Who's running cover?

Let's face it, it's difficult to innovate from within corporate walls because the majority of the company is doing what it should be doing: cranking out existing products and services reliably, and efficiently, while reducing risk for stakeholders.  It needs to do this.  We need them to do this.  But they also need to innovate to remain competitive.  Why does innovation succeed in some corporate environments and not in others?


A few years ago I saw Jeanne Liedtka hit this issue right on the head.  She talked about the behaviors and tasks the ‘innovator’ and their team are performing.  After a fairly predictable discussion (risk taking, norm-questioning, etc), she then ask the group “What is this person’s manager doing while this is going on?”  Again there were many expected comments from the group and she said “They are RUNNING COVER!”  In my experience, this is the most important element that needs to be in place in an organization.  It’s true that it is important for leaders in an organization to commit money, people, and verbal authority to a team of people who are charged with ‘innovation’.  Yet that’s not what really makes the difference.  Innovators who succeed are the ones who’s bosses are willing to run cover for them.  These bosses may or may not even know specifically what the team is doing on a day to day basis.  But they are there to run interference when the corporate antibodies attack. And they always will attack, even (especially) when they are well indended.


Innovation in your company will only go as far as the person willing to run cover for the team(s) who are daring to do something different.  This job is more difficult than the job of the innovator, and their work is usually invisible, unrecognized, unsupported, and most often the missing role in corporate innovation programs.  If you want to find the reason why innovation programs may stall at your company, look no further than to find out who is running cover.  If you can’t find that person, it doesn’t matter how much money, time, or people you throw at actually doing the innovating.  It just won’t work.

New books are here!

In the past year I have written several chapters that are coming out in two books.  The first is called “Disrupt Together: How Teams Consistently Innovate. This book is based on the work championed at Philadelphia University by Steve Spinelli, created and catalyzed by Heather McGowan (co-authors of the book) to create a new college within the University.  The College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce (DEC) is positioned for creative business people, and differentiates the university from traditional business schools. 

I had the pleasure of being part of the effort as it was being created, and the book uses the experience for how the DEC was created to outline a guide for disruptive innovation. I contributed a chapter on Assessing your Innovation Capacity – a guide to the people and skills required for innovation, and how to fill the gaps.  You can find it here. It also received a nice mention from the VP of Education at Apple:

"Disrupt Together addresses
how teams leverage individual skills to multiply their innovation power. This
book elegantly instructs us how to compete in a world that demands change as a
normative function." 

-John Couch, Vice President
of Education, Apple


The second book is “Global Handbook of Innovation Science”.   As the motivation for this book, the main authors Brett and Praveen have an audacious goal to create standards for innovation education in schools, and have tapped experts to cover a variety of innovation topics.  The book contains 51 chapters contributed by over 50 authors.


For this book I contributed the chapter on Innovation and Neuroscience.  I’m not a neuroscientist, but I am obsessed with figuring out whether or not innovation can be taught or encouraged.  In my career, I’ve learned that it’s not something just anyone can do no matter how much training you may have.  The chapter covers the normal brain processes that facilitate innovative thinking, those that discourage innovative thinking, and insight into how to encourage the former and keep the latter at bay.


I also collaborated with Heather McGowan on a chapter called Inspiration for Innovation which provides a guide for finding people who are inspired to innovate, and provide the right structure, rewards, and environment for their work.  I will provide links to the chapters when they are linked on Amazon.  You can find both books through the links in the sidebar to the left.

I hope you enjoy them, and I'd love to know what you think.  They were fun to write, and working on them really challenged my own thinking, and I've been working in this space for over 15 years!  That's what I love about this field. You can always learn something!

Making innovation less scary

In my last post I talked about how the truly scary thing about innovation from an organizational perspective is at it can't be controlled by senior management in traditional ways. However, the inability to know whether is project is on track through Gantt charts or adherence to processes doesn't mean that it can't be controlled at all.

In the same way that people and teams working on breakthrough innovation projects must learn a new way of working, the role management plays must follow a similar path. Here are a few shifts in perspective that can help.

Instead of trying to control, focus management efforts on support. Teams working in the area of disruptive innovation are already treading into uncertainty. They need to know that they are supported as they go to where their research takes them. When I mention this, the first question is often about how to make sure that a team knows when to stop or change direction. This is a valid concern, and leads to my next points.

Understand the difference between uncertainty and ambiguity. Very simply put, uncertainty is the degree to which you know the difference between a right and a wrong answer; ambiguity exists when there is more than one right answer. When approaching a disruptive innovation project, the most important thing that the team needs to do is to figure out the difference between right and wrong answers. I often call this defining the criteria for the success of a proposed solution. At this stage it's also important to define the criteria in such a way that the ambiguity of the problem is maintained. We want there to be more than one possible solution at this point.

Look for gaps in logic, not faults in solutions. At senior management checkpoints in the project, the leadership should be questioning in such a way that logic breaches are revealed. This is helpful to the team, rather than challenging in unproductive ways.

Help the team to make their thought processes transparent. If the team is immersed in their research as deeply as they should be, they will be making intuitive leaps that will be very clear among the team members, but less apparent to an outsider. Leadership should help the team to recognize when this is happening, and pose questions to that end.

Recognize when good ideas should be peeled off and sent to development. Often the team comes across low hanging fruit in the form of solutions. Help them to transition these ideas to a development group so they can stay focused on the broader picture.

Timelines and schedules should be established based on what decisions need to be made at different points in time, and not based on the number and types of tasks or process steps that can be completed.

Don't be afraid to try something new. If after a leadership review you notice that the team is focusing too narrowly, then reassess what happened at the review. Most likely, the team felt that they were either being pushed toward a specific direction, or pushed to do something new that isn't supported by the work they've done.

Disruptive innovation is new for everyone involved within the company. You are part of the team, and your innovation results will reflect the extent to which that idea is respected.

The really scary thing about innovation

We know that innovation is scary. It should be. We've evolved to learn that it can be dangerous to do things differently, to leave our comfort zones, and to to embrace uncertainty. But we've also learned intellectually that we need to do these things so that we don't get caught behind the rest of the world. These are things that can be identified and expected as we embark on innovation programs.

But I see it a little differently. While I do think it's true that innovation is scary for all the reasons stated above, I think that organizationally there is something else going on. In my experience, it's about control. In an organization, innovation cannot happen in a top-down manner. Yes, innovation programs need support from the top to be realized, but when it comes to actually doing the work - the consumer research, translation of insights, creation of new offerings - this has to happen from within the organization.

This is true of all the other work that happens in an organization as well. Typically the CEO doesn't run the manufacturing line, but there are clear mechanisms in place that will let the CEO know immediately when something is going wrong. These mechanisms - the project schedules, budgets, benchmarks - all enable corporate leadership to stay in control. With innovation projects, these mechanisms are not relevant, and corporate leadership cannot tell so easily if a project is on track.

I believe that this is why it's so common that innovation often defaults to incremental evolution from what exists today; projects are too often limited by what senior management can control in traditional ways. This is not to say that I think senior leaders need to adopt an anything goes attitude when it comes to innovation. Far from it. But they will need to shift their perspective from being in control of, to helping to guide, innovation projects. I have some thoughts on what this can look like, but I'm interested to hear what others think about this issue of control. Does it resonate with you?

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Focus group fashion shows

I want to take a minute to talk about prototypes. When most people think of prototypes, they think of product samples used in what I call Focus Group Fashion Shows. The prototypes are paraded out on the "runway", and consumers got on which they like best. The problem is that this is not the context in which they ill be used, so this type of research seldom yields realistic results. I tend to think bout prototypes differently.

Early on, the prototype takes on a very different function in my work. A the beginning of a project, prototypes are used primarily as thinking tools. Very early prototypes are often crude, but they allow the team to get a sense of what it will be like to handle a product or experience a service. They help us to recreate and experience the consumer's motivations as they choose what they will buy - or rebuy.

As the project evolves, the prototype also evolves and becomes a tool for eliciting feedback about specific benefits the product will offer. For this reason, they usually contain attributes that are pushed to extremes to understand the extent to which the benefits they offer are important. Prototypes used in this manner are very good at getting consumers to make trade-off decisions. The best result is to have very different embodiments that consumers have a very difficult time deciding between. What that means is that very different sets of benefits are highly important, which may not have been uncovered in traditional consumer research. The information this gives us is that the final product needs to judiciously incorporate the benefits that each can offer.

However, this blending must be accomplished judiciously. Rather than patching features together like a Frankenstein, we need to think about which benefits each set of attributes delivered. We then need to think about how to embody multiple sets of benefits, but ensure that a cohesive whole product is not lost in the process.

In the end, the final product may not fully resemble any of the earliest prototypes. However, if they have been used appropriately, they will have ensured that the final products will be comprised of attributes that will deliver desired benefits from within an appropriate context. This is far more likely to yield a good market result than any focus group fashion show.

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Mental Barriers to Innovation

I'm often asked how to teach the skills necessary for innovation. Based on my real world experience, I usually focus on the hands-on aspects, encouraging people to choose a small, manageable project and just get started. Usually this works best with a mentor, or experienced person guiding the project in some way. in many cases people decide that they are best suited to other types of work, since the ambiguous nature of the work isn't for everyone.

However, in writing the chapter Innovation and Neuroscience for the forthcoming book I mentioned previously, I've expanded my views on teaching skills for innovation. In writing the chapter, I learned from Professor Bill Duggan (in conversation and from his book Strategic Innovation) and Dr. Robert Burton's book On Being Certain, that the way the brain naturally processes information is very conducive to making the connections necessary for innovation. This made me step back and really think about how to teach innovation. If we are predisposed to this type of thinking, then why aren't more people successfully innovating more often? What makes it so hard?

The answer I found surprised me. From several sources, but most completely described in Professor Greg Berns' book Iconoclast, it became clear that although our brains are predisposed to the type of thinking necessary for innovation, our brains are equally predisposed to block this type of thinking. As Berns describes it, there are three main cognitive barriers to innovation:

Perception - if we cannot perceive a situation differently, then we will not be able to make new connections. Instead, we will cover the same ground over and over, based on current perceptions of the problem, situation, or general context. This perception could mean physically seeing information differently, or it could take the form of allowing yourself to truly see a situation through someone else's eyes.

Fear Response - people tend to fear uncertainty and public ridicule. Since innovation requires forging into new territory, high levels of uncertainty are guaranteed. In fact, the only way to drive out the uncertainty of new territory is to fully understand the uncertainty itself. It requires that uncertainty is embraced. Avoiding it will surely result in failure. And since new ideas will often be scary or threatening to others, the chance of facing some degree of public ridicule is higher than staying with the status quo.

Social Intelligence - it is necessary to socialize new ideas to help others to become more receptive them. People need time and repeated exposure to new ideas so that they can become familiar. Sometimes an initial association with a currently accepted idea can help as well. Intelligently socializing new ideas is a necessary skill, without which new ideas are often rejected.

It became painfully clear to me that the ability to build the skills necessary for innovation lies deeply within our own psyche. I have always known that a scripted process, or strict adherence to specific tools, will not produce truly innovative results. However, I have shifted my focus from a discussion about teaching skills necessary for innovation, to a discussion about how best to help people to prepare themselves for innovation.

This also illuminated why my focus on the hands-on approach works well. People need to get involved in a project in order to experience the perception shifts, and live through the initial fear of uncertainty that's necessary for a successful outcome. However, now I will also focus on highlighting fear responses exhibited by those who decide that this type of work is not for them. If they realize that they are caving into fear, will they be able to change their perceptions of their own ability?

I also made me realize the true value of some of the tools and techniques that are commonly used, either deliberately or intuitively. The true value of tools is that they can help to break down information to help to change a perception of a situation. Analogies can help to socialize an idea and make it more acceptable to others. But in the end, nothing will work if we cannot learn to push back on our response to fear. It's not that people who are good at innovating do not experience fear. They do. They just use it differently. I've personally been working in the innovation space for over 15 years, and I still experience that deer in the headlights feeling. For me it's an indication that I'm onto something truly new and different. This fear becomes fuel.

So what we're left with is that the best skill to teach is the ability to perceive fear as a guide forward, and not a caution to stop trying to understand new situations we encounter. I'm curious to hear how others have handled this in their work.

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Wired to Innovate

In writing the Innovation and Neuroscience chapter, I was surprised to learn the extent to which our brains are "wired" in a way that is conducive to innovation.  In Professor William Duggan's book Strategic Intuition, he explains how the neuroscience field is revealing some interesting insights into how new ideas are created.  He cites several important works that do two things:

They debunk the long-held idea that the two halves of the brain are either creative (right brained) or analytical (left brained).  Everyone thinks with their whole brain.

The process of solving a problem is based on the idea of "Intelligent Memory", whereby the brain selectively searches stored memories in an answer to a problem. 

What this means is that our brains are "wired" to seek out relevant solutions to posed problems without bias as to whether they are creative or analytical.  This supports an idea that I have long held that random idea generation is of little value in the innovation process.  If we want to find new ideas that are useful, the most important thing we can do is to do the hard work of clearly defining the problem we are trying to solve.  This is easier said than done, and honestly, where the bulk of the work in innovation needs to happen.  We've all had this experience.  Once we struggle with finding a new solution, when we are able to reframe a problem it seems to solve itself.  This requires us to let go of our initial perceptions about our innovation goals, and when we allow a new perception to emerge, then the problem can be defined differently, allowing a new solution to follow.

This then leads to the question of how we know a problem or solution is right.  When random idea creation comes to a close, the ideas selected are often the ones we already know are right.  How do we know when a new idea could also be right?  Dr. Robert Burton focuses on this question in his book On Being Certain.  In that book, he describes the mechanism for how we know what it is that we know.  This post won't do the details justice, but suffice it to say that Burton and Duggan build on the same recent neuroscience research, and although they have a different focus, their work is highly complementary. Both of these thought leaders emphasize the importance of intentionally directing our mental focus on our specified goal.  Both of them also recognize the importance of being able to let go of an initial perception so that the brain is free to fully explore new connections.

When it comes to establishing a process for innovation, it is important that we establish conditions that enable our brains to a) know what we are truly searching for and b) allow them to search our memories freely and "intelligently". When I was researching the topic to write the chapter, it made me think about how modern day management techniques can actually be counterproductive for innovation.  I see organizations either micromanage or over-prescribe a solution, or go the opposite direction and allow random idea generation into the process.  Neither way will work.  In the next post, we'll look at some specific ways we put up mental barriers to innovation.  For now, start to become conscious of how you are thinking about a problem, and how you are establishing criteria for success.  Try to make sure your initial goal is to define the right problem, not prescribe a type of solution.

Innovation and Neuroscience

I recently contributed a chapter for a forthcoming book, "The Global Innovation Science Handbook", which will be published by McGraw Hill Professional some time this fall. The chapter is titled Innovation and Neuroscience. When the editor approached me to write this chapter, I was equally excited and a bit nervous about it. After all, I'm not a neuroscientist. However, I have come to the conclusion that most successful innovation can be attributed to the cognitive attributes possessed by people who are good at innovating. I thought it would be fun to explore the latest research in neuroscience and see if I could glean any insights that could help to codify the innovation process. I hadn't seen much written on the topic, so I felt that my expertise in innovation would be my guide as I searched for ways to better understand and articulate what goes on in the minds of successful innovators.

This quest to codify the innovation process began several years ago when I worked in a product design and innovation consulting firm. I found that I was very uncomfortable with the standard reasons why my team was able to help clients innovate; that we used multidisciplinary teams, or that we did ethnographic research, or had our roots in design didn't feel quite right to me. These statements were true, but I saw many unsuccessful innovation attempts result from many of the same types of ingredients to the process.

I approached my research for this chapter as i would approach any innovation project. I began with researching the typical sources of innovation; topics on creativity, lateral thinking, cognitive connections. I followed where they took me in terms of how I could identify what it was that truly set innovative people apart. My overall goal for years has been to be able to articulate what to look for in a person with the aptitude for innovation, to be able to teach innovation if it could be taught beyond introducing new ideas to people with the right aptitude, and to build solid processes for innovation within large companies.

Along the way, several of my initial assumptions proved to be valid. Innovation is not random, cool spaces and total absence of structure will not enhance the process, consumers cannot solve the problem for you, and that the current business environment is not conducive to innovation. On the other hand, I was able to change my mind on several assumptions. From my research, it appears that our minds are naturally geared toward the type of thinking that is conducive to innovation, but we are also naturally geared to thought processes that can simultaneously keep it from happening. Innovation can be taught, but only to if we are able to encourage the cognitive processes that are conducive to innovation, and discourage the thoughts that keep them from happening.

I love it when my work changes my mind; without continuously learning and changing we will never move ahead. I feel that the topic of how to consistently innovate, and why most companies find it difficult is the key to many economic struggles we are currently encountering. I'll begin a series of posts relative to my recent findings and the types of reactions I get as I put them into action.

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