sponsorship is that often it only travels one level. Even though the executives are advocating innovation, people still need budgets and resources for innovation and the existing teams have specific targets to achieve. Unless the executive team gets involved and changes the way people work on a day to day basis, and encourages risk taking, all the executive sponsorship is just a communication strategy.

To innovate, you've got to do things differently. This includes how you generate ideas and how you manage the ideas, as well as the way your innovation team works within the existing corporate framework. If your innovation team is forced to work within a culture and process that is not innovative, then your innovation team will not be innovative either.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:38 AM 6 comments

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Innovating during a disruption

Most organizations that have a strong capability for innovation will develop and nuture ideas that are incremental and disruptive. Incremental ideas are the ones that will create some modest change in an existing product or service, while disruptive ideas create dramatic change in existing products or services or create entirely new opportunities. Usually, the innovators are trying to disrupt an adjacent market rather than their own. Think Apple and the music distribution business or Swiffer and mops.

However, many innovators have been handed the reverse. After almost 80 years of banking stability, the banking and financial services sector has been completely disrupted. Yes, the subprime crisis has shaken the very foundation of our national and global financial systems, but cracks were already beginning to show. A number of non-financial actors, like Google and Paypal, and a number of adjacent firms, like ING, Orange, Prosper and Schwab, had already begun to peel away valuable customers from mainstream banks. Christensen notes that innovation often happens when a firm provides less functionality than is currently expected and the established players are willing to cede that business to someone else, so online banks have been growing in deposits while many banks have been happy to let that business go. Rather, they doubled down on leverage and would love to have those depositors now.

Some banks and financial institutions have been handed a golden opportunity. Rather than have to disrupt the financial industry, they can innovate in this current disruption to dictate what the eventual landscape of the financial markets will look like in the near future. Some firms, like credit unions and small community banks, will bet that consumers want safety and security for their money. Other firms, like Prosper and peer to peer lending firms may find their services in higher demand as traditional banks shy away from loaning money even to stable businesses. Who knows - perhaps the long down trodden angel firms and first round VC funds will find it profitable to make loans rather than investments.

The point is - whether you create the disruption or have it thrust upon you - now is the time to innovate. The banks that are impacted by their bad loans will be completely focused on cleaning up their messes and will not be anxious to create new products and services other than ones that provide complete safety. If there is any innovation possible, it must come from the remaining strong banks, regional banks, credit unions and adjacent financial services firms that have weathered the crisis, or it will come from non financial services firms who understand a once in a century opportunity.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:14 AM 3 comments

Monday, October 06, 2008

Innovation Survey

Chuck Frey at Innovation Tools is seeking input from innovation practitioners for a survey he is conducting, focused especially on innovation pipelines. If you have a moment, please click here to respond.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:25 AM 1 comments

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Why we can't generate new ideas

In the recent (October 2008) issue of Fast Company is an article that you may be tempted to skip. It's title, Neuroscience sheds new light on creativity, may be a bit daunting. However, if you and your team ever want to justify those interesting brainstorming offsites, or if you ever want to generate some really new and interesting ideas, read the article.

The author notes that imagination (important for brainstorming) and perception (important for day to day living) rely on the same thinking patterns. Since we (and by extension our brains) are lazy, we rely on the same patterns and the interpretation of patterns. So, even when we are brainstorming we are often using the same perceptions and patterns that we are comfortable with, not really challenging our existing patterns and reaching beyond our comfort zone. So far, most of you are nodding your heads. A brainstorming session often devolves into a rehashing session - reviewing all the same old ideas.

What we need in order to brainstorm is to jolt the system, force the brain to think in patterns and perceptions that it has no experience or former guidelines to use. The experiment that the author starts his article using - Draw the sunset on Pluto - is a good example. If we are asked to draw the sunset on Earth - no problem. We know that scenario. However, drawing the sunset on Pluto requires us to think, since most of us have no knowledge of what the sunset might look like from that distance, much less whether or not Pluto has mountains or atmosphere that would impact the sunset.

To quote the article further:
Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with. They may have nothing to do with your area of expertise. It doesn't matter. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be cross talk.
It's been my experience that the best idea generators and brainstormers are people who travel frequently, who encounter different approaches and methods, who interact with a wide array of different people. Yet most of our corporate brainstorming calls the usual suspects into a gray, dingy conference room full of the same cues as before. Typical corporate idea generation sessions don't invite outsiders, don't create pattern interrupts, don't change the scenery (even corporate offsites in exotic locations end up usually in a conference room).

If you want radical ideas that will change the way your business works, or introduce interesting new products or services, get your people out of their day to day patterns. Force them to consider the world from a customer's viewpoint. Have them interact with other cultures, other industries. Innovation often happens at the intersection anyway - and getting people out of their existing thinking patterns will generate new creativity. And at the next executive offsite, hold the brainstorming in the sand trap at the third hole, or some location that forces people out of their comfort zone and patterns.

Different ideas require different thinking. Different thinking requires a jolt to the day to day patterns and expectations that we all carry around with us like baggage.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:55 AM 0 comments