Archive for August, 2013

The Confusing Antimatter of Novelty

Confusing Antimatter

In a confusing way, the seemingly negative elements of novelty are actually tell-tale signs you’re doing it right.  Here are some examples:

No uncertainty, no upside.
No heresy, no game-changer.
No recipe, no worries.
No ambiguity, no new markets.
No effectiveness, no success.
No efficiency, no matter.
No disagreement, no gravity.
No answers, no problem.
No problem, no innovation.
No dispute, no dilemma.
No headache, no quandary.
No obstacle, no predicament.
No unrest, no virtue.
No failure, no creativity.
No discomfort, no relevance.
No agitation, no consequence.
No questions, no significance.
No best practice, no anxiety.
No downside, no upside.

Define To Solve

problem definitionCountries want their companies to create wealth and jobs, and to do it they want them to design products, make those products within their borders, and sell the products for more than the cost to make them. It’s a simple and sustainable recipe which makes for a highly competitive landscape, and it’s this competition that fuels innovation.

When companies do innovation they convert ideas into products which they make (jobs) and sell (wealth). But for innovation, not any old idea will do; innovation is about ideas that create novel and useful functionality. And standing squarely between ideas and commercialization are tough problems that must be solved. Solve them and products do new things (or do them better), become smaller, lighter, or faster, and people buy them (wealth).

But here’s the part to remember – problems are the precursor to innovation.

Before there can be an innovation you must have a problem. Before you develop new materials, you must have problems with your existing ones; before your new products do things better, you must have a problem with today’s; before your products are miniaturized, your existing ones must be too big. But problems aren’t acknowledged for their high station.

There are problems with problems – there’s an atmosphere of negativity around them, and you don’t like to admit you have them. And there’s power in problems – implicit in them are the need for change and consequence for inaction. But problems can be more powerful if you link them tightly and explicitly to innovation. If you do, problem solving becomes a far more popular sport, which, in turn, improves your problem solving ability.

But the best thing you can do to improve your problem solving is to spend more time doing problem definition. But for innovation not any old problem definition will. Innovation requires level 5 problem definition where you take the time to define problems narrowly and deeply, to define them between just two things, to define when and where problems occur, to define them with sketches and cartoons to eliminate words, and to dig for physical mechanisms.

With the deep dive of level 5 you avoid digging in the wrong dirt and solving the wrong problem because it pinpoints the problem in space and time and explicitly calls out its mechanism. Level 5 problem definition doesn’t define the problem, it defines the solution.

It’s not glamorous, it’s not popular, and it’s difficult, but this deep, mechanism-based problem definition, where the problem is confined tightly in space and time, is the most important thing you can do to improve innovation.

With level 5 problem definition you can transform your company’s profitability and your country’s economy. It does not get any more relevant than that.

The Invisible Rut of Success

It’s easier to spot when it’s a rut of failure – product costs too high, product function is too low, and the feeding frenzy where your competitors eat your profits for lunch. Easy, yes, but still possible to miss, especially when everyone’s super busy cranking out heaps of the same old stuff in the same old way, and demonstrating massive amounts of activity without making any real progress. It’s like treading water – lots of activity to keep your head above water, but without the realization you’re just churning in the same place.

But far more difficult to see (and far more dangerous) is the invisible rut of success, where cranking out the same old stuff in the same old way is lauded.  Simply put – there’s no visible reason to change. More strongly put, when locked in this invisible rut newness is shunned and newness makers are ostracized. In short, there’s a huge disincentive to change and immense pressure to deepen the rut.

To see the invisible run requires the help of an outsider, an experienced field guide who can interpret the telltale signs of the rut and help you see it for what it is.  For engineering, the rut looks like cranking out derivative products that reuse the tired recipes from the previous generations;  it looks like using the same old materials in the same old ways; like running the same old analyses with the same old tools; all-the-while with increasing sales and praise for improved engineering productivity.

And once your trusted engineering outsider helps you see your rut for what it is, it’s time to figure out how to pull your engineering wagon out of the deep rut of success.  And with your new plan in hand, it’s finally time to point your engineering wagon in a new direction. The good news – you’re no longer in a rut and can choose a new course heading; the bad news – you’re no longer in a rut so you must choose one.

It’s difficult to see your current success as the limiting factor to your future success, and once recognized it’s difficult to pull yourself out of your rut and set a new direction.  One bit of advice – get help from a trusted outsider.  And who can you trust?  You can trust someone who has already pulled themselves out of their invisible rut of success.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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