Friday, October 29, 2010

The "right" time for innovation

So it actually all comes down to this - my prospects and clients need to understand when the "right" time for innovation is.  After all, what we usually hear from executives is that "this isn't the right time" for innovation.  Not that they don't want innovation, or don't need innovation, or that innovation is too risky or expensive.  No, the usual response is that this simply isn't the "right" time.

So, in the interest of public edification I decided to conduct a thought experiment, out loud.  What, I asked myself, are the appropriate conditions so that one can identify the "right time" for innovation.

First I considered the most obvious time.  That most obvious time for innovation is when the wind is behind you, the sun on your face and the markets can't get enough of your products and services.  In other words, the ideal time to innovate would seem to be when you are on top of the world.  However, a note of caution creeps in.  We don't want to distract from our good run by taking good people and have them explore new ideas - that's a distraction.  We certainly don't want to kill the golden goose by identifying new products and service that will cannibalize our best products and services, and we ought to "double down" on what's making us successful right now. 

So, even though these conditions would seem ripe for innovation, there are too many other activities consuming the management team to seriously consider innovation when they are on top.

What about the reverse?  Is innovation a panacea for those firms that are desperate?  Is the "right" time for innovate when there seems to be no other option?  Hardly.  Firms that are struggling to compete and keep their heads above water will occasionally throw the "Hail Mary" pass with innovation, but are usually cutting so fast that to invest in innovation seems difficult.  Not to mention the fact that when a firm is struggling, having a small team think about big ideas seems unreasonable.  It's all hands on deck until the ship gets righted.  Not to mention the overwhelming sense of urgency that pervades a firm when the days seem darkest.  Few firms are going to place investments in ideas with long range outcomes when everyone is bailing water.

OK, so the right time isn't in the good times or the bad times.  What about the "in between" times?  Periods when the firm isn't struggling and isn't on top.  That should be most of the time in most firms.  Yet there always seems to be an excuse.  For example, we'd conduct an innovation initiative if only we could:

  • Find the funding
  • Find more people
  • Be sure we'd get a return
  • Get the executives on board
  • Get the company on board
 I guess my point is that there isn't a "right" time to innovate.  It's actually a contradiction in terms.  Perhaps the way to think about the "right" time to innovate is to stop thinking about innovation as a discrete activity and frame it as an ongoing exercise or program.  As an example, when is the right time to start eating right, cut out the junk food and start exercising?  Really, anytime you decide to do so.  When is the right time to exercise consistent personal hygiene?  All the time, consistently, otherwise you'll be outcast from your home and your place of business.

This is the fallacy that many firms fall into.  There is rarely a "right time" for a discrete innovation activity.  It's too risky, too uncertain, too dangerous and expensive, so the conditions are never right.  However, if we ask the question differently - consider innovation as a consistent capability - a corporate hygiene concept - then the answer is: as soon as possible.  If innovation is a discrete event, the risk, the training and the uncertainty hurdles are presented every time innovation is considered.  If your firm understands how to innovate and does it consistently, the hurdles are removed and people conduct innovation business as usual.

The right time to start innovating is whenever you decide to create an innovation capability, not a discrete, stand alone, very risky innovation project that won't be supported or sustained.  Once your team has some experience and defined processes, innovation will become a consistent capability, so you won't have to ask "when is the right time", your folks will be doing it all the time. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:14 AM 3 comments

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: Stoking your innovation bonfire

In his new book Stoking your innovation bonfire Braden Kelley has developed a thesis that's near and dear to my innovation heart.  The thesis is that innovation must be considered a sustainable, repeatable capacity tightly linked to business strategy and vision.  Further, the "innovation engine" - that is, the capabilities, tools and processes for innovation - must be well defined and designed to work together.  Finally he identifies the cultural mores and attitudes that act as barriers to innovation or enablers to innovation within the third section of the book.  These three categories - linkage to strategy, well defined processes and a culture that embraces innovation - are the key ingredients in any innovation success story.

I'll review the book based on this mnemonic.

About strategy Kelley writes that "a well defined innovation strategy helps the organization define which innovation challenges to focus on and what tactics will best help the organization overcome those challenges...A good innovation strategy should communicate to the organization the kinds of innovation that will be most valuble to the organization...Ideally an innovation strategy will support the organizational strategy."

That's innovation strategy in a nutshell:  think of innovation as an enabler to corporate strategies, align the business and the innovation effort to achieve those strategies and continuously communicate your innovation goals.  No firm that I've worked with spends nearly enough time articulating the goals and communicating the goals and expectations for innovation to their staff.

In the section on innovation engines, Kelley simplifies the innovation "engine" into two key capabilities:
  1. The quality of the insights a company has identified to build ideas upon
  2. The organization's ability to turn their insight driven ideas into reality
These are the key issues.  First, what insights does your firm have?  Not what you think you know, but what you've actually gone out and discovered in the customer or prospect base.  Too many firms perform "inside-out" innovation, which we define as extending existing products and services and seeking customers who will acquire those products, rather than pursuing "outside-in" innovation, which we define as understanding the world from the customers' perspective.   Second, once you have the insights and are tightly aligned with corporate strategy, what is your firm's capability to quickly and easily generate and manage ideas so that they become new products and services?  A well-defined innovation process is essential.

Kelley talks about "innovating for the future" which is another point that we like to emphasize.  Simply identifying a need isn't enough, if your product development cycle time is two or three years.  You have to ensure that the need will still be relevant in the time in which you can service the need with a new product, or introduce scenario planning into your innovation effort to understand what the environment looks like when you can produce a new product.  Kelley writes "The ideal is to design a product based on customer insights appropriate to the time of the product launch to maximize the useful life of the customer insights."

In the last section of the book Kelley addresses innovation structure and culture, and focuses on the important aspects of culture that influence innovation.  For example, many firms only innovate in a crisis, or consider innovation a project rather than a sustaining capability.  People understand the difference between what is said about innovation and the commitment and investment made to support innovation, and will act accordingly.

Stoking your innovation bonfire is a useful book that belongs on the shelf of anyone working on an innovation effort.  It covers all of the important aspects of innovation and offers a number of insightful case studies.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:05 AM 3 comments

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The relationship between innovation and effective systems

I'm back from a long trip to Kuala Lumpur and Dubai.  I had the good fortune to lead several innovation workshops in those two countries, and I must say I really enjoyed my time in both places.  The trip was a reminder to me that far too often we are certain of our own views and perspectives, and only when we are confronted with other perspective and other views do we really engage our brains.

I was asked in one workshop if operational excellence was a precursor or a requirement for innovation.  For many of you, you know that I believe Six Sigma, Lean and operational excellence can be inhibitors to innovation, because they often become outcomes rather than tools.  By that I mean that Six Sigma, Lean and other efficiency programs become more than tools to improve your processes, they become the mantras for success, and anything that runs in contradiction to those programs is a problem that must be snuffed out.  However, I can tell you that innovation relies on consistent, well defined systems for success, for several reasons.

First, innovation often means creating something new - a new product, service or business model.  Most firms don't have processes for the "new" - they have processes for what exists.  Since businesses are optimized to work on processes, they can easily handle the existing stuff, but quickly falter when working on the "new".  A company needs well-defined processes for new stuff, as well as for existing stuff.

Second, assuming the firm can embrace something new, people need definition and instruction on what to do with a new idea.  Certainly it can't be handled in the existing processes, so a new process must be defined, or perhaps the team can simply handle it as a one-off.  In our experience the "one-off" creates far more work and faces far more uncertainty than necessary.

Third, since innovation requires change, risk and uncertainty, the team can relieve a lot of that uncertainty by following clearly defined processes.  While the ideas may be risky, the processes and pathways CAN be well defined, but in most firms we have risky ideas following poorly defined - if defined at all - development processes. The worst of both worlds!

So, this poses an interesting dilemma.  While it's often the case that Six Sigma, Lean and operational excellence can pose roadblocks to innovation, it's also the case that innovation requires excellent processes and systems to succeed.  What is required is a good balance between the objectives of the programs like Six Sigma or Lean, which should be to optimize the process and make it effective and efficient, and the objectives of innovation, which should be to bring interesting new ideas to market more quickly.  Good ideas can't be commercialized if they can't move through the organization effectively, which means innovation will rely to some extent on well-defined processes and systems.  However, the cultural attitudes that pervade Six Sigma and Lean must allow for radical and disruptive ideas to flow through the effective and efficient processes.  Operational Effectiveness should be a tool, not a religion.  Innovation should be an enabler to business outcomes, not an outcome in itself.  If we keep the appropriate perspective on both operational excellence and innovation, they can support and sustain each other and further the cause of greater profits and lower costs.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:12 AM 2 comments

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The increasing worldwide demand for innovation

I've just finished an innovation workshop in Kuala Lumpur.  The energy and enthusiasm for innovation from firms that attended is really impressive.  We had attendees from Malaysia and Thailand, as well as from Sudan.  For all the firms represented, innovation represents a method to drive new differentiation and new revenues based on new products, new services and new business models.

It's interesting to see how quickly firms of all types and all industries, in all regions, are understanding the importance of innovation.  Whether it was an oil and gas company, a research firm, a cell phone provider or a firm that offers outsourced software development, all understood the power that innovation offers their business and the possibilities for future growth.

As I mentioned in my previous post, while they all understand how important innovation can be to their businesses, they also face some of the same constraints that innovators face in the US and Europe.  Bosses who talk about innovation but don't provide resources, competing priorities, cultures attuned to operational excellence rather than innovation face these innovators - here and across the globe.

Given the energy, excitement and enthusiasm here, though, I'm willing to bet we'll see a lot of innovation from Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia.  The energy and dynamism is palpable, and change seems almost inevitable.  These countries are ones to watch, as they strive to stay abreast of their larger neighbor to the north, and as each becomes a cross-roads for people and ideas.

There's a strong belief that good innovation happens when many ideas or cultures meet.  Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and other countries that welcome many people, many cultures and many ideas will be the starting points for many new ideas, as many people and many cultures mix. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:19 AM 4 comments

Monday, October 18, 2010

Five Companies on Innovation

You should check out Honda's Kick out the ladder campaign this week, focused on bringing together five "like-minded" firms that are talking about how to create a culture of innovation in their businesses.  First up is Intuit, talking about how several new employees refined the innovation process at Intuit and created the Intuit Brainstorm product.

Over the next few days there will be videos from Herman-Miller, Kodak, Etsy and Crocs.  This is an interesting "out in the open" discussion about how several firms promote innovation within their organizations.

Check out the videos all week on Honda's Facebook page.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 3:45 PM 2 comments

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Worldwide Innovation

I'm in Kuala Lumpur leading a training workshop for innovators.  A few weeks ago I led a similar workshop for teams in the UK.  What I've learned is that every innovator in every region seems to face the same problems.

One of the first questions today was about the challenge of staffing an innovation team.  Should the firm identify a small, full time team or rely on "part time" innovators?  And, if they used part-time innovators, how should they keep them focused on innovation and minimize the distraction from their day job?  This question was right out of the playbook of most of my US clients.

Another question dealt with management commitment.  Sure, the person said, my executives talk about and expect us to innovate, but don't support innovation with their efforts and goals.  They emphasize short term profits.  Again, a complaint we hear consistently in our US and European based clientele.

It would appear that no matter where you are in the world, many of the challenges you face as an innovator are the same.  With that in mind, there's less reason to accept rejection, since the questions and decision rationale you are receiving is exactly the same as innovators in the UK, Germany, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.

More on this as the day progresses...
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:44 PM 3 comments

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Innovation and 5W1H

As any good journalism student knows, the most powerful toolset in his or her arsenal are the five Ws and the one H.  Who, what, when, where and why, along with how, answer many questions and provide insight.  This tool have been immortalized by many, including Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a short poem entitled Six Serving Men, in praise of these words.

Those of us in the innovation space use these powerful tools as well, but it is important to understand a distinction.  For the journalist, capturing what happened and why it happened, the emphasis is on capturing a story accurately.  To that end, it often doesn't matter which word he or she leads with, or in which order.  But for an innovator, it makes all the difference in the world.

There is a subtle distinction in these words that sets the stage for creativity or shuts it down.  Several of these words - what and why especially - can become very speculative and open the door to broader thinking.  For example, many good innovators will start a discussion with "why don't we..." or "what if we...".  IDEO is known for asking "How might we...".  In this regard, these questions are expansive and open to interpretation.  Starting an idea generation session or for that matter any innovation effort in this manner is empowering.

Meanwhile, many of these words are specific and functional.  Who, how, when and where can be exceptionally limiting.  Who should do this?  By when should it be done?  These are evaluative questions with specific answers, definitive scope.  Starting an innovation program with these questions (except possibly for the planning) will limit thinking.  However these questions are very important once the expansive thinking is complete and we must turn our attention to converting ideas into valuable products and services.

Timing the use of these questions, to place more of the speculative, open ended questions at the beginning and the more evaluative and close ended questions later in the exercise is the best use of all of these questions.  While all are valuable, there are very significant differences as to when and where the words are best used.

Herein as well lies the distinction between being aware of a tool and fully understanding its use.  Many of us are aware of the 5W1H technique, but awareness of the tool and understanding of its best use are two rather different things. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:54 PM 1 comments

Monday, October 11, 2010

Research suggests US need more innovation

I've just come across the National Science Foundation's (NSF) survey from 2008 on Business R&D and Innovation.  This was a study conducted by the NSF across a wide swath of US firms of all sizes and industries.  The results should scare you.  I'm surprised they haven't been front page news.

The results suggest that about 1 in 5 manufacturers indicate they produced a significant new product innovation in the period 2006-2008 and about the same percentage produced a significant new process innovation in the same period.  One manufacturer in five thinks they created a significantly new product or process over a two year period.  Wow.  But it gets worse.

The results suggest that 1 in 12 non-manufacturing firms indicate they produced a significant new product innovation in 2006-2008, and the same number suggest they created a new process innovation in the same period.  We've suspected for a while that service firms weren't keeping up with manufacturing firms in terms of their investment in innovation.  Now we have some reasonably detailed evidence.

The reason this is even more alarming is that manufacturing firms make up only 8% of the firms in the survey.  That means that the vast majority of firms (the 78% of manufacturing firms and the 92% of non-manufacturing firms) weren't innovating during 2006-2008.  The lack of innovation during that period should be especially evident now, as ideas generated in that period should be coming on the market as new products and service.  Given that close to 80% of the firms (92% of the firms are non-manufacturers and 92% of them aren't innovating) are not claiming to innovate at all, we have a significant hole in our innovation efforts in the US.

And these statistics come from a period before the financial meltdown, during the final years of the Bush administration.  We can't claim that the financial meltdown caused this lack of innovation, because these numbers reflect a time prior to that economic slowdown.

The survey also finds that firms with R&D investments claim to generate more innovation.  This is like the newspaper reporting that weather in Hawaii is nice or that Canadian winters can be quite cold.  Any firm with a significant investment in Research and Development had better be able to demonstrate a return  - which is usually new products or services.  That firms with deep R&D investments generate more product innovation isn't a surprise.  What was slightly surprising was that the focus on product innovation seems to translate to process innovation.  Firms with investments in R&D also claimed to be significantly better at process innovation as well, yet most R&D probably isn't directed at process innovation tasks.  Interestingly, the more invested in R&D, the more likely the firm was to claim it was "innovative".  With R&D investments at less than $10M, (which accounted for 90% of those reporting an R&D expenditure) the number claiming new innovative products was 66%.  For those very few firms with R&D spending over $100M, those claiming new innovative products was 81%.  What on earth were the 19% of firms spending more than $100M in R&D and NOT delivering new products and services doing?

There are a couple of problems with this survey, which the authors recognize and will correct in the future.  The first is that there is no clear definition of a significantly new product or service.  In the future they will ask if the product is new to the company or new to the market.  I'd like them to ask:  new to the company, new to the market, new to the world, but perhaps we can add that later.  This would begin to distinguish between incremental innovation and radical or disruptive innovation.  Second, the authors plan to ask about the amount of revenue generated from newer products over the core or legacy products.  This kind of measurement is the same as 3M uses - what's the percentage of revenue driven by products introduced in the last X years?

I can't wrap my brain around this - a scientific study conducted by the Federal Government that suggest that over 80% of the firms in the US didn't create a significantly new product or process innovation in 2006 through 2008, and there's almost no outrage or astonishment?  During a period BEFORE the economic meltdown and recession, which is likely to make these numbers worse?  These numbers are very serious, and indicate a real reduction in investment in innovation - regardless of the R&D investments.  If our economy is to compete, in the US and globally, we need much more focus on innovation.

During the 2006-2008 period, according to the survey, only 8% of health care firms released new innovative products or services.  This in a period when it was evident that the Democrats were going to take office and radically change health care.  Rather than taking a proactive stance and working up ideas, the industry sat back and dug in its heels.  Now it is in a purely reactive mode and will be for quite some time.

The missed opportunities are almost too numerous to mention.  The lack of innovation is glaring, and the need for innovation at all levels and in all regions is stark.  Where is the attention?  Where is the outrage?  Where are the investors, demanding their executive teams do more to generate new products and services? 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:55 PM 2 comments

Book Review - The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs

I have the good fortune to read books on innovation subjects just before they are released.  It is actually a lot more interesting than that might sound.  On the whole, there is a lot of good stuff being written about innovation - the real question is, will anyone take the time to read all that's out there?

Today I am reviewing a book called The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo.  Gallo wrote a well-received book a few years ago entitled The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and felt a book on Jobs and Innovation was in order.  Anyone who has paid any attention lately knows that Apple is held up as a leading innovator, and rightly so, and most people place the locus of that success squarely on Jobs' head, which I also agree with.  If Jobs is driving a wave of innovation at Apple, it would make sense to understand what makes him tick, and what we could learn from that.

First, let me get off my chest the annoyance with the focus on "secrets".  As I've written before, there really aren't any secrets where innovation is concerned, and if you've paid any attention to the media you'll know much that Gallo is writing about.  The sooner we end the mythos that pervades the innovation space the better.

Now that that's off my chest we can proceed with the review.  Gallo has done an excellent job rounding up a significant number of people who were present at the beginning of a number of Apple's innovations.  He had to use this method to suss out Jobs' strategy, since Jobs doesn't like to talk about it directly to the media.  Jobs prefers to announce grand strategies and use the media to reinforce Apple's image as an innovator and a leader, but he doesn't appear too ready to talk directly about the innovation programs or visions.  Gallo has done a good job piecing together some of the strategies and insights by talking to a wide range of people who were with Apple during the resurgence.

Gallo argues that there are seven principles that will help you innovate like Jobs:
  1. Do what you love
  2. Put a dent in the universe - have a big vision
  3. Kick-start your brain - use creativity and have lots of different experiences
  4. Sell dreams not products - understand what people want to accomplish
  5. Say no to 1000 things
  6. Create insanely great experiences
  7. Master the message
In these points Gallo identifies what makes Jobs, and by extension Apple, a good innovator.  Apple is focusing tightly on important and relevant products and experience that impact how we live, especially how we gain and interact with new media and social media.  Apple under Jobs has always had an outsized vision of itself and its mission - remember the 1984 commercial?  A big vision, tied to excellent strategic insight and the ability to accurately predict trends in the marketplace have put Apple in an excellent position.

But Apple has also been fairly ruthless in its focus.  Since Jobs rejoined Apple the number of products Apple offers has actually fallen rather dramatically.  Apple places a lot of emphasis on one or two disruptive products a year, and people eagerly await Jobs' next announcement (master the message).  Jobs understands probably better than most what it means to offer a "whole product" (the MP-3 player AND iTunes) and masters the messaging better than any of his competitors.  Apple doesn't just create a new technology - in fact they are technology laggards - they create a product that works and provide an excellent experience that seems cool.  Sony, Dell, Samsung and H-P must cringe everytime Apple steals a march on them, because Apple has a constancy of vision and the ability to deliver experience in a package that none of these other firms have yet been able to match.

All the Jobs stories are here - how he dropped in at Reed College in calligraphy, his time in an ashram, the early glory days, the days in the Wilderness, his return to Apple.  All of them seem to have had an effect on Jobs as a thinker and innovator, according to the book.  Somehow I doubt that conclusion.  While Jobs is the summation of his experiences, he was always an iconoclast, zigging where others zagged.  His experiences may have shaped his thinking, but the kernal of what he is was there all along. 

You can't innovate like Jobs because he is Jobs and you aren't, but that's OK.  We only need a few Jobs' to set a standard.  You can learn a lot about Jobs and his different perspectives, and begin to apply these ideas in places that are far different from Apple.  However, you can't simply change a culture of any firm to align it to Apple's thinking, or Google's structures, overnight, and it would be difficult and distracting.  What you can do is identify the iconoclasts within your firm and begin to encourage them to think different.  Therein lies the genesis of innovation success.  Demonstrating that people with unique insights who want to create great change can work within a large, staid organization successfully, rather than having to create a completely new company.

This is a good book, well organized and well written that reminds and reinforces our image and knowledge of Jobs.  At the end I am left with the fact that some people are so unique and different that we can't hope to copy them, but even pale imitations may take us a long way.  The real question is how many people have the courage to try.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:54 AM 4 comments

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Innovation and a network effect

There's been a blog post rattling around in my head for several days now, but I haven't been quite able to grasp the handle of it.  So stick with me here as I work it out on (virtual) paper.

We all are aware of the benefits for innovation that occur when we as individuals network with other people, other markets, other industries, other ideas.  Research recently published by the Harvard Business Review indicated five attributes of successful innovators.  One was a clear proclivity to network and exchange information and ideas with a broad array of people.  Clearly, what I'll call "outbound" networking is important.

But there's another networking that's at least as important for successful innovation, and that one is a little harder to pin down, yet like the nose on your face is sitting in the open right in front of you.  This network has to do with the concept of critical mass and competition.  If you think about this for a minute it will become obvious - markets or industries where competition is high see a high degree of innovation, and the converse is also true.  Markets, industries and countries with little or no competition, whether that's from government policies or a dearth of firms to compete or natural or unnatural monopolies suffer from low innovation.  If we take that as a given, then innovation is more successful when there is a critical mass or network effect in an industry or market.

This says something to us about innovators in an individual firm as well.  The myth of the "lone innovator" is a powerful one, since we are lead to believe from history that individuals like Edison worked alone and in a vacuum.  Neither of those suppositions is true.  Edison, for example, worked with a number of collaborators in a lab specifically designed to mix ideas from a number of different industries.  This has implication for innovation in any firm - rather than "select" a couple of people and ask them to be innovative, we need to create a critical mass of innovators who are networking with each other and sharing ideas and concepts within the firm and outside the firm.  Instead of selecting just a few people and asking them to be innovative, we need to create a critical mass of innovators inside a firm, and allow them to interact and exchange ideas, internally and externally.  Walling off the innovators from the outside is dangerous, as we've demonstrated with the first concept of the network effect.  They lack access to all the new ideas, trends and information created in their industry and in other markets and industries.

What's also true is that kicking off one or two isolated and very small innovation efforts while the rest of the firm "stays focused" on the important daily tasks makes innovation more difficult.  Imagine if Chicago were to allow only three pizza restaurants.  Eventually innovation in pizza would slow down or cease due to limited competition and limited new ideas entering the Chicago market.  Allowing as many pizza places as the market can bear, and watching the competition and new offerings closely creates lots of "pizza innovation".  Similarly multiple innovation teams within an organization that exchange information with each other, and with other firms and markets, will create more and better innovation.

Don't read into this that "skunkworks" are the wrong solution however.  Occasionally skunkworks are the best way to accomplish one specific innovation task - a big new disruption.  But on the whole many actively engaged innovators in a firm, exchanging ideas and information, will create an internal network effect and accelerate ideas.  Note that this is almost in opposition to what most firms construct when they attempt to become more innovative. Usually they designate one specific team while the rest of the business plods onwards.  There are no other innovators within the business to interact with or compare notes.  Additionally, there's no one to "compete" with for the best ideas, and no "synergistic" effects created by multiple individuals or teams.

While there is definitely an external networking effect brought on by discovering new ideas, new trends and new information from other industries and markets, I believe there is an equally important and often overlooked critical mass or internal network effect that is missing from many firms that attempt to become more innovative.  Creating more innovation teams or individuals and ensuring they interact, exchange ideas and compete for resources and attention will drive more and better ideas.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:31 AM 2 comments

Monday, October 04, 2010

Innovation and the Renaissance man (or woman)

It's increasingly obvious that good innovators come in all shapes and colors, all moods and forms.  What's also obvious is that many of the best innovators seem to be "Renaissance" people - that is, people with a lot of interests or who are engaged in a lot of different fields.  This always poses an interesting chicken and egg question for me:  do you have to be a Renaissance person to be innovative, or do all innovators resemble Renaissance people?

For me, some of our Founding Fathers are real Renaissance people.  Individuals like Franklin and Jefferson immediately spring to mind - people fluent in several languages who were well traveled, who could play music on several instruments and who investigated scientific theories and exchanged ideas on political issues.  These men were innovators and resembled much of what we think of as Renaissance leaders today - people active accomplished in a number of fields and disciplines, well-read and well-rounded.

In our increasingly specialized world, deep industry or operational knowledge is often valued over breadth of knowledge and connections.  The deeper and more arcane the knowledge, the higher the compensation. This leads to many information silos where individuals have great expertise but little motivation to network or learn outside of their silo.  As long as the future doesn't require integrated knowledge or insight, the deep but narrow model prevails.

However, when an industry is disrupted it's the people who can link several disciplines or insights together who piece together the new offerings, or who have the insight for new products and services.  Most research indicates that the best innovators are actively networked and constantly seek ideas that challenge their thinking.  Our brains easily get locked into repetitive thinking and must be constantly challenged or inertia sets in and our thinking is exceptionally limited.  Only through constant interaction and networking with people and ideas from a broad range of fields will we free our brains and our innovative skills from the inertia and barriers that exist.

This means you need to be getting out from behind the desk and meeting your customers, yes, but also interacting with people in adjacent industries and industries where you don't participate.  You need to be confronted with new ideas, new technologies and the shifting economics and demographics.  It's no surprise that people who travel and are confronted with different cultures are often better innovators.  Yet too frequently our teams meet only people in their industries, and when they travel are housed in generic hotels in business districts indistinguishable from suburban US cities. 

If you want to be more innovative, read outside your industry.  Try something completely new.  Read literature or watch TV shows that you'd never typically watch.  Interact with people who are very different from you.  Even better, gain new skills.  Learn to play chess or pick up a new game, a new skill or learn to dance.  All this new learning has a subsidiary benefit as well - it trains your brain and staves off Alzheimer's and brain decay, as well as having the possibility to make you more innovative.

The "Renaissance" men and women were naturally curious and didn't have Google or the ability to view information at their fingertips.  They worked for the information they consumed and were happy to contribute information and insights back.  This broad networking and learning made them more innovative, to our great satisfaction, at least where governance is concerned.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:55 PM 3 comments