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Innovate on Purpose

Jeffrey Phillips' blog site dedicated to ideas, conversations and approaches for sustainable, repeatable innovation.

Updated: 2018-04-18T11:15:59.483-07:00


The future of explore and exploit


In my last two posts I examined the origin of explore and exploit, and where it has taken us so far in the innovation space.  In this post I want to explore why everything we believe about explore and exploit from a strategic and business model perspective is increasingly wrong, and what innovators and strategists need to do now in order to compete effectively in the future.In the first two posts I've made the case that the relative investments in explore and exploit and the way we think about them have been shaped by our historical experiences and this has also colored how we structure our strategies and business models today.  The Spanish exploration and ultimate exploitation of South America proved a good model - an inexpensive exploration mostly outsourced to third parties led to a massively profitable exploitation for centuries.  Over time the players changed but the model didn't.  Eccentric innovators and inventors took the place of nautical explorers and massive corporations seeking outsized market share or outright monopoly replaced governments, but for the most part the model remained the same:  occasional, half-hearted exploration, typically outsourced to someone else, and a strategic business model built on long term profit generation through exploitation.This version of explore and exploit has been successful for centuries, and has become embedded in the way most businesses compete.  But it needs to change, and change quickly. Why this model must changeAs I think has been clear over the last two posts, there are massive structural changes in both the explore phase and the exploit phase. In the explore phase, we can see these changes afoot:Today almost anyone, anywhere can exploreThe costs of exploration have fallen dramaticallyThe advent of the internet has opened up information and access to millions of more potential explorersAdvances in education mean that far more people are more capable of exploringIn short, there are far more people doing far more exploration than ever before.  Intellectual property rights are stronger, but market shifts and consumer sentiment change fast enough that few companies can really lock in consumers.  No one has a monopoly on exploration, and when you consider the breadth of exploration underway, from research institutes to universities to private inventors to corporations and beyond, there's a lot of exploration underway.When exploration was limited to a small handful of individuals or companies, a single discovery could mean large rewards over a long time frame.  Today, a single discovery leads to hundreds of  'fast followers' who seek to provide alternatives and substitutes, chipping away at the new discovery almost as quickly as it is discovered.  Also, as more new opportunities are discovered and publicized, any one new discovery seems inconsequential since so many are underway.  I liken this to the wonder we all had in the Apollo program, when it was years between launches, and the almost ho-hum response when the shuttle went up on a regular basis.Exploration is easier now, but perhaps even more important, as customer demands and expectations accelerate.  Getting there first isn't necessarily as important as understanding the total opportunity and building broad offerings that lock in a lot of value quickly.In the exploit phase, we can see these changes afoot:  Meanwhile, exploitation is changing as well.  In the same way that skills have proliferated in the explore phase, design, development, manufacturing and distribution skills have exploded around the globe, to the extent that many companies no longer actually make the products that they sell.  Apple outsourced its manufacturing to Foxconn, making Apple essentially a design and marketing organization.  As large corporations chased cheap manufacturing costs, many countries and regions gained manufacturing and distribution chops.  That means that almost anyone, anywhere can rapidly introduce new products or services that comp[...]

Exploring and Exploiting for Innovation (part 2)


If you are following along, I'm writing a series of posts about the opportunities and challenges with the way we think about and implement the concepts behind explore and exploit.  In my first post I wrote a short introduction to the topic.  In that post I looked at the history of exploring and exploiting, which I'll suggest comes from the conquest of the new world by the Spaniards, when Columbus and others explored, and the Spanish government exploited the opportunity for centuries.Skipping ahead through historyIf we fast forward from Columbus to say Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, we can see that the explorers were still relatively few, eccentric outsiders who were scientists or people bent on geographic or scientific discovery.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s there were even competitions between explorers.  There was the "race" to the poles.  Teams from several countries raced through blinding snow and ice to get to the North and South pole first.  As we've seen before these explorers were exceptional people, iconoclasts, outsiders, driven to win.  What becomes a bit different in this time frame is that multiple governments were exploring the same locations simultaneously.  They were in fact "racing" each other to get there first.  Exploration became more intense and was seen as a competition for limited resources.Similarly, Edison was racing other inventors, as was Alexander Graham Bell, who filed for his patent only a day before his competitor.  We can see from these examples that the number of explorers and the simultaneous exploration in the same fields was increasing as was the nature of competition.  While the amount of exploration was increasing, however, the nature of the explorers remained much the same:  eccentrics, outsiders, often poorly resourced and intrinsically motivated.Exploitation was changing tooDuring this time the concept of exploitation was changing as well.  Bell and Edison were famous inventors but were also very focused in patenting and protecting their work.  They and others went on to found large corporations that attempted to build monopolies or very strong competitive positions to allow them to exploit their discoveries and extract value.  The business of exploitation was shifting from governments to businesses, from a king's or pope's edict to the ability to scale a business, protect intellectual property and extract a lot of value from the idea.While who was managing the exploitation was changing, the nature and time frame of exploitation stayed relatively the same.  GE, Ford and other large companies of the era expected to reap benefits from a relatively small IP portfolio for decades.  They had learned this lesson from history and from the firms in the "gilded age" - Standard Oil and the railroads.But change in  the explore phase  was increasing.By the 1950s and 1960s, a dramatic shift was underway.  The world had been through the ravages of the Second World War and rebuilding was underway, while the Cold war funded a significant amount of new research.  The GI bill in the United States sent millions of ex-soldiers to college, and because of the Soviet threat many went into technical, science and engineering fields which created a renaissance in many fields.  In a very short period of time there was a rapid increase in exploration, research and development, first in the US, then in Europe and Japan.  The rate, pace and depth of exploration increased, but still mostly directed by government or corporations.The Internet changes everythingBut perhaps the most interesting change that will subvert the old models was the advent and widespread distribution of the Internet.  On this platform, information, content and education are widely distributed, making exploration far more simple, and allowing people to create new businesses and explore new business models far more quickly.  More people in more locations with more access to informati[...]

Exploring and Exploiting for Innovation (part 1)


In so many ways it often feels like innovation is both wholly new, and ancient at the same time.  Tools that we use to innovate aren't new, in fact many are very old, but put to appropriate use they help us create miraculous new things.  Too often we distrust old tools or methods, thinking that newer tools or methods are more current, more viable, but fail to realize that some things are simply grounded in truth, no matter hold old they are.Take, for example, the idea of exploring and exploiting.  These are the "yin and yang" of corporate America today.  But they aren't new.  Companies and even countries have been exploring and exploiting for centuries.  We extol the idea of the ambidextrous corporation as if this is new insight, when in reality being able to do both exploration and exploitation well has been a key success factor for decades if not centuries.  I think increasingly we are going to hear more and more about exploring and exploiting as a corporate philosophy.  This renewed focus at a strategic level is very valuable, but I'm concerned we're going to get it wrong.  There is a shift underway that will require corporations to rethink their explore/exploit intention and balance.  Over the next few blog posts I'll be describing why I think this is so.But first a history lessonAs the guys in Monty Python would say, now for something completely different.  Let's look at the history of exploring and exploiting before we describe why it might change.  Human kind has understood the dichotomy of exploring and exploiting for centuries.  Let's take, for example, the exploration of the New World.  Major European powers were determined to find first new trade routes and then make claims on newly discovered territory in the western oceans.  These kings and queens weren't doing exploration for the public good, they hoped to find and conquer new lands to extend their holdings.  In other words, exploring led to the direct consequence of exploitation.We can pause for a second to consider the aftermath and consequences of colonization and European exploitation of both Africa and South America, but that's for another post.  Many European countries saw opportunities to exploit the people, the minerals, the wealth of the lands they "discovered" and eventually conquered.Perhaps none better than Spain, which propped up a relatively secondary power in Europe with lots of gold, silver, minerals and other valuables from Mexico and South America.  The cost of exploration was very low - a few ships, manned by explorers who often weren't even Spanish, a Papal Edict, a brief skirmish to defeat the locals and then 300 years of exploitation.What lessons did we learn then?Based on many of these early explore and exploit events in the past, we learned that exploration was something we could outsource - something that mercenaries or outsiders could do to push off the risk.  We learned that with a tiny investment in exploration we might hit the mother lode of wealth to exploit.  We learned that exploitation, when combined with national agreements, major edicts, some military power and a globe of unexplored lands would allow exploitation to go on uninterrupted for centuries.  We've learned these lessons about exploration and exploitation, and taken them to heart.  In many cases we've built operating models and business plans that incorporate much of this thinking.Fast forward to today.  When companies talk about explore and exploit, they have some of these same characteristics in mind.  A short, low cost, low risk exploration phase that can probably be outsourced that may discover outsized opportunities that the company can exploit uninterrupted for years.  This thinking is rife with misunderstandings about the nature of both current exploration and exploitation.  It is based on old thinking and old competitive models  While it is absolutely correct to suggest [...]

Changing corporate culture to encourage more innovation


I've written and spoken about the importance of corporate culture and its impact on innovation over the last 15 years or so.  Heck, one of the underlying issues I address in my book Relentless Innovation (shameless plug) is the overwhelming challenge that corporate culture presents to an innovation team.  I've argued that corporate culture, more than any other issue, is the biggest barrier to sustained innovation.I've just found a great article on the subject of corporate culture, published recently in the Harvard Business Review.  This is one of the best articles I've read recently about corporate culture, and while the article barely touches on innovation, the points it makes about corporate culture and employee motivation are important.Links between culture and motivationAt the heart of the article is the question of what impact corporate culture has on employee motivation.  I've always used a simple definition of corporate culture  - it's how things get done in a company, regardless of the org structure or process maps.  It's the formal and informal decision making, corporate history and perspective, formal and informal rewards, recognition systems and what the entity encourages or discourages.The authors of the paper draw a direct link between what people do, and what motivates them, and corporate culture.  They go so far as to suggest six reasons why people work:  play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.  The first three are positive forces that encourage people to do what they enjoy.  The last three are negative forces that merely sustain day to day activity.Where does innovation fit in?If you think about how these factors influence innovation, it becomes obvious how much the positive aspects of why people work influence innovation.  The first and most important aspect is "play".  Michael Schrage wrote a book about innovation called Serious Play.  Innovation is a playful, explorative, experimentative activity at its best.  If people feel called to innovate, and view it as a fun, exciting activity, they are far more likely to be fully engaged.  In fact, if it is play, they are likely to enter what Csikszentmihalyi called 'flow'.  Flow is the experience of doing something so challenging and engaging that you lose track of time.The second factor the authors describe is purpose.  Doing something that aligns to a key purpose is also very attractive and engaging.  People who are interested in taking risks, creating new things, exploring new opportunities find their purpose in this work.  People who don't have this purpose or goal reject much of the work, which is why so much innovation feels so much like a repeat of existing processes or products.  Helping people align to their internal goals or purpose might also sound like intrinsic motivation, and we know the best innovators are often intrinsically motivated.Contrast intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation, which could align to economic pressure (a negative characteristic).  Too much overt payment for innovation can lead to the wrong incentives.Innovation Effectiveness is based on your cultureIf your business is focused on efficiency and effectiveness, consistency and a lack of risk taking and variability, then that's what your culture reinforces.  Imagine, then, trying to introduce a project or activity that has all of these aspects - variability, risk, uncertainty and so on.  Is it any wonder that the culture reacts by first ignoring, then resisting, these activities?How do we make our cultures more receptive to innovation?  By accepting that innovation should be like "play", that it should align to an individual's purpose, and that it builds people's potential.  When innovation is risky or uncertain, or people are motivated purely by financial incentives, or worse simply can't be bothered (the authors' characteristic [...]

Innovation is often the triumph of hope over experience


Oscar Wilde, perhaps one of the most acerbic and humorous writers of the 19th century, once commented that a second marriage after a failed first marriage was the "triumph of hope over experience".  His point was that people continued to pursue marriage, even in the face of bitter previous failure.  Now Wilde was a bachelor, and also unable to marry in his time, since he was gay, and may have had a bit of snark in his writings, but his point remains.  People who do the same things over and over again, expecting different results, could be equated to Einstein's theory that doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Does this make innovators, especially committed corporate innovators, insane or simply like a cuckolded spouse seeking out a new relationship?  What kind of person does it take to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune and continue in their belief that innovation is good for their companies and good for customers?  Sorry, I couldn't resist another literary reference.

Not Insane, Not Defeated Just Committed

What I'd like to say about most corporate innovators who try and try again, in the face of overwhelming odds, little executive commitment, few resources and many cultural barriers is that they are doing important work.  The handful who constantly attempt to conduct new innovation experiments, who explore and experiment to discover new technologies or needs, and bring new ideas to bear, aren't crazy, they are rarely defeated and very committed.

You've heard by now that failure is required as a component of innovation.  You've heard that in many TED talks and YouTube videos.  You've heard it from your executive team.  You know it's probably true.  It's difficult to achieve perfection in the activities you undertake every day, using well-known tools and proven processes.  How much more difficult will it be to succeed at generating new ideas for unknown customers solving currently unmet needs?

Hope and Experience

Here's where good corporate innovators make a subtle shift.  It's not "hope over experience", it is hope AND experience. That is, good innovation is based on previous experience, both with successful innovation and with failure.  To return to Oscar Wilde, "experience is the name we give our mistakes".  Experience is the culmination of our successes and failures and the learning we achieved along the way.  Good innovators are always optimistic - full of hope, and mix that hope with the experience they've gained along the way.

Most people who attempt to do innovation in almost any setting are neither hopeful nor experienced.  Most expect that the innovation work will be pointless, and haven't succeeded or failed at innovation previously, so they have little hope and no experience.  We must change this by allowing people to try out small experiments - gaining experience - and by changing corporate culture and communications, to give people more confidence and more purpose, which will lead to more hope.  Until people have more hope AND more experience, it's difficult to sustain any innovation activity.

You cannot survive doing more of the same


It seems so funny, looking back on a meeting I attended about 20 years ago.  At that meeting a good friend was presenting a new book, entitled Who Moved My Cheese?  He was recommending this book to all of us in the leadership team of a mid-sized ERP consulting firm.  Of course most of us read it and thought - hmm - that's interesting.  We need to get better at accepting change, instead of seeking to sustain the status quo.You don't need to worry any more about someone moving your cheese.  If you are still moving in the slow, certain ways of most businesses, your cheese was consumed by another firm a long time ago, and shortly you'll notice that the cheese supply seems very limited.  In fact you'll probably discover that the entire cheese supply has been cornered and many of your competitors have shifted their diets to cheese flavored tofu or something else.  It's no longer a matter of IF your cheese will get moved, it's not even a question of WHEN your cheese will move.  The real question is:  can you move as quickly as your cheese is moving - or better yet anticipate where it is going to get there first?Your survival depends on your ability to changeIn the archeological record we can see how animals evolved, changing as threats or conditions changed.  We can even see this in the human record.  These changes took millennia to unfold, and slowly but surely plants, animals and people evolved as well.Today, the pace of change is accelerating and it is faster than ever.  Perhaps not in how we humans evolve - but definitely in terms of how businesses and technologies evolve.  In the not so distant past, businesses prided themselves and their products on being "build to last".  Today, we need to think more about "built to change", more agile, more nimble and more creative than in the past.Innosight has completed and published some nice research which illustrates the accelerating pace of change, looking at the life span of major corporations on the S&P 500 list.  The average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 is down to less than 12 years.   I think - I hope - that you'll agree that in order to remain relevant, individuals and companies must adapt to new situations and new conditions.  We must change in order to stay relevant. What is innovation but directed change?Innovation - finding new ideas, spotting new opportunities - is simply proactive change.  It is something that you engage in proactively, rather than waiting for others to discover new needs or markets and then attempting to copy.  I think that many of the concerns or fears about innovation closely mirror concerns about change, because both seem unfamiliar, require individuals to leave behind trusted frameworks and approaches, and both require exploration of something new, that may or may not have value.The fact that most companies aren't good at change, and equally aren't that great at innovation, shouldn't come as a surprise.  Innovation is change, and most organizations don't do change well.  Instead of innovation, most prefer to improve effectiveness and efficiency of what they are already doing, doubling down rather than creating something new.  Until organizations are willing to recognize the need for faster, more rapid and more continuous change, they won't have the chops to do really good innovation.  Most of the real barriers to innovation are change-based and culture-based, meaning that until you can change quickly and successfully, you'll have a difficult time innovating.  And if you can't innovate, you will perish.What to do?Most of us live and work in organizations that were 'built to last" when what we need are agile, nimble, change-oriented, proactive cultures.  If you want or need to innovate, focus on the factors of your culture that stymie change, that create FUD about new work or e[...]

When and Why new thinking overcomes old models


I've been watching the recent gun debate in the US with a lot of interest.  Clearly we have a safety and security issue, with far too many people losing their lives to gun violence, in "unsafe' neighborhoods but also in places that should be safe, like schools.  One of the side effects that is going to be very interesting to watch, and I'm not the first to comment on it, will be the new energy and passion young people who experienced the violence first hand in places like Stoneman Douglas will bring to the debate.  As I think is happening in many places and in many settings simultaneously, old, entrenched models are under attack by new ways of thinking and new dynamics in ways that we've not seen before.Whether its the entrenched power of the NRA facing off against a new and younger population who are fed up with gun violence, or new ways of moving and managing money (digital and alternative currencies) versus traditional finance and banking, a lot of existing business models, thinking and infrastructure are under attack or up for debate.  The question becomes - which wins?  Does new innovative thinking, passion and new dynamics have the power to overcome deeply entrenched existing business models and policies?  Why should this time be different?The Tipping PointMore importantly, in any setting where existing models and infrastructure confront new dynamics, opinions or innovation, what is the tipping point that eventually collapses the old order?  In many cases companies and industries will become bankrupt in the same way Hemingway described:  gradually and then suddenly.Look no further than GE.  How does a company heralded for its financial strength and acumen, with leaders who are constantly feted as CEOs of the century suddenly become a pariah to the stock markets and have to shed entire businesses to stay afloat?  Welch created and Immelt perpetuated a company culture and structure that became too rigid, too inflexible and while often heralded as an innovator GE proved unable to scale innovations or create radical change because the company was too wedded to existing models.Many people believe that the tipping points will originate from technology or capability.  Their arguments are based on the emergence of new technology and its capability to disrupt existing processes and models.  Bitcoin and alternative currencies are used as potential examples.  While these ideas may have some merit, I think they get it exactly backwards.People and PoliciesThere are two tipping point signals that really matter and they are intertwined.  They are people and the policies, governance or regulation that they allow or endure.  Dramatic change in any setting - government, politics, gun enforcement, MP3 distribution, you name it - don't change dramatically because of new technologies, but because of shifts in people and policies.People and their politics will be behind any new gun legislation.  People and their willingness to accept or their ability to understand alternative currencies will be behind the success or failure of Bitcoin.  People and their needs and demands will be behind whether or not GE can right itself.  People and their politics were behind GE Financial's downfall, and will be behind whether or not GE rights its ship.We all recognize that driverless cars are the likely future.  What is slowing down adopting and rapid dissemination of this capability?  Not the technology, which promises a bright future.  Not funding - the VCs are eager to fund the rollout and to anoint winners and losers.  What slows driverless or autonomous vehicles is the ability of people to adapt to these ideas and the politics of regulation and safety.  People and politics will be the sticking point that slow adoption and use of these vehicles, just as they are in any new d[...]

Six factors that lead to greater innovation success


I've been thinking a lot about why innovation fails.  Not about why supposedly innovative new products fail, because there are multiple reasons for the failure of a new product.  It could be too early or too late in the market window, or it could simply have the wrong pricing or distribution.  A new product may lack key features or components, or like some successful products take years to build an audience.  I'm actually more interested in the 90+% of ideas that never make it to product development.  Why is there so much failure in the front end of innovation?I was going to write this describing the failures in the front end, but that seemed too negative.  If we can identify why ideas and processes fail, then we can begin to add value to innovators everywhere.  So, first a brief segue into the importance and value of failure, then six ideas to implement to increase innovation success in the front end.Failure - the good, the bad and the uglyLet's first admit that some failure is necessary.  If some ideas don't fail then we probably aren't stretching ourselves and our thinking.  If you have a very high success rate in the front end, then it's likely all of your ideas are incremental.  To some extent failure demonstrates that your front end is exploring, discovering new ideas and technologies and stretching the definition of the company and its value proposition.  As much as any can be, these are good failures.A lot of failure isn't due to ideas, however.  A fair amount of failure in the front end is tied to too strict metrics, too onerous expectations, too little patience, a culture that resists innovation and wants to get back to efficient, effective operations.  This is the bad side of failure.Of course, the ugly failure is taking a poorly conceived idea and pushing it through a product or service development process, incurring significant costs, only to see the new product fail in the marketplace.Six ideas to accelerate success in the front endSpend enough time scoping and shaping the innovation opportunity.  Often executives will say they need new solutions in a specific area or market space, but fail to establish exactly what the outcomes or deliverables should look like, how much divergence from existing products should be delivered, and the potential range of innovation outcomes (products, services, business models) is acceptable.  Without better scope and definition, the innovation teams almost invariably constrain themselves to something that looks and feels a lot like existing products or services.The more divergent and/or disruptive the opportunity, the more you need to conduct trend spotting and scenario planning to understand how the future may unfold.  Incremental ideas simply add features to existing and valuable solutions.  Disruptive innovation creates something radically new, so it helps to have a sense of how the future may unfold, to predict emerging needs or segments.Gather market and customer needs, using both qualitative and quantitative means.  Understand the market and the customer.  Understand the existing solutions, the alternatives and the substitutes.  Find unmet or underserved needs, and understand the value and importance of those needs to your customer.With this framing and context as convergence, diverge again to find the best technologies, IP or ideas, either internally or externally, that create solutions within your scope and based on your research.  Whether you conduct a brainstorming exercise or use open innovation, this is a new opportunity for divergence to find the best solution.Prototype, prototype, prototype.  Build prototypes and conduct rapid experiments with your ideas.  Get rapid feedback and incorporate the feedback into a new round of prototyping.  This confirms your [...]

Innovation Depth makes the Difference


I've been thinking about innovation for a while now, trying to puzzle out why some organizations seem to be able to innovate almost effortlessly while others are more sporadic or face significant innovation challenges.  At some moments in my career I've blamed this phenomenon on lack of breadth - the idea that too many companies shrink innovation activities down to idea generation and rapid evaluation.  This isn't completely wrong, there still is a lack of innovation process breadth and not enough appreciation for the thoughtful exploration and divergence in the 'front end' of innovation, followed by rapid prototyping and realization in the latter stages.  However, I'm warming to the idea that the real problem with innovation, the real reason so few organizations can perform innovation effectively, is a lack of depth.  Because even if we get the innovation process (steps, activities, tools, methods) right and follow them carefully, a lack of depth constantly slows or distracts innovation teams.Let's set our definitionsWhen I'm talking about innovation breadth, I mean from the start of an innovation activity (typically an executive who needs a new product or service or wants to attack an emerging opportunity) through to product or service realization.  Now honestly some of that breadth is in product or service development, not necessarily the responsibility of the innovation team, but to fully count as innovation we need to release a product or service that has impact on customers and the bottom line.Too few companies have a good understanding of the 'front end' and the important activities and processes, but many can stumble through.  What we need to turn our attention to is the depth question.When I'm talking about innovation depth I'm talking about capacity building - people with deep skills or experience using the tools and methods defined in the innovation process.  I'm talking about a depth of commitment of those people, who aren't rushed into and out of an innovation activity but can commit the time necessary to do it right.  I'm talking about the depth of commitment of the organization, so that innovation isn't a flavor of the month.  When we talk about innovation depth we are talking about the recognized 'range' of innovation outcomes (I like Doblin's ten types).  Depth also embraces the corporate culture and how it enables or resists innovation, rewards and recognitions and so on.In other words, innovation breadth is about defining and understanding the end to end process for innovation, the tools, processes and methods and ensuring this is continuous and whole.  Depth is about deciding how capable the innovation process, tools and people are, and how supportive the corporate culture, funding mechanisms and reward structures are, as well as ensuring that people have the necessary time to perform innovation activities effectively.Sustaining InnovationNow to the analysis.  Any company at any stage of its existence can stand up a team, define some simple tools and describe an innovation process.  That's not overly difficult, and as evidence shows many companies have done exactly that.  They have a defined process (on paper) and in some cases even a product or service to demonstrate as an outcome.  Frankly most of these processes are incomplete, not well thought out and excuse the pun but paper thin.Developing the capacity to innovate, building the depth of purpose, skill, experience, time and funding, changing or rethinking rewards and how people are allocated, is a much more purposeful and taxing experience.  It requires real strategic thought because expectations and even the nature of work changes.  This is a real - I almost hate to write this - change management effort, because we are changing the expectations of[...]

Will big data solve the innovation gap?


For many companies, I think there is a relatively significant gap between what they actually generate as compelling new products and what they wish they generated.  We could call this the "innovation gap".  The gap is real, and it means that many companies aren't as profitable or as competitive as they'd like to be.  Many of have (in some cases for years or decades) advocated tools and methods as a way to improve the innovation funnel, to create more innovation more readily that had value as new products and services.  To date, there's been some improvement but the innovation gap still remains.Lately, with the advent of "big data", machine learning and other factors associated with data and more intelligent processes, the argument has been made that these capabilities will solve the innovation gap.  This claim seems to suggest that big data and analytics and machine learning can do a better job in the front end generating new ideas that lead more rapidly to new products and services.  And at some level I agree, but I think placing too much emphasis on big data or machine learning for all of your innovation work is a mistake.What big data and machine learning could doBasically, the 'front end' of innovation is an exploration and discovery activity, meant to discover needs and opportunities and assess customer needs in order to generate new ideas that may or may not solve the problem.  Good innovation is both a discovery and a combinatorial effort, which in some regards means that machines and algorithms must be able to parse through more potential combinations than humans can.The challenge with this thinking is that in many cases, humans create the rules by which the algorithms work, and if humans are often blinkered to new ideas or emerging technologies or unusual combinations, then the algorithms may be as well.  Further, having an algorithm spit out hundreds of potential combinations without the ability to assess their viability or value seems rather meaningless and complicated.  Beauty and efficacy is often in the eye of the beholder.  I never knew I needed or wanted a multi-tool until I got one for Christmas.  And even today, while it's breadth of tools is undeniable, it often sits in my drawer at home, as I suspect many of them do.There is definitely a place for big data, analytics and machine learning, but I think more as a component of a viable front end process than a replacement.  For at least some time into the future, humans and their ability to connect and assess ideas and identify trends and opportunities will do a better job than machines alone.  Intuition and past experience count a lot, but leveraging the data and insights that big data and algorithms can create will increase value in the front end.What humans do betterMachine learning is still nascent, and still trying to capture the spark of real intuition and foresight.  This means that today most machine learning is exceptionally good at anticipating and predicting outcomes when the conditions are similar.  This means that for some time into the future, machine learning and algorithms should be able to anticipate incremental innovation demands.  However, I'm not so sure about disruptive needs and opportunities.Humans are omnivorous connectors.  We are happy to ignore what should be incompatible needs or standards to connect things that don't seem to be connectable.  We connect things in random, often unexpected ways (you got chocolate in my peanut butter) that sometimes lead to spectacular failures and other times lead to amazing successes.  No algorithm could have predicted Steve Jobs and Apple combining MP3 players, digital music and a distribution mechanism called iTunes.  Therefore, companies that focus on m[...]

Yesterday or Thinking about Tomorrow?


The Beatles (they were a pop group for those of you who cut your teeth on Eminem) wrote jangly songs about yellow submarines and walruses.  It was the 60s, so I guess you had to be there to understand.  They were all about sunny days, happy feelings, a kind of Beach Boys from England with mod outfits and mop top haircuts.  They also had that outrageous Sergeant Pepper phase, but I digress.

The Beatles also had a few melancholy songs, perhaps none more famous than "Yesterday".  Yesterday is a song about looking back with some regret, after realizing that the recent past wasn't so bad, that some opportunities may have been missed.

The Beatles were innovators in rock and roll, introducing a new perspectives, a really interesting competing view of the world between Paul McCartney and John Lennon, introducing eastern musical themes and instruments into rock and roll, and many other innovations.  But for innovators I think the most relevant song they sang was Yesterday.  It's also one of the most covered songs in history.

Why Yesterday?

Missed Opportunities
Yesterday is about missed opportunities, and if anything about innovation is true, all innovators will acknowledge that far too many innovation opportunities are ignored, missed, skipped past.  Too often we don't even become aware of innovation opportunities until someone else has capitalized on the opportunity.  In hindsight all innovation seems evident, but it rarely seemed that way at the time.

Also, there's a realization in yesterday.  The old joke goes that the best day to start a diet if you want results was yesterday, but the best day to start if you don't want the pain is tomorrow.  If you replace the word "diet" with "innovation" the saying holds.  The best time to have started an innovation activity is almost always "earlier than this" because it takes longer to do good innovation than most people realize, and the opportunities open and close more quickly than most people expect.  However, like dieting, most teams put off innovation until it is an absolute necessity, and then cheat their way through the diet.  The best time to get started with innovation was yesterday, but that doesn't mean we can't start today.

The final idea that relates Yesterday to innovation is nostalgia.  The singer looks back on missed opportunities and how wonderful the past was.  Likewise, many people and companies tend to look back at the past through rose colored glasses and see only difficulty and challenge in the future.  Innovators know that the best opportunities like in front of us.  Let go of the past, look toward the future with optimism and expectation.

Thinking about tomorrow

In fact, if we are going to stick with a musical theme, the innovator's mantra is Fleetwood Mac's  "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow", always looking forward, always thinking about possibilities.

So, which perspective do you and your team favor? A nostalgic look back, full of regret about the past, clinging to what you have, or a more optimistic view toward the future?  Are you caught up in Yesterday, or thinking about tomorrow?  Innovators will always be thinking about tomorrow.

Don't forget the steak: What Super Bowl ads forget


There's an old marketing adage that you sell the sizzle, not the steak.  Sell the benefits, not the features.  I wonder, as I watch Super Bowl television ads, how many marketing people have forgotten the basic tenets of their craft.This isn't to say that the ads aren't catchy, funny, endearing and often engrossing.  But sometimes the ads are so interesting or so well developed that they neglect to tell us what they are for.  In other words, watching these ads makes me think that we've completely lost the steak in all the sizzle.A good example is Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) up against the voice of god himself (Morgan Freeman).  The rap battle was great, but the products they were featuring were barely acknowledged.  It's as if we are supposed to buy the products because of the really interesting advertising, rather than the benefits they provide.What's this diatribe got to do with innovation?Going through the elaborate motionsAs a blogger and consultant I make a living talking about the importance of innovation process, that innovation is a repeatable business process that any company can learn and master.  So I have to tread the razor's edge here when I say increasingly corporate innovation looks a lot like Super Bowl advertising.  Too much focus on the sizzle and not nearly enough on the steak.  Alex Osterwalder has taken to calling this "innovation theater", where the players do their bit, act out innovation roles but in the end we are left with nothing but an empty set.Let me be clear:  innovation processes, defined workflows, fully understood tools and methods, are vital to doing good innovation, but increasingly what we see is Potemkin Village innovation (if you'll excuse the introduction of another analogy), a false front dressed up to look great, but with very little going on behind the scenes, and no results.Many innovation teams are going through elaborate motions, adopting many techniques on the surface but not fully understanding them, or doing the exploration and deep thinking and discovery necessary to develop breakthrough ideas and products.  There's a lot of activity, reference to interesting tools and methods, some templates are completed and with a lot of fanfare, ice breaking and sometimes yoga.  But in the end, there aren't any interesting or valuable ideas.What's missingWhat's missing from this elaborate kabuki theater is actual commitment to investigate needs, understand future trends and draw conclusions about emerging markets and needs.  What's missing is the desire to put in the work to change the existing business model, disrupt existing revenue streams and products.  Innovation will often spin off into elaborate motions when people realize just how much and how radical the change is that's needed.  Once the realization happens, it's easier to go through the motions, to call on Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman to rap battle, than it is to say exactly why Doritos or Mountain Dew is so much better, or tastier, or healthier, or less expensive, than other alternatives. And yes I get the fact that Dinklage being on fire means the new Doritos are spicy or that everything Freeman touches turns to ice means that the Mountain Dew flavor he was advocating (which one was it?) is cooler or more refreshing.  And this is where the analogy breaks down.  When you are marketing, subtle signals may reinforce value propositions for the potential customer.  Other than discovering customer needs, there's nothing subtle about innovation.  It's not called "creative destruction" for nothing.  You can't wink[...]

Expecting or Reacting to innovation


I'm a bit mystified this morning, mystified by the fact that so many people I interact with are constantly talking about innovation, and how often they are surprised by it or overtaken by events.  The word innovation seems to be on everyone's lips, is constantly in the news, but somehow the concepts behind these words never go beyond the surface.  Why is it that smart people who are constantly speaking about innovation and hearing about innovation are so often overtaken by innovation?I'm of the opinion that many people in the business world have sacrificed a significant portion of the proactive selves in order to operate in as efficient a manner as possible.  Years, no decades of work on right-sizing, outsourcing, Lean, Six Sigma and a host of other solutions has made modern business exceptionally efficient, and exceptionally reactive.  We no longer seem to possess the entrepreneurial spirit, risking even a little bit to gain even more.  Instead many people seem content to file an exception report when things go wrong, and take corrective action to remediate any issue.It's time to get proactiveIn the recent past, when you might have had a chance to respond quickly to a competitor's new offering, being reactive to innovation made some sense.  You could wait for someone else to prove a technology or market, establish price points and channels, and then swoop in after the market was proven.  Let someone else take the risk was the mantra.  Those days are over.In those days you had a handful of well-known competitors and a much more slowly evolving market.  Today, you have dozens of competitors, popping up and disappearing all the time, in all regions, and the pace of change and customer expectations have both accelerated.  You cannot win by waiting.  You must shift your innovation perspective from reacting to innovation to expecting to lead.ExpectationsSetting and living out expectations is vital in any human endeavor.  Understanding the level, intensity and scope of work helps people gear up for the work to come.  When we allow passive, reactive expectations to creep into our thinking, we sacrifice a lot of opportunity.  As noted, in the past that may not have been a problem, but now it is.  Executives and managers need to set the tone.  We need to create new expectations about our business models and how we'll compete.  We need to be far more proactive, exploring new opportunities, discovering new technologies and taking new risks.  There are far more companies doing this far more regularly than you expect.Introducing a mind shiftWhat we are talking about here is a mind shift, shifting from a more passive and reactive model of thinking about innovation (which is what allows smart people who hear about innovation to be constantly surprised by it) to a much more proactive, risk-taking model of thinking about innovation, constantly asking what innovation is next and how do we win.  This means, and you know this, a lot of innovation success is tied to corporate and organizational thinking, communications, goal setting and culture.  The culture that embraces movement, change, uncertainty, exploration and proactive innovation is the one that is going to survive.  Those companies where the cultures resist these concepts are in a bad way.If we queried your teams, what would they say is their state of readiness and expectation?  Would they say they are capable of reacting to innovation when they see it, or would they say they are taking the steps to proactively introduce innovation?  This simple question may tell you all you need to know about the future success of your organization.[...]

Why we should expect more disruptive innovations


I've used the example of Tower Records before - a behemoth astride the recording industry - brought low very quickly by a sudden shift in music distribution. The shift from physical media to digital media, and the shift from albums to songs as the distribution format made Tower suddenly obsolete. Similarly, Blockbuster experienced almost the exact same disruption. Using a business model based on real estate and limited selection of the top hits, Blockbuster was wiped out by a company with few tangible assets, no retail presence and an exceptionally broad catalog - Netflix. What these two examples have in common is a rapid, sudden change brought about by innovation. In one case the innovation was in media, and in the other case the innovation was in business models and channels. What we ought to be paying attention to, however, is the amount of rapid change that's occurring everywhere - in every industry, in every function and every geography. The fact of the matter is, Schumpeter's 'creative destruction' will occur more rapidly and more frequently, and we need to be anticipating disruptive innovation, if not simply welcoming it and accepting it. Drivers of Disruptive Innovation What are the emerging drivers of more and more disruptive innovation? I think there are at least three key drivers: Ubiquitous information:  in the past, a new technology or solution took time to gain traction in a specific market.  Now, a compelling new technology or solution can be available to broad swathes of the world's population almost immediately.  Information travels very quickly, and people recognize a compelling solution to an existing problem and can adopt it relatively quicklyTechnology platforms:  They can adopt new technologies quickly because increasingly we have the platforms that new ideas are built on.  It took over 50 years for the telephone to reach widespread usage in the US, mostly because the cost of distribution in large, empty geographies.  But once those lines exist, voice, data and internet adoption were much more rapid because they were built on existing platforms.  International monetary flows:  There are fewer and fewer barriers to acquiring goods and services in almost any country.  We can quickly start a business and start competing in other geographies thanks to the internet and the global banking system. There are probably more drivers - in fact I'm sure there are - but you get the point.  Emerging societal, governmental, economic and technology trends are creating more and more opportunity for radical disruption of products, companies and industries.In short, people can become aware of new ideas more quickly, adopt them more readily because of their existing infrastructure (and their increasing knowledge and experience of technology) and because global distribution and payment programs have progressed so quickly.What does this mean for innovators?What this means is that we should expect to see companies like Blockbuster, Tower Records and Kodak (as past examples) and their key solutions and technologies get disrupted by new entrants more frequently and more consistently.  New solutions will emerge - some will be valuable and will more quickly disrupt the status quo, while others will simply create incremental solutions and other introductions will fail.  That's the natural order of things.  But the number and frequency of "disruptions" will only go up, and perhaps exponentially due to the factors identified above and other ones.This means as innovators we need to be constantly surveying the marketplace, identifying emerging trends and unmet needs, identifying who is creatin[...]

Why you should work with an innovation consultant


OK, here comes the pitch.  I'm an innovation consultant.  I've been working in the innovation space for over 12 years.  I have a somewhat (cough) vested interest in writing a blog post about why you should work with an innovation consultant.  Of course if you happen to select this particular consultant you'll be exceptionally successful, but there are some other perfectly acceptable consultants out there.  But I digress.The real purpose of this blog is to answer the question:  why should I work with an innovation consultant?  There are more answers than I'll have time for in this post, but rest assured I'm always happy to discuss if you have questions.Your team needs new tools and skillsIf your team has been tasked with creating new, innovative products or services, take a few days and introduce or build new skills and tools.  Trying to innovate with the existing tools and processes will only result in incremental change at best and a really frustrating experience.  Working with consultants who can identify your team's strengths and needs and provide training and recommend appropriate tools will help you do more innovation more effectively.  History and evidence prove that you cannot do good innovation work with existing tools and methods, and probably won't be successful trying to find and implement the thinking and tools yourself.Your team needs new ideas or perspectivesEven if you are experts at innovation tools and processes, you may be mired in groupthink.  Or your team simply has a difficult time thinking beyond its existing products and services.  Something that any consultant can bring is a vital outside perspective.  Ideally consultants bring experiences that transfer clients and industries.  They see and interpret patterns that may be unfamiliar to your team.Your team doesn't have good insight into client needs or future statesFar too many teams don't have access to actual customers, or worse do have access but don't know how to provoke good conversations and harvest important unmet needs.  Worse, few companies do a good job of understanding the emerging expectations and needs of customers they don't serve or spotting trends that will upend their industries.  In many organizations this isn't someone's job so it doesn't get done.  Good innovation depends on understanding unmet needs and emerging trends.Your team has insights but cannot generate ideasYou were probably expecting this one earlier.  This is where many innovation consultants get called in, and most can provide this function - helping generate more and better ideas.  But without good insights, good tools and new perspectives, even an expert idea generation team can't get good ideas if the inputs aren't good.  Yes, this is a role where innovation consultants can offer value, but you'll get more value if they are involved in the earlier activities.You want to build skillsSome innovation consultants will also double as trainers - teaching you methods and skills.  Ideally you'll define an innovation process and link innovation tools to the process, rather than simply get educated on a number of interesting but unconnected innovation skills and tools.  You need help finding ideas, technologies, research or productsSometimes you've got a good handle on the customer needs but lack visibility and capability when it comes to finding the IP, research, technologies or products you need to address the need you've identified.  Some consultants do a great job with "open innovation", that is, helping you identify, find, vet and acquire good technologies, research or intell[...]

Passion and executive commitment tap the well of ideas


I had the opportunity recently to lead some training workshops with a midwestern company that is a leader in its field, but recognized it needed to do more to stay ahead of the competition.  Frankly, sometimes leading innovation training feels like going through the motions - we innovators talk about innovation methods and tools, and the attendees listen politely then go back and do whatever it is they do day to day, and not much innovation happens.  I'll admit that I've led some sessions and workshops where I am sure that very little follow through occurred.  But that wasn't the case this time.Not long after the workshops were complete I got a call from the executive sponsor, who was so excited about the results and the work his teams were doing on innovation.  He felt they had more, and better ideas than they would have without the sessions, and called to say thanks.  It's rewarding when a client team really engages, and it made me think about what factors signify the differences between successful innovation activities spawned from innovation training, and other training sessions and workshops that don't lead to any new activity.What made the difference It was easy for me to see what made the difference between this engagement, which led to a lot of innovation, and others, which I'm sad to say led to little or none.  There were several factors involved:The company was a leader in its field and provides real incentives for entrepreneurship.Employees who generate new ideas and create new products or lines of business are provided real opportunities for growth and compensation.  The senior leadership team is fully engaged in innovation - many of them had already been through our workshops and recognized the power of a defined innovation methodologyWhat's more, the executive team, as demonstrated by the executive sponsor, had real commitment and passion for innovation.  They were convinced their people could create great ideas that would drive value for themselves and the business as a whole.  The executive team believed in their people, demonstrated their commitment to innovation and trusted that with the right tools and methods, they could create new products and services.Many executives aren't willing to allow their teams to fully explore the innovation possibilities, worried that they'll waste time or get sidetracked, or distracted from day to day operations.  Some simply don't think their teams are very innovative, or have good ideas.  People understand the spoken and unspoken executive thinking and respond accordingly.  Fortunately in this case there was a vocal champion, backed by an engaged management team. Executive Commitment, Passion and Trust It's this commitment, passion and belief or trust that matters so much when you enter into a potentially strange or uncertain activity like innovation.  Commitment demonstrates that you won't simply stall out when unforeseen events occur or barriers rise up.  Passion keeps the team engaged and certain of support even when challenges emerge.  Trust says to the team that while the journey may be a bit rocky or uncertain we believe you'll arrive at a great destination.I believe that many, many companies of all sizes, in all industries have a huge well of innovation just waiting to be tapped.  That well is represented in its employees and their knowledge of the needs, product gaps and customer demands that just aren't filled with current products and services.  These employees need tools and methods to help accelerate innovation activities, but first they need to know that executives w[...]

Innovation Gift Giving


We find ourselves near the end of another fruitful, eventful year, here at December 19, 2017.  All eyes turn toward the holidays (actually, the merchandising happened in October and the Christmas muzak started in early November it seems).  While there are a few working days left in the month, and year, I thought I'd offer up some ideas for those individuals who are hard to shop for on your lists.  Today, gifts for the frustrated corporate innovator.The Frustrated Corporate InnovatorWe all know one of these, and in some cases this may be you.  You've longed for the rights to create some really interesting new products and services.  You've noticed product gaps and market opportunities ripe for the plucking.  Yet the organization you or your friend works for is too conservative, too risk adverse or simply too focused on existing products and services to spend time innovating.  There are several gifts I can offer you:The gift of freedom.  If you honestly believe that the opportunity is out there, and that you have insights that no one else has, then give yourself the gift of freedom.  Go and solve that problem.  Alone or with a small team.  If your existing company or organization can't or won't see the opportunity, and you have passion for the need, don't wait.  Getting frustrated by the decision making processes and slow reaction times of larger corporations isn't the answer.  Give yourself the gift of freedom to pursue the opportunities you see.  This may mean switching teams or even leaving your company.The gift of success.  If the first option is too radical (like the crazy holiday sweaters you know the recipient won't wear) then how about this:  just do something radical within your organization with the resources you can cobble together.  Don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness after your idea becomes a success.  Innovators can't afford to wait.  Trying to get everyone to consensus is an exercise in cat herding in a room full of rocking chairs.  Success is first its own reward, and second an opportunity to build on.  If you can't get approval for everything, give yourself approval to do something and build on the success.The gift of education.   There's always room in every budget for training or gaining new skills. After all, gaining new skills is important for personal growth and it's also probably a component of your annual review.  Identify new training or educational opportunities to learn new skills or new methods.  Enrich your own portfolio of innovation techniques, design thinking techniques, open innovation methods or a host of other capabilities.  Even if you don't get to actually implement the training, you'll add to your own resume.The gift of involvement and community.  There are a lot of interest groups and organizations that examine innovation and meet to discuss successes, failures and learnings.  Here in the Carolinas we meet regularly and once a year have an innovation conference focused on local innovators.  There are plenty of conferences and events, national and local, where you can meet with and discuss your ideas and what you want to get done.  Or, go help out a nascent entrepreneur or innovator who needs help getting a new idea off the ground.  Go meet some people who share your passion and can leverage your energy. The gift of a book.  When I was a kid, everyone wanted to give me books, when what I really wanted were footballs or baseball bats or fishing rods.  Now, everyone wants to give me sweaters [...]

Communication and repetition are vital for innovation


I was working out this morning before work and as usual, watching the breaking news.  At 7am there are a range of news choices, and strangely each network seems to have the exact same advertisements on during the breaks.  As I was working out I realized that I knew the side effects of several medications that I don't need and don't take.  These side effects include headaches, vomiting, and so on.  The reason I know these is because there seem to be five or six pharmaceutical commercials on heavy rotation.  Thankfully, based on both the conditions they promote and the side effects, I'm not using any of them.  But listening to the adverts and thinking about how much I'd heard about the various medications and their side effects got me thinking.What if we innovators could create a regular, recurring, looping set of adverts for people in business, so that we were comfortable with the language and approach of unfamiliar methodologies and tools without ever knowing we'd gained the knowledge?  Can we create comfort with unusual techniques and tools by building confidence and awareness slowly over time?Reach and FrequencyI've written before that good messaging requires both reach and frequency. If you want someone to remember your message, you've got to reach them frequently.  Psychology suggests that you need to hear a message 7 times in order to fully incorporate it in your thinking.  If we only talk about or do innovation in extreme circumstances or very rarely, and fail to communicate about the tools and methods otherwise, we can't indoctrinate people and make them feel comfortable with the tools and methods.  And when people feel uncomfortable with new tools or methods, they follow one of a few well-trodden paths:  1) they stall or stop progress until they do feel comfortable with new language and tools or 2) they simply ignore new tools and methods and revert to older, trusted tools and methods.Reach, frequency and clear messaging about innovation is important, as my experience with medications I don't need or take demonstrates.  Having seen or heard these commercials for weeks or months as I work out in the morning, I could easily tell you which address specific illnesses or symptoms and even what some of the side effects could be.  Now, imagine that we could do the same thing with a positive force - innovation - that many cultures view as dangerous and disruptive.  How much more receptive and capable would the average employee be to innovation opportunities if the ideas, methods, processes, "rules" and other aspects of innovation were inculcated the way pharmaceutical drug commercials do for the average viewer?Creating Innovation CommercialsIt's not as if corporations lack the ability to "advertise" important information to their employees.  If anything the average corporate employee would probably claim to receive too much communication, which in reality is probably accurate since so much of it is poorly conceived and targeted.  It wouldn't be difficult to include some clear innovation oriented messaging, definitions, background and other messages within existing channels, and to reinforce these in every team meeting, quarterly result and so on.  And the more these messages are consistent, drilling in a specific definition or outcome, or reviewing a specific set of innovation tools, the more quickly these messages will be received and implemented.Pharma companies use television, radio and print advertising because they know they need to reach many people in many channels, and they[...]

Quirky: Traits innovators share


Thanks to my blog, and hopefully the insights I share here, I'm often asked to review books about innovation and innovators.  Recently I was asked to review a book entitled Quirky.  The subtitle is:  The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.  Their capitalization, not mine.The traits that innovators possess or share has been an interest of mine for quite a while.  I researched this topic for years, reading academic papers, books and doing our own research to identify traits or characteristics that innovators have in common, so you can imagine this book was of interest to me.Quirky is as quirky doesMelissa Schilling, who is a professor at NYU, took an interesting approach when writing this book.  She focused on just a handful of breakthrough innovators, going deeply into their development and lives.  This deep dive presents some interesting data, but since the population of innovators is small and, to say the least a bit strange in its selection, I wonder if everything she reports is definitive.Schilling selects her breakthrough innovators across history, including Madame Curie, Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Tesla, Einstein, Elon Musk and of course Steve Jobs.   These are, without a doubt, important innovators and very quirkly people.  To my way of thinking this is a very expansive group, with very different innovation goals and outcomes.  Several of these never commercialized a product; they created scientific insights.  Some were very mercenary - they only wanted to create things that had value to customers.  Some were serial innovators across a wide spectrum of industries, some were deep thinkers in one specific setting.  While all of these are recognizable innovators, I wonder if the sample size is really large enough - or perhaps too diverse in a small sample - to draw conclusions.Schilling looks for similarities across these innovators, and to no surprise finds many.  They are all self-starters, many are autodidacts, bored with day to day stuff and constantly seeking new solution.  They are passionate about their work, they have visions about better solutions.  They work till they drop and expect others to do the same.  They are almost separate from the people they live and work with.  They were extremely sure of their own insights, rarely doubting themselves.  Most were consummate outsiders.  These findings, of themselves, are interesting but not particularly new.  Clayton Christensen and others wrote about 5 traits they noticed in corporate innovators in the book The Innovator's DNA.  Others have noted that most innovators are motivated by intrinsic issues, which fuels their passion.  Anyone who has attempted to create a new product knows the struggles a new idea faces in becoming a new product or service, so passion and stubbornness are almost a job requirement for innovators.Positives and ConcernsThe book does a good job identifying and calling out some of the core traits that innovators often share.  It does this by digging deeply into the lives of the handful of innovators Schilling profiles.  In many chapters the history and backstory of a selected innovator takes up close to half the chapter.  I learned more about Tesla and Curie than I had known, and gained new insights into Jobs' early career.  This research depth is good but detracts from getting on with the points the author wants to make.There are really seven attributes that Sc[...]

Taking the path of most resistance


I was thinking today about one of my favorite books - The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham - and the quote from the book that forms the title.  I won't bore you with a rehash, except to say that the main character is told that "the path to salvation is as narrow and difficult to walk as a razor's edge".  This from a Buddhist monk the main character, Larry, meets during his journey to find himself and his purpose not long after the end of the first World War.One of the things we are constantly taught is to find the path of least resistance - the well-defined, well-trodden path that others have taken.  This is the safest, most secure path.  The one that is easiest to travel, has the least amount of risk.  The path is known, secure and goes to a specific destination.  This is the path most of us walk every day.  The only problem is that there isn't anything new on the path.  You don't explore anything new, discover anything new.  You aren't confronted by anything new.  Plenty of people go along with you to explain the path to you and keep you safely in the path.As you might guess, the path of least resistance is easy to walk, and has little to offer in the way of innovation.  If you want to innovate, you must leave the proven path, take the path of some or most resistance.  Because it's in the exploration and discovery, going where others haven't gone, that you'll learn new things, uncover new issues or challenges, find new opportunities or solutions.There are several components to walking any path that we must consider here:  the path itself, the people on the path, the "off-piste" that defines the area outside the path.The PathWhile much of this post has been a meditation on "paths" and their purposes, we all live and work in stable, defined paths or processes.  We go to work, follow established and documented processes and procedures, identify and achieve short term milestones and go home.  The next day we do it all again.  These are well-worn, well-described paths that are necessary for effective and efficient operations.  Efficient processes and pathways must exist for a company to scale and operate efficiently.  The problem is that the paths and processes become barriers to thinking and exploration rather than enablers - things that were meant to get you places become things that bar you from new places.  Soon, people are improving the paths and processes, grading them and paving them for even more ease of use, which encourages more alignment and less discovery and exploration.  Soon it becomes difficult and expensive to leave a path or process, and one fraught with risk and the potential of ridicule. As hackneyed as the quote is, Frost is right: "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference".If you are going to innovate, you need to pioneer your own paths.  Sometimes you'll have a specific destination in mind, sometimes you'll simply go exploring.  But either way, you've got to get out of the existing wheel ruts, pathways and guardrails to go into the untamed areas of your business or industry.  You cannot innovate from within the safe confines of your existing paths and processes.The people on the pathWhat's important to understand is that there will be two kinds of people you'll encounter on the path:  those who want to reinforce the importance of the path, and those who are interested in leading you off the path.  Those who want to reinforce the path we[...]

What your language says about your innovation


I've long championed the idea that to change the way people think, you've got to change the way they communicate.  If you want big ideas, you need to encourage them, yes, but also talk about them in ways that open up dialog, thinking and idea generation to a much larger dimension.  While language, word choice and conversation may not seem to have all that much impact on idea generation and innovation, in reality these are the building blocks of a corporate culture.  As a colleague of mine is fond of saying:  we need to switch from "I'll believe it when I see it" to "I'll see it when I believe it".

Your word choice

Think, for just a moment, about the conversations and communications you have every day with your peers, your direct reports and your boss.  When you talk business, what words or phrases immediately come to mind?  Words like cutting, efficiency, process, costs, management, effectiveness are bound to appear frequently in oral and written communications.  In fairness, I'm sure the words innovation and growth will show up occasionally as well.  But for the most part these are constrained words and phrases, focused on doing well what you do today, not focused on expanding thinking and relieving constraints.  Therefore, since much of how we think is governed by how we communicate, we have people and teams that have constrained language, which equates to constrained thinking.

Explore, Experiment, Discover

Now, imagine conversations that include words like explore, experiment, discover and other such words and phrases.  These words indicate an expansive way of thinking, they signal activities that require going beyond the existing scope or constraints.  We often talk about balancing "convergent" words and activities (those that move quickly to a solution and typically revolve around doing the day to day work well) with "divergent" words and activities (those that expand scope, remove constraints, encourage new thinking, exploration and so on).  If your words and communications don't signal the importance of these activities, then your culture won't reinforce them, and your thinking will be constrained.

In all forms, in all channels

This reliance on language, words and communication to shape and form our cultures goes beyond an occasional email from the CEO, exhorting the teams to more innovation.  It goes beyond a quarterly review that emphasizes efficiency and meeting quarterly objectives.  Changing language and culture requires the introduction and reinforcement of words and phrases, which begin to change thinking and behaviors, in all communication forms (written, oral, visual) and in all channels (presentations, emails, evaluations).  The two fastest ways to change a culture and have it embrace more innovation are to 1) change the compensation and reward schemes and 2) change what the culture talks about and how frequently key words and phrases are used.

Right now we talk about innovation but the sustained communications are overwhelming the need for cultural change and embracing innovation as a sustained capability.  Until and unless you introduce the types of thinking you want by changing the words you use, you'll get the same thinking you've always had.

Starting the innovation fire


I've been thinking, long and hard, about the correct analogy to describe a lot of corporate innovation efforts.  I'm sorry to say that the best analogy I can come up with is a campfire.  I hope you'll stick with me on this, because I think it can be illuminating (couldn't resist the pun).Most of us who participated in scouts or went to a summer camp where they had a bonfire are familiar with the idea of a campfire. It's a must have for any outdoor event, and rarely complete without graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows.  It's a good place to tell ghost stories or have a sing along.  A fire, once started and with the right fuel, can burn well and hot for hours, and in some cases if not carefully tended can become dangerous.  But I digress...How corporate innovation is like a campfireIf you think about the basic ingredients required for a campfire, they are relatively basic.  We need some type of fuel, typically small twigs which catch up quickly and larger branches and logs that don't burn as quickly but provide coals and sustain the fire over time.  We also need an ignition source, most typically a match or a lighter.  Some folks also cheat a bit and use an accelerant - gasoline or lighter fluid or "fatwood" which burns more easily and dependably.  Of course good fire etiquette (at least from my scouting days) would suggest that we clear a small patch of land so the fire is easily contained and doesn't spread to the woods.Now, let's map what's going on in corporate settings to the ingredients for a campfire, to understand what's underway, what's working and what's missing in corporate innovation.First, there's the desire to have a fire.  Every company wants innovation, so desire isn't always the challenge.Second is understanding the ingredients.  For a fire this is simple:  ignition, accelerant, fuel.  In a corporate setting, these three factors are also important: ignition (what are the driving needs or burning platforms that require innovation), accelerant (what are the skills and insights that accelerate innovation) and fuel (what are the cultural and human capital capabilities to keep the projects running).  It makes sense to look at each of these in greater detail.IgnitionFor a fire, ignition is easy.  You need matches, or a lighter, or some other mechanism to create a spark.  Often all you need is a momentary flame to get a good fire going.  The same is true for innovation.  A single executive's need can spark an innovation opportunity.  A significant product line gap or the introduction of a new product by a competitor can spark an innovation need.  Ignition simply isn't the problem, although many corporate innovation activities are ignited by the wrong issues and for the wrong reasons.  The old saying - play with matches and you'll get burned holds true for innovation as well.AccelerantAs a scout, we always carried a few slivers of "fatwood", typically wood found in the trunks of old pine trees.  Fatwood is a great accelerant because it is loaded with turpentine, catches fire easily and burns hot.  Others might cheat with lighter fluid or gasoline, but just a few bits of fatwood really help accelerate a fire.  In a corporate setting, aspects like innovation tools and knowledge of those tools, past innovation experience, third party consulting help and other factors can accelerate an innovation activity.  At this point in [...]

Shared innovation language accelerates innovation


I was leading an innovation workshop recently with a company that invited in some of its customers to talk about the future.  We were interested in getting feedback from key B2B customers about the future of the industry, where things were heading and what strategies and programs my customer should begin to put in place.  I was hired to lead a trend spotting and scenario planning workshop, but I had successfully convinced my client that we needed to establish a common framework and language about innovation first.The participants were senior executives drawn from several industries the company serves.  Each were leaders in their respective industries and several of them promote innovation as a core operating capability.  Nevertheless I felt it was important to establish a common definition and scope of innovation before moving ahead.  What surprised me was the response from the participants when I started defining innovation, and seeking their definitions so we could arrive at a common framework.I'll know it when I see itLike the Supreme Court justice called on to define pornography (I know it when I see it) the participants had very different, and frequently very narrow definitions of "innovation".  While they were casually tossing words around like "disruptive", they couldn't really describe what it meant.  Further, the narrow definitions extended to outcomes.  For the most part many of them were focused, when they were spending time on innovation, almost exclusively on product innovation.Needless to say, I spent time talking about the difference between "incremental" innovation and disruptive innovation, their purposes and meaning, and the "three horizons" model of innovation, as well as a 70:20:10 portfolio plan.  Thinking about concurrent innovation across several goals and horizons was really new and interesting for these participants.Ten TypesBut we went further.  It's really a waste, I told them, to only focus on product innovation, when so many potential types are available.  I then introduced Doblin's Ten Types, which is basically received gospel to innovators but may as well be Sanskrit for most business types.  They've never seen it, never thought deeply about it, but when its deciphered they understand it immediately.  What was funny about this was several of the participants were talking about the importance of customer experience but never seemed to realize that CX could be an intent or outcome of an innovation exercise.Freeing their thinkingBy working collectively to create a shared (if just for the moment) definition of innovation, which seems like a constricting activity, we actually freed up some thinking because we were broadening the definitions of innovation, in several dimensions.  First, across a spectrum of incremental to disruptive.  Second, from discrete to continuous and often concurrent projects.  And third, from an overemphasis on product innovation to the realization that innovation can happen over a range of outcomes (products, services, channels, business models, experiences, etc).Once you fully grapple with the opportunities and range of innovation activities and outcomes, the range of innovation possibility can seem a bit limitless.  Then will come the natural convergence to start choosing where or what you want to innovate, and a natural divergence as you start to explore the possibilities again.Language and comm[...]

Understanding the future leads to better innovation


As many of you loyal readers know (thanks Mom!) I'm a big believer that success in life, as in innovation, is about understanding the future and bringing products and solutions to the market just as the market realizes its needs.  This builds on the famous quip that to win the future you should create the future.  The unspoken but obvious counterpoint is that you can wait to see what the future holds and then react to it.  Many is the company that has decided to take the more passive, reactive, wait and see model, rather than invest a few dollars into trend spotting and scenario planning.Why aren't we doing more work on understanding and predicting the future?  It's pretty obvious that most companies aren't good at understanding and predicting the future, and they are so bound up in efficiency and quantitative metrics about the next month or quarter that they don't believe they have the time or insights to get it right.  There's a famous quote attributed to Niels Bohr, a renown physicist, who said it is very hard to predict, especially about the future.The future is already hereContrast that quote with one of my favorites, by William Gibson.  Gibson is quoted as saying "the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed".  What he meant was that there are events and trends underway in some corners of the world that are advanced and futuristic.  Imagine how primitive tribes in the Amazon jungle think about airplanes.  In the same way imagine how your grandparents think about Snapchat and Facebook.  Signals about the future are all around us.  Some places (Tokyo and Dubai come to mind) feel like they are already a few years or even a decade ahead of us.  What's required is for us to identify the trends that are occurring and make sense of them, to visit the places that are moving forward and experimenting, to see what the future might hold.Rejecting the "straight line" futureI've coined what I call the "straight line" future, from my work with customers in trend spotting and scenario planning.  When we ask people to imagine what the future will look like 3-5 years from now, most people will imagine a future that looks and feels exactly like the one they are living in, with minor tweaks around the edges.  In other words, the journey from here to there is a straight line with few disruptions or deviations.  This is the future that we expect and want if we are comfortable and don't want uncertainty or risk.  This is not what is going to happen.Just a few years ago, Obama was president and the thought of Donald Trump becoming president would have seemed laughable.  Hillary Clinton seemed likely to win and there were an acceptable range of leading, plausible Republican candidates.  Yet history and fate intervened and we have a future few would have expected, with very different political, economic and perhaps military consequences.The future will look subtly different than the present does, in ways we often don't anticipate or expect.  Those companies that discover the differences with enough time to create valuable products and services will win big.  Bill Gates of Microsoft fame said that we often overestimate the change that will occur in the next 2 years and underestimate the amount of change that will happen in the next ten.  With the pace of change accelerating, we might make that 2 years and[...]

We could all use a little Sharknado thinking


I saw a sign in my Twitter feed recently that spoke volumes about innovation culture. Let's contemplate the audacity of suggesting an idea about a movie full of sharks in tornadoes for just a moment.Creativity and CombinationsTo suggest a movie about sharks in a tornado demonstrates creativity.  Good innovation often happens when you combine two unexpected attributes or components together to create something new.  In this case I think everyone understood that Sharknado was over the top. And why not?  If you look at the rest of the movies being made, something a little tongue in cheek makes sense.  The first thing to take away that someone in Hollywood did right from an innovation perspective is making unusual connections.The guts to go beyond the obviousBut beyond the idea of combining unlike objects, imagine the guts it takes to suggest something so new and unusual.  In many organizations even reasonable ideas get shot down very quickly.  Participants will wonder about profitability or ROI.  Others will question customer demand or technical feasibility of ideas that seem possible and not outlandish.  That's because all of the possibility and "wonder" has been squeezed out of us in the corporate world.  The vast majority of people live lives of quiet desperation, recognizing opportunities but quickly looking away, aware of the challenge to create new ideas or the price one might pay for suggestion them.  What environmental, economic, and emotional conditions must exist for people to suggest outlandish ideas?Accepting the impossibleNow, place yourself back in that setting, where some low level production assistant has just suggested making a disaster movie, one that places sharks (looking back to Jaws and other killer aquatic animals) in tornadoes (again, looking back at classic disaster movies).  The idea combines two traditional Hollywood tropes, but in an unexpected way.  You'd think even Hollywood producers would have laughed the idea out of the room.  But they didn't, and that's why Hollywood creates more stuff (that's good and bad) than most other organizations and industries even contemplate. Some producer or producer's assistant had the guts to say:  tell me more.  Rather than shooting down an idea that marries two very unlikely protagonists, someone accepted the nearly impossible idea and said, go further.  This is what divides innovators and creatives from the realists and the execution-oriented folks.  Realists and operationalists would scoff. They'd say "Sharks don't get caught up in tornadoes" or "That's unrealistic, no one would believe it".  Yet today we walk around with more processing power in our smart phones than a spaceship had that carried men to the moon.We in corporate America need to regain a sense of wonder and possibility.  We need to stop thinking about what customers need next week, and start imagining what they'll be doing or what need they'll have in 3, 5 or 10 years. But that's Hollywood, you'll saySome of you reading this will argue that it's Hollywood's job to create funny, compelling, mindless entertainment, and that means stretching the genre or combining or creating really different concepts to attract and retain an audience.  But isn't that also our jobs in corporations?  To create really interesting and valuable products to attract [...]