If you’re not thinking differently, you’re thinking the same. And if you’re thinking the same, you’re going to get the same. Same may feel safe, and at some level it is. But when sameness festers into staleness, too much of a good thing isn’t wonderful.
In our fast moving Bizzaro World, safe is dangerous; repeatable is out and remarkable is in; improving what is is displaced by creating what isn’t; more capacity is outlawed and new capability is the only way; growing existing markets is wasteful because it gets in the way of creating new ones.
Ask your company leaders if they’re doing innovation, and the answer is yes. It’s a loaded question, and nothing good can come of it. “No, we don’t do innovation.” is a career-limiting response. Here are two better questions: What are you doing that’s different? What are you doing differently? These questions are effective because they require answers that are relative – relative to what you used to do. And because innovation starts with different, these questions are a good start.
Our assembly process is different and we increased productivity 0.3%; our product design is different and we made it stronger by 2.1%; our customer service tools are different and we decrease waiting time by 1.7%; our plastics are different and we reduced product cost by 0.6%. The difference is clear, but it didn’t really make a difference. Innovation starts with different, but all different isn’t created equal. Instead of shades of gray, think binary, think black to white, think no to yes.
Here are some better questions:
- Have we stopped distracting ourselves by focusing on growth of our biggest markets?
- Did we change the value proposition with our new product?
- Have we increased sales people in the undeveloped markets at the expense of sales people in our biggest markets?
- Do our new technologies change the argument?
- Are we working on the new products that will obsolete our most profitable product?
- Does the new product do less of anything so it can do more of something else?
- Are we working on the technologies so we can sell into Africa?
- Are we hiring experts in mobile technology?
- How about experts in data science?
There’s no hard and fast definition of what makes for the right no-to-yes thinking but their telltale sign is their wake of oblique problems. If your organization doesn’t know how to do something, then it could be an indication of powerful no-to-yes behavior. For example, if your translations group doesn’t know how to translate into a new language requested by sales, it could be because a new region of the world is now important. If your sales managers want to use a new search firm because your longstanding one can’t find the right new candidates, it may be because your new product demands a new flavor of sales people. If your compensation structure doesn’t let you make an acceptable offer to an engineer you really need, it could be because you need to hire for new specialties from different industries with radically different compensation norms.
“Are you doing innovation?”, as a question, is not skillful. Instead, do the work so you must sell where you haven’t sold; use materials you’ve never used; use technologies you’ve never heard of; hire people you never had to hire; and create problems related to new geographies and new languages. And when someone asks “Are you doing innovation?”, tell them you used to, but you’ve found something better.
Image credit – JD HANCOCK PHOTOS
Innovation is like growing orchids – both require a complex balance of environmental factors, both take seasoned green thumbs to sprout anything worth talking about, what worked last time has no bearing on this time, and they demand caring and love.
A beautiful orchid is a result of something, and so is innovation. It all starts with the right seeds, but which variety? Which color? With orchids, there are 21,950 – 26,049 species found in 880 genera and with innovation there are far more options. So which one and why? Well, it depends.
It’s no small feat to grow orchids or innovate:
To propagate orchids from seed, you must work in sterile conditions. The seeds must be grown in a gelatinous substance that contains nutrients and growth hormones. You must also be very patient. It takes months for the first leaves to develop, and, even then, they will only be visible with a magnifying glass. Roots appear even later. It will be at least three, and possibly as many as eight years before you see a bloom. — http://www.gardeners.com/how-to/growing-orchids/5072.html
[This is one of the best operational definitions of innovation I’ve ever seen.]
But there’s another way:
It is far easier to propagate orchids by division. But remember that dividing a plant means forsaking blooms for at least a year. Also, the larger the orchid plant, the more flowers it will produce. Small divisions take many years to mature. — http://www.gardeners.com/how-to/growing-orchids/5072.html
So do you grow from seed or propagate by division? It depends. There are strengths and weaknesses of both methods, so which best practice is best? Neither – with orchids and innovation no practices are best, even the ones described in the best books.
If you’ve been successful growing other flowers, you’re success is in the way and must be unlearned. Orchids aren’t flowers, they’re orchids. And if you’ve been successful with lean and Six Sigma, you’ve got a culture that will not let innovation take seed. Your mindset is wrong and you’ve got to actively dismantle the hothouse you’ve built – there’s no other way. Orchids and innovation require the right growing climate – the right soil, the right temperature, the right humidity, the right amount of light, and caring. Almost the right trowel, almost the right pot, and almost the right mindset and orchids and innovation refuse to flower.
And at the start the right recipe is unknown, yet the plants and the projects are highly sensitive to imperfect conditions. The approach is straightforward – start a lot of seeds, start a lot of propagation experiments, and start a lot of projects. But in all cases, make them small. (Orchids do better in small pots.)
Good instincts are needed for the best orchids to come to be, and these instincts can be developed only one way – by growing orchids. Some people’s instincts are to sing to their orchids and some play them classical music, and they’re happy to do it. They’re convinced it makes for better and fuller blooms and who’s to say if it matters? With orchids, if you think it matters, the orchids think it matters, so it matters. And let’s not kid ourselves – innovation is no different.
With orchids and innovation, mindset, instincts, and love matter, maybe more than anything else. And for that, there are no best practices.
Image credit — lecercle.
Innovation is about selling different products and services to different customers. Different means growth because you’re not yet selling the different products and you’re not yet selling to the different customers.
If you can learn to see your customers differently, you’ll create new products that are different; and if you can learn to see your products and services differently, you’ll create new customers that are different.
Innovation is all about connecting the unconnected, and that’s what’s behind the push for diversity within innovation teams. A diverse group brings more things to connect and more perspectives to see connections.
And it’s best to innovate where there’s little to no competition. If you’re the only one developing new products for those new customers or your the only one creating a whole new community of customers, you’ll be more successful – your products have only to compete with products that don’t exist.
In almost every industry and market there’s a huge community of new customers just waiting for products and services that fit them – women. Women have ever more say over family finances, ever more buying power and, thankfully, ever more influence over our society. If you want to sell new and different products, you should learn how to innovate for women.
I’m not talking about the 1950’s-like worldview where men innovate and sell new dish detergent and vacuum cleaners to women. I’m talking about all products and all markets. What does a cordless drill look like when it’s designed for women? I don’t know because I’m a man. (The only thing I do know is it’s not the same old drill wrapped in pink. That’s just patronizing.
Plain and simple, women know best how to innovate for women.
The most important way to increase the diversity of your innovation teams is to add more women. Women can see unmet needs to which I, as a man, am blind. Women can connect things that I cannot. Women have an unique worldview that, as a man, I cannot fully appreciate.
If you really want a competitive advantage, replace some of your innovation leaders with women. And if you want to accelerate the transformation, your Chief Innovation Officer should be a woman.
There’s been a strong effort to teach STEAM/STEM to our girls and young women, and that’s good. But it’s time to create the climate where our girls and young women see themselves as the innovators of our future.
Image credit – Judepics.
I have written a blog post every Wednesday evening for the last five years. No guest blogs, no ghost writer, no repeat blogs, and no editor. Just me.
The main theme last year was around doing new. Though I used the word innovation too many times, I provided real examples and grounded observations on what to do and why. There are many tools, processes, and philosophies around innovation – too many to cover fully even over a year or two of blogs – but there are two things that apply to all of us.
Innovation is context specific. Whatever you do going forward is strongly shaped by what you did to make the present what it is. And because every company’s history is different, every company’s go-forward activities will be different. Yes, become knowledgeable about best practices, but use only the ones that fit and don’t use them as-is – twist them to match the curves of your company. Yes, understand what other companies have done, but don’t copy them.
Innovation is all about people. If you can get people to try new things, you’re well on your way. And to get them to try new things, figure out why they’re afraid and do the small things, the everyday things, that make is safe to try.
My goal for year six – another year of meaningful writing.
Thanks for reading.
Image credit – woodleywonderworks.
Innovation results in things that are novel, useful, and successful. These things can be products, services, data, information, or business models, but regardless of the flavor, they’re all different from what’s been done before.
And when things are different, they’re new; and that means we don’t know how to do them. We don’t know how to start; don’t know how to measure; don’t know how they’ll be received; don’t know if they’ll be successful.
In the commercial domain, successful means customers buy your products and pay for your services. When customers value your new stuff more than they value their money, they pay; and when they pay it’s success. But first things first – before there can be success, before there can be innovation, there must be customer value. With innovation, customer value is front and center.
How do you come up with ideas that may have customer value? There’s a goldmine of ideas out there, with some veins better than others, and any dowsing you can use to pan the high grade ore is time well spent. There are two tools of choice: one that channels the voice of the customer and a second that channels the voice of the technology.
Your technology has evolved over time and has developed a trajectory which you can track. (Innovation On Demand, Fey and Riven.) But at the highest level, as a stand-in for technology, it’s best to track the trajectory of your products – how they’ve improved over time. You can evaluate how your products improved over multiple lines of evolution, and each line will help you to channel the future from a different perspective.
The voice of your customers is the second divining rod of choice. What they say about you, your company, and your products can help you glean what could be. But this isn’t the same as VOC. This is direct, unfiltered, continuous real time capture of self-signified micro stories. This is VOC without the soothsaying, this is direct connection with the customer. (Sensemaker.)
There are two nuggets to pan for: limiting cant’s and purposeful misuse. You seek out groups of customer stories where customers complain about things your product cannot do and how those cant’s limit them. These limiting cant’s are ripe for innovation since your customers already want them. Purposeful misuse is when the radical fringe of your customer base purposely uses your product in a way that’s different than you hoped. These customers have already looked into the future for you.
Do these ideas have customer value? The next step is to evaluate the value of your diamonds in the rough. The main point here is only customers can tell you if you’ve hit the mother lode. But, since your ideas are different than anything they’ve experienced, in order assay the ideas you’ve got to show them. You’ve got to make minimum viable prototypes and let them use their loop to judge the potential cut, color, clarity, and carat. As a prospector, it’s best to evaluate multiple raw gemstones in parallel, and whatever customers say, even if you disagree, the learning is better than gold.
How can we deliver on the customer value? With your innovations in the rough – ideas you know have customer value – it’s time to figure out what it will take to convert your pyrite prototypes into 24 carat products. There are missing elements to be identified and fundamental constraints to be overcome and backplane of the transmutation is problem definition. Done right, the technology development work is a series of well-defined problems with clear definitions of success. From the cleaving, blocking and cutting of technology development the work moves to the polishing of product development and commercialization.
Innovation can’t be fully defined with a three question framework. But, as long as customer value is the crowned jewel of your innovation work, most everything else will fall into place.
In real life it would not go that way, but set that aside for a moment. It’s a thought experiment, a choice between theoretical options as it assumes you’ll actually work the same hours for the extra money and assumes you’ll actually work less and get paid the same. If you actually had the choice, which would you choose?
To me it comes down to two questions: If you had more money, what would you actually do with it? And, if you had more free time, what would you actually do with it? But these questions aren’t theoretical. No kidding, with your current lifestyle, with your existing priorities, with how you live your life, what would you do with more money and what would you do with more time?
With more money, would you pay off some bills, buy some new stuff, save for college, go on vacation, donate to charity? With the money some well-worn options come quickly to mind. Would 20% more money make a substantial difference in your life, or would you slowly ratchet up your spending so the extra money is no longer extra, but essential?
With more time, what would you do? What are the top three that jump immediately into your brain? I think this one’s tougher. If instead of five days a week you worked four, what would that day off look like? If you had every Friday off (in addition to your existing vacation days), what would you do? Sure, for the first four Fridays you’d catch up on your sleep, but then what? The time-money seesaw is so lopsided, we don’t know even how to think about this.
I think the best use of your extra time would be to figure out what to do with your extra time. What if on your fifth Friday, with your sleep deficit behind you, you did nothing? I mean nothing in the true sense – you get up at your regular time, eat breakfast, shower up, and do nothing. I mean eight hours with no electronics, no laptop, no video games, no TV, no books, no phones, where it’s just you and your tedious thoughts? Actually, I think that would be too much time with yourself, and one hour a week would be enough to set you on your path.
Before you can decide what you’d do with your extra time, you have to figure out what you want from life and why you want it. And to do that, you need to allocate a regular time to sit and do nothing. And you don’t even have to think about what you want and why you want it. If you sit, it will find you.
Truth is you don’t need an extra day off every week to carve out an hour and sit quietly. But if you do sit quietly you will figure out what you want out of life and why you want it and then you will come up with some wonderful new ways to spend your time. And because those wonderful new things will be deeply grounded in what you want out of your life – you’ll create the time to actually do them.
We’re clear what our money will buy, but less clear on what our time is worth. You’re one hour away from tipping the balance and clearing things up.
Creative products are novel and useful; Innovative products are novel, useful, and successful. Beforehand, it’s impossible to know if something will be successful, but if it’s useful there’s a chance it could be; beforehand, it’s subjective whether something will be useful, but if it’s novel there’s a chance; but no one is sure what novel means, so replace it with “different” and you’re onto something. It’s clear if something is different, and if it’s different, there’s a chance it could be creative and innovative. Said another way,
if something isn’t different it cannot be creative, nor can it be innovative.
If you can generate more things that are different, you’ve increased your chances of creativity and innovation. And if you generate more ideas that are different, you’ll create more things that are different. Go on a quest to create more ideas that are different and you’ll have more creativity and innovation.
Ideas that are different come from the firing of different neural pathways. And to get different pathways to fire, you’ve got to first recognize when the old ones are firing. To do this, you’ve got to be aware of your worn pathways and be aware you’re reusing the overused. A different environment is needed – an environment that governs speed. If you have a culture of speed and productivity, this will be different. It doesn’t matter what the different environment is, it matters what it isn’t.
Different ideas result from the collision of old ideas seen from a new perspective. Put different people together who have different old ideas and different perspectives and different ideas will grow from the collisions. There’s no recipe for the exact distribution of people, but if you don’t put them together now, then those are them.
And to break new neural pathways, the environment in which ideas should be different. Again, there’s no prescription for the type of space or the furniture, just that it’s different. If the engine that creates the old ideas lives in an ordered space, make the different one disordered; if there’s carpet all around, lay down some linoleum; if there’s no art on the corporate walls, hang some; if the furniture matches across the teams, make it a clustered-jumble of mismatched pieces. The general approach: whatever it looks like and feels like where the same ideas are regurgitated day-in-day-out, do the opposite.
And to attract different colliders and their ideas, provide something different in the different space. If your regular coffee is terrible, the different coffee should be amazing; where people queue up to use the same tired tools, provide too many seats of the newest and best; where low fat, low calorie, responsible food is doled out in reasonable portions, provide free (and unlimited) access to irresponsible junk food.
Creativity and innovation start with different.
Image credit: quinet.
Funny thing about ideas is they’re never fully formed – they morph and twist as you talk about them, and as long as you keep talking they keep changing. Evolution of your ideas is good, but in the conversation domain they never get defined well enough (down to the nuts-and-bolts level) for others (and you) to know what you’re really talking about. Converting your ideas into prototypes puts an end to all the nonsense.
Job 1 of the prototype is to help you flesh out your idea – to help you understand what it’s all about. Using whatever you have on hand, create a physical embodiment of your idea. The idea is to build until you can’t, to build until you identify a question you can’t answer. Then, with learning objective in hand, go figure out what you need to know, and then resume building. If you get to a place where your prototype fully captures the essence of your idea, it’s time to move to Job 2. To be clear, the prototype’s job is to communicate the idea – it’s symbolic of your idea – and it’s definitely not a fully functional prototype.
Job 2 of the prototype is to help others understand your idea. There’s a simple constraint in this phase – you cannot use words – you cannot speak – to describe your prototype. It must speak for itself. You can respond to questions, but that’s it. So with your rough and tumble prototype in hand, set up a meeting and simply plop the prototype in front of your critics (coworkers) and watch and listen. With your hand over your mouth, watch for how they interact with the prototype and listen to their questions. They won’t interact with it the way you expect, so learn from that. And, write down their questions and answer them if you can. Their questions help you see your idea from different perspectives, to see it more completely. And for the questions you cannot answer, they the next set of learning objectives. Go away, learn and modify your prototype accordingly (or build a different one altogether). Repeat the learning loop until the group has a common understanding of the idea and a list of questions that only a customer can answer.
Job 3 is to help customers understand your idea. At this stage it’s best if the prototype is at least partially functional, but it’s okay if it “represents” the idea in clear way. The requirement is prototype is complete enough for the customer can form an opinion. Job 3 is a lot like Job 2, except replace coworker with customer. Same constraint – no verbal explanation of the prototype, but you can certainly answer their direction questions (usually best answered with a clarifying question of your own such as “Why do you ask?”) Capture how they interact with the prototype and their questions (video is the best here). Take the data back to headquarters, and decide if you want to build 100 more prototypes to get a broader set of opinions; build 1000 more and do a small regional launch; or scrap it.
Building a prototype is the fastest, most effective way to communicate an idea. And it’s the best way to learn. The act of building forces you to make dozens of small decisions to questions you didn’t know you had to answer and the physical nature the prototype gives a three dimensional expression of the idea. There may be disagreement on the value of the idea the prototype stands for, but there will be no ambiguity about the idea.
If you’re not building prototypes early and often, you’re not doing innovation. It’s that simple.
Here’s how innovation goes:
(Words uttered. // Internal thoughts.)
That won’t work. Yes, this is a novel idea, but it won’t work. You’re a heretic. Don’t bring that up again. // Wow, that scares me, and I can’t go there.
Yes, the first experiment seemed to work, but the test protocol was wrong, and the results don’t mean much. And, by the way, you’re nuts. // Wow. I didn’t believe that thing would ever get off the ground.
Yes, you modified the test protocol as I suggested, but that was only one test and there are lots of far more stressful protocols that surely cannot be overcome. // Wow. They listened to me and changed the protocol as I suggested, and it actually worked!
Yes, the prototype seemed to do okay on the new battery of tests, but there’s no market for that thing. // I thought they were kidding when they said they’d run all the tests I suggested, but they really took my input seriously. And, I can’t believe it, but it worked. This thing may have legs.
Yes, the end users liked the prototypes, but the sample size was small and some of them don’t buy any of our exiting products. I think we should make these two changes and take it to more end users. // This could be exciting, and I want to be part of this.
Yes, they liked the prototypes better once my changes were incorporated, but the cost is too high. // Sweet! They liked my design! I hope we can reduce the cost.
I made some design changes that reduce the cost and my design is viable from a cost standpoint, but manufacturing has other priorities and can’t work on it. // I’m glad I was able to reduce the cost, and I sure hope we can free up manufacting resources to launch my product.
Wow, it was difficult to get manufacturing to knuckle down, but I did it, and my product will make a big difference for the company. // Thanks for securing resources for me, and I’m glad you did the early concept work when I was too afraid.
Yes, my product has been a huge commercial success, and it all strarted with this crazy idea I had. You remember, right? // Thank you for not giving up on me. I know it was your idea. I know I was a stick-in-the-mud. I was scared. And thanks for kindly and effectively teaching me how to change my thinking. Maybe we can do it again sometime.
There’s nothing wrong with this process; in fact, everything is right about it because that’s what people do. We’ve taught them to avoid risk at all costs, and even still, they manage to walk gingerly toward new thinking.
I think it’s important to learn to see the small shifts in attitude as progress, to see the downgrade from an impossible problem to a really big problem as progress.
Instead of grabbing the throat of radical innovation and disrupting yourself, I suggest a waterfall approach of a stepwise ratchet toward problems of a lesser degree. This way you can claim small victories right from the start, and help make it safe to try new things. And from there, you can stack them one on top of another to build your great pyramid of disruption.
And don’t forget to praise the sorceres and heretics who bravely advance their business model-busting ideas without the safety net of approval.
There are always too many things to do, too much to work on. And because of this, we must choose. Some have more choice than others, but we all have choice. And to choose, there are several lenses we look through.
What’s good enough? If it’s good enough, there’s no need to work on it. “Good enough” means it’s not a constraint; it’s not in the way of where you want to go.
What’s not good enough? If it’s not good enough, it’s important to work on it. “Not good enough” means it IS a constraint; it IS in the way; it’s blocking your destination.
What’s not happening? If it’s not happening and the vacancy is blocking you from your destination, work on it. Implicit in the three lenses is the assumption of an idealized future state, a well-defined endpoint.
It’s the known endpoint that’s used to judge if there’s a blocking constraint or something missing. And there are two schools of thought on idealized future states – the systems, environment, competition, and interactions are well understood and idealized future states are the way to go, or things are too complex to predict how things will go. If you’re a member of the idealized-future-state-is-the-way-to-go camp, you’re home free – just use your best judgment to choose the most important constraints and hit them hard. If you’re a believer in complexity and its power to scuttle your predictions, things are a bit more nuanced.
Where the future state folks look through the eyepiece of the telescope toward the chosen nebula, the complexity folks look through the other end of the telescope toward the atomic structure of where things are right now. Complexity thinkers think it’s best to understand where you are, how you got there, and the mindset that guided your journey. With that knowledge you can rough out the evolutionary potential of the future and use that to decide what to work on.
If you got here by holding on to what you had, it’s pretty clear you should try to do more of that, unless, of course, the rules have changed. And to figure out if the rules have changed? Well, you should run small experiments to test if the same rules apply in the same way. Then, do more of what worked and less of what didn’t. And if nothing works even on a small scale, you don’t have anything to hold onto and it’s time to try something altogether new.
If you got here with the hybrid approach – by holding on to what you had complimented with a healthy dose of doing new stuff (innovation), it’s clear you should try to do more of that, unless, of course, you’re trying to expand into new markets which have different needs, different customers, and different pocketbooks. To figure out what will work, runs small experiments, and do more of what worked and less of what didn’t. If nothing works, your next round of small experiments should be radically different. And again, more of what worked, less of what didn’t.
And if you’re a young company and have yet to arrive, you’re already running small experiments to see what will work, so keep going.
There’s a half-life to the things that got us here, and it’s difficult to predict their decay. That’s why it’s best to take small bets on a number of new fronts – small investment, broad investigation of markets, and fast learning. And there’s value in setting a rough course heading into the future, as long as we realize this type of celestial navigation must be informed by regular sextant sightings and course corrections they inform.
Image credit – Hubble Heritage.
In today’s reality, we ask for plans then demand strict adherence to the deliverables – on time, on budget, or else. We treat plans like they’re chiseled in granite, when really it should be more like dry erase markers and a whiteboard. Our markets are uncertain; customers’ behaviors are uncertain; competitors’ actions are uncertain; supply chains are uncertain, yet our plans are plans don’t reflect that reality. And when we expect absolute predictability and accountability, we create stress and anxiety and our people don’t want to try new things because that adds another level of uncertainty.
With a flexible, rubbery plan the first step informs the second, and this is the basis for the logical shift from robust plans to resilient ones. Plans should be less about forcing adherence and more about recognizing deviation. Today’s plans demand early recognition of something that did follow the plan and today’s teams must have the authority to respond quickly. However, after years of denying the powerful force of uncertainty and shooting the messenger, we’ve trained our people to hide the deviations. And, with our culture of control and accountability, our teams require our approval before any type of change, so their response time is, well, not timely.
At our core, we know uncertainty is a founding principle in our universe, and now it’s time to behave that way. It’s time to look inside and decide to embrace uncertainty. Accept it or not, acknowledge it or not, uncertainty is here to stay. Here are some words to guide your journey:
- Resilient not robust.
- Early detection, fast response.
- Many small plans, done in parallel.
- Do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.
- Plans are meant to be re-planned.
And if you’re into innovation, this applies doubly.
Image credit – dfbphotos.