Innovation Excellence announced their top innovation bloggers of 2014, and, well, I topped the list!
The list is full of talented, innovative thinkers, and I’m proud to be part of such a wonderful group. I’ve read many of their posts and learned a lot. My special congratulations and thanks to: Jeffrey Baumgartner, Ralph Ohr, Paul Hobcraft, Gijs van Wulfen, and Tim Kastelle.
Honors and accolades are good, and should be celebrated. As Rick Hanson knows (Hardwiring Happiness) positive experiences are far less sticky than negative ones, and to be converted into neural structure must be actively savored. Today I celebrate.
Writing a blog post every week is challenge, but it’s worth it. Each week I get to stare at a blank screen and create something from nothing, and each week I’m reminded that it’s difficult. But more importantly I’m reminded that the most important thing is to try. Each week I demonstrate to myself that I can push through my self-generated resistance. Some posts are better than others, but that’s not the point. The point is it’s important to put myself out there.
With innovative work, there are a lot of highs and lows. Celebrating and savoring the highs is important, as long as I remember the lows will come, and though there’s a lot of uncertainty in innovation, I’m certain the lows will find me. And when that happens I want to be ready – ready to let go of the things that don’t go as expected. I expect thinks will go differently than I expect, and that seems to work pretty well.
I think with innovation, the middle way is best – not too high, not too low. But I’m not talking about moderating the goodness of my experiments; I’m talking about moderating my response to them. When things go better than my expectations, I actively hold onto my good feelings until they wane on their own. When things go poorly relative to my expectations, I feel sad for a bit, then let it go. Funny thing is – it’s all relative to my expectations.
I did not expect to be the number one innovation blogger, but that’s how it went. (And I’m thankful.) I don’t expect to be at the top of the list next year, but we’ll see how it goes.
For next year my expectations are to write every week and put my best into every post. We’ll see how it goes.
Innovation is about bringing to life things that are novel, useful and successful. Novel and useful are nice, but successful pays the bills. Novel means new, and new means fear; useful means customers must find value in the newness we create, and that’s scary. No one likes fear, and, if possible, we’d skip novel and useful altogether, but we cannot. Success isn’t a thing in itself, success is a result of something, and that something is novelty and usefulness.
Companies want success and they want it with as little work and risk as possible, and they do that with a focus on efficiency – do more with less and stock price increases. With efficiency it’s all about getting more out of what you have – don’t buy new machines or tools, get more out of what you have. And to reduce risk it’s all about reducing newness – do more of what you did, and do it more efficiently. We’ve unnaturally mapped success with the same old tricks done in the same old way to do more of the same. And that’s a problem because, eventually, sameness runs out of gas.
Innovation starts with different, but past tense success locks us into future tense sameness. And that’s the rub with success – success breeds sameness and sameness blocks innovation. It’s a strange duality – success is the carrot for innovation and also its deterrent. To manage this strange duality, don’t limit success; limit how much it limits you.
The key to busting out of the shackles of your success is doing more things that are different, and the best way to do that is with no-to-yes.
If your product can’t do something then you change it so it can, that’s no-to-yes. By definition, no-to-yes creates novelty, creates new design space and provides the means to enter (or create) new markets. Here’s how to do it.
Scan all the products in your industry and identify the product that can operate with the smallest inputs. (For example, the cell phone that can run on the smallest battery.) Below this input level there are no products that can function – you’ve identified green field design space which you can have all to yourself. Now, use the industry-low input to create a design constraint. To do this, divide the input by two – this is the no-to-yes threshold. Before you do you the work, your product cannot operate with this small input (no), but after your hard work, it can (yes). By definition the new product will be novel.
Do the same thing for outputs. Scan all the products in your industry to find the smallest output. (For example, the automobile with the smallest engine.) Divide the output by two and this is your no-to-yes threshold. Before you design the new car it does not have an engine smaller than the threshold (no), and after the hard work, it does (yes). By definition, the new car will be novel.
A strange thing happens when inputs and outputs are reduced – it becomes clear existing technologies don’t cut it, and new, smaller, lower cost technologies become viable. The no-to-yes threshold (the constraint) breaks the shackles of success and guides thinking in a new directions.
Once the prototypes are built, the work shifts to finding a market the novel concept can satisfy. The good news is you’re armed with prototypes that do things nothing else can do, and the bad news is your existing customers won’t like the prototypes so you’ll have to seek out new customers. (And, really, that’s not so bad because those new customers are the early adopters of the new market you just created.)
No-to-yes thinking is powerful, and though I described how it’s used with products, it’s equally powerful for services, business models and systems.
If you want innovation (and its results), use no-to-yes thinking to find the limits and work outside them.
When it’s time for a tough decision, it’s time to use data. The idea is the data removes biases and opinions so the decision is grounded in the fundamentals. But using the right data the right way takes a lot of disciple and care.
The most straightforward decision is a decision between two things – an either or – and here’s how it goes.
The first step is to agree on the test protocols and measure systems used to create the data. To eliminate biases, this is done before any testing. The test protocols are the actual procedural steps to run the tests and are revision controlled documents. The measurement systems are also fully defined. This includes the make and model of the machine/hardware, full definition of the fixtures and supporting equipment, and a measurement protocol (the steps to do the measurements).
The next step is to create the charts and graphs used to present the data. (Again, this is done before any testing.) The simplest and best is the bar chart – with one bar for A and one bar for B. But for all formats, the axes are labeled (including units), the test protocol is referenced (with its document number and revision letter), and the title is created. The title defines the type of test, important shared elements of the tested configurations and important input conditions. The title helps make sure the tested configurations are the same in the ways they should be. And to be doubly sure they’re the same, once the graph is populated with the actual test data, a small image of the tested configurations can be added next to each bar.
The configurations under test change over time, and it’s important to maintain linkage between the test data and the tested configuration. This can be accomplished with descriptive titles and formal revision numbers of the test configurations. When you choose design concept A over concept B but unknowingly use data from the wrong revisions it’s still a data-driven decision, it’s just wrong one.
But the most important problem to guard against is a mismatch between the tested configuration and the configuration used to create the cost estimate. To increase profit, test results want to increase and costs wants to decrease, and this natural pressure can create divergence between the tested and costed configurations. Test results predict how the configuration under test will perform in the field. The cost estimate predicts how much the costed configuration will cost. Though there’s strong desire to have the performance of one configuration and the cost of another, things don’t work that way. When you launch you’ll get the performance of AND cost of the configuration you launched. You might as well choose the configuration to launch using performance data and cost as a matched pair.
All this detail may feel like overkill, but it’s not because the consequences of getting it wrong can decimate profitability. Here’s why:
Profit = (price – cost) x volume.
Test results predict goodness, and goodness defines what the customer will pay (price) and how many they’ll buy (volume). And cost is cost. And when it comes to profit, if you make the right decision with the wrong data, the wheels fall off.
Image credit – alabaster crow photographic
Though preparation seems to contradict the free-thinking nature of innovation, it doesn’t. In fact, where brainstorming diverts attention, the right innovation preparation focuses it; where brainstorming seeks more ideas, preparation seeks fewer and more creative ones; where brainstorming does not constrain, effective innovation preparation does exactly that.
Ideas are the sexy part of innovation; commercialization is the profitable part; and preparation is the most important part. Before developing creative, novel ideas, there must be a customer of those ideas, someone that, once created, will run with them. The tell-tale sign of the true customer is they have a problem if the innovation (commercialization) doesn’t happen. Usually, their problem is they won’t make their growth goals or won’t get their bonus without the innovation work. From a preparation standpoint, the first step is to define the customer of the yet-to-be created disruptive concepts.
The most effective way I know to create novel concepts is the IBE (Innovation Burst Event), where a small team gets together for a day to solve some focused design challenges and create novel design concepts. But before that can happen, the innovation preparation work must happen. This work is done in the Focus phase. The questions and discussion below defines the preparation work for a successful IBE.
1. Why is it so important to do this innovation work?
What defines the need for the innovation work? The answer tells the IBE team why they’re in the room and why their work is important. Usually, the “why” is a growth goal at the business unit level or projects in the strategic plan that are missing the necessary sizzle. If you can’t come up with a slide or two with growth goals or new projects, the need for innovation is only emotional. If you have the slides, these will be used to kick off the IBE.
2. Who is the customer of the novel concepts?
Who will choose which concepts will be converted into working prototypes? Who will convert the prototypes into new products? Who will launch the new products? Who has the authority to allocate the necessary resources? These questions define the customers of the new concepts. Once defined, the customers become part of the IBE team. The customers kick off the IBE and explain why the innovation work is important and what they’ll do with the concepts once created. The customers must attend the IBE report-out and decide which concepts they’ll convert to working prototypes and patents.
Now, so the IBE will generate the right concepts, the more detailed preparation work can begin. This work is led by marketing. Here are the questions to scope and guide the IBE.
3. How will the innovative new product be used?
How will the innovative product be used in new way? This question is best answered with a hand sketch of the customer using the new product in a new way, but a short written description (30 words, or so) will do in a pinch. The answer gives the IBE team a good understanding, from a customer perspective, what new things the product must do.
What are the new elements of the design that enable the new functionality or performance? The answer focuses the IBE on the new design elements needed to make real the new product function in the new way.
What are the valuable customer outcomes (VCOs) enabled by the innovative new product? The answer grounds the IBE team in the fundamental reason why the customer will buy the new product. Again, this is answered from the customer perspective.
4. How will the new innovative new product be marketed and sold?
What is the tag line for the new product? The answer defines, at the highest level, what the new product is all about. This shapes the mindset of the IBE team and points them in the right direction.
What is the major benefit of the new product? The answer to this question defines what your marketing says in their marketing/sales literature. When the IBE team knows this, you can be sure the new concepts support the marketing language.
5. By whom will the innovative new product be used?
In which geography does the end user live? There’s a big difference between developed markets and developing markets. The answer to the question sets the context for the new concepts, specifically around infrastructure constraints.
What is their ability to pay? Pocketbooks are different across the globe, and the customer’s ability to pay guides the IBE team toward concepts that fit the right pocket book.
What is the literacy level of the end customer? If the customer can read, the IBE team creates concepts that take advantage of that ability. If the customer cannot read, the IBE team creates concepts that are far different.
6. How will the innovative new product change the competitive landscape?
Who will be angry when the new product hits the market? The answer defines the competition. It gives broad context for the IBE team and builds emotional energy around displacing adversaries.
Why will they be angry? With the answer to this one, the IBE team has good perspective on the flavor of pain and displeasure created by the concepts. Again, it shapes the perspective of the IBE team. And, it educates the marketing/sales work needed to address competitors’ countermeasures.
Who will benefit when the new product hits the market? This defines new partners and supporters that can be part of the new solutions or participants in a new business model or sales process.
What will customer throw away, reuse, or recycle? This question defines the level of disruption. If the new products cause your existing customers to throw away the products of your existing customers, it’s a pure market share play. The level of disruption is low and the level of disruption of the concepts should also be low. On the other end of the spectrum, if the new products are sold to new customers who won’t throw anything away, you creating a whole new market, which is the ultimate disruption, and the concepts must be highly disruptive. Either way, the IBE team’s perspective is aligned with the level appropriate level of disruption, and so are the new concepts.
Answering all these questions before the creative works seems like a lot of front-loaded preparation work, and it is. But, it’s also the most important thing you can do to make sure the concept work, technology work, patent work, and commercialization work gives your customers what they need and delivers on your company’s growth objectives. There’s nothing I know that’s more important , and nothing more your IBE team would rather do.
Image credit — ccdoh1.
A technology without a market is as valuable as a market without a technology – they’re both worthless. At one end of the spectrum you have something interesting running in the lab and at the other you have an interesting insight around a new market. But one won’t do, and from either end of the rainbow your quest is to find the pot of gold at the other end.
Scenario A – As a marketing leader you went out into the market, heard the unbearable, saw the unseeable and the gears of your mind gnashed and clunked until it brought into being a surprising insight. Now it’s time to come back to the technical community in search of a technology. For this clarity is key, but for technologists the voice of the customer is a foreign language, and worse, you’ve invented a new dialect.
Step 1. Dig up marketing literate for an existing product that’s the closest to satisfying your surprising market insight.
Step 2. In front of the technologists mark up the existing marketing literature so it satisfies the surprising insight. (Think – same as the old product, but different.) Starting with something they know and building from there helps the technologists see the newness from the grounded context of existing products and technologies.
Step 3. Then, with the technologists, draw a hand sketch of the customer using the new product in a new way, then underneath the sketch write a single sentence that describes the valuable customer outcome (from the customer’s perspective).
Step 4. Together with the technologists define the new design elements of the prouct to make the product perform like the sketch and satisfy the valuable customer outcome.
Step 5. With the technologists go out to the lab and make a prototype of the new design element, bolt it on to an existing product platform and use the product in the manner described in your sketch. If it doesn’t work as it should, modify the prototype until it does.
Step 6. Take the prototype to the market and ask them if it delivers on the valuable customer outcome. If it doesn’t, modify the prototype until it does. And when it does, launch it.
Scenario B – As a technologist you went out into the lab, thought the unthinkable, pondered the impossible and the gears of your mind gnashed and clunked until it brought into being a surprising technology. Now it’s time to come back to the marketing community in search of a market. For this clarity is key, but for marketing the voice of the technology is a foreign language, and worse, like your counterpart in Scenario A, you’ve invented a new dialect.
Step 1. Dig up the product spec for an existing product that’s closest to your new technology.
Step 2. In front of the marketers mark up the product spec so it describes the functionality of the new technology. (Think – same as the old product, but different.) Starting with something they know and building from there helps the marketers see the newness from the grounded context of existing products and technologies.
Step 3. Again in front of the marketers, define the new elements of the technology that make the product perform like it does.
Step 4. With the marketers, draw a hand sketch of the customer using the new product in a new way, then underneath the sketch write a single sentence that describes the valuable customer outcome (from the customer’s perspective).
Step 5. Together with the marketers and the prototype go out to the field and let customers use it as THEY see fit. If they use it in the manner described in your sketch, you’ve identified a potential customer segment. If they don’t, modify the sketch and valuable outcome sentence until it matches their use, or seek out other customers who use it like the sketch.
Step 6. Decide on the most interesting product use and customer outcome, and take the prototype to the target customers. Ask them if it delivers on the valuable customer outcome. If it doesn’t, investigate different customer segments until it does. And when it does, launch it.
Scenarios A and B are contrived. In scenario A, product use and valuable customer outcomes are static and the technology changes to fit them. In Scenario B, it’s reversed – static technology and dynamic product use and customer outcomes. While the scenarios are helpful to see the work from two perspectives and define the end points, that’s not how it happens.
Innovation is always a clustered-jumble of the two scenarios. In fact it’s more like a double helix where the customer strand winds around the technology and the technology strand winds around the customer. One strand takes the lead and mutates the other, which, in turn, spirals learning in unforseen directions.
There’s no getting around it – market and technology co-evolve. There’s no best practice, there’s no best orgainizational structure, and breaking things down the smallest elements won’t get you there.
Instead of spending time and money sequencing the innovation genome, take your cue from nature – try stuff and do more of what worked and less of what didn’t.
And remember the cardinal rule – the organization with the best genes wins.
Image credit – kool_skatkat
For clarity on the innovative new product, here’s what the CEO needs.
Valuable Customer Outcomes – how the new product will be used. This is done with a one page, hand sketched document that shows the user using the new product in the new way. The tool of choice is a fat black permanent marker on an 81/2 x 11 sheet of paper in landscape orientation. The fat marker prohibits all but essential details and promotes clarity. The new features/functions/finish are sketched with a fat red marker. If it’s red, it’s new; and if you can’t sketch it, you don’t have it. That’s clarity.
The new value proposition – how the product will be sold. The marketing leader creates a one page sales sheet. If it can’t be sold with one page, there’s nothing worth selling. And if it can’t be drawn, there’s nothing there.
Customer classification – who will buy and use the new product. Using a two column table on a single page, these are their attributes to define: Where the customer calls home; their ability to pay; minimum performance threshold; infrastructure gaps; literacy/capability; sustainability concerns; regulatory concerns; culture/tastes.
Market classification – how will it fit in the market. Using a four column table on a single page, define: At Whose Expense (AWE) your success will come; why they’ll be angry; what the customer will throw way, recycle or replace; market classification – market share, grow the market, disrupt a market, create a new market.
For clarity on the creative work, here’s what the CEO needs: For each novel concept generated by the Innovation Burst Event (IBE), a single PowerPoint slide with a picture of its thinking prototype and a word description (limited to 12 words).
For clarity on the problems to be solved the CEO needs a one page, image-based definition of the problem, where the problem is shown to occur between only two elements, where the problem’s spacial location is defined, along with when the problem occurs.
For clarity on the viability of the new technology, the CEO needs to see performance data for the functional prototypes, with each performance parameter expressed as a bar graph on a single page along with a hyperlink to the robustness surrogate (test rig), test protocol, and images of the tested hardware.
For clarity on commercialization, the CEO should see the project in three phases – a front, a middle, and end. The front is defined by a one page project timeline, one page sales sheet, and one page sales goals. The middle is defined by performance data (bar graphs) for the alpha units which are hyperlinked to test protocols and tested hardware. For the end it’s the same as the middle, except for beta units, and includes process capability data and capacity readiness.
It’s not easy to put things on one page, but when it’s done well clarity skyrockets. And with improved clarity the right concepts are created, the right problems are solved, the right data is generated, and the right new product is launched.
And when clarity extends all the way to the CEO, resources are aligned, organizational confusion dissipates, and all elements of innovation work happen more smoothly.
Image credit - Kristina Alexanderson
- You have to believe greatness is possible.
- You have to believe greatness is worth it.
- You have to believe you’re worthy of the journey.
If you can’t see old things in new ways, see new things in new ways, or see what’s missing, you won’t believe greatness is possible. To believe greatness is possible, you have to change your perspective.
Greatness is an uphill battle on all fronts, and to push through the pain requires weapons grade belief that it’s worth it. But the power isn’t in the payoff. The power is the personal meaning you attach to the work. Your slog toward greatness is powered from the inside out.
Here’s the tough one – you’ve got to believe you’re worthy of the journey. At every turn the status quo will kick you in the shins, and you must strap on your self-worth like shin guards. And when it’s time to conger greatness from gravel, you must believe, somehow, your life force will rise to the occasion. But, to be clear, you don’t have to believe you’ll be successful; you only have to believe you’re worth the bet.
From the outside, greatness is all about the work. But from the inside, greatness is all about you.
Image credit – Dietmar Temps
Mind and body are connected, literally. It’s true – our necks bridge the gap. Don’t believe me? Locate one end of your neck and you’ll find your head or body; locate the other and you’ll find the other. And not only are they connected, they interact. Shared blood flows between the two and that means shared blood chemistry and shared oxygen. And not only is the plumbing shared, so is the electrical. The neck is the conduit for the nerves which pass information between the two and each communicate is done in a closed loop way. Because it’s so obvious, it sounds silly to describe the connectedness in this way, yet we still think of them as separate.
When the mind-body is combined into a single element our perspectives change. For one, we realize the significance of the environment because wherever the body is the mind is. If your body walks your mind to a hot place, your body is hot and so is your mind. No big deal? Go to the beach in mid- summer, stand in the 105 degree heat for 1 hour, then do some heavy critical thinking. Whether the environment is emotionally hot or temperature hot, it won’t go well. Sit your body in a noisy, chaotic environment for two hours then try to come up with the new technology to keep your company solvent. Keep your body awake for 24 hours and try to solve a fundamental problem to reinvent your business model. I don’t think so.
Innovation is like a marathon, and if you treat your body like a marathon runner you’ll be in great shape to innovate. Get regular physical activity; eat well; get enough sleep; don’t go out and party every night; drink your fluids; don’t get over heated. If you don’t think any of this matters, do the opposite for a week or two and see how it goes with your innovation. And as with innovation climate, geography and environment matter. Train at altitude and sleep in a hypobaric chamber and your mind-body responds differently. Run up hill and you get faster on the hills and likely slower on the flats. Run downhill and your legs hurt. Run in sub-zero temperatures and your lungs burn.
Just as the mind goes with the body, the body follows mind. If you are anxious about your work, you feel a cold pressure in your chest – a clear example where your mental state influences your body. If you are depressed, your body can ache – another example where your mind changes your body. But it’s more than unpleasant body sensations. Your body does far more than move your head place-to-place. Your body is the antenna for the unsaid, and the unsaid is huge part of innovation. Imagine a presentation to your CEO where you describe your one year innovation project that came up empty. When you stop talking and there’s a minute of silent unsaid-ness, your body picks up the signals, not your mind. (You feel the tightness in your chest before you know why.) But if your mind has been monkeying with your body, your crumpled antenna may receive incorrect signals or may transmit them to your brain improperly, and when the CEO asks the hard question, your mind-body is spongy.
And what fuels the mind-body? Why does it get out of bed? Why does it want to do innovation? Dan Pink has it right – when it comes to tasks with high cognitive load, the mind-body is powered by autonomy, the pursuit of mastery, and purpose. For innovation, the mind-body is powered intrinsically, not extrinsically. If your engineers aren’t innovating, it’s because their mind-bodies know there’s no autonomy in the ether. If they’re not taking on the impossible, it’s because they aren’t given time to master its subject matter or the work they’re given is remedial. If they’re doing what they always did, it’s because their antennas aren’t resonating with the purpose behind the innovation work.
When your innovation work isn’t what you’d like it’s not a people problem, it’s an intrinsic motivation problem. Innovators’ mind-bodies desperately want to pole vault out of bed and innovate like nobody’s business, but they feel they have too little control over what they do and how they do it; they want to put all their life force into innovation, but they know (based on where their mind-bodies are) they’re not given the tools, time, and training to master their craft; and the rationale you’ve given them – the “WHY” in why they should innovate – is not meaningful to their mind-bodies.
Innovation is a full mind-body sport, and the importance of the body should be elevated. And if there’s one thing to focus on it’s the innovation environment in which the mind-body sits.
Innovators were born to innovate – our mind-bodies don’t have a choice. And if innovation is not happening it’s because extrinsic motivation strategies (carrots and sticks) are blocking the natural power of our intrinsic motivation. It’s time to figure that one out.
Image credit – Eli Duke
Innovation starts with recognition of a big, meaningful problem. It can come from the strategic planning process; from an ongoing technology project that isn’t going well; an ongoing product development project that’s stuck in the trenches; or a competitor’s unforeseen action. But where it comes from isn’t the point. What matters is it’s recognized by someone important enough to allocate resources to make the problem go away. (If it’s recognized by someone who can’t muster the resources, it creates frustration, not progress.)
Once recognized, the importance of the problem is communicated to the organization. Usually, a problem is important because it blocks growth, e.g., a missing element of the new business model, technology that falls short of the distinctive value proposition (DVP), or products that can’t deliver on your promises. But whether something’s in the way or missing, the problem’s importance is best linked to a growth objective.
Company leaders then communicate to the organization, using one page. Here’s an example:
WHY – we have a problem. The company’s stock price cannot grow without meeting the growth goals, and currently we cannot meet them. Here’s what’s needed.
WHAT – grow sales by 30%.
WHERE – in emerging markets.
WHEN – in two years.
HOW – develop a new line of products for the developing world.
Along with recognition of importance, there must be recognition that old ways won’t cut it and new thinking is required. That way the company knows it’s okay to try new things.
Company leaders pull together a small group and charters them to spend a bit of time to develop concepts for the new product line and come back and report their go-forward reccommendations. But before any of the work is done, resources are set aside to work on the best ones, otherwise no one will work on them and everyone will know the company is not serious about innovation.
To create new concepts, the small group plans an Innovation Burst Event (IBE). On one page they define the DVP for the new product line, which describes how the new customers will use the new products in new ways. They use the one page DVP to select the right team for the IBE and to define fertile design space to investigate. To force new thinking, the planning group creates creative constraints and design challenges to guide divergence toward new design space.
The off-site location is selected; the good food is ordered; the IBE is scheduled; and the team is invited. The company leader who recognized the problem kicks off the IBE with a short description of the problem and its importance, and tells the team she can’t wait to hear their recoomendations at the report-out at the end of the day.
With too little time, the IBE team steps through the design challenges, creates new concepts, and builds thinking prototypes. The prototypes are the center of attention at the report-out.
At the report-out, company leaders allocate IP resources to file patents on the best concepts and commission a team of marketers, technologists, and IP staff to learn if viable technologies are possible, if they’re patentable, and if the DVP is viable.(Will it work, can we patent it, and will they buy it.)
The marketer-technologist-IP team builds prototypes and tests them in the market. The prototypes are barely functional, if at all, and their job is to learn if the DVP resonates. (Think minimum viable prototype.) It’s all about build-test-learn, and the learning loops are fast and furious at the expese of statistical significance. (Judgement carries the day in this phase.)
With viable technology, patentable ideas, and DVP in hand, the tri-lobed team reports out to company leaders who sanctioned their work. And, like with the IBE, the leaders allocate more IP resources to file more patents and commission the commercialization team.
The commercialization team is the tried-and-true group that launches products. Design engineering makes it reliable; manufacturing makes it repeatable; marketing makes it irresistible; sales makes it successful. At the design reviews more patents are filed and at manufacturing readiness reviews it’s all about process capability and throughput.
Because the work is driven by problems that limit growth, the result of the innovation work is exactly what’s needed to fuel growth – in this case a successful product line for the developing world. Start with the right problem and end up with the right solution. (Always a good idea.)
With innovation programs, all the talk is about tools and methods, but the two things that really make the difference are lightning fast learning loops and resources to do the innovation work. And there’s an important philosophical chasm to cross – because patents are usually left out of the innovation equation – like an afterthought chasing a quota – innovation should become the umbrella over patents and technology. But because IP reports into finance and technology into engineering, it will be a tough chasm to bridge.
It’s clear fast learning loops are important for fast learning, but they’re also important for building culture. At the end of a cycle, the teams report back to leadership, and each report-out is an opportunity to shape the innovation culture. Praise the good stuff and ignore the rest, and the innovation culture moves toward the praise.
There’s a natural progression of the work. Start – do one project; spread – use the learning to do the next ones; systematize – embed the new behaviors into existing business processes; sustain – praise the best performers and promote them.
When innovation starts with business objectives, the objectives are met; when innovation starts with company leadership, resources are allocated and the work gets done; and when the work shapes the culture, the work accelerates. Anything less isn’t innovation.
Image credit – Jaybird
The most difficult part of innovation is starting, and the best way to start is the Innovation Burst Event, or IBE. The IBE is a short, focused event with three objectives: to learn innovation methods, to provide hands-on experience, and to generate actual results. In short, the IBE is a great way to get started.
There are a couple flavors of IBEs, but the most common is a single day even where a small, diverse group gets together to investigate some bounded design space and to create novel concepts. At the start, a respected company leader explains to the working group the importance of the day’s work, how it fits with company objectives, and sets expectations there will be a report out at the end of the day to review the results. During the event, the working group is given several design challenges, and using innovation tools/methods, creates new concepts and builds “thinking prototypes.” The IBE ends with a report out to company leaders, where the working group identifies patentable concepts and concepts worthy of follow-on work. Company leaders listen to the group’s recommendations and shape the go-forward actions.
The key to success is preparation. To prepare, interesting design space is identified using multiple inputs: company growth objectives, new market development, the state of the technology, competitive landscape and important projects that could benefit from new technology. And once the design space is identified, the right working group is selected. It’s best to keep the group small yet diverse, with several important business functions represented. In order to change the thinking, the IBE is held at location different than where the day-to-day work is done – at an off-site location. And good food is provided to help the working group feel the IBE is a bit special.
The most difficult and most important part of preparation is choosing the right design space. Since the selection process starts with your business objectives, the design space will be in line with company priorities, but it requires dialing in. The first step is to define the operational mechanism for the growth objective. Do you want a new product or process? A new market or business model? The next step is to choose if you want to radically improve what you have (discontinuous improvement) or obsolete your best work (disruption). Next, the current state is defined (knowing the starting point is more important than the destination) – Is the technology mature? What is the completion up to? What is the economy like in the region of interest? Then, with all that information, several important lines of evolution are chosen. From there, design challenges are created to exercise the design space. Now it’s time for the IBE.
The foundation of the IBE is the build-to-think approach and its building blocks are the design challenges. The working group is given a short presentation on an innovation tool, and then they immediately use the tool on a design challenge. The group is given a short description of the design challenge (which is specifically constructed to force the group from familiar thinking), and the group is given an unreasonably short time, maybe 15-20 minutes, to create solutions and build thinking prototypes. (The severe time limit is one of the methods to generate bursts of creativity.) The thinking prototype can be a story board, or a crude representation constructed with materials on hand – e.g., masking tape, paper, cardboard. The group then describes the idea behind the prototype and the problem it solves. A mobile phone is used to capture the thinking and the video is used at the report out session. The process is repeated one or two times, based on time constraints and nature of the design challenges.
About an hour before the report out, the working group organizes and rationalizes the new concepts and ranks them against impact and effort. They then recommend one or two concepts worthy of follow on work and pull together high level thoughts on next steps. And, they choose one or two concept that may be patentable. The selected concepts, the group’s recommendations, and their high level plans are presented at the report out.
At the report out, company leaders listen to the working group’s thoughts and give feedback. Their response to the group’s work is crucial. With right speech, the report out is an effective mechanism for leaders to create a healthy innovation culture. When new behaviors and new thinking are praised, the culture of innovation moves toward the praise. In that way, the desired culture can be built IBE by IBE and new behaviors become everyday behaviors.
Innovation is a lot more than Innovation Burst Events, but they’re certainly a central element. After the report out, the IBE’s output (novel concepts) must be funneled into follow on projects which must be planned, staffed, and executed. And then, as the new concepts converge on commercialization, and the intellectual comes on line, the focus of the work migrates to the factory and the sales force.
The IBE is designed to break through the three most common innovation blockers – no time to do innovation; lack of knowledge of how do innovation (though that one’s often unsaid); and pie-in-the-sky, brainstorming innovation is a waste of time. To address the time issue, the IBE is short – just one day. To address the knowledge gap, the training is part of the event. And to address the pie-in-the-sky – at the end of the day there is tangible output, and that output is directly in line with the company’s growth objectives.
It’s emotionally challenging to do work that destroys your business model and obsoletes your best products, but that’s how it is with innovation. But for motivation, think about this – if your business model is going away, it’s best if you make it go away, rather than your competition. But your competition does end up changing the game and taking your business, I know how they’ll do it – with Innovation Burst Events.
Image credit – Pascal Bovet
Your value proposition – what you deliver, the goodness you provide – is what has made you what you are, and that’s why you center your existence on its principles and that’s why it’s sticky. And that’s also why it’s too sticky. Your successful value proposition makes you feel good so you cling to it all costs. And when it’s on life support, when it can no longer breathe on its own, you grasp more desperately for its long past goodness. And when it’s flat-lined you hysterically grab for the paddles to shock it back to life. This is unskillful, but it’s how it goes.
Value propositions are impermanent – they’re born, they grown, they die. It’s best to recognize this truth and work within the impermanence. When a successful value proposition is almost through adolescence and is thinking of heading off to college, that’s the time to bring another one to life. You may be looking forward to being an empty nester, but that works with kids, not with value propositions.
Value propositions have a long gestation period, and you never really know how they’ll turn out until they mature, or they don’t. You may think you have a good idea how they’ll turn out when they get to kindergarten, but life is uncertain, and you don’t really know how things will go. You can’t predict; you can only decide to try, or not. But there’s hope.
There are several important lenses to squint through to improve your odds, but, before that there’s one rule to live by – all infant value propositions must be disruptive. If you’re going to invest all that time and energy, the payoff must be worth the effort – think diapers of disruption.
The lens of cost of entry. To distrupt, look to radically reduce the cost of entry. If you make capital equipment, come up with a way to provide value without the capital purchase. It could be financing terms, renting, leasing, power by the hour. It could be smaller, lower cost machines that do the job, but lets the customer buy smaller chunks of capacity. It could be new technology that radically reduces cost. Or, it could be my favorite – eliminating functionality and features so the product does less and costs a whole lot less. Or, figure out some non-traditional yet powerful blockers of entry and make them go away.
The lens of user decisions. This is a big one. Eliminate all the adjustments on your so you can sell your product to people who, today, don’t have the technical savvy to run them. Eliminate all words from your product, which will let you sell them to folks that cannot read your language. Design your product with a green light and a red light, and when the red light is on, your product emails someone letting them know the failure mode and also automatically reorders the replacement parts. Add sensors to your product so it reconfigures itself so the user gets more value.
The lean lens. If you make big machines that create batching, right-size them. Look at your customer’s value stream and try to change your product to eliminate their processes with the longest cycle time. (These processes should be unfamiliar to you and should drive unfamiliar technology work.) Or, offer a new service to help them eliminate a problem supplier. Or provide them process data or information that helps them be more productive. Or, change how you make the product or how you stock/ship it to help your customer reduce inventory and respond faster.
Constrain the inputs. Reduce by 90% the required inputs to your product and reinvent it. The best example is electrical power. Give your engineers a radically lower power budget and tell them to provide as much goodness as possible. The result will be less goodness and a whole lot less power consumption. This could allow you to sell products to people with poor utilities (developing world) or help companies reduce their carbon footprint. (Isn’t that a nice value proposition these days.)
Make it more portable. If your product weighs tons, think pounds; if it weighs pounds, think ounces. If its size is measured in meters, think millimeters; if millimeters, think micrometers. The key here is to strip out functions and goodness so you can make it portable. Give ground on the crusty value proposition to sprout a new one.
These are just a few of the lenses, and you should use your deep knowledge and context to come up with the right ones for you. Here’s a neat exercise – ask your sales people how they’d sell your product without using your existing value proposition, then reimagine the product so they can sell it that way.
Your existing value proposition isn’t bad – it pays the bills and it’s what got you here, and, it’s what pays for creating the next generation of value propositions. What’s unskillful is thinking it will last forever.
Now is the only time you can shape your future. It’s time to disrupt yourself.