Clarity is King

Transparent ClarityIt all starts and ends with clarity.  There’s not much to it, really.  You strip away all the talk and get right to the work you’re actually doing.  Not the work you should do, want to do, or could do.  The only thing that matters is the work you are doing right now.  And when you get down to it, it’s a short list.

There’s a strong desire to claim there’s a ton of projects happening all at once, but projects aren’t like that.  Projects happen serially.  Start one, finish one is the best way.  Sure it’s sexy to talk about doing projects in parallel, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s “one at time” until you’re done.

The thing to remember about projects is there’s no partial credit.  If a project is half done, the realized value is zero, and if a project is 95% done, the realized value is still zero (but a bit more frustrating).  But to rationalize that we’ve been working hard and that should count for something, we allocate partial credit where credit isn’t due.  This binary thinking may be cold, but it’s on-the-mark.  If your new product is 90% done, you can’t sell it – there is no realized value.  Right up until it’s launched it’s work in process inventory that has a short shelf like – kind of like ripe tomatoes you can’t sell.  If your competitor launches a winner, your yet-to-see-day light product over-ripens.

Get a pencil and paper and make the list of the active projects that are fully staffed, the ones that, come hell or high water, you’re going to deliver.  Short list, isn’t it?  Those are the projects you track and report on regularly.  That’s clarity. And don’t talk about the project you’re not yet working on because that’s clarity, too.

Are those the right projects?  You can slice them, categorize them, and estimate the profits, but with such a short list, you don’t need to.  Because there are only a few active projects, all you have to do is look at the list and decide if they fit with company expectations.  If you have the right projects, it will be clear.  If you don’t, that will be clear as well.  Nothing fancy – a list of projects and a decision if the list is good enough.  Clarity.

How will you know when the projects are done?  That’s easy – when the resources start work on the next project.  Usually we think the project ends when the product launches, but that’s not how projects are.  After the launch there’s a huge amount of work to finish the stuff that wasn’t done and to fix the stuff that was done wrong.  For some reason, we don’t want to admit that, so we hide it.  For clarity’s sake, the project doesn’t end until the resources start full-time work on the next project.

How will you know if the project was successful?  Before the project starts, define the launch date and using that launch data, set a monthly profit target.  Don’t use units sold, units shipped, or some other anti-clarity metric, use profit.  And profit is defined by the amount of money received from the customer minus the cost to make the product.  If the project launches late, the profit targets don’t move with it.  And if the customer doesn’t pay, there’s no profit.  The money is in the bank, or it isn’t.  Clarity.

Clarity is good for everyone, but we don’t behave that way.  For some reason, we want to claim we’re doing more work than we actually are which results in mis-set expectations.  We all know it’s matter of time before the truth comes out, so why not be clear?  With clarity from the start, company leaders will be upset sooner rather than later and will have enough time to remedy the situation.

Be clear with yourself that you’re highly capable and that you know your work better than anyone.  And be clear with others about what you’re working on and what you’re not.  Be clear about your test results and the problems you know about (and acknowledge there are likely some you don’t know about).

I think it all comes down to confidence and self-worth.  Have the courage wear clarity like a badge of honor.  You and your work are worth it.

Image credit – Greg Foster

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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.


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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

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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

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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

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Innovation Fortune Cookies

misfortunesIf they made innovation fortune cookies, here’s what would be inside:

If you know how it will turn out, you waited too long.

Whether you like it or not, when you start something new uncertainty carries the day.

Don’t define the idealized future state, advance the current state along its lines of evolutionary potential.

Try new things then do more of what worked and less of what didn’t.

Without starting, you never start. Starting is the most important part

Perfection is the enemy of progress, so are experts.

Disruption is the domain of the ignorant and the scared.

Innovation is 90% people and the other half technology.

The best training solves a tough problem with new tools and processes, and the training comes along for the ride.

The only thing slower than going too slowly is going too quickly.

An innovation best practice –  have no best practices.

Decisions are always made with judgment, even the good ones.

image credit – Gwen Harlow

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Top Innovation Blogger of 2014

Top 40 Innovation Bloggers 2014Innovation 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.

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Battle Success With No-To-Yes

no to yesEveryone says they want innovation, but they don’t – they want the results of innovation.

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.

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To make the right decision, use the right data.

wheels fall offWhen 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

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Innovation Through Preparation

Pack what you needInnovation is about new; innovation is about different; innovation is about “never been done before”; and innovation is about preparation.

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.

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Innovation’s Double Helix

DNA towerA 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

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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