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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Innovation - Science or Alchemy?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation - Science or Alchemy?Fair warning: today's post is a philosophical debate about the direction and focus of innovation as a tool to create new products and services. Too often we in the innovation space take for granted how different and unique the tools and processes we bring to bear are for many in corporate settings. We also don't always understand how these tools and methods depart from the traditional, comfortable methods of many of our clients.

We stand today, 2010, at a crossroads from an innovation perspective. Innovation is going to become either a reputable science or a disreputable side show, and there are two constituents that will direct the outcomes. Innovation consultants and others who offer innovation services are one group that will dictate how innovation is eventually accepted and perceived, and our prospects and buyers in firms large and small are the others. In just a short time we'll all have to agree that innovation is a science, with repeatable experiments that create real results, or innovation is alchemy, a mystical philosophical magic that promises gold but delivers lead.

Alchemists, you'll recall, were (to some extent still are) people who seek to convert base metals to gold. They worked in secret, always on the brink of discovery of a chemical compound that would instantly create riches from the most common metals. The problem with alchemists is that they consistently overpromised and underdelivered. They cloaked their methods in mystical thinking and secret formulas. They often substituted small amounts of gold that they possessed to demonstrate the ability to convert base metals, and then demanded greater and greater compensation to convert more metal into gold.

We as innovation consultants and practitioners, in partnership with our clients, need to establish clear understanding and expectation about the "art" and "science" that we propose to do. Like alchemists, we propose to turn simple insights and ideas into winning new products, services and business models, faster and more effectively than firms have done in the past. We employ radical tools and creative thinking in ways that are new and different from what many in corporate American have experienced, and there are many within corporate America who believe we in the innovation space are charlatans, out to make a quick buck rather than create a true innovation science.

In some cases those feelings may be correct. When IBM runs an advertisement that shows a team lying on the floor in the dark "ideating", people may believe that seems odd and strange. While I've been in the innovation space over six years, I've never had my clients lie on the floor in the dark. Perhaps that is valuable, or perhaps IBM was making fun of these uncertain approaches. But when we as practitioners introduce radically new ways of creating insights or ideas, we need to also demonstrate the value proposition and the outcomes. Recently I saw that Imaginatik has released the ability for its clients to capture ideas using mobile devices. This has both a positive and a negative connotation. If we are capturing ideas on the go because people are now more mobile, then that's reasonable. If we are promoting that technology because "you just never know when someone will have a good idea" then that suggests that innovation is unmanageable and is a black art after all, which could only contribute to the thinking that innovation is alchemy.

We need to demonstrate that innovation is a repeatable process, a science, based on useful tools and techniques and linked directly to important corporate goals and strategies. Innovation is simply a tool to accelerate the development of valuable and useful products and services, and a method to identify emerging opportunities or threats, hopefully before they are realized. What alchemists understood was that kings needed wealth to cement their power and project force, so they attempted to create a simple, easy way for kings and rulers to acquire gold, knowing it was a sham. What innovators need to understand is that executives need new products, services and business models to sustain competitive advantage, and we need to demonstrate our methods are more science than alchemy.

Our buyers need to help as well. Rather than consider innovation a sideshow where everyone will run around wearing funny hats and talking about outlandish concepts the firm can't possibly accomplish, people within the corporation need to clearly state corporate objectives and strategies and determine which efforts can be accelerated by placing their best thinkers in a process that accelerates idea generation. Sure, we may occasionally use mystical tools like creative thinking and idea generation, but those tools are harnessed to an important end goal and used within a repeatable innovation process. If our buyers approach innovation as an impossible last resort to change the business, rather than a respectable business method to improve and change the business, then we and they have already failed. An innovator cannot create interesting, useful ideas that will be implemented in a business, any more than alchemists can convert lead into gold, if the participants in the business aren't committed to the tools, don't believe change is possible and remained locked in old ways of thinking.

To create an innovation science, two things have to change. We, the innovation practitioners, must demonstrate the tools we use are practical and reasonable, and our methods are repeatable and deliver value. We need to strip away any magic and demonstrate the value of the methods, tools and processes we use. This doesn't mean that we don't on occasion use a wide variety of tools and techniques that a firm finds uncomfortable or different. The definition of insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. We need new ways of thinking to solve new problems, we just have to demonstrate that they work and are based on science and process.

The second thing that must change is that our buyers and business partners, the people within businesses who need innovation, must change. They must understand that innovation isn't a black art or a side show, but a process that requires commitment, communication, cultural change and, yes, some new methods and tools. Until innovation is viewed as a consistent, repeatable business process that happens to have some interesting tools and techniques, and not a brief interlude by a "tin hat" brigade, innovation will be viewed as more alchemy than science, and most reasonable people should be expected to reject alchemists.

As I wrote earlier, innovation as a strategic tool for growth and differentiation, stands at a crossroads. In the next few years it will either be accepted as a reputable science and incorporated as part of any operating business model within larger corporations, or it will be regarded as an interesting sideshow, more alchemy than science, and while possibly valuable, too strange or different to be adopted consistently. How this gets resolved is based on the results we innovators can deliver, the tools and techniques we use and the expectations and commitments of our clients to adopt the thinking and methods we recommend.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

What if innovation was the norm?

by Jeffrey Phillips

What if innovation was the norm?If you've spent any time around innovators, you'll know that a lot of good happens right after someone utters the phrase "what if". There's so much potential and possibility in those two words. With a sentence beginning 'what if' we can release ourselves from preconceived notions and the way we usually do things, and explore a different reality. 'What if' is powerful. 'What if' is liberating.

So, I was thinking that often innovation is considered to be the exception in a business, and that got me thinking - what if we flipped the hypothesis? What if innovation was the regular course of business, and some boring status quo constraint was the exception? Today we run our businesses based on a don't vary, don't fail, don't risk constrained model. What if our business model was infused with innovation, and we looked with surprise when someone wanted to retreat to safety and security? What would that look like?

A business that took as its first imperative an innovation focus would be constantly striving to understand customer wants and needs, especially the needs that aren't fulfilled or even recognized. For a firm focused on innovation, the first priority would be to discover new opportunities and create new products and services to meet unmet or unarticulated needs. Note that the ideas would have to solve an important, relevant need, as no one wants to create products or services that aren't useful or aren't necessary.

A firm that took innovation as its 'norm' would encourage a lot of experimentation, research and investigation. As compared to a traditional firm, time investments would almost reverse. Where traditional firms place a significant amount of time and investment in development, manufacturing and launch, a truly innovative firm would place much more time and emphasis on trend spotting, understanding needs and piloting/prototyping.

A firm truly focused on innovation would require a significantly lower investment in sales and marketing than a traditional firm. Any firm that really understands the needs of its customers, tests its ideas rapidly and creates differentiated products and services will draw consumer to it. It won't need as much investment in sales and marketing because its brand, its products and its customers will do that work for it.

A firm that was focused first on innovation would constantly have to renew itself - relying on new employees, new perspectives, new relationships to constantly gather insights and to stay relevant. The culture would have to be anchored around a set of innovation principles rather than reinforced by long term employees.

The people in such a firm would be an interesting mix of creative, energetic, opinionated people who are networked widely and have an extensive set of interests, experiences and education. Unlike most firms that recruit for more people who reflect their existing workforce, a truly innovative firm would be constantly seeking new skills, talents and perspectives. The man in the gray flannel suit would be welcomed, but only one or two, thank you very much.

As I've outlined it, I can think of some sectors or firms that achieve a lot of these characteristics, mostly in consultative firms, marketing agencies and branding firms. While these firms are often very good at the "front end" they often aren't responsible for the development and delivery of new products and services, so their "back end" skills may be a bit suspect, and that's where all of the constrained thinking and resistance to variation occurs. But just think about the possibilities of your firm, or any firm, deciding that innovation is the standard and safety and conformity are the exceptions, in opposition to what usually exists.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Innovation is Solving Problems Without Constraints

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation is Solving Problems Without ConstraintsAs a person who started out as an engineer, I know that most engineers like to solve problems that are useful to society. Often this means that there are tradeoffs and constraints associated with any problem. Cars that get higher gas mileage may need to be lighter, but lighter cars don't survive crashes as well as heavy cars. So when we are presented a problem to solve or an opportunity to address, we often start out by trying to define the constraints.

These constraints could be based on technology issues, but are often based on other factors, like legal or regulatory issues, pricing or cost issues, distribution or transportation issues and so forth. When we as innovators agree to work within a set of bounds or constraints to solve problems, we are like the kids in kindergarten who are encouraged to "color within the lines" - that is, we accept the constraints and our thinking is guided by nudging right up next to the constraint, but never violating or ignoring the constraint. In this manner the constraint conforms our thinking and becomes a barrier. We don't challenge the constraint but accept it, and that governs the outcome. Since every other firm in the same space or industry is challenged with the same constraints, most of the solutions look very similar. We've become prisoners of our own thinking, happily limited in our degrees of freedom by constraints we've accepted.

Now, good innovators will tell you that what we need to do, at least temporarily, is to ignore the constraints and push beyond those barriers to generate solutions, then examine our recommended solutions to determine if they can deliver the same, or better, outcomes while conforming to the constraints, or changing the constraints to offer an even better solution. This approach considers the most optimal outcome, then seeks to determine whether or not it can fulfill the original constraints, or if those constraints can be changed. Innovation happens when someone in an industry, or, more typically, someone outside an industry who rejects the group think within the industry, decides to set aside the accepted norms and constraints and to think more expansively about the problem or opportunity. Then, with a number of possible solutions in hand, the innovator seeks alterations that will allow the new idea to fit within the constraints, or seeks to modify the constraints based on the value of his or her solution.

Recently I heard the VP of Innovation from RJR talk about their process for setting innovation guidelines. He called it a "fence setting" exercise. After all, we all want to know the "space" where we can innovate. His team is responsible for setting the "fences" which dictate the important "space" where the teams should generate ideas, but I suspect their approach is probably less focused on specific constraints and more focused on providing strategic guidance.

A combination of fence setting - to direct teams to focus their efforts on strategic innovation spaces or markets and unconstrained thinking - to move outside of the "color within the lines" mentality that limits our thinking - will drive new ideas within your organization that have real value.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Innovation Training Reinforcement

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Training ReinforcementWe deliver innovation training for our clients. Surprisingly, it's a service we are frequently asked to deliver, and a service we get great feedback on. You might think then that we are aggressively selling this service to our existing customers and to our prospects. If so, you might want to keep reading to understand when we think innovation training works well, and when it is just an exercise to demonstrate innovation activity.

First, let's consider training delivered in any organization. Most people have some awareness of the tools and methods they use to do their jobs, and some welcome the chance to brush up on those skills or learn new skills. Unfortunately, training budgets are often the first items cut when times are tough, and there's clearly been fewer training dollars budgeted in the last two years due to the slowdown in the economy. Most training, therefore, had to deliver real payback quickly, which meant that most training in the last few years has been focused on helping people do their jobs more effectively or efficiently.

And, in many ways, that is helpful. If we can find ways to help people do the jobs they are already doing in a more efficient or effective way, then they can take on more work or deliver higher quality goods and services. Since productivity has gone up while employment has fallen, that has happened. What makes any training along these lines successful is that we are REINFORCING an existing job or process and helping people improve skills they consistently use.

Now, let's look at innovation training and the opportunities and challenges associated with it. Innovation is something that most organizations do haphazardly at best, with few defined processes or methods. That means we have to train people on specific tools and techniques, as well as on processes. Even tools and techniques that are fairly regularly used, like brainstorming, are typically misused and need to be relearned. So we are introducing a range of new methods and skills. Add to that the fact that since most organizations aren't structured to support innovation consistently and haven't been aggressively innovative in the past, we are also introducing new skills and changing what is important for people to do. Rather than REINFORCING existing skills, we are INTRODUCING new skills that may, or may not, be reinforced when people go back to their jobs. This should give you some indication of when innovation training is valuable.

Innovation training is valuable when it is immediately followed by opportunities to implement the tools, techniques and methods as quickly as possible after the training. When we reinforce existing skills and knowledge, people return to their jobs and implement that training fairly quickly. When we introduce new skills and knowledge in innovation training, the recipients need to return to their jobs with the expectation that they'll implement the new knowledge quickly, on meaningful work. Otherwise the training doesn't "stick" and everyone reverts to their comfortable processes and methods.

When we deliver training we try to reinforce the concept that the tools are useful in many situations, and we ask people to bring real world problems to solve into the training. We also recommend that the individuals who receive training are expected to work on innovation activities as quickly as possible after the training is complete. This reinforces the training and allows the team to exercise their new knowledge and skills. Even if the organization doesn't have an innovation initiative, it is helpful to attack a new project using an innovative approach to allow the team to use its new knowledge.

Training people on new skills that aren't immediately put into practice is less than useless - it can be damaging. Once the team sees the power of innovation tools and techniques but is denied the opportunity to use them, they can become frustrated and cynical about innovation as a strategy. Training for training's sake is OK when you are reinforcing existing skills, but off-putting and disheartening when introducing new perspectives and skills that won't be implemented.

One other point needs to be made here. We are often asked to provide innovation "training" to teams for one hour in a team meeting. This is work we almost always refuse. It is barely possible to introduce one tool or technique in an hour or two, much less give the team an opportunity to try it out in real time. We can possibly introduce an innovation method or process to the team, but can't expect them to learn how to apply these skills in such a short period of time. Would you suggest that people can learn bookkeeping or how to operate a sophisticated piece of equipment in just a few hours? Why would you provide such a limited amount of training for what can be a strategic initiative that needs real commitment? Simply by limiting the time you indicate to your teams the amount of commitment to the endevour.

Innovation training works when teams are convinced that the skills they will learn will help them in their existing jobs or in new initiatives, and when those skills are put to use immediately after the training on assignments that have strategic importance. Innovation training works when the participants are given the time they need to learn the tools and the chance to try them out in practice before implementing them in the real world. Focus, commitment, engagement and time are critical to innovation training success. Otherwise we are training people on tools that they won't have a chance to implement, wasting their time and creating greater cynicism about innovation.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Why 'Top Down' Innovation is Difficult

by Jeffrey Phillips

Why 'Top Down' Innovation is DifficultAs a person who works with a number of firms attempting to improve innovation capabilities, I am constantly astonished by the disconnect between what senior executives say they want and what actually gets done in most businesses, at least within the context of innovation. As they say in government, the President proposes and Congress disposes. Most executives I interact with say they want innovation, but the force of their desire and the clarity of their vision doesn't translate down to the people who will actually do the work. I think there are at least three reasons for this.

First, most senior executives aren't innovators themselves. Most senior executives grew through the organization and moved up by being effective stewards of the company's funds, resource and culture. Most of them were respectful of the history of the company and the brands. They progressed by doing things well, and doing things efficiently. Few senior executives in most organizations got to their posts by being demonstrably different. In fact we create celebrities of the CEOs like Jobs from Apple or Branson from Virgin who are really different CEOs, who shook up an industry or market. Since most senior executives weren't innovators and didn't obtain their jobs because of innovation, they don't really understand what's required when they say they want innovation. If your CEO or senior executive team is asking for innovation from the organization and you believe they haven't defined what they really want, stop waiting for the definition. Like pornography they'll know it when they see it and not before, and will probably struggle giving you a definition. If you decide to respond, simply write down your objectives and how you think that aligns to corporate strategy and start innovating. Most likely your model will be adopted.

Second, since most executives are keepers of the culture, and in many cases creatures of the culture, they don't understand the amount of change necessary to move a company that's been focused on effectiveness, efficiency, cost cutting and minimizing errors or mistakes to a company that embraces innovation. The biggest barrier to innovation isn't creativity or generating ideas or the ability to spot new opportunities. The biggest barrier to innovation is cultural inertia and fear. After years of very clear communication about effectiveness, lean, cost cutting and so forth, it requires a lot of trust and change to shift to an innovation posture, and cultures like battleships turn slowly. Since most executives don't have long tenures, cultural change sounds like a Bataan death march, and those requirements are ignored, misunderstood or swept under the rug. Even executives who understand the need for cultural change in support of innovation blanch at the work involved. If you decide to start innovating in your product group or business unit, don't wait for the organizational cultural change. You know what needs to happen, so create your own local culture in your product line or business unit that embraces innovation. You'll give yourself enough rope to succeed, or to hang yourself. Either way it's a decision.

Third, most executives are driven by the quarterly drumbeat of the market, and therefore many don't have patience to examine and understand longer term goals and strategy. Innovation, especially the disruptive innovation that everyone wants, is by its very nature a longer term effort. So, while organizations talk about "white space" and executives demand 'disruptive breakthroughs' many of them don't have the stomach for the longer term effort and don't understand the investment involved. Trend spotting and scenario planning isn't hard, it just requires a commitment to doing the work and understanding what the future may hold. Most firms don't do this well, if at all. Strange to think that the one place we are all heading is the one place most firms don't do a good job of understanding. For most executives the future, especially anything more than 5 years out, is simply unknowable and perhaps beyond their expected tenure, so why try? If you want to innovate, you've got to piece together views of the future beyond the annual plan. Most organizations have a product development cycle greater than 18 months, so a three to four year look into the future on a regular basis should be automatic, but it's not.

Fourth, some innovation programs assume that executives should be the ones to generate the ideas, and the middle managers, product managers and so forth are the ones who should figure out how the ideas get implemented as new products. With a few exceptions, I can't think of a worse way to run an innovation program. Most senior executives are rarely in touch with the lives of their actual customers, and have little understanding about the challenges the customers are trying to solve or the new opportunities they have in their lives. Most executives sit in meeting after meeting with other executives and never actually meet their customers or understand their lives. Like the GM executives who only drove GM cars and never purchased their own gas, many executives are isolated from their customers and their customers' needs. If you want to innovate, listen to the strategies being defined by the executive team and then go out and find out what customers really want and need, and align your ideas if possible to both requirements, giving more weight to the customers' needs. The ultimate fulfillment of the Peter Principle is that the higher you climb in executive management, the further removed you are from what an average customer really wants. This makes dictating the kinds of innovation necessary very difficult and results in vague requests for innovation.

Finally, many organizations are so large that it is difficult to have a crisp statement of strategy or strategic intent. Without clearly defined corporate goals and strategies, it becomes hard for innovators to decide which problems are more important and which ideas are valid. In the absence of clear strategic and strategic direction, all ideas seem relevant. In a large firm, innovation is all about resource allocation - picking the best ideas among a number of competing ideas. Your executive team needs help here as well. They want organic growth, differentiation or disruption, or some combination of those three things. They need to know that innovation is a tool in service of these corporate goals, not a strategy in and of itself. If you can help them identify and clarify the goals for the firm, then you can apply innovation as a tool to rapidly improve any of those three factors. Strategic clarity is usually lacking, but executives don't understand why that is so important to innovators.

If you are still reading at this point, you may think that 'bottom up' innovation is the only way to succeed, and for many firms I think that's probably right. Having people who understand the need of the customer means being close to the customer or prospect, which is less likely to happen at senior levels. It means more flexibility and risk taking, and having a longer term point of view, both less likely to happen at senior levels. If these things are true, what can executives do to spawn innovation?

They can impact the culture through rewards and recognition. They can understand their value in creating clear strategic goals and communicating those effectively. They can introduce tools, techniques and methodologies to help the innovators accomplish their goals. They can introduce a common language and approach for innovation as tools for innovators to use. They can encourage networking and interaction with other firms which will spawn many more new ideas. They can introduce new tools to gain customer insight. They can create new funding mechanisms beyond an annual plan. In essence, they can become the cheerleaders, funders and tool-bringers, which is really all they can do effectively.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Finding Time to Innovate

by Jeffrey Phillips

Finding Time to InnovateI've been in many corporate meetings that left me wondering where I could apply to get back the two hours I had just spent that were completely unproductive, so I am completely convinced that it is possible to lose time, or use it ineffectively in any organization. But what's puzzling to me is the argument that I hear from many people that they need to "find" time to innovate, as if there are spare pockets of hours or days in hidden corners in their office, simply waiting to be discovered.

Finding time to innovate is nonsensical, at several levels. First, if an initiative is important to you or your management team, then those activities make it onto your calendar. Second, if you are good at what you do, or are in demand from others, then they will place demands on your calendar to participate in their work or activities. Third, once the calendar is full, it's hard to take on something new, and many of us allow our calendars to fill up with tactical, firefighting exercises that are urgent but not important. Only then do many executives state that they simply "can't find the time" to innovate.

I would suggest that we reverse the order of placing items on the calendar. If innovation is important, then time for innovation needs to go on the calendar. This will provide evidence to those in your sphere of influence that you are placing an emphasis on creativity and innovation. Where you put your time sends signals to those around you, and those that report to you. Then, once you've anchored time in your calendar for important but perhaps not urgent tasks like innovation, you can then fill in the calendar with urgent but less important activities. You simply won't find time to innovate - you have to set aside time to innovate.

Once you've set aside time to innovate, what should you do with that time? Think expansively. Identify and track trends. Think about the future - five, seven, ten years in advance. Anticipate market and environmental changes. Draft a white paper that defines where you believe the market is going, and how to get there first. Get out and interact with customers or potential customers. Look for unarticulated or unmet needs you can satisfy. Rethink your customer's experience. Network with people in your industry and adjacent to your industry. Exchange ideas with people on your team, or in other organizations.

Sounds like fun, but doesn't look like work, is the complaint that's rattling around in your head. And you are probably right. This doesn't look like the work that gets done in your business, simply because everyone is focused on the here and now, the further and later is not being investigated, and can't be investigated or understood using the tools that look like work in most firms.

This has a cascading effect. Since the effort involved in understanding innovation opportunities doesn't look like work, we find other urgent but less important things to fill our day. Then, we are left with the conundrum that while innovation is important, we can't "find" time to innovate. It's a vicious cycle, eventually leading to the failure to create new products and services, or to miss new market opportunities. Then, what was urgent becomes even more urgent, and even less attention is paid to innovation. Eventually everyone is working on next quarter's efficiency savings and no one is taking time to innovate.

This isn't a question about "finding" time to innovate - it's a challenge to balance near term demands of the business with strategic vision about the future of the business. You can't make time, and it's our most valuable commodity. You can strategically select where you spend your time, and by doing so send signals to others. You make time to innovate by placing that time on your calendar before allowing the calendar to fill with other tasks and other work.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Art and Science of Innovation

by Jeffrey Phillips

The Art and Science of InnovationI'm a bit troubled by the fact that many people in corporate America seem to believe that innovation is a mystical art, rather than a set of skills and capabilities that many people can learn and implement. I suppose around every complex problem solving process there seems to be a bit of magic, but at the core of all magic there's a simple set of rules. It may take an Einstein to figure out the rules to relativity, but they are knowable, demonstrable and proveable. So, too, are the processes, capabilities and skills behind innovation.

Another barrier to broader innovation deployment is the sense that innovation is an art - an intrinsic skill that you are either "born with" or not. I, for one, am terrible at drawing. I simply didn't receive an innate ability to depict people or landscapes from my parents. I believe, though, if I tried to, I could become better at drawing using programs like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This program has radically improved the drawing ability for thousands of people, and demonstrates that even art can be learned through the careful application of basic principles. I may never be a Van Gogh, but I can improve my drawing capabilities to a significant extent. Why, then, do so many people believe they aren't "creative" or aren't "innovative" as if this is a binary decision?

I'm not going to argue that "anyone" can master innovation skills, any more than I'd care to argue that "anyone" can master relativity or will become a Van Gogh. But it is also clearly the case that innovation is based on a number of tools and processes which can be learned, and is enabled through looking at a problem through a number of different perspectives, or imagining new perspectives, which is all that artists try to do. Furthermore, everyone is creative. Think back to your childhood when a cardboard box was a rocketship and a stick was a sword. We are all creative, we simply allow corporate cultures and society's expectations to force our creativity into hiding. One of the most instructive training activities we do at OVO is a prototyping exercise in which we ask our participants to prototype and defend to others an idea using nothing more than pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, paper, crayons and found objects. You'd be amazed at the creativity demonstrated when people know they'll be evaluated on their creativity!

So, the title of this post is really a set-up. Innovation is a science with rules, processes and established tools that requires the participant to think like an artist. The thinking requires new perspectives and the ability to imagine something new. Therefore, innovation combines the tools and methods of both scientists and artists, but all of those skills can be learned. If your organization wants or needs innovation to compete successfully, perhaps your team should start by examining the staff and its proclivities. Most organizations are full of people who are steeped in orderly process and science, and they need the perspectives and imagination an artist can introduce. Others have never been introduced to the tools and techniques that innovation has to offer, and need to learn those skills. Simply starting an innovation effort with no training is almost certainly doomed to failure.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Importance of Innovation Skills and Best Practices

by Jeffrey Phillips

The Importance of Innovation Skills and Best PracticesThere's a difference between knowing "about" innovation and having experience doing innovation. Just as I don't compare myself to Lance Armstrong although we both ride bikes, there are skills and knowledge that are manifest in people who lead effective innovation programs that may not always be manifest in your organization. These skills can be learned through training and through careful exercise within your organization, but it is dangerous to presume that people who have an interest in innovation possess the skills and best practices to carry out innovation efforts. This was brought home to me in a meeting I attended recently.

I was at a meeting with a number of other people interested in innovation, and we were asked to brainstorm to help solve a particular problem. A person who is an "innovation" leader in his company was asked to facilitate the brainstorming session. An executive from the firm who was facing the problem gave a brief presentation on their challenge and needs, and then the facilitator asked for ideas.

The meeting quickly disintegrated because the challenge we were addressing was too large and poorly defined, and the timeframe too small. While the challenge had been presented by the firm's CEO, it was unclear whether we were supposed to provide incremental or disruptive ideas, or merely validate a course the CEO identified in his presentation. Additionally, no one had done a good job setting a scope - what to include in your thinking or what to leave out for the purposes of this session. At one point one participant suggested that we couldn't generate ideas until we'd evaluated all the health care systems in all the major economic powers in the world. Unfortunately we only had two hours.

So, we got off to a rocky start because the problem was poorly framed (not the facilitator's fault) and really had far too many interlocking and interchangeable parts (again, not his fault). Also, we did not have a good understanding or framing of the scope - perhaps his fault, perhaps that of the sponsor. Even when the participants tried to extend the scope, the facilitator did not try to reframe the question. Next, one participant, clearly a "Clarifier" from the Foursight model, kept asking clarifying questions rather than submitting ideas. Being able to recognize a clarifier, and understand their needs, would have been helpful, but the facilitator also had failed to establish the rules of engagement. Once we entered brainstorming, we should have been focused on generating ideas instead of asking questions. Without a commonly held set of beliefs and rules, each person was participating in the session with their personal beliefs and rules. Since we didn't set out a scope or an expected process or set of rules, there was no orderly process for generating ideas.

To give credit where it is due, the facilitator did "take off" his facilitator hat and contribute ideas, so he nimbly stepped into and out of the facilitator role, and did a good job capturing ideas. This, though, in my mind was another signal that best practices weren't being followed. It was clearly a struggle to write down ideas and to manage the group simultaneously. Ideally we would have had a facilitator and a "scribe" to document the ideas.

This session led me to believe that many people conducting "idea generation" sessions in corporate America are doing more damage than good. If this example is indicative of what happens everyday in most organizations, then idea generation and brainstorming deserves a negative rap - and many innovation leaders and teams need training on conducting and facilitating brainstorming and idea generation.

Here's what should have happened:
  1. Set the ground rules. There are a consistent set of rules for brainstorming, including "encourage wild ideas", "Go for quantity not quality", "Don't judge while ideating", etc.

  2. Clearly define the opportunity or challenge. Make the issue smaller or simpler if necessary.

  3. Define the scope - what should be considered and what should be ignored. We should have placed "all health care systems in the world" out of bounds from the start.

  4. Allow people to ask clarifying questions before we start brainstorming. Once we start generating ideas, limit the questions, which often change scope.

  5. Pick a scribe to capture ideas so the facilitator doesn't have to write down ideas and manage the group

  6. Encourage the reticent and moderate the talkers. Any group, and ours was no exception, has people who are happy to toss ideas out all day long, and those who won't speak at all. We need to hear from everyone, and perhaps a bit less from some people (me included).

  7. Keep the team on task and on target. When the "evaluate all health care systems in the world" statement was made, we should have been reminded that that was out of bounds, and we needed to refocus on what we could solve.

  8. Stretch the group when necessary. The facilitator can/should occasionally ask questions that shift the group's thinking or introduces a new perspective.

These ideation rules and best practices are documented in a set of slides OVO has posted here. There are a number of good books written on this subject as well, probably the best is "Think Better" by Tim Hurson.

These skills aren't innate and must be learned and reinforced. My concern is that people who work on innovation activities may be leading events but may not be fully trained or may not have all the skills and capabilities necessary to be very effective. And effectiveness in this context matters, since we were trying to solve big problems very quickly with a heterogeneous group. Only good methods and good facilitation was going to get it done well.

If your organization is trying to generate new ideas internally and desires to be guided by internal staff (which we think is a good thing), invest in some training to ensure the innovation leaders understand their roles and best practices.

Innovation is too important to leave to chance. If it is important to your organization, train your team to be effective idea facilitators!


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Selling Innovation to Your Boss

by Jeffrey Phillips

Selling Innovation to Your BossI've argued before that most firms innovate when faced one of two conditions: fear or greed. The fear factor indicates the firm has explored all other options, and now only the most "radical" option - innovation - remains. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, "when you've eliminated the possible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the answer". And, like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, I believe many firms innovate when they believe they've spotted an emerging opportunity or new market. In this case, greed is good.

But if all innovation were based on these two drivers, then little innovation would get done. Clearly many firms latch onto innovation as a life preserver, a last ditch effort rather than a strategic focus, but there's more innovation underway than could be accounted for by desperation. And I'm relatively certain that while some firms are good at spotting innovation opportunities and moving aggressively to produce new products and services, they are fairly few and far between. That leaves us with the majority of innovation getting done by the firms in the hazy middle - not really desperate, but not really leading innovators either. If that's the case, what methods do they use to "sell" innovation to the appropriate decisioning individuals or bodies?

Innovation can be "sold" to executives in one of several methods:
  1. As a method to increase organic growth, driving new profits
  2. As a method to disrupt the existing market or adjacent markets, preempting a competitor
  3. As a method to create significant differentiation within a market space
  4. As a method to create product or service leadership

These are the hard-headed, rational reasons, and the reasons that organizations tell themselves they innovate. in reality, most firms take on innovation efforts because:
  1. An employee created a great idea and we really have no choice but to exploit it
  2. A competitor has launched a new (product, initiative, campaign) and we need to respond to it
  3. A senior leader within the firm has made it his/her mission to create an innovation program and the squeaky wheel must be greased

We often find that innovation programs are formed around existing assets - people or ideas - that persist until they must be addressed. Sort of like a plant that must be weeded out or watered. Otherwise, most new innovation efforts are based on a response to what a competitor is doing. This "reactive" innovation is not, in our minds, the best way to innovate, but it may be the best way to sell an innovation program, to give your initiative the final "kickstart" needed to get the funding or resources you need.

Thus, to "sell" innovation you need to:
  1. Link it to a corporate objective (growth, differentiation, disruption)
  2. Build ideas and momentum under the covers
  3. Demonstrate what your competitors and new market entrants are doing
  4. Link all three together (strategy, existing momentum, competitive threats) to complete the package

Without all three "legs" of the stool, you'll struggle to gain credibility. Without a strategic linkage any innovation will be incremental point solutions. Without some existing momentum, the work will seem too overwhelming. Without the ability to demonstrate what competitors are doing, you rely on executives who place great emphasis on longer term strategic goals.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Innovation a Fad?

by Jeffrey Phillips

Is Innovation a Fad?I had a rather disconcerting part in a recent discussion with some senior leaders and executives who were discussing innovation. It was interesting to hear from some of them that they believe "innovation" is a fad, and will run its course shortly. They believe that innovation is simply another "quick fix" elixir cooked up by management consultants to find new things to sell to senior executives. Some others in the discussion believed that innovation is more systemic, and will have a longer shelf life, and add value for many years to come. I found myself disagreeing with both schools of thought.

The cynics suggest that innovation is simply a buzz word for creating new products or services, something that many firms already do. In that regard they view innovation as the current flash in the pan, meant to distract everyone from the real problems and place a nice bow on a box that already exists. To these cynics I say - you couldn't be more wrong. In a market that is moving and changing as quickly as the one we are experiencing now, and an environment where consumers are demanding more, and better, products and services, and in a production environment where any new idea can be copied fairly quickly, the only real winners are those who create substantially new concepts on a consistent basis. The old, static product lives and days of lower competition are over. Innovation isn't a "nice to have" or a "flash in the pan", it is rapidly becoming the most important skill set your organization can acquire.

For those who believe innovation does add value and can be more systemic, I say they are right, but only partly so. They see innovation as a tool that can be used, until the next tool comes along. This follows the theory of "waves". There was the "wave" of quality improvement, followed by the "wave" of rightsizing and outsourcing. Now, these folks believe, is the time for the "wave" of innovation, which will run its course and introduce a new wave of something else yet unseen. The problem with considering innovation as a wave with a specific time horizon is that new products and services will continue to be important long after the expected time frame of the "wave" is complete. If your investment is to simply adopt innovation as the next tool down the pike, and expect to jettison it once the wave is over, your team won't commit the necessary resources to innovate effectively. It will be a sideline to the "real work" of the organization, eagerly awaiting the next wave or fad.

No, here's where I diverge from the discussion. We are in a fundamental environmental shift. The pace of change and the increase in global competition means that the way we work has to change. Innovation isn't an interesting sideshow or fad, unless your management team allows it to be. Innovation isn't a wave or trend for the next "x" years to be replaced by something else. Innovation is THE differentiator between firms that are thriving and healthy today, and those that will be thriving and healthy a decade from now, because innovation isn't a fad, and isn't a wave, but is going to become a permanent way of life, a sustaining capability for the firms that understand the shift underway and adopt innovation as a cultural imperative.

If you think this doesn't matter then simply consider the culture and environment of the organization where you'd most like to work. Do you want to work in a firm that places emphasis on the future and staying abreast of trends and new ideas, or do you want to work in a firm where the constant activity is reacting to what other firms do in the market? The most innovative firms will attract the best people and accelerate their capabilities, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The firms with less innovation skill will atrophy because they can't compete on new ideas, and they can't generate new products and services fast enough to retain customers.

What's it going to take for us to wake up and realize that innovation is the most important skill we can gain within most organizations? I recognize that this kind of change threatens the status quo, but if we ignore the shifts underway in the market and economy we risk a future with far fewer jobs and far fewer opportunities.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Innovation Perspectives - Purpose, Frequency and Responsibility

This is the fifth of several 'Innovation Perspectives' articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on 'Who should be responsible (if anyone) for trend-spotting and putting emerging behaviors and needs into context for a business?'. Here is the next perspective in the series:

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Perspectives - Purpose, Frequency and ResponsibilityI've written before about the reactive nature of many businesses. It often seems there are more incentives to ignore signals in the marketplace and then conduct heroic efforts at recovery than to simply plan effectively and study trends and act accordingly. The purpose of today's topic is to examine whether or not trend spotting and scenario planning is important and valuable (hopefully already answered) and if trend spotting and scenario planning are important, what individual or team within your firm should be focused on this work, and how frequently it should be done.

First, let's put to bed the debate (admittedly a thin one) about whether or not your organization should track trends and try to understand likely future scenarios. The answer for most firms is a resounding "yes", especially given the increasing pace of change. In the past you might have been able to argue that change was slow and steady, and an occasional peak in the periscope was all that was necessary. As globalization increases and the pace of change increases, you need to be identifying trends and making sense of those trends consistently, or the disrupters will eat your market share for lunch. Your planning efforts can't assume the future looks a lot like the present, and also must look further out in time. You need to look further out in time because even though the demand cycle has sped up, many firms haven't improved their product or service development cycle, so if you only look a year or two into the future, but it takes 18 months to two years to get an idea through the pipeline, you are shooting behind the curve.

OK, let's assume for the sake of argument that you agree that trend spotting and scenario planning are valuable. Then the question becomes - who should spot and capture trends, who should develop scenarios and who should interpret the results? These questions need to be answered on two levels: at the corporate or business unit level, and at the product or service level.

Trend spotting should be underway, all the time, as a consistent activity by a wide range of people within your organization. Those trends should be reported to a central analyst (individual or team) who is capturing, recording and tracking trends. This model works at both the product/business unit level and at the corporate level. We at OVO emphasize this work at the corporate level, because work at a product or business unit level can too easily be focused too narrowly on a specific product or market or geography, and miss trends or disruptions from other sources. We'd rather see a number of people recognizing and reporting trends throughout the organization, centralized in some team at the corporate level, who capture, report and synthesize the trends, typically in four or five categories (demographic, technological, economic, governmental). One central repository of these trends reduces the "my trends are more accurate than yours" debates and should ensure a more all encompassing view of trends. Of course everything I've described can be replicated in a business unit or product line, with the awareness that these are often more narrowly tailored.

If we centralize this skill, what kinds of people are necessary to capture, analyze, report and synthesize trends? Anyone in the organization who reads, or interacts with customers or business partners, or who has an interest in what's happening or unfolding can capture and register trends. We've set up several systems like this where anyone can report trends. Additionally, the central team can also track and register trends. As trends are recorded and categorized, we can also begin to identify which are important and relevant for the business, and request more insight or investigation into some trends over others. As this is an ongoing activity, over time it becomes evident that some "trends" fade away while some are enforced. Periodically (we recommend twice a year) a team comes together to select trends and build scenarios about a 5 to 7 year distant future.

We tend to pick 5 to 7 year futures because in many firms the selection and implementation of a new idea and the rollout of a new product can take several years, so we want to get the product to market slight early rather than slightly late. With the pace of change as is currently experienced, trying to understand more than seven years into the future is really a crap shoot. Using a horizon less than three years is really not effective, as most concepts will be incremental.

Who should develop the scenarios? We believe these should be guided or facilitated by people who don't necessarily have a vested interest in the outcome. A scenario guided by a product manager is likely to reinforce his or her biases, since they have a stake in the outcome. Again a central innovation team acting as facilitators with a representatives from a product unit or business unit can mix the best of both worlds and ensure a relatively unbiased examination of several potential future outcomes.

Note that through all of this discussion we assume that this function exists as a continuous offering over time, not a discrete, start-stop program but a team that builds insights and skills and offers them to executives within the business. If you want the inexpensive, low hanging fruit of innovation, here it is. No where else can you get a great understanding of the near future and your opportunities and challenges for less cost. The only requirement after the scenario plan will be your ability to take action.


You can check out all of the 'Innovation Perspectives' articles from the different contributing authors on 'Who should be responsible (if anyone) for trend-spotting and putting emerging behaviors and needs into context for a business?' by clicking the link in this sentence.
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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Technology Does Not Equal Innovation

by Jeffrey Phillips

Technology Does Not Equal InnovationI had the opportunity to speak to a group at a university recently about innovation. In fact, I've spoken to four universities about innovation in the last few months. There's a growing awareness that innovation needs to happen in university settings. This would include innovation on the administration of the university, in the teaching methods and in what is taught. But that's a sideline to what I want to write about today.

In my most recent speaking engagement I was confronted by a senior faculty member who argued that all this talk about "innovation" was pointless, and missed the main target, which was that we needed more focus on science and engineering education. In his mind, innovation was equated to technology, and only scientists and engineers could bring new technologies to life. While I agree that scientists and technologists can bring innovations to market, I'd argue that that definition of innovation is awfully narrow. It seems to me that innovation can occur in many avenues that have little or nothing to do with technology, engineering or science.

In fact we have recently worked with a financial services institution, a health care insurance firm, a life insurance firm and several other firms in the services industries where there are no physical products developed and few if any engineers or scientists. Yet these firms are innovating. Innovating their service models, customer experiences, processes and business models. Apple, held up as the ultimate innovator, is a technology firm but innovates instead more around user experience, linkages, partnerships and content.

There are a number of firms that innovate around technology and science, so I don't want to downplay the importance of technology in innovation. However, we do need to understand the balance between product innovation and all other kinds of innovation, and the importance of engineering and science to innovation. It's really a question of set theory. Technology innovation is a subset of innovation generally, and while all technology innovation is innovation, all innovation is not technology innovation. As much as it may pain my engineering friends to say it, there's a lot of innovation happening that has little or nothing to do with technology. Conversely, there's a lot of technological research that will impact our lives through new innovations as products and services.

This dichotomy also explains a lot of angst in the intelligentsia about the termination of NASA's return to the moon program and the decreasing amount of federal research generally. The belief is, and I agree with this, that we learn more and capitalize on that knowledge when we explore space flight or invest in primary research. But curtailing space flight does not necessarily make the US less innovative. It leaves us in a situation where, from a governmental point of view we may become more dependent on the Russians or Chinese to put vehicles in space, or perhaps it makes available a private enterprise approach to space flight. But reducing investment in these areas doesn't mean we are less innovative, it just spreads out the responsibility for innovation more broadly. But that had already happened in the 70s and 80s, as private enterprise took on more direct research and investment and the federal government's role declined.

OK, enough of the tangent. Innovation depends on creating and developing new ideas. Some of those insights are based on new technologies or improvements to existing technologies. Some innovation, however, is based on insights about services, processes or business models, and don't rely on technologists or engineers for insights. To claim that all innovation is technology innovation, and that without engineers and scientists no "real" innovation can be accomplished is to view the world of innovation with a very narrow lens.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Finding (or Avoiding) Innovators

by Jeffrey Phillips

Finding (or Avoiding) InnovatorsAs always, we'd like to make our readers and clients happy. In that vein, I'd like to introduce how to spot people who are likely innovators. In this way, you can identify them more quickly, and choose to hire them if you want to be more innovative, or you can ignore and avoid them if the status quo is more your scene. Good luck with that strategy, by the way.

Identifying people who are innovators is actually relatively easy. They are the ones who don't actually seem to belong the organization in the first place.

Innovators tend to:
  • Reject the standard framing of a problem and restate the problem or opportunity. Rather than work within the given constructs or framing, many innovators want to toss out the framing and start anew. Just like Galileo, this may require working against an orthodoxy, yet nonetheless, it moves and so must we. Those folks who are so problematic about wanting to change or expand the framing of a problem? Probably good innovators.

  • Be optimistic. They are almost always the glass half full people. Pessimistic people will focus far too much energy on the "problem" while innovators will acknowledge the problem and move on to find interesting solutions. They believe the problems are merely temporary barriers to more interesting solutions.

  • Look to the future for signals rather than to the past. In most businesses, many people will ask "has this been done before" and "what can we learn from that success or failure. Innovators want to know "can we be the first" and what signals in the market or environment give us indications that we'll be successful

  • Care about solving unmet or poorly understood challenges. Often innovators are going beyond the obvious, ordinary problems to uncover deeper unmet or poorly understood issues. If your team is captivated by solving an obvious and incremental problem, they aren't innovators.

  • Network with people different than they are. Evidence suggests that the best innovators are people who read outside of their industry, interact with people from many different backgrounds and interests and seek to bring solutions from outside their industry to the table. People who are very deep in one industry but ignore signals and solutions from other industries are usually not very innovative.

  • Are proactive. Innovators actively seek change while many executives are content to wait and react to what other firms do.

  • Are dissatisfied with the status quo and willing to change it rather than simply accept the status quo and merely complain.

  • Are very comfortable learning, trying and failing, and then trying again. They aren't stymied by a single failure and are usually very determined to start again, reframe the problem and try a new tack or approach, learning from previous failures and incorporating that knowledge.

So, if you are in the market to hire someone and want to know if he or she is likely to be an innovator, look for these signs:
  • Ask them about an existing problem that you have. See if they are perfectly willing to accept your framing, or if they request the opportunity to reframe or change the frame entirely. If the latter, a likely innovator.

  • Ask them about existing societal problems or corporate problems or challenges. Listen to how they approach the problem and their willingness to suggest changes or alternatives and the possibilities they suggest for change.

  • In the context of a problem, what information do they seek - external, future oriented or internal information about the past?

  • Can they name a big failure in their lives and demonstrate what they learned and how that failure helped them gain more insight into an eventual solution?

  • Can they name five people in relatively senior positions they interact with on a regular basis who are from different industries? Can they demonstrate an active network outside of their "home" industry?

The kinds of answers you get with these questions will tell you how strong the "innovation" force is within the candidate, and whether you should hire that person or turn the Force against them.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

How is Innovation Like Pornography?

by Jeffrey Phillips

How is Innovation Like Pornography?I made what in hindsight is a fairly funny mistake recently. Working with a new client who wanted to become more innovative, we pressed ahead into a project only to realize that their definition of innovation was to have customers interact with their products in a technology showcase. When I think of "innovation" I think of teams using a number of tools and techniques to generate and bring to life new products, services and business models. When this team said "innovation" that's what I thought, and what I assumed. What they were thinking was something else entirely, and that didn't become evident until we developed a workplan. Then, the differences in the expectations and definitions were clearly exposed.

We failed at what should be an upfront discussion - that is, what does innovation mean to your firm? I've been around innovation so long that if I'm not careful I just assume that corporate executives that I'm working with have the same expectations and definitions as I do, and that can be very problematic. Definitions matter because they drive corporate expectations and commitment. If it seems "innovative" to have your clients interact with your products in a showcase environment, and that adds value to your organization, great. But in my mind that's not innovation. And also not my client's fault. It's mine, for not taking the time to understand what the word "innovation" meant when they used it, and what their expectations and best outcomes were.

Innovation is one of those words like "pornography" that, in the immortal words of the Supreme Court can't be defined, but we know it when we see it. Our client thinks it will be considered "innovative" if it allows customers to interact with its products in a high tech, high touch environment. They may be right. However, that's not really "innovation" in my mind, because they are not trying to use the facility to generate new ideas or bring new products and services to market. The center may become a marketing program, meant to create good will and more openness to the market, but not ascertain ideas or seek consumer input. This won't create new products and may divert funds from other efforts that would create new ideas, so it may be doubly risky, while seeming very innocuous.

The morale of this story is simple. As innane and obvious as it may seem, when the words "innovative" come out of your client's mouth, stop and ask for an example or a definition. If they can't provide one, then work with them to create a definition that you, and they, agree is correct, because there's simply too much room for assumption, and error, when the word is taken at face value. Too many firms, and too many people are simply throwing the word around for advantage, which leads to misguided expectations and disappointed consumers.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Innovation? - Just Do It

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation? - Just Do ItI'm constantly amazed by all the talk about innovation that I hear within many organizations, and how little real action is taken. It's time, my friends, to gird up your loins and take action. Let's borrow the motto from Nike and decide to "Just Do It."

If you are waiting for the sign from above (by that I mean your executive management) that you may now go and be innovative, stop waiting. Even if the sign comes, it will be so watered down and so filled with misdirection and uncertainty that you wouldn't act on it anyway. Act now, even in small ways to develop innovation activities and skills, so that you can then build on those activities and flesh them into new ideas, and new products and services.

When I say this to many mid and senior level folks I talk to, they want to know: what can I do to make a difference? There are a host of small actions you can take to start innovating, and as you do you'll build credibility and will attract others who are interested and want to work with you. If you never start, you'll never build the community or team you need to succeed.

Here are just a few things that are very easy to do, and very inexpensive to do, that just about anyone in any firm can do to add value and start innovating. Once you do these things you'll build your credibility and get to do even more.
  1. Document trends and provide your sense of what they'll mean for your business in the near future. Yes, I know this isn't your job, but as it turns out it's not anyone's job in most businesses but everyone needs this synthesis. A well organized consolidation of trends, transitioned into a document that provides shape and clarity to a potential future outcome, is helpful to any organization. And, since no one else is doing it, you are now the expert. If someone disagrees, then you've attracted a compatriot who can work with you to provide a counterpoint. All innovation starts from recognizing an opportunity, issue or threat before others do. Trend spotting and synthesis can get your team there first.

  2. Observe your customers. Go read the complaint letters. Read what people are writing about you online on Facebook or Twitter, or other blogs. Go watch your customers use your products. Become a customer of your products or services. Write down what you like, and don't like, about your products. This is free Voice of the Customer and Ethnography. As you do this you'll gain insights into unmet unarticulated needs, which are also a great opportunity for innovation.

  3. Use brainstorming and other idea generation tools as frequently as possible, and use them in the right situations and contexts. Rather than pull a rarely used tool out of the toolbox ocassionally, use the tools regularly and effectively. In that way, idea generation doesn't seem so artificial, but a natural part of doing business. And since you're doing it regularly, you learn more about how to do it well.

  4. Read the best books about innovation, to learn more about the best practices and tools, so when there are opportunities for innovation, you can recommend the appropriate tools and techniques. Learn to be a good facilitator, and understand the rules and techniques for idea generation. As your skills grow, you'll be asked to lead idea sessions for other teams.

There's always something you can do, and starting now is much better than starting when you finally get the OK. In many firms, the OK may never happen. Create a small innovation capability and generate ideas about the future, new product and service ideas, and help other teams generate ideas. You'll attract others who have similar needs and interests and gain incredible credibility. Eventually you'll be the go-to person for innovation. Don't laugh, I've been in at least two organizations where the head of innovation was simply the person who started doing innovation and was eventually recognized as the expert.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Innovation Can't Wait

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Can't WaitOne of my partners, an electrical engineer, let out a loud cry a few minutes ago. He was responding to an article I sent him about a new electical gizmo that monitors eletrical usage in the home. He was upset because he came up with a very similar idea about a year ago, but he assumed it was safe to put on hold for a while.

This points up an innovation fallacy, and a separate truism. First, the fallacy. Good ideas are rarely conceived in isolation. Even really good ideas often happen in several different places relatively simultaneously. So while you may think your great idea is unique and original, there's a good chance it isn't. The truism that follows is that it's not the individual or team that conceives the idea that wins, it's the individual or team that commercializes that wins.

Let's look at the fallacy first. As is fairly well documented, Newton and Leibnitz conceived calculus at roughly the same time in history with no interaction. Alexander Graham Bell and another inventor applied for patents for the telephone on the same day. Good ideas to solve seemingly intractable problems or address emerging opportunities are rarely unique. Simply ask yourself - have you ever seen a new product or service and thought "I thought of that years ago". There are enough smart people reading the same news and watching the same events unfold as your team, so many ideas are likely to be spawned simultaneously in a number of geographies or in a number of different companies.

This places all the more emphasis on commitment to your ideas. If you have a good idea, then you need to move as quickly as possible to prototype it, pilot it, assess it and gain customer feedback. Don't assume you have time on your side, or that your idea is significantly unique. The latter is a fallacy and the former is a trap. Time is not on your side. As people become more aware of opportunities or challenges and attempt to create their own solutions, more people will try to innovate a robust solution. Some of those firms won't have the scruples to evaluate, test and refine their ideas. They'll stick an idea out there, gain feedback and learn from their products and mistakes.

Innovations wait for no man. Since it's easy to show the same ideas are often conceived by disparate groups at roughly the same time, you need to be prepared to move on your ideas as soon as possible. This means you need a process or methodology to enrich, nurture and develop ideas quickly, and a piloting or feedback loop to gain customer feedback. Once you've received the feedback, you may then decide the idea is too nascent or the needs still too undefined for your idea, and place it on the shelf. Otherwise, someone else is likely to beat you to the punch, and leave you yelling at your monitor that you had that idea a year ago.

The race goes not to the swift or the battle to the strong, but success in innovation goes to the confident team prepared to act on its ideas.



Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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