Tag Archives: The Art of Random

Childhood readers and the art of random

Note: This post is part of larger series on innovation, going under the collective name of Innovation and Art of Random.

Innovation can seem random. We’re dealing with so much change in our daily lives that we miss the long and tortuous journey an innovation takes from it’s first conception through to the delivered solution, causing the innovation to seemingly appear from nowhere. We’re distracted as we’re trying to cope with the huge volume of work our changing environment creates, adjusting to the new normal, while trying to find time to sift through the idea fire hose for that one good idea. However ideas are common, commoditized even, and our real challenge is to make connections.

As Peter Drucker pointed out: insight, the tacit application of knowledge is not a transferable good. The value we derive from innovation comes from synthesis, the tacit application of knowledge to create a new solution. The challenge is to find time to pull apart the tools available to us, recombining them to synthesis new (and hopefully innovative) solutions to the problems we’re confronting today.

While ideas may be cheap, the time and space needed to create insight are not. We need to understand our problem from multiple contexts, teasing out the important elements, bringing together ideas to address each element in the synthesis of an original solution. This process takes time, often more time than we can spare, and so we need to invest our time wisely. Which steps in this processes are the most valuable (or the least transferable), the steps we need to own? Which can we outsource, passing responsibility to partners, or even our social network? And is it possible to create time? Using technology to take some of the load and create the breathing room we need.

Dr. Khee Pang
Dr. Khee Pang

One of the best pieces of advice I picked up at university was from Dr. K. K. Pang, who unfortunately passed away in March 2009. Dr Pang taught circuit theory, which can be quite a frustrating subject. It’s common to encounter a problem in circuit theory which you just can’t find a way into, making it seemingly impossible to solve. Dr. Pang’s brilliant, yet simple, advice was “If you don’t like the problem, then change it to one you do like.”. Just start messing with the problem, transforming bits of the circuit at random until you find a problem that you can solve.

Fast forward to my current work, far removed from circuit theory, and I still find myself using this piece of advice at least once a week. It’s not uncommon to come across a problem, a problem with little direct connection to technology, that needs to be approached from a very different angle. When stuck, take a different angle, make it a different problem, and you might find this new problem more to you liking.

You often bump into the same problem in different contexts as you work across industries and geographies. Different contexts can necessitate a different point of view, making the problem look slightly different. This highlights other aspects of the problem that you might not have been aware of before, highlighting previously hidden assumptions or connections to other problems. However, while this cross industry and geography insight is a valuable tool, the time required to go spelunking for insight is prohibitive. We find ourselves spend too much decoding the new context, and too little teasing out the important elements.

Learning to read, something I expect we all did in our childhood, is a struggle for fluency. We work from the identification of letters and words, through struggling to decode the text, to a level of fluency that enables us to focus on the meaning behind the text. Being fluent means being good enough at identification and decoding that we have the time and space for comprehension.

The ability to change the problem in front of you is really a question of being fluent in a range of environments; understanding a number of doctrines. These might be different industries (finance, public sector, utilities …) domains (logistics, risk management, military tactics, rhetoric …) or even geographies (APAC, EU, US …) as each has its own approach. We need enough experience in an environment to be able to decode it easily. Generally this means in the trenches experience, focused on applying knowledge, allowing us to weed out the common place and find the interesting and new. But building fluency takes time though; we can’t afford to immerse ourselves in every possible environment that might be of interest.

For quite a few years (from back in the day when my email address had a .oz at the end) I’ve been collecting a network of colleagues. Each is inquisitive in our own way, each with our own area of interest or theme, covering a huge, overlapping range of doctrines, while always looking for another idea too add to our toolbox. With the world being small, or even flat, this network of like minds has often been the source of a different point of view, one which solves the problem I’m working on. More recently this network has been migrating to Twitter, making the shared conversation more dynamic and immediate. It’s small networks of like-minds like this which can provide us the ability to effectively outsource the majority of our analysis, spreading the effort amongst out peers and creating the time and space to focus on synthesis.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: innovation relies on the synthesis, and the key to synthesis is in finding interesting problems to solve. An idea, no matter how brilliant, will not go far unless it results in a product or service the people want. Innovation exists out at the surface of our organisations, or at the production coal face. Just as with the breath strips example, interesting problems pop up in the most unexpected places. Our challenge is prepare ourselves so that we can capitalise on the the opportunity a problem represents. As a famous golfer once said:

Gary Player
Gary Player

The more I practice, the luckier I get.
Gary Player

The world around us changes so rapidly that innovation can seem random. The snowmobile was obvious to the people who invented it, as they worked via trial-and-error from the original problem they wanted to solve through to the completed solution; it didn’t leap from their brow as a fully formed concept. Develop your interests, become fluent in a wide range of relevant topics and environments, use your network to extend your reach even further, and look for interesting problems to solve. In a world awash with good ideas, when innovation relies on your ability synthesis new solutions by finding an new angle from which to approach old problems (possibly problems so old that people forgot that they had them), the key to success is to find our own focus and then use your own own interests to drive yourself forward while effectively leveraging your network and resources around you to take as much of the load as possible. Innovation is rarely the result of a brilliant idea, but a patient process of finding problems to solve and then solving them, and sometimes we’re surprised by how innovative our solutions can be.

The role of snowmobiles in innovation

Note: This post is part of larger series on innovation, going under the collective name of Innovation and Art of Random.

Innovation has become an idea arms race, an arms race that most of us cannot hope to win. We spend so much time trying to consume ideas, drinking from the innovation fire hose, that we have little time to devote to what really matters: synthesis.

When we’re focused on harvesting ideas from the environment around us—either inside or outside our organisations—we are, by definition, on the back foot. We must assume that we’re not the first to see an idea, when it’s discovered outside our organisation. Nor can we assume exclusivity on the ideas we generate. As Sun likes to point out, statistically all the smart people with the good ideas work for someone else.

My guitar teacher of some years back, Tom Fryer, had a bit of sage advice. It’s pointless to try to be original, as someone will always have had the idea before you. A more productive approach is to simply plow your own furrow; focus on the problems you want to solve, steal ideas shamelessly if they seem useful, and invent what you need to fill the gaps.

Tom has a good point. The challenge with being creative is in knowing what problems to solve, and bringing together old and new ideas to create a new solution. Hoarding ideas or worrying about their source, debating the worth of internally generated ideas against those sourced externally, misses the point when we have tools like open innovation at our disposal.

Success in innovation is driven by a smart approach to synthesis. Work to solve a problem. Take ideas from around you to incrementally building something new. Learn, tuning your approach as you go.

Take Sony’s Walkman as an example, an innovation which created the market for personal music devices.

The Sony Walkman was originally designed as a music player for couples, based on Akio Morita’s observation of teenagers lugging their radios with them on vacations (an incongruity) and came equipped with two headphone jacks and a recording facility. It even had a “hotline” button, partially overriding the sound from the cassette and allowing one user to talk to the other over the music.

Of course, nobody really used it like that and Sony was quick to see that most people used it as a personal, portable music player (unexpected) and redesigned it accordingly.

Snake Coffee

The Walkman wasn’t conceived and developed in response to a brilliant idea. Akio Morita noticed an incongruity in the market, which Sony created a new product to address. When they realized that the Walkman wasn’t being used as expected, the product was tweaked to align it with reality. As Peter Drucker pointed out with his seven sources of innovation, innovation usually has more prosaic drivers than brilliant ideas or shiny new technologies.

John Boyd
John Boyd

John Boyd called this process, creating snowmobiles. His area of interest was military strategy: the challenge of creating novel, unexpected and winning solutions when dealing with a rapidly changing and constantly evolving environment. Creating snowmobiles represented a thought experiment he used to challenge an audience near the start of his briefing on strategy.

The thought experiment goes something like this:

Imagine that you are:

  • on a ski slope with other skiers—retain this image,
  • in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat—maybe even towing water-skiers—retain this image,
    riding a bicycle on a nice spring day—retain this image, and
  • a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads—retain this image.

Now let’s pull the:

  • skis off ski slope—discard and forget rest of image,
  • outboard motor out of motorboat—discard and forget rest of image,
  • handlebars off bicycle—discard and forget rest of image, and
  • rubber treads off toy tractors or tanks—discard and forget rest of image.

This leaves us with

  • skis,
  • outboard motor,
  • handlebars, and
  • rubber treads.

Pulling all this together, what do we have?

  • A snowmobile.
Snowmobile
Snowmobile

As Boyd points out, there are two distinct processes at work here. First we need to pull ideas apart and understand how they will work in different contexts (analysis), building a library of interesting tactics we can use in solving a future problems. Second, we need to put these ideas back together in new combinations (synthesis), providing us with the opportunity to understand how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be connected to one another.

How do we create a situation where we can make snowmobiles?

We often strive for diversity, as we believe diversity brings with it a range of points of view, which in turn encourages innovation. This has prompted some organisations to search for T-shaped individuals: someone professional in one area, but with complementary skills. Their broad experience, so the theory goes, will enable them to look across a number of domains to harvest useful ideas. However, this does not address our core challenge: understanding which questions to ask, the questions which will driven the synthesis process.

The first step is take a mountain climbing approach to knowledge and ideas. At each stage in the innovation cycle we need to establish camp, scout the path ahead and then prepare our tools for the journey to the next camp further up the mountain. This requires a process of constant learning, and a willingness to explore new environments. Environments which might range from the various business functions, across technical and business domains to seemingly unrelated areas, such as John Boyd’s work on military strategy.

Low Cost IVF Foundation
Low Cost IVF Foundation

The Low Cost IVF Foundation is a good example of this approach. The program started with a clear goal in mind: of converting IVF from a luxury of the West into a tool for alleviating the public ridicule, accusations of witchcraft, loss of financial support, abandonment and divorce, not to speak of the shame and depression associated with being childless in the third world. At each innovation camp they scouted the path ahead, exploring the environments around them, identify the problems, and challenging the conventional assumptions about how they should be solved. Incrementally, over a number of iterations, they synthesised a new approach which radically cut the cost of IVF. While the journey might seem prosaic (much like Sony’s), the result is quite profound.

To support this approach to innovation, we need to become fluent in a wide range of environments, the second step. Fluency implies that we have sufficient experience in an environment to make understanding ideas automatic. We’re not devoting our time to basic comprehension. This creates the cognitive time and space to focus on understanding the connections between ideas, and their application to the task at hand. Fluency creates the time and space for synthesis.

Innovation should not be the race for the new-new thing

Note: This post is part of larger series on innovation, going under the collective name of Innovation and Art of Random.

We’re all searching for the new-new thing. Be it a product or a method, we’re looking for that innovation that will let us stand out from the pack, because in a world where we are all good, we need to be original. If an idea becomes a trend before we’re involved, we are not a leader. When we’re first to market, if we capture first mover advantage, then we can define the rules of the game. But how can we tap into valuable ideas for products, services or method before they are seen as trends, when they are just … random?

In today’s hyper-competitive business environment being good, being operationally efficient, has become the price of entry. We’ve leveraged methodologies like TQM, Six Sigma, LEAN to optimize our businesses, and while we might carry some baggage from our past, we are good at what we do. In this environment, it’s the ability to be original, the ability to innovate, that will let us stand out from the crowd. Innovation, though, is random. At least it often seems that way. A chance connection or unlikely insight takes someone on a journey to create something new. New developments, new product and services based on original ideas, seem to come out of the blue.

A product which created its own product category
A product which created it's own product category

Think of the first time you saw breath strips; small, minty strips that dissolve on your tongue, eliminating pre-meeting (or pre-date) bad breath. Where did they come from? Most of us can’t quite put our finger on their origin. We heard about them one day, and the next they seemed to be in every shop we walking into, anywhere around the world. A new market segment had been created, and its creator had captured most of the value.

The race for the new-new thing seems to have created an innovation arms race. We want to be the first to find an idea, nurture it, and turn it into a competitive advantage. This has made innovation—the search for new opportunities—into a race for more. More ideas, more connections, more investment, more involvement. If we can see more ideas, get access to more content, get more of our team involved, if we can get it earlier in its lifecycle, then we might be the ones with first mover advantage.

We’re starting to take this to extremes, industrialising the quest for more. Conferences (some of which are rapidly becoming media empires in their own right), such as TED, are creating idea smorgasbords for us to graze on. The industrialization of ideas has us all drinking from the same (soda) fountain. This is driving incremental improvement in our businesses by sharing best practice, which is a good thing, but it’s not going to help us find the new-new thing, the innovative product that will help us stand out from the crowd.

The challenge when managing innovation is not in capturing ideas before they develop into market shaping innovations. If we see an innovative idea outside our organization, then we must assume that we’re not the first to see it, and ideas are easily copied. If innovation is a transferable good, then we’d all have the latest version.

New ideas rarely just pop into existence though; technology, the development of ideas, is an evolutionary process. New, novel ideas, are simply combinations of existing ones, driven by someone’s desire to solve a problem. Breath strips, for example, were the chance connection between mouth wash, a Japanese trend for a dissolving sweets and our (western) desire for fresh breath, a connection made by a western executive on a business trip to Japan. As new ideas are simple combinations of existing ones, the technology we thought of yesterday might might be more valuable tomorrow, as the key component in a new solution.

Each small step of innovation is the result of someone, somewhere bringing together a collection of previously unconnected ideas to solve a problem. This is a pull, rather than a push process. Solutions are not created in search of a problem, but in response to a problem. A new idea is the result of a series of small, incremental steps from the ideas we have to the idea we need. The net result of this incremental development is huge. What makes innovation surprising, and seemingly random, is the fact that we often only see the end result, and not the journey.

Innovation, the ability to be original, comes from inside, not outside of our organizations. The real challenge is synthesis: understanding what problems are interesting, selecting the ideas which bring value to a solution (as not all ideas are created equal), and then bringing together these ideas to create something new. How do we create space and time to help our team synthesize these new, innovative ideas when presented with a challenge?