I was recently asked to contribute a short piece to the blog section of a new website - OnInnovation. It's sponsored by the Henry Ford Foundation, and is intended to collect insights from innovators and thought leaders, and enable people to connect with their ideas. I thought it was a great idea, and one worth supporting. Below is an intro and link to my post:
Preserving Dignity to Drive Creativity
Posted August 10, 2010
We’ve all had the nightmares in one form or another. You find yourself at a podium and you forgot what your speech was about. Or you are at the office and realize that you aren’t wearing any pants. These nightmares are powerful reminders of our deep seated fear of exposing ourselves to the judgment of [...] Read Complete Post
I'd love to know what you think of the site. Does it have legs?
This fall I'll be teaching a class at the business school at BU. It should be an interesting experience, as the class emphasizes multidisciplinary product development. This class has been offered for a while, so the materials are pretty well set. I'm looking forward to collaborating with the other faculty members, as we each teach a section within a specific discipline, but the students' project needs to span the disciplines.
I'll be teaching an Operations section, and what will be interesting is that I'll be able to focus on making the connections many clients have trouble with. For example, if the students learn about market research in one class, they seldom learn how a consumer need could impact an internal, operational decision. Making these connections will be fun, and I will be interested to explore the students' natural aptitude for making these types of connections. I'm curious about whether or not people are more holistic thinkers naturally, and whether it's the corporate silo system that beats it out of them. I'm also curious to know whether this type of thinking is hard-wired into some people, or whether it can be learned. Of course I don't expect there to be black and white answers to these questions, but I will be curious about the trends.
A friend asked me what was the most important point I wanted to get across in the class. From my perspective, I'd love for the students to understand that the tools and processes necessary to develop a product are not usually the best tools and processes to generate ideas for new products. This is where I see many clients get into trouble. I think the question comes down to whether or not you truly have the courage to start with the unknown, rather than an idea for a known, tangible product. I'd also like to make sure they truly understand the difference between a product specification and the criteria for an offering that will be valued by the market. Most people think these are the same, but they are very, very different.
I'm sure that by the end of the semester I'm sure my expectations will need to be reset in ways I can't imagine. But now I just hope I can impart some wisdom beyond their textbook learning to help them to do more meaningful work. I'd like to help them to be the type of employees that may not be described as the best behaved, but as the ones whose ideas actually work.
I was recently reminded of the "hit rate" for investment in innovation (I'm also including entrepreneurial ventures here). Most companies, VC's and others use estimates as rules of thumb. An optimistic one is something like 1/3 of their investments will be winners, 1/3 will break even, and 1/3 will fail. Others are more like 1% will be wild successes, 2 - 3% will do OK, and the rest will fail.
What's interesting to me is that most people accept these rules of thumb. The reason why this is interesting is because this means that for the most part, people buy into the idea that the likely success of a new venture is largely random. And yet there is a lot of money being spent on market research, market testing, basic due diligence, etc. before deciding to pursue a new opportunity.
Clearly, there are forces at work that the current business community and education system do not yet recognize, let alone support and develop. Steve Jobs' success at identifying and developing winning ideas may be intuitive, but it is not as if he is a magic person with a crystal ball. He is just an example of someone who naturally has the ability to connect underlying market motivations with new and different offerings to satisfy them. I'm sure there are others who have this natural ability, but if they do not also have the desire or skill to be the CEO of a large company, then the output of this ability will not be as apparent.
There is a lot of talk about the "new economy", and how the skills that got us through the industrial age will not work to take us forward. And yet we are so entrenched in nurturing the skills necessary for success in the industrial age, that we no longer remember the fact that it took a lot to get people to focus less holistically so they could work more efficiently within the required corporate silos.
Success in the future will require that we recognize, develop, and nurture the ability to think holistically; to be able to see similarities in ideas and objects that appear dissimilar on the surface. This is what is necessary to make a connection between an underlying motivation, and developing a new solution to satisfy that motivation. In my opinion, the current "rules of thumb" tolerate a lot of waste in the system. I think we can do better. Until then I'll continue my work in helping to build a linear path for organizations to reduce the random nature of their innovation investments. It seems that it's currently the only way for the people who can think like Steve Jobs, but are not Steve Jobs, to make their ideas heard.
This all makes me wonder about two things. Will we ever get to the point where most of us can spot the difference between a good creative idea and a bad creative idea before we invest in developing a product to see real market results? And will we ever get to a point where people will recognize the limitations of linear logic, and use it in good balance with more holistic logic?
I've been talking to some people in the software industry about innovation, and we were comparing my innovation and development processes to agile and waterfall development processes used in the software industry. At first glance, I thought it was a straightforward comparison; that the innovation process I describe is analogous to the agile development process, and the development process I describe is analogous to the waterfall development process. After thinking about it more, I realized that it wasn't so simple.
The similarities are that the innovation process and the agile process are both iterative, while the development process and the waterfall process are both sequential. In fact the development process I describe the waterfall development process used in the software industry are very similar, and work well when a process is known, needs to be repeated, and it's important to optimize it. As I described many times, the system falls apart when companies try to innovate beyond incremental improvements when using this process. The problem in the software industry is that the waterfall process is too often used to develop very new products. As a result, people spend time trying to estimate very detailed steps required to develop something new. However, if it's completely new, these steps are often unknowable.
While the development and waterfall processes are similar, I realized that the innovation and agile processes are only similar in that they are iterative. The main difference is that the innovation process as I describe it is used to figure out what new products and services should be developed. It requires a deep understanding of the market, and the ability to translate market needs into criteria for a successful offering. On the other hand, the agile development process is an iterative way to develop an offering that has already been defined. What is not known is the best way to develop the offering, because it is the first time it is being developed. The future is uncertain, and this process acknowledges that as long as progress is made toward a defined goal, the correct steps will be taken at that time.
This also points out why many companies may fail to develop breakthrough innovations even though they are working with iterative processes while they develop new offerings. Ultimately, development processes of any type are best used to develop defined offerings. You can't "develop" your way to a breakthrough. That can only be done by understanding what motivates the market, and translating that motivation into criteria the development team can work with - whether they iterate it or not.
Last year I wrote a post about getting multidisciplinary teams right. I've recently been asked to speak about building teams for innovation and put together this slide that elaborates on the ideas I wrote about. Later I'll get into more detail about selecting the right people to work on innovation teams, but for now I'll just say that in my opinion, the most important differences between people who naturally fit better in innovation teams, vs development teams, are these: People who are successful working in innovation teams (in this case I called it Opportunity Definition Teams), have a problem-posing mindset, as opposed to a problem-solving mindset. They also are synthesizing information and drawing connections between seemingly unrelated disciplines and ideas. Problem solving mindsets favor analyzing information, and breaking down problems into manageable parts.
I talk a lot about how innovation work is different if you
are developing an incremental innovation vs a truly breakthrough product.
As you can expect, the question then comes up about how a breakthrough product
should be defined. This is a great question, and I’ve done a lot of
thinking about it. What’s interesting is that the definition can change
if you take an internal company perspective, vs a market perspective, so I’ll
try to reconcile why these differences may exist.
From a market oriented perspective, a true breakthrough is a
product (or service, or other type of offering) that enables people to access
benefits that would otherwise be out of reach. Sometimes we see this
happen through products that have been incrementally improved to the point that
the originally intended benefits are finally accessible to the intended
consumers. Other times, this happens when a technology or category is
created that makes all existing alternatives obsolete.
This is why it can be confusing to define a breakthrough
from an internal company perspective. Inside a company, an incremental
improvement may not be seen as a breakthrough innovation, even though it may be
the point at which the market is finally disrupted. This is why I choose
to take the market perspective, since an innovation is ultimately judged by its
impact on the market. A breakthrough disrupts a market dynamic. It
doesn’t really matter how you get there, but it does matter that you understand
your market well enough to identify the dynamics you want to disrupt, and
intentionally develop products that will achieve that goal.
In my last post I discussed four dimensions of innovation. Innovation is a very broad term, and impasses in understanding often result when people are using similar terms to describe very different things. In summary:
Innovation for Optimization - Creating and developing new ways to manufacture and deliver existing offerings to the market.
Innovation for Improvement - Improving the existing offering as it is perceived by the market.
Innovation for Invention - Developing new offerings that will deliver known benefits in ways that are currently unknown, but ultimately more relevant to the market.
Innovation for Disruption - Developing an offering that changes the competitive landscape of the market.
In distinguishing between different dimensions of innovation, we can begin to see that working to achieve the goals of each type of innovation requires very different types of problem-posing and problem-solving skills. This also results in the need to make sure the innovation process itself is conducive to the work that needs to be done. Let's think about how the process may differ to best enable each Dimension.
If we think about the first two Dimensions - Optimization and Improvement - the similarity is that the criteria for a successful is already defined, and the benchmarks are well established. With Optimization, the goal is to deliver the same offering that has always been delivered. Success can be easily measured. With Improvement, the offering is different from the existing offering, but the existing offering is used in comparison and as a benchmark. Since both of these Dimensions can be compared to what the company is currently doing, the existing development process is probably fine for managing the work. Yes, issues arise when teams try to introduce levels of variation in Improvement projects, but most often, the process itself will dictate how far the variation can stray from the norm.
In most companies, Innovation for Improvement is about as far as they can go in developing something new. That's because that's the limit of most existing development processes. If they can even attempt the second two Dimensions - Invention and Disruption - they struggle with them at best. Think of the large corporations that spend lots of money on blue-sky R&D, open-ended market research, and open solicitation of new ideas that have a difficult time getting a new invention or disruption out the door. That's because the existing development processes are not equiped to handle such a great variation on the theme. Different processes are necessary to achieve the goals of the Invention and Disruption Dimensions.
So what does a process for Innovation for Invention and Disruption look like? While the details may vary, there are some basic components that are necessary:
The main goal of this process is to define the criteria for a successful offering. Just as Innovation for Optimization and Improvement start with a benchmark, it is equally necessary to know how to tell if we've done a good job. This criteria is more fundamental than a benchmark, and is often described in terms of market motivation as expressed as an opportunity that informs all the other business disciplines. (Notice that it is not a fully formed solution. It needs to enable multiple solutions, and transcend specific technology solutions. It should guide the development of new technology, not be a result of it.) Once this is in place, the other components follow:
It is not random. Just because existing benchmarks are not relevant, that does not give license to just make things up. This does not mean that everything needs to be linear, quite the contrary. Non-linear and random are not always related. If you've done a good job of creating the success criteria this will become obvious to the right people. Which leads us to people:
The people need to have strong problem-posing abilities. Too many random solutions live past their useful life because of a lack of problem-posing abilities in an organization. In this process we must first pose the right problem, the solution to which will satisfy the success criteria. This will then set the stage for any problem-solving activities.
The team should be multi-disciplinary. Although people must first be selected for problem-posing abilities, they should also come from different disciplines. This will help the team to avoid blind-spots, as well as ensure that the opportunity is translated accurately to the rest of the organization.
It must feed a development process. Development processes are good at delivering an offering to the market. The opportunity must be defined in such a way that the following development processes is informed, but not spoon-fed. Therefore it is good to have some crossover people from the development team involved in the innovation process, as well as have some innovation team members move into the beginning of the development process. Think of a baton hand-off in a relay. It's not an abrupt hand-off at one point in time, but a gradual ramping up and down of the team members doing the transition.
These are the most important aspects, and I'm sure more points could be added. But the important point is that this process is different from the development process: It is comprised of people with different skills, has different goals and outcomes, and should not be force-fit into an existing development process. When people at your company talk about innovation, stop and think about defining what type of innovation is really needed, and then make sure the right process is being used to realistically enable it, and outsource it if you need to.
Last night I attended a panel discussion on Smart Medical Devices, put on by the Biomedical Engineering Society. There was a lot of discussion about the definition of Smart Devices, new technologies (which were very impressive), and ultimately the discussion found its way to pointing out the need for biomedical engineers to act as translators between the engineering and medical communities.
Sound familiar? This is exactly the type of discussion that goes on in design thinking circles. Just as it's important for designers to understand human needs to design better products, the same is true for designers and engineers who need to understand clinical needs to develop better products and to guide technology development. What I truly appreciated was the engineers' description of translation. This is much less confusing than the thought process of a specific discipline.
This should not be surprising. What struck me, however, was the fact that this capability was discussed as something that was necessary, but the problem was in finding engineers who were interested in spending time in the field. It was suggested that typical engineers would rather develop cool new technologies, and weren't as interested in solving problems in a low-tech way.
In my work, I have never encountered a designer, engineer, or marketing person who was unhappy that I was able to identify the problem that needed to be solved, and present it as criteria that was relevant to them. However, I have often found that most designers, engineers, and marketing people who work in development processes are much more interested in solving problems than in identifying them. My main takeaway from this event is that there is a burgeoning frustration with people trying to solve their way to problem identification. It just doesn't work.
As I've discussed in many previous posts, problem-solving and problem-posing are very different activities and require different skills. It's unrealistic to expect a doctor to define the engineering challenge, just as it is to expect the consumer to define your new product breakthrough. Problem-posers have developed the skill to discern the motivation behind what is said, regardless of what market you are in. Last night's discussion was yet another highlight of the same issue.
Of course your company isn't running a casino on purpose. But is it running one accidentally? You can tell based on its approach to innovation investment.
Does your company solicit new ideas for products and technologies in a more random fashion, investing in those that either can be executed with current resources, or do not pose much risk to the status quo? Do people know the success criteria for a breakthrough idea? In other words, is there a way to tell if a new offering with no current benchmarks is likely to succeed? Usually the answer is no.
Does this sound familiar? If it does, then your company probably casts a wide net in terms of investing in innovation. Since most ideas are likely to fail, it's better to invest in more, and more varied, options to hedge your bets. Notice I said bets, because that's exactly what the organization is doing. The innovation process is essentially providing a mechanism to place bets knowing that most will lose, and hoping that the one(s) that succeed will cover the losses. Isn't that what happens in a casino? It provides a place for people to come and place many bets, hoping that a few wins will cover the losses.
On the other hand, does your company understand its market, define new opportunities to better meet the market's needs, and develop technologies that enable new products and services to satisfy those opportunities? This may not be nearly as sexy an option at first glance, however it does provide a way to tell if radical new ideas have a chance of succeeding before investin in their development. The chance of failure in developing something truly new and different is greatly mitigated. This is the difference between investing and betting.
In a real casino, the house always wins when most bets are lost. In a real company, the only way the house always wins is to ensure success. So why are most companies pursuing the casino model?
It's funny how the planets sometimes align around a topic. This week it's the chicken and the egg question regarding technology and consumer research.
It all started last week when I was talking with a friend from a local technology start-up about the need to understand consumer (or other end-user in B2B situations) motivations in order to ensure the relevance of new product offerings. Then today I saw two interesting posts that essentially dance around the same question; when developing breakthrough innovation, which comes first? The first post is from Don Norman, and suggests that historically breakthrough innovations begin with technology, and that what he's calling design research to uncover unmet needs is only useful in developing incremental improvements. The second post is from Roy Luebke and is a response to Norman's post, suggesting that design (observational) research can point to all types of innovations.
What was interesting was that I was able to agree and disagree with both of them, based on a) how narrowly or broadly consumer research is defined, and b) the expectations for what either research or technology will deliver. Let's look at both.
First, Norman describes the tasks of design research, and points to the fact that pure technological invention was what drove the creation of many inventions from the airplane to text messaging. And I would say that taken literally, he is correct. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I view contextual research as a source of information, not answers. (I use the term contextual research because it does not focus the outcomes too narrowly.) And consumers could never be expected to come up with such breakthrough inventions as the ones he describes. When viewing contextual research as a source for answers, the most you can expect is a good list of improvements to existing products.
Second, Norman then points out that it is technological invention that is the source of breakthrough innovation. Again, he is right in that the inventions he described would not be possible without new technology. However, they would not be successful if they didn't satisfy a consumer motivation. In reality, consumers rarely change their behavior to accomodate technology. They adopt when the technology is put into a form that seamlessly fits into their lives. All of the inventions on Norman's list enable consumers to do something they already wanted to do (travel, communicate, etc), but in a better, faster, less expensive, etc way. Knowing the motivation ahead of time can save a lot of time and money, as well as help a company to define what business they are really in.
In that sense, Norman's post appears to be based on the idea that the consumer will give you the answer, and that after the technology is developed product success is hit or miss. I would have to disagree with both of those assumptions.
On the other hand, Luebke acknowledges that learning from consumers can point to many different types of innovation. That is true, but he doesn't comment on the fact that contextual research should be tailored to collecting the information that will inform the decision that needs to be made. For example, a consumer can be asked directly to evaluate current product features. Understanding their motivations, however, is what is necessary to guide the development of new products and services they would never think to ask for. This is the type of constraint inventors typically love to solve with new technology. This is how learning from consumers can drive technology development - it provides a purpose, not a directive. This is where research and invention come together.
Ultimately it doesn't matter whether we are starting with a technology or a market segment. Technology can certainly enable the creation of totally new products and services. But these new products and services will not succeed unless they satisfy the market's motivations better than existing alternatives.