Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sprinkling innovation responsibility like pixie dust

There's a fundamental problem in many corporations that keeps innovation from constantly delivering valuable results.  The challenge probably isn't what you imagine.  While many of us in the innovation space will point at a lack of tools, a lack of innovation experience, low expectations and significant risk barriers as challenges for innovation, along with a lack of resources and inadequate planning and funding, those to some extent can be overcome. In fact these are all frequently overcome when an executive really needs, demands a new product and prioritizes innovation over the business as usual, day to day operations.  But herein lies the rub:  who is ultimately responsible for innovation?  Who wakes up every day and goes to work knowing that their progression, their compensation and their success is measured on how innovation is accomplished on a day to day basis?  The answer in many companies is:  no one.  And further, even in companies where there are people who are measured on these criteria, they often face the challenge of responsibility without authority, or are in the wrong place in the organization to affect constant innovation.  Let's explore.

"Everyone can innovate"

Let's dispense with the trite but true concepts first.  You'll hear that "everyone can innovate" which is exactly true and mostly meaningless.  Everyone can, and should, have the opportunity to innovate.  They can generate ideas and participate in an innovation activity.  A corporate culture should reward and encourage this behavior, although most don't.  But even if it's true that everyone can innovate, the majority of people in most corporations don't, for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps they don't think their ideas are all that great, or don't understand how to develop their ideas, or don't have the bandwidth to manage ideas and their day to day jobs.  Further, if the don't innovate, they don't really risk anything.  Since they aren't measured or accountable for innovation, since it's not part of their responsibilities and they don't have the authority to do it on their own, they can't be held accountable.  You can't sprinkle innovation responsibility across a broad swath of the company without also dictating some fairly specific measures and goals, and constantly evaluating achievement.  When everyone's responsible then no one is responsible.

The CIO is responsible!

In some companies, an individual has been named as the chief innovation officer, and in many cases he or she is nominally responsible for innovation.  While we at OVO believe that a "center of excellence" is important to maintain innovation tools and capabilities, too often a corporate function focused on innovation is either a) too corporate and too removed from actual day to day operations to affect innovation in a product group or line of business or b) becomes an innovation center that generates ideas and solutions that aren't important or relevant to the product groups or lines of business.  We believe that innovation is a competency that must be sustained (hence the center of excellence) but at the same time innovation must be accomplished as close to the customer, or need, or opportunity as possible.  Who understands the customer, the market and the opportunity better than the product managers, sales people and others in a line of business?  Shouldn't these people be active in the innovation?  If so, what role does the CIO play in a day to day basis for innovation?  Can they cause innovation to occur in disparate product groups and lines of business?  Note that I'm not suggesting that CIOs aren't important, just that they must be intimately connected with innovation at the grass roots level and not become an ivory tower.  They must encourage innovation, and have budgets to help lines of business or product groups fund innovation activities.  But who, ultimately, is accountable for innovation in this model?  Either the CIO is, if his or her team is responsible for generating ideas, or product group leaders and business line leaders are, if we are to conduct innovation at the coal face.  In the latter instance, the CIO is a funder, resource provider and cheerleader for innovation, but shouldn't be dictating which projects are conducted.  This means many CIOs have a lot of responsibility without a lot of authority.  However, having a common approach and methodology means there's a greater chance of consistent innovation approaches and corporate learning.

Push it down into the businesses

If you buy into the idea that innovation should be conducted by line of business leaders or product executives, then you could argue that innovation responsibility, authority and accountability should rest with them, and in many cases I think this is actually the right place.  Yet today few are measured on innovation, and few believe their executive teams will provide the space and opportunity for innovation.  Most of these executives don't have innovation experience, but they are at the right place with the right level of authority to decide which projects should be pursued and how much change needs to be introduced.

We believe that the more we can encourage these leaders to innovate, the more corporations can devolve responsibility and accountability for innovation to these individuals, and consistently measure their innovation activities and outcomes, the more likely innovation is to take root and to be conducted on a consistent basis.  For this to happen, annual and corporate planning needs to change, to develop budgets for innovation at a product or business team level, and compensation and evaluation programs need to change, so these leaders can see how their promotion and progression are tied to innovation.  At the same time, corporations need to ensure a relatively consistent approach to innovation, developing methods and processes that can be shared across these leaders.  If every business unit leader or product team executive determines their own methods for innovation, you'll soon have a cacophony of methods and styles, with little consistency and no comparability.  Plus, each team will invest in its own set of processes, tools and external agents, rather than sharing tools and costs.

Responsibility, Accountability, Authority

So we'll argue that the RESPONSIBILITY for innovation should sit where the AUTHORITY is greatest, where leaders who decide what customers to serve and what products to build are found.  They need to be held ACCOUNTABLE for innovation by executive management which sets expectations and budgets linked to STRATEGY and growth targets, and regularly review progress against innovation goals.  All the while a CENTER OF EXCELLENCE should support and sustain innovation through the development of common tools, methods, training and other activities to provide a common innovation approach for everyone in the company.

As long as there is uncertainty about who is responsible for innovation, and no one is actively measured on it, and no resources or funds are regularly budgeted for the activity, it will be difficult to perform innovation effectively.  Pushing innovation down to line leaders or product executives without also developing budgets and evaluation criteria is meaningless.  Naming a CIO who is removed from the day to day operations can create an innovation team that is disconnected from the every day work and creates interesting but ultimately ineffective innovation. 

Far too many companies spread innovation responsibility like pixie dust, hoping that if they spread around responsibility, many people will innovate.  The reality is that most people are far too busy getting their day to day work accomplished, and lack the accountability and authority to do much in the way of innovation, and can't find the funds, time, resources or tools to do innovation competently.  The sooner large corporations stake out exactly who is accountable, who has the responsibility and authority to do innovation, and the expected impact and frequency of innovation, the sooner we'll see more interesting and more valuable innovation results.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:05 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fast innovation often leads to furious outcomes

Today, inspired by the Fast and Furious movies, I thought I'd write about the appropriate speed for innovation.  One doesn't have to have the arms of the Rock, or the brains of Vin Diesel, to see that most innovation is attempted at the wrong speed.  And, much like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, there are speeds that are too fast, too slow and "just right".  One more literary allusion and I hit the trifecta!

Speed and its relationship to innovation

What does speed have to do with innovation anyway?  As regular readers of this blog will not doubt remember, there is a market window for every opportunity.  Get to the market too quickly and your great idea or technology will be rejected because no one is ready for it, or the infrastructure doesn't exist.  Enter the market too late and other competitors will have populated the market, leaving only niches or dissatisfied customers for you to attract.  But, get there at the right time, with the right speed, and you can dominate the market. 

Another concept related to speed is the increasing pace of change.  Again, regular readers will recognize this as a common, recurring theme in this blog.  What people don't yet understand is how quickly the pace of technology, and change in general, is increasing.  Product lifecycles are getting shorter, and by extension corporate lifecycles are shrinking.  Expectations from the past lead corporations to believe they can scale up, build a brand and defend the brand, reaping profits for years.  Increasingly, those products and brands experience very short life cycles.  It's definitely time to pick up the pace and learn to operate at speed.

When the speed is too slow

There are a number of factors that limit innovation speed, most important among them a lack of experience or familiarity with tools, a need for perfection and elimination of risk, and long decision cycle times.  Each of these hampers an innovation activity and causes it to move slowly.  When a company management team and corporate culture combines all three of these factors, they simply makes the process sclerotic.  When the team's ability to move quickly is hampered by a lack of skills or experience, outsiders or consultants can speed up the process.  However, almost nothing can speed up decision making or eliminate enough of the risks to allow a project to move more quickly other than the buy-in of executives.  What factors cause your innovation projects to move slowly, if they get started at all?

When the speed is too high

It's rare that you'll find a good team, fully engaged and experienced in innovation tools, with a clear objective and a fully supportive management team.  That is nirvana, and while it is occasionally possible it is highly unlikely that all of these factors fall into place.  If a team doesn't have these factors yet innovates quickly, it is guilty of making unnecessary and improbable assumptions, limiting the scope of its inquiry or simply skipping steps.  All of these factors will result in a project that ends quickly and delivers an inadequate and unacceptable result. Yet it is a fast, speedy project that all executives seem to want, when they complain about the amount of time it takes to innovate, when they want to cut corners and increase cycle time but don't commit enough resources and don't free up the resources to do the work effectively.  Moving too quickly is simply a box checking exercise, to exclaim we completed an innovation project, but end up with products or services that no customers want or need.

When the speed is just right

A good innovation project should move relatively quickly, but not for the reasons you are thinking.  As Fred Brooks pointed out in The Mythical Man-Month, nine men can't make a baby in a month.  Some activities have a reasonable gestation period, no matter how expert the process or the team working on the issue.  What you can do to make a project go more quickly is to adequately define the opportunity or problem (Covey's Sharpen the Saw is relevant here) and provide the right amount of training and process definition, and ensure the people working on the project understand the breadth and depth of exploration that's acceptable and necessary to do the job right.  After all, it's not necessarily the fastest innovation project that wins, but the one that delivers a product or service that meets or exceeds customer needs in a timely fashion.

Remember that many innovation projects are new activities within a corporate setting, so it takes time to build understanding and expertise.  Additionally, a good innovation project requires learning and discovery, which cannot be predicted.  It's rare that anyone, even those of us with deep experience running innovation projects, can fully and accurately predict the length or duration of an innovation project, but there are many reasons to create shortcuts or end an activity too early.

The Fast are Experienced

If I was creating a new movie about innovation, modeled on the Fast and Furious, it would be titled The Fast are Experienced, because it takes innovation experience to know how to work quickly, and when to be patient and let an idea incubate.  Perhaps we'd need The Rock with his bulging muscles and commanding presence to persuade management to leave the team alone when it needs space, and the expertise of Vin Diesel and others to accelerate the team to escape velocity.  But good experience and history tells me that it's not necessarily the first who will win this race, but the ones that cross the finish line with something that matters to customers, can generate profits for the company and is in time for the market to unfold.

Experience matters when it comes to innovation.  Innovation projects need to be unlike the other projects your team does regularly, otherwise they'll create the same result.  You cannot become an expert or gain innovation expertise unless you've completed a number of innovation projects and learned the subtle inflection points and how and when to apply specific tools or methods.  There is no one size fits all, and often not even a one size fits many approach.  Gaining experience and learning when to push, and when to wait, matters.  You can't skip steps in the innovation process and expect a valuable outcome.  If Fred Brooks was right about software development, we can assure you he was even more correct about innovation projects.

Want to move at the best possible innovation speed?  Define a consistent innovation approach or method, train your best people and allow them to gain expertise by participating in a number of innovation activities, so they learn the traps, learn when to speed up and when to sit back and let ideas percolate and incubate.  There's enough stress in an innovation project without having executives stand on top of the team demanding greater speed, or insisting on cutting corners or reducing staff, which is a common occurrence.

You can have fast innovation, which in many cases will lead to furious innovation teams, or you can let your teams gain experience, and then they'll tell you how fast they can innovate.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:10 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

If you fail to forget, you'll fail to innovate

I'm happy to report that I've forgotten a lot about innovation.  In fact I make it a regular practice to try to forget what I know.  After over a decade of focus in the innovation space, forgetting isn't always easy, although as a I grow older I think I'll have the opportunity to forget more frequently and perhaps without trying.  If all of this forgetting seems counter-intuitive, please continue to read on.  If this forgetting seems natural, then perhaps you've reached the zenith of innovation nirvana.  And if you are just confused, or have already forgotten why I was writing about forgetting, please join us for a celebration of forgetfulness.

Why, and What, should you forget?

Innovators who seek new ideas should seek to recognize and value the present, but not cling to it, because true innovation will create change.  For those who cling too tightly to the way things are, or cling to memories about the way things were, these memories become barriers to doing something that will create change.  We innovators must recognize and honor the past and present, but we must be willing to forget what lies behind and press on to what lies ahead.  (A little Pauline paraphrase there).

Forgetting means releasing what you know, intentionally or unintentionally.  When we let go of our knowledge and expertise, when we free ourselves from the burdens of history and conformity and imposed conventions, we can look at problems and opportunities with fresh eyes and expectations. Forget your knowledge and expertise - they often just get in the way of good ideas.  Forgetting the past and looking forward to the possibilities opens up new vistas and creates expectations of better ideas. 

I don't know about you, but when I forget something it makes me somewhat anxious, and I often spend time trying to recover that knowledge or memory.  This deep thinking often leads to new ideas and new energy, because I devote time to thinking and perhaps make new connections in my brain.  I find that forgetting is often a route to new connections and ideas.  Forgetting makes me even more willing to learn, to replace what I've forgotten and to learn something new.

Further, given the pace of change that we are encountering, you may as well forget what you know to be true.  Science is constantly uncovering new truths about what we held as conventions.  Further, entrepreneurs are continually subverting the technologies and tools that just recently we thought were state of the art.  Forget the tools and techniques you have and trust because everything from Moore's law to the network effect tells us that new perspectives and capabilities are just around the corner. To innovate you'll need to be a perpetual, lifelong learner and forgetter.

Oh, and forget the barriers, conventions and regulations that are in place today.  They may constrain your business and your thinking now, but they will be changed, subverted or obsolescent in the near future.  You are probably better off as an innovator forgetting everything you know and hold dear, focusing only on the needs and demands of existing and potential future customers.  Find a way to solve those needs, forgetting what exists and what may constrain you, and you'll find a way to solve those challenges.

Forget the naysayers, conformist and middle managers who say it can't be done, there isn't time or a budget, that it's been tried before.  If you remember these voices or facts you won't be able to innovate.

Strange to say, but I think it's true:  if you fail to forget, you'll fail to innovate.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:13 AM 0 comments

Monday, April 06, 2015

Innovation is like societal change

It occurred to me over the weekend that a lot of the sturm und drang around innovation is very similar to the resistance and issues that arise around social change.  As people we are, for the most part, conservative, willing to accept the established norms rather than face the uncertainty of change.  Is a major innovation in a technical setting all that different from a major societal change?  I think perhaps Gandhi could be a model for how we think about innovation and most importantly, how we anticipate the changes innovation introduces and how we adapt to them.

First they ignore you

Gandhi's most famous quote about creating change has to do with the response of those who could be most affected by the change.  He said, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.  Gandhi understood that the people who resist change would first ignore the need for change.  They prefer stability and certainty. New ideas might upset the established order.  They want to preserve and protect the established order.  Next, recognizing the change is still likely, they will "laugh" at those proposing change.  The established order wants to ridicule the proposed changes, causing those who propose change to lose heart, and those who might be open to the change to question their decisions.  Finally, when ignoring the potential change and ridiculing the change is no longer practical or feasible, the established order organizes itself to fight the change.  There's often enough at stake that the existing order will fight doggedly to sustain how things are currently done.  That's not because the people behind the existing order are irrational, but because they are conservative and happy with the existing order, and afraid that change will upset the status and certainty they enjoy.  Now Gandhi was talking about social or societal change, but all of these ideas apply directly to innovation in a technical or corporate sense as well.

It's the same in corporations

Think about all of the people who have good ideas in your organization.  Most of them can't manage to package and present their ideas, because managers are too busy doing the things that keep the corporation running day to day.  Changes that disrupt the existing efficient order are likely to be ignored, and for good reason:  anything that upsets or distracts from the efficient execution of existing processes and products is frowned on. It can be very difficult to gain the attention of managers or executives and help them see the potential of a new idea.  Even when you manage to gain the attention and discuss new ideas, the second reaction is inevitable.  They will ridicule new ideas because if they are truly new they don't "fit" within conventional models.  They don't align to existing business models.  Truly new and interesting ideas are by definition different, and the way many people respond to truly new or uncomfortable ideas is to ridicule them, rather than take them seriously.  So, it's inevitable that good ideas once they gain some awareness are likely to attract questions, objections and then ridicule.  It's only after the innovators have run the gauntlets of silence and ridicule that they have to be prepared to actually defend their ideas, because when it becomes likely that a new idea will be adopted, the "vested" interests will fight back.  Businesses view the world through a "zero sum" lens, meaning that an investment in a new idea by definition means that existing products or services must experience a cut.  Thus it is normal and natural that ideas and innovators must fight for resources with established and proven products and services. 

The unreasonable man

Who or what can fight their way through these barriers to create new ideas in a corporation or in the face of societal resistance?  Gandhi made it, but just barely.  Galileo, while scientifically correct, was forced to withdraw his conclusions.  George Bernard Shaw noted that all change is due to the "unreasonable" man, because reasonable men adapt to circumstances.  So successful innovators have to be people who can conceive, develop and defend unusual or unlikely ideas, and have enough passion and commitment to their ideas to become unreasonable in the eyes of the status quo.  Does your organization have any unreasonable men or women?  Anyone who can conceive new ideas, get past the fact that the corporation won't have time or energy for new ideas, and who can withstand the ridicule that's going to come, and who can organize facts and evidence to defend the idea when appropriate?  Without these unreasonable men and women, corporations will become complacent, will work to sustain business as usual and resist change, and will slowly wither and die.

The reason so many innovations come from startups or entrepreneurs is that they don't have to overcome the current success and existing investments of large corporations.  Their success doesn't threaten a sister division's product or potential budgets.  Entrepreneurs seek to disrupt or overturn industries and segments, while incumbents seek to sustain them and protect them.  But the old model is slowly getting turned on its head.  In the past it took decades to distribute a product and gain wide acceptance.  Even more recent technologies like the personal computer or cell phone took decades to achieve deep market penetration.  In contrast increasing globalization, distribution and awareness based on the internet and shifting consumer demands mean that ideas and products can be adopted far more quickly, and frankly can die far more quickly as well.  Once it took a long time and a large organization to scale up and get to profitability, at which point the firm protected and defended its market position and installed base.  Now, ideas and money are cheap and distribution channels are multiplying.  There are far more people who can be, and who by rights are, unreasonable men and women untethered to existing industry norms, willing to disrupt or overturn markets or industries that they don't have an investment in.  Big corporations must ask themselves how much of their budget should be set aside to harden and defend the existing industry norms and models, and how much time and effort should be set aside to innovate.  They'll find, to their surprise and chagrin, that far more time needs to be set aside for innovation, and that in many cases they aren't the leaders, but are lagging far in the rear.  And that's when they'll need to identify their unreasonable men and women, and stop laughing and get out of the way.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:00 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Double Down, Explode, Bridge and Breakout: The innovation options

For quite a while now, the words and phrases we use when we talk about innovation have bothered me.  To some extent that's because the language is too inexact, and in other cases the words have been appropriated or misused.  In many companies any new product is labeled "innovation", regardless if it is actually innovative or not.  Further, innovation is a word that encompasses so many activities and purposes that it becomes almost meaningless.  It is an umbrella term for a lot of different techniques, deliverables and activities, and therefore has little meaning.

We can do something about this, however.  We can create and demand better definitions and better communication about innovation.  To some extent, there have been attempts to create better definitions, or more definitive descriptions of innovation.  Take, for example, the concept of defining innovation as incremental or disruptive.  These are truly either/or alternatives, but opposite ends of a spectrum of innovation possibilities.  On the conservative end of the spectrum you find incremental innovation, which means small changes to an existing product or service, typically within expected confines of a solution or industry.  On the other end of the spectrum you'll find radical or disruptive innovation, which means creating something so new and unexpected that it disrupts the existing models or paradigms.  Which outcomes are innovation?  Well, both are.  What's important is understanding the differences in expected outcomes, and the work involved in delivering both.

The Ten Types

Far too often, it's assumed that innovation MUST be a new product.  Doblin in their work identified ten different types of innovation, starting with products but extending to services, customer experiences, business models, value chains, brands and much more.  I've included an image that reflects the ten types Doblin has described, in case you are unfamiliar with the model.

What Doblin was doing by creating this definition was creating more specific language and texture about innovation.  In this regard, using Doblin's ten types, we could have an executive say that the innovation they wanted or needed should be an incremental change to a channel, or a disruptive change to a business model.  By defining the types, Doblin has expanded our purpose and language, and hopefully created a better understanding and dialog about innovation, the expectations, investments and necessary outcomes.  And this is an exceptionally valuable contribution.


But there is at least one more definitional issue that I've frequently stumbled on, and that is the outcome or the intent of an innovation activity.  What many executives and managers don't understand is the amount of change that an innovation activity may cause to his or her own business, business model or industry.  When these executives ask their teams for innovation, they want the maximum amount of new revenue that can be generated (which means a really interesting and new product, service or business model) but often with the least possible change or disruption to existing business operations (which means incremental change).  From our work, we've seen a number of truly innovative ideas that were powerful and valuable simply be rejected because the outcomes were far different than an executive could image.  Take for example work we did in the life insurance market.  Life insurance is really difficult to innovate, because of the number of competitors and the constraints.  Of course, if we can't innovate the product itself we can innovate the channels (online), the experience, the business models and so forth.  One idea we had was to use the insights and data collected to add value to other industries - to see aggregated data from decades of experience to other industries that might find value in the data.  This idea, which we vetted and found to have value, was so different and so unusual that the insurance firm we worked with stated that they weren't in the data business, even though they manage petabytes of data.  The concept of breaking out from offering life insurance and offering valuable data based on years of experience was too confounding.  It wasn't an outcome they planned for or expected.

From this work and others we've developed four categories of outcomes, to help inform and distinguish the type and amount of change that's desired.  These four categories include:
  • Double Down:  create incremental change or potential line extensions that work within the existing solutions, business models and frameworks.  No idea will be radically different from what the company already does and expects, and none will cause significant change to operating models or expectations.  In this case we are doubling down, both on the extent of change to the product or service (small) and to the risk of change of the operations, culture, industry expectations or business model (also small)
  • Explode:  Explode the business model or industry expectations.  This type of innovation is rarely done from within an industry by an incumbent, because they have too much at stake in the existing agreements and definitions of an industry or business model.  Exploding an existing model (music distribution on physical media vs digital media) typically occurs from outside an industry rather than within an industry.  This option includes huge risk, both in terms of the new product or service, which may be rejected by the customer, as well as the risk to the stability of an industry or convention.  That's why this alternative is almost never used by an incumbent in an industry, almost always by an entrant.
  • Bridge:  create innovations that attack or solve needs or opportunities in a nearby but adjacent market or segment.  In this case the ideas are somewhat reasonably anchored in the existing operations but bridge to new opportunities or customers in adjacent spaces. This may cause some change to existing operations and business models, but the change is anticipated and acceptable.  This option creates moderate risk both in terms of the new product or service, as well as to the operational capabilities and industry knowledge of the company doing the bridging.
  • Breakout:  A breakout innovation is one that intentionally causes a team to leave the industry, constraints or business model of the existing corporation, to explore something new.  Our example of an insurance company selling its data to other firms could be an example here.  This may require a completely new entity or radically change business models and operations.
Large corporate incumbents dream about breaking out of their existing constraints and business models but few do.  Apple, in its migration from PC manufacturer to music player to music distributor is a good example of a firm that has attacked different industries and to some extent managed to "breakout" into other models and forms.  Most corporate innovation is focused on "doubling down" - either extending existing products or creating new products that still "fit" within the existing operational processes and business models.  However, if they "fit", then they are subject to many of the constraints that older, less valuable products and services have created and sustained.  Perhaps the most likely alternative for larger corporations is the "bridging" concept, innovating to solve problems or opportunities in an adjacent space, firmly anchored in the current and well-established industry but creating valuable entry to new customers with new and compelling products in a new, tangential space.  This bridging respects the operations and existing investment but demands changes to operations, business models and capabilities.

The new, more definitive language

Using our four category addition, we can communicate far more clearly and concisely about what innovation should do, what should emerge, and what risks or opportunities we are willing to pursue or leave behind.  An executive could now ask for a disruptive channel innovation that bridges to a new industry, or an incremental product that merely doubles down on existing investments and does not cause change.  But more importantly they can indicate how much change the product or service must create in the marketplace, and how much change the business, its operations and models are willing and able to bear.  Many, many corporations want the breakout or bridging type of innovation, but simply are not prepared to make the structural, cultural and business model changes necessary to achieve either.  Then, as they become complacent and leave opportunities on the table, they become subject to the "exploding" option - other new entrants or entrepreneurs explode the existing models or bridge into what seemed like a safe and defendable market or segment.

Innovation encompasses all of these "definitions" and many more.  When we are inarticulate with our definitions or language, or simply refuse to define what we need and what risks and changes we are willing to bear, we lose opportunities to do more.  In the absence of good definition and clear communication, teams will always default to the most conservative understanding of meanings, protecting existing business models, corporate structures, cultures and operational capabilities, which severely limits the potential and range of innovation.  Unless and until executives are clear about their goals - not just in terms of profits and revenue but in terms of the amount and type of change they are willing to inflict on their own company and the industry at large - then innovation will be incremental.  And that's ok, as long as that was what was intended and what was delivered.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:53 AM 0 comments

Friday, March 20, 2015

Innovation needs Time, Talent and Temperment

I'm about to leave for a well-deserved vacation, but I wanted to leave you, gentle readers, with a parting shot to contemplate before I go.  The idea I'd like you to contemplate until my return is that we are all making innovation far too complicated, and we need to stop dressing up the activity with lots of talking points and stop working ourselves and our management into a tizzy about commitments and investments.  Of course all of these are important.  But what we should be asking, in much the same way the "lean startup" folks are asking about bare essentials and "minimum viable products", is:  what is the minimum investment it takes to make my (team, product group, line of business, company) more innovative?  I'm going to argue that it's simply three "T"s:  time, talent and temperament.

Let's address all three of these quickly, so you can go have a good think while I am resting comfortably in an exotic location.


Time is probably the most problematic of the three Ts.  As efficiency has become a watchword, many organizations have people who are filling two jobs, in meetings constantly and trying to juggle far more day to day operational tasks than they can measure.  These individuals aren't doing a good job getting their day to day responsibilities done.  How then can we imagine that we can layer on another "important" task - an innovation project or activity - when these folks can barely keep their heads above water on the tasks they are reasonably good at?  When you are overwhelmed trying to keep the day to day stuff (where your expertise lies), how can you possibly carve out time for an activity where you have little experience and few defined processes? 

This is simply a management decision.  Innovation requires time.  Time to identify interesting problems and scope them.  Time to consider emerging trends and technologies.  Time to understand unmet customer needs.  Time to do an effective job generating ideas and solutions.  Time for prototyping and validating concepts.  And of course time for the product development process.

Your management team needs to understand how much time it will take to innovate, and either free up your time by delegating responsibilities to others, or finding capable people who can do the work without putting day to day operations at risk.  You simply will not succeed if you can't find the time to innovate, and will fail if you try to balance too many simultaneous tasks.  Innovation will always draw the short straw.


Talent in this context is composed of two factors:  attracting the people who want to be a part of an innovation exercise, who have passion for creating new things, and giving them the tools or methods that they need in order to do their work well.  Most organizations strike out on both counts.

When staffing an innovation team, find the passionate people who believe change is possible, who are willing to take risks and explore new options.  People who are unwilling to change or explore will simply recreate products and services that already exist.  Far too often, the wrong people are in the job.  Further, too many organizations neglect to provide or introduce meaningful tools, methods and templates.  Even passionate people need to have guidance, and can work more effectively if they have a roadmap and a defined end goal.  Invest in defining what a successful innovation roadmap looks like, and here's a hint.  It does not start and end with idea generation.


Temperament is a broad term meant to address three constituents in an innovation activity:  the executives who asked for it, the people who are doing it and the culture that is observing it.

Executives want perfect answers now, fully documented and easily executed.  They won't get that from innovation, unless the innovation is so simple that it reflects existing products and services.  Innovation is going to be messy, uncertain and rife with opportunities and possibilities but no certainties.  The sooner we set that expectation, and the more the executive team accepts that expectation, the better your activities and outcomes will be.

We also need to consider the temperament of the culture of the organization that's observing the innovation activity.  Often an innovation activity is watched first with curiosity, then hope, then fear.  The fear is that the innovation activity will take dollars or funding from someone else's projects.  This is when the antibodies start circling, seeking to limit or kill innovation before it infects the organization and creates too much change.  You've got to focus on the temperament of the organization or innovation will wither and die like a lab experiment in a petri dish.

Finally, consider the temperament of the team.  If you've selected passionate, engaged people, all you really need to worry about is exasperation and cynicism.  If the culture or executive team won't support innovation, doesn't provide resources or won't make critical decisions in the lack of full information, exasperation and cynicism increase.  Don't let that happen, because once you lose your passionate people, you've really lost a lot of the potential to innovate.


A lot of people don't really "get" innovation.  They think of it as an event or a project, when it is really an attitude or a mindset.  It's not something you can switch on or switch off, depending on need.  It's something that people and corporations need to do consistently and constantly, need to believe in and engage in.  It takes time, talent and temperament to do this, and you'll notice all three aren't discrete factors that can be easily turned on or off, but are continuous capabilities that need to be engaged all the time.

Have a think on this and we'll reconvene shortly. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:44 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Successful innovators are "true believers"

After my "don't rock the boat" post a few days ago, I was asked by a few folks a very interesting question.  Which was:  what does it take to be a good innovator in a corporation?  Note that I placed some scope or constraints on the question.  After all, it's fairly easy to be an innovator in a small company or as an entrepreneur.  In fact you need to rock the boat in small companies or startups or you will struggle to differentiate and grow.  But what about large companies?  What does it take to be a successful innovator in a large corporation?  Either a culture that welcomes and encourages innovation or a true believer mentality.

How do you do it?

We at OVO get to participate in a lot of idea generation sessions.  It's interesting to lead these sessions and to sit in as a guest idea generator.  Because most of us have few filters, we are willing and able to generate any idea.  Ask me sometime about the credit card that zaps you with an electric shock if you use it too frequently.  So when we have all of these crazy ideas, people often ask us:  well, how do you do it?  How do you constantly generate such crazy ideas?  Why are you so much better than us when it comes to generating ideas?  The reason is that we are true believers.  We believe that there is ALWAYS a better way to do something.  All it takes is a little insight, a little imagination and a willingness to free yourself from your day to day constraints.

Working inside an organization, especially for a long period of time, an individual becomes part of the fabric and culture of that organization and begins to think like others in the organization, accepting core principles and cultural norms.  Over time what seemed changeable seems permanent and what seemed possible seems immutable.  It's exceptionally difficult to work inside an organization for very long and not adopt the cultural biases, and typically those biases have to do with maintaining status quo, not creating new products and services.

The typical innovation project

On any typical innovation project we see three categories of participants.  The first were asked to be on the team because they've been successful within the execution engine.  They know how to make the day to day operations work effectively.  They typically try to force an innovation activity to look and feel like a normal day to day process, limiting the scope and rushing to a decision.  The second category of people who participate are subject matter experts, asked to participate because they either have deep knowledge or can add a fresh perspective.  Most don't have a stake in the outcome unless it materially impacts their area of expertise, which is dangerous, because expertise and knowledge of existing models and methods overcomes their ability to consider meaningful change.  The third category is usually composed of people who are "available" - that is, they are busy but have some time that can be spared for the innovation project.

What's often missing from this list are what I'll call true believers, people who are convinced that innovation is vital and important.  Every company has a number of true believers, but they are often considered problematic because they are constantly asking why things are done the way they are.  These true believers are always seeking to do things differently or suggesting improvements or changes to existing processes or products.  They are often the last folks to be asked to participate in an innovation project because they are thought to be uncontrollable - they rock the boat a lot.

Why do true believers matter?

True believers are unique and important to innovation for a number of reasons.  First, many of them are dissatisfied with the status quo.  They know that it's possible to create better products and services.  They WANT to see change, rather than seek to avoid it.  True believers of any stripe, in any discipline, don't allow a little resistance or public sentiment to bother them.  They are willing to seek out new information and insight even if it conflicts with existing beliefs.  They don't allow barriers or roadblocks to discourage them.  In fact they often redouble their efforts when they encounter difficult barriers, where many more complacent people will willingly give up.

True believers always believe there is a better answer, a better way.  They are never satisfied with incremental change, although they'll accept it on the road to disruptive or radical innovation.  They like Jobs want to put a dent in the universe.  These true believers are found in every business, in every country, in every walk of life.  They are difficult to deal with day to day, but impossible to live without if you want to innovate beyond incremental changes.

These true believers can be a bit insufferable, and that's why they are found so much more frequently in startups or as entrepreneurs.  They believe in their ideas, their insights and aren't going to let a complacent culture, corporate inertia or simple fear of risk and uncertainty become a barrier to their ideas.  And they are exactly what most corporations need right now.

We are living in an age of great technological and market upheaval, where the pace of change is almost unprecedented and the level of competition unmatched from almost any time since global markets unfolded over 300 years ago.  Money flows to where it can find its best return, anywhere in the world and at the blink of an eye.  Consumer demand and market conditions shift rapidly.  New competitors emerge in places that were unthinkable as competitive hotspots only a few years ago.  The people who can lead you out of your corporate inertia are the people you've most likely relegated to the sidelines.  The people you know could be valuable but you haven't figured out how to harness them yet.  You need to engage the true believers in your organization - the people who want to create real, interesting change - and you need to do it soon.  With the changes that are underway, playing a passive defense is not a strategy, it's a recipe for oblivion.

Can you find your true believers and task them to create really interesting and valuable new ideas?  Can you clear the barriers and remove the inertia and let them create valuable new products and services?  Do you even know who the true believers are in your corporation, or have you tamped them down, and squeezed them out in the ever increasing goal of corporate efficiency and compliance?

What can you do?

First, find the people who are always creating interesting ideas, people who want to create change. It may be hard to distinguish them from chronic complainers, but with a little work you can sort them out.  Instead of leaving them out of innovation projects, learn to work with and manage them successfully.  Give them far more latitude to generate ideas, but in parallel give them clear targets to aim for.  

Second, discover who in your organization has compelling innovation traits.  We can help you identify people in your organization who have the traits and characteristics that other innovators share.  Contact us about our InnoTraits Assessment to help find the people in your organization who have the skills to innovate, if not the passion.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM 0 comments