Monday, November 28, 2011

Why Prototyping is integral to innovation

"Will they work with Play-Do"?

That was the question a participant in one of our recent innovation workshops asked me at the end of the second day.  We'd examined how to spot trends and identify customer needs, and the following day we were going to focus on generating ideas and using rapid prototyping to refine ideas and develop them more effectively.  The participant, an innovation leader in a large organization, doubted that many of the people in the class would be willing to develop physical prototypes of the ideas we generated.  He knew we would bring prototyping materials like modeling clay, pipe cleaners, construction paper, and other ingredients.  He questioned whether or not "serious" business people would be willing to be creative and develop a rapid prototype out of simple ingredients.  Based on my experience, I had no doubt.

"Tomorrow will surprise you" I told him, and it did.  We made prototypes of ideas that had been generated, and the sheer energy and enthusiasm that went into the development was (and always is) astonishing.  People who will flatly tell you they aren't creative can take simple, readily available ingredients and artifacts and create a realistic model of their idea.  And what follows next is even better - the insights, questions and refinements of the idea now that a physical representation is available.

Later, after the prototyping, the gentleman approached me.  He as a bit sheepish, as he had developed his own prototype and demonstrated it proudly.  "You were right - these people did more than I imagined.  Prototyping is powerful.  I was surprised by what I learned."

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I think a prototype is worth a thousand ideas.  Most ideas originate as a few words on a page, or a nascent concept in one person's head.  Developing a physical prototype or representation of the idea will spawn new ideas and new insights.  Yet few firms do anything to encourage rapid prototyping as a means to develop and refine ideas.  Far too often teams generate ideas in brainstorming sessions, record ideas on a flipchart and fail to develop the ideas in any meaningful way.  Prototyping - building very simple representations of ideas - will help people understand the ideas more effectively, will help teams understand the value proposition of an idea, and will help people interact and provide refinements and identify weaknesses.  Individuals and teams who "aren't creative" can, in less than 30 minutes, significantly improve an idea and gain dramatically better insights.

Many firms will argue that they build prototypes, but what they actually build are engineered scale models of final ideas.  What they don't do is use simple, readily available and easily disposable ingredients to create a rough representation of an idea.  An initial prototype should be something you can build in less than half an hour, with materials that cost less than $5.  No engineering, no specifications, no advanced materials.  Only through inexpensive, rapid prototyping are you able to explore an idea effectively and improve it rapidly.

I've attached a few photos of some of the prototypes developed in our latest workshops.  Remember, these were built by groups of people who met for a three day workshop that included about an hour of instruction on prototyping and had just one hour to assemble a prototype of an idea they generated as a small team.  As I said before, I'm constantly astounded by the creativity demonstrated and the insights that are generated.

A prototype that explores using solar energy to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, so hydrogen can be burned to produce energy.
A prototype of a cell-phone service selection that allows cell phone customers to select the ingredients of their plan, rather than use company developed packages.
A model of a store intended to increase sales of specific components.

A prototype to demonstrate and discuss financial transactions between industry, individuals and government agencies.

I paraphrased the old saying above, and I believe it to be very true:  if a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand ideas.  What is your team/organization doing with its ideas?  Prototyping is an exceptionally simple yet powerful way to discover more about your ideas, generate more ideas and refine existing ideas.  You'll discover the creativity that lies dormant in each of us when you prototype, and best of all, it costs next to nothing.

Contact us if you'd like to learn how to integrate prototyping into your idea generation or idea development methods.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:16 AM 2 comments

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Places to watch for innovation

I'm just finishing my second innovation training workshop in Dubai, and having a chance to think about the opportunities and challenges for innovation in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.  While these two locations may seem very different from each other, in many ways they are very similar, and they combine aspects and ingredients for long term innovation.

Both Kuala Lumpur and Dubai are cross-roads, where people from different religions, cultures and countries meet.  Both are very welcoming to people from different locations, with different opinions and different ideas.  This willingness to welcome others, to combine different concepts, perspectives and viewpoints, offers the potential for a significant amount of innovation.  What's more, both are growing and increasingly embracing their place in a global market.  Both cities understand their strengths and are increasing the emphasis on overcoming challenges in education and infrastructure.

While I have worked in the innovation space, I've had the opportunity to work with a broad cross-section of people from the US, Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia.  I can say with no uncertainty that the people in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai are excited about innovation, engaged and enthusiastic about embracing change and creating new concepts, in a way that I suppose existed in many other countries.  Perhaps innovation leadership, as exemplified by the US, tends to lead to complacency, because I see far more excitement and commitment to gaining innovation skills and learning about innovation methods and practices in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur than I see in many Western countries.  And while there is a gap in knowledge and experience, this is not an insurmountable gap. 

Much innovation is accomplished through excitement, engagement and persistence, rather than through expertise and knowledge.  While we in the west need innovation to continue to grow and prosper, we often lack enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.  It's simply too easy to be comfortable with the existing systems and parameters.  Perhaps we've reached a level where all of Maslow's needs are fulfilled, and innovation seems to be too much work or place too much at risk for too little reward.  Have we become jaded to the power and possibility of innovation, or have we simply become far too comfortable?  Andy Grove was right, only the paranoid survive.

I've had the good fortunate too see many emerging and growing economies where many of the ingredients for innovation are percolating.  Beyond the simple ingredients - a good blend of many people and culture, strong educational systems, a desire to compete and win in the global economy - people in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai have energy and enthusiasm to learn more about innovation, animal spirits to create new attempts. 

Mark Twain said the rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated, and I'd be remiss to be one to write the eulogy of the US in regards to innovation too early.  But I'd also be remiss if I didn't note how much innovation potential exists in places like Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.  I look forward to see what happens in these locations where so much of the recipe for successful innovation is in place, and I hope we in the States can recapture the sense of urgency we need to accelerate innovation to retain our leadership position.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 3:28 AM 0 comments

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Innovation Workshops in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur

I'm back in Asia and the Middle East, delivering a workshop on rapid, disruptive innovation based on a methodology that we developed to help our clients speed up disruptive innovation work.  My time in Kuala Lumpur was great, and the city and people are wonderful.  Unfortunately I did not have a lot of time for touring.

I just spent a day touring some of the amazing sites in Dubai.  I'm going to attach some of the photos at the end of this post.  Both Kuala Lumpur and Dubai seem unreal.  Their growth is simply amazing and the mixture of people, cultures, races is bound to produce interesting results.  If we believe that innovation happens when industries and cultures intersect, these cities are two to watch.

Here are some pictures I took in Kuala Lumpur:

Great streetside food.

Petronas Towers at Night

Next it was off to Dubai.  Here are just a few pictures from my travels.

 That's the skyline at sunset.  The Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world (right now) is seen at the left.

The Dubai business district as seen from the top of the Burj Khalifa.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:16 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Innovation's limiting factor

Ask anyone what limits innovation and they'll have a hundred different answers - unsupportive management, uncertain goals, unrealistic resource allocation, and many, many more.  What's more, each of these, in their own way, are obstacles to innovation.  But what ultimately sets the speed and capability of your organization when it comes to innovation is your ability to experiment, prototype and introduce the learning from experimenting and prototyping back into idea development quickly.

Even if you have all the resources you need, all the support you need and all the management support you can stand, your innovation pace will still be dictated by how rapidly you can experiment and prototype new ideas, and how quickly you can react to what you've learned.  Plenty of firms have plenty of support for innovation, but are unable or simply don't have the experience to conduct short, rapid experiments with less than perfect prototypes.

Why is experimenting and prototyping so important?  No idea is perfect from its first documentation and capture.  Ideas must develop and must be exposed to real world situations in order to hone the value proposition and correct unseen flaws that often aren't exposed until the idea is presented to potential customers.  Most organizations skip this step, or conversely, take far too long to conduct the experimentation, substituting more market research for simply placing a prototype in front of the customer. 

Rapid experimentation leads to a lot of learning and new insights, but it also means that some experiments and prototypes will be crash-test dummies - that is, they were developed for learning and proved a point.  Their success is based on the fact we validated a problem or discovered, like Edison, how not to do something.  This isn't failure, it's learning and validation.  Perhaps if we framed it that way, more organizations would spend more time experimenting and prototyping. because these two functions dictate a significant amount of the speed with which your firm can innovate.

Most firms need to learn that rapid, messy, inexact experimenting, iterating to get it just right, is far more valuable than slow, careful, perfect experiments that only validate what we expected.  Innovation should solve unmet or unexpected needs and opportunities, therefore the results of the experiment should also be uncertain and unexpected.  And as fast as is possible, because ultimately this sets the drumbeat for innovation in your business.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 3:18 AM 1 comments

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The nine lives of brainstorming

I read yesterday, in one of the leading papers in our country, that brainstorming is useless and doesn't work.  This reporting announces, yet again, what everyone who stands on the outside of innovation circles has assumed is true - brainstorming, idea generation and the rest of the work that innovators do is hocus-pocus.  Regardless of over 60 years of investment in Creative Problem Solving, brainstorming doesn't work.

This eulogy is the second I've read from leading business writers.  Just a few years ago Bruce Nussbaum at Business Week wrote a long article entitled Brainstorming is dead.  I wrote a rebuttal to that statement which you can find here.  And, like the Pavlovian dog responding to the bell, I rise yet again to wonder - what in the world are these people talking about?

I come, to paraphrase the play, not to bury brainstorming but to praise it.

In the latest article to bury brainstorming, Jena McGregor at the Washington Post states that brainstorming doesn't work.  Hmm, that would be news to my clients who have just filed two patents after a round of brainstorming just a few months ago.  Or another client who introduced a radical new product that was the direct result of a brainstorming effort from earlier in the year.  Who knew?  We were crediting a tool that produced a result that experts have demonstrated doesn't work.  Or, perhaps, were the experiments and research that led to the conclusion somewhat flawed?

McGregor points in her article to research conducted by professors at Texas A&M, in which a similar problem is presented to a group, and to a range of people working on their own.  The research demonstrates that people working on their own will come up with more ideas, and sometimes more radical or "better" ideas than the group will.  The professors stipulate that one reason is "Cognitive Fixation", which means that people become fixed on ideas, especially ones suggested by others, and neglect to pursue other pathways.  I think this argument, on its face, is mostly true.

What this research fails to mention is that no good idea facilitation company would pursue idea generation in this way.  Just as I don't eat at restaurants where the cooks all prepare meals independently with no central plan or menu, good innovators understand that to generate great ideas, there's far more involved than simply "dumping people in a room together" to paraphrase the article.  Is idea generation abused - often used to achieve a predefined goal or to steer teams in a particular direction?  Yes.  But do we blame the cars for the automobile accidents?

The problem with this analysis is that while it is accurate, it portrays events that happen for a reason, and does not fully investigate all of the "best practices" that good innovators follow.  To establish a successful brainstorming or idea generation session goes far beyond dumping people into a room.  The steps a good innovator follows include:
  • Excellent problem or opportunity definition - to scope the opportunity and ensure everyone is focused on an important, relevant problem or opportunity
  • A clear definition of outcome - should the ideas be disruptive or incremental?  Should they result in physical products, services, new marketing material or some other outcome?
  • Selecting a heterogeneous group - the broader the perspectives and the wider the experiences the better
  • Selecting a team size appropriate to the outcomes - small teams do a better job of generating disruptive ideas.  The more people that participate, the more likely the result reverts to the norm of the group.
  • Preparation - telling people what the problem is (see above) and giving them the background information necessary to participate effectively.  In this way you don't spend valuable time trying to get everyone "on board" during ideation
  • Removing the "anchors" - brainstorming and idea generation is serious work, and seriously different from what people do day to day.  Just as I can't rush into surgery without preparation, most people can't quickly release all the constraints and barriers imposed by their day to day jobs to think more expansively.  Good facilitators know how to break the ice and help people think expansively
  • Excellent facilitation - good ideation comes about from preparation and excellent facilitation.  If you want excellent results in any effort you find people who are expert in their field.  If your ideation sessions are led by people who aren't experts, or who have agendas, or who can't help the group think more broadly, then what did you expect?  Do you use the Brain surgery at Home kits as well?
So, I think this article and others like it have successfully skewered the strawman of ineffective, unplanned and unfacilitated brainstorming.  We can now rest assured that yes, poorly planned, poorly led and poorly executed brainstorming doesn't work.  Just like poorly led firms with little strategy are often unsuccessful.

It's not as though there aren't documented "best practices" for idea generation, or that there are thousands of practitioners who do this work effectively.  Too bad you can't find training on idea facilitation or read books (like, oh, Think Better by Tim Hurson) to understand how to do this.  Or Group Genius by Keith Sawyer.  If only there was a documented canon of material or a knowledge base about how to do this effectively. If it's academic rigor you need, you could check out Sawyer, identified above, or perhaps Clayton Christensen or Teresa Amabile at Harvard. 

On the other hand, there are literally thousands of examples of successful brainstorming every day.  Why isn't that mentioned in this article, or when people complain about the lack of success in idea generation?  Here's an offer - if you believe brainstorming or idea generation doesn't work, contact me.  If you'll agree to work within the strategy I've identified above, I'll guarantee a successful result - you'll see a dramatic difference in your idea generation.

Fortunately, innovation and idea generation are feline - they are mysterious and have more than one life.  Having been declared dead by Nussbaum and declared useless by McGregor, idea generation still remains a viable and valuable function in an innovation program.  Still seven more lives to go yet.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:02 AM 8 comments

Friday, November 04, 2011

Innovation: a new paradigm

I was thinking recently that the reason some people grapple with innovation with little success is because it requires a new paradigm, which is simply a big word that means a new perspective or new model of thinking.  Traditionally, most businesses follow a fairly predictable model.  They develop an idea, or product, or service, they scale up to deliver those products and services to more people, they optimize their models for efficiency, then they attempt to lock in to a very optimized model for profitability, and to lock out other competitors and substitutes or alternatives.  So I'll stipulate that the paradigm most businesses are familiar with look like this:
  • Develop
  • Scale
  • Optimize
  • Lock in
And this model is then repeated.  As a business grows, it turns its attention to the "next" product or service, and develops, scales and optimizes the new product or service within the umbrella of the locked in market or solution.  This does two things - attracts new customers with new products while reinforcing the existing core capabilities, making the firm even more efficient - a larger market on the same cost basis.

There are some problems that are easily identified with this model, but no one has yet determined how to resolve them.  First is that a firm scales (gets more customers) before it optimizes.  This means that growth is expensive early in the process, because many firms ignore efficiency and costs when scaling up.  The idea is to get big fast, then go back and optimize the model.  The second is the concept of "lock in".  In the past, a firm or small set of firms could establish a market and lock in their advantages and lock out competitors and substitutes, by controlling the access to the market, by controlling channels of distribution or by colluding on pricing.  The airline industry is a great example of all three.

This model has worked for a long time, but increasingly is under pressure.  There simply aren't enough large firms that are good at development or scaling.  More and more, these critical activities are left to entrepreneurs and startups, or are done ineffectively or poorly by larger firms.  Also, consumer tastes and expectations have changed.  We consumers expect more change, more diversity, more selection and more innovation in the products and services we buy, and are less patient to wait for new products and services.  Thus, a model that expects long development and scaling times and a long lock-in period when profits are realized is running headlong into markets and consumers who expect rapid response, and don't care when the firm makes money.  The existing model has encouraged firms to become monolithic, slow and bureaucratic at precisely the time they should be agile, nimble and aggressive.

So, how does innovation change this paradigm?  Clearly, innovation addresses the "develop" phase, by defining the right products to develop and speeding development.  Done correctly, innovation should reduce the risk and uncertainty surrounding development of new products and services.  Further, innovation should help firms rethink their organizational structure and product/service delivery process.  Innovation is more than bringing new products to market.  Innovation can also address new services, new business models and new experiences as well.

Competitive forces, new entrants and consumer expectations are chipping away at the develop/scale/optimize/lockin model that has been successful for years.  Innovation is clearly one answer to help companies become more agile and meet customers' needs and expectations, but it flies in the face of the existing paradigm, and that is awfully difficult to change.  It's difficult to change because this is the mental model that many people in business have about the "way things should be done".  When you innovate, it threatens to change the existing paradigm (although competitive forces are making those changes as well) and changing the paradigm makes it hard for people to accept.  None of us likes change when it is thrust upon us, especially to tried and trusted models that have "worked" for years.

So whether your existing paradigm is destroyed by the markets, competitors and consumer expectations, or you replace it with innovation, it is under attack.  The question becomes - will you create an orderly transition to a new model, loved or unloved, or will you allow the markets and competitors to undercut and disrupt your business paradigm?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:10 AM 1 comments