Tag Archives: Sun-shaped individuals

Working in Hollywood

Note: This is the fourth part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work, Knowledge Workers in the British Raj and The north-south divide – and subsequent issues – World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

Whom do you work for? For many people it’s not the company who’s logo is on their uniform, nor is it the organization who’s brand adorns the building they work in. You might be a gate attendant, hired by a local contractor as the airline doesn’t have the time or resources to maintain a payroll in every port in which it operates. You might be a consultant working full time on an organization’s change program, destined to leave once the engagement if finished. Or you might be a free agent, working across multiple businesses at once (as I do), bringing a distinct and valuable skill set to the executives you work with as they solve some of the knottiest problems confronting their business. For many people, the organization they work for is no longer the same one which cuts their a paycheck.

Companies find themselves caught between the conflicting needs of working smarter while keeping costs down. Creating a competitive edge means finding the high-value skills required to out think the competition, and they’re willing to pay a premium for the privilege. At the same time, an increasingly competitive market is pushing revenues down, creating a financial void that will most likely consume the margins and mid level management of many organizations. The best solution to this problem, and possibly the only solution, is to set aside the goal of exclusively owning every skill the business needs, and instead focus on fractional or collective ownership pulled from a broader community of partners.

Deconstructing the studios after the golden age

During the golden years of Hollywood, from the late 1920s through to the 1950s, the film studios built huge, vertically integrated empires that controlled every facet of production. Everything from actors, sound stages and camera operators through marketing, distribution and the cinemas themselves were under the same tent. However, this high degree of control didn’t ensure success, and the years after then second world war saw increased competition from foreign films, the decline of cinema audiences, and attacks on the studio structure by government agencies, all which contributed to dropping revenues. By the early 1960s the studios were half what they had been during the glory days, thousands of formerly flourishing theaters had closed forever, and the industry was forced to find a new industry model.

In 1925 Warner Brothers, then a second-tier studio working out of Hollywood’s poverty row, acquired Vitagraph (including the backlot shown above), a leading production company from the silent era which had fallen victim to the rise of the monopolistic studio system. Another gamble in 1927, this time on sound in the Jazz Singer, catapulted Warner Brothers into the first-tier.
In 1925 Warner Brothers, then a second-tier studio working out of Hollywood’s poverty row, acquired Vitagraph (including the backlot shown above), a leading production company from the silent era which had fallen victim to the rise of the monopolistic studio system. Another gamble in 1927, this time on sound in the Jazz Singer, catapulted Warner Brothers into the first-tier.

The first blow came in 1948 after a long antitrust investigation when, in what became known as the Paramount decision, the U.S. court ruled for the divorce of production and exhibition, and the elimination of unfair booking practices. In a single stroke the studios were forced to divest themselves of roughly 1,400 cinemas and split their companies in two; one division handling production and distribution, the other grappling with the declining theatre business.

The antitrust investigation, however, was not the only problem the studios faced. Patronage had begun to decrease in the years after the second world war, a trend that was soon accelerating as suburbanization saw people cashing in their war bonds and buying homes in the suburbs. This changed the pattern of film demand, draining audiences from the first-run houses in town centers which showed high margin prestige pictures, as they were now too far from home for many people to bother with. Hollywood fought back, trying to tempt viewers first with color pictures, and later 3D and CinemaScope (though both of these proved too expensive to deploy at scale), until the industry finally settled on Panavision’s anamorphic color image as their tool of choice, but it was only in the late sixties when suburban malls and multi-screen multiplexes became common that the studios recovered some of their former audiences.

Throughout this transition period the studios had refused to sell their back catalogue to the television stations. The first feature film shown on U.S. television came from abroad, as U.K. studios such as Ealing and Rank, unable to break into the domestic U.S. theatrical exhibition market released their product to television stations desperate for longer format productions. It was only in 1954, when eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes sold RKO’s library to television, that film studios’ resolve buckled as the millions of dollars were made on the deal impressed even the most cynical boss. By 1955 the studios had plunged head long into producing films specifically for television.

Moving into television, however, was not enough to prop up the studios’ sagging finances. Their response was to shed their in-house production departments: the talent that had been kept on the books during the golden era had proved to be too expensive, and the studios began contracting independent producers as required to make features. Suddenly the grand marques of the golden age, such as MGM and Warner Brothers, found themselves competing on an equal footing with the smaller, theater-less studios, like Columbia or Universal.

The television age proved to be an era of transition; the old studio system was supplanted by a more flexible model build around independent production. The grand marques struggled to attract hit films from independent producers, their losses pushing balance sheets deeply into the red. The lack of a large, rigid, vertically integrated studio structure which had been disadvantageous to the smaller, theater-less studios such as Columbia in the 1930s, proved to be the way to make millions in the new Hollywood system. The more fluid business environment which emerged with the television age favored a more fluid style of business. The successful studios focused on their core business – finding successful stories – knitting together special purpose vehicles from a community of partners to support production and distribution as needed, and then populating these vehicles from a network of free agents and specialist service providers to carry out the real work of creating and delivering the film. This approach was confirmed by Universal, which had been only marginally profitable during the golden age of the, however the company’s success after it was sold in 1952 to Decca Records resulted in it being bought by MCA talent agency and becoming a Hollywood powerhouse of television production.

Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed

Work has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Much like the studios in Hollywood, pressure on margins and timeframes is forcing companies to reevaluate which work they do themselves, and which they farm out to a growing ecosystem of suppliers and partners. Although it won’t be called outsourcing, companies in industries as diverse as automotive, banking, retail, and real estate are responding to the new recession mentality by focusing on their core competencies and value-add, driving them to consolidate, rationalize and externalize supporting functions to save money or free up management time, allowing them to focus on more pressing issues.

Capabilities close to the heart of business are increasingly being moved into the hands of external providers. A growing ecosystem of partners is delivering everything from go-to-market strategies through product development to manufacturing and fulfillment. WalMart, for example, recently handed responsibility for all of its in-store marketing programs to a third-party specialist. The monolithic businesses we previously worked for are starting to fragment, converting themselves into swarms of cooperating entities.

Companies have always relied, to some extent, on others to do some of their work for them: Phoenician merchants bought their ships from Phoenician shipbuilders, the railroad robber-barons of the 1800s bought their steel from Bethlehem (among others), and even Henry Ford, who was so intent on vertical integration that he tried to found a self governing city (Fordlândia) to grow his own rubber, paid other firms to construct the buildings required to house his company’s factories. What is different today is that companies have moved from buying goods and services from others, to passing responsibility for core business activities to external organizations. Marketing, sales, manufacturing, even the management and operation of a company’s end-to-end business processes are now up for grabs.

But what are the limits of this drive to externalize? It can be educational to sit for a moment, and consider which day-to-day roles your business really needs to own, the people who must be on the payroll, rather than those folk you would like to have on the payroll. These are the roles where the person filling them needs to be held to account, and potentially end up in jail if they don’t meet their responsibilities, responsibilities which you cannot pass to an external party.

Take the CFO for example (or the finance director, or equivalent in your geography). A CFO is the one those interesting roles that most public companies cannot do without. There’s a range of government and market regulations – regulations with quite strict penalties – which typically fall under the responsibility of the CFO. Recent legislation in passed response to the Enron disaster and global financial crisis, such as the Sarbanes–Oxley Act{{1}} in the U.S.A., has dramatically increased the scope of these regulations, along with the penalties. A company executive needs to attest that the company has met these regulations, and there might be a term in jail if they are later found out to have been less than completely honest.

[[1]]Sarbanes-Oxley Art described at Wikipedia.[[1]]

It’s hard to see how a part time or outsourced CFO could be made to work for a mid to large sized company. Government and market regulation often (if not always) requires that a natural person provide the attestation. There’s a simple reason behind this: they want to be able to seriously punish whomever provides the attestation if they try to mislead the government. Fines don’t work, as they’ll simply be factored into the price on the contact. (Some enterprising organization might even manage to ensure against such a fine, given half a chance.) What does work is throwing someone – the individual who signed on the dotted line – into jail. From the point of view of the individual, even if the regulation did allow for a part time employee or someone from outside the business to attest, it would be a brave person indeed who signed without balancing the associated risk with the trust and intimate knowledge that you can only get from working from inside as a full time employee.

Companies require a CFO (or equivalent) as they need someone who can be held accountable. A common piece of consultantware used to sort out organizational problems is a RACI matrix{{2}}: standing for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. While many people many be responsible for carrying out the work required (or want to be consulted or informed on what will be done), in a smoothly running business or project there will only be one person held accountable for each deliverable or task required. If more than one person is held accountable then we open the door to finger pointing and excuses. The government understands this, which is why they require an individual, a natural person, to sign-off, and go to jail if they get it wrong.

[[2]]We could use of the many variants of the approach, such as RASCI, RACI-VS, CAIRO, or DACI, but RACI will suffice in this instance.[[2]]

A RACI matrix mapping the business roles in a process to the four RACI categories. While the outsourcers might be responsible for delivering some of the components, they don’t have a stake in the successful delivery of the finished aircraft.
A RACI matrix mapping the business roles in a process to the four RACI categories. While the outsourcers might be responsible for delivering some of the components, they don’t have a stake in the successful delivery of the finished aircraft.

These days if an outsourcing arrangement goes wrong, you will be held accountable by the business owners, regulators or the market itself, as it’s not just a bad batch of bottle tops that can be rejected, but one of your core business activities or assets will be missing in action, quite possibly bringing the entire enterprise to a halt. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, for example, is billions of dollars over budget and is already roughly three years late, with failed outsourcing arrangements taking much of the blame. Boeing was even forced during late 2009 to step in and take over the underperforming fuselage manufacturing plant of Vought Aircraft Industries, spending approximately one billion in cash and credit, after the plant and contributed to years of delays.

Boeing scurries to deliver the 787 on time after a number of delays, some of which were attributed to outsourcing production of nearly thirty percent of the 787‘s components.
Boeing scurries to deliver the 787 on time after a number of delays, some of which were attributed to outsourcing production of nearly thirty percent of the 787‘s components.

We can’t just pass off responsibility for a core business capability without some mechanism for holding suppliers accountable. Without the ability to throw an individual in jail, we’re reduced to crafting incentives and penalties (which is why Microsoft’s board cut Steve Ballmer’s bonus in half in 2010{{3}}, in response to his inability to improve Microsoft’s position in the mobile phone industry), and this means aligning their incentives (and penalties) with our own, treating the hand-off as a delegation of authority rather than the procurement of a good or service.

[[3]]Don Reisinger, (2010), Mobile woes slice Ballmer’s bonus in half, CNET[[3]]

Focusing externally

The shift from buying materials to delegating capabilities has opened up new possibilities for the organizations, the early adopters, who are willing to experiment with it. They’re reconfiguring their departments, much like the film studios, focusing on knitting together the capabilities, services and materials their business needs, ensuring clear lines of accountability from their own organization’s business drivers down into the incentives (and disincentives) reified in each supplier’s contract.

Rather than having a large team focused internally, intent on optimizing internal assets and processes, this new breed of company has flatter and smaller departments (sometimes with tiny teams, well down into the single digits) who are focused externally. They’re identifying the suppliers required and lining up accountabilities to suit, or they’re working directly with customers to solve their problems. The executives accountable for the organization’s performance look up and out, plotting where the next step should be, providing the team at the frontline with guidance, but otherwise leaving the team to their own devices when solving the problems confronting them. While around these new, leaner organizations a new community of suppliers is also evolving.

If we want to successfully delegate a capability to a supplier, then we need to ensure that are responsible and accountable for the performance of the capability
If we want to successfully delegate a capability to a supplier, then we need to ensure that are responsible and accountable for the performance of the capability

The old consultancies and outsourcers, organizations more concerned with operational flex and selling doomed transformation programs, are being forced to align their offerings with their customers’ business models{{4}}, taking responsibility and accountability for one or more of the customer’s cost-driven business activities. This might range from in-store marketing (as with the WalMart example) or staffing the gates at an airport, through category management to supporting the business’s end-to-end business process. The capabilities they provide will, in turn, be organized in a similar fashion to their clients, with small, flat teams containing an executive holding accountability for delivery, while also leading a team focused on the work at the coal face.

[[4]]Consulting doesn’t work. We need to reinvent it. @ PEG[[4]]

And in the middle of this we find the free agents, the skilled knowledge workers, that neither the clients nor the suppliers can afford to have on staff full time{{5}}. Much like the more experienced and valuable staff in the movie industry – the independent producers, writers, directors and actors who create the blockbusters – they’ll migrate between engagements, often working with multiple clients at once, having grown out of a specific technical discipline to adopt a more general perspective on the industry, becoming sun-shaped people{{6}}. Their unique world view will draw together the threads of an engagement, taking it from the mundane and making it into something special.

[[5]]North-south divide @ PEG[[5]]
[[6]]The sun-shaped individual @ PEG[[6]]

This model creates lighter and more agile organizations, organizations which are not burdened by the huge payrolls or massive investments associated with vertically integrated organizations. The old bureaucracies will have been blown apart, their baroque structures replaced with a network of smaller and more dynamic units. Whom you work for will be less import that what you work on and how you approach this work, and your career will be in your own hands.

Continued in World of Warcraft in the workplace.

The north-south divide

Note: This is the third part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work and Knowledge Workers in the British Raj – and subsequent posts – Working in Hollywood, World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

Developing and manufacturing a product, and delivering it to the waiting customer, has historically been a significant expedition. We would establish a series of camps – departments, containing the tools and skills needed – along the route from start to finish to support us as we ferried the materials we needed from their source to where they were required. However, the assumptions that drove this behaviour are no longer true. Where previously materials, skills and tools were all in short supply, today we can usually find what we need lying on the ground near where we stand. Developments such Strategic Sourcing{{2}}, Business Process Outsourcing{{3}} (BPO), and Social Media have removed the need for us to carry what we need with us, and has been the trigger for us to start dismantling those departments that we no longer need.

[[2]]Strategic Sourcing defined at Wikipedia[[2]]
[[3]]Business Process Outsourcing defined at Wikipedia[[3]]

The large bureaucracies companies have traditionally required are slowly being collapsed, hollowed out, as we find that we can achieve the same result more efficiently with smaller and more agile organisations. Companies are starting to use a more alpine style{{4}} of operation, leveraging a small carefully, chosen team with more flexible tooling, and relying their own wits to survive in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment. This shift is pushing us to rethink the nature and organisation of our businesses, setting aside many of the specialised departments and resources we relied on in the past to find a new organising principle. The impact will be both subtle and dramatic, with business continuing to do what business does (constrained, as it is, by government and market regulation) while the roles we all play as individuals change dramatically in response.

[[4]]Alpine style climbing defined at Explore Himalaya[[4]]

An interesting thought experiment is to compare the companies we work in to the societies we inhabit. After all, companies are really just small (and some not so small) societies, with all the dynamics and politics of a community of a similar size. The nature of both societies and companies is largely determined by the tools they use{{5}}, as it is these tools that determine how the community functions. Agriculture, for example, requires a society to be stationary and drove the creation of property ownership, while the telegraph enabled the creation of new business models by separating, for the first time, the transmission of information from the carriage of goods, and gave the world Reuters{{6}}. The tools and technologies we use determine the nature of the societies and companies we inhabit.

[[5]]Timothy Taylor (2010), The Artificial Ape: How technology created humans, Palgrave Macmillan[[5]]
[[6]]The history of Thomson Reuters[[6]]

Historically, societies can be broken into two rough technological groups: equatorial and seasonal. Equatorial societies exist somewhere near the equator, living in a climate that varies little throughout the year, other than in the amount of rainfall they receive. Seasonal societies live some distance from the equator in a more temperate climate, a climate that provides them with distinct seasons over the length of the year. The further north or south you go from the equator, the more seasonal the climate becomes.

The climate a society lives in has a strong influence on the type and nature of technologies that it uses. The orthodox strategy in a seasonal climate is to tailor specific toolkits to the challenges faced in each season of the yearly cycle; jackets in winter and shorts in summer. When it becomes extremely cold, it’s wise to bring along the sleds, snowshoes and heavy clothing. However, when it’s warm these the tools in this toolkit are somewhat less useful. Many tools fulfil a specific, and important need at one point in the seasonal cycle, but this also means that we have little use for the tool in the remainder of the year.

Societies in more tropical climates typically adopt a different strategy. Their focus is on creating a single toolkit that has a smaller number of simpler, but more flexible tools. They have little need for specialised tools, as the climate they live in is relatively stable over the year, which means that their success (or failure) depends on their ability to adapt to unanticipated disturbances or unexpected opportunities as they present themselves. While they are not concerned about stockpiling food to survive through a cold winter, they do need to be able to adapt to the sudden appearance of a cyclone. When a cyclone strikes you rarely have time to go and grab a cyclone proof shelter, and you need to be ready to pick up and use the fallen coconuts once the wind had passed. You must to make do with what you have.

In the former, seasonal societies, the emphasis is on the gear. If the gear fails then you do too, often with fatal consequences. This drives you to invest a significant amount of your time and effort into ensuring that the gear can’t fail, striving to add enough nines to the end of that reliability measure to ensure that you’re not left out in the cold. The technologies you develop are complex and highly entailed, addressing specific needs and requiring a long a sophisticated chain of skills, materials and tools to manufacture.

In the latter, equatorial societies, the emphasis is on skill. Your fate is determined by your ability to adapt the resources and tools found in the immediate vicinity to the problem at hand. The tools you need are simple and flexible, either lightweight and compact enough to carry with you or based on technologies which enable you to manufacture them from whatever materials you have at hand. These technologies are only lightly entailed, addressing general needs and requiring a relatively short chain of skills, materials and tools to manufacture.

Companies have traditionally been organised along similar lines to the seasonal societies. The pulse of business beat slowly, and our main concern was to address the specific challenges that existed in each season of this regular cycle. These challenges were also complex and highly entailed, requiring large toolboxes with specialised tools and skills that are highly interdependent. Success depended on the quality of our assets and processes, and our focus was on mobilising enough people and technology to create and staff the processes we needed.

Take, for example, LEO (the Lyons Electronic Office), which may well be the first business computer. Unable to buy a beige box from the local electronics shop, the team at Lyons had to build their computer from scratch, requiring a large team with a number of specific and specialised skills, and three years of effort. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were forced to blow their own vacuum tubes. The result was a machine that, in 1953, could calculate a person’s pay in 1.5 seconds, rather than the eight minutes taken by an experienced clerk. LEO was a long and highly entailed investment.

LEO, the Lyon's Electronic Office, in 1951
LEO, the Lyon's Electronic Office, in 1951

However, since then the pulse of business has increased dramatically. Over the last few decades we’ve gone from worrying about decades to years, and more recently to months and weeks. Soon we might even be worrying about days. The seasons in business are changing so quickly that we are finding it difficult to keep up{{7}}. Our business environment is, in fact, starting to look more like the environment the equatorial societies inhabit rather than the more temperate climes of old: a relatively stable progression over the year, but with a pressing need to adapt to the unexpected disturbances and opportunities as they present themselves.

[[7]]Why we can’t keep up @ PEG[[7]]

At the same time, the nature of the environment our businesses function in has changed dramatically. Many of the skills and tools we fought hard to obtain can now be easily picked up where we stand. From global logistics providers and contract manufactures, through outsourcing, the various consultancies and software as a service, most of what we require can be easily picked off the ground when we need it. LEO doesn’t hold a candle to many of the bureau and SaaS payroll solutions that we can use on demand.

What we need is a more equatorial approach to organising our business, one more in line with reality of the business environment we operate in today. This means stocking our organisation with a small collection of flexible, but potent, people that can rapidly adapt to our changing needs, people who can use a small set of flexible tools to respond to the challenges and opportunities presented to us. It involves pulling down our highly entailed bureaucracies and connecting the C-level with the team at the front line. Overhead functions such as IT and HR will be torn down. (After all, if all our IT exists in the cloud and our company is hollowed out, removing the bulk of our bureaucracy, then we don’t need these departments anymore.) The old value producing functions (manufacturing and so on) will be externalised and bought as a service. More than anything, our success will depend on our ability to mobilise – both as an organisation and as individuals – and adapt the resources and tools in the immediate vicinity to the problem at hand.

This requires a huge shift in how we think about staffing our organisations. Deep specialisation is no longer the benefit it was in the past. While specialisation brings knowledge and insight, it also (typically) reduces flexibility and adaptability. Someone with a decade or more invested in being an IT architect, sales manager, change agent, human capital management expert, process wizard or (even a) social media guru, needs to protect that investment. Their value is in their specialisation; they will defend the status quo and resist being pulled away from what makes them valuable{{8}}. The people we need are sun-shaped{{9}}. They’re highly skilled (though not highly specialised), focused on solving a problem we have, and bring with them a diverse toolkit of simple but flexible tools.

[[8]]From doctrine to dogma @ PEG[[8]]
[[9]]The sun-shaped individual @ PEG[[9]]

Continued in Working in Hollywood.

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.

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