The Difficulty of Commercializing New Concepts

If you have the data that says the market for the new concept is big enough, you waited too long.

If you require the data that verifies the market is big enough before pursuing new concepts, you’ll never pursue them.

If you’re afraid to trust the judgement of your best technologists, you’ll never build the traction needed to launch new concepts.

If you will sell the new concept to the same old customers, don’t bother. You already sold them all the important new concepts. The returns have already diminished.

If you must sell the new concept to new customers, it could create a whole new business for you.

If you ask your successful business units to create and commercialize new concepts, they’ll launch what they did last time and declare it a new concept.

If you leave it to your successful business units to decide if it’s right to commercialize a new concept created by someone else, they won’t.

If a new concept is so significant that it will dwarf the most successful business unit, the most successful business unit will scuttle it.

If the new concept is so significant it warrants a whole new business unit, you won’t make the investment because the sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept are yet to be realized.

If you can’t justify the investment to commercialize a new concept because there are no sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept, you don’t understand that sales come only after you launch. But, you’re not alone.

If a new concept makes perfect sense, you would have commercialized it years ago.

If the new concept isn’t ridiculed by the Status Quo, do something else.

If the new concept hasn’t failed three times, it’s not a worthwhile concept.

If you think the new concept will be used as you intend, think again.

If you’re sure a new concept will be a flop, you shouldn’t be. Same goes for the ones you’re sure will be successful.

If you’re afraid to trust your judgement, you aren’t the right person to commercialize new concepts.

And if you’re not willing to put your reputation on the line, let someone else commercialize the new concept.

Image credit – Melissa O’Donohue

As a leader, be truthful and forthcoming.

144 Truthful, at Ping Sien Si, Pasir Panjang, Perak, Malaysia

Have you ever felt like you weren’t getting the truth from your leader? You know – when they say something and you know that’s not what they really think. Or, when they share their truth but you can sense that they’re sharing only part of the truth and withholding the real nugget of the truth? We really have no control over the level of forthcoming of our leaders, but we do have control over how we respond to their incomplete disclosure.

There are times when leaders cannot, by law, disclose things. But, even then, they can make things clear without disclosing what legally cannot be disclosed. For example, they can say: “That’s a good question and it gets to the heart of the situation. But, by law, I cannot answer that question.” They did not answer the question, but they did. They let you know that you understand the situation; they let you know that there is an answer; and the let you know why they cannot share it with you.  As the recipient of that non-answer answer, I respect that leader.

There are also times when a leader withholds information or gives a strategically partial response for inappropriate reasons. When a leader withholds information to manipulate or control, that’s inappropriate. It’s also bad leadership. When a leader withholds information from their smartest team members, they lose trust.  And when leaders lose trust, the best people are crestfallen and withhold their best work. The thinking goes like this. If my leader doesn’t trust me enough to share the complete set of information with me it’s because they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust and they don’t think highly of me.  And if they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust, they don’t understand who I am and what I stand for.  And if they don’t understand me and know what I stand for, they’re not worthy of my best work.

As a leader, you must share all you can.  And when you can’t, you must tell your team there are things you can’t share and tell them the reasons why. Your team can handle the fact that there are some things you cannot share. But what your team cannot hand is when you withhold information so you can gain the upper hand on them. And your team can tell when you’re withholding with your best interest in mind. Remember, you hired them because they were smart, and their smartness doesn’t go away just because you want to control them.

If your direct reports always tell you they can get it done even when they don’t have the capacity and capability, that’s not the behavior you want. If your direct reports tell you they can’t get it done when they can’t get it done, that’s the behavior you want. But, as a leader, which behavior do you reward? Do you thank the truthful leader for being truthful about the reality of insufficient resources and do you chastise the other leader for telling you what you want to hear? Or, do you tell the truthful leader they’re not a team player because team players get it done and praise the unjustified can-do attitude of the “yes man” leader? As a leader, I suggest you think deeply about this. As a direct report of a leader, I can tell you I’ve been punished for responding in way that was in line with the reality of the resources available to do the work. And I can also tell you that I lost all respect for that leader.

As a leader, you have three types of direct reports. Type I are folks are happy where they are and will do as little as possible to keep it that way. Type II are people that are striving for the next promotion and will tell you whatever you want to hear in order to get the next job. Type III are the non-striving people who will tell you what you need to hear despite the implications to their career. Type I people are good to have on your team.  They know what they can do and will tell you when the work is beyond their capability. Type II people are dangerous because they think only of themselves. They will hang you out to dry if they think it will advance their career. And Type III people are priceless.

Type III people care enough to protect you.  When you ask them for something that can’t be done, they care enough about you to tell you the truth. It’s not that they don’t want to get it done, they know they cannot. And they’re willing to tell you to your face. Type II people don’t care about you as a leader; they only care about themselves. They say yes when they know the answer is no. And they do it in a way that absolves them of responsibility when the wheels fall off. As a leader, which type do you want on your team? And as a leader, which type do you promote and which do you chastise. And, how do you feel about that?

As a leader, you must be truthful. And when you can’t disclose the full truth, tell people. And when your Type II direct reports give you the answer they know you want to hear, call them on their bullshit.  And when your Type III folks give you the answer they know you don’t want to hear, thank them.

Image credit — Anandajoti Bhikkhu

Transcending a Culture of Continuous Improvement

We’ve been too successful with continuous improvement. Year-on-year, we’ve improved productivity and costs.  We’ve improved on our existing products, making them slightly better and adding features.

Our recipe for success is the same as last year plus three percent. And because the customers liked the old one, they’ll like the new one just a bit more. And the sales for can sell the new one because its sold the same way as the old one.  And the people that buy the new one are the same people that bought the old one.
Continuous improvement is a tried-and-true approach that has generated the profits and mad us successful. And everyone know how to do it.  Start with the old one and make it a little better. Do what you did last time (and what you did the time before.)
The trouble is that continuous improvement runs out of gas at some point. Each year it gets harder to squeeze out a little more and each year the return on investment deminishes. And at some point, the same old improvements don’t come. And if they.do, customers don’t care because the product is already better than good enough.
But the bigger problem is that the company no longer knows how to do innovative work. Though there’s recognition it’s time to do something different, the organization doesn’t have the muscles to pull it off. At every turn, the organization will revert to what it did last time and do it the same way as last time.
It’s no small feat to inject new work into a company that has been successful with continuous improvement.  A company gets hooked on the predictable results of continuous which turns into unnatural aversion to all things different.
To start turning the innovation flywheel, many things must change. To start, a team is created and separated from the continuously improving core.  Metrics are changed, leadership is changed and the projects are changed. In short, the people, processes and tools must be built to deal with the inherent uncertainty that comes with new work.
Where continuous improvement is about the predictability of improving what is, innovation is about the uncertainty of creating what is yet to be. And the best way I know to battle uncertainty is to become a learning organization.  And the best way to start that journey is to create formal learning objectives.
Define what you want to learn but make sure you’re not trying to learn the same old things. Learn how to create new value  for customers; learn how to deliver that value to new customers; and learn how deliver that new value in new ways (new business models,)
If you’re learning the same old things in the same old way, you’re not doing innovation.

Innovation Truths

If it’s not different, it can’t be innovation.

With innovation, ideas are the easy part. The hard part is creating the engine that delivers novel value to customers.

The first goal of an innovation project is to earn the right to do the second hardest thing. Do the hardest thing first.

Innovation is 50% customer, 50% technology and 75% business model.

If you know how it will turn out, it’s not innovation.

Don’t invest in a functional prototype until customers have placed orders for the sell-able product.

If you don’t know how the customer will benefit from your innovation, you don’t know anything.

If your innovation work doesn’t threaten the status quo, you’re doing it wrong.

Innovation moves at the speed of people.

If you know when you’ll be finished, you’re not doing innovation.

With innovation, the product isn’t your offering. Your offering is the business model.

If you’re focused on best practices, you’re not doing innovation. Innovation is about doing things for the first time.

If you think you know what the customer wants, you don’t.

Doing innovation within a successful company is seven times hard than doing it in a startup.

If you’re certain, it’s not innovation.

With innovation, ideas and prototypes are cheap, but building the commercialization engine is ultra-expensive.

If no one will buy it, do something else.

Technical roadblocks can be solved, but customer/market roadblocks can be insurmountable.

The first thing to do is learn if people will buy your innovation.

With innovation, customers know what they don’t want only after you show them your offering.

With innovation, if you’re not scared to death you’re not trying hard enough.

The biggest deterrent to innovation is success.

Image credit — Sherman Geronimo-Tan

Seeing Things as They Can’t Be

When there’s a big problem, the first step is to define what’s causing it. To do that, based on an understanding of the physics, a sequence of events is proposed and then tested to see if it replicates the problem. In that way, the team must understand the system as it is before the problem can be solved.

Seeing things as they are. The same logic applies when it’s time to improve an existing product or service. The first thing to do is to see the system as it is. But seeing things as they are is difficult. We have a tendency to see things as we want them or to see them in ways that make us look good (or smart). Or, we see them in a way that justifies the improvements we already know we want to make.

To battle our biases and see things as they are, we use tools such as block diagrams to define the system as it is. The most important element of the block diagram is clarity.  The first revision will be incorrect, but it must be clear and explicit. It must describe things in a way that creates a singular understanding of the system. The best block diagrams can be interpreted only one way.  More strongly, if there’s ambiguity or lack of clarity, the thing has not yet risen to the level of a block diagram.

The block diagram evolves as the team converges on a single understanding of things as they are. And with a diagram of things as they are, a solution is readily defined and validated. If when tested the proposed solution makes the problem go away, it’s inferred that the team sees things as they are and the solution takes advantage of that understanding to make the problem go away.

Seeing things as they may be. Even whey the solution fixes the problem, the team really doesn’t know if they see things as they are. Really, all they know is they see things as they may be. Sure, the solution makes the problem go away, but it’s impossible to really know if the solution captures the physics of failure.  When the system is large and has a lot of moving parts, the team cannot see things as they are, rather, they can only see the system as it may be. This is especially true if the system involves people, as people behave differently based on how they feel and what happened to them yesterday.

There’s inherent uncertainty when working with larger systems and systems that involve people.  It’s not insurmountable, but you’ve got to acknowledge that your understanding of the system is less than perfect. If your company is used to solving small problems within small systems, there will be little tolerance for the inherent uncertainty and associated unpredictability (in time) of a solution.  To help your company make the transition, replace the language of “seeing things as they are” with “seeing things as they may be.”  The same diagnostic process applies, but since the understanding of the system is incomplete or wrong, the proposed solutions cannot not be pre-judged as “this will work” and “that won’t work.”  You’ve got to be open to all potential solutions that don’t contradict the system as it may be. And you’ve got to be tolerant of the inherent unpredictability of the effort as a whole.

Seeing things as they could be. To create something that doesn’t yet exist, something does things like never before, something altogether new, you’ve got to stand on top of your understanding of the system and jump off.  Whether you see things as they are or as they may be, the new system will be different. It’s not about diagnosing the existing system; it’s about imagining the system as it could be. And there’s a paradox here. The better you understand the existing system, the more difficulty you’ll have imagining the new one. And, the more success the company has had with the system as it is, the more resistance you’ll feel when you try to make the system something it could be.

Seeing things as they could be takes courage – courage to obsolete your best work and courage to divest from success. The first one must be overcome first. Your body creates stress around the notion of making yourself look bad. If you can create something altogether better, why didn’t you do it last time? There’s a hit to the ego around making your best work look like it’s not all that good. But once you get over all that, you’ve earned the right to go to battle with your organization who is afraid to move away from the recipe responsible for all the profits generated over the last decade.

But don’t look at those fears as bad. Rather, look at them as indicators you’re working on something that could make a real difference.  Your ego recognizes you’re working on something better and it sends fear into your veins. The organization recognizes you’re working on something that threatens the status quo and it does what it can to make you stop. You’re onto something. Keep going.

Seeing things as they can’t be. This is rarified air. In this domain you must violate first principles. In this domain you’ve got to run experiments that everyone thinks are unreasonable, if not ill-informed. You must do the opposite. If your product is fast, your prototype must be the slowest. If the existing one is the heaviest, you must make the lightest. If your reputation is based on the highest functioning products, the new offering must do far less.  If your offering requires trained operators, the new one must prevent operator involvement.

If your most seasoned Principal Engineer thinks it’s a good idea, you’re doing it wrong. You’ve got to propose an idea that makes the most experienced people throw something at you. You’ve got to suggest something so crazy they start foaming at the mouth. Your concepts must rip out their fillings. Where “seeing things as they could be” creates some organizational stress, “seeing things as they can’t be” creates earthquakes. If you’re not prepared to be fired, this is not the domain for you.

All four of these domains are valuable and have merit. And we need them all. If there’s one message it’s be clear which domain you’re working in. And if there’s a second message it’s explain to company leadership which domain you’re working in and set expectations on the level of uncertainty and unpredictability of that domain.

Image credit – David Blackwell.

Don’t change culture. Change behavior.

There’s always lots of talk about culture and how to change it.  There is culture dial to turn or culture level to pull. Culture isn’t a thing in itself, it’s a sentiment that’s generated by behavioral themes.  Culture is what we use to describe our worn paths of behavior.  If you want to change culture, change behavior.

At the highest level, you can make the biggest cultural change when you change how you spend your resources. Want to change culture? Say yes to projects that are different than last year’s and say no to the ones that rehash old themes.  And to provide guidance on how to choose those new projects create, formalize new ways you want to deliver new value to new customers.  When you change the criteria people use to choose projects you change the projects.  And when you change the projects people’s behaviors change. And when behavior changes, culture changes.

The other important class of resources is people.  When you change who runs the project, they change what work is done.  And when they prioritize a different task, they prioritize different behavior of the teams.  They ask for new work and get new behavior. And when those project leaders get to choose new people to do the work, they choose in a way that changes how the work is done.  New project leaders change the high-level behaviors of the project and the people doing the work change the day-to-day behavior within the projects.

Change how projects are chosen and culture changes. Change who runs the projects and culture changes. Change who does the project work and culture changes.

Image credit – Eric Sonstroem

When it rains, don’t blame the clouds.

When it rains, you get wet.  It doesn’t matter if you get mad at the clouds, you still get wet. And if you curse the sky, you still get wet. So, why the anger and cursing? Do you really think the clouds see you’re outside and choose to rain on you? Do you think the sky is out to get you?
When someone aims snarl words at you, you get angry because you take it personally.  But, their harsh words are about them, not you.  And they’re not aiming at you; you just happen to be near them when the words jump out of their mouth.  Like the clouds don’t choose to rain on you; you just happen to be under them when their water comes out.
It’s much easier to accept that the clouds are not out to get you because the clouds are not people. It takes a lot of personal work to let someone’s snarl words pass through you. But if a screen door can do it, so can you.
The screen door lets the breeze pass through.  It doesn’t flap or flutter, it just lets the hot air pass.  It’s there when it’s time to block the bugs but not there when it’s time to let the breeze pass.  The screen door doesn’t take the breeze personally, it lets it pass through.
When someone snarls at you, be a screen door and let those words pass through. Try to remember their words are about them, not you. When the snarl words are swirling, don’t be there emotionally. Don’t own their words; don’t accept their gift. Don’t be there emotionally.
But after the storm of words dissipates, be there for them. Ask them what’s bothering them. Listen. Try to understand. Empathize.  I bet you’ll learn what’s really going on with them.
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to take things personally.  But if you visualize them as a cloud, maybe you can weather the storm they are trying to create. Or, it may be easier to imagine yourself as a screen door and let their words pass.
Either way, cloud or screen door,  it takes practice. And either way, it can make a big difference in your happiness.

Wanting things to be different

Wanting things to be different is a good start, but it’s not enough. To create conditions for things to move in a new direction, you’ve got to change your behavior. But with systems that involve people, this is not a straightforward process.
To create conditions for the system to change, you must understand the system”s disposition – the lines along which it prefers to change.. And to do that, you’ve got to push on the system and watch its response. With people systems, the response is not knowable before the experiment.
If you expect to be able to predict how the system will respond, working with people systems can be frustrating.  I offer some guidance here. With this work, you are not responsible for the system’s response, you are only responsible for how you respond to the system’s response.
If the system responds in a way you like, turn that experiment into a project to amplify the change.  If the system responds in a way you dislike, unwind the experiment.  Here’s a simple mantra – do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. (Thanks to Dave Snowden for this.)
If you don’t like how things are going, you have only one lever to pull.  You can only change.your response to what you see and experience. You can respond by pushing on the system and responding to what you see or you can respond by changing what you think and feel about the system.
But keep in mind that you are part of the system. And maybe the system is running an experiment on you. Either way, your only choice is to choose how to respond.

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Purposeful Procrastination

There’s a useful trick when you want to do new work. It has some of the characteristics of procrastination, but it’s different. With procrastination, the problem solver waits to start the solving until it’s almost impossible to meet the deadline. The the solver uses the unreasonable deadline to create internal pressure so they can let go of all the traditional solving approaches.  With no time for traditional approaches, the solver must let go of what worked and try a new approach.

Now, the mainstream procrastinator doesn’t wait with forethought as I described, but forethought isn’t the required element.  The internal pressure doesn’t care if it was forethought, it constrains out the tried-and-true, either way. Forethought or not, the results speak for themselves – unimaginable work done in far less time than reasonable.
But what if you could take the best parts of procrastination and supercharge it with purpose and process? What if you could help people achieve the results of procrastination – unimagined solutions done in an unreasonable time window – but without all the stress that comes with procrastination? What about a process for purposeful procrastination?
The IBE (Innovation Burst Event) was created to do just that – to systematize the goodness of procrastination without all the baggage that comes with it.

The heart of the IBE is the Design Challenge, where a team with diverse perspective is brought together by a facilitator to solve a problem in five minutes. The unreasonable time constraint generates all the goodness that comes with procrastination, but, because it’s a problem solving exercise, there’s no drama.  And like with procrastination, the teams deliver unimaginable results within an unrealistic time constraint.

The purposefulness of the IBE comes with up-front work to create Design Challenges that investigate design space that has high potential.  This can be driven by the Voice of the Customer (VOC) or Voice of the Technology (VOT). Either way, the choice of the design space is purposeful.
If you want to jump-start your innovation work, try the IBE.  And who knows, if you call it purposeful procrastination you may get a lot of people to participate.

What if you were gone for a month?

If you were out of the office for a month and did not check email or check in, how would things go?

Your Team – Would your team curl up into a ball under the pressure, or would they use their judgement when things don’t go as planned? I think the answer depends on how you interacted with them over the last year. If you created an environment where it’s a genius and a thousand helpers, they won’t make any decisions because you made it clear that it’s your responsibility to make decisions and it’s their responsibility to listen. But if over the last year you demanded that they use their judgement, they’ll use it when you’re gone. Which would they do? How sure are you? And, how do you feel about that?

Other Teams – Would other teams reach out to your team for help, or would they wait until you get back to ask for help? If they wait it’s because they know you make all the decisions and your team is voice actuated – you talk and they act. But if other teams reach out directly to your team, it’s because over the last years you demonstrated to your team that you expect them to use their good judgement and make good decisions. Would other teams reach out for help or would they wait for you to get back? How do you feel about that?

Your Boss – Would your boss dive into the details of the team’s work or leave the work to the team? I think it depends on whether you were transparent with your boss over the last years about the team’s capability. If in your interactions you took credit for all the good work and blamed your team for the work that went poorly, your boss will dig into the details with your team. Your boss trusts you to do good work and not your team, and since you’re not there, your boss will think the work is in jeopardy and will set up meetings with your team to make sure the work goes well.  But if over the last years you gave credit to the team and communicated the strengths and weaknesses of the team, your boss will let the team do the work. Would your boss set up the meetings or leave your team to their work? How sure are you?

To celebrate my son’s graduation from engineering school, I am taking a month off from work to ride motorcycles with him. I’m not sure how it will go with my team, the other teams and my boss, but over the last several years I’ve been getting everyone ready for just this type of thing.

Image credit — Biker Biker

You don’t need more ideas.

Innovation isn’t achieved by creating more ideas. Innovation is realized when ideas are transformed into commercialized products and services. Innovation is realized when ideas are transformed into new business models that deliver novel usefulness to customers and deliver increased revenues to the company.

In a way, creating ideas that languish in their own shadow is worse than not creating any ideas at all.  If you don’t have any ideas, at least you didn’t spend the resources to create them and you don’t create the illusion that you’re actually making progress. In that way, it’s better to avoid creating new ideas if you’re not going to do anything with them. At least your leadership team will not be able to rationalize that everything will be okay because you have an active idea generation engine.

Before you schedule your next innovation session, don’t.  Reason 1 – it’s not an innovation session, it’s an ideation session. Reason 2 – you don’t have resources to do anything with the best ideas so you’ll spend the resources and nothing will come of it. To improve the return on investment, don’t make the investment because there’ll be no return.

Truth is, you already have amazing ideas to grow your company. Problem is, no one is listening to the people with the ideas.  And the bigger problem – because no one listened over the last ten years, the people with the ideas have left the company or stopped trying to convince you they have good ideas.  Either way, you’re in trouble and creating more ideas won’t help you.  Your culture is such that new ideas fall on deaf ears and funding to advance new concepts loses to continuous improvement.

If you do want to hold an ideation event to create new ideas that will reinvent your company, there are ways to do it effectively.  First, define the customer of the ideation event.  This is the person who is on the hook to commercialize things that will grow the business. This is the person who will have a career problem if ideas aren’t implemented. This is the person who can allocate the resources to turn the ideas into commercialized products, services. If this person isn’t an active advocate for the ideation event, don’t hold it. If this person will not show up to the report out of the ideation event, don’t hold it. If this person does not commit to advancing the best ideas, don’t hold the event.

Though innovation and ideas start with “i”, they’re not the same. Ideas are inexpensive to create but deliver no value. Innovation is expensive and delivers extreme value to customers and the company. If you’re not willing to convert the ideas into something that delivers values to customers, save the money and do continuous improvement. Your best people will leave, but at least you won’t waste money on creating ideas that will die on the vine.

If the resources aren’t lined up to run with the ideas, don’t generate the them. If you haven’t allocated the funding for the follow-on work, don’t create new ideas. If the person who is charged with growing the business isn’t asking for new ideas, don’t hold the ideation event.

You already have too many ideas. But what you lack is too few active projects to convert the best ideas into products and services that generate value for your customers and growth for your company.

Stop creating new ideas and start delivering novel usefulness to your customers.

Image credit – Marco Nürnberger

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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