Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In the beginning of innovation

I received an email from a colleague and prospective client recently, letting me know that a lot of his hard work on preparing the ground for innovation within his company seemed to be paying off.  A lot of long, lonely toil to advocate for innovation was finally being accepted.  Executives were starting to recognize the need for innovation and begin to pay attention to his presentations and advocacy.  There's nothing like the feeling when a long period of being a lone voice crying out in the wilderness finally begins to pay off.

But, like the proverbial dog that catches the car, the next reaction is:  now what?  Now that people within your organization buy into the fact that innovation is important, what should they do next?  What happens most frequently is that innovation moves from being important but not urgent, to being both urgent and important.  And when something becomes "urgent" in an organization, there's a mass rush to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible, as if innovation is something that can be fixed with an "all hands on deck" mentality for a couple of weeks.  This is, in fact, the worst way to go about introducing and inculcating an innovation capability in an organization.  Just like the development and cultivation of the need over time was slow and careful, the implementation and rollout should be the same.

So, what's the plan of action?  How can a firm with little innovation experience or internal capability define and rollout innovation?  Perhaps the best first activity is for senior executives to simply define what they think innovation is, and what it is for.  Often, in the "all hands on deck" mode, we simply skip past the definition and purpose.  Each executive, business line or geography adopts a meaning or purpose for innovation for itself, and soon we have a mishmash of meanings, definitions, investments and tools, all purporting to be "innovative" and none in synch or alignment.

Innovation is a tool, nothing more.  It should work in support of your company's goals, especially in terms of growth, differentiation, new product development and profitability.  Additionally it can help you disrupt adjacent markets or enter completely new markets.  What is innovation, and what is it for?  How much change and disruption do we want to create?

The next consideration should be:  what barriers currently exist to doing good innovation, and how do we overcome them?  If you aren't innovating now, there are reasons why not.  They may be monetary (no money for innovation) or skill based or risk based or culturally based issues.  Until and unless you identify these and decide how to remove the barriers or overcome them, all the good innovation intentions are worthless because every innovation activity will end in something less than success.  Executives need to be part of this discussion, because they created or sustained the barriers and only they can successfully change or remove them.

Once you have a good definition and have started removing the barriers, we'd recommend talking about and defining "how" you want to innovate.  There are literally thousands of innovation processes, capabilities, tools and methods.  Do you want to rely on external consultants or do you want to bring the capabilities "in house"?  Do you want a "free for all" where every line of business or product group defines its own innovation methodology, or do you want a common central methodology?  We advocate for the latter in both cases, but there's not an answer that necessarily wrong.  You just need to understand how decisions impact your ability to innovate and your capability to deliver on the innovation and strategic goals.

Now that you've got a good foundation, it's time to set some expectations.  Earlier we asked to eliminate the "all hands on deck" thinking and the quick rush to success.  Innovation defines an activity from recognizing an opportunity or need through to successful uptake of new products or services by consumers.  That timeframe may span years, even if your ability to generate ideas takes only a few days.  Recognize and set expectations that innovation isn't necessarily fast, but can be very powerful.  Without these expectation setting activities you'll start off with great confidence but may fail to deliver within unrealistic timeframes, and you don't get many second chances to start an innovation initiative.

Finally, work with some really committed senior executives who want to do innovation right.  When the CEO accepts that innovation is important, every executive will want to complete a project, but some will treat it as window dressing, or won't provide the appropriate resources or allow enough time commitment.  Some executives will be genuine in their commitment and understand the value and importance of innovation to their long term success.  Choosing your first projects wisely will make a lot of difference.

There's plenty more to say about beginning an innovation competency, but I'll leave it here for now.  The most important things to remember are:
  • Define what innovation is, and what it is "for"
  • Identify gaps or barriers that will resist innovation and work on removing them before or during your first innovation activities or projects
  • Define "how" you want to do innovation - tools, methods and partners.  Build a set of skills and processes before rushing in
  • Take your time!  Don't rush into innovation, but build competence and capability
  • Work with executives and senior managers who are committed and understand the investment, especially on early innovation projects.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:32 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Innovation through Subtraction

About a month ago I had to visit Austin for a meeting at the University of Texas, where I went to graduate school.  This meeting coincided with a home football game, so as you can imagine, hotels were at a premium.  Not to worry, I thought, this will give me a chance to check out AirBnB.  For those of you who are already fans, enough said.  For those who aren't familiar, AirBnB is basically a service to connect the traveler (me) to people who are willing to rent rooms in their houses or their entire house or apartment for a day or longer.  As I'm a business traveler, much of my travel is typically booked into hotel chains close to downtown business centers.  I prefer big chains like Marriott and Hilton, because they are very consistent, high quality places with restaurants, gyms, and internet connections.  I also enjoy earning points to use later to travel with my family.

But on this trip the major hotels were full, so I decided to try out AirBnB, and was pleasantly surprised by my experience.  What's interesting about AirBnB, and another major industry disrupter, Uber, is the fact that they are offering a competitive service to consumers in a long established industry - hoteling for AirBnb and cab or car service for Uber.  And both have practiced innovation through subtraction.

Imagine for a moment sitting in Marriott's corporate headquarters a decade ago, thinking about new hotel offerings and concepts.  I'm willing to bet the vast majority of the discussion was focused on new hotel concepts, more interesting color schemes, how to serve business travelers more effectively.  And every discussion started with the premise that there would be a physical building placed somewhere in a city or location, whether Marriott owned the hotel or simply leased the building.  Then, along comes a startup which asks an interesting question:  how might we offer hotel services without what appears to be the most important ingredient, the building?  How could we offer hotel services without a hotel?  Do you think the majors asked themselves this question?

This is innovation through subtraction, and it is disrupting two mainline industries right before our noses.  Hotel chains are panicking, as are municipal taxi services, because new entrants are overcoming what appeared to be high entry barriers and are reworking business models.  In both cases, the new entrants asked themselves:  how might we offer the same service, but without what appears to be a key, or the key ingredient in the solution?  Who every thought of running a hotel without a building?

But, as in all interesting and relatively disruptive instances, there's more to the story.  Traditional hotel chains can't afford to place more than a handful of physical hotels in a city, and these are usually clumped in one of three places:  downtown business centers, near airports or transit hubs, and out by the interstate exits.  AirBnB can "place" you in almost any corner of town where there's a person willing to rent you a room.  The range of choices is almost endless.  So too is the range of accomodations.  With Marriott in Austin I could stay downtown in a classic Marriott or in a Courtyard, or out by the interstate in a Courtyard or Fairfield.  These are known and trusted brands, but the range of options is limited.  With AirBnB I could choose a mattress on the floor in a room near the university (not my choice, but hey who knows?) or a penthouse near downtown, or an entire house in my old neighborhood north of downtown.  I could choose from a plethora of choices based on location and style of dwelling.  AirBnb is also a great marginal play, because as hotels fill up, they can't add more rooms, but as the price of a night's stay rises, more and more people may open up their homes to out of town guests.  There's flexibility and choice for the AirBnB host as well.  There's another factor at play here as well.  As AirBnB doesn't own the buildings or lease them, they have far less overhead, and far less worry about real estate and maintenance.  This makes it possible to generate far more profits on an equivalent night's stay.  By taking out the "given" - the hotel - they also removed one of the largest costs and largest management headaches of the hoteling industry.  Further, they don't have to employ thousands of people at a hotel site.  The host is responsible for maintenance, cleaning and so forth, so AirBnB can provide an equivalent number of "bed-nights" as a major hotel chain with a tiny fraction of the staff.

Imagine generating ideas in any established industry and trying to image offering your product or service but first removing or eliminating a critical component.  I seriously doubt that Marriott or Hilton folks sat around thinking about "hotel" services without a building.  That would have been strange or unusual, but that's how disruption occurs.  What the industry considers a "must have" or a given, the upstarts figure out how to do without.  What's even more interesting is that the upstarts still need a lot of the capabilities the hotel chains have.  They've got to be able to take reservations, or at least connect you with the property owners.  They've got to be able to show available inventory in a specific city and what's available on the dates you want to travel.  Imagine if Marriott or Hilton, noticing AirBnB growing rapidly had said:  we'll provide you with all the "back office" capabilities you need to scale up.  Then the chains could have played both sides of the fence and made money on their established hotels and brands and cashed in on what was going to be a competitor anyway.

Far too many innovation programs begin with these "fixed" assumptions. Hotel service requires us to build a hotel.  Taxi service requires a medallion.  Yet upstarts found very successful ways around these "requirements" that the industry considered must haves.  What are the "requirements" in your industry that you believe are immutable?  Can you imagine starting a brainstorming or innovation activity by imagining how to deliver the same service without a key component or ingredient?  What are the factors that lock you into the same recurring patterns, your starting premises, that disrupters are just waiting to overturn?  Could Marriott or Hilton have created AirBnB?  Sure, what's more, they already had software and management capability to do everything that AirBnB did.  They just never looked at the overnight stay as anything other than in a branded building.  And all it took to create a business worth billions is to ask:  how might we subtract the building from the hotel service?

If you don't practice innovation through subtraction, you better believe that someone in your industry, or some disrupter or entrepreneur is doing it right now.  Every industry is subject to innovation through subtraction.  The incumbents are often "locked in" believing their investments will be a high barrier to entry, when in fact they often become the boat anchors that drag them down when the "requirements" are demonstrated to be optional.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:50 AM 0 comments

Friday, December 05, 2014

Innovation: Snake oil, placebo or wonder drug?

I was scanning the Twitterverse today when I saw that one individual, Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia, posted the following tweet:

"Met with senior executive today.  Talking #innovation.  He says, deep sigh, "Innovation is the answer to everything".  Disillusioned?

This tweet represents the way a number of people think and feel about innovation.  Innovation has become for many people a magic elixir, capable of solving a whole host of problems.  Declining revenues?  Innovation!  Falling market share?  Innovation!  As if we don't need to worry about the underlying reasons for business challenges, only focus on innovation as a cure-all for everything.

So which is it?

I purposely titled this blog post snake oil, placebo or wonder drug, because there's a necessary and ongoing debate about what innovation is.  To many people, innovation is the latest snake oil, promulgated by people like the professor in the movie the Music Man, who swindles the citizens of a small Iowa town. It's true but unfortunate that many people have used innovation to paper over problems, to offer solutions that made great promises but failed to fix the more mundane existing business challenges before trying to create a new product or service.

To others, innovation is a placebo.  In medical terms a placebo is a harmless, inert pill that is used to compare results of a new test drug.  Half the population receives the placebo, the other half the new medicine, and results are tracked.  What's often true is that health improves even in the group taking the placebo.  They believe enough in the efficacy of the pill that they either will themselves to better health or they discount their real illnesses.  Innovation is often like that - just the introduction of innovation tools or consultants makes an organization more engaged, whether or not it is really more innovative.

To others, innovation is a wonder drug.  Innovation creates valuable new products that help achieve business goals and creates significant value and differentiation.  These are some of the firms you read about constantly, like Apple (at least in the past), 3M, Gore and others.  These firms seem to grasp something about innovation that others don't, and are able to parlay innovation into ever increasing returns.

What's the difference?

Instead of discounting or ignoring the differences between outcomes, we should acknowledge the differences and ask why they exist.  Some firms are snookered by "innovation" - they invest in something that looks like innovation only to realize it didn't deliver, or wasn't sustainable.  Others have a temporary success with innovation but it doesn't "stick".  Still others are consistently capable of innovating over time.  These are the realities, and why, to return to the quote above, there is distrust and disillusionment.  In many cases innovation is failing because of the lack of investment and even cynical implementation of innovation in companies.

The difference between these results lies in engagement and commitment by the executive team.  In case after case it's easy to see that the more a senior executive team is engaged and committed to innovation, the more it emphasized the purpose and importance of innovation and the more it directs how and when innovation should and can be used, the better the outcomes.  In the snake oil example, the leadership team, like the folks in the small Iowa town, fall prey to a "quick fix" that is on offer from unfortunately many unscrupulous innovation firms.  But much of the blame for this failure belongs to the executive team, who fail to research the investments and don't commit or engage in the innovation tasks.  They simply demand innovation and expect it to be delivered.

The firms that represent the placebo example are earnest and somewhat engaged in innovation, but are easily distracted and when they lose focus, their teams and staff lose focus as well.  A short success is followed by a withering of innovation capability.

Firms that are truly successful over the long run have deep commitment to innovation, not only at the executive level however.  Using 3M as an example we can see that while CEOs come and go, all with different goals and interpretations about innovation, the culture had innovation embedded in it, so innovation remained important.  And this is another factor for distrust and disillusionment.  I think that many executives aren't so distrusting of innovation as much as they realize how much work it will take to fully embed innovation in an organization.

So the way executives treat innovation has a lot to do with its success in an organization.  Do executives see innovation as a magic wand to wave around, reciting the word innovation in the hopes that something good will happen?  Or do they understand how much work is involved to fully embed innovation capabilities in the business, and focus their efforts to achieve a deep understanding of innovation?

What is it good for?

Finally, we need to ask what innovation is "for".  One of the other reasons the executive quoted above is so "disillusioned" is that everyone knows innovation is the hot new management buzzword, so it becomes the "go to" answer for every business problem.  Innovation solves everything?  Hardly.  There are many challenges where innovation tools aren't helpful.  Innovation should be a part of any business strategy, but only a component, not the entirety.  When people don't understand how to use innovation or its benefits, but do understand that it's becoming the lingua franca of management speak, then they frame everything in an innovation lens.  And that's unfortunate.  Because a powerful, capable tool in the right situation and the right hands becomes snake oil or a placebo.

When the US and the Russians were in the race to the moon, both were innovating.  But a good example of the overuse or misuse of innovation was in writing instruments.  Both countries recognized that astronauts would need to write notes in outer space.   The US came up with a pen that writes in zero gravity, an engineering marvel but very expensive.  The Russians sent their astronauts with pencils.  Did we need zero gravity pens, or could that innovation energy have been better allocated somewhere else?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:24 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Did you innovate today?

Increasingly, as I'm working with corporate clients, I'm beginning to ask the teams I work with a simple question.  I ask them "what did you innovate today"?  And I ask them that question every time I interact with them.  Because it's increasingly clear that innovation is still sporadic and haphazard, engaged in the moment but quickly put aside or forgotten.  Corporate cultures and pressing deadlines, not to mention a full calendar make it easy to "do" innovation when the consultant is there, or when the boss demands it, or when it's "on the calendar", but much more difficult to find the time or focus otherwise.  Let's create a new mantra:  did you innovate today?

Why is this important?  Well, why is breathing important?  Breathing moves oxygen into your bloodstream if you are doing it correctly, and helps distribute carbon dioxide out of your body.  These are good outcomes that happen naturally, every minute of every day.  You rarely think about breathing, so moment by moment it seems unimportant.  But it is vital to your survival.

Innovation needs to become as constant as breathing, because it's just as important.  It is vital to your survival as an employee, a team member and to your company.  We simply cannot "do" innovation occasionally, or when there's a panic situation.  That would be like breathing only in certain situations.  In fact one of the best responses to a panic is to slow down your breathing, to calm and to center yourself to face whatever is happening.  How often we do just the opposite. 

You don't have to practice breathing, because your medulla oblongata and other automatic systems in your body will do it for you.  You don't have to think about breathing, except in situations where you are under stress, fearful or in new or unique situations, where air becomes precious and scarce.  What would it look like if your innovation capability and focus were as sustained as your breathing?  What if you conducted innovation every day, automatically, and it seemed strange or unusual if you didn't innovate?  That's what we need to strive for - the feeling that the day was incomplete if we didn't innovate.

Now, you may think this is a diatribe about the importance of innovation, and you'd be right, but the fact that I place an inordinate amount of emphasis on innovation doesn't mean I'm wrong.  In fact most of us need to step up the level, involvement and capability for innovating, just to keep pace with the amount of change underway in our environment.  This is a time when smart, engaged people will lead companies by recognizing we are on the brink of a precipice.  While executives and managers may not want to acknowledge its presence, most industries are in full scale turmoil and need far more innovation than is happening currently.  People who recognize this and prepare themselves and their teams, and who use and engage innovation thinking, tools and processes every day will emerge as winners, and lead their teams and organizations to better outcomes.  Those that don't doom themselves and their companies to a slow death.

If you should innovate every day, what should you innovate?  What if you don't have a product that needs innovation, or a budget?  Then you should innovate your existing processes, innovate your business model, innovate how your team works or communicates.  Introducing small but relevant change every day, in a myriad of circumstances encourage people to ask the question:  how can I change this for the better?  Rather than spend time creating workarounds or accepting less than proficient internal systems, decision making, team dynamics and so on, innovate something.  By innovating every day you demonstrate that innovation isn't a special capability to be called on in an emergency but a normal component of day to day business.  Also, by innovating something every day, you gain more credibility and more skill.  Anything you practice frequently you learn to do more proficiently.  Skills you ignore wither and die, and are difficult to recall.

Every morning when you develop your "to do" list you should ask yourself:  what's one thing I can innovate today?  How do I bring innovation tools, perspectives or thinking to what I'm tasked with?  At the end of the day, as you recap and start to head home you should ask yourself:  what did I innovate today?  What experiments did I engage?  What new tools did I introduce?  What change did I create?  Sitting still, waiting complacently for the future to unfold only means you are more likely to be run over by change rather than prepared for it.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:03 AM 0 comments

Monday, November 24, 2014

Who is your Turing?

I saw the Imitation Game over the weekend, and I must say it's a fascinating movie, on several levels.  First there's the whole idea of cracking a secret code, one which even the senior leaders in the British and American forces thought was probably uncrackable.  The effort to "crack" the ENIGMA code was incredible, and probably shortened the war, along with the effort to crack the LORENZ cipher, which for some reason doesn't get the attention that the ENIGMA work does. While this isn't a movie review, I'll digress for just a second to recommend it highly.

The movie is interesting on another level as well, because the cracking of the code is just a way to tell some of the story of Alan Turing, an intelligent man who was quite simply different from many of the people around him.  Cumberbatch plays him as a man with little social grace or empathy, almost immune to the feelings of others, a version of his famous Sherlock Holmes transported to 1940s England.

Turing's work is revered today, but he lived a very troubled life.  He was arrogant, deeply intelligent and either unaware or unconcerned about social mores.  The movie, which admittedly takes liberties with the historical facts, portrays a team that could barely stand to work with Turing, and a man who could not understand the lack of faith in his ideas. 

These English set piece movies almost always revolve around a strong social culture and set of expectations and the rare individuals who don't fall in line or live to the beliefs or cultural expectations of the people around them. While World War I ended the Victorian era, the social expectations, class society and conformity of the English society and government at the time were still very powerful, and Turing's life and his actions often came into conflict with these expectations.

Are we so different today?

Think for a while about your corporate culture.  While we are much more tolerant about appearance, have fewer expectations about social classes and are more attuned to cultural and moral differences, corporate cultures don't suffer differences lightly.  Corporate cultures are constructed to repeat past performances and processes with ever increasing rates of throughput with decreasing costs and higher predictability.  Like Turing's team mates, we are all focused on breaking an individual message, taking very small, safe steps in our work.  Turing confronted his team, perhaps unnecessarily, but he made it known that he wanted to create a system to break every message, every day, not just occasionally decrypt one message.  His ideas and his vision, while poorly communicated, were more far-reaching and encompassing than those of his team.  Even how he framed the problem was different - his team (at least in the movie portrayal) were using methods to break individual messages when the codes were changed every day.  He was seeking a way to understand and replicate how the codes were developed, so they could break every code, every day.  Totally different definition of the problem, far more expansive, far more challenging.

But Turing's problem was in combining a relatively incompatible personality that often kept others on edge with a very expansive and potentially dangerous definition of the depth and breadth of the possible solution.   In wartime his mannerisms and long shot strategy might be tolerated (barely) but in a company with day to day operations, there's no way a corporate hierarchy or culture would tolerate these actions.  But given the pace of change, the level of competition and the dynamics of the market, we may need more Turings and fewer people who adjust to and live within the corporate culture.

Very few large corporations have cultures that will develop and encourage people who actively question the status quo, and even fewer will actively tolerate those voices within their ranks.  We create cultural conformity in our ranks in much the same way that pre-war England had permanent social strata, boy's clubs, stiff upper lips, a place for everyone and everyone in their place.  We may look back and laugh at the expectations of the culture and the rigid hierarchies, but are we really that different?  At a time when we need more innovation, are our cultures and management processes welcoming to the potential Turings in our midst, or do they reject and exclude the Turings and their radical ideas?

Visionary individuals and the teams that enable them

Note that I reject the idea that each business needs to find one Alan Turing and extract all the knowledge and ideas from that individual.  Innovation, as was demonstrated in the movie, is a team activity.  Others on the team contributed a number of ideas and improvements to Turing's "bomb".  Turing by himself would have probably failed to break the ciphers, but as part of a team that eventually accepted his intelligence and eccentricities they created something more.  No, the real question is:  what does your culture do to your potential Turings?  The people who have great ideas, who challenge the status quo, who want to define the problems you face in new and unsettling ways?  The more you constrain and reject your Turings, the more you practice "safe" and controllable innovation and new product development, the shorter your path to extinction becomes.  
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:29 AM 0 comments

Monday, November 17, 2014

Innovating the Department of Defense

I listened with great interest to the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's announcement of the new passion for innovation within the US Department of Defense.  There are few organizations that have relied so heavily on research and development, new technologies and innovation as the United States military.  Hagel spoke eloquently about the bipartisan focus on defense modernization that started with Reagan, which led to a very well-equipped and prepared fighting force.  That energy and passion has decreased after several very expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the increasing realization that the government can't afford to spend as much as it might like to on the military.

As many commentators have noted, most armies prepare to fight the "last war" - that is, they take the lessons they learned from previous wars and project them into the future, assuming that future wars and conflicts will resemble those from the recent past.  This is why we in the US still have a heavy mechanized army, which is intended to fight large conflicts against an easily identifiable enemy.  Meanwhile, our adversaries have long understood that the US has too much technology and capability to fight toe to toe in open conflict.  Increasingly we face adversaries who blend into the local population, who use small arms conflict, guerilla war and terrorism rather than a single large army fighting to retain terrority.  ISIS's call for "lone wolves" who can attack within the US is a good example of an adversary seeking to disrupt our fighting morale through low intensity combat.

We know all of this, but the US military is still engaged in thinking, developing and deploying large scale response.  Of course we seek to shock and awe our opponents, and to never fight on an equal footing, but our thinking, planning, weapons and deployment systems must change.  The battle in the future may be as much about data and information as it is about territory or lives.  We have to learn to fight house to house, with minimal casualties, while demonstrating that our way of war is less invasive, less destructive and morally sound, versus what our adversaries fight.

As the pace of change has accelerated in the private sector, many corporations have adopted a number of techniques to respond, from scenario planning to ascertain the future market conditions to deeper market research and insights into emerging markets and segments.  The new defense initiative should start here, forecasting the likely battles and adversaries to determine what they need to defend against, and what they may need to proactively destroy.  In the US we've become too complacent about the superiority of our technology, and many of the battles we are seeing now are being fought with old military technology and new social media and information technology.  Superior arms aren't enough, especially when you fight an adversary who don't fear death but use it as a recruiting tool.

While the US military is a colossus, we have lost touch and don't understand geographic needs and local conditions on the ground.  We need better insight and intelligence, and better, more trustworthy allies.   As a recent book by John Nagl points out, the fight in Sunni Iraq was intense until the military realized that by paying and arming the Sunnis, the intensity of the fight could be reversed.  The military as a blunt weapon of force won't be able to pay dividends in the future.  We may not have those kinds of fights.  Meanwhile, the adversaries we do fight will morph and change.  They will likely be non-state actors, like ISIS or Al Qaeda, who may decide to hold territory but who really want to wreak havoc and upset some of our allies and adversaries in the Middle East and other locations.  The pace of change and the intensity of the fight are increasing.

Meanwhile our military is bound by acquisition rules that slow purchasing and that favor large integrated contractors who don't seek to bring the best ideas to the table, only the projects that can win.  And how do they win?  By ensuring that any large project has components made or assembled in a large number of congressional districts so that each congressperson can point to "new jobs" in their district.  The planning and acquisition process for the military is exceptionally slow, artificially obtuse and difficult to enter for any firm that is new to the defense market or who is not familiar with the contracting process.  This slows innovation in the form of new technologies and new products.  Likewise, a focus on the lowest total price on the contract, rather than the best solution, often awards firms who focus only on cutting costs, which is antithetical to good innovation.  Further, as has been documented frequently, there is a relatively high fear of risk in the military - often one "mistake" no matter how well intended can ruin a young officer's career.  The military has a hierarchical culture that doesn't allow a lot of freelancing (and often rightly so) and expects people to stay in line and wait their turn. Again, the culture will resist innovation.

Hagel's decision is a good one, but I wonder if he will incorporate the best people to assist in the implementation.  If good innovators have been helping the private sector, will he and his team turn to good innovators and consultants for advice?  (hint hint)  Will they push autonomy and creativity down to the average soldier, or isolate "innovation" in a new "long range" planning organization, creating yet another ivory tower to spawn more messages about innovation that cannot be implemented effectively by the fighting force?  Will they recognize how much the battlefield and the adversaries have changed?  Will they understand that the future of warfare is as much about bits as it is about bullets?  Can we rationalize our planning and procurement process?  Can we infect the culture of the military with more risk taking, change management and innovation?

Hagel has done the right thing - the military-industrial complex needs to innovate. But this should be defined as a radical overhaul of the entire structure, not just a way to get a few more platforms to the warriors more quickly.  There are a lot of moving parts that must coalesce in order to really infect the military-industrial complex with the amount of change and innovation necessary to move to the next "offset" position.  Reagan and the congress in the 80s were fortunate in their enemy - a monolithic Soviet military machine.  We today are far less fortunate, because our military will be faced with small, nameless, faceless, stateless adversaries, a rising China, issues spawned from a lack of water and arable land, global warming, international criminal gangs that take over entire countries or regions and many more factors.  As interconnected as the world is, and as broad as our relationships and dependencies are, we will be forced to fight in many places simultaneously, sometimes with people, sometimes with drones and sometimes with data.  These changes and the options they spawn demand a much more active and nimble military structure supported by a much more flexible supply chain and information partners.  Will Hagel's review and new offset provide such innovation?

Here are a couple of things to watch for.  First, will Hagel and the military recognize and reward mid-grade officers who have original thinking?  Second, will the review consider new contracting and new weapon development options that speed up development and cut time and cost?  Third, will the review recommend to eliminate some pet projects to free up funds for other uses?  Will the review spend as much time on systems, data, information and predictive analytics as it does on other factors?  Fourth, will the commission call on external innovation experts who have worked in the commercial fields, or will it rely solely on historical defense contracting partners for new ideas? Finally, will we see a reworking of the entire military-industrial complex?  Reagan's work solidified and cemented relationships between the military and large government contractors.  For speed, nimbleness and new ideas, the military in the future will need to be open to far more "open innovation" with unfamiliar partners.  Will that happen?  Time will tell.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:59 AM 0 comments

Friday, November 07, 2014

The first steps on the road to innovation success

Every day I'm not on a client site I come in early, to catch up on what's going on in the world.  More often than not I'm doing that by scanning Twitter, to see what the folks I follow are writing about or linking to.  I think of Twitter as my curated news stream, bringing me more information and news about innovation and new product development than I could possibly find on my own.

One of the things that troubles me about the Twitter stream is the frequency of the word "why".  Yes, I know that starting with a question is click bait, and any Tweet or post that can answer a meaningful question is likely to get opened and read.  But I think there's another factor at play.  Many of the people I follow on Twitter are experts or at least interested in innovation.  And the fact that so many of them feel that so often they must start with "why" isn't a nod to Simon Sinek, but follows on the notion that they must educate their audience.  If those of us in the innovation choir feel the need to continually educate our audiences and each other, what does that say about the state of innovation evolution? 

Using Tweets to describe "why" innovation works, or "why" a specific tool is interesting, or "why" a specific company did something is meant to educate and inform, to explain.  If we are still explaining why things work or are valuable, we don't have a lot of time or even need to describe what's more important - "how" things work.  This predominance of "why" in the innovation Twitter stream leads me to believe that either we on Twitter are underestimating our audience's knowledge of innovation, or that we are still on the first steps on the road to innovation awareness.  I'm afraid it's the latter.

You see, Twitter is not a normal news channel.  It's a channel for people who are highly attuned to a specific field of inquiry or who have a passion for some narrow field of study.  In my experience the vast majority of my clients, and prospects we talk to, don't read or follow innovation tweets.  Not because they are disinterested, but because they don't have time.  Their days and nights are full of work, family, other interests.  This isn't to say that they aren't on Twitter, just that their focus is on other things. 

We innovators have a long way to go to educate and build awareness for innovation.  There's a maturation process that any learner must proceed through, which looks something like this:  awareness, interest, education, experimentation, implementation, knowledge, experience.  The fact that so many of us feel led to talk about "why" innovation is valuable or important leads me to believe that our audience is still in the awareness and interest phases of innovation discovery, rather than in the experimentation, implementation and knowledge phases.  Or, perhaps many of the readers think they are in the "knowledge" phase but their knowledge is so thin, their experience so topical that they miss the greater power of innovation. 

Why are so many still so poorly engaged or have such a shallow understanding of innovation?  One factor lies in the fact that innovation is really poorly defined and has few agreed conventions or standards.  There is no singular authority on innovation, and anyone can hang a shingle and create a methodology and declare that he or she is an expert in innovation.  Another factor is the overwhelming focus on short term profits and efficiency.  Most managers have no time in their day for anything not on the immediate calendar.  They don't want to learn new skills unless those skills will be implemented regularly as part of the day to day job.  Innovation is uncertain, disruptive and distracts from important day to day operations.  And that leads to the final reason we are still using the word "why" a lot:  conversion.

We innovators have a set of beliefs that have been developed over time and passed down from Alex Osborn and others.  We use and believe in a set of tools and methods that are strange and unfamiliar to others, who only occasionally attempt solutions using a handful of these tools, and then using them inadequately or with poor preparation.  Innovation seems a bit uncertain, mysterious but promises a big payoff.  Frankly, innovation sounds a lot like a religion, and what we need is more conversions - people who move from doubt to belief.  That's another reason why so many Tweets about innovation start with "why".  We are trying to overcome the resistance and disbelief.

Perhaps we should ask why we need to start with why.  Why is there an abundance of doubt or resistance?  Why do so many people doubt or distrust innovation that we innovators must constantly defend its worth?  Too often innovation, like religion, has been used to justify a decision or an action that others don't find appealing, or was used to sway opinion. Innovation has frequently been used to over-promise and under-deliver, so there's a healthy sense of skepticism, even among those of us who profess to believe deeply in innovation's power.  And innovation charlatans and mystics abound, unfortunately.  We can't seem to sweep away the mystery and expose the pure underlying power and simplicity that innovation can offer.

Many, many companies are still on the first steps on the road to innovation success, limited by the depth of doubt and mistrust, held back by the lack of time and investment, and skeptical based on previous experiences.  We'll do more to advance innovation by sweeping away a lot of false promises and exposing more of the simple truths, and building experience and confidence broadly rather than retain innovation magic in some high priesthood. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:30 AM 0 comments