Tag Archives: Innovation

Taking innovation to the edge

Deloitte were kind enough to invite me to present last week at the Melbourne leg of their regular CIO forum. The topic was innovation in IT.

The Innovative CIO: taking the core to the edge

Innovation strikes both dread and elation into the heart of the CIO. How does the CIO embrace and deploy rapid technology changes without falling into the trap of project plans and corporate regulation?

Continue reading Taking innovation to the edge

Good advice

There’s a few bits of good advice that I’ve stumbled across during my time, and which I’ve sprinkled in some of my posts. I thought it might be worthwhile gathering them into one place.

On solving problems

If you don’t like the problem, then change it into one you do like.
— Dr K Pang

One of the best pieces of advice I picked up was from Dr. K. K. Pang1)Dr Pang unfortunately passed away in March 2009. at university some time ago. 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.

The trick with overcoming many of the obstacles that life and work throws in front of you is to realize which problem you should be solving.

On creativity

It’s pointless to try and be original, as someone’s always done it before. Just focus on doing what you’re interested in.
—Tom Fryer

My guitar teacher of many years back, Tom Fryer,2)Greasy Boundaries by the Tom Fryer Quartet at Bar 303 Northcote, Melbourne Australia. had a bit of sage advice. It’s pointless to try to be original, as someone will always have had the idea before you. It’s a big world with a lot of history, and there’s not that many ideas. 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. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is original or not; it’s only a question of how useful and interesting the result is.

This is something that I’ve since seen from a few well known creative folk.

It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.
—Jean-Luc Godard

Innovation (a related topic) is not a question of having a great idea, or being the best at execution. Results count: what did you do with the opportunity to had?

On being the best

You’ll end up disappointed if you worry about being the best at what you do. It’s a big world and you’ll eventually run into someone has more skill. It’s more important to be happy with what you’ve done.
—Tom Fryer

Another from Tom; he’s a very wise man. No matter how much you practice, some day, probably in an armpit bar in the backwoods, there’ll be someone who blows you away as they have more skills than you. Winning awards or contests doesn’t mean you’re the best; it just means that you’re the most successful competitor at the time. (Or just the most popular, as many contests are actually fashion contests.) Some folk don’t choose to compete.

This ties back to John Kay’s concept of obliquity3)John Kay (Jan 2004), Obliquity, The Financial Times: the idea that your goals are often best approached obliquely. The most effective path up the hill is usually to weave our way up the slope, rather than directly attack the steepest path.

I call this paradox the principle of obliquity. It says that some objectives are best pursued indirectly. I owe the phrase to Sir James Black, the chemist, whose career illustrates the principle in action. Black made more money for British companies than anyone else in the history of British business, by inventing beta-blockers and anti-ulcerants. The first he discovered in the laboratories of ICI, the second in those of Smith Kline French after he had decided that ICI was more interested in profits than in chemistry. To quote Black ‘I used to tell my colleagues (at ICI) that if they were after profits there were easier routes than drug research. How wrong could one be?’ The attempt to pursue profit too earnestly is pharmaceutical research defeated its own objectives.
—John Kay

The path to sustained success is not to set some imaginary hurdle to jump over – being the biggest or best – but to focus on doing what it is you want to do. IBM – helping business make use of technology – has been successful for over one hundred years. Microsoft – the biggest application developer on the planet – is struggling after a few decades.4)The Economist (2011), Middle-aged blues: The software giant is grappling with a mid-life crisis

Apple’s journey over the last decade or so seems to bear this out.

We just want to make products that we’d love to own.
—Steve Jobs

On being somebody

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”

Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.”

He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something.” In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

—John Boyd from Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war5)Robert Coram (2002), Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war, Back Bay Books

It’s a big choice, but one the career councillors at school seem to gloss over. You can either choose to be someone, to fulfil a specific role such as CEO or rock star, or to do something, such as feed the poor. If you’re lucky, doing something will also allow you to be someone (such as Mother Teresa), but it doesn’t work the other way around.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Dr Pang unfortunately passed away in March 2009.
2. Greasy Boundaries by the Tom Fryer Quartet at Bar 303 Northcote, Melbourne Australia.
3. John Kay (Jan 2004), Obliquity, The Financial Times
4. The Economist (2011), Middle-aged blues: The software giant is grappling with a mid-life crisis
5. Robert Coram (2002), Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war, Back Bay Books

It’s effectiveness, and not ideas or execution, which is the strongest determinant for success

We’re told that execution is everything. While a good idea might be useful, execution is seen as the factor that will determine the success or failure of our business venture. Many people find this comforting as good ideas are rare, seemingly springing from nowhere, and few of us hold little hope of having a really good idea in our lifetime. (One definition of “genius” is someone who manages to have more than one good idea before they die.) Execution, however, is something we can control. We can practice, improving our skill, making us more likely to succeed.

Our focus first on ideas and then execution distracts us – possibly intentionally so – from the real driver for success in business: luck. Brilliant ideas – ideas who’s time has come – are obviously rare. And then there’s our natural proclivity to overestimate our own abilities. (Such as the vast majority of drivers who think they are better than average drivers. Some of them must be wrong). While we don’t like to admit it, finding ourselves at the right place at the right time with a good enough solution is more important than any other single factor.

Google is a case in point. We can admire skill of Larry Page and Serge Brin, and the search algorithm they developed was obviously better than what came before, but neither of these is sufficient to explain the success that is Google today. Something else was required; luck had a large part to play in their success. If they hadn’t been turned down when they tried for sell a young Google for something like one million dollars, if the didn’t have access to the venture capital community on Sand Hill Road, if they …

We don’t like to talk about needing luck, as allowing luck into the equation implies that something is outside our control, that a success was not the result of our skills alone. If we rolled the Google dice again, from a starting position where the world was slightly different, would Google float to the top? Or would someone else find themselves at the right place at the right time with a good enough idea?

Many business leaders have penned biographies which highlight how their skill – and their skill alone – drove their organisations ever higher. A few are brave enough to admit that they were lucky, and that they were smart enough to to make the most of luck when it flowed their way.

Business is a numbers game. While each throw of the dice might be random, across a number of rolls we can can identify trends which we can use to tip the odds into our favour. An effective player realises this and works to exploit the trends they see and increase their luck. Or as one smart and lucky golfer was heard to say:

The more I practice, the luckier I get.

— Gary Player

The large innovative move from an established company, or the disruptive startup that become a billion dollar company at the founders first attempt, is the exception. There is no silver bullet, a single thing they did and which we can replicate.

Most of us need to play a longer game if we want to see success. Each time we roll the dice we need to ensure that the odds move a little further into our favour by:

  • being frugal with our resources
  • moving to a position where we have a better chance of success
  • make the most of the opportunities that are presented to us
  • learning from our previous mistakes

It’s not ideas or execution that determine our success. Both are important but neither is sufficient. It’s our ability to increasingly become more effective with each action we take – our ability to learn from our mistakes, rather than our ability to improve our skills – increasing our luck to the point that one day it overflows and we find ourselves with a success.

Popsicle: a chance discovery

At the age of eleven on a winter’s afternoon in 1905, Frank Epperson left his drink on the back porch overnight. It was a fruit flavoured concoction popular at the time, made from soda water powder and water. Next morning, Frank found his drink frozen solid, with the stirring stick poking out of it.

18 years later, Epperson decided to apply for a patent on his “frozen ice on a stick.” He called the novelty the “Eppsicle” ice pop and began producing Eppsicles in several different flavours. A father by then, his children had begun referring to the Eppsicle as the Popsicle. Later he officially changed the name.

A nice demonstration of the first, and most valuable, of Peter Drucker’s seven sources of innovation.

The unexpected. The unexpected success, failure or outside event.

Innovation [22-09-2010]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

Innovation [25-08-2010]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

Basketball as an innovation metaphore

I just realised that the approach to basket ball described by The no-stars all star, from the NY Times, is a nice model for innovation (whatever that is).

I’ve been struggling for a while to understand how to define innovation other than retrospectively (isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing). We can pin down invention, customer need, product development, marketing etc. — all the elements to make an innovation successful — but picking an innovation seems the impossible task.

Efforts to define and codify innovation are like capturing lightening in a bottle. You can’t systematise a process which has a large degree of luck to it. What you can do, though, is to be prepared. This is where tools like design thinking fit in.

The interesting thing about the basketball article is that the coach admitted that basketball is a numbers game. Given the game’s high scoring rate, it’s not enough to have killer skills; there’s a large element of luck involved: being in the right place at the right time.

The coach’s approach is to try and increase his chances of being lucky, which he uses two tactics to achieve:

  • Try and be as efficient as possible.
  • Try to make your opposition as inefficient as possible.

The coach grinds the numbers to understand what are the odds of sinking or blocking a shot in each and every position on the court, and for each and every player. He then focuses on positioning his players to improve his odds, while reducing the odds of the opposing team. This makes his team more efficient, and more likely to capitalise on an opportunity, and the opposition less efficient, and less likely to capitalise on an opportunity. Think: forcing an opponent to shoot from the right when he prefers (and is more successful with) the left.

A common mistake is to assume that innovation is a creative processes: it’s not (you can always steal the idea rather than think of it yourself). Many of the tools we use to help companies to manage innovation are focused on making them more efficient in managing the innovation journey: focusing their energies where they are needed the most. Now with basketball as an inspiration, it might be possible to bring these tools together in a more scientific framework.

Innovation [2010-08-02]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

What is innovation?

What is innovation? I don’t know, but then I’m not even sure that it’s an interesting question. The yearning so many companies have to be innovative often seems to prevent them from actually doing anything innovative. They get so caught up in trying to come up with the next innovation — the next big product — that they often fail to do anything innovative at all. It’s more productive to define innovation by understanding what it’s not: doing the same thing as the rest of the crowd, while accepting that there are no silver bullets and that you don’t control all the variables.

So, what is innovation? This seems to be a common question thats comes up whenever a company wants to innovate. After all, the first step in solving a problem is usually to define our terms.

Innovation is a bit like quantum theory’s spooky action at a distance,1)Spooky action at a distance? @ Fact and Fiction where stuff we know and understand behaves in a way we don’t expect. It can be easy to spot an innovative outcome (hindsight is a wonderful thing), but it’s hard to predict what will be innovative in the future. Just spend some time browsing Paleo-Future2)Paleo-Future (one of my favourite blogs) to see just how far off the mark we’ve been in the past.

The problem is that as it’s all relative; what’s innovative in one context may (or may not) be innovative in another. You need an environment that brings together a confluence of factors — ideas, skills, the right business and market drivers, the time and space to try something new — before there’s a chance that something innovative might happen.

Unfortunately innovation has been claimed as the engine behind the success of more than a few leading companies, so we all wanted to know what it is (and how to get some). Many books have been written promising to tell you exactly what to do to create innovation, providing you with a twelve step program3)Twelve step programs @ Wikipedia to a happier and more innovative future. If you just do this, then you too can invent the next iPhone.4)iPhone — the Apple innovation everyone expected @ Fast Company

Initially we were told that we just needed to find the big idea, a concept which will form the basis of our industry shattering innovation. We hired consultants to run ideation5)Ideation defined at Wikipedia workshops for us, or even outsourced ideation to an innovation consultancy asking them to hunt down the big idea for us. A whole industry has sprung up around the quest for the big idea, with TED6)TED (which I have mixed feelings about) being the most obvious example.

As I’ve said before, the quest for the new-new thing is pointless.7)Innovation should not be the quest for the new-new thing @ PEG

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.

Ideas are a dime a dozen, so real challenge is to execute on an idea (i.e. pick one and do something meaningful with it). If you get involved in that ideas arms race, then you will come last as someone will always have the idea before you. As Scott McNealy at Sun likes to say:

Statistically, most of the smart people work for somebody else.

More recently our focus has shifted from ideas to method. Realising that a good idea is not enough, we’ve tried to find a repeatable method with which we can manufacture innovation. This is what business does after all; formalise and systematise a skill, and then deploy it at huge scale to generate a profit. Think Henry Ford and the creation of that first production line.

Design Thinking8)Design Thinking … what is that? @ Fast Company is the most popular candidate for method of innovation, due largely to the role of Jonathan Ive9)Jonathan Ive @ Design Museum and design in Apple’s rise from also-ran to market leader. There’s a lot of good stuff in Design Thinking — concepts and practices anyone with an engineering background10)Sorry, software engineering doesn’t count. would recognise. Understand the context that your product or solution must work in. Build up the ideas used in your solution in an incremental and iterative fashion, testing and prototyping as you go. Teamwork and collaboration. And so on…

The fairly obvious problem with this is that Design Thinking does not guarantee an innovative outcome. For every Apple with their iPhone there’s an Apple with a Newton.11)The story behind the Apple Newton @ Gizmodo Or Microsoft with a Kin.12)Microsoft Said to Blame Low Sales, High Price for Kin’s Failure @ Business Week Or a host of other carefully designed and crafted products which failed to have any impact in the market. I’ll let the blog-sphere debate the precise reason for each failure, but we can’t escape the fact the best people with a perfect method cannot guarantee us success.

People make bad decisions. You might have followed the method correctly, but perhaps you didn’t quite identify the right target audience. Or the technology might not quite be where you need it to be. Or something a competitor did might render all your blood sweet and tears irrelevant.

Design Thinking (and innovation) is not chess: a game where all variables are known and we have complete information, allowing us to make perfect decisions. We can’t expect a method like Design Thinking to provide an innovative outcome.

Why then do we try and define innovation in terms of the big idea or perfect methodology? I put this down to the quest for a silver bullet: most people hope that there’s a magic cure for their problems which requires little effort to implement, and they dislike the notion that hard work is key.

This is true in many of life’s facets. We prefer diet pills and magic foods over exercise and eating less. If I pay for this, then it will all come good. If we just can just find that innovative idea in our next facilitated ideation workshop. Or hire more designers and implement Design Thinking across our organisation.

Success with innovation, as with so many things, is more a question of hard work than anything else. We forget that the person behind P&G’s Design Thinking efforts,13)P&G changes it’s game @ Business Week Cindy Tripp, came out of marketing and finance, not design. She chose Design Thinking as the right tool for the problems she needed to solve — Design Thinking didn’t choose her. And she worked hard, pulling in ideas from left, right and centre, to find, test and implement the tools she needed.

So innovation is not the big idea. Nor is it a process like Design Thinking.

For me, innovation is simply:

  • working toward a meaningful goal, and
  • being empower to use whichever tools will be most beneficial.

If I was to try and define innovation more formally, then I would say that innovation is a combination of two key concepts: obliquity14)Obliquity defined at SearchCRM and Jeet Kune Do’s15)Jeet Kune Do, a martial art discipline developed by Bruce Lee @ Wikipedia concept of absorbing what is useful.

Obliquity is the simple idea that the best way to achieve a goal in a complex environment is to take an indirect approach. The fastest and most productive path to the top of the mountain might be to take the path that winds its way around the mountain, rather than to try and walk directly up the steepest face.

Apple is a good example of obliquity in action. Both Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives are on record as wanting to make “great products that we want to own ourselves,” rather than plotting to build the biggest and most innovative company on the planet. Rather than try and game the financial metrics, they are focusing on making great products.

Bruce Lee16)Bruce Lee: the devine wind came up with the idea of “absorbing what is useful”17)Absorbing what is useful @ Wikipedia when he created Jeet Kune Do. He promoted the idea that students should learn a range of methods and doctrines, experiment to learn what works (and what doesn’t work) for them, “absorb what is useful” while discarding the remainder. The critical point of this principle is that the choice of what to keep is based on personal experimentation. It is not based on how a technique may look or feel, or how precisely the artist can mimic tradition. In the final analysis, if the technique is not beneficial, it is discarded. Lee believed that only the individual could come to understand what worked; based on critical self analysis, and by, “honestly expressing oneself, without lying to oneself.”

Cindy Tripp at P&G is a good example of someone absorbing what is useful. Her career has her investigating different topics and domains, more a sun shaped individual than a t-shaped one.18)T-Shaped + Sun-Shaped People @ Logic + Emotion Starting from a core passion, she accreted a collection of disciplines, tools and techniques which are beneficial. Design Thinking is one of these techniques (which she uses as a reframing tool).

I suppose you could say that I’ve defined innovation by identifying what it’s not: innovation is the courage to find a different way up the hill, while accepting that there are no silver bullets and that you don’t control all the variables.

Updated: Tweeked the wording in the (lucky) 13th paragraph in line with Bill Buxton’s comment.

For every Apple with their iPhone there’s an Apple with a Newton. Or Microsoft with a Kin.

References   [ + ]