Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The innovation chicken and egg problem

Here's a question that has befuddled even the best innovation thinkers, and has led to countless articles, white papers, surveys and other analysis:  which is more important to innovation success, leadership or culture?  Does an engaged leadership engage an organization and direct its energy toward innovation, or does a sustained culture engage the organization regardless of the will of the leadership toward more innovation?  It is a classic chicken and egg question, and one that my clients and our consultants at OVO deal with constantly.

The fact is that both are vital, and both are predominant depending on the organization.  But the fact is that culture doesn't ring you up one day and ask you to drop by to provide advice about innovation.  Typically its the leaders of an organization that do that.  So it's far easier to place emphasis on leaders and leadership as the key innovation driver, since we can single out a small team of executives and point the finger of blame at them.

That's what Hayden Shaughnessy and Scott Anthony just did in a recent Forbes article.  I was alerted to the article by my good friend Paul Hobcraft, who has also had much to say in this vein.  Anthony suggests in his interview with Shaughnessy that the "One Innovation Rule that Matters Most" is that leadership is vital.  Anthony goes on to say that:
Any company that thinks it has an innovation problem in fact has a leadership problem.”
All well and good, and in may ways this is true.  In fact I wrote about this very topic recently, making the argument that poor prioritization, poor vision and little funding by executive teams lead to a lack of innovation.  My article was based on a recent innovation survey by McKinsey, so the assertions are backed by survey data.

The other side of the coin

However, claiming that an innovation problem is always and everywhere a leadership problem seems a bit too narrow to me.  In my work I've found many executives who are exceptionally focused on innovation, who are willing and able to fund innovation and set clear priorities, but they face a significant hurdle called corporate culture.  You see, no matter how much a small senior team of executives works to influence a culture, that change happens incrementally and slowly if at all.  A leader who is not focused on innovation doesn't necessarily distract a culture that is engaged with innovation (see 3M as an example), and far too often we are caught up making examples of charismatic leaders (see Steve Jobs as an example) that we use to make the case that leadership is what matters alone.

When you see the phrase "Culture eats strategy for breakfast" on a regular basis you begin to grasp the subtle and intangible power of corporate culture.  The unfortunate aspect of corporate culture is that senior executives don't have nearly as much impact as they'd like to think.  Culture is somewhat immune to leadership edicts, since the culture is long established, and recognizes that leaders are temporary.  When leaders are in their roles on average less than five years, the culture will patiently wait out the leadership.  What changes culture is a burning platform.

Large and established cultures will change, and they will change swiftly when threatened.  Too often executives create plans and strategies that keep the culture relatively comfortable and safely ensconced in its existing image of itself.  A burning platform - an immediate threat to the business, a sudden shift in consumer demand, a new law or regulation which changes the playing field - is often what will force a culture to change.  And note that the culture is something that every employee contributes to.  Their expectations, attitudes, behaviors and actions in aggregate make up the culture, so every employee contributes to the shape, size and attitude of the culture. 

Don't leaders establish culture?

You'll be thinking right about now that my arguments are interesting but ultimately futile.  Don't leaders set culture, or at least influence it?  For the most part, most leaders don't understand the true power of corporate culture and fail to understand how to change it dramatically.  Their attempts to change the culture only shift thinking and behavior temporarily, since executives fail to stay engaged with cultural change over their tenure.  The real leadership necessary for innovation to take root is both a clear strategy, well articulated and funded, as well as consistently engaged leaders who work to slowly shift the culture to a new way of thinking, incorporating innovation as a consistent part of the everyday activities, rather than an occasional moonshot.

Leaders don't want to spend a lot of time on culture change, because they realize the work necessary to dramatically change a culture and they feel they don't have the time or energy.  While they may demand innovation activities, they won't ultimately succeed at "making the firm more innovative" until the culture changes as well.

Which comes first?

Which comes first then?  Leadership or culture?  Well, since the culture is a monolith made up of the expectations and behaviors of the entire company, few organizations can start there.  Leaders engage experts and consultants to help improve innovation performance, and many honest innovation experts will frankly tell the leaders that while leaders can impact innovation activities, they can't impact innovation engagement and sustainment without a focus on the culture.  It's easy to run innovation projects, which will be successful in the short run, but which ultimately don't change the culture in the long run, and as soon as the leadership changes and priorities change, the culture reasserts itself and innovation is banished.  Unless there is a string of leaders who are committed to innovation, or a significant burning platform forces an organization to change, or a charismatic leader drags his company kicking and screaming into a new paradigm, its the culture that matters.

And before you suggest that Jobs demonstrates that leaders matter, know this:  Apple was probably a quarter or two from bankruptcy when he took over.  Jobs was a charismatic leader, yes, with a big vision, who rekindled the original culture at Apple, but he also had a significant burning platform.  Apple had to change, and to its credit it has remained an innovator.  Time will tell whether that attitude has permeated the entire culture.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:17 AM 0 comments

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Innovation Ignition

I read a lot about innovation, and I'm constantly amused by the articles that talk about "kick starting" innovation.  If there is one activity that is resistant to forward motion based on one quick action like a kick start, it's innovation.  What people who advocate "kick starting" innovation don't understand is the analogy, and the effort involved before the fact.

Kick starting refers to the act of starting a motorcycle, using a "kick starter" to ignite the engine.  If you've ever had a motorcycle with a kick starter, you'll understand how much energy it takes to kick start a motorcycle, and how finicky the engines can be.  Further, you'll know how much work it takes to get a motorcycle ready to kick start - the priming, for example.  People talk about "kick starting" when I think they really mean electronic ignition.  Simply flick the switch and go.  But this brings us to a larger point about getting innovation capabilities starting and working effectively.

What's the right innovation ignition

If we can stipulate that "kick starting" is possibly the wrong metaphor for starting innovation activities, what is the right concept and approach for starting an innovation program or activity?  Other "ignition" metaphors immediately spring to mind.  Perhaps the most iconic metaphor for ignition is Cape Canaveral, where rockets take off bound for space.  We've all seen the reverse countdown "3..2..1..ignition...liftoff".  But that kind of ignition is too high profile, too rare and implies too much risk.  If our innovation ignition looked like Cape Canaveral, innovation would only take place periodically, after massive investments to reduce uncertainty and risk, and would be an exceptionally high profile event.  Whereas "kickstarting' innovation implies starting quickly from a standstill, anywhere and all the time.  In that regard, kickstarting is a more effective metaphor, but we have to understand the work that proceeds the kick start to enable it to occur.

Another ignition metaphor is in your automobile.  We are all familiar with inserting the key in the ignition, turning the key, perhaps giving the car a little gas, and starting the engine.  This kind of ignition is regular, repeatable, hopefully trustworthy, without a lot of drama.  If you have a reliable car, the ignition is almost an afterthought, because the car is well-tuned, the ignition switch and starter are reliable. 

What it takes to ignite an innovation project

Note that much of the discussion about ignition has focused on igniting and starting an engine.  Engines are also good metaphors.  Physical engines that are well-tuned and maintained run effectively and generate a lot of power or forward motion.  To perform innovation effectively, we need well-tuned innovation "engines" in our organizations, engines that are comprised of people, who know what to do, processes that define how to accomplish innovation tasks, and cultures that support and sustain innovation.  Those engines also need to eliminate or at least overcome initial inertia - the desire of the business to continue doing what it does best, rather than to pursue innovation, recognizing the effort involved in the change and uncertainty necessary to accomplish innovation goals.  A well-tuned innovation engine contains people who are ready and willing to do new, interesting things, a methodology that's well understood, a carefully designed scope with goals that support strategic outcomes and a culture that has dramatically reduced the power of inertia.  Innovators and cultures can prime this engine by focusing on recognition and reward systems, and creating a powerful rationale for innovation, a "burning platform" for change and renewal.  If these factors are in place, the metaphor of the electronic ignition makes sense.

Kick starting and Cape Canaveral

If, on the other hand, you have a poorly maintained or inadequate innovation engine, with significant inertia or no recognition and reward priming, or no burning platform, your only ignition choice may be to kick start - that is, apply an overwhelming force to a recalcitrant engine, exerting a lot of physical force and executive will to start the engine, or treat the ignition as as showpiece of man's accomplishments, Cape Canaveral style.  Both of these ignition types ignore to some extent the tuning and priming, and expect the engine to simply obey the will of the executive who attempts to start the engine.  Sheer force or high stakes, show piece ignition won't start an engine that hasn't been maintained and tuned, and may cause backfires or worse.  What many executives fail to realize about innovation is that the magic is in building the engine, developing the people and processes, maintaining the engine, training and reinforcing capabilities, and in priming the engine by thinking about culture and burning platforms.  It's not the ignition that matters, so much as the work that went before it.

You can choose any ignition activity I've outlined above, or perhaps others.  In fact to a great extent the ignition method doesn't matter.  Ignition is easy when the engine is tuned, and difficult when it isn't.  And, to compound the problem, ignition seems to become ever more difficult the more often you try and fail.  That's true for physical engines as well as metaphorical innovation engines.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:40 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Prioritization, funding and scope: Where management fails innovation

For those of you who follow this blog and our company (OVO Innovation), you'll know that we think the phase "innovation strategy" is an oxymoron.  Innovation isn't by itself strategic.  Innovation is a tool or an enabler to strategic goals like growth, differentiation, product or market leadership or the intentional disruption of an adjacent market.  Innovation for innovation's sake is worthless, innovation for the sake of corporate goals is invaluable.

So why write about "innovation strategy" if we don't believe innovation is "strategic"?  A recent McKinsey survey will tell you why.  McKinsey just released a new survey entitled Understanding the Drivers of Innovation Performance.  In it there is much to learn, especially about the leaders and laggards in the innovation space.  But what really caught my eye in the document wasn't discussed until page 6.  There, the survey turns to Exhibit 3, entitled "top innovators lead most on vision, strategy".  The chart compares innovation leaders to laggards in a number of categories.  The two areas where even innovation leaders do the worst are notable:
  • In each business or market where we are active, we invest enough in innovation to hit our targets for market share.  Leaders agreed with this statement 62% of the time, laggards 32%
  • The prioritization and scope of our projects reflect our innovation strategy.  Leaders agreed with this statement 71% of the time, laggards 43% of the time.
Note that less than 2/3rds of innovation leaders invest enough in innovation to hit targets, and barely more than 2/3rds of innovation leaders think their priorities and scoped projects reflect innovation strategies and goals.  These are the LEADERS in innovation, and their poor showing reflects the confusion and lack of clarity and purpose around innovation in their own companies, much less the confusion and disarray in the laggards.

What's more disappointing is that these factors - making investments, setting targets, prioritizing projects - these are management activities that should be familiar and common to executives.  There's nothing strange or unusual about these actions and decisions, no reason to claim that inexperience with innovation leads to poor or unclear decisions.

What is "strategy"

Michael Porter describes strategy as:   defining a company's position, making trade-offs and forging fit among activities.  That is, defining who the company is and where it plays in a market, determining the tradeoffs that sustain it in its position or create new positions, and structuring the organization to achieve these goals.  If it is a senior executive team's job to define and implement strategy, then why is there a gap between these actions and what is necessary for innovation to thrive?  Because the gaps mentioned above - investing (making choices or tradeoffs) and prioritization and scope (defining investments and aligning the business) are strategic requirements to help run a business effectively.

True innovation, especially innovation targeted at introducing new products to the world or disrupting adjacent markets, requires clear strategic goals, alignment, buy-in across the organization and trade-offs.  Innovation activities and tools are often unusual or unfamiliar, not tools and methods that teams regularly exercise.  When the tools and methods are unfamiliar, the priorities, scope and funding needs to be crystal clear in order for innovation teams to work effectively.

When the innovation leaders demonstrate a lack of ability to prioritize innovation, to fund it effectively, to prioritize the activities to achieve goals, there's clearly a gap.  Is that a gap in the definition of the strategic goals, or a lack in the commitment and belief in the reality of those goals, or are the goals and strategies poorly communicated?  Or, is there such built up inertia that while everyone agrees to the strategic goals, no one is willing to make the changes necessary or commit to the longer term energy necessary to make the changes happen?

No strategy, no clarity, no prioritization, no innovation

If your company can't innovate, look first at the business strategies you create, and how they are defined, communicated and reinforced.  If strategies aren't clear, or they aren't urgent, if they aren't shared collectively across the executive team, it's difficult to create project to achieve those goals.  When goals and objectives aren't clear, or innovation isn't prioritized or funded, all innovation becomes incremental, which, while important, won't move the needle to support strategic goals, or create compelling new products or services.  This isn't a question of competency of the teams, their innovation tools or methods, but a lack of commitment and urgency for innovation that is understood at the mid-management and lower levels.  When that lack of commitment is perceived, innovation is strangled in the crib, or confined to very small, very safe changes.

Recently I asked a client "who prioritizes the list of innovation projects that are possible" and I received a blank stare in reply.  While teams were preparing innovation initiatives for approval and review, there were no clear guidelines for prioritizing the projects, determining which ones should proceed and consume limited resources.  Further, there was no clear linkage between the projects and strategic goals.  While innovation is emphasized, it is not aligned to strategic goals, and the investments reflect that lack of alignment.

Executive teams must lead

Funding, prioritization, scope and alignment are management activities and responsibilities.  Innovation teams need this clarity in order to determine the scope and objective of the projects, and to carry on in the face of business as usual and corporate inertia.  If the executives don't provide clarity and guidance, if they aren't aligned, the tools and methods and commitment of the innovation teams won't matter.

It's not enough to train teams, adopt innovation methods and encourage everyone to dream up wild ideas.  There needs to be a clear link between corporate goals like growth or differentiation and the innovation projects which work to help achieve those goals.  If those projects aren't funded, prioritized and supported, they will fail.  That failure isn't based on the skills of the team or the innovation tools, but the lack of leadership and clarity from executives.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:53 AM 0 comments

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: Creative Strategy, a Guide for Innovation

From time to time I receive requests to read and review books about innovation.  Over the holidays I received a new book by William Duggan, entitled Creative Strategy, A Guide for Innovation.


Duggan "offers a step-by-step" guide to help individuals and organizations put [Strategic Intuition, another book by Duggan] to work for their own innovations".  Many firms offer "step-by-step" instruction guides for innovation, so I felt the book would need to offer some real insight into tools and methods.  The book jacket goes on to say other books don't describe how to "develop[ing] a creative idea for what to do".  Unfortunately Duggan joins the cadre of experts and consultants who denigrate "brainstorming", describing it as "magic".  Duggan then introduces his three step process for innovation, arguing that it follows the way the mind actually works:  breaking a problem into parts, seeking solutions in other industries or sectors for similar problems and finally, creating new combinations.

The description of the three step approach occupies the first third of the book.  Duggan then proceeds to define the different "kinds" of innovation (products, business models, entrepreneurial, social enterprise) and then to describe why brainstorming doesn't work.  The last third of the book is occupied with describing existing management metrics and philosophies, creative techniques and strategic goals, to indicate why these often fail as innovation frameworks.

On the whole, the book is a real conundrum, very specific in recommending the three step process (detailed below) and refuting or denigrating many innovation and creativity techniques, while at the same time the book can be annoyingly vague or indeterminate.  For example, when he asks the rhetorical question "how long should this {innovation} activity take?" the answer is:  it depends.  Which, while it is probably the right answer, is strange in a book that is so determined to describe his approach as the only meaningful and valuable approach.


Duggan begins by recommending a documented problem statement, which makes good sense, and he recommends keeping the statement in a draft form, since as you work through the three steps you may discover information that will lead you to change the problem statement.  Duggan's three step process is a logical approach to any management problem, not just innovation.  The three steps are:  rapid appraisal, the "what-works" scan and creative combinations.

Rapid appraisal is about breaking the problem into "chunks" or more discrete elements, often known as decomposition.  This simply makes a larger problem an association of smaller problems or challenges.  The What Works scan entails looking across industries, geography and time to see if anyone, anywhere has created a solution to any of the smaller "chunks".  If so, can we adopt or modify the solution elsewhere to the problem at hand?  The third step, creative combinations, asks us to look for creative solutions across what Duggan calls the Insight Matrix.  The Insight Matrix is a simple X-Y chart:  problem "chunks" down the vertical axis, potential solutions on the horizontal axis and interesting combinations at the intersections.

While Duggan may be the first to design his "Insight Matrix", none of these tools will be new to innovators.  The concept of breaking challenges into smaller components (known as decomposition) is well-known to innovators and one that many innovation methodologies practice.  It is often easier to break a challenge or need into smaller components and build a solution up, rather than address the entire challenge at once.  Decomposition, attribute isolation and other techniques are commonly used by innovation teams and in methods like SIT that he later downplays.

Likewise, what Duggan calls the "what-works" scan is not new either.  There is an entire school of thought within innovation that argues that every problem has already been solved, it is simply our job to discover how and where the solution exists.  Bio-mimicry, for example, stipulates that nature has already solved many problems that we encounter, and we can learn from, adapt and adopt those solutions.  In our work we constantly seek to find insights to challenges from other industries, other geographies and from nature.

Finally, Duggan's creative combination approach simply suggests that we adopt the "best" solution for each chuck from the best alternative solution from the what-works scan, and create a total solution by putting these discrete solutions back together.  Again, nothing new here.  Good innovators know that most good ideas happen at the intersection of new technologies and markets.

Overall, a reasonable combination of tools and methods and a nice package to help teams bring these three steps together - Duggan's Insight Matrix. 


Scope and Effort
There are a couple of challenges with the approach that we should consider.  First, when we scan for "what works", how will we know we are looking at the right precedents?  According to Duggan "We can't.  There is no formula for where to look."  Or, how much time should we spend?  "Ideally, we want as much time and scope as possible because it's often quite hard to figure out what works."  Duggan is honest that the "what-works scan makes explicit that creative strategy is both an art and a science".  After being so definitive about the approach, he fails to give clear guidance about the effort involved and key milestones.  Further, "How do you know when to stop the what-works scan and move on to creative combinations?  One answer might be that you run out of time".  These kind of answers make the book a confusing combination of exactitude and vagueness.

The problems with brainstorming
Once again everyone's favorite whipping boy comes in for more abuse.  Duggan argues that brainstorming is based on outdated brain science and doesn't offer new insights.  In our experience, brainstorming, like any tool or technique, can be used effectively to great results when applied appropriately and in the right conditions, or brainstorming can be an utter failure.  This fact is not indicative of a fault in the tool, but in the user and in the conditions of the use of the tool.

Gratuitous pot shots at leading experts and tools
In Chapter 11 Duggan goes on to take almost gratuitous pot shots at a wide range of creativity and innovation tools, seeking to demonstrate why Creative Strategy as he has defined it is the sole source of innovation success.  He misconstrues Ken Robinson's message about introducing more art and creativity into schools.  He describes why customer insights are unhelpful and design thinking is too narrow.  Interestingly he draws all of his insights about Design Thinking from one book - Business Model Generation - and ignores scores of other sources about design thinking.

Perhaps my favorite statement is that "divergent thinking as a first step works if you want to generate wild ideas.  But it's not the path to innovation."  I don't recall that anyone said divergent thinking is the enlightened path, only an approach to broader, more disruptive ideas.  In each case Duggan sets up reasonable, useful innovation tools or methods and pretends that the innovation community demands they be applied in totality and in isolation to all other techniques.  Everyone that I'm familiar with in the innovation world understands that innovation is about discovery and learning, and is iterative and calls for a range of innovation tools and techniques.  Many innovation consultants would suggest that divergent thinking is important, but no one would suggest that divergent thinking is the only tool or method, or that it solves an innovation challenge in totality.

No expert or technique is missed.  IDEO comes in for special focus, as does TRIZ and SIT.  Even de Bono's Six Thinking Hats is called into question, since everyone knows that the brain science it is based on is out of date - "de Bono came up with his creative method in the early 1970s, almost three decades before neuroscience revealed how learning-and-memory produces creative ideas.  It should come as no surprise to find that his methods are out of date".  Who can possibly make this claim?  Whether the "brain science" is right or wrong, in vogue or out of vogue, does that mean that Six Thinking Hats is useless?  Absolutely not.  Forcing different perspectives on a problem or opportunity is almost always valuable.


Duggan's contribution to innovation method - combining techniques like decomposition, finding existing solutions from other geographies or industries and mashing together unusual combinations - in the Insight Matrix is actually valuable.  I disagree that Creative Strategy and the Insight Matrix is the only valid innovation approach, but I do see the insight matrix as a helpful addition for innovators.

It's too bad that Duggan felt led to present his approach as the only valid approach to innovation.  Once he made that decision he had to become very definitive about other tools and methods, but he could not be definitive about much of his own recommendation.  I can't image trying to work with a client and telling them we'll be finished with a "what works" scan when we run out of time, or money.  It simply doesn't work that way.  Having established his approach as the only approach, the remainder of the book constructed and tore down a number of very thin strawmen to reinforce his points, but anyone familiar with actual innovation activity will recognize the overreach in his statements.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:09 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Innovation Comfort

I think Newton left out a law when he devised his three laws of nature.  You know the laws I'm speaking of - objects at rest tend to stay at rest.  Every forced is opposed by an equal and opposite force.  And so on.  But one important one that he missed is what we'll call the Phillips corollary - objects (and corporations, and people) tend to seek their specific level of desired comfort and then resist any change that threatens their comfort.  This is true in life as it is in business.  But it's impact is probably felt most keenly in innovation settings.


Think about it.  From your earliest days people have been concerned about your comfort.  As a young child your parents did everything they could to make you comfortable.  When you visit family and friends they want to make you comfortable with the accomodations.  When you encountered problematic or difficult decisions, it is common to ask - Are you comfortable with this?  Because discomfort signals a problem, and if people believe a problem exists then they cannot regain their expected level of comfort.  And we'll move heaven and earth to regain comfort if at all possible.

Innovation threatens comfort

Now let's turn our attention to something sure to create some dissonance in the comfort arena - innovation.  By its very nature innovation should create some discomfort.  Innovation introduces change, which is likely to move many people from their comfortable positions or perches, and it introduces risk and uncertainty.  Innovation changes the natural order, and forces people to consider their strategic goals and options in a manner in which they are unaccustomed to doing.  Once an organization has reached its level of comfort, innovation can be a difficult and frankly dangerous force.  Increasingly, however, many organizations have no choice.  No matter how comfortable they area in their processes, products and markets, they have to innovate to grow and thrive, which means they must sacrifice comfort.  The interesting concept is that many firms believe they will simply shift from one level and position of comfort pre-innovation to another position of comfort post-innovation, like electrons moving in orbit around a nucleus.  They can't wait until things are as they used to be.  But it doesn't work that way.


We've introduced the idea that for many firms innovation causes change and discomfort.  There are really only two options, both of which require change.  Either the senior team needs to force discomfort onto a complacent and comfortable organization, to shock it into realizing the need for innovation and to shake off its inertia, or the organization must grow comfortable with the concept of innovation. 

The shock and awe strategy works to kick-start a complacent organization and engage it short term and periodically, if the executive team can create enough of a burning platform.  But at the end of the exercise, the firm will revert back to its desired level of comfort and complacency, having done just enough innovation to survive, but not sustaining innovation to thrive.  This is why many innovation activities aren't seen as successful - they don't have a long lasting impact.  The organization simply reverts to the way things were, as much as possible, enduring the discomfort of innovation for the short run.

The other option, the one that requires more investment in skills and a sustained focus, is simply to create an organization that is comfortable with innovation.  If we can create an organization that is comfortable with change, and risk, and uncertainty, if we can create a culture that thrives on innovation and sustains it, then innovation isn't uncomfortable, it is expected.  And when it is expected, it can be more easily repeated.  In this case innovation isn't viewed as a short term intrusion but a long term commitment to growth and change.

Organizational level of comfort and complacency

What's your organization's desired level of comfort and complacency?  If you have an organization and culture that strives to maintain its comfort and avoids change, innovation is exceptionally difficult without a significant event or "burning platform" and the organization will revert to that context as quickly as possible after the innovation activity.  To sustain innovation over the long term, you must create a culture where risk, uncertainty and change are embraced as part of the expectation and the "comfort" level.  This requires changes to attitudes, compensation, skills and processes.  In other words, comfort is a cultural phenomenon, and can only be changed through sudden shifts that cause disruptions or through longer term consistent investments.  The good news is that you get to choose how you react.

Will you have to force and prod your organization out of its comfort zone each time innovation is deemed necessary?  In other words, will innovation remain an uncomfortable activity that requires a burning platform? Or, will you build the attitudes, skills and awareness to build a new level of comfort that includes sustained innovation?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM 0 comments

Friday, January 11, 2013

Innovate Carolina Conference Call for Speakers

Each year the Carolinas Chapter of the Product Development Management Association (PDMA) holds a one day conference focused on innovation.  I'm happy to say that our conference has been compared to several of the national conferences in content and networking by many of the attendees.

Last year we held our conference in Raleigh, NC with a focus on innovating under tight resource constraints.  You can see the agenda and speaker list from that conference here.  We were fortunate to recruit Steve Shapiro as a keynote, and had excellent speakers from firms such as Red Hat, NetApp, Bank of America, Burt's Bees, Milliken and many others.

Upcoming 2013 Event
In 2013 our Innovate Carolina conference will be held April 12 in Greensboro, on the campus of NC A&T.  Our theme this year is:  Bridging the gap between idea generation and product development and commercialization.  We know many firms are creating new ideas, but there is often a gap between innovation and product development and commercialization.  We want to focus on that gap this year.

Speakers and Sponsors wanted

We are seeking local (North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina) based firms who are interested and willing to speak about their experiences, successes and lessons learned about closing the gap between generating ideas and developing successful new products.  We give preference to corporate practitioners, but also welcome consultants and software providers who focus on innovation, provided that the speak with a customer and focus on a completed or active project. 

We also seek sponsors who would be interested in furthering the cause of innovation in the Carolinas and who would be interested in meeting and networking with local innovators.  Our day long program typically attracts between 150 and 200 people, and we have many repeat exhibitors and sponsors.

How to submit or request a speaker

If you are interested in speaking, please contact me and include the following material:
  • Your name and company
  • Customer you'd speak with if you represent a consulting firm or software firm
  • The project success you'll describe in your presentation, lessons learned
Note that you do not have to sponsor the event in order to speak at the event, although sponsorships are appreciated.  You do not have to be a member of PDMA to speak or attend, in fact we encourage PDMA members and non-members alike to speak or attend.

If you know of a firm or individual that you believe should speak at this event, please nominate that person or firm by contacting me.


If you are interested in helping us out by volunteering your time or effort before the event or during the conference, we always need volunteers to assist us, as the PDMA is a non-profit and most of the work is done by members and volunteers.  Please contact me if you are interested in helping shape the event, prepare for the event or volunteering on the day of the event.

Please pass along the word about the Innovate Carolina Conference, and I hope to see you there.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:04 PM 0 comments

Monday, January 07, 2013

Why Kirk beats Spock at innovation

There's a mistake being played out in your organization when it comes to staffing innovation projects.  You are likely staffing them with a bunch of "Spocks", people who know a lot about the subject and have deep expertise.  While this may look like a dream team, I can assure you that staffing a bunch of Spocks is not helpful and can be harmful.  You need at least a few Kirks in the mix to create a balanced team capable of generating interesting innovation.

For those of you born before the TV Show that started it all, James T (for Tiberius) Kirk was the commander of the Enterprise, a spaceship out to "boldly go where no one had gone before".  Spock was the chief science officer, a Vulcan who is (supposedly) devoid of human emotion and who makes all decisions based on logic and reason.  Kirk and Spock make a great team because they complement each other.  Kirk makes decisions based on his emotions, his instinct and his gut.  Spock counters with the reasons why Kirk's planned actions are "illogical" or don't fit the data.  Kirk experiments, creates problems with impulsive decision making and usually wins the day by doing something Spock (and Kirk's adversaries) didn't expect him to do.  Kirk demands more than his people and his ship should be able or willing to offer.  Kirk rejects the rules and tries to apply his own rules to any situation.  And yes I know there were other spin-offs and other Star Trek series and movies, but they pale in comparison to the original.

Why this is pertinent to innovation

I suspect if we look long and hard enough, every science fiction tale has insights for innovation.  In this case it is evidently true.  Kirk and Spock represent the manifestation of the two sides of our brain - the left side, analytical and rational, scientific, and the right side, creative, impulsive.  The problem in many organizations is that we overly emphasize the scientific, rational and logical at the expense of imagining new unexpected or unanticipated products or services.  The scientific approach seeks to break down the problem into small morsels and solve for each small incremental solution, always keeping in mind what is "logical" reasonable and possible.  Your competitors, at least the competitors you understand and know from your industry, also do this.  They seek reasonable, rational, logical solutions and technologies to existing problems.  The gap in this thinking is that your unlikely competitors, the new entrants, those with nothing to lose, those who seek to disrupt the market, don't care about logical or rational.  They don't care about the existing order - in fact they'll be happy to disrupt it.  Their actions on the surface may seem, well, illogical.  Why would anyone give away software for free?  Who would create a website with a revenue model based on ads?  What seemss logical to us is just what seems familiar or reasonable in a given context, not necessarily in all contexts or under all conditions.

The Spocks in your company want to approach innovation as a science.  They want to examine all the data, review all the technologies and make the most logical decision possible.  Their ideas are likely to be very well defined, very reasonable and often very incremental.  The Kirks of your company think differently.  They want to understand the problem, want to create unusual solutions that may defy existing logic.  They recognize that it may be necessary to suspend disbelief for a while in order to get to the right solution.  They work from instinct, from their gut and may not be able to justify their approaches to the Spocks, or worse, to the executives.

Balancing Kirks and Spocks

Given that Kirks find it hard to justify their outlooks and approach, it's rare you'll have a team full of Kirks.  In fact, it's often unlikely that you'll have any Kirks on an innovation team at all, because innovation looks risky and uncertain and dangerous.  Who better to staff an innovation activity than a bunch of Spocks, who demand data, expect to be able to predict all of the outcomes and are scientifically based?  But the world according to Spock (had to do it) doesn't exist.  The world is far more unpredictable, capricious, fickle than Spock expects.  The world shifts in its expectations and demands, and what was impossible only yesterday is currently completely possible.  What was unthinkable yesterday is now an accepted reality.  Five years ago the US was completely dependent on foreign oil, and the amount we imported each year was growing.  In the next decade we may become an EXPORTER of oil and natural gas.  Things change, and change quickly.  Kirks get this, but may get it wrong.  Spocks understand it but discount it.

Your innovation teams will have more Spocks than Kirks.  That's understandable, but can become a real limiting factor if the whole team is Spocks.  You need some Kirks to make the activity more instinctual, more illogical, more messy.  Without Kirks your innovations will be practical, safe, predictable and ultimately very incremental.

However, to create something interesting, with real value, to disrupt the status quo, you need some Kirks.  And while you are reading this and thinking, wait, was Jobs a Kirk or a Spock, I'll offer this:  Jobs was probably the rare being who could be both.  While he ran Apple like a Spock, he understood the markets like a Kirk.  You don't have to be both to be successful, but you need to understand what value each offers, and right now Kirks are undervalued for innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 3:11 PM 6 comments

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Why the front end of innovation is different

Let's assert that you've become very good at your job.  Whether you are in finance, marketing or operations, your proficiency is based on your education and your work history.  You know how to anticipate financial needs, or how to manufacture products more efficiently because you love what you do, you do it often and you are rewarded to do it well.  You have deep knowledge about your chosen area of specialty and you can demonstrate expertise.  Then along comes an innovation need.

If the innovation need is really just continuous improvement or slight improvements to existing products, you are in luck, because that work simply requires that you extend your existing deep body of knowledge.  If, on the other hand, you need radical or disruptive innovation, your existing body of knowledge, your scope and frameworks, even your tools and insights may become barriers to innovation rather than accelerators.  That's because true innovation is about discovery, learning and analysis rather than building on past knowledge and success.  True innovation is unusual, and requires a different approach. Innovation is the only activity in a business where the people involved are amateurs, because we spend so little time in most businesses working on discovering new needs, learning about customers and markets, and thinking deeply about the implications from discovery and learning.

Let's consider three factors that make the "Front End" of innovation so different from the rest.


Most of us in businesses spend our days perfecting what we already know.  The processes that drive a business are evident and well-understood, and may need a few tweaks to perfect them.  There's little to discover about the day to day operations, as most of it has been understood and perfected for years.  Deep expertise and constant repetition mean that discovery is rarely needed.  Tools and capabilities that aren't exercised become moribund and stale.  We lose a sense of discovery when that sense isn't effectively or even periodically applied.

When innovators talk about the method of innovation, they usually describe it as a "divergent - convergent" process.  This means that the first activity is about "diverging" - enlarging the scope, enlarging the number of possible outcomes, discovering new possibilities.  Most of us are very good at converging - eliminating even the reasonable alternatives to quickly arrive at one specific solution.  Divergence is often one of the most difficult aspects of innovation for many corporate executives to grasp, because it feels like unnecessary effort.  Further, divergence is uncomfortable because it requires discovery and exploring areas where the level of expertise is much lower, or non-existent.

Discovery requires people who are comfortable going beyond what they know, who are interesting in discovering something new which has relevance to their organization.  It requires those people to look in unexpected places for new and unanticipated things.  In other words, a surprise.  And you know how managers and executives love surprises.


If innovation creates something new to your market, or new to the world, then by definition someone has to partake in a learning exercise.  We may have to learn about needs, or new capabilities, or new channels, or new customer segments, but there is little innovation that isn't preceded by learning.  Yet learning, especially learning beyond the tools and activities that enable existing products and services is almost unheard of in modern corporations.  We spend countless thousands of hours learning about personality differences, tolerance, communication, and other workplace factors that reinforce the existing frameworks, and spend virtually no time learning about emerging needs, emerging technologies and adjacent markets.  For most organizations, learning stops at the edge of the corporation or at best the industry, and looks no further than 12 months in advance.  External issues and needs are scarcely considered, and adjacent markets, nimble new entrants and emerging customer needs are ignored.  Many product managers have never met a customer who actually uses their product, and never meet prospects or segments that actively refuse to use the product.

As noted previously, discovery is given short shrift.  If there is no discovery, there's little need for learning about the wants and needs of the discovered market, segment or opportunity.  Even when discovery is possible, little time is left for learning.  It is expected that we have all the education and learning we need to make important decisions about markets, needs and trends that we know almost nothing about.  It begs to be said again:  there's no innovation without learning.

You may have heard that experts are often the biggest barriers to innovation.  That's often because they don't believe that any further discovery is possible, and that they know or have learned all that is important to know or learn in a field.  It's hard enough to spend time learning in your chosen field.  Trying to obtain the time and resources to learn in a new area, new market or about a new opportunity is difficult if not impossible.  But without learning, you cannot create interesting innovations.

Analysis and Synthesis

If you are lucky enough to have the time to discover and learn, the final activity is perhaps the most important and the most difficult to justify.  Because discovery and learning are active tasks, in which you can be seen to be doing something.  But the most important task - analysis and synthesis - looks a lot like contemplation and, worse, thinking.  And often we don't value these activities because they aren't quantifiable and don't appear to contribute to the bottom line.  In a knowledge based economy, we've placed a maximum amount of emphasis on activity and a minimal amount of emphasis on what creates knowledge - thinking!

Analysis and synthesis is the capstone to discovery and learning.  If you can take what you discovered, add to it what you learned, and then think deeply about what it means and the implications to your market, industry, customers and business, then you are innovating.  Understanding a need or opportunity, learning more about its importance and relevance, and deciding how to respond is a virtuous circle of activity for innovation, but one that happens far too infrequently.

Analysis and synthesis are suspect because they require careful consideration by people who were immersed in the discovery and the learning.  These activities seem somewhat passive from an outside observer's perspective and are subject to ridicule because the solutions are not quantifiable.  In this activity we are drawing insights and conclusions, interpreting the discovery and what we learned, and using our instincts and insights to define new products, services and solutions.  Far too often the scope is defined in advance, and may powerful new insights and opportunities are ignored or shut out of scope before the discovery and learning could take place.

Putting it all into context

If you want to innovate, to create truly new ideas, you need to be willing to discover new needs, new markets or new opportunities.  Once you have discovered those opportunities, you need to learn more about the emerging market or need.  Why does it exist?  Why is it unsatisfied with existing solutions?  Once your discovery and learning are complete, you can then begin to interpret, analyze and understand what the true needs and wants are.  Only then are you ready to generate ideas, which will really be solutions.

Most organizations don't appreciate the amount of discovery, learning and thinking that are necessary for true innovation.  They don't allocate the time, don't assign the right people for these tasks and don't establish the corporate expectations and culture to define a framework in which people can succeed.  Since discovery, learning and thinking aren't active and don't seem to produce a quantifiable product, they are discounted and often skipped in the innovation process.  This is another reason why so many firms do incremental innovation and continuous improvement so well, and have such a difficult time creating truly new ideas.  They don't take the time to discover new opportunities or needs, they fail to engage in any learning, and resist deep thinking and interpretation if they managed to do any discovery or learning along the way.

What's interesting is to see "innovation" initiatives that have completely skipped the discovery, learning and thinking activities.  They move directly to idea generation.  When you hear people say "brainstorming" doesn't work, they are correct if and when businesses skip the preceding steps.  How can you generate interesting ideas or solutions when you haven't discovered new opportunities or needs, and learned more about their causes and relevance?

Not unknowable just different
The Front End of innovation is not unknowable or undefinable, it is simply different from much of what your organization does regularly, and must be understood in that context.  If you'll place more emphasis on discovery and what it takes to discover new needs and opportunities, learning and the commitments of time and resources to truly understand what you've discovered, and analysis to place into context the discovery and the learning, you'll have a much more capable Front End. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:54 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

What really blocks innovation

After a week at the beach over the holidays and a lot of time reflecting on innovation work, I thought it would be interesting to start the new year by writing about what blocks innovation.  I think much of what is written and said about the sclerotic nature of innovation activities focus on symptoms and not root causes.  Until we understand the underlying issues associated with innovation, it's difficult to do innovation well, if at all.  Over the last four months we've had great success using the Executive Workmat with executive teams, helping them to understand the components of successful, sustained innovation.  But what's become obvious as we've led workshops and discussions about the Workmat is that there are a number of hidden objections, concerns and disagreements about innovation in executive teams.  Until these issues are resolved, tools and methods won't matter.  Training and certification are useless.  Even your interaction with third party consultants will suffer.

If there are a number of hidden or unspoken barriers or concerns about innovation, what are they, and how do we address them before trying to start innovation initiatives or projects?  I think there are four issues that block innovation but are often hidden from view:
  1. Executive alignment
  2. Uncertainty about near term and longer term objectives
  3. Resource allocation
  4. Don't want to "go first" but don't want to be "left behind"  

After countless business books, management philosophies, balanced scorecards and other means of obtaining executive alignment, you'd think that every organization is closely aligned to strategic goals and outcomes.  Where innovation is concerned, nothing is further from the truth.  When we talk to executive teams about innovation, its clear that there are very different perspectives, different goals and even different definitions between and among members of many executive teams.  What most executive teams are aligned to is obtaining the next quarter, staying within budget and driving up share price.  Anything that may call any of these objectives into question is anathema to the team.  While executives demand innovation, they hope it will happen in ways that do not disrupt the highly tuned "business as usual" operating models I described in Relentless Innovation.   Further, even when there is some agreement about the need for "innovation", what is usually described as innovation is really incremental change at best, or continuous improvement.  Executive teams lack a common language and definitions about innovation, and limit their sights and definitions to incremental, internal and product-oriented innovation, rather than the breadth and depth of innovation potentials and outcomes that are possible and necessary.  The vision for innovation is cramped, cautious and serendipitous at best.

Uncertainty about objectives

Which is most important?  Obtaining short term goals or envisioning long term needs and objectives?  And what does "long term" mean anyway?  After years of right-sizing, most organizations have just enough people to accomplish the day to day work.  Pulling the best people from the day to day activities to focus on longer term innovation seems risky and dangerous.  Where should the teams place emphasis?  How much of the existing time, resource and focus should be placed on day to day efficiency?  How much should be focused on longer term objectives with less than certain outcomes?  If resources are reallocated to innovation, what should the team "Stop" doing?  Here lies the rub.  We all have limited resources and far more opportunities than we can pursue.  Which are the most important, and what should we "start" doing, and what should we "stop" doing in order to free up the resources necessary to innovate?  This question is probably the most difficult for many executive teams to answer.  Until there is clarity about objectives and they are placed in the correct balance by the CEO or other senior executives, the management team will revert to what is safe and predictable, and innovation will be starved for attention and resources.

Resource Allocation

As noted above, until the objectives are clear, little focus is placed on innovation, and resources are scarce.  But there's more to this than simply creating more focus around objectives.  It's not a matter of simply "more" resources, but a matter of the "right" resources at the right time.  Innovation demands the best people in the organization, not simply the people who are available or who can be freed up from their existing activities.  This is not a case where more bodies are necessary.  Innovation suffers unless the best people are involved.  When the most respected people are involved, the ideas seem less risky, they have the backing of the best people in the organization.  When people who enjoy less respect are involved in innovation, you send the signal that innovation is less important, and the ideas are more easily ignored.  What is the level of investment your team is willing to provide for innovation, not just in the number of people, but the caliber of the people?  You send a very powerful message as an executive team with the choices you make, both in terms of the number of people, as well as the type and caliber of people.  Think of it this way:  who on your team can you least afford to "give up" to an innovation activity?  If innovation is as important as we think it is, can you afford for them to not be on the team?

No pioneers but plenty of followers

No one wants to be the first to try out a new activity or methodology when so much is on the line, especially in organizations with highly efficient processes and limited resources.  So it can be very difficult to find an executive on the management team willing to take the plunge and start an innovation activity.  I've been fortunate enough to sit in on meetings where the CEO asks his or her team, "who wants to lead an innovation effort?" and the silence is overwhelming.  Everyone in the room recognizes the possibilities and the risks involved.  There's a palpable sense of fear based mostly on concerns about "failing" to achieve a novel concept and also based on distracting the organization from their day to day activities.  Yet what is also interesting is that every executive wants as much investment and attention as the next one, so while no one wants to go first, most don't want to go "last" or see another individual gain a lot of credibility because they were successful.  Don't kid yourself, any executive team is a group of people who are at the top of their game, and who want every last resource they can obtain and every last opportunity they can pursue.  While innovation is risky, these executives don't necessarily want to be the first to the plate, and definitely don't want others to gain an inordinate about of credit for the success they may achieve.

Clarity, alignment, resourcing, leadership

Before asking your teams to innovate, examine the commitment and alignment of the executive team.  Sustained innovation can only occur when there is clarity about goals, alignment within the executive team to the goals, deep commitments to appropriate staffing and resource allocation, and the willingness to lead into risky or uncertain initiatives.  When these factors are present, innovation can flourish.  When any one is absent, innovation will suffer, because we tend to revert to safer, more familiar activities when we feel threatened.   

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:50 AM 1 comments