Monday, December 30, 2013

An Innovator's Resolutions

We come once again to the end of a year, in which we look back and ponder the successes, near misses and absolute failures of the year just ended.  As the calendar ticks over into a new year we are also confronted with the promise of an unspoiled new year, simply waiting with expectation for all the possibilities to unfold.  As people who are both world wise and yet full of promise, we stand on the threshold of a new year recognizing that the failures and baggage from the year just ended could hold us back, trip us up in a moment of triumph, so we agree to shed all of the problems, issues, hangups, bad habits and phobias from the year just ended, to enter a new year fresh and full of promise.  We agree to release ourselves from the mistakes and forgive ourselves for the "failures", and to learn from the mistakes but not be governed or cowed by them.

Nothing prepares us more for a a journey into a new year, ripe with new promise and new opportunity, more than setting out the goals for the year, creating agreements with ourselves as to how we'll conduct ourselves in this new year.  We start by reducing or eliminating cynicism about our organizations, recognizing that as innovators we are the spark of creativity that will lead others to better ideas.  We decide now that developing interesting ideas into new products and services isn't easy but is possible, given the right sponsors and demonstrating the right possibilities.  We hold these truths but they aren't self-evident:  we have to show the facts before others can believe them.  We must become better teachers, better instructors, able to overcome resistance, complacency and inertia.  Not with fear, but with promise.

Innovator's Resolutions

  1. I resolve to learn to communicate more effectively, especially about the promise of the ideas I believe in.  I will translate the promise into potential results that align to what my peers understand and value - market share, revenue and profits.  I'll demonstrate the value of my ideas by linking them to clearly defined needs that customers and prospects have.
  2. I'll have the patience and determination of Gandhi, combined with the attitudes of Dale Carnegie.  Patience and determination, along with constant innovation success, will win corporate culture to my way of thinking.  This won't happen overnight, and this may be a resolution I take up again next year.
  3. I won't promise innovation as a cure-all to every need of the organization, but I will constantly define the depth and breadth of innovation possibilities.  Beyond product innovation, I'll seek out opportunities for innovation in services, customer experiences, business models and other areas of competitive differentiation.  I recognize that innovation doesn't solve every issue, but I'll work to ensure my organization doesn't limit innovation thinking and potential outcomes.
  4. I'll work to incorporate innovation thinking into planning and funding cycles like the annual plan.  If we can incorporate innovation activities and funding into the plan, it will become something we monitor and measure, rather than something we do in reaction to a competitor.
  5. I'll identify people in my organization who believe innovation is important and build networks to let others know that they aren't alone.  I'll sponsor breakfast meetings, lunch and learn sessions, networking opportunities, training opportunities.  Anything to build a foundation of people within my organization who share my passion and can work within a common innovation framework.  
  6. I'll accept any innovation opportunity, no matter how small or how large, as an opportunity to demonstrate innovation success.  But once agreed and scoped, I'll work to keep the organization from reducing the scope or constraining the opportunity any further.  Every innovation opportunity is precious, and I will give it my full attention.
  7. I will strive to improve my awareness and knowledge of innovation methods, tools and frameworks.  I'll never become complacent in my knowledge or rely too heavily on just a handful of innovation tools or techniques. I will refer to new sources, seek out new books, learn on my own time if that is what is required.  I will be identified as an innovation resource for my organization.
  8. I will propose at least one radical or disruptive activity that is carefully scoped and aligned to corporate goals and objectives, that solves a critical challenge or problem for the business.  I will not recommend random innovation activities, but will focus my innovation efforts where they are most vital and address the best opportunities or the thorniest challenges.
  9. I won't rush in to innovation work, but will identify the problems, frame them appropriately, consider the range of options, learn more about potential pathways and form an innovation team that is as engaged, as patient and as willing to learn as I am.  Speed is important, but getting the solutions right is even more important.  I will work with all due speed, but I won't be rushed.
  10. I'll identify resources, firms, partnerships and sources of information or ideas outside my organization that can accelerate our work, and build the infrastructure internally that allows me to exchange ideas and information on a regular basis with those third party sources.

There are only a handful of obstacles to hold you back.  Most of those obstacles are informal and intangible, like corporate culture, but some are internal, like a voice in your head telling you that the time isn't right.  There's no time like the present to make a resolution about innovation.  The market demands innovation, your organization needs it.  Nothing is going to change to make innovation more welcome or more necessary.  There is no "right time" for innovation, so make your innovation resolutions as you make your new year's resolution.

This year, at this time, decide to place innovation on the front burner.  Decide to focus your time and energy on doing innovation right, and doing it well.  We few, we happy few, we band of brothers who are already innovation advocates must become more passionate, more vocal, more capable to deliver innovation, and able to win over our counterparts and organizations not only through our passion, but through our ability to deliver.   Start with your resolutions, and live these over the coming year. 

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:33 AM 0 comments

Friday, December 20, 2013

Time to get innovation into gear in North Carolina

I live in North Carolina, a state that has become home to me over the years.  Nestled here on the east coast, with spacious unspoiled beaches at one end of the state and the majestic Blue Ridge at the other end.  Living conditions and quality of life are high.  The university system is top notch, cranking out thousands of highly qualified young people every year.  The weather is temperate, so much so that many places in North Carolina are filling up with retirees and "half backs" - people who moved to Florida and then came half-way back to North Carolina.  There's much to like about the Old North State.  But, and you knew there was a "but" coming, it's time to pull on the Underdog cape and admit to ourselves that North Carolina needs a new awakening.  While North Carolina has traditionally thought of itself as a leading southern state, surpassing its neighbors and taking its rightful place in the pantheon of leading states nation wide, on many meaningful criteria we've slipped over the last 20 years, and we need a concerted effort to regain our rightful position.

The North Carolina Innovation Index

If you are wondering why I am in high dudgeon about the state of the State, look no further than the wonderful new work by our Department of Commerce.  The North Carolina Innovation Index is the result of a lot of hard work by some great folks - John Hardin and others.  For several years the team has labored to pull a lot of data together to assess some of the factors that indicate how "innovative" the state is, and its relative position versus other comparable states and near neighbors. 

The results are in, and frankly, they ain't pretty.  North Carolina has a deserved history of progressive politics, forward-looking investments and leading innovation.  At one time North Carolina built a lot of modern highways, and was called the "Good Roads State" when the automobile was still a new phenomenon.  Later, North Carolina invested in its universities to build more education and to train more knowledge workers.  North Carolina also established a number of research parks, none more famous than Research Triangle Park, to attract knowledge based industries and research to the state.

All of that good investment is far in the past.  We've been reaping what our forefathers sewed, and have simultaneously eaten our seed corn.  The most recent innovation index suggests that on many significant innovation criteria, from income to wages to jobs to education, our state has slipped.  We've basked in the adulation and envy of other states for years, not noticing that they were catching up or surpassing us, all the while not bothering to invest in new solutions and existing capabilities.
It's not enough to have good beaches and great mountains, unless tourism is meant to drive our economy.  Tourism is great, but it spawns low-paying seasonal service jobs at best.  So while mountains, beaches and nice climate are great, they don't necessarily lead to great business opportunities. 

What about our educational system?  While the UNC system of colleges is on par or better than many comparable state university systems and cranks out thousands of graduates each year, many of those graduates are leaving the state to find work elsewhere.  The vast majority of the graduates who stay settle in only a handful of counties, creating greater disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" in North Carolina.  Increasingly we'll see brain drain from many counties to locations like Wake County, Mecklenberg, the Triad and a few other locations.  But many people with advanced degrees are treating North Carolina as a brief stop-over, a place to receive education and then move on.  We need to find ways to keep more of these people in North Carolina, creating businesses and jobs. 

But to continue on the educational system.  Looking at the primary and secondary educational systems, North Carolina faces real challenges.  Our teachers receive some of the lowest compensation in the nation, a legacy of decades of mismanagement, poor focus and ever-widening distribution of limited funds.  The impact on teacher salaries didn't start with the Republican takeover in 2012, but some of those policies are exacerbating an historic lack of investment and funding.  Compounding problems in the classroom are increasing in-migration from other states and countries.  While North Carolina is recognized as a "high quality of life" state, many people have moved here and placed enormous strain on an already taxed educational system.  We need far more experimentation and far more focus on primary and secondary education, to improve the chances for young people to gain knowledge and have the chance for gainful employment.

Tech Transfer
Considering the strength of the university system, one would think that the state would abound with new start-ups capitalizing on university research and the great ideas of recent graduates.  Our universities generate a lot of research, but for many reasons we do a poor job of converting that research into new companies and new jobs.  The Index points out that North Carolina is actually one of the top states for academic research, but lags in venture capital investment and in new corporate starts, as well as in transferring technologies and research from the university setting to private enterprise.  All eyes turn to Silicon Valley, yet in Duke, UNC, NC State alone we have more than the equivalent of Stanford University, never mind growing research sites like Wake Forest in the Triad (which seems to be doing the best of all NC universities in translating research into jobs) and UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington on the coast.  Why the disparity between Silicon Valley and RTP in new corporations, new start up and new wealth creation?  It's not the depth or breadth of research, and it's not the availability of smart, motivated people.  There's a gap in tech transfer and a gap in venture funds, as well as a east coast and southern notion about failure that often stymies investment, versus recognition of failure as a learning vehicle that seems to accelerate investment in Silicon Valley.


Currently North Carolina has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, combined with relatively low wages.  This is a conundrum, because low wages should attract more businesses and more jobs, thus reducing unemployment.  However, because of the attractiveness of the living conditions, we have some of the highest population growth, so we've attracted many people to the state but haven't built the capacity for more businesses.  Wages will remain relatively low until more businesses are created or existing businesses expand to account for excess labor capacity.

Add to that fact that North Carolina has been relatively slow to migrate from a focus on agriculture, manufacturing and other relatively low-wage industries to higher wage industries.   While the economy is relatively diversified, North Carolina remains heavily reliant on manufacturing, moreso that comparable states.  As more and more of the manufacturing base moves to Mexico, China and Southeast Asia, we've yet to replace it with higher tech manufacturing and other high-wage, knowledge based work.  This can be seen by touring the parts of our state where manufacturing was king, where many of those communities are at risk of hollowing out due to a lack of manufacturing jobs.  For too long our mantra has been that North Carolina is a great place to place a business due to right to work, low wages and a reasonable well educated workforce, along with great quality of life.  All of those factors are true, but are also true in a number of comparable states.  We need a new mantra that says businesses should move here or start here because of the sheer human capital, our creativity, experimentation, innovation capacity and so forth.  These factors will create more knowledge based jobs and much higher salaries.


It's time to re-energize an innovation agenda for North Carolina. Not for one small community, which research parks or other investment zones create, and not for one class of people or one cohort.  We need a full fledged vision that positions North Carolina where many of its citizens think it already is - as a leading state for jobs, education, life style and other important factors.  We need a hard look in the mirror to realize that we aren't where we could be, or should be, based on the many gifts we have in this state.  We need to combine, not compete, across the state for better education, better job creation, more creativity and innovation.  We need to get hungry and challenge ourselves to become the best state, not just in the Southeast, but in the nation, for opportunity, business creation and yes, wealth creation.

This means trying out a lot of new concepts, changing and modifying laws and regulations, reducing the cost of knowledge transfer, convincing more people with more education to stay here after graduation, to encourage more business creation, to capitalize on the quality of life here.  Judge Brandeis once wrote that States are the laboratories of democracy, and he placed the mantle of experimentation directly on the states.  Increasingly as states we are becoming mere appendages of the federal government, rather than seeking out our own strategies and development plans.  We need a vision for North Carolina that looks out 15-20 years, the way the planners of RTP did when they broke ground for a research park in a played out tobacco field.  Who will step up to the challenge?  Who will encourage experimentation and try out new programs and activities?  Who will work to sponsor new business creation?  Who will act as angel investors to fledgeling companies?

Another famous commentator noted that Rome didn't fall because of external threats but because of internal rot and complacency.  While North Carolina doesn't have quite the issues that Imperial Rome was confronted with, and probably has more reasonable rulers than Caligula or Nero, we face some of the same internal complacency challenges.  We as citizens need to demand more from our leaders or replace them.  We need to tell them that we want North Carolina to be a leader in creativity, in innovation, in new business creation.  And if they can't figure out how to help us, we'll do it for ourselves.  But to do that we need to have a vision, and communicate that vision so everyone, in every corner of the state understands the vision and sees "what's in it for me". 

Pat McCrory, I'm looking at you.  You have a chance to lead this change, or be swamped by it.  But this isn't a Democratic issue or Republican issue, this is a North Carolina issue.  The people who founded RTP didn't worry about politics or parties, they worried about the future of the state, and we benefit from their foresight.  Will our future generations benefit from our foresight and investments, or will North Carolina become nothing more than a nice place to retire?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:52 AM 0 comments

Monday, December 16, 2013

People are creative, institutions aren't

I read a recent Slate article entitled Inside the Box, which purports to demonstrate why people "don't actually like creativity" according to the subtitle.  The article notes that we celebrate the results of creativity - new products or services - but claims that when push comes to shove, most of us really don't like creativity.  The article quotes research from Cornell that examined how creative people were in the face of increasing uncertainty.  Not surprisingly, the research found that when people are faced with more uncertainty, they become more adverse to creative thinking and rely on trusted frameworks.  This isn't really an insight. 

The author of the piece goes on to state that even in creative organizations - ad agencies for example, "...ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution."  As if this experience "proves" that people like or dislike creativity.  Rather, it demonstrates that creativity and its outcomes are accepted or rejected on contextual and situational conditions, not uniformly rejected by humans everywhere.

What really bothered me about this article was the assertion that "people" don't actually like creativity.  I can find so many reasons to reject that claim that I don't have enough time to respond to all of them.  But let's first debunk the myth that people don't like creativity, and examine the root of the problem rather than the symptoms, as the author has chosen to do.

People are very creative

Yes, we all know the story line that most people have creativity beaten out of them by the educational system where people are rewarded for one right answer.  And yes, many people do face challenging work environments where more emphasis is placed on productivity, efficiency and short term financial success than on creating new products and services.  But these conditions aren't proof that people dislike creativity.  They indicate constraints by conditions or institutions, but they don't demonstrate a dislike of creativity.

In fact, if one were to open the apeture a bit and closely examine all of these "non-creative" people who dislike creativity so much, you'd discover that while the scholastic and work environments may be a waste land of creativity (tongue firmly in cheek) many people spend their free time in very creative activities.  Plenty of people go home to unleash pent-up creativity and inventiveness through hobbies like painting, drawing, sculpture, music, wood working and thousands of other creative activities.  There's plenty of creative energy, just not much of it welcomed or directed at work.  Plenty of people act in community theater, sing in a church choir, play musical instruments with friends, write blogs, newsletters or novels.  The range and expanse of creativity after work hours staggers the mind.  What we should be asking is how do we capture just a small portion of that creativity and use it effectively at work.


If people dislike creativity so much, why are there so many inventions and patents developed each year?  Why do we constantly see so many new inventions that become new products and services? Why so many new companies created?  The creativity and inventiveness of the population is incredible, and left to their own devices many more people would leave their hum-drum jobs and create new companies that deliver new services or products.  How can we ignore all of the creativity in our economy, even in a market that has suffered through slow growth for close to a decade?  It simply is not the case that people are afraid of creativity, or even afraid of the risks associated with creating new products or even companies.

Institutions are afraid of creativity

Here's the rub.  People aren't afraid of creativity.  As individuals we are highly creative, and not all of the creativity was surgically removed in kindergarten.  But we face a huge dilemma.  Our scholastic institutions, work environments and other collectives are often afraid of creativity because they are based on order and control.  Creativity threatens rigid command and control structures.  Let's look at three examples of institutional control that stymies creativity.

Occam's Razor.  Occam, while perhaps not all that famous as a philosopher, left us with one pithy saying.  It's known as Occam's Razor, which suggests that the simplest answer is usually the best.  Businesses, institutions and schools have claimed this for their own.  They prefer simple, easy answers if they solve a challenge, and they are correct in doing so.  Every organization has constraints on people, resources and capital, so finding the simplest answer is always best.  But when no simple answer exists, or a compelling new answer must be found, creativity then becomes vital.  While creativity should always be an option, Occam's Razor suggests that creativity may in some instances interject too much uncertainty in a situation where an answer is found more easily with traditional means.  The more often this occurs, the more often we turn first to simple solutions rather than exercise creativity.

Institutional Preference.  Once an institution or organization reaches any size, it becomes concerned with self-preservation.  It seeks to defend the ground it holds and create incremental change to gain new territory or customers.  Creativity is viewed as a useful tool to initiate growth, but becomes questionable when it challenges any internal orthodoxy.  The more rigid the structures, the less welcome creativity becomes.  Thus, large, entrenched bureaucracies tend to reject creativity the most - corporations, educational systems, governments.  After all, creativity questions or rejects the status quo and may create new and very unusual solutions that neither the institution nor its constituents finds comfortable.

Pain and Risk avoidance.  Creativity is welcome in a setting when a group or company seeks to enter a completely new market, or when they believe there's "nothing to lose".  Otherwise, creativity runs the risk of creating new products or services that may be rejected by customers expecting incremental change, or may create products or services that are ridiculed by the market.  Creativity is often welcomed only on the margins, by firms and institutions in a leadership position, willing to take a significant risk to create new products, or by institutions and firms that lag so far behind that they have nothing to lose by leveraging creativity.  Otherwise most organizations shun creativity because there is little upside and significant downside.

What can we learn about creativity?

From this admittedly non-scientific review of creativity, I hope to leave you with a few things to think about.  First, people of all ages are naturally creative.  We just often fail to tap into their creative energies at work or in institutions.  In research we've conducted we've found a tremendous range of creativity and experience that flourishes for many people after 5pm and on the weekends.  This includes many people who don't seem creative at all at work.  We simply need to align this creativity to corporate goals and tap into it far more frequently.  It is a latent capability waiting to be mined.

Second, people don't dislike creativity, but institutions do.  Institutions have a lot to protect - territories, markets, customers and products.  Creativity threatens the existing order, and there's a lot of investment in that existing order.  Creativity, if enacted regularly within an institution, will require the organization to examine its own belief systems, hierarchies, rules and expectations.  Far simpler to reject creativity and create incremental solutions that don't threaten the structures and disciplines of the organization.

Third, creativity is becoming more and more valuable as large institutions become less relevant to individuals.  Increasingly, people are realizing that governments, educational institutions and large corporations aren't infallible and certainly aren't permanent.  As we create more communities and connections across geographies, countries and industries, as connection devices and channels grow, we will recognize the inherent creativity in all of us and tap into it more frequently.  Organizations will have no choice - they will either shift to embrace creativity more often or will lose share and position to firms that do adjust.

I don't want to argue that "everyone" is creative, or that we are all creative to the same degree or in the same way.  I certainly have no artistic skills, but I enjoy writing, playing musical instruments, tinkering and a number of other activities I consider creative.   Luckily I get to explore some of that creativity at work, and some at home.  We must rethink and refocus our creative energies and capabilities, and learn to leverage them not only off-hours, but increasingly at work and in institutions.  Further, like a character in a Philip K Dick novel, we need to stop believing what people tell us about ourselves and start recognizing our own capabilities.  Everyone is creative to some degree, and in some way.  Tapping into that creativity is vital.  People aren't afraid of creativity, in fact most revel in it.  They just do so away from work and other institutions that reinforce continuity over change.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM 1 comments

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The fallacy of an innovation superman

I've just completed a series of innovation workshops in Shanghai and in Muscat, Oman.  We have been asked by various groups and government agencies to talk about our ideas around a consistent innovation capability or process, the cultural changes that are necessary to sustain innovation, and how to build innovation environments or frameworks in larger corporate and government organizations.

If you've heard about the smog issues in Shanghai, let me assure you they were real.  Here's a photo taken from my hotel window Thursday December 5th:
In fairness to the government there, weather conditions had caused an inversion, so there was little air movement. 

At any rate, during my time in Shanghai I was asked by one of the students in a program why I thought it was important to use teams to sustain innovation.  While we advocate the use of cross-functional teams to spot trends, understand customer needs and generate ideas, he was of the opinion that teams weren't necessary.  He suggested the concept of innovation "supermen" who can do the work alone.  I'm afraid that media images of people like Steve Jobs have furthered this notion, so I'd like to take a few minutes to attempt to describe why we believe the idea of innovating alone is a fallacy.

Innovation is a team sport

While the popular media has highlighted Jobs and a few other executives or inventors as leading innovators, the truth is that innovation is a team sport.  Spotting needs, generating ideas and developing a new product or process requires a large number of people in a corporate setting, and even small or entrepreneurial firms need a number of people to bring a new product to market.  Beyond the sheer labor of managing a new idea, there are a number of other reasons why cross-functional innovation teams make far more sense than an individual attempting to manage an idea to completion:
  • The curse of knowledge - you don't consider what you don't find valuable or interesting
  • Arrogance - an individual frequently falls in love with their own ideas and often don't make good evaluators of their ideas
  • Narrow perspectives - one individual rarely has an all-encompassing perspective or set of experiences to help understand a need and include all the relevant features
  • Breadth of knowledge - beyond simply generating an idea, there is a lot of knowledge and capability necessary to design, prototype, test, vet and protect an idea.
No man is an island, and very few of us can manage all of the tasks necessary to develop a new idea from initial need to final commercialization.  Anyone who suggests otherwise is simply missing the point or overlooking a lot of contributions from others.

People who point to Steve Jobs fail to realize that he had a number of important collaborators, including Wozniak (who did all the initial engineering) to Jonathan Ive (who did a lot of the design for the "i" products) to a wealth of people in marketing, engineering, and manufacturing.  Jobs was an important contributor and demonstrates the engagement we'd like to see from many CEOs, but Apple isn't and wasn't a one-man show.  It takes hundreds of people to manage the creation of a new product; Jobs was merely a very brilliant front man for the enterprise, and a good innovator himself.

Every Superman has his (or her) Kryptonite

Where innovation is concerned, every "superman" has a weak spot, a blind spot, a lack of education or experience or insight that could prove fatal to new ideas.  That's why working with a team is so valuable.  This doesn't imply that just "any individual" or just "any team" will suffice, but interaction with a strong, committed cross-functional team will improve any idea.  Sure, you can wave around those research findings that individuals can create more and potentially better ideas than individuals, but that is focusing on just one step in a complex and convoluted process.  And most of that research focuses on poorly managed ideation at best.  Remember that idea generation is just one step in an innovation process that includes:  spotting opportunities, gathering and assessing customer needs, generating ideas, evaluating ideas, developing a viable concept, vetting ideas with consumers, protecting the intellectual property, developing a product or service and launching it.  If you are the person who can perform all of these functions at least as well as anyone else in your company or with even more skill, then leave and form your own company because they are holding you back.  If, on the other hand, you are willing to admit that others can add value to your idea or can perform critical tasks more effectively than you can, you'll see that innovation is a team activity, and you'll work hard to identify and collect the best team players who know their roles and perform them well.

Superman is a cartoon character, nothing more

When it comes to innovation, Superman is an interesting myth, nothing more.  You may excel at specific tasks within an innovation framework, but very few people can manage the entire development cycle.  Perhaps Jobs was one who could manage it when Apple was very small, but even Wozniak was better at the design and engineering.  One of our findings is that good innovators are often fairly humble people who understand their strengths and seek collaborators who help create a complete and effective team.  If you believe you are a Superman in regards to innovation, I suspect you'll be frustrated with the results of your efforts.  Personally, if we're using the analogy of superheroes, I'd rather be a member of an innovation "Fantastic Four" than a lone Superman.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:52 AM 0 comments

Saturday, December 07, 2013

What The Karate Kid teaches us about innovation

One of life's little ironies is the fact that irony is everywhere and so often unidentified or unappreciated.  In the innovation space we encounter irony, often unintentional irony, quite often.  Before we go further though, let's make sure of our definitions.  Irony has several defintions, dealing with intentional misuse of words, but the definition I'm interested in is:
incongruity between what is expected to be and what actually is, or a situation or result showing such incongruity
What happens so often in an innovation setting is that people demonstrate a significant incongruity between what they believe to be the case, and what is actually the case.  Take for example how prepared a new innovation team is to perform innovation tasks.  Many people assume innovation is second nature and good ideas should naturally bubble up from our collective consciousness.  Therefore, it's rare that innovation teams spend time coming up to speed on innovation tools, creative thinking or other factors that might support innovation.  It's ironic that in organizations that constantly measure and reinforce training and skill development that innovation receives so little training focus. 

Something shiny and new

Perhaps the biggest irony we face is what I'll call the "new shiny innovation technique".  I recently led an innovation workshop in China.  One of the attendees asked me about half way through if I'd be introducing any really "new" innovation tools, since he felt he was familiar with all of the existing tools.  After a few minutes of discussion, I realized that he was looking for a magic wand that would simply provide a definitive answer rather than tools that present a range of options.  There are two ironies here.  The first is expecting a divergent/convergent process that starts from a nascent need and explores customer desires to arrive at one clearly delineated solution that is guaranteed to work.  If I had that solution, I wouldn't be teaching workshops in Shanghai (although I enjoyed my visit).  I'd be relaxing on a beach with a pina colada.

The second, and I think the more difficult irony is the search for new techniques for innovation.  The reason the search for new techniques and methods is so ironic is that most organizations don't have command of innovation basics.  They will readily admit to poor idea generation results, limited creativity, cramped innovation thinking, little understanding of customer needs and future trends.  They are AWARE of tools and methods but haven't mastered many of them, and yet are dissatisfied with these tools and are more interested in discovering new tools rather than mastering the basics.  Here's a tip:  TANSTAAFL.  There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.  Or, in other words, do your homework.  Learn the basics.  Master them.  Stop searching for a magic wand that will provide immediate insights into the ideas that are guaranteed to succeed.  Don't believe anyone who tells you their tool, method or process will lead to definitive results.

Quoting Edison

Although he was talking about success, we could easily attribute one of Edison's quote to innovation as well.  He said that many people missed opportunities because "it shows up in overalls and looks like work".  He could have just as easily have been talking about innovation.  When we fail to invest in the basics, learning innovation methods and tools, changing corporate culture, emphasizing creative thinking and instead seeking a mythical innovation tool that will deliver ideas that win every time, we are missing opportunities, and ignoring the tools and methods that are best suited to help you succeed.

When you start an innovation activity, don't spend time looking for the method or tool or framework that promises immediate results that won't fail.  Spend time developing skills on basic innovation tools - like trend spotting, gathering customer needs, creative thinking, idea generation and so forth.  Building up a rich base of competencies goes much further than trying to start at the top.  Many of these nascent innovators remind me of the movie The Karate Kid.  You'll recall that the young kid wants to learn karate.  The local teacher sets him to perform activities at the car wash - wax on, wax off.  Over and over he works, never really understanding that he is perfecting the basics.  In the end he finally realizes how much the simple basic tools and methods his teacher provided helped him win.

Irony or Earnestness

I think earnestness is the opposite of irony.  If you are really interested in learning innovation and perfecting your abilities, learn and perfect the basics.  Learn how to think expansively and creatively.  Learn how to generate ideas and how to lead others.  Learn how to identify customer needs.  Learn the basics with earnestness and you'll find the secret to successful innovation.  It's not a single tool, but a range of tools and insights used in the hands of people who are engaged, empathetic and open to insights.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:14 AM 1 comments

Monday, December 02, 2013

Insights, Innovation and Intuition

I've written here many times about the conflict that many innovators often face when called on to make definitive decisions about customer needs and the best ideas to pursue as new products and services.  We've noted that innovation requires - no demands - people who are comfortable operating in an ambiguous stew of information, research, trends, insights and customer needs.  Few of these data points are developed with any statistical rigor, yet together they must provide a direction for the team to follow.

For people who are more familiar with stark differences and quantitative answers, this sea of ambiguity is very difficult to confront.  Faced with hazy information, inferences, wants and needs, they are quick to try to identify the "best" and most certain data in the mix, rather than find the most important trends or currents that all the research suggests.  We've managed over the last 30 years to train people to be very decisive when the data are clear, and to be very hesitant when the data aren't clear or definitive.  The most common refrain is: "how can you be certain"?  In innovation, the fact is that you often can't.  If the data were evident and certain, the data would be evident and certain to everyone, and a solution wouldn't be radical or disruptive because everyone would be building it.

In response to this uncertainty, two activities or frameworks emerge in many projects to lower uncertainty and attempt to provide more insight or rigor to analyze quantitative data.  The first is evident from the discussion above:  bring me more data, and more quantitative data that we can "prove".  The second activity, and one that has good purposes often misused, is quantitative testing of ideas.  I'd like to spend a few minutes talking about the strengths and gaps of testing needs.

Innovation Process

Many innovation advocates will follow a prescribed innovation process, where they gather research or insights, then winnow those insights or needs into a structured, ranked list of needs.  But to ensure that they aren't introducing bias to the list, they will test the needs with customers and consumers.  This action also often occurs after ideas are generated as well.  The goal is to get customer feedback and ranking of the importance of ideas.  A noble goal, but a team must proceed very carefully.

Customers can rank needs based on the context you provide.  Are you interested in needs that are unmet now, and that customers believe you can solve now, or needs that are unmet that customers wish you could solve, but aren't sure the technologies or business models exist?  Customers, when they rank needs or ideas, will often use a filter that is more rigid and more incremental than an innovation team will use.  This is because they expect any company to create incremental solutions and they base their decision making on existing products or solutions.

Insights, Intuition and Innovation

Managers and executives LOVE surveys of customers.  They want to know what customers want, and their reaction to needs and ideas.  But the risk is that the customers respond too narrowly, answering only immediate needs.  They answer based on what they believe a company can or will develop, rather than based on what's possible.  Anyone using only customer feedback to identify needs or ideas is probably missing the point.

A well-run innovation program considers trends, customer needs, research, observational insight and a host of other data.  It also includes potential solutions and emerging technologies, shifts in consumer and market behavior, and potential competitive responses.  When deciding what to create, an innovation team must synthesize the entirety of its experiences and knowledge, including customer feedback, but customer feedback should be a component of that decision-making, not the final analysis. 

Where we've failed our managers

Here's where we've failed an entire generation of managers.  Business isn't a science.  It doesn't always work on predictable patterns, but can be driven by trends, fads and new technologies or business models.  Anyone applying pure science and reason to a situation that doesn't operate or accept simple and predictable models is going to miss a lot of interesting shifts and opportunities.  While we've bred the intuition out of many of our managers, it's never been in higher demand.  There's probably no skill that is more valuable right now than the ability to correlate and synthesize wildly different kinds of research, insights, trends and needs to direct a company as to which new products and services to build.  You can't simply apply known patterns or models, because the future resembles the past but isn't the same.  It's in the places where they differ that real opportunities emerge.

Good innovation managers can corral quantitative results, qualitative insights, customer needs, market trends and a host of other kinds of data and insights and arrive at an interesting opportunity, applying the appropriate weight to each kind of insight or data.  Many current managers reject qualitative data, trends and needs to focus only on the data they've been taught to trust, which is whatever data is statistically significant.  And if you can get that data, you can rest assured that your competitors have it too.  It's in the gray areas, the ambiguity where the real meaning lies.  Do you have managers and executives who can mine qualitative murky insights effectively?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:51 AM 1 comments