Thursday, December 12, 2013

The fallacy of an innovation superman

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

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

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

Innovation is a team sport

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

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

Every Superman has his (or her) Kryptonite

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

Superman is a cartoon character, nothing more

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

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:52 AM


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