Friday, April 27, 2012

Innovators aren't cynics

I was talking with a potential client who seemed cynical about innovation.  In fact, most of our clients are both equally cynical and hopeful about innovation.  They are cynical because innovation has often failed to deliver extravagant promises, and hopeful because innovation is one of the few tools that firms have to grow, to differentiate and to disrupt.

People are cynical about innovation because innovation often hasn't delivered what has been promised.  But looking more closely at the reasons why uncovers some basic truths.  One, many promises have been overstated, by people with a vested interest in promoting innovation.  Yes, even us innovation consultants can get carried away, but often executives turn to innovation and make promises.  Even politicians make promises about innovation.  Yet those promises neglect some vital aspects.  Often when executives or politicians promise great returns from innovation, they fail to support, fund, resource and sustain innovation.  Blaming innovation for failing to deliver results when programs aren't adequately funded or resourced is like blaming your car for failing to start when you neglected to fill up.

Two, people are often cynical about innovation because they realize it is occasionally used as a scapegoat or "flavor of the month".  Executives rush in, talk about innovation without intent to deploy anything, and then drop innovation to pick up another management credo to pronounce.  Everyone realizes that innovation will be hard work, and everyone knows the differences between innovation as a talking point and innovation as a funded initiative supported by executives.

But there's a deeper point to made here about cynicism.  We've learned, through books, through movies, through corporate examples, that business people lend a critical eye to everything.  We business people are cynics by nature - looking for the challenge or failure in any product or service.  Many businesses deliver products that HAVE to work - I want cynical engineers designing my bridges and airplanes.  But cynicism is deadly to creative thinking and innovation.

Don't get me wrong - the best innovators, Jobs for example, are a masterful combination of wonder, empathy and cynicism.  Wonder and empathy to imagine and create, cynicism to design, build and deliver.  Edison, perhaps our first significant innovator, was devastated by the failure of his first invention, an automatic voting machine.  He swore he would never again create a product that he didn't know if he could sell.  But he obviously balanced his market cynicism with passion for experimentation and discovery.  No cynic could attempt hundreds of experiments.

But what about the majority of us in business, in politics, in academia?  We are notorious cynics, but we cannot afford to be.  How many times have you said "I've seen this before" or "This didn't work the last time we tried it"?  How many times have you turned a cynical eye on a new idea, not giving it the consideration it deserves?  My favorite is "well, I've seen it all".  No, sorry, you haven't.  You can't possibly imagine all of the possibilities, and the disruption around the corner in your market will surprise and amaze you.  Because someone with less cynicism and more wonder and optimism simply asked the question:  why not?

Until you recognize that you haven't seen it all, that you can't even imagine all the opportunities, that cynicism is a set of blinders meant to keep you in line, you are definitely correct:  you can't innovate.  There is no more self-fulfilling prophecy than a cynic who boldly declares that he or she "can't innovate".  They are exactly right, and self-reinforcing to boot.  Get rid of your cynicism, approach innovation opportunities with a sense of wonder, enthusiasm, possibility.  Yes, that means shedding your green eyeshades and corporate cynicism.  Don't worry, we won't hold it against you.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:15 AM 1 comments

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Getting Innovation Backwards

So I had lunch today with a friend who described another friend's innovation approach.  It boiled down to "lets go generate a lot of ideas".  The theory being that once they had a lot of ideas they'd find a valuable one that would be important and relevant.  This approach always reminds me of the story of the little girl digging in the horse barn.  Her father spots her and asks "why are you digging in that pile of horse manure?" (PG for mixed audiences).  Her response?  If there is all this manure here, there must be a pony in here too.  Corporate innovators are often like the little girl, digging in a manure pile of ideas, convinced there's a pony there somewhere.

Far, far too many organizations, when given the chance to innovate, rush out to generate a bunch of ideas.  There are several reasons they do this:
  1. They are familiar with idea generation
  2. It feels like they've accomplished something - a list of ideas
  3. They now have a pile of stuff to wade through
  4. They've been told that generating lots of ideas is important (and in context, it is)
  5. Management wants to see ideas
What they are doing, basically, is generating ideas, searching for an answer.  Which is exactly backwards.  What they should do is identify an answer (significant opportunity or challenge) and then generate ideas (solutions).

But this seems counterproductive.  Identifying answers - opportunities or challenges means taking time to research existing business challenges, prioritizing needs, understanding customer requirements.  This doesn't seem like "innovation" and doesn't deliver quick ideas.  So, after a month or two of following this path impatient management, not understanding the approach asks "where are the ideas?".  So, far too many firms follow the first approach, since they think they understand the tools and know they need to deliver quickly.

But delivering poor, misaligned ideas quickly is just another way to deliver rapid failure.  When your ideas aren't relevant or valuable, no matter how quickly you generate them, or if they fail to attract powerful sponsors or funding, who cares how quickly you generated them.

As with many things in life, received wisdom has it exactly backwards.  Identifying the key challenges, understanding the links to strategic goals, deciphering customer needs leads to understanding the potential answer.  Only then are you ready to generate ideas that matter.  Or, as Einstein said "given an hour to solve a major problem I'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes working on the solution".  Once again, our approach is exactly backwards, which is why so many idea generation activities fail to deliver great solutions.

If you generate a lot of ideas without clear context or in answer to an important strategic question or need, you are simply shoveling the manure, looking for the pony that has already left the barn.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:03 AM 0 comments

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Wizard of Innovation

I've been thinking a lot about how the Wizard of Oz reflects so much about innovation.  Not the story per se, but the setting and the characters and how they represent attributes or characteristics innovators must possess.

Take, for example, Dorothy's three key companions - the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man.  These three each personify a key trait that innovators must possess.  The Scarecrow is looking for a brain.  From an innovation perspective, we'll translate this as "insight" - the ability know what customer needs are unfolding and the willingness to learn new methods and approaches.  The Cowardly Lion is looking for courage.  Innovators must be courageous, to stand up to the challenges that they will face when trying to innovate, which bucks the business as usual mentality.  The Tin Man was looking for a heart.  Innovators need a big heart - a heart full of courage and commitment, but also a heart full of empathy.  Anyone can dream up new ideas, but its only when you have empathy for the customer that you discover important needs. All of the characters who journey with Dorothy are capable of doing what they need to do, and discover their abilities in the journey.  This is often true with innovators - people who don't think they are "creative" or who don't have the right status are often great innovators if they allow themselves to be.

Or, consider the Wizard, the man behind the curtain.  The wizard is never presented until the very end, and is considered a very powerful force.  When finally unmasked, he turns out to be much less powerful than he appeared.  In the innovator's world, the Wizard correlates to the corporate culture.  The culture is a seemingly powerful force, ephemeral but always present.  But when a powerful innovator confronts a corporate culture with the right backing and the right ideas, the culture can be tamed.

Dorothy represents another facet of the innovator must possess - determination and focus.  No matter what happens, Dorothy seeks to return home.  She has a clear goal and pursues it regardless of the obstacles, regardless of the circumstances.  She confronts all of these forces aligned against her, including the Wicked Witch, who personifies all of the nay-sayers, the status quoers, the let's leave well enough alone types.  These people constantly confront an innovator, seeking to distract, delay and derail an innovation effort because they want to protect their products, their status or the existing status quo.  No matter the obstacle, no matter how compelling Oz may seem, Dorothy stays true to her goals and convictions.  So too must innovators have a clear goal and stay true to their convictions.

Innovators need bold ideas and clear thinking that come from an engaged brain, and bold actions and confidence, as well as empathy, that come from a big heart.  They need courage to confront all that faces them in an existing business as usual culture.  They need determination to face the faceless but seemingly powerful corporate culture and the slings and arrows thrown by the people who don't want change or are afraid of change.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:48 AM 1 comments

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to tell if you are an innovator

In a world of celebrity driven Twitter, "reality" shows and always on news, Andy Warhol was only partially right.  We'll all be famous for 15 minutes.  Unfortunately some people seem to get their 15 minutes over and over again for all the wrong reasons.  Luckily for us, however, most innovators toil away from the spotlight.  In fact many people who are innovators don't realize who and what they are.

Innovators are born and made.  Innovators are people who have good ideas or sometimes just good insights.  Innovators are people who aren't happy with the status quo, and are willing to do something about it.  Herewith, seven factors that will tell you whether or not you are an innovator.  Take the assessment, but know this:  anyone can be an innovator.  Read on and I'll tell you how.


  1. Think a lot about the future.  They wonder not about the next calamity, but what the future will be like and how they can impact the future.  They wonder about emerging trends.  They wonder what consumers will want next.  Safety and security in today's world doesn't interest them.  They are eager for what's next.
  2. Aren't satisfied with the status quo.  They are constantly trying to improve things - even things that don't seem to be broken.  They want to know how to improve things, eliminate obstacles.  As Shaw said, all progress is due to the unreasonable man, since reasonable people accept shortcomings.
  3. Are empathetic.  Innovators can get into other people's lives and shoes.  They can virtually walk a mile in your moccasins.  This doesn't necessarily mean they are "nice", just able to understand issues and challenges better than the average joe.  
  4. Are playful, in the best sense.  By this I mean they are open to new experiences, are willing to test and prototype, and open to discovery.
  5. Are stubborn and driven.  If innovators don't have a stubborn streak, then their ideas won't progress, because many people will resist even good ideas initially.  It's not easy advocating for a new idea.  Innovators have to be committed to their ideas.
  6. Are open to exchange of insights and ideas.  While stubborn and driven, they understand that the best ideas are emergent and based on the kernal of good insights and ideas from a broad range of settings.  They are willing to listen, to absorb and to incorporate inputs from a wide variety of sources.
  7. Want to solve real problems.  The difference between science fiction and innovation is that while innovators joke about jet backpacks, they want to solve real needs and offer real solutions.  Some of those may be incremental in nature - the next product release and some may be disruptive - the next jet backpack.  But only if the jet backpack solves a real, important, relevant need and is viable and adoptable.
So, how did you do?  If the profile I've described feels right, you have all the proclivity to become an excellent innovator.  Don't think you aren't creative enough or don't have enough time or energy.  If this profile sounds like you, get moving.  You are an innovator whether you like it or not.

If this doesn't sound like you, but you do want to innovate, the great news is this: nothing in this list can't be learned.  These are a series of behaviors and perspectives that anyone can adopt.  Stop telling yourself you aren't innovative.  You weren't born with the gene, you build it from your experiences, interests and perspectives.  Just exercise your attitude and become more open to the possibilities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:01 AM 2 comments

Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: Beyond the Obvious

Over the years I've had a chance to interact with some really insightful innovators.  I've been fortunate enough to meet and interact with individuals like Steve Shapiro, Paul Sloane, Paul Hobcraft, Alex Osterwalder and James Gardner.  These individuals have all contributed to the pantheon of great innovation insights and writing.  As have good friends and mentors like Tim Hurson, Gary Hamel and Peter Schwartz.  The amount of material written on innovation is growing exponentially, but the amount of valuable material within that exponential growth is essentially flat.

That's why I was pleased to see Phil McKinney's new book, Beyond the Obvious, and have a chance to read it.  McKinney, until recently, was the CTO for Hewlett-Packard and led a significant amount of innovation at H-P, and in roles prior to H-P.  McKinney is unusual for a senior corporate executive, in that he has traditionally been very open with his thoughts, publishing a blog and a series of podcasts about innovation.  So I looked forward to his book.

Beyond the Obvious, Killer questions that spark game-changing innovation, takes a new and unique approach to the challenges presented by innovation.  Rather than present a specific methodology or toolset, McKinney starts at an almost philosophical position by asking questions.  You have to like any management book that starts with a quote by Voltaire, rather than Drucker or Porter.  Phil states early on that "the first step to freeing yourself to find innovations is to recognize that the knowledge you currently have is insufficient, and that you need to go out and discover new information that will lead you to new products or concepts".  This is exceptionally important.  Many organizations want to start from a position of certainty.  They make statements rather than ask questions.  Good innovators are naturally curious and willing to learn more.  The best way to do this is to explore and ask questions.  Yet asking questions is not in our corporate nature, unless we already know the answer.

Phil talks about challenging assumptions, getting beyond "business as usual".  In Relentless Innovation I defined how powerful business as usual is, and what a barrier it can be to innovation activities.  Phil describes business as usual as mental "handcuffs" that keep people locked into the way they've always worked.  Questions break this cycle.

Phil also talks about "jolts" and weak signals - basically a way of talking about disruptions and spotting them by watching for trends.  Jolts are disruptions but also opportunities for innovation.

In the final sections before diving more deeply into the killer questions he addresses the issue of corporate antibodies - those people and beliefs that stifle innovation.  He addresses four kinds of corporate antibodies for innovation:
  1. Ego
  2. Fatigue (tried that before)
  3. No risk ("no ROI", "no funds available")
  4. Comfort ("don't rock the boat", "we've always done it this way")
These beliefs and innovation responses will be familiar to anyone who has attempted innovation.

In the next section of the book Phil defines his FIRE methodology:  Focus, Ideation, Ranking and Execution.  Basically a high level innovation methodology.

Focus is about making the right decisions - key questions: who (customer), what (product) and how (function).  Phil argues too much emphasis is placed on customer and product, and not enough on function.

Ideation is about generating ideas based on key questions.

Ranking is, as its name suggests, ranking or prioritizing ideas, especially weeding out influence and bias

Execution described a gated funding system to advance good ideas while keeping costs and risks low.

Once the FIRE methodology is introduced, Phil shows how each step of the process is managed and governed by asking good questions.  Who is your customer?  What criteria do they use to select your product?  Who is using it in unanticipated ways?  What is your offering? and so forth.  A lot of good questions to use to drive the ideation and ranking of your ideas.

Toward the end of the book Phil provides insights into how he runs innovation workshops and then provides a couple of very nice case studies where his Killer Questions approach has been used.

My Take:

Phil hits the nail on the head when he advocates approaching innovation from a discovery and questioning point of view.  Far too often many firms attempt to start from certainty and move to certainty, rather than starting from questions and exploration.  Phil's Killer Question approach is very helpful, using key questions and changing perspectives and assumptions.   This is a methodology that can be used by individuals or by a large group.

Phil incorporates a lot of innovation best practice, including trend spotting and scenario planning, and even incorporates questions that begin to uncover customer needs that may be unclear or hidden.  His advice on execution, using a gated funding model to keep costs and risks low, is in line with best practices.

There's much to take away from Killer Questions, especially the questions, but I think Phil's informal style is suitable only for people who are exceptionally skilled or confident in an innovation leadership role.  I can easily see an innovation consultant leading a client through this process, or a very senior executive who buys into the questioning approach.  There's not enough detail or definition to build an innovation capability or discipline based on what Phil has written.  It would be difficult for a firm to adopt this model without strong facilitation, since there's little definition of the process.

Phil's Killer Questions and his questioning approach will definitely be adopted by many firms.  I'll be incorporating some of his questions and his approach in our OVO innovation methodology.  However, without a strong, confident innovation leader who can encourage people to question their assumptions and work within this approach, it may be difficult for some firms to replicate Phil's success.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:38 AM 0 comments

Friday, April 13, 2012

Looking to the past for ideas

Satchel Paige has been quoted as saying "never look back, someone may be gaining on you", but I think it's our natural proclivity to "look back".  Looking back to our past is a way of reviewing and learning from our successes and mistakes.  Further, history is concrete.  We know what happened in the past, while everything that will happen, or could happen, in the future is still a mystery.

For another famous quote, Spinoza (or others, depending on your source) is attributed with "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it".  I think that sentiment is true where human nature is concerned.  We humans repeat the same mistakes in politics, in government and in personal affairs, often just in larger settings and with more significant consequences.  Just as the Spanish Civil War was clearly a precursor and training ground for World War II, so to the Algerian war was to Viet Nam and eventually even into Afghanistan.  And, as any historian can tell you, everyone who went into Afghanistan regretted it and left in less than noble terms.  But does careful study of the past tell us about need for innovation in the future? 

The question for executives and managers is:  should I study the past, which is fixed and relatively unmoving, concrete and known for ideas?  Or should I attempt to ascertain the future to find new ideas?  Both approaches are full of promise and fraught with uncertainty.

Studying the past provides far greater clarity.  We may not always understand the reasons WHY something happened, but we know WHAT happened.  In our modern management circles, clarity of purpose often trumps insights about opportunities that are unclear.  The problem with studying the past is that while ideas may be prevalent, and some even unexplored, the past is for the most part an open book.  All the insights that may be there are available to anyone, so your insights had better be good, and further, you'd better be able to deploy new products or services based on insights gleaned from the past very quickly.

Studying the future is quite the opposite.  There is no certainty or clarity once we look beyond a year or two, and, with the pace of change accelerating, attempting to forecast needs and wants five to ten years into the future is highly uncertain.  We don't know the WHO or the WHAT or the WHY of future needs.  But with careful thinking, aggregating weak signals into trends and excellent synthesis, we can begin to define more definitive patterns and shapes about the future, which can signal new needs and opportunities.  These will NOT be definitive, so clarity and certainty won't be served, but those who are willing to risk the investments based on their careful studies will be rewarded.

In business, our first approach is always to look to history.  Have we faced this issue before?  Have we had a problem or initiative like this before?  Can we relate this to something we've done in the past?  The goal is to find existing patterns, reduce the problem to something in alignment with known approaches and move ahead.  But many times historical patterns or knowledge aren't helpful or aren't in synch with future needs.  We often don't have as much comfort looking to the future and finding solutions and alternatives as we do finding corollaries for problems in the past.

The choice, to me, is obvious.  Far too often our teams are too comfortable looking to the past for answers, seeking clear and concrete needs in a past that is an open book, rather than looking ahead, harnessing the information that's available and making judgements based on the signals that are available.  Not only are we doomed to repeat history, we are doomed to do so lacking knowledge, services and products that would have made life better if only we were willing to understand that most good ideas lie in the future, not the past.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:26 PM 0 comments

Monday, April 09, 2012

Innovation attitudes and success

Well, I'm back and feeling chipper after a nice trip to Istanbul to meet a potential partner and a week in Spain on R&R.  After some relaxing days and digging out of email, it occurred to me that many of Stephen Covey's principles apply to innovation.  Sharpening the saw equates to building skills through training.  Important versus urgent defines innovation versus the day to day demands of business.  But the one I want to focus on today is:  start with the end in mind.

You see, there are three starting "attitudes" that define how companies begin an innovation effort.  They are, in no particular order, fear, uncertainty and confidence.  Where your team starts, matters.  Because you need to start an innovation project with the end in mind.

Let's start with fear, which is where most innovation efforts begin.  I'll call it "fear" since at least half of all innovation projects are started based on fear - the fear of falling behind a competitor, and are worked in fear - fear of failure, fear of new tools, fear of disrupting the status quo.  In fact fear is probably the most prevalent of all attitudes when innovation is active.  If fear is the starting point and fear is the dominant attitude during the effort, what's the likely result?  Ideas that closely resemble the existing product portfolio, that don't ruffle feathers or cause any consternation.  Fear is a limiting emotion, causing people who encounter fear to play it safe, or, often even worse, to become reckless.  If you start from a position of fear, and fear overhangs your effort, innovation simply can't be successful.

Next is "uncertainty".  Many firms start from a position or attitude of uncertainty.  They are uncertain if innovation is necessary, uncertain about the tools and methods and uncertain about the best outcomes.  When nothing is left to chance and everything is certain in business, only innovation is uncertain.  Therefore, innovation is the outlier and by definition it is a variance to be eliminated rather than a path to be pursued.  When you start in uncertainty and all tools, methods and outcomes are uncertain, your end result will be the same.  Or, to quote another saying, when you don't know where you are going, any road can take you there.  Uncertainty isn't necessarily limiting, it just creates confusion and aimlessness.

The final attitude is confidence.  Firms with strong leadership, cultures that welcome innovation and people who have innovation skills start their innovation efforts confident of success, and are confident in their abilities to accelerate good ideas to market.  Confidence is contagious and sweeps more people into its fold.  It's almost unfair, actually, that confident innovators are gaining skills and capabilities at an ever increasing pace, while uncertain or fearful innovators are losing share, losing ground and falling further behind, which of course creates more uncertainty and more fear.  Fear and uncertainty can create vicious cycles, while confidence creates a virtuous cycle.

What's really interesting is that most people understand this innately, even if they don't communicate it.  Companies and teams that start with fear as a basis for innovation, or with uncertainty as the basis will almost always be unhappy with the results, regardless of the approach, regardless of the methodology or tool or software application, while firms that start in confidence will usually succeed regardless of the method, tool or approach.  What gets in the way of confidence? 

Not enough skills, not enough commitment, not enough simple belief that innovation can make a difference.  It's the difference between "I'll believe it when I see it" or "I'll see it when I believe it".  There's no magic to innovation.  What's necessary is a set of skills, a clear goal, a commitment to working through a process and the ability to commercialize good ideas quickly.  If your company has these characteristics and strong leadership to back it up, you can innovate from a position of confidence.  Lacking these traits means you'll start from a position of fear or uncertainty, and will struggle to develop ideas that are valuable and meaningful.

Start with the end in mind.  If you plan to be successful with an innovation effort, start confident in your goals, confident in your skills and confident that the systems and decision making processes will support you, or work to make them so.  Otherwise, innovation is simply too difficult to do from a position of fear or uncertainty that you will struggle to succeed when starting from these attitudes.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:46 PM 0 comments