Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What Carl Sagan might have said about innovation

I'm going to reach for one of those grand unifying theory type of thought experiments today, connecting what Carl Sagan said about science with what we believe to be true about innovation.

Sagan had a wonderful way of explaining science.  I especially enjoy what has come to be called the "Baloney Detection" kit.  You can see the entire discussion of the Baloney Detection kit on the wonderful Brain Picking site (which you should visit regularly for its expansive look at a whole host of topics).  Sagan introduced his Baloney Detection kit to help people make decisions about science, but we can also use a lot of his nine tools to ask questions about innovation as well.

Sagan's nine rules, roughly stated, are:

  1. Independent verification of "facts" - no secret knowledge, no opinions
  2. Encourage debate from all perspectives
  3. Arguments from "authorities" carry little weight.  In science there are experts but not authorities.
  4. Test multiple hypothesis rather than selecting the first answer
  5. Don't become overly attached to a hypothesis because it is yours
  6. Quantify whatever is possible.  Vague hypothesis and qualitative reasoning are open to interpretation
  7. Every link in the chain must work
  8. Use Occam's Razor - the simplest answer is usually the best
  9. Test your hypothesis and ensure others can validate it

What would happen if innovators adopted these rules?

Facts not opinion.  First, we'd agree to always share information openly about our ideas.  There would be no secret insight, no preferred perspective, and we'd debate ideas based on the information at hand and the ideas' merit, not on someone's secret knowledge or opinion.  Sagan would suggest that innovation should include research, to gather facts and share those facts, rather than simply based on opinion.

Debate from different perspectives. Next, innovators would work in cross-functional teams to share different perspectives about customer needs, internal capabilities and the challenges that need to be solved.

Openness to new ideas.  Innovators would finally overcome the burden of history and experience.  Too often good ideas are rejected because authority figures reject them, rather than understanding that past experience and information are subject to change and disruption.

Conceiving and testing multiple ideas.  Innovators would understand that experimenting and testing several ideas or hypothesis is important, and would resist the demands to rapidly converge around one idea.

Clearly we could go on , describing how Sagan's rules for evaluating scientific claims can also enlighten how we develop and manage ideas.  Which should suggest a couple of things to innovators and the people who manage them:

  1. Innovation shares a lot of methodology with scientific inquiry, which means it can be taught, and can be managed to some degree
  2.  Innovation is a discipline that can be reduced (to some extent) to a set of practices and "rules" - these are just more elastic than other practices and rules
  3. Sagan's recommendations are good practices regardless of the "discovery" - whether your team is cracking the genome for a gene that causes cancer or exploring customer needs to solve consumer financial issues.  
  4. Past information, experience and the figures that rest on this information (the authorities) often resist new insights and information just at the point where they become irrefutable.  Look no further than Galileo.  Innovators need to understand how to make their case effectively without judgment, and "authorities" (read managers, decision makers and executives) need to learn to look at new ideas with less prejudice and more openness.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:46 AM 0 comments

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's time to stop talking about innovation

Like many other hyped and highly anticipated phenomena, innovation has reached its saturation point, becoming a constantly used concept that simply isn't delivering as much meaning and value as has been promised.  That's not to say the hype or potential impact of innovation isn't true.  It's just that, as with any other new technology or capability, the advocacy gets ahead of the reality.  There are several reasons we should stop talking about innovation, a few of which I'll share in this post.  Note that I'm not recommending we stop doing innovative stuff, or stop building innovative skills, or stop hiring innovative people, or stop taking on uncertain but interesting innovation challenges.  All of that should still go on.  But, like the folks who love Fight Club, we should learn the first rule:  nobody talks about Fight Club.  But the reasons are very different.

First reason:  it's passe

The first reason we should stop talking about innovation is that it is passe.  Everybody knows that innovation is important, and equally everybody "knows" that it is unusual, infrequent and difficult.  Thus, the more we talk about innovation, the more it becomes a poorly defined word and concept that everyone has heard of and everyone is already "over".  We run a significant risk of weariness and worse, cynicism if we don't stop talking about it.

Second reason:  it's meaningless

"Innovation" as a word had a tremendous amount of power, once.  But it's overuse and intentional misuse has led us to the point where innovation means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.  While true innovation is complex, with many subtle differences and a range of potential outcomes, we've mostly limited it to incremental changes to existing products, while telling fairy tales about the impossible disruptive innovators like Apple, who must require some magic pixie dust to achieve those incredible innovation outcomes.  Too often corporate executives declare a new product or service "innovative" because that meets their needs, regardless if there's anything new or innovative about the offering. Thus, the word and concept has lost a lot of meaning.  You shouldn't be talking about innovation unless you can define it.

Third reason:  it's really about the customer and the outcome

Innovation is in the eye of the beholder, frequently acknowledge by purchase or acquisition.  While we in the corporate world may call something "innovative" the real measure is the product or service impact on the customer and the competitive landscape.  If customers and competitors shrug their collective shoulders at what you think is "innovative", then there's a good chance that you don't know what is innovative (see reason two).  We need to stop talking about what's innovative, and start talking about the measurable impact new products and services will have. 

Fourth reason:  it becomes an ends rather than a means

Innovation is simply a tool to help you achieve outsized growth, profits and differentiation.  These need to be your targets, and innovation a capability to help you achieve these goals. Far too often, innovation becomes the ends rather than the means.  We want to demonstrate that we are innovative in activities rather than in outcomes.  The more we focus on "innovation" and the less we focus on the results, the more innovation becomes important and the more we distract from or obfuscate the specific ends and means.

What's true is that most corporations don't really care how they achieve goals like greater profitability, increased revenue and significant differentiation.  It turns out that one really effective way to achieve those goals is through innovation.  But what get's lost in the conversation is how much innovation activity contributes to real profits, revenue or differentiation success.  When we start framing our goals in this way, HOW we achieve them becomes less important.

When we stop aggrandizing the tools and start highlighting the purpose we hope to achieve, the goals we hope to reach, we'll finally put to right the balance between talking about innovation and actually accomplishing important corporate objectives and goals.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:42 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Innovation is too easy

Hmm.  I bet the post title got your attention, but of course in this modern age of digital content we bloggers need headlines that pop through all of the noise and gain attention.  It helps, of course, that I'm of the opinion that the headline is provocative, and has, as Kissenger once said, the added benefit of being true.  Innovation, as practiced today in most corporations, is far too "easy" and commercialization is far too difficult.  What if that statement were reversed?  What if innovation was challenging and difficult, and commercialization were easy?  Let's explore, shall we?

Innovation is easy, commercialization is difficult

Now, let's get our language straight.  When I write that "innovation is easy" what I mean is that innovation as practiced in many corporations is rapid, inexpert and quickly converges on a simple solution.  Corporations assign teams without skills or experience, rapidly conduct "brainstorming" exercises based primarily on current opinion or past experience and move as quickly as possible to present a small handful of ideas to a wary executive team.  Innovation rarely has the preparation, commitment or effort applied to it to really succeed.  To many people, innovation appears to be a couple of meetings where they apply some unusual creativity tools, write some crazy ideas on a flipchart and return as soon as possible to their regular work.  Innovation is a vacation from the day to day grind, but isn't really expected to create meaningful results.

Without training, without skill development, without meaningful facilitation and without a well-defined scope and expected outcome, innovation is easy.

But commercialization is hard in this setting, for several reasons.  First, since there's not a lot of compelling new ideas, the existing products must produce more revenue and profits than initially expected.  Without a good pipeline of new solutions, the old solutions become more important, so companies look for methods to extend product life and add a few new features to existing products. This crowds the product development process and eliminates room for new concepts to enter.  Second, since the few "ideas" that do make it to product development and commercialization are so poorly developed and defined, a tremendous amount of product definition that should have been done previously must be done in the product development and commercialization phases.  Third, as the product development and commercialization teams get burned by inadequate or poor concepts from the innovation activities, these teams downplay and "back burner" new concepts and focus on existing products.

As long as innovation is easy (and the results are poor) commercialization will focus its attention on existing products and commercialization will seem difficult for innovators.

Let's now consider the alternative, where innovation is "hard", and commercialization is easy.

When I write "hard" I mean that innovation activities require careful planning, deep commitment from innovation teams, building skills and doing the work necessary to really generate great, valuable ideas.  There is a sense of understanding market trends and competitive actions.  Innovation teams deeply consider customer needs and emerging opportunities.  Internal ideas and external intellectual property are evaluated.  Prototypes are built, minimum viable products are constructed and tested.  Consumers are quizzed about the solution and the value it provides.  Specific product recommendations are made based on consumer feedback, confident ideation and product requirements. 

This is hard work, and requires a deep commitment, skilled and trained people, an understanding of the process and the rationale for committing to this work, as well as financial and human resources.  Innovation becomes more than a few sessions with a flip chart but an actual planned exercise to come up with game changing solutions, not just a few haphazard and interesting ideas.

If innovation is done effectively, can that make commercialization of the great ideas easier?  I'm certain the answer is "yes" because we've seen this in action with our clients.  Product development and innovation become simpler for several reasons.

First, a trust reason:  product development teams, marketers and others involved in commercialization have far more trust in a product or solution that's generated from a defined innovation process, which has established its seriousness and its capability.  Rather than carefully considering and then relegating ideas to the back burner, priorities are reworked to accelerate good ideas to market faster.

Second, a thoroughness reason.  If the hard work is done in the innovation phase, product development and commercialization can do what they are supposed to do in their phase, rather than spend time reconsidering and reworking the product definition and requirements and confirming consumer demand.

Third, a pipeline reason.  If there are really compelling ideas that customers are clamoring for in the innovation pipeline, that can lead to more growth, more revenue and more profit.  This means that executives will prioritize good, new ideas over older, tired existing products.  Every firm wants a fresh, compelling but profitable pipeline of new products and services.  As soon as the "hard work" of innovation demonstrates it can create a pipeline of these solutions, the emphasis will be on accelerating them to market, rather than cautiously testing a small handful.

Resetting Expectations

For too long we've humored ourselves that a bare commitment to innovation would produce extraordinary results.  You can witness this snide commitment in IBM commercials where entire "innovation" teams were lying on the floor in the dark, coming up with new ideas.  Innovation is the most valuable, and probably the most difficult work within an organization, yet corporations constantly undersell the effort, under-staff it and move far too quickly and far too inexpertly.    This is why Peter Drucker once said that marketing and innovation produce results, all the rest of business activity is costs.

We'll know when corporations are serious about innovation not based on their words, but on the emphasis they place on doing innovation right, doing it well and doing it effectively.  When innovation teams complain not about how difficult it is for ideas to be accepted, but how hard their executives work them to get the right ideas.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:25 AM 0 comments