Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Innovation requires learning, relearning and unlearning

There's probably few activities that corporate folks enjoy less than corporate training.  For most it's guaranteed to be a slog, or a review of policies and procedures rarely used and important only to a specific team or set of circumstances.  While people are attending the "mandatory" training to learn material of vague importance to their day to day jobs, their inboxes are filling up, cat videos are going unwatched.  Most people assume they have enough knowledge to do the jobs they have, and they are often comfortable simply winging the rest.

That's why innovation often presents such an interesting challenge.  For the most part people have the suspicion that innovation is unusual and requires new insights and skills they don't possess.  And, since they don't possess those skills, they will avoid doing innovation work (from fear of failure) or will make innovation work align to existing programs and policies (which they know well).  In response, many organizations are turning to innovation training and innovation workshops.

I'm just back from leading a couple days of innovation training with a client, and the more we do this, the more convinced I am that 1) corporations can do a very good job innovating with the people they have 2) innovation training - learning the skills that make up a good innovation activity isn't difficult and 3) people will need to both learn, relearn and unlearn some things in order to achieve innovation success.


The fact of the matter is that most of us have spent the last 20 to 30 years learning to be efficient, to succeed at our first attempt.  This makes all of our efforts very careful and very incremental, and doesn't embrace innovation or disruption.  We aren't good at discovering new needs or experimenting with new ideas, and we need to learn some tools and methods to help us do a better job of finding unmet needs and creating interesting ideas.  You can learn the tools to innovate, and the more you practice these tools and methods the more creative and capable you'll become.  In this regard, innovation training is important, but must be quickly followed up with putting the learning into practice.


A lot of what we teach when we teach innovation skills is going back to basics.  First is doing a good job defining an opportunity or problem to tackle, rather than simply solving the most obvious problems or symptoms.  Next is taking the time to understand what customers actually want and need, rather than presenting your latest technologies.  Third is having an open mind, creating and combining ideas.  Like Fulghum's book All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten, some innovation thinking is simply taking the time to contemplate and analyze a lot of ideas, using interaction methods and perspectives that you learned earlier in life and later abandoned.  It's also important to allow ideas to evolve and not judge them immediately - to build on and expand ideas and to provide the room for really crazy ideas to develop.


There is some unlearning that's required when people learn about innovation.  For too long we've settled for success, lack of variation, efficiency.  This means we've curtailed exploration, discovery, and wonder.  We approach problems as experts rather than as naive beginners, which shuts down a lot of good ideas and exploration.  We rush to converge when we should take time to diverge.  A lot of innovation seems almost counterintuitive, not because the tools and methods are difficult but because they seem to conflict with how we operate our businesses today.  To do good innovation you must sometimes take the opposite view, take on new perspectives, ask what would happen if industry norms were eliminated.  You have to unlearn some of your assumptions and ask unusual questions.

The benefits of innovation training

Like us old guys who laughed off yoga, stretching and warming up who are, later in life, coming to realize how important core strength and flexibility are in day to day life, you can get a lot out of innovation training and can become far more creative and innovative if you are willing to adopt some new tools and a new perspective or mindset.  This is true for individuals, small teams and ideally for an entire corporate culture.  You simply need to learn the tools and methods that work, relearn how to work together and unlearn some of the things that seem so certain.  Once you do that, or your teams or culture does that, you have the chance to be far more innovative.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:30 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Is innovation unreasonable?

Thank goodness for Twitter.  What would we do without this constantly refreshing stream of bromides, insights, accusations and occasional bursts of wisdom?  Just yesterday while perusing the Twitter stream I saw a quote attributed to Jonathan Ive that made me want to sit up and scream.  The quote was relatively straightforward and seems innocuous on its face:

"To do something innovative means you reject reason"
Sounds about right, doesn't it?  Innovation means that you are creating something new and potentially disruptive, and that means that you may have to go against "reason".  As I've said before, I'm a big fan of George Bernard Shaw, who said that all progress is due to "unreasonable" men and women. But do we have to reject reason in order to innovate?  I don't think so - in fact I think we have to embrace reason, knowledge and insight in order to innovate.

Reason or Convention

What I think gets confused here is the idea of fighting "convention" and somehow that becomes conflated with reason.  When we innovate we are often changing the status quo, and there are plenty of people with reasons to protect and sustain the status quo, who can give you plenty of..wait for it.. reasons why you shouldn't disrupt or change the status quo.  Convention is powerful, and if the quote had said, "To do something innovative means you reject convention" I would have said: Amen.

However, we cannot reject reason when we innovate, in fact we must rely on insight, intelligence, research and reason when we innovate.  That's because the only way to encourage people to commit to new ideas is to demonstrate new insights, new needs or new experiences, which are all based on research, insights into unsolved problems or challenges or new technologies.  This all appeals to reason - why would I choose an uncertain unknown over a predictable certainty?  Only if the unknown is promising, compelling and valuable.  And how would I communicate those benefits?  By appealing to your reason, and overcoming your fear of rejecting convention.


So, it might be rightly said that innovators, artists, creatives and others of a similar ilk are unconventional, even unreasonable in their pursuit of new ideas, but not that they lack or reject reason.  Shaw suggests that only people who are willing to bend the world to their viewpoint, who don't accept the status quo, create change and progress.  Only those who use insight, research, intelligence and sometimes their gut see what's coming and apply their reason to overcome conventions and objections to create a new reality.

I didn't have the opportunity to work with Jobs - Ive did - but I'd think Jobs was often unreasonable in his pursuits of innovation and rejected convention, but his insights called on his reason and his intellect.  And Jobs was simply better at spotting emerging needs and markets than others were - this isn't a rejection of reason, it is a validation of reason and a rejection of convention.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:04 AM 0 comments

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Your robot will serve you now

There are a lot of concerns about the advancement of artificial intelligence and robotics in regards to creating and especially destroying jobs.  When you read that many fast food and other basic service organizations are experimenting with replacing human workers with robots, you can begin to see the emerging problem.  In the past, many new or young workers gained skills and job experience in low wage, low cost service industries like fast food or retail.  If Amazon popularizes the concept of a retail establishment without cashiers, or McDonald's can fully automate its cooking, food delivery and checkout process, thousands of low wage, ideally entry level jobs will be eliminated.  This is all part of Schumpeter's creative destruction paradigm:  innovation creates new opportunities while destroying or disrupting existing markets and models.

The Implications

There are several implications from this rapid advancement of AI and robotics.  The first, as I've described above, is that many jobs will be eliminated.  This is good in some respects because they are menial, low wage or dangerous.  However, many of them were often entry positions that allowed people to gain skills and establish a work history, which allowed them to move on into positions with more responsibility.

On the other hand, until AI and robots can maintain, repair and upgrade themselves, the emergence of robots and AI into our lives creates new opportunities, for software development, better articulation and fine motor control for robots, maintenance of the robots and so on.  These jobs will pay more and require higher order skills than the jobs they replaced, so we better understand how to prepare people to do this work, which will very soon be in high demand.

There's a third implication I'm interested in exploring, which is that as the use of AI and robotics increases, the cost of robotics and AI will fall dramatically.  And that means that many of us may find a new helper in our lives.

Robots and AI as in-home or in-office solutions

Here's where there's a real opportunity for innovation.  As the use of robotics and AI increases, the price and breadth of services AI and robotics can offer will increase.  We are seeing the very first signs of this from Amazon and Google with their in-home devices that allow us to use natural language to request assistance from virtual assistants. This of course is simply the very thin edge of the wedge, however, because most of the interaction is question and answer, with the human then acting on the information.  As the AI gets more embedded into systems in the home and at work, the AI and/or integrated robots will take the actions, leaving humans free to do more (or take more leisure I guess).  Figuring out how to integrate smart assistants with networks and autonomous robots that can then take action (Siri:  please ask the Dyson to vacuum the downstairs hallway) is the next step but a difficult one, because many of the appliances we have aren't smart enough to be directed or guided by themselves even with very smart AI.

Robots, especially robots made for specific uses, can also provide a real lifestyle change.  If Roomba can vacuum your house then how long before Mowerba comes along to mow your grass, automatically and based on growing conditions?  I think we'll see a plethora of single purpose robots not connected to a central AI or hub just yet, while eventually we'll see robots that are more capable of doing more diverse tasks (but that are much more complicated).

Integration and Customer Experience

The two biggest innovation challenges then aren't creating the robots or the AI.  These to a great extent exist.  What's important is figuring out how to integrate these and other devices so that they work together seamlessly.  How does an AI operate a vacuum cleaner or even schedule it, for example.  Integration and shared platforms or standards will become important and there is a huge innovation opportunity here.

The other aspect will be completely overlooked by most technology companies, but it's just as vital.  The customer experience of these solutions will also matter.  If you are watching TV and your robot gets you a drink, what's the customer experience you want to have?  Will robots have appropriate bedside manner for the bedridden patients they are asked to care for?  The technologists that design and built AI and robots will want to prove these devices work efficiently.  The consumers using the devices will want a warm, empathetic, engaging experience.  There's room for innovators in that gap. While we'll understand the use of robots and other automated devices in our food service and health care, we'll still want and expect a level of interaction and experience that must be designed in.  Customer experience is still paramount, no matter who or what delivers the service, and getting this right is a real innovation opportunity.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:10 AM 0 comments