Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Innovation and the Subtle Knife

I have to admit that Twitter has become a distraction for me.  I use Twitter as a smart Feed Reader, relying on people I follow in the innovation community to alert me to things that are informative and interesting.  Unfortunately there are so many people writing so much good stuff about innovation that Twitter itself becomes almost overwhelming.  Here's a case in point, which leads us to the case of the Subtle knife:

The folks at the Creative Realities created a really funny short video which they claim demonstrates what happens when someone presents a new idea to management. You can see that video here:

If you've watched the video you'll recognize some truths and some fictions in the video, namely, the truth that ideas are often not well received even when they've been requested, and the fiction...  Well the fiction that makes the video funny is the instant, almost visceral reaction by the executive to the idea.  Sorry, but while funny it almost never happens that way.

In fact, most ideas perish in one of two ways:  neglect, or the cuts from what I call the Subtle knife.  Not the book by Philip Pullman.  No, the Subtle Knife is much more insidious than that.

First, ideas often "die" in larger firms due to inaction or neglect.  In most organizations there are thousands of what we like to call "zombie" ideas - not really dead, or perhaps they just can't realize that they are dead.  No one has actually "killed" the idea but the idea has never gained enough traction or supporters to move forward.  You recognize these ideas - they constantly resurface, seem viable momentarily, and are quickly discarded but never abandoned or eliminated.  They are the reason your management team believes the firm has "lots of ideas" that don't add value.  The zombies are the idea that few people really like, don't seem to solve an important problem, and are constantly reintroduced in brainstorming sessions.  These ideas should receive the result of the ideas in the video.  They need to be put out of our misery.

But the real focus of my post isn't zombie ideas.  It's the mastery of the Subtle Knife.  Most good ideas die as well-meaning executives wield the Subtle Knife.  The Subtle knife is a metaphor for the small cuts, the slight twists, the indirect associations that chip away at an idea until it seems less valuable, less interesting and less important.  The Subtle knife is used when attacking an idea directly would seem inappropriate, but the Subtle knife creates fear, uncertainty and doubt about an idea.  Examples of the Subtle Knife include:

  • This is a great idea but ...
  • If only this had been presented (yesterday, last week, last month...)
  • We've looked at this before and sadly ...
  • While a valuable idea, it just isn't "us"...
  • I could get behind this idea if you'd (make a significant change)...
  • There just aren't the resources necessary to take on this excellent idea
These indirect assaults never suggest that the idea is "wrong".  In fact the idea doesn't have to be wrong to be killed, it just needs to distract from someone else's priorities or attack someone else's sacred cows.  The Subtle knife is always used with a smile, a shrug of the shoulders and a facial expression that demonstrates that only the best intentions are meant.

There's a problem with this, however.  Rather than deal with the merits of an idea, its strengths and weaknesses, many organizations prefer to react in a very indirect way, creating just enough fear, uncertainty and doubt about their own ideas(!) that the management team feels led to conduct "further research" or to investigate other ideas, delaying implementation and in many cases creating another zombie.

How do you avoid the Subtle Knife?  The Subtle knife works when objectives aren't clear and goals are uncertain.  It's easy to chip away at an idea if the plans and goals weren't very clear from the start.  That's why we always focus on obtaining a clear problem statement and scope for our innovation efforts.  Once that is established, it's harder to deflect an idea that meets a clear objective.  Second, prioritize the work.  Determine just how important the innovation effort is.  If it is going to fall prey to a re-ranking later, intended to delay and obstruct, make sure you identify what the original prioritization was and what has changed.  Third, innovation introduces change.  If you want to create that change, you better arrive with proof in the form of market insights, market research and prototyping or piloting results.  Don't tell the management team the idea fulfills the needs - show them the needs and research and help lead them to the right conclusions.

Take away the mystery and the Subtle Knife is difficult to use.  Then it becomes a question of how to prioritize innovation programs and outcomes versus other leaders' priorities and personal needs.

Frankly, in many cases I'd prefer to see an executive bash the idea as forthrightly as is portrayed in the video.  That kind of clarity rarely happens.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:34 AM


Anonymous Joshua Gordon said...

Insightful. I'm a researcher for a small non-profit, and innovation isn't a conscious part of the environment here.

What does the Subtle Knife look like in a smaller organization? Does it look different, do you think?

- Josh

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Automatic Knife said...

Excellent writing about subtle knife, it is actually useful thing for all the people. keep writing and happy blogging.

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:55 AM  

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