Monday, November 24, 2014

Who is your Turing?

I saw the Imitation Game over the weekend, and I must say it's a fascinating movie, on several levels.  First there's the whole idea of cracking a secret code, one which even the senior leaders in the British and American forces thought was probably uncrackable.  The effort to "crack" the ENIGMA code was incredible, and probably shortened the war, along with the effort to crack the LORENZ cipher, which for some reason doesn't get the attention that the ENIGMA work does. While this isn't a movie review, I'll digress for just a second to recommend it highly.

The movie is interesting on another level as well, because the cracking of the code is just a way to tell some of the story of Alan Turing, an intelligent man who was quite simply different from many of the people around him.  Cumberbatch plays him as a man with little social grace or empathy, almost immune to the feelings of others, a version of his famous Sherlock Holmes transported to 1940s England.

Turing's work is revered today, but he lived a very troubled life.  He was arrogant, deeply intelligent and either unaware or unconcerned about social mores.  The movie, which admittedly takes liberties with the historical facts, portrays a team that could barely stand to work with Turing, and a man who could not understand the lack of faith in his ideas. 

These English set piece movies almost always revolve around a strong social culture and set of expectations and the rare individuals who don't fall in line or live to the beliefs or cultural expectations of the people around them. While World War I ended the Victorian era, the social expectations, class society and conformity of the English society and government at the time were still very powerful, and Turing's life and his actions often came into conflict with these expectations.

Are we so different today?

Think for a while about your corporate culture.  While we are much more tolerant about appearance, have fewer expectations about social classes and are more attuned to cultural and moral differences, corporate cultures don't suffer differences lightly.  Corporate cultures are constructed to repeat past performances and processes with ever increasing rates of throughput with decreasing costs and higher predictability.  Like Turing's team mates, we are all focused on breaking an individual message, taking very small, safe steps in our work.  Turing confronted his team, perhaps unnecessarily, but he made it known that he wanted to create a system to break every message, every day, not just occasionally decrypt one message.  His ideas and his vision, while poorly communicated, were more far-reaching and encompassing than those of his team.  Even how he framed the problem was different - his team (at least in the movie portrayal) were using methods to break individual messages when the codes were changed every day.  He was seeking a way to understand and replicate how the codes were developed, so they could break every code, every day.  Totally different definition of the problem, far more expansive, far more challenging.

But Turing's problem was in combining a relatively incompatible personality that often kept others on edge with a very expansive and potentially dangerous definition of the depth and breadth of the possible solution.   In wartime his mannerisms and long shot strategy might be tolerated (barely) but in a company with day to day operations, there's no way a corporate hierarchy or culture would tolerate these actions.  But given the pace of change, the level of competition and the dynamics of the market, we may need more Turings and fewer people who adjust to and live within the corporate culture.

Very few large corporations have cultures that will develop and encourage people who actively question the status quo, and even fewer will actively tolerate those voices within their ranks.  We create cultural conformity in our ranks in much the same way that pre-war England had permanent social strata, boy's clubs, stiff upper lips, a place for everyone and everyone in their place.  We may look back and laugh at the expectations of the culture and the rigid hierarchies, but are we really that different?  At a time when we need more innovation, are our cultures and management processes welcoming to the potential Turings in our midst, or do they reject and exclude the Turings and their radical ideas?

Visionary individuals and the teams that enable them

Note that I reject the idea that each business needs to find one Alan Turing and extract all the knowledge and ideas from that individual.  Innovation, as was demonstrated in the movie, is a team activity.  Others on the team contributed a number of ideas and improvements to Turing's "bomb".  Turing by himself would have probably failed to break the ciphers, but as part of a team that eventually accepted his intelligence and eccentricities they created something more.  No, the real question is:  what does your culture do to your potential Turings?  The people who have great ideas, who challenge the status quo, who want to define the problems you face in new and unsettling ways?  The more you constrain and reject your Turings, the more you practice "safe" and controllable innovation and new product development, the shorter your path to extinction becomes.  
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:29 AM 0 comments

Monday, November 17, 2014

Innovating the Department of Defense

I listened with great interest to the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's announcement of the new passion for innovation within the US Department of Defense.  There are few organizations that have relied so heavily on research and development, new technologies and innovation as the United States military.  Hagel spoke eloquently about the bipartisan focus on defense modernization that started with Reagan, which led to a very well-equipped and prepared fighting force.  That energy and passion has decreased after several very expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the increasing realization that the government can't afford to spend as much as it might like to on the military.

As many commentators have noted, most armies prepare to fight the "last war" - that is, they take the lessons they learned from previous wars and project them into the future, assuming that future wars and conflicts will resemble those from the recent past.  This is why we in the US still have a heavy mechanized army, which is intended to fight large conflicts against an easily identifiable enemy.  Meanwhile, our adversaries have long understood that the US has too much technology and capability to fight toe to toe in open conflict.  Increasingly we face adversaries who blend into the local population, who use small arms conflict, guerilla war and terrorism rather than a single large army fighting to retain terrority.  ISIS's call for "lone wolves" who can attack within the US is a good example of an adversary seeking to disrupt our fighting morale through low intensity combat.

We know all of this, but the US military is still engaged in thinking, developing and deploying large scale response.  Of course we seek to shock and awe our opponents, and to never fight on an equal footing, but our thinking, planning, weapons and deployment systems must change.  The battle in the future may be as much about data and information as it is about territory or lives.  We have to learn to fight house to house, with minimal casualties, while demonstrating that our way of war is less invasive, less destructive and morally sound, versus what our adversaries fight.

As the pace of change has accelerated in the private sector, many corporations have adopted a number of techniques to respond, from scenario planning to ascertain the future market conditions to deeper market research and insights into emerging markets and segments.  The new defense initiative should start here, forecasting the likely battles and adversaries to determine what they need to defend against, and what they may need to proactively destroy.  In the US we've become too complacent about the superiority of our technology, and many of the battles we are seeing now are being fought with old military technology and new social media and information technology.  Superior arms aren't enough, especially when you fight an adversary who don't fear death but use it as a recruiting tool.

While the US military is a colossus, we have lost touch and don't understand geographic needs and local conditions on the ground.  We need better insight and intelligence, and better, more trustworthy allies.   As a recent book by John Nagl points out, the fight in Sunni Iraq was intense until the military realized that by paying and arming the Sunnis, the intensity of the fight could be reversed.  The military as a blunt weapon of force won't be able to pay dividends in the future.  We may not have those kinds of fights.  Meanwhile, the adversaries we do fight will morph and change.  They will likely be non-state actors, like ISIS or Al Qaeda, who may decide to hold territory but who really want to wreak havoc and upset some of our allies and adversaries in the Middle East and other locations.  The pace of change and the intensity of the fight are increasing.

Meanwhile our military is bound by acquisition rules that slow purchasing and that favor large integrated contractors who don't seek to bring the best ideas to the table, only the projects that can win.  And how do they win?  By ensuring that any large project has components made or assembled in a large number of congressional districts so that each congressperson can point to "new jobs" in their district.  The planning and acquisition process for the military is exceptionally slow, artificially obtuse and difficult to enter for any firm that is new to the defense market or who is not familiar with the contracting process.  This slows innovation in the form of new technologies and new products.  Likewise, a focus on the lowest total price on the contract, rather than the best solution, often awards firms who focus only on cutting costs, which is antithetical to good innovation.  Further, as has been documented frequently, there is a relatively high fear of risk in the military - often one "mistake" no matter how well intended can ruin a young officer's career.  The military has a hierarchical culture that doesn't allow a lot of freelancing (and often rightly so) and expects people to stay in line and wait their turn. Again, the culture will resist innovation.

Hagel's decision is a good one, but I wonder if he will incorporate the best people to assist in the implementation.  If good innovators have been helping the private sector, will he and his team turn to good innovators and consultants for advice?  (hint hint)  Will they push autonomy and creativity down to the average soldier, or isolate "innovation" in a new "long range" planning organization, creating yet another ivory tower to spawn more messages about innovation that cannot be implemented effectively by the fighting force?  Will they recognize how much the battlefield and the adversaries have changed?  Will they understand that the future of warfare is as much about bits as it is about bullets?  Can we rationalize our planning and procurement process?  Can we infect the culture of the military with more risk taking, change management and innovation?

Hagel has done the right thing - the military-industrial complex needs to innovate. But this should be defined as a radical overhaul of the entire structure, not just a way to get a few more platforms to the warriors more quickly.  There are a lot of moving parts that must coalesce in order to really infect the military-industrial complex with the amount of change and innovation necessary to move to the next "offset" position.  Reagan and the congress in the 80s were fortunate in their enemy - a monolithic Soviet military machine.  We today are far less fortunate, because our military will be faced with small, nameless, faceless, stateless adversaries, a rising China, issues spawned from a lack of water and arable land, global warming, international criminal gangs that take over entire countries or regions and many more factors.  As interconnected as the world is, and as broad as our relationships and dependencies are, we will be forced to fight in many places simultaneously, sometimes with people, sometimes with drones and sometimes with data.  These changes and the options they spawn demand a much more active and nimble military structure supported by a much more flexible supply chain and information partners.  Will Hagel's review and new offset provide such innovation?

Here are a couple of things to watch for.  First, will Hagel and the military recognize and reward mid-grade officers who have original thinking?  Second, will the review consider new contracting and new weapon development options that speed up development and cut time and cost?  Third, will the review recommend to eliminate some pet projects to free up funds for other uses?  Will the review spend as much time on systems, data, information and predictive analytics as it does on other factors?  Fourth, will the commission call on external innovation experts who have worked in the commercial fields, or will it rely solely on historical defense contracting partners for new ideas? Finally, will we see a reworking of the entire military-industrial complex?  Reagan's work solidified and cemented relationships between the military and large government contractors.  For speed, nimbleness and new ideas, the military in the future will need to be open to far more "open innovation" with unfamiliar partners.  Will that happen?  Time will tell.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:59 AM 0 comments

Friday, November 07, 2014

The first steps on the road to innovation success

Every day I'm not on a client site I come in early, to catch up on what's going on in the world.  More often than not I'm doing that by scanning Twitter, to see what the folks I follow are writing about or linking to.  I think of Twitter as my curated news stream, bringing me more information and news about innovation and new product development than I could possibly find on my own.

One of the things that troubles me about the Twitter stream is the frequency of the word "why".  Yes, I know that starting with a question is click bait, and any Tweet or post that can answer a meaningful question is likely to get opened and read.  But I think there's another factor at play.  Many of the people I follow on Twitter are experts or at least interested in innovation.  And the fact that so many of them feel that so often they must start with "why" isn't a nod to Simon Sinek, but follows on the notion that they must educate their audience.  If those of us in the innovation choir feel the need to continually educate our audiences and each other, what does that say about the state of innovation evolution? 

Using Tweets to describe "why" innovation works, or "why" a specific tool is interesting, or "why" a specific company did something is meant to educate and inform, to explain.  If we are still explaining why things work or are valuable, we don't have a lot of time or even need to describe what's more important - "how" things work.  This predominance of "why" in the innovation Twitter stream leads me to believe that either we on Twitter are underestimating our audience's knowledge of innovation, or that we are still on the first steps on the road to innovation awareness.  I'm afraid it's the latter.

You see, Twitter is not a normal news channel.  It's a channel for people who are highly attuned to a specific field of inquiry or who have a passion for some narrow field of study.  In my experience the vast majority of my clients, and prospects we talk to, don't read or follow innovation tweets.  Not because they are disinterested, but because they don't have time.  Their days and nights are full of work, family, other interests.  This isn't to say that they aren't on Twitter, just that their focus is on other things. 

We innovators have a long way to go to educate and build awareness for innovation.  There's a maturation process that any learner must proceed through, which looks something like this:  awareness, interest, education, experimentation, implementation, knowledge, experience.  The fact that so many of us feel led to talk about "why" innovation is valuable or important leads me to believe that our audience is still in the awareness and interest phases of innovation discovery, rather than in the experimentation, implementation and knowledge phases.  Or, perhaps many of the readers think they are in the "knowledge" phase but their knowledge is so thin, their experience so topical that they miss the greater power of innovation. 

Why are so many still so poorly engaged or have such a shallow understanding of innovation?  One factor lies in the fact that innovation is really poorly defined and has few agreed conventions or standards.  There is no singular authority on innovation, and anyone can hang a shingle and create a methodology and declare that he or she is an expert in innovation.  Another factor is the overwhelming focus on short term profits and efficiency.  Most managers have no time in their day for anything not on the immediate calendar.  They don't want to learn new skills unless those skills will be implemented regularly as part of the day to day job.  Innovation is uncertain, disruptive and distracts from important day to day operations.  And that leads to the final reason we are still using the word "why" a lot:  conversion.

We innovators have a set of beliefs that have been developed over time and passed down from Alex Osborn and others.  We use and believe in a set of tools and methods that are strange and unfamiliar to others, who only occasionally attempt solutions using a handful of these tools, and then using them inadequately or with poor preparation.  Innovation seems a bit uncertain, mysterious but promises a big payoff.  Frankly, innovation sounds a lot like a religion, and what we need is more conversions - people who move from doubt to belief.  That's another reason why so many Tweets about innovation start with "why".  We are trying to overcome the resistance and disbelief.

Perhaps we should ask why we need to start with why.  Why is there an abundance of doubt or resistance?  Why do so many people doubt or distrust innovation that we innovators must constantly defend its worth?  Too often innovation, like religion, has been used to justify a decision or an action that others don't find appealing, or was used to sway opinion. Innovation has frequently been used to over-promise and under-deliver, so there's a healthy sense of skepticism, even among those of us who profess to believe deeply in innovation's power.  And innovation charlatans and mystics abound, unfortunately.  We can't seem to sweep away the mystery and expose the pure underlying power and simplicity that innovation can offer.

Many, many companies are still on the first steps on the road to innovation success, limited by the depth of doubt and mistrust, held back by the lack of time and investment, and skeptical based on previous experiences.  We'll do more to advance innovation by sweeping away a lot of false promises and exposing more of the simple truths, and building experience and confidence broadly rather than retain innovation magic in some high priesthood. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:30 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

We need a moonshot

Now that the election is over in the US, we can finally turn our attention to an important question:  where are the big challenges we want to solve, the big opportunities we want to conquer?  For JFK it was reaching the moon.  For LBJ it was eliminating poverty (still working on that one).  What big goals or challenges should we take on next?

The last decade in the political sphere in the US has been all about managing expectations.  We've played small ball.  Even when the Democrats focused on remaking the US healthcare system, they took an incremental approach that hasn't achieved universal coverage.  And yes, I realize that politics is the art of the possible.  But can't it also be about defining big challenges and overcoming them?

Two recent stories illustrate this for me. The first is the recent explosion of the rocket that was sending provisions to the International Space Station.  NASA has "outsourced" the ability to reach Earth orbit, and both this explosion and the issues with Branson's space plane call into question whether or not our government should be leading the research into how to continue to take men and women into space.  But more importantly, what are our goals?  Why do we need a space program at all, if we have no clear goals?  It's not as though we aren't interested.  Movies like Gravity and Interstellar prove that space travel is interesting, and perhaps important for the future of mankind.  Yet we have no clear goals, which leaves us trying to boost rockets into space using 30 year old Soviet rocket technology or witnessing the crash of the Virgin Galatic Spaceship.  The government is at best a cheerleader and at worst a complete bystander in this new space race.  Crashes and explosions are expected when we go into space - it is not without risk.  We must regroup and rebuild, and demand the best technology.  But money and technology follow vision and opportunity.  What is the big goal?  Where is the big opportunity?  Who is making this case?

Another story illustrates the opposite side of the story.  NPR ran a recent story on the Army's research into 3-D printing of food.  While the Army is very high tech, as long as we require human soldiers the Army will run on food, and lots of it.  The story suggested that the Army was interested in manufacturing food specific to an individual and their caloric and nutritional needs, customizing food for soldiers.  This demonstrates that the Army has a big vision - a complete overhaul of the care and feeding of its soldiers, to provide them with the fuel they need to work effectively.  But the sentence I liked the most came from one of the researchers, who said:  It's not being done, so it's something that we will investigate in our project.  "It's not being done" - in other words, there's a huge opportunity here and we feel compelled to explore it, to see what we can create.  If only we had more visionary goals across the government, and the will and the means to fully engage that kind of desire.

JFK launched the race to the moon in response to fear that the Soviets would beat us, but he also challenged the collective capability of the government, American industry and technology to address a huge challenge.  To a lesser extent the Army is trying to use 3-D printing to create really tasty meals that provide the right benefits to soldiers just as they need them.  It's a small example, but one the Defense Department should point to as new emerging opportunities that they are using innovation and passion to explore.

Where's the passion for new solutions?  Why on Earth is the most technologically advanced country in the world using 30+ year old Soviet technology to launch a rocket into Earth orbit?  We need our government to focus on a few big things and do them exceptionally well.  We need our politicians and leaders to work together to solve important problems, rather than bicker over incremental changes.  We need more passion for solutions, and solutions that matter.

What's the next "moonshot" that we as a people should take on?  Whether it's affordable and truly universal healthcare, creating far more jobs and opportunities for everyone, declaring energy independence through a combination of fossil fuels and renewables, or some other big goal, our country more than ever needs a big goal that rallies everyone, rather than dividing everyone.  Identifying a big opportunity and challenging the US to achieve it, using our creative capabilities, innovation, the power of the collective government and the ingenuity of the American people, that's what we need right now.  What's our moonshot, politicians?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:55 AM 0 comments