Thursday, November 14, 2013

Complicated innovation turns prospects away

In every human endevor, there is at one point in time harmony and simplicity.  Things work the way they should.  Then, someone objects to a method, a perspective or tool, and develops a proprietary way to do what everyone has always done.  Then, another person objects to that solution and creates a completely different way, and so on ad naseum.  Look no further than the Christian church.  Once a monolithic enterprise governed by the Catholic Church, we owe a debt of gratitude or perhaps something else to Martin Luther and others who hived off from the Catholic Church to spawn the Protestant Reformation.  While attempting to "reform" the church, the reformation has in fact splintered believers into literally hundreds of different belief systems.  When you need multiple flavors of Baptist or Presbyterian churches to cover all potential interpretations or creeds, you can understand that what was once a simple belief system has become exceptionally complex.

But I digress.  This isn't a post about religion, but a post about innovation.  I'd love to believe that some time in the dark recesses of history there was a commonly agreed approach or method for innovation.  Perhaps it was personified by Edison or others like him, who were both practical inventors and commercial successes at the same time.  But over the years we can see the same phenomenon occurring in innovation that we see in the protestant church - a constantly splintering that creates more confusion than clarity.  From the concepts of TRIZ to Alex Osborne's Creative Problem Solving to more current narrow cast solutions the world of innovation is becoming more crowded with "solutions", more murky and uncertain, and losing touch with the simplicity and basic understanding of what it takes to innovate. 

When we talk with clients we are constantly bombarded with what the "experts" say.  Who, among all of us, is an "expert" in innovation, especially large corporate innovation?  There may be people with more experience and in some cases more success, but I'd be hard pressed to name an individual or firm that is the reigning expert of innovation generally.  Rather, what we have are "experts" in very narrow fields or experts in tools and techniques of their own creation.  Whether it's expertise around "jobs to be done" or TRIZ or SIT or Blue Ocean Strategy thinking, these "experts" cover only a small portion of the entirety of innovation, and more often confuse potential innovators by claiming that a specific tool will "solve" an innovation issue or need.  Perhaps the chosen tool will work in a particular setting or situation, but not all tools are valuable or even practical for every innovation requirement or condition.  Open innovation is practical in some setting and not in others.  Business model innovation or the Business Model Canvas is practical for smaller firms defining their strategy moreso than for larger firms locked into a specific strategy.  There is no innovation tool or method that addresses every situation and every need.  There are, however, opportunities to synthesize and aggregate a number of tools and methods in a toolkit in order to use the best tool for a specific situation, rather than one tool in every situation, which is what we often discover today.

More to the point, all of these different theories and philosophies have crowded the issue and made it difficult for potential innovators to decide what to do and how to do it.  There are always competing solutions and alternatives, and making a decision on one tool or approach closes the door on other tools or philosophies in many cases.  This decision making is difficult and compounded by a lack of information comparing different approaches in the same settings.  In other words, there are few standards and many case studies are comparable across organizations or industries.  In this complex environment, potential innovators need clarity about the tools, methods and frameworks that will work the best for them in most innovation settings and requirements.

The answer is simple.  Be simple.  Start with the end in mind.  Open your mind and your team's perspectives to define the scope and purpose for an innovation activity.  Identify good problems and opportunities to work on and define the kind of outcome you hope to achieve:  incremental or disruptive, product or service.  Then, remember that all good innovation starts with insight.  Gather insight about customer needs.  Be open to their needs and experiences, not your strengths or capabilities.  Once you have a good problem or challenge defined and understanding of customer needs, idea generation is simplified.  You can get ideas from your internal teams, a combination of internal and external teams or move to truly "open" innovation.  Then you'll need to develop your ideas with prototypes, testing and validating the ideas with customers to ensure you are solving important needs.  Finally, you'll need to find a way to ensure your idea is compelling enough to make it through your product or service development process and commercialization.  That's it.  A full description of innovation in one paragraph.  Note that I didn't describe any specific tools or methods.  The most important first step to successful innovation is simplicity and forethought.  If you can plan your work, and work your plan, if you can sweep through all the clutter in the market to understand that tools and methods are situational, and should be adopted as needed and when appropriate, you'll worry less about the discrete tools and more about the holistic process and the systemic nature of innovation.  Own your own innovation workflow and choose the tools, methods and experts that accelerate your work in the conditions when you need them.  Don't marry yourself to the many splinter groups focused specifically on one tool or methodology. 

If we were a religious organization, we'd say we should go back to the simple fundamentals of our faith.  Instead we've been distracted and divided by narrow, selfish interpretations of miniscule differences in belief systems, and that has caused great dissonance in our work and confusion in our congregation.  It's no wonder the converts are so few and fall away so quickly.  We innovators need to return to a more simple innovation process or understanding, recognizing that tools and techniques are valuable in some situations and not in others, and that only by bringing prospective innovators on board by teaching the simple basics will innovation spread.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:06 AM


Blogger Shawn said...

Great insight. Your religion analogy makes a lot of sense and sparked me to think of another analogy: diets. The principles of losing weight are simple... eat less food. But it is more interesting to try wierd diets that basically accomplish the same thing. No matter what innovation diet you are on I think you are still trying to do the same thing, as you say. Thanks!

6:34 AM  
Blogger Suleman Ali said...

I notice that when one follows a complex patent strategy there are lots of ways it can fail, one of which is that the people involved simply don't understand it, and have difficulty explaining it to everyone who asks questions. Also when you have complexity it's more likely that someone will disagree with the conclusions or approach, and that can cause friction.

7:38 AM  

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