Monday, April 22, 2019

For interesting innovation, ignore your instincts

I've been around the block for a while, and every once in a while I'll tell the folks on my team who are younger than me what's likely to happen with a specific strategy or project.  Since they are young and a bit wet behind the ears, it often comes as a surprise to them that I can predict with some degree of certainty what's likely to happen.  What they don't realize is that I have the blessing of past experience, and from that experience I can recognize patterns and previous behaviors, and interpret how current activities will play out based on past successes or failures.  To some extent, I'm banking on my observations and experiences.  I'm also calling on my instinct as to what will happen in a particular set of conditions.

Trusting your gut and working within a set of predictable parameters can be a fun parlor game in the day to day operations of a large corporation.  These capabilities are not, however, what you want to bring to bear when you innovate.  In fact your past experiences, recognition of patterns and instincts may be holding you back.

How instinct holds you back

You may ask - what's wrong or dangerous about using well-honed experience and instincts when I innovate?  These capabilities have served you well in the past - prevented you from making the rookie mistakes that younger or less experienced team members often make.  Here's the issue - if innovation is meant to create truly new and different products and services, then the work is likely to go beyond the scope of your knowledge and experience.  If you can safely evaluate new innovation activities and outcomes within your own past experience, there's a good chance the work you are doing is incremental, not transformative.

Worse, when you bring all of your historical baggage with you, you will try to force ideas to work within the context you are familiar with and where you can bring your past knowledge and frameworks to bear.  After all, what's the use of having all this experience if we can't use it?

Good innovation work should take us outside our comfort zone, beyond the course of our knowledge and by all means into uncertain waters.  If you then try to force all the innovation work you do into a paradigm where your experience can help you make quick decisions or apply certain rules of thumb, then you will constrain your thinking and bring all the idea generation back into a setting that you can control.

Are you willing to go beyond your experience?

The real question - and it becomes more important in innovation every day - is whether or not you are willing to move into spaces and discoveries beyond your experience, where your instinct and your pattern recognition doesn't work and may not even be applicable.  It's in this zone where new ideas that haven't been tried or haven't been applied correctly live.  Steve Jobs referred frequently to the idea of beginner's mind, which to me is one of the most important traits a real innovator can possess.  Beginner's mind is the ability to look at a problem as if for the first time, without bias, without experience.  To ask, how might we solve this problem in the absence of past knowledge.

That activity is almost a waste of time if you are trying to solve the problem quickly and with existing capabilities or technologies.  A beginner's mind approach is infinitely valuable if  you are trying to get a fresh look at an old problem or find new, untested solutions.  This is why people with years of experience in an industry rarely create ideas that seem fresh or new, while people outside an industry can create ideas that seem strange or unusual to those within the industry.

There's another reason to ignore your instincts

Another reason to ignore your instincts has to to with the nature and pace of change.  Many of us grew up in a hierarchical organization where power and information flowed top-down, and slowly at that.  Increasingly we are faced with flatter organizations that are closer to the customer and living and acting in real time.  Digital transformation is going to unleash a tremendous amount of new data and new insights, which will naturally unleash new operating models, new business models and new experiences.  All of which mean your instincts, which are based on more stable models where less information was available and change was more predictable, less accurate.

This all means that your instincts are honed to slower change and growth than is underway, and more than likely your attention is drawn to solutions that have been promised and away from where real change is happening.  What you think should take years to change may take days or months, and where you expect change to occur or what you think will remain stable may turn out to be the reverse.

Do instincts go out the window?

So, when we innovate, must we wander around like children using Beginner's Mind and ignoring all historical conventions?  Do our instincts matter when innovating?  This is again a question of divergence and convergence.  During the necessary divergence of exploration and discovery, instincts can hold you back.  When we converge, however, there are still the same challenges of feasibility, viability and desirability, and your instincts may be more useful in this context.

The point isn't to ignore or eliminate your instincts, your historical knowledge and your ability to recognize patterns.  It's to help you think about when these attributes add value in an innovation setting, and when they become barriers to doing good innovation work.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:43 AM 0 comments

Monday, April 08, 2019

What I'ved learned so far about digital transformation and innovation

Lately I've been drinking from the firehose.  It seems every day there are new reports on digital transformation and innovation.  My good friend and collaborator Paul Hobcraft is constantly reviewing new reports and creating insights of his own, which inundate me with more information.

At the same time I've had the honor of chairing the Innovate Carolina conference, where the theme considered the interplay of innovation and digital transformation, and I'm teaching a class at NC State on digital transformation and innovation.  Well, teaching may be a strong word.  I have had the good fortune to attract a number of excellent speakers, from RIoT, IBM, RTI, NC State and others who know more about these emerging technologies than I could possibly know.

But through this I've learned a bit about both innovation and digital transformation.  Below I'm going to share a few things I've learned so far, and my sense of the implications.

Learnings so far:

  1. Innovation and digital transformation both impact efficiency; only innovation is about creating dramatically new stuff (so far).
    Most new technologies are first deployed to reduce costs or improve efficiencies.  In this way they demonstrate a rapid return on investment, so it's not surprising that many digital transformation initiatives are initially focused on efficiency gains and cost improvements.  So far digital transformation hasn't really addressed the question of transformative innovation - that is, innovating beyond the core.  I think there is great potential for digital transformation, especially big data and predictive analytics, to create new insights that lead to new innovations, but that seems to be still a few years away.
  2. Innovation and digital transformation both impact customer experience.
    Increasingly the focus within innovation is around design, human centered design and customer experience.  This focus is increasing because we need to provide more value to core products and because many innovations aren't centered around products but services and experiences.  It's interesting that a significant number of benefits from digital transformation are also focused on customer experience, whether this is based on smart bots on websites or more predictive data flow in an interaction.  Perhaps one of the best places for these two management philosophies to work together is in customer experience.
  3. Digital transformation is widely discussed, but not widely distributed (stealing from William Gibson).
    Digital transformation is a category term, embracing and encompassing a number of technologies, strategies and other factors.  The fact that the pace of change and adoption of the underlying technologies is different won't surprise you, but the gulf between the different technologies and their practical applications is rather large.  Machine Learning is being applied everywhere, and IoT is just a new way of saying "sensors".  There are billions of sensors already deployed across the globe.  However, blockchain is still in its infancy and few companies have a compelling use case for artificial intelligence.  Robotics are already widely deployed in factories and will become more so in service operations and human facing operations relatively quickly, but autonomous vehicles are still some distance away due to acceptance, regulations and insurance concerns.
  4. Few are prepared to manage all the data that will soon be generated.
    As more "digital transformation" occurs, as more sensors are deployed, more data gathered about people and their product usage, as more products produce more data about usage, far more data will be generated and stored.  Few companies are in a position to capitalize and use all that data efficiently, and those that do will have a major head start and gain so much more knowledge and experience that they will leave other competitors in the dust.
  5. Digital transformation (and all of its requisite technologies and implementations) may crowd out innovation.
    Digital transformation is not a blanket concept but a category of technologies that will be implemented, including IoT, Big Data, AI/ML, robotics, autonomous vehicles, blockchain, and their enablers - 5G, ubiquitous connectivity, cloud computing.  There are many technologies and many implementations in order to gain benefit.  My sense is that these technologies and their promise may overwhelm many companies and detract from innovation work, because a technology implementation (such as a project to implement more machine learning capability) has a definitive outcome and may quickly demonstrate benefits from cost cutting, whereas most innovation activities are somewhat risky and may or may not demonstrate value.  I continue to believe that innovation is on tenuous ground while this new phenomenon of digital transformation is paramount.
  6. In the end, it's just business and mostly about people.
    Our closing speaker at Innovate Carolina, Bermon Painter, said it best.  All of this, whether it's digital transformation or innovation, are just ways of doing business, and eventually all of this should be centered around people - customers, people in our company and in our value chain.  Does any of the technology get in the way or create frustrations for people anywhere in the value chain?  Do our innovations improve lives and create seamless interactions, or the opposite?  Whether it is new or old technology, new or old products, it is the people who ultimately matter.  Is that where your focus lies?
I'm interested in where all of this goes next, and how the interplay between digital transformation and innovation unfold.  Regardless of how it unfolds it will be an interesting ride.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:22 AM 0 comments

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Why taking your best shot is all wrong in innovation

I was speaking with a prospective client recently and was dismayed to hear them talk about innovation in a manner that seems to suggest innovation is a "one and done" activity.  Then a good friend introduced me to the book Loonshots, which I haven't read, but did listen to a podcast about.  I'm not here to review Loonshots, but I do want to debunk the idea of innovation and its connotation to "shots" of any kind.

We use this kind of language all the time - "take your best shot".  We use this language in our personal lives and in our business lives.  This phrase is often used in a setting where the speaker is uncertain about his or her ability to do something, will attempt it anyway, but goes into the activity with some fatalism.  My concern is when we use this kind of thinking when we innovate.

Best Shots

When you innovate, you are often doing something new and unusual, that many times may not achieve the goals or expectations you hope for.  Further, you may be working on innovation without the proper training or skills, and with less than a full complement of resources.  This is why many people talk about giving innovation their "best shot".

In no other important business activity would we use such fatalistic language, have such a negative expectation and work in such a one off way.  In no other business process would we approach a problem with such poor definition and preparation.  Yet innovation is more important than ever, but we still approach it as if it's a one time, unusual proposition that we'll give our best (but probably inadequate) effort to, with little expectation of success.

Just read the phrase to yourself:  Give it your best shot.

The phrase even signals things that I believe are fallacies about innovation, that by repeating we allow to become reality.


First is the word "shot".  This is one reason I have discomfort with the "Loonshots" book.  In the podcast I listened to the publishers talked about Kennedy's plan to put a man on the moon.  This was a "Loonshot".  But NASA never envisioned only going once.  The idea behind innovation is not that it is an occasional "shot", but a constant, sustained effort, composed of small, incremental changes and larger, transformative or disruptive activities.  The phrase "give it your best shot" comes from (as best as I can tell) the 1700s and refers to shooting at a target, in a day when a musket could only be fired once, then slowly reloaded. Thus everything depended on the one shot.

This thinking should be almost heretical to us.  Innovation, especially in a corporate setting, requires a lot of "shots", simultaneously, and consistently.  Unlike marksmen, who have a stationary target and lots of shooting practice, most innovators are aiming at an uncertain future and have little experience.  We need to help innovators understand how to improve their understanding of the future (research, trend spotting, scenario planning) and how to become more proficient at innovation methods and tools, but we also need to bake in the idea that more innovation should be done more often, more consistently and with different goals or outcomes in mind.


Another word I hate in the phrase "give it your best shot" is the word best.  How can we give something our "best shot" when we are 1) uncertain of the framing, scope or goals 2) unpracticed in the methods and tools 3) unsupported in the work and 4) working against cultures and corporate norms that push back against change?  Why must we make innovation a competition against everything the company does and reinforces, rather than make innovation something the company accepts and embraces, and prepares people to do?  Why enter this vital work with fatalism rather than with confidence?

So, when we repeat this phrase:  Give it your best shot, we are invoking the idea that an activity that used to be performed by experienced marksmen with plenty of experience and good conditions is now an activity performed with little experience or practice, in imperfect and often contradictory conditions, and only done once, and often with a sense of impending failure before we even start.

Sounds like a recipe for success, no?

What I'd prefer we think about

Rather, what I'd prefer is that we give teams the skills and tools they need to do innovation more effectively, preparing them for the work.  We should give them a sense that one innovation project isn't the end all or be all of the innovation work - there are persistent innovation activities working on both incremental and disruptive change constantly - the idea that we are taking many shots.  Further we should reduce risk and uncertainty by clarifying the conditions in which they work (changing the corporate culture), improving the field in which they work (better insights, better sense of future conditions) and in improving the confidence they have about the work.

If someone tells you to take your best shot at innovation, here's what you can say in return:

My best shot is actually a series of shots, and my success rate will be radically improved with training on innovation tools and methods, proper definition of the expected goals and outcomes, better understanding of the future market conditions and familiarity with customer needs, and working within a corporate culture that reinforces the work I do rather than resists it.

Don't be a solitary marksman.  Be the army.  Come in full force and bend the organization to your will.  Take many shots, at many different targets, all the time.  Send your best people to bootcamp to get them the skills they need to succeed.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:19 AM 0 comments