There’s a lot of negativity around us. But it’s not upfront, unadulterated negativity; it’s behind-the-scenes, hunkering, almost translucent negativity. And it’s divisive.
This type of negativity is so pervasive it’s almost invisible. It’s everywhere; we have processes built around it; have organizations dedicated to it; and we use it daily to drive action.
Take continuous improvement for example. It has been a standard toolset and philosophy for making things better. Yet it’s founded on negativity. It’s not anti-people, anti-culture negativity. (In fact lean and Six Sigma go on their way to emphasize positive culture as a key foundation.) It’s subtle negativity that slowly grinds. Look at the language: reduce defects, eliminate waste, corrective action, tight feedback loops, and eliminate failure modes. There is a negative tint. It’s not in your face, but it’s there.
I’m an advocate of lean and I have advocated for Six Sigma, both of which have moved the needle. But there’s a minimization thread running through them. Both are about eliminating and reducing what is. Sure they have their place, but enough is enough. We need more of creating what isn’t, and bringing to life things that aren’t. We need more maximization.
Negativity has become natural, and positivity has become an endangered species. When there’s a crisis we all come together instinctively to eliminate the bad thing. Yet it’s fourth or fifth nature to come together spontaneously when things go well. Yes, sometimes we celebrate, but it’s the exception. And it’s certainly not our first instinct. (Actually, I don’t think we have a word for spontaneous amplification of positivity. Celebration is the closest word I know, but it’s not the right one.)
Negative feedback is good for processes and positive feedback is good for people. Processes like when their flaws are eliminated, and people like when their strengths are amplified. It’s negativity for processes, and positivity for people.
There should be a rebalancing of negativity and positivity. For every graph of defect reduction over time, there should be a sister plot of the number of good things that happened over time. For every failure mode and effects analysis there should be a fishbone of chart of strengths and the associated actions to amplify them.
It’s natural for us to count bad things and make them go away, and not so natural to count good things and multiply them. Take at the meeting agendas. My bet is there’s far more minimization than maximization.
I usually end my posts with some specific call to action or recommendation. But for this one I don’t have anything all that meaty. But I will tell you how I’m going to move forward. When I see good work, I’m going to publicly acknowledge it and send emails of praise to the manager of the folks who did the good stuff. I’m going to track the number of emails I send and each week increase the number by one. I’m going to schedule regular meetings where I can publicly praise people that display passion. And I’m going to create a control chart of the number of times I amplify positivity.
And most of all I will try to keep in front of me that everything we do is all about people, and with people positivity is powerful.
I used to believe in control, now I believe in trust.
I used to believe in process, now I believe in judgment.
I used to believe in WHAT and HOW, now I believe in WHO and WHY.
I used to believe in organizational structure, now I believe in personal relationships.
I used to believe in best practices, now I believe in the judgment to choose the right practices.
I used to believe in shoring up weaknesses, now I believe in building on strengths.
I used to believe in closing the gap, now I believe in the preferential cowpath.
I used to believe in innovation, now I believe in inspiration.
I used to believe in corrective action, now I believe in passionate action.
I used to believe in top down, now I believe in the people that do the work.
I used to believe in going fast, now I believe in doing it right as the means to go fast.
I used to believe in the product development process, now I believe in the people executing it.
I used to believe the final destination, now I believe in the current location.
I used to believe in machines, now I believe in the people that run them.
I used to believe in technology, now I believe in the people developing it.
I used to believe in hierarchy, now I believe in personal responsibility.
But if there’s one thing to believe in, I believe in people.
With websites, e-books, old fashioned books, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and blogs, there’s a seemingly limitless flood of information on every facet of business. There are heaps on innovation, new product development, lean, sales and marketing, manufacturing, and strategy; and within each there are elements and sub elements that fan out with multiple approaches.
With today’s search engines and bots to automatically scan the horizon, it’s pretty easy to find what you’re looking for especially as you go narrow and deep. If you want to find best practices for reducing time-to-market for products designed in the US and manufactured in China, ask Google and she’ll tell you instantly. If you’re looking to improve marketing of healthcare products for the 20 to 40 year old demographic of the developing world, just ask Siri.
It’s now easy to separate the good stuff from the chaff and focus narrowly on your agenda. It’s like you have the capability dig into a box of a thousand puzzle pieces and pull out the very one you’re looking for. Finding the right puzzle piece is no longer the problem, the problem now is figuring out how they all fit together.
What holds the pieces together? What’s the common thread that winds through innovation, sales, marketing, and manufacturing? What is the backplane behind all this business stuff?
The backplane, and first fundamental, is product.
Every group has their unique work, and it’s all important – and product cuts across all of it. You innovate on product; sell product; manufacture product; service product. The shared context is the product. And I think there’s opportunity to use the shared context, this product lens, to open up design space of all our disciplines. For example how can the product change to make possible new and better marketing? How can the product change to radically simplify manufacturing? How can the product change so sales can tell the story they always wanted to tell? What innovation work must be done to create the product we all want?
In-discipline improvements have been good, but it’s time to take a step back and figure out how to create disruptive in-discipline innovations; to eliminate big discontinuities that cut across disciplines; and to establish multidisciplinary linkages and alignment to power the next evolution of our businesses. New design space is needed, and the product backplane can help.
Use the product lens to look along the backplane and see how changes in the product can bridge discontinuities across sales, marketing, and engineering. Use the common context of product to link revolutionary factory simplification to changes in the product. Use new sensors in the product to enable a new business model based on predictive maintenance. Let your imagination guide you.
It’s time to see the product for more than what it does and what it looks like. It’s time to see it as Superman’s kryptonite that constrains and limits all we do that can become Popeye’s spinach that can strengthen us to overpower all obstacles.
At the start of projects, no one knows what to do. Engineering complains the specification isn’t fully defined so they cannot start, and marketing returns fire with their complaint – they don’t yet fully understand the customer needs, can’t lock down the product requirements, and need more time. Marketing wants to keep things flexible and engineering wants to lock things down; and the result is a lot of thrashing and flailing and not nearly enough starting.
Both camps are right – the spec is only partially formed and customer needs are only partially understood – but the project must start anyway. But the situation isn’t as bad as it seems. At the start of a project fully wrung out specs and fully validated customer needs aren’t needed. What’s needed is definition of product attributes that set its character, definition of how those attributes will be measured, and definition of the competitive products. The actual values of the performance attributes aren’t needed, just their name, their relative magnitude expressed as percent improvement, and how they’ll be measured.
And to do this the project manager asks the engineering and marketing groups to work together to create simple bar charts for the most important product attributes and then schedules the meeting where the group jointly presents their single set of bar charts.
This little trick is more powerful than it seems. In order to choose competitive products, a high level characterization of the product must be roughed out; and once chosen they paint a picture of the landscape and set the context for the new product. And in order to choose the most important performance (or design) attributes, there must be convergence on why customers will buy it; and once chosen they set the context for the required design work.
Here’s an example. Audi wants to start developing a new car. The marketing-engineering team is tasked to identify the competitive products. If the competitive products are BMW 7 series, Mercedes S class, and the new monster Hyundai, the character of the new car and the character of the project are pretty clear. If the competitive products are Ford Focus, Fiat F500, and Mini Cooper, that’s a different project altogether. For both projects the team doesn’t know every specification, but it knows enough to start. And once the competitive products are defined, the key performance attributes can be selected rather easily.
But the last part is the hardest – to define how the performance characteristics will be measured, right down to the test protocols and test equipment. For the new Audi fuel economy will be measured using both the European and North American drive cycles and measured in liters per 100 kilometer and miles per gallon (using a pre-defined fuel with an 89 octane rating); interior noise will be measured in six defined locations using sound meter XYZ and expressed in decibels; and overall performance will be measured by the lap time around the Nuremburg Ring under full daylight, dry conditions, and 25 Centigrade ambient temperature, measured in minutes.
Bar charts are created with the names of the competitive vehicles (and the new Audi) below each bar and performance attribute (and units, e.g., miles per gallon) on the right. Side-by-side, it’s pretty clear how the new car must perform. Though the exact number is not know, there’s enough to get started.
At the start of a project the objective is to make sure you’re focusing on the most performance attributes and to create clarity on how the attributes (and therefore the product) will be measured. There’s nothing worse than spending engineering resources in the wrong area. And it’s doubly bad if your misplaced efforts actually create constraints that limit or reduce performance of the most important attributes. And that’s what’s to be avoided.
As the project progresses, marketing converges on a detailed understanding of customer needs, and engineering converges on a complete set of specifications. But at the start, everything is incomplete and no part of the project is completely nailed down.
The trick is to define the most important things as clearly as possible, and start.
More-with-less is our mantra for innovation. But these three simple words are dangerous because they push us almost exclusively toward efficiency. On the surface, efficiency innovations sound good, and they can be, but more often than not efficiency innovations are about less and fewer. When you create a new technology that does more and costs less the cost reduction comes from fewer hours by fewer people. And if the cash created by the efficiency finances more efficiency, there are fewer jobs. When you create an innovative process that enables a move from machining to forming, hard tooling and molding machines reduce cost by reducing labor hours. And if the profits fund more efficiency, there are fewer jobs. When you create an innovative new material that does things better and costs less, the reduced costs come from fewer labor hours to process the material. And if more efficiency is funded, there are less people with jobs. (The cost reduction could also come from lower cost natural resources, but their costs are low partly because digging them up is done with fewer labor hours, or more efficiently.)
But more-with-less and the resulting efficiency improvements are helpful when their profits are used to fund disruptive innovation. With disruptive innovation the keywords are still less and fewer, but instead of less cost, the product’s output is less; and instead of fewer labor hours, the product does fewer things and satisfies fewer people.
It takes courage to run innovation projects that create products that do less, but that’s what has to happen. When disruptive technologies are young they don’t perform as well as established technologies, but they come with hidden benefits that ultimatley spawn new markets, and that’s what makes them special. But in order to see these translucent benefits you must have confidence in yourself, openness, and a deep personal desire to make a difference. But that’s not enough because disruptive innovations threaten the very thing that made you successful – the products you sell today and the people that made it happen. And that gets to the fundamental difference between efficiency innovations and disruptive innovations.
Efficiency innovations are about doing the familiar in a better way – same basic stuff, similar product functionality, and sold the same way to the same people. Disruptive innovations are about doing less than before, doing it with a less favorable cost signature, and doing it for different (and far fewer) people. Where efficiency innovation is familiar, disruptive innovation is contradictory. And this difference sets the the pace of the two innovations. Where efficiency innovation is governed by the speed of the technology, disruptive innovation is governed by the speed of people.
With efficiency innovations, when the technology is ready it jumps into the product and the product jumps into the market. With disruptive innovations, when the technology is ready it goes nowhere because people don’t think it’s ready – it doesn’t do enough. With efficiency innovations, the new technology serves existing customers so it launches; with disruptive, technology readiness is insufficient because people see no existing market and no existing customers so they make it languish in the corner. With efficiency, it launches when ready because margins are better than before; with disruptive, it’s blocked because people don’t see how the new technology will ultimately mature to overtake and replace the tired mainstream products (or maybe because they do.)
Done poorly efficiency innovation is a race to the bottom; done well it funds disruptive innovation and the race to the top. When coordinated the two play together nicely, but they are altogether different. One is about doing the familiar in a more efficient way, and the other is about disrupting and displacing the very thing (and people) that made you successful.
Most importantly, efficiency innovation moves at the speed of technology while disruptive innovation moves at the speed of people.
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.
Countries 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.
It’s amazing how strongly what you did last time governs what you do this time. In fact it’s impossible to separate today’s choices from yesterday’s actions. And even more amazing is your brain’s power to blind yourself from your self-governing. You stealthily create assumptions, and without your knowledge erect walls of invisible constraints. Invisible, yes, but self-limiting none-the-less.
Your brain does this naturally, but the ready-fire-aim, everything’s late, drag racing culture increases the pace your brain builds walls and turns up the cloaking power to eleven.
What you need to do is take a step back, give yourself some time, and breathe. And this medicinal pause cannot be done at home on personal time – it must be done on the job during the regular day and on company time. And it cannot be done in meetings, not at lunch, and not during your work day commute.
But this is not enough. You need active digging to uncover buried assumptions and deep rooted constraints. And you have to know what they look like as your shovel scrapes, scratches, and clanks through the dirt. Here are a few:
Your new product must do everything the last one did, and more; it must serve the same broad market and establish new ones; and it must replace three legacy products and work flawlessly on all continents.
Crushing constraints and skinning assumptions demands new language. Instead of more, think less; instead of broad, think narrow; and instead of what it will do, think what it won’t do.
You don’t have to dig deeply to find your fundamental constraints and assumptions. In fact they are hiding in plain sight. Like miles per gallon and cost per pound, think about what you spend your day improving – think about what you’ve always improved. Think about what makes your product successful. Think about what’s front-and-center in your marketing literature. Your self-made constraints have become intimately attached to the things that made you successful. And like old keys on your key chain, they’re awkward, they get in the way, and they don’t start your car, but you carry them with you without questioning why.
Next week, take a half day and ask yourself – What’s possible if you give ground on the very thing that’s made you great? What’s possible if you serve only a narrow (but juicy) slice of the market? What’s possible if your new product does less but does more for the developing market?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I know one thing – if you don’t try, nothing is possible.
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.
For systems with high levels of complexity, such as organizations, business models, and cross-domain business processes, it’s characterize the current state, identify the future state, and figure out how to close the gap. That’s how I was trained. Simple, elegant, and no longer fits me.
The block diagram of the current state is neat and clean. Sure, there are interactions and feedback loops but, known inputs generate known outputs. But for me there are problems with the implicit assumptions. Implicit is the notion that the block diagram correctly represents current state; that uncontrollable environmental elements won’t change the block diagram; that a new box or two and new inputs (the changes to achieve the idealized future state) won’t cause the blocks to change their transfer functions or disconnect themselves from blocks or rewire themselves to others.
But what really tipped me over was the realization that the blocks aren’t blocks at all. The blocks are people (or people with a thin wrapper of process around), and it’s the same for the inputs. When blocks turn to people, the complexity of the current state becomes clear, and it becomes clear it’s impossible to predict how the system will response when it’s prodded and cajoled toward the idealized future state. People don’t respond the same way to the same input, never mind respond predictably and repeatably to new input. When new people move to the neighborhood, the neighborhood behaves differently. People break relationships and form others at will. For me, the implicit assumptions no longer hold water.
For me the only way to know how a complex system will respond to rewiring and new input is to make small changes and watch it respond. If the changes are desirable, do more of that. If the changes are undesirable, do less.
With this approach the work moves from postulation to experimentation and causation – many small changes running parallel with the ability to discern the implications. And the investigations are done in a way to capture causality and maintain system integrity. Generate learning but don’t break the system.
It’s a low risk way to go because before wide-scale implementation the changes have already been validated. Scaling will be beneficial, safe, and somewhat quantifiable. And the stuff that didn’t work will never see the light of day.
If someone has an idea, and it’s coherent, it should be tested. And instead of arguing over whose idea will be tested, it becomes a quest to reduce the cost of the experiments and test the most ideas.
If you’re sitting in the present, you’re sitting in a good place – you’re more mindful of what’s going on, more aware of your thinking, and more thoughtful of your actions. But there’s one thing sitting in the present can’t provide, and that’s perspective. To create perspective, to understand the hows and whys of your journey to the present, requires reflection on the past. But to self reflect without distorting the image requires separation from your present.
Here’s an idea to create separation – an exercise in mental time travel where your past becomes your present and your present becomes your future. It goes like this: Set your mental way-back machine for five years ago, turn the crank and jump back to a five-years-ago present. From your seat in your new present (your past), erase your future (your present) to open it up to unlimited possibilities. Now, imagine a future (one of the infinite possible futures) that is identical to the one that actually happened. (But remember, you don’t know it happened, so it’s only a potential future state.) Okay. You’re now ready to mint your own perspective.
From your seat in your new present (your past), ask yourself three questions.
If your imagined future (your actual present state) came to be:
- How would you feel about your relationships with your friends, your community, and your family?
- How would you feel about your health?
- How would you feel about the alignment between your actions, values, and passions?
With your answers in hand (and I suggest you actually write them down), use your way-back machine to jump forward to the present present. Sitting in the present (the real one), read your answers (written five years ago) to the three questions above.
How do you feel about your answers? What do you like about your answers? What makes you uncomfortable? What surprised you? Write down your answers because that’s the unfiltered perspective you were looking for.
Now the valuable part – two final questions (write down the actual answers):
Taking guidance from your newly self-minted perspective:
- Going forward, while sitting in the present, what will you do more of?
- Going forward, while sitting in the present, what will you do less of?
If you are sufficiently intrigued (or confused) to try the exercise and find value in it, please pay it forward and share it with others.
And don’t forget to repeat the process every year.