Tag Archives: T-shaped individuals

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   [ + ]

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.