Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Innovate out of your comfort zone

I hadn't planned on it.  It wasn't as though there was some great plan.  If you follow this blog you know that I tend to write about whatever pops into my head.  But I notice a pattern emerging this week.  A consistent set of blogs that examine what executives and managers get backward about innovation.  It's interesting, actually.  As a consultant who is regularly planning and leading innovation projects, it can be a bit disconcerting to see how often well-meaning teams get things almost exactly wrong.

Gut Instincts
Yesterday I talked about the "gut instincts" of managers, who think that "creativity must be free".  They refuse to provide boundaries or scope for innovation, when it cries out for it.  Later they force innovation into very defined processes or familiar channels, rather than allowing innovative ideas to carve their own paths.  As I said yesterday, gut instincts are often exactly backwards when applied to innovation.  For more innovation success, managers need to control what they would normally release, and release what they would normally control.

Doubling Down on Strengths
Today I want to focus on what you choose to innovate.  Again, this is about what is comfortable and in control, and being willing to take risks.  Many managers are too willing to innovate that which they understand and are familiar with, and ignore what is new, unusual or uncertain.  Further, many firms innovate around internal capabilities or technologies rather than based on customer expectations or needs. What this leads to is a constant "doubling down" on existing capabilities, features or technologies, rather than an introduction of new capabilities or features.

If that isn't clear, perhaps two illustrations will help.  The first is a short story:

A man leaves a bar and spots another man, clearly drunk, pacing the ground and clearly looking for something.  The man from the bar stops the drunk and asks:  what are you looking for?  The drunk answers:  I dropped my keys and I'm trying to find them.  The man from the bar agrees to help.  They scan the ground in ever increasing circles near a lightpole.  Finally, with no luck, the first man turns to the drunk and says:  You sure you lost your keys here?  No, replies the drunk, I lost them in the dark alley over there.  Why are we looking here, asks the first man?  The drunk replies, the light is better here.

In other words, regardless of where the needs are, what customers expect, we innovate where we are most comfortable and where the technologies and capabilities are most familiar.

Next, take a look at two (admittedly) crude graphics I created.  On the left, we can see the "space" where most firms want to innovate - where they strengths and capabilities lie, regardless of need or market shift.  On the right, we can see the space where most firms should be innovating, including capabilities, need or technologies where the firm lacks knowledge or capability.

Comfort, Familiarity and Control

What this diatribe comes back to is the recognition that many firms spend far too much of their very limited "innovation" budget and resources focusing on innovating what they "know" rather than spending time discovering what customers need.  The risk of customer discovery is that, like the graphic on the right, we will discover that customers need solutions or features that may not align to our strengths.  A firm can choose to ignore those needs, or can determine to innovate not only its products, but its knowledge, capabilities and even business model if necessary.

If the need exists, someone will rise to fill it.  Once they've successfully filled that need, they aren't going to stop there.  They'll learn how to address the capabilities and features that you believe are clearly in your sweet spot.  By focusing only on what you know, what you are comfortable with, what's familiar, you ignore customer requirements, constantly doubling down on existing strengths.  This makes your offerings and solutions more fixed, and limits your ability to move laterally. 

To innovate successfully, you've got to move out of your own comfort zone.  This in turn may lead to the recognition that innovation isn't just about products.  It may be that it's your services, channels or even business models that need to change.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:09 AM


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