Monday, March 20, 2017

Innovation is about finding and discovering

I've been thinking a lot about the challenges that midsized and larger companies face when trying to do more innovation. It's not a secret that they need to do more innovation; everyone knows this.  It's not really a secret what innovation is, or what the potential benefits might look like.  We've seen the results of good innovation in the marketplace.  It's not that people are stupid and don't understand how to innovate, although many are more comfortable with existing methods and tools, and haven't been trained in new innovation tools or perspectives.  But training and tool introduction isn't a major barrier.

No, the recurring theme of failing to innovate in a corporate setting has more to do with the failure to find things and discover things.  I'd like to address what you need to find and discover, because if we can name the barriers or challenges, we may be able to eliminate them and accelerate innovation.

What do you need to find in order to innovate?

  • The right problem or opportunity.  You've got to be solving an important problem or addressing an interesting opportunity, which means you've got to find the right opportunity or challenge.  This means you've got to align innovation to strategic needs and gaps that can't be addressed with standard tools.
  • The time you need.  Probably the biggest gap in corporate innovation is finding the time to actually conduct innovation the way it should be conducted, rather than adding it on to a team's other responsibilities or trying to shorten the activity to the point where innovation is simply abbreviated and useless.
  • The people you need.  This challenge in in multiple parts, because you need interested, creative, divergent people to create ideas, and you need capable, connected people to convert ideas into products and services.  Your company probably lacks the former, and the latter are very busy (see time you need).
  • A sponsor or champion.  In reality, you can innovate or work on an opportunity or problem all day long, but it won't go anywhere until some executive decides it is important or useful to them.  This means you need an engaged champion or sponsor, because you'll probably need to overcome objections and re-prioritize work.
  • What customers think they need.  Rather than simply create new innovations based on your technologies or capabilities, you need to find out what customers want and expect - even project what they are going to want or need in the near future. 
  • What the existing expectations and platforms are.  As we progress and products and services become more integrated, creating a discrete product or service that ignores the existing platforms and ecosystems is a recipe for failure.  You've got to find out what critical existing platforms and services exist and how you work with them to add value. 
 As Heinlein and others have said, TANSTAAFL.  There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.  You want to innovate, you say?  You need the ability, time and passion to find or discover all of these things.  Which is why innovation seems so daunting.  Doing your everyday job, meeting or exceeding expectations making existing products doesn't require you or your company do discover or find much of anything.  Innovation is new, real work, and new, real work that your team isn't familiar with.

If finding and discovery are so important to innovation, why do corporations and their staff do such a poor job finding and discovering?

  1. Finding and discovering aren't part of the normal job description.  Most people are paid, and paid well, to do the same things over and over again, and doing them more efficiently.  They aren't paid to find things, search for unknown information or embark on a voyage of discovery.  That's...
  2. R&D's job.  Most corporations believe that finding and discovering belongs to R&D, while everyone else should be focused on efficient delivery of what they know.  However, given the depth and breadth of innovation, R&D can't be the only group finding and discovering.
  3. Finding and discovering requires admitting that you don't know.  We pay people for expertise.  Asking them to find and discover new information means admitting they don't know, and that good ideas or information may be "out there".  This means that existing expertise may not be as valuable as new discovery.
  4. Time is a limiting factor.  Doing the same things more efficiently takes an ever-decreasing amount of time.  Looking, experimenting, finding, discovering and exploring aren't straightforward or predictable, and worse may not result in good ideas or information.  In a time constrained environment, seeking and finding is limited.
  5. The fear of what you may discover.  If we can find time to discover and explore, we may not like what we find.  You may find information that suggests your core capabilities are about to be swept away.  You may find that emerging needs don't align to your strengths.  Do you have the stomach to hear and understand what your teams discover?
These, and of course other reasons, are why so much emphasis is placed on incremental innovation, because incremental innovation requires so little true discovery.

Becoming innovative requires becoming a discoverer

So you say you want more innovation?  We've talked and written and philosophized about the need for cultural change.  Here's a place to start:  how much time is given over to finding and discovering new needs?  How much exploration is allowed?  If innovation is about finding new needs and emerging customer segments, and finding new solutions, then doing innovation will require creating an environment where finding, discovery, exploration and other less than efficient and quantifiable activities aren't just countenanced, they are encouraged and embraced.

This takes a different kind of thinking and often a different kind of person.  Columbus didn't discover America because he was bound by current map thinking.  He was interesting in exploration and discovery.  Moreover, he's a good example of an innovator, because he did explore, he did test a hypothesis and did discover something - something of value, but not what he originally set out to do.  Turns out it worked out well for his backers.  You don't just need to provide time and space to explore and discover, you may need to find new people who are willing to do so, when everyone else says they'll sail off the map.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:19 AM


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