Archive for February, 2015

The Lonely Chief Innovation Officer

lonerChief Innovation Officer is a glorious title, and seems like the best job imaginable.  Just imagine – every-day-all-day it’s: think good thoughts, imagine the future, and bring new things to life.  Sounds wonderful, but more than anything, it’s a lonely slog.

In theory it’s a great idea – help the company realize (and acknowledge) what it’s doing wrong (and has been for a long time now), take resources from powerful business units and move them to a fledgling business units that don’t yet sell anything, and do it without creating conflict.  Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Though there are several common problems with the role of Chief Innovation Officer (CIO), the most significant structural issue, by far, is the CIO has no direct control over how resources are allocated. Innovation creates products, services and business models that are novel, useful and successful.  That means innovation starts with ideas and ends with commercialized products and services.  And no getting around it, this work requires resources.  The CIO is charged with making innovation come to be, yet authority to allocate resources is withheld. If you’re thinking about hiring a Chief Innovation Officer, here’s a rule to live by:

If resources are not moved to projects that generate novel ideas, convert those ideas into crazy prototypes and then into magical products that sell like hotcakes, even the best Chief Innovation Officer will be fired within two years.

Structurally, I think it’s best if the powerful business units (who control the resources) are charged with innovation and the CIO is charged with helping them.  The CIO helps the business units create a forward-looking mindset, helps bring new thinking into the old equation, and provides subject matter expertise from outside the company.  While this addresses the main structural issue, it does not address the loneliness.

The CIO’s view of what worked is diametrically opposed to those that made it happen.  Where the business units want to do more of what worked, the CIO wants to dismantle the engine of success.  Where the engineers that designed the last product want to do wring out more goodness out of the aging hulk that is your best product, the CIO wants to obsolete it.  Where the business units see the tried-and-true business model as the recipe for success, the CIO sees it as a tired old cowpath leading to the same old dried up watering hole.  If this sounds lonely, it’s because it is.

To combat this fundamental loneliness, the CIO needs to become part of a small group of trusted CIOs from non-competing companies. (NDAs required, of course.)  The group provides its members much needed perspective, understanding and support.  At the first meeting the CIO is comforted by the fact that loneliness is just part of the equation and, going forward, no longer takes it personally.  Here are some example deliverables for the group.

Identify the person who can allocate resources and put together a plan to help that person have a big problem (no incentive compensation?) if results from the innovation work are not realized.

Make a list of the active, staffed technology projects and categorize them as: improving what already exists, no-to-yes (make a product/service do something it cannot), or yes-to-no (eliminate functionality to radically reduce the cost signature and create new markets).

For the active, staffed projects, define the market-customer-partner assumptions (market segment, sales volume, price, cost, distribution and sales models) and create a plan to validate (or invalidate) them.

To the person with the resources and the problem if the innovation work fizzles, present the portfolio of the active, staffed projects and its validated roll-up of net profit, and ask if portfolio meets the growth objectives for the company.  If yes, help the business execute the projects and launch the products/services.  If no, put a plan together to run Innovation Burst Events (IBEs) to come up with more creative ideas that will close the gap.

The burning question is – How to go about creating a CIO group from scratch?  For that, you need to find the right impresario that can pull together a seemingly disparate group of highly talented CIOs, help them forge a trusting relationship and bring them the new thinking they need.

Finding someone like that may be the toughest thing of all.

Image credit – Giant Humanitarian Robot.


Innovation is a Choice

motivationA body in motion tends to stay in motion, unless it’s perturbed by an external force.  And, it’s the same with people – we keep doing what we’re doing until there’s a reason we cannot.  If it worked, there’s no external force to create changes, so we do more of what worked.  If it didn’t work, while that should result in an external force strong enough to create change, often it doesn’t and we try more of what didn’t work, but try it harder.  Though the scenarios are different, in both the external force is insufficient to create new behavior.

In order to know which camp you’re in, it’s important to know how we decide between what worked and what didn’t (or between working and not working).  To decide, we compare outcomes to expectations, and if outcomes are more favorable than our expectations, it worked; if less favorable, it didn’t.  It’s strange, but true – what we expect delineates what worked from what didn’t and what’s good enough from what isn’t.  In that way, it’s our choice.

Whether our business model is working, isn’t working, or hasn’t worked, what we think and do about it is our choice.  What that means is, regardless of the magnitude of the external force, we decide if it’s large enough to do our work differently or do different work.  And because innovation starts with different, what that means is innovation is a choice – our choice.

Really, though, external forces don’t create new behavior, internal forces do.  We watch the culture around us and sense the external forces it creates on us, then we look inside and choose to apply the real force behind innovation – our intrinsic motivation.  If we’re motivated by holding on to what we have, we’ll spend little of our life force on innovation.  If we’re motivated by a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, we’ll empty our tank in the name of innovation.

Who is tasked with innovation at your company is an important choice, because while the tools and methods of innovation can be taught, a person’s intrinsic motivation, a fundamental forcing function of innovation, cannot.

Image credit – Ed Yourdon

The Best Leading Indicator of Innovation

Balancing ActEvaluation of innovation efforts is a hot topic. Sometimes it seems evaluating innovation is more important than innovation itself.

Metrics, indicators, best practices, success stories – everyone is looking for the magical baseline data to compare to in order to define shortcomings and close them. But it’s largely a waste of time, because with innovation, it’s different every time. Look back two years – today’s technology is different, the market is different, and the people are different. If you look back and evaluate what went on and then use that learning to extrapolate what will happen in the future, well, that’s like driving a Formula One car around the track while looking in the rear view mirror. You will crash and you will get hurt because, by definition, with innovation, what you did in the past no longer applies, even to you.

Here’s a rule – when you look backward to steer your innovation work, you crash.

When you compare yourself to someone else’s innovation rearward looking innovation metrics, it’s worse. Their market was different than yours is, their company culture was different than yours is, their company mission and values were different. Their situation no longer applies to them and it’s less applicable to you, yet that’s what you’re doing when you compare yourself to a rearview mirror look at a best practice company. Crazy.

We’re fascinated with innovation metrics that are easy to measure, but we shouldn’t be. Anything that’s easy to measure cannot capture the nuance of innovation. For example, the number of innovation projects you ran over the last two years is meaningless. What’s meaningful is the incremental profit generated by the novel deliverables of the work and your level of happiness with the incremental profit. Number of issued patents is also meaningless. What’s meaningful is the incremental profit created by the novel goodness of the patented technology and your level of happiness with it. Number of people that worked on innovation projects or the money spent – meaningless. Meaningful – incremental profit generated by the novel elements of the work divided by the people (or cost) that created the novel elements and your level of happiness with it.

Things are a bit better with forward looking metrics – or leading indicators – but not much. Again, our fascination with things that are easy to measure kicks us in the shins. Number of patent applications, number of people working on projects, number of fully staffed technology projects, monthly spend on R&D – all of these are easily measured but are poor predictors innovation results. What if the patented technology is not valued by the customer? What if the people working on projects are working on projects that result in products that don’t sell? What if the fully staffed projects create new technologies for new markets that never come to be? What if your monthly spend is spent on projects that miss the mark?

To me, the only meaningful leading indicator for innovation is a deep understanding of your active technology projects. What must the technology do so the new market will buy it? How do you know that? Can you quantify that goodness in a quantifiable way? Will you know when that goodness has been achieved? In what region will the product be sold? What is the cost target, profit margin and the new customers’ ability to pay? What are the results of the small experiments where the team tested the non-functional prototypes and their price points in the new market? What does the curve look like for price point versus sales volume? What is your level of happiness with all this?

We have an unhealthy fascination with innovation metrics that are easy to measure. Instead of a sea of metrics that are easy to measure, we need nuanced leading indicators that are meaningful. And I cannot give you a list of meaningful leading indicators, because each company has a unique list which is defined by its growth objectives, company culture and values, business models, and competition. And I cannot give you threshold limits for any of them because only you can define that. The leading indicators and their threshold values are context-specific – only you can choose them and only you can judge what levels make you happy.  Innovation is difficult because it demands judgment, and no metrics or leading indicators can take judgment out of the equation.

Creativity creates things that are novel and useful while innovation creates things that are novel, useful and successful. Dig into the details of your active technology projects and understand them from a customer-market perspective, because success comes only when customers buy your new products.

Image credit – coloneljohnbritt

Constructive Conflict

Dragoon Jumping and Double SpearsInnovation starts with different, and when you propose something that’s different from the recipe responsible for success, innovation becomes the enemy of success. And because innovation and different are always joined at the hip, the conflict between success and innovation is always part of the equation. Nothing good can come from pretending the conflict does not exist, and it’s impossible to circumvent. The only way to deal with the conflict is to push through it.

Emotional energy is the forcing function that pushes through conflict, and the only people that can generate it are the people doing the work. As a leader, your job is to create and harness this invisible power, and for that, you need mechanisms.

To start, you must map innovation to “different”.  The first trick is to ask for ideas that are different. Where brainstorming asks for quantity, firmly and formally discredit it and ask for ideas that are different. And the more different, the better. Jeffrey Baumgartner has it right with his Anticonventional Thinking (ACT) methodology where he pushes even further and asks for ideas that are anti-conventional.

The intent is to create emotional energy, and to do that there’s nothing better than telling the innovation team their ideas are far too conventional. When you dismiss their best ideas because they’re not different enough, you provide clear contrast between the ideas they created and the ones you want. And this contrast creates internal conflict between their best thinking and the thinking you want.  This internal conflict generates the magical emotional energy needed to push through the conflict between innovation and success.  In that way, you create intrinsic conflict to overpower the extrinsic conflict.

Because innovation is powered by emotional energy, conflict is the right word.  Yes, it feels too strong and connotes quarrel and combat, but it’s the right word because it captures the much needed energy and intensity around the work. Just as when “opportunity” is used in place of “problem” and the urgency, importance, and emotion of the situation wanes, emotional energy is squandered when other words are used in place of “conflict”.

And it’s also the right word when it comes to solutions. Anti-conventional ideas demand anti-conventional solutions, both of which are powered by emotional energy. In the case of solutions, though, the emotional energy around “conflict” is used to overcome intellectual inertia.

Solving problems won’t get you mind-bending solutions, but breaking conflicts will. The idea is to use mechanisms and language to move from solving problems to breaking conflicts. Solving problems is regular work done as a matter of course and regular work creates regular solutions.  But with innovation, regular solutions won’t cut it.  We need irregular solutions that break from the worn tracks of predictable thinking. And do to this, all convention must be stripped away and all attachments broken to see and think differently.  And, to jolt people out of their comfort zone, contrast must be clearly defined and purposefully amplified.

The best method I know to break intellectual inertia is ARIZ and algorithmic method for innovative solutions built on the foundation of TRIZ.  With ARIZ, a functional model of the system is created using verb-noun pairs with the constraint that no industry jargon can be used. (Jargon links the mind to traditional thinking.) Then, for clarity, the functional model is then reduced to a conflict between two system elements and defined in time and place (the conflict domain.)  The conflict is then made generic to create further distance from the familiar.  From there the conflict is purposefully amplified to create a situation where one of the conflicting elements must be in two states at the same time (conflicting states) – hot and cold; large and small; stiff and flexible.  The conflicting states make it impossible to rely on preexisting solutions (familiar thinking.)  Though this short description of ARIZ doesn’t do it justice, it does make clear ARIZ’s intention – to use conflicts to break intellectual inertia.

Innovation butts heads and creates conflict with almost everything, but it’s not destructive conflict.  Innovation has the best intentions and wants only to create constructive conflict that leads to continued success. Innovation knows your tired business model is almost out of gas and desperately wants to create its replacement, but it knows your successful business model and its tried-and-true thinking are deeply rooted in the organization.  And innovation knows the roots are grounded in emotion and  it’s not about pruning it’s about  emotional uprooting.

Conflict is a powerful word, but the right word.  Use the ACT mechanism to ask for ideas that constructively conflict with your success and use the ARIZ mechanism to ask for solutions that constructively conflict with your best thinking.

With innovation there is always conflict.  You might as well make it constructive conflict and pull your organization into the future kicking and screaming.

Image credit – Kevin Thai

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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