Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Innovation does not start with idea generation

I've just finished reading a book called Intangible Capital (more on that in another post) by Mary Adams.  The book does a good job describing the value and importance of knowledge, intellectual property and other intangible assets, and why innovation is key to the creation of those assets.

But that's not the subject of today's post.  Today's post deals with the fallacy that innovation "starts" with idea generation.  I'm picking on Mary's book because it was at hand and the latest to suggest that innovation starts with idea generation.  I know this because it says so on page. 85, but Mary's writing does not stand alone.  Far too often I hear people suggest or read that innovation starts with idea generation.  Sorry, no - and my apologies in advance to Mary for calling out this small problem in what was otherwise a very good book. 

Idea generation is at best the "mid point" of an innovation process, because by the time you start generating ideas you need to have:
  1. A good sense of the strategic goals and direction of the organization
  2. A good sense of trends and the unfolding future
  3. An understanding of unmet or unarticulated needs
Only when you are armed with this knowledge can you generate ideas that are worth anything.  We at OVO call this "ideating in context".  The obvious alternative to "ideating with no context" which is what many teams do, and why idea generation and brainstorming have such poor reputations.  Let's examine why all three factors need to be complete before you can brainstorm effectively.

First, you need to understand the strategic goals, direction and strategic intent of the business, and how it will remain constant or change.  This aspect forms the "framework" for your idea generation.  If your firm has the goal to be the best at customer intimacy or experience, then that should inform your idea generation - you'll want to spend far more time focused in those areas than in operational excellence.  Too often there are no clear guidepost or guardrails to shape your thinking and in those cases all ideas and all strategies seem equal.  They aren't, and if you present ideas out of sequence or out of context with strategy then you'll find that out.

Second, you need to understand something about the future.  After all, the average time to market for an idea in most large firms is between 24 and 36 months, idea generation to commercialization.  That means an idea you generate today will be birthed into a world two to three years from the one we are in today.  How much change will occur in that space?  If you create an idea today that assumes the world will be the same as it was when the idea was created, you've shot behind the curve and the idea will seem dated from the start.  Not to mention the fact that observing trends and understanding where the future may evolve is important. You may spot entirely new opportunities by spending time understanding the future, and your products or services may arrive at exactly the right time.

With those two factors safely covered, you can also understand what customers want and need.  You do this through many different qualitative exercises - voice of the customer, observation, lead users, ethnography, etc.  What you are seeking are the unrecognized, unmet or unarticulated needs that align to your strategic goals and to the unfolding future.  At the intersection of those three converging factors are ideas that will be relevant, valuable and in line with your capabilities. 

These factors create the "context" that identifies customer needs in line with future trends and aligned to strategic goals.  Within that context or framework, generating ideas becomes far more easy and far more robust - actually becomes safer, since you are generating ideas you know link to strategic goals and to customer needs.  It's less arbitrary since you know the goals, potential futures and customer needs.

Innovation doesn't start with, and doesn't end with, idea generation.  In fact we should place far less emphasis on the idea generation phase than we do, but it seems to get the most focus, probably because it is the easiest to organize and any one can participate, while the other tasks require real thinking, real planning and real work.  Generating ideas should be the outcome of good strategic thinking and careful assessment of customer behaviors and needs.  If that work is done well, idea generation is almost an afterthought, but it certainly isn't the first step in the process.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:53 AM 11 comments

Monday, August 30, 2010

Innovation on "sale"

One of the interesting challenges about innovation is its connection to cost and to value.  All innovation efforts promise value tomorrow, in the form of great new products and services, at the cost of investment today.  Since the return isn't usually a certainty, the executives who sponsor innovation seek uncertain but larger returns in the future based on specific investments today.  The uncertainty around innovation causes many opportunities to be missed.  Wouldn't it be great if ideas were "on sale" or even free?  Then, there would be less resistance to innovation, right?

Not in a million years.  The "cost" of innovation has very little to do with the development of ideas.  As a person who is actively involved in a number of innovation projects, I can tell you that there are always more ideas than can possibly be considered, and often many of them represent good opportunities.  The generation of ideas is not time consuming and isn't expensive.  In fact, I've argued before, ideas are a commodity and are often simply adaptations of concepts from history or from other industries.  In fact, ideas are on sale all the time in an organization that encourages innovation - ideas for the most part are free and readily available.

The challenge isn't in the cost of generating ideas, it's in two factors - overcoming resistance to new ideas and in the difficulty of developing a new idea into a new product or service.  These are the two interesting issues to address, and can tell us a lot about an organization and its priorities.  Let's look at both in turn.

A good friend (Hey Todder!) and innovator has a statement on his wall to the effect that if you have a good ideas you shouldn't worry that other people will steal it.  If it's a really novel idea, you'll typically need to cram it down their throat to get them to accept it.  That's because while we pine away for really interesting new products and services (bring me the next iPod of our business!) we are awfully wedded to the existing products and services in our business.  After all, the processes and teams are optimized to build and provide those existing products and services, and they make some nominal return.  Changing that status quo seems dangerous and difficult, and we usually only make the change when actual threats or disruptions appear.  If you want less expensive innovation, find ways to reduce the cost of resistance to new ideas, either by invalidating a way of doing business internally or simply creating a skunkworks that is entirely removed from the business.  These costs are primarily psychic costs, but often are the most expensive costs and the biggest barriers.

The second issue is an even bigger conundrum.  In what should be a "best practice" - product development and management - many firms simply don't have the capability or bandwidth to create new products and services.  Although by definition they must have created products and services previously - otherwise they wouldn't have any offerings - they seem incapable of creating a new product or service.  It's as if hundreds of years of product development philosophy and training doesn't exist.  The fallacy here is that long product life cycles mean that we can build new products only very occasionally.  Perhaps a new Moore's law is in order.  With a humble heart we'll call it the Phillips' law of diminishing lifecycles.  With global competition, we'll argue that average product lifecycles are halving every four years.  What may have been a seven to ten year lifecycle in 2000 is now at best a two to three year lifecycle.  As lifecycles decrease, the ability to gin up new products consistently and capably is not just a competitive differentiator, it's the difference between success and failure.

If you want less expensive innovation, reduce the psychic costs of change by creating space and the expectation of new ideas and new products, and reduce the actual cost of product development by implementing new product development techniques and hiring the right people.  The bottleneck from an innovation perspective is not in the generation of ideas, but in the development of ideas.  We can "mark down" the costs of innovation by decreasing the costs of idea development.

PS:  I left this post and felt I had to return to it to add this postscript.  Think about this in a completely different way.  Suppose someone came to you and offered you, at no price, several really great ideas for new products or services.  The ideas have been developed based on customer insights and generated by a top notch team.  All that is needed is for your team to adopt them, test them and implement them.  The great ideas in a sense are "free".  Could your team accept the ideas and bring them to market quickly?  If not, what are the barriers that get in the way?  Are those barriers tangible barriers like a lack of people or resources, or are those barriers cultural or psychological barriers like resistance to change or fear of new ideas?  Regardless of the barrier, you'd better find a way to eliminate the barrier and improve your ability to convert new ideas to new products.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:31 AM 2 comments

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Innovation gap between Executives and their teams

It strikes me regularly that senior executives of many firms underestimate the insights and abilities of their companies.  I guess that many of us grow up with a backward-looking preference.  We prefer to remember how things were "when we were there" and expect those attributes and features to remain the same.  For most of us, the people we worked with and the companies we worked for are still locked in the past, unbending and unchanging.  I'm stealing a bit from Seth Godin's recent post about "senior management".  His point, and mine, aren't that senior managers are myopic or uninspired, although that's certainly possible.  It's more that they have a vision but often aren't confident that the organization can achieve the vision without painful change.  These executives remember the organization as it was, rather than as it is.

Most large organizations are built to optimize a set of predictable processes which support and maintain a given set of products or services.  Over time our management styles have migrated to the point where we've optimized these processes and the products they enable to the detriment of new thinking, new products and new services.  At least that's what the senior executives think.  What they miss is that while we've gotten really good at managing the status quo, most people aren't energized by that work, and actually have plenty of free brain cycles left to commit to interesting new work.  Most senior executives not only remember the organization as it was, but underestimate the engagement, capability and insight of the people who are in those roles now, or just don't make enough demands of those teams.  To those executives, the organization seems "brittle" - too unwilling or unable to change to meet the dynamics of the marketplace.  That's too bad, because I suspect they are wrong about their organizations.

One reason to avoid innovation is this concept of "brittleness".  A firm too enamored with its processes and products and too aligned to supporting and enabling those processes doesn't appreciate people or programs that intentionally question the status quo.  Certainly, innovation is fine if it addresses products or services that are in no way competitive or confrontational to the status quo, but not if the new product or service questions the underlying beliefs or may cannibalize the existing products or services.  This assumed "brittleness" means that many firms want to understand how to innovate new products and services that disrupt someone else, but rarely want to innovate new products and services that disrupt the internal paradigm. 

This thinking, however, assumes that most firms are very brittle - unwilling and unable to change, unwilling to accept new ideas, unable to address new opportunities or new markets.  There was another recent survey that suggested that firms that had innovation success were firms that had as little involvement from senior management as possible.  While I'm not sure that senior management involvement is a death knell for innovation, I suspect that people within organizations are much more adaptable and nimble than executives give them credit for.  Executives in most firms rarely interact with anyone more than one or two levels below them, so they don't "know" the people in the organization and their ideas.  They remember the organization as it was when they were there, and assume it's still the same, or they accept what their direct reports tell them about the organization, rather than demanding change or simply going to find out.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone say that if "Mr. CEO" was here we'd be able to innovate, because that's what he, or she, wants.  Yes, many of them want innovation, but too many of them are afraid that the organization is simply too inflexible or too brittle to adapt to market conditions and opportunities.  Which is a shame, really, since many of the people three and four levels down from the CEO have great ideas and are willing to try to innovate, and in fact have spotted good opportunities, and are simply waiting for the executives to give them the green light - to sponsor innovation programs and activities.

The gap between the executives who want innovation but don't believe the organization is capable of doing it, and the managers who have great ideas and want to innovate but don't believe there is executive support, is probably one of the things that give innovation consultants like me gray hair.  What I fail to understand is why there are such breakdowns in communications between what executives want - regardless of whether or not they believe their teams can accomplish it, and what their teams want to do, regardless of whether or not the executives will sponsor it.  My answer is that any CEO or senior executive who wants more innovation should get out of the corner office and go meet with people three, four and five levels down from them, face to face, person to person, to see just how much capability and insight is waiting to be unleashed.  Yes, the processes and products that drive today's revenue have to be run effectively, but believe me these organizations are much more nimble, and much more adaptable, than many executives believe.  And the people in those roles have plenty of insights and ideas if we'll simply unleash them.

This gap between the wants and needs of the executive team, and the capabilities and energy of the "rank and file" means that many executives aren't doing a good job of maximizing the value of the firm.  In fact, while they've optimized the easy stuff, they've left all the really valuable stuff on the table.  This gap is one that can be quickly and easily closed.  All the executives need to see is the capability, the nimbleness and the insights that their teams have, and be willing to recognize that the organization is capable of change, and in fact is often ready to change.  Eventually the question will be more about the nimbleness of the executives, because once the innovators are freed up and sponsored, it might be difficult to get the firm to slow down.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:00 AM 7 comments

Monday, August 23, 2010

Speed over constancy

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in the way we think about our businesses.  In a previous post I argued that the efficient use of ideas would become a new mantra, similar to the efficient use of capital.  I think that's true because it appears we've extended the concept of financial engineering and the efficient use of capital about as far as it can go.  Additionally, we've reached the point where we aren't creating any new value with the financial assets at our disposal.  But that's not the only reason for the paradigm shift.  Along with the exhaustion of the efficient use of capital comes the increasing pace of change. 

Now, the fact that the pace of change is increasing is not news to anyone, but the impact it will have to our business models and the way most businesses work is dramatic.  Traditionally we've planned for long product or service development cycles and long lives for our products and services.  It was taken as a given that most products would have a lifespan of many years or even decades, and that these products would create profits over the majority of those years.  The tradeoff of a long investment in R&D and product development was a protected revenue stream over many years.  For many reasons, the long-lived profitable product or service is falling by the wayside.

Any firm in any corner of the globe can complete with any other firm.  Aggressive competition by firms that don't feel the need to create new products and services - those that simply mimic existing products but drive down costs - is growing.  That fact means that the days of long, profitable products and services are over.  Any product can be quickly copied and delivered to the market, in some cases in just a quarter or two.  Many countries that were once only able to mimic new products and brands are rapidly industrializing and moving quickly to create innovative new products and services of their own.  This introduces a two pronged effect: your products and services are being copied and provided at less cost, and new innovations are being developed and presented to your customers as never before.

This loss of the long development cycle and long product life cycle means that firms must shift their strategies from long, arduous research and development cycles to more rapid understanding of customer needs and delivery of new products and services.  It also means that firms must have more products and services in the innovation and development pipeline than ever before, and must launch more new products and services to keep pace with demand and competition.  More profits will be attained in a shorter period of time as a firm plans for competition and obsolescence over shorter product life spans.  This, in turn, reinforces the need for the efficient use of ideas, which will drive new product and service creation.

Trying to stick to a long development cycle coupled with a long product life cycle is probably risky, given the intense competition and the increasing pace of change, not to mention fickle customer attitudes.  One comment I hear constantly within the management ranks of the firms we work with is "...when things get back to normal..."  What we all have to realize is that we are defining a new normal, which may take several years to shake out.  That new normal may reflect a US population less likely to spend and more likely to save, and a growing BRIC population ever more interested in spending and acquisition, just as a few examples.  Any firm that assumes its existing business models and methods will sustain it through this period of change is missing an opportunity for renewal.  Now is the time to determine the new business models, use of insights and ideas and to recraft internal processes to become more nimble, more agile and more innovative.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:08 AM 2 comments

Friday, August 20, 2010

Being "most things to most people" isn't innovation

You'd think with all the fawning press many companies and executives receive that defining a clear, concise corporate strategy would be a "no brainer".  After all, don't we hire and pay executives exorbitant sums due to their vision and strategy?  You'd think that with the hordes of "management consultants" available from a wide array of highly compensated consulting firms that well-conceived strategic plans would simply flow like water from these founts of knowledge.  And let's not forget the virtual library of books on corporate strategy, from the likes of Drucker, Porter, Hamel, Prahalad, and so forth.  Clearly there is a wealth of information, advice and knowledge about corporate strategy.  Or at least there is a good facsimile.

What kills innovation at the start, in the middle and at the end is the lack of a clearly defined, articulated and executed strategy.  The reason is simple.  If your firm can't concisely define and communicate what it offers, and why it is different, than other firms, differentiation is almost impossible, and in some cases perhaps undesired.  If it can't define it's position in the market, as a product innovator, or a service leader, or the operational excellence leader, then it isn't a leader at all.  Simply a follower who believes that "innovation" is quickly copying what other firms are doing.  Trying to innovate in the absence of a clear strategy is like driving on a narrow, twisty road socked in with fog.  Every turn is fraught with danger, and you move, if at all cautiously, continually testing the roadbed before committing.

The lack of clear strategy kills innovation at the start because it's almost impossible to define the most important problem to solve or opportunity to address.  In the absence of clear strategy, all possible options are equally valuable, since the options are ranked on opinion and not fact or plan.  In our experience, we've often had to "assert" a strategy just to define the options and goals for an innovation effort.  The reason many innovation projects die a quick and painful death at the start is that they can't get traction because no one has any idea what's important to do - and in the absence of clear strategy it's more expedient to keep doing what you are doing rather than do something new.

The lack of clear strategy, clearly articulated kills innovation in the middle, because it's almost impossible to evaluate ideas if they happen to get generated.  Evaluating ideas requires a set of criteria and forces prioritization and tradeoffs, which can only be made in the context of a strategy.  After all, strategy tells a firm as much about what it will NOT do as it does what it WILL do.  In the absence of a strategy, evaluating and prioritizing the ideas you manage to create is difficult because the factors are ambiguous and based on previous experience rather than articulated strategy.  It becomes, once again, about opinions and guesses rather than facts.

The lack of clear strategy kills innovation at the end when no product or service delivery team will accept, adopt or sponsor new ideas and convert them into new products or services.  After all, these teams have a full pipeline of work, and no clear direction or incentive to pick up dangerous or disruptive new ideas.  There's little incentive to deviate from the traditional methods and rankings, so new ideas are shifted to the bottom of the priority stack if they get noticed at all.

The lack of strategic direction, clearly articulated is endemic in many organizations, surprisingly so.  Given all the emphasis we place on good strategy, powerful, insightful CEOs and books and ideas about strategy, there's relatively little of it in evidence in many organizations.  That's because it is easier to be "most things to most people" rather than have a clearly articulated and executed vision.  When you attempt to be "most things to most people" there are no absolutes, no clear scope, and your vision and intent is watered down.  It is exceptionally difficult to innovate in that environment. 

Any executive worth his or her salt should occasionally pull a person three or four levels down in the organization and ask them what they believe the corporate strategy is, and whether or not that message is filtering down and being executed by the "rank and file".  My experience is that most people in most organizations have little to no idea what the executive team really values, and this lack of strategic direction or the difficulty of communicating a clear direction is one of the most significant barriers to innovation that exists.  Which is a real conundrum given how much emphasis we appear to place on it.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:49 AM 1 comments

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How to become a better innovator

I was leading a class this week for a client on innovation tools and techniques when one of the participants asked "How can I generate better ideas every day?"  This was a question from the heart, so I answered in the best way that I knew. 

I told that person to focus on two things:  first, interact with everyone and every information source or idea possible.  Second, become more aware of what's happening and more attentive to the information you receive.

Evidence indicates that many innovative ideas happen at the margin between two technologies, two industries or two concepts not previously mashed together.  But all too often, managers and executives remain in their own silos and pigeon-holes, ignoring or worse, completely unaware of what is happening in their industry and outside of their industry.  What we need to do is set aside time to intentionally understand and interact with people, and ideas, and technologies, and capabilities that are new and different from what we interact with everyday.

First, talk to people in your organization who have different jobs or support different products and services.  What are the issues they are trying to solve?  Next, talk to your customers. Don't simply read the research reports but find or create ways to interact, face to face, with your customers and prospects.  What they have to tell you about your products and your competitors will surprise you.  Next, talk to people in other industries.  You can do this at trade shows, conferences and other events, or by simply asking to better understand another firm's innovation efforts as part of a "best practices" review.  It also happens that a lot of information about trends and new ideas is published online and in industry journals and magazines.  Yet most people, if they read at all, only read within their industry, which simply reinforces the stuff they already know.

There was a good article in the December 2009 Harvard Business Review that identified five characteristics of innovative leaders.  Those characteristics included associating, questioning, networking, experimenting and observing.  If you think carefully about that list, you'll see that an individual who actively seeks out new and different information and insights will 1) question the status quo 2) network to get new information and make new connections 3) associate ideas and information from other industries with his or her own needs 4) observe customers and business partners in action and 5) will be more willing to experiment with new ideas.  People who are good at spotting new opportunities and generating new ideas are usually people who have plenty of inputs from a wide array of sources.

But the other point I identified is also important.  The individual has to be attuned and attentive to the information and what it means.  So many of us swim in a sea of information, data, nuance and suggestion, but we have very strong filters to weed out all the "unnecessary" information.  Our filters are typically there to reinforce what we think and believe, not to question or change our thoughts or behaviors.  Good innovators are very open minded - finding new inspiration and making connections where they seem unlikely or even impossible.  But that means that the innovator has to be aware of the information that's available, shift through it to find the interesting stuff, and make connections and linkages between disparate data.  Just interacting with a number of new people from a number of different industries won't increase your innovation quotient if you aren't sensitive to what's said and why it may matter to you or your business.

What's more - this is for the most part "free" - the information is out there and many people are more than willing to talk about their successes and their opportunities for growth.  All this takes is a bit of your time - to get out of your silo and pigeon-hole and talk to and interact with people from different perspectives, technologies, industries or geographies.  Creating the opportunities for interaction, and changing your filters to identify new information, will make you a much better innovator.

Actually, this phenomenon is why I think the TED talks are so popular.  They are short, interesting presentations and stories from people in different industries doing really different things. TED is basically just a marketplace to exchange information and ideas with people you are unlikely to meet otherwise.  In the case of TED talks, you can watch those without leaving the comfort of your office or home, but I hope you'll go much further.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:53 AM 4 comments

Friday, August 13, 2010

The efficient use of ideas

Every significant "leap forward" in the span of human consciousness has coincided with a significant change in the efficient use of a significant resource.  For example - the transition from nomadic life to farming.  This transition came about because people learned to till the ground and grow food that was dependable and sustaining.  The fact that people could stay in one place and have a consistent food source meant that they could take on other tasks.  The more efficiently they used the soil, the more crops they could grow, and the more time available for other activities. 

Other "leaps" forward include the efficient use of labor (thanks Frederick Taylor) and the efficient use of capital, which has eventually brought us to the problems with financial engineering that we've encountered recently.  All Taylor cared about was understanding how to get the most, best, productivity out of the labor of individuals, while bankers, financiers and CFOs have their own metrics about the efficient use of capital - return on invested capital as an example.

We're at a cusp of a completely new competitive phenomenon I believe - I'll call it the efficient use of ideas and insights.  The fact is that product lifecycles are rapidly declining, and firms in any geography can complete for their home markets as well as export markets.  This means everyone is competing for global market share, and the current "leader" in any category is really only as good as his or her next product or service.  In this environment, a firm must be efficient with its use of labor, and its use of capital, but ultimately those are in service to the efficient use of ideas and insights. 

The reason is that once a particular "efficiency" frontier is reached, additional investment doesn't add much value - in fact, as evidenced by some of the financial instruments, it may detract from the market place.  Eventually every competitive firm is relatively equal in terms of its use of labor and capital - although some have less expensive labor, which allows them to be less efficient with capital or vice versa.  However, at some point, more and more investment in a frontier that is highly efficient across the competitors doesn't add value.  So a new differentiator or frontier must be identified.

I believe that new frontier is the efficient use of ideas.  In the near future, firms that are very efficient at creating, developing and implementing new ideas as products and services will be the winners, because they'll be the ones consistently creating the newest and best products, services and business models.  In a world of global competition and ever shortening product life cycles, becoming very very good at spotting opportunities and creating new products and services to meet those needs will be the competitive differentiator.

What will it take to be a firm that has efficient use of ideas?  A culture that encourages and embraces the identification of new needs and opportunities, that is willing to sacrifice the "sacred cow" before another firm takes that market and that share.  A firm that encourages close examination of customer needs and expectations and that takes risks to create new products and services consistently.  A firm that has a defined innovation process that everyone understands.  Compensation and evaluation models that emphasize innovation, nimbleness and speed to market.

Soon, it won't be enough to have an innovation capability - to be competitive a firm will have to have a focus on the efficient use of ideas within its boundaries, or it will rapidly fall into obsolescence.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:21 AM 1 comments

Monday, August 09, 2010

Why every innovation effort needs a Klinger

If you are like me, you cut your TV comedy teeth on M*A*S*H, the show about doctors in Korea.  The comedy was biting, topical and insightful, although honestly the show jumped the shark about two years before it finally, mercifully ended.

There are parallels to innovation in the M*A*S*H story - improvisation, doing a lot with very little, asking forgiveness rather than permission - but one I want to highlight today is the concept of the scrounger.  Every good military movie or TV show has a scrounger - a person who has all the contacts or the wiles to get the gear, food or necessities that others can't possibly seem to obtain.  In the M*A*S*H episodes, Radar originally and Klinger eventually took on the role of scrounger - the individual who could get almost anything, regardless of circumstances.  In these roles they were merely reflecting roles in earlier military movies played by actors such as James Garner in The Great Escape.  These roles in the military make sense because there's always another form to complete, another bureaucracy to overcome, to get the materials you need to succeed.  And a scrounger is good at both working within the system, and knowing how and when to work around the system if necessary.

These skills are often vital in an innovation effort.  While every organization wants more innovative ideas, few actively staff up to generate ideas effectively, and very few if any ever provide enough resources to investigate, evaluate and develop ideas as new products or services.  This means that those who have insight or passion around the ideas need to become scroungers, or associate with people who are good scroungers.  This isn't just my observation - you can read the post here from a Harvard professor talking about the need for resource scroungers.

If we agree that scroungers are necessary, what do we need them to do?

  1. Work effectively within the system to accelerate funding, resources or materials that are available but not used
  2. Work effectively outside the system to find the resources we need to develop ideas
  3. Reduce the amount of time the idea generators have to hunt for resources, and accelerate the use and availability of resources
Innovators have insights that can lead to great new products and services, but may not be part of the "system" that understands how to get things done within a large organization.  Since there is often resistance to anything new or different, or the operating assumption that the resource pie is fixed and therefore any assistance offered comes out of "my" slice, scroungers are a necessary part of any innovation team.  Merely generating new ideas is difficult enough - asking the same people to find the resources to develop the ideas as were generating the ideas is almost impossible.

Scroungers are essential to a good innovation effort, however, you don't have to dress like Klinger in order to fill the role.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 3:17 PM 3 comments

Friday, August 06, 2010

Why is consistent innovation so difficult?

I've been wracking my brain for weeks now, trying to figure out why something that should be relatively easy seems so difficult.  Why is consistent innovation so difficult for most companies?  After all, most organizations are built on sustaining business models and processes.  The strength of many organizations is their operating processes, which have become well oiled and perfected over time.

If a core strength or capability of most businesses is sustaining and maintaining well defined processes, then you'd think that creating and sustaining an innovation process should be a no-brainer.  Doing something once is difficult, and doing something periodically is haphazard.  This is the real challenge of innovation - most firms don't do it frequently enough or use consistent enough models to create a well honed innovation process.  Those that innovate several times and then find their attention drawn elsewhere stop just short of the tipping point that leads to a consistent, sustainable innovation process.

Isn't it interesting that most businesses hold well defined processes in high esteem?  They seek consistency, lack of variability and well-established workflow to cut down on costs, overhead and complexity.  Yet when they consider innovation, it is rarely as a consistent effort or process, but in reaction to a life threatening event, and considered at best a one-time effort, not worthy of process development and definition.  Just by declaring the development of a process too time consuming and difficult, the management team declares that innovation isn't as valuable as other processes.  If innovation were as important as other business functions, then clearly it would have a well defined process just like all the others, especially given the fact that we compensate and reward people to work within the stated processes.

In my experience, when it comes to doing new things, many businesses find it easy to start new initiatives but hard to replicate them.  In contrast, once some new product, service or offering finds its way into the machinery of existing processes, they are hard to ever terminate.  So we build barriers and make it difficult to create new things, and build barriers to terminating products and services that have lived well beyond their usefulness.

Note that it isn't the case that firms have a difficult time creating consistent, sustainable processes and products.  Quite the opposite.  Most firms have a significant number of sustained products and processes that people understand, support and enable.  The interesting challenge is where innovation is concerned.  If we can state that innovation can be developed and sustained like any other business process, and clearly firms can sustain other processes, then what's the barrier to sustained innovation?

I think it has to do with strategic commitment.  Clearly most organizations have plenty of ideas and plenty of proactive and reactive opportunities.  They also sustain processes that are important to the operation and/or revenue of the business.  So innovation either isn't considered pertinent, doesn't appear to drive revenue or improve effectiveness, or is simply lost in the moment to moment decision making of corporate executives. 

Which is interesting, because every successful innovator seems to drive more revenue, and drive more differentiation than other firms in their industry.  So I'm left with the fact that executives are far too often hot and cold and hot again about innovation, and that means a consistent innovation process, which requires commitment and exercise over time, can't be sustained.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:04 PM 3 comments

Monday, August 02, 2010

Weirdly, Wildly Pragmatic

I've come to the conclusion that innovation is so difficult for many businesses because there's a big gulf in perspectives and capabilities that are required.  The people who are really good at sensing new opportunities, identifying new trends and creating new things are often so hip, so daring and so different that their ideas can't or won't become part of the mainstream easily or quickly.  In the case of artists, designers and other really creative types, it could be that they don't care to "scale up" their concepts, or simply don't know how.  Their art is for them, their friends and colleagues, and those that "get it".  On the other hand, most businesses are populated by people who've had the uniqueness and creativity bred out of them, so that everything must look like what the business has done previously, or at least resemble what another competitor is doing.  Frankly, it's not innovation if someone in your business is already doing it.  It may be new to you, but it's not new to the world.

I was thinking about the wild, wonderful and experiential side of innovation after reading the NY Times yesterday, specifically an article about Todd Selby.  Todd is a photographer of fashion who has built a network of other photographers from around the world who are sharing their photo shoots.  These folks have a unique sensibility - an artists' view of the world, but there's something here for those of us in innovation as well.  These folks are communicating in their own language - the photograph - but they are also sending signals about what's new, what's important.  They form a community of people documenting their lives out in the open, and they are telling us - no, screaming at us in pictures - what's interesting and important.  To many of us, this seems weird or crazy.  To the people within Todd's community, it seems completely normal.  In fact, people are clamoring to share their photographs and join the community. 

There's an imagined gulf between the folks in Todd's community and many of us in the "business world", one we ought to bridge quickly if we want to become more innovative.  We in the gray-box cubicles of corporate America need to get linked in to what is happening out on the "edge" - out where we aren't comfortable and things aren't predictable.  I don't know Todd but I'd venture to say that his take is that his colleagues are just demonstrating their ideas and their art - they may not even think of themselves as "edgy", but I'm sure a lot of corporate America does.  But people who are creating and experimenting with art, with design, with experience are creating the next evolutions of our products, services and expectations. 

We in our gray cubicles need some of what Todd's community offers - a different way to look at things, a new perspective, the ability to ask "why not" rather than "where's it been done before".  Our customers want new thinking, new ideas and new paradigms, which can't be discovered in the corporate boardroom.  There are simply too many ghosts of managers past who haunt those corridors.  Those of us in gray flannel khakis need to get out and experience what artists and designers are creating, the ideas they are pursuing and expounding, and bring back the best of those ideas to what will admittedly be a resistant corporate culture.

Good ideas are almost never generated solely by one person or one isolated team, but are the fruit of lots of pollenization.  If we only visit the same sources for ideas, those approved vendors or "reasonable" concepts, then the possibility of cross-pollenization doesn't exist - and believe me, we need it.  We need more wild, weird, wonderful trends and ideas as catalysts for our thinking.  The information, people and communities are out there, somewhere just outside the corporate offices of glass and steel.  Those interesting communities may not look like corporate America, but they'll drive a lot of the new trends, fashions and ideas that we'll be implementing in the next few years.  Why not learn about them and incorporate those ideas now?

As you become open to new sources and new ideas, your pragmatic side will pay benefits as well.  Recognizing new trends and valuable ideas is one thing, but building the concepts that reach your consumers in a way that's compelling and valuable is another.  This is something most firms are actually good at - taking an idea and making it resonate with consumers. Thus, you need innovation that is both weird and wild, as well as eventually pragmatic, for success.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:58 AM 1 comments