Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Breaking the patterns for innovation

As far as one-hit wonders go, there are few bands that I listened to more than a band called the Godfathers back in the 80s and early 90s.  They had a song that was meant to encapsulate our lived experience.  The title?  Birth, school, work, death.  This is the pattern that we all live.  More importantly, each of us has a fairly regular pattern for our work lives:  get up, go to work, go to meetings, work on some deliverables, drive home, eat dinner.  Rinse and repeat.  These patterns are comfortable and familiar.  More importantly, these patterns - how we work, what we do, decisions we make, risks we take - become ingrained and begin to govern how we think, how we work and even the types of ideas that we contemplate.

The more comfortable we become with our patterns of life - breakfast, commute, work, lunch, work, commute, dinner, TV, bed - the more we cling to familiarity and stability.  I think that these patterns and familiarity also create real issues for creativity and innovation.  When we consider how important it is to create viable new products and services, and how quickly markets are shifting and customer demands are growing, we either need new patterns or we need to break the patterns we have.

Are patterns wrong?

First, let me say that patterns by themselves aren't "wrong".  Many very creative people are very proscribed by their patterns.  Many famous artists were very particular about where and when they would paint.  Many writers have a practice of getting up very early and spending hours at a typewriter or a word processor before lunch, day after day.  In many cases these patterns are about constant focus and productivity more than creativity however.  Patterns of work aren't necessarily wrong, until they influence patterns of thinking and creativity, and create resistance to new information, shifts in the market or the unwillingness to observe and predict new technological trends.

Patterns create familiarity and repeatability which in turn creates greater efficiency.  Again, nothing wrong with repeatability and efficiency until it's time to create something new and different, which may introduce variability, risk and inefficiency.  It's at this point that patterns may stymie good thinking or narrow the scope of inquiry.

Breaking the pattern

Leaving a trusted pattern or process can be difficult, but to innovate you almost always will need to break a pattern.  As long as you attempt to innovate and preserve an existing pattern - either a physical pattern or a decision making pattern - you are very likely to shape your ideas to fit your trusted pattern rather than change your pattern to fit your new ideas.

It is with this in mind that good innovators will need to insist on at least leaving the existing pattern in order to innovate.  I've witnesses countless numbers of teams trying to create more interesting and innovative ideas who were frustrated by the subtle pressures their existing physical and psychological patterns forced on them.

To break these patterns we often ask people to meet in a different location - away from their office, in a place that doesn't feel like work.  We may set the stage for them by removing anticipated constraints - telling them that during the activity they have the funding and resources they need - or can access these - to achieve their ideas.  We try to immerse people in new thinking and patterns by exploring future scenarios, showing them that other patterns or possibilities exist and asking them to live in that very uncomfortable place between a new pattern and an old one.

Creating a new pattern

 Good innovators and especially entrepreneurs are really good at recognizing existing patterns and spotting the weaknesses in the existing pattern and creating a vision of the new pattern.  They realize that people crave patterns, so innovations that don't port people from an old pattern to a new pattern will likely be short-lived.  In some instances they build new solutions that look a lot like the old pattern (Tesla and Airbnb come to mind).  These innovations are primarily based on the old models and patterns but with a new, compelling value proposition. 

Even what we might consider really radical innovations either build or adopt concepts from the previous pattern or they are well-conceived and relatively complete and holistic new patterns.  Geoffrey Moore explored this idea in his book Crossing the Chasm, where he referred to "whole products" in the way I am referring to patterns.  The difference between these is most innovation when he was writing 20-30 years ago resulted in mostly physical products, whereas most innovation today will eventually end up as services, channels, business models and data.

These intangible outcomes make forming new patterns more difficult, but not impossible for emerging generations who are more comfortable with digital solutions rather than physical solutions.  But don't kid yourself - while the nature of the solution may shift from more tangible to more intangible, the expectation of patterns will still exist.

What does this mean for innovators?

There are several takeaways if this assessment is true.  First, good innovators must both understand and respect existing patterns but understand their flaws and limitations.

Second, innovators must understand how to create solutions that safely port people from their existing expectations and patterns to new solutions that either build on some of the existing patterns or have a fully realized new pattern that is easy to adopt.

Third, to do this, innovators must be willing to step out of their own patterns - to become uncomfortable and examine patterns and needs from a objective perspective.  They cannot objectively rework or remodel patterns from within the existing process or pattern.

This last point means that - as we've known for quite a while - that good innovators will likely be either boundary-spanners, people who can easily move from following existing patterns to environments where few patterns existing, or they will be people who are constantly dissatisfied with the existing patterns, always seeking a new pattern.  These latter people are often branded as 'complainers' in many organizations.  The true boundary spanners are relatively rare.

Fourth, you may need patterns or processes to help you break your existing patterns.  This may seem a bit unusual but just as we cannot leave customers in an uncertain place without patterns, innovators may simply need new methods and tools once they step out of their existing patterns.  Trying to work in a new space with no patterns, tools or processes will lead to frustration.  This is why I've spent much of my career working on front end tools and methods.  Existing patterns and tools will not create interesting new ideas, but the reverse - trying to work without patterns or tools in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar environment - is simply a recipe for failure.

So, who are your pattern breakers?  Who among your team can exist outside of the existing patterns, and who among you can introduce new ways of thinking and new tools and methods to help solve problems in the "in between" spaces between your old patterns and the new patterns you are dreaming up?  Which member of your team has the vision to create a new pattern that can provide comfort to customers as they move from an old pattern to the new pattern?  Who ensures the new pattern is complete?  If you can answer these questions, you have a team for future investigation and discovery, no matter how unlikely they may seem on the surface.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:09 AM


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