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?
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.
It’s pointless to try and be original, as someone’s always done it before. Just focus on doing what you’re interested in.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
Pulling all this together, what do we have?
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.
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.