Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rough and Tumble Innovation

There is a form of play that shows up in humans and a variety of other species. It is called rough and tumble play.

Some people mistake it for fighting. Yet most play scientists recognize this form of play as a—if not the—key contributor to the necessary fine-tuning of social empathy and confidence sufficient to face new and uncertain environments. This is essential for the survival and “thrival” characteristics of the species. “Roughhousing” is what my father called our rolling around on the floor together when I was a young boy. The restrained tackling and wrestling with my daughter when she was younger are also fond memories for me of rough and tumble play.

Vigorous rough and tumble play also directly contributes to an organization’s ability to innovate. Without this play, a launched innovation neither resonates with consumers nor lasts in the marketplace. This is especially true when competitive conditions in the marketplace change. Rough and tumble play is essential for the healthy development of each innovation. It is also essential for the healthy, robust and collaborative problem solving which innovators need to invent.

Many organizations have cultures that actually work against rough and tumble play. On one hand, some companies overvalue politeness. These tend to mistake rough and tumble play for fighting, and are quick to inhibit it, even to the point of avoiding conflicts altogether. Nothing could be more disastrous for an innovation’s development. Without experiencing the stresses that come from multiple iterations of trial and failure, our innovations will remain flabby or flimsy with little value traction.

On the other hand, some companies have become so rough and tumble themselves—even brutish—that internal competitors replace external ones. There simply is no play of any kind, much less rough and tumble. It is all about performance, all the time. There is no permissible time or safe place for thinking out loud with one another. Companies under significant public scrutiny are often play-deprived, especially of the rough and tumble type.

As many of you know, we have a close friendship and collaborative association with Dr. Stuart Brown, founder the National Institute for Play, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the science of play (www.nifplay.org). Dr. Brown has looked at how play—a state of consciousness and set of behaviors—is essential for growing the adaptive capability necessary for people to make healthy adjustments in order to thrive in a changing environment.

The more play experience one has, the greater the organism’s ability to adapt. The less play experience, the weaker the organism’s ability to adapt to changes in its environment. What hard science is teaching us about the vital contribution of play to an organisms’ adaptive capability, our experience confirms regarding how play impacts an organizations’ ability or inability to innovate.

While playing at the appropriate place and time is important, the form of play may be of equal consideration. How you play may be as important as the playing itself. Healthy innovation requires both.

Over the past 25 years, I have facilitated more idea generation sessions than I care to admit. Many of these ideations served to engage participation, and in that they were useful, but too few left any traceable contribution to a successful end result. One reason these brainstorming sessions don’t produce as much as they promise is because people often get caught up in Alex Osborne’s primary rule of brainstorming which is to withhold judgment.

My experience is to populate invention sessions with diverse but well-informed and experienced experts and ask them to go beyond their judgment, but by no means withhold it. It is their judgment that enables the rough and tumble playing with ideas, the result of which is a much higher quality of thinking.

“Fear that might keep you from voicing your real thoughts is poison. Almost nothing could be more detrimental to the well-being of the company,” says Andy Grove in his book, Only The Paranoid Survive, which chronicles his experience with Intel’s precarious navigation from memory chips to microprocessors.

We need to consider formally installing play periods right after gate reviews in the stage gate processes. Play is not only appropriate to the front end of innovation, a time and place for healthy, open dissent should be permitted and encouraged at various points in an innovation’s development. Learning applied to creating value can only be advanced when we replace conflict avoidance with safe and protected “housing” for rough and tumble play. ❑

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2009. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Window of Foresight

Getting insiders to look outside is sometimes not as easy as it might seem, even when they are considered forward-looking thinkers. Internal mindsets can bias perception and outlook.

Several years ago we facilitated an Opportunity Foresight process with U.S. West, who was large enough in its market to be the dominant player. The division we were working with had responsibility for the Yellow Pages business. As we prompted the group to express their individual diverse beliefs about future external factors, we noticed a tendency toward a certain mind set. Like a car that needs its front end realigned, part of the group would tend to veer off into expressions of what the company should do. It was sometimes difficult for these insiders to put their industry analyst hat on and detach from the immediate concerns of the company’s present circumstances.

As these forward thinkers looked out the metaphorical window into the company’s future, it was difficult for them to avoid becoming distracted by the company’s own reflection in the window pane. Partly this was due to the relative position and size of the company in its competitive environment. Partly it was due to a chronic impatience to get to the strategy question (what are we going to do?) before answering a prior question—what do we see happening in front of us and around us?

Our colleague Jim O’Shaughnessy reminds us of the power of mindsets with a parable from the book, The Black Swan, of the domestic turkey prior to that fateful period in late October, early November. Imagine yourself a turkey. All your experiences with humans thus far would lead you to believe them to be benevolent caregivers. Every day one of these humans shows up with more food and water. Some days they clean up after you, give you medicine, even arrange for you to have sufficient exercise. This daily routine is part of the very fabric of the life of the turkey. The turkey has every reason to expect that the next 100 days will be the same as the last 200 days. Then, along comes Thanksgiving. External conditions change.

To avoid the fate of domestic turkeys, most of our organizations have some formal or informal process to periodically “look out the window” to see how economic, competitive, market, user, regulatory or technological conditions may be changing. Because this is done often enough, we might want to consider the ‘window’ itself, and how we are using it; our outlook or competitive environmental scanning process and competitive intelligence capability.

Some of you may be familiar with Johari’s Window developed in 1955 by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, which has become a staple for understanding interpersonal communications and interaction dynamics. This four-paned window may also be been useful for thinking about our organization’s outlook process. Try this thought experiment: Use Johari’s Window as roughly descriptive of the possible views through which your organization views the external future landscape.

The four quadrants contain an Open pane, which is filled with what you know and your competitors and external analysts know (the ‘known knowns’) about the future. The Hidden pane contains the insights or “foresights” that are known to your company, but may not be known to competitors or analysts (these you should regard as proprietary). The Blind Spot pane is filled with what competitors and analysts are likely to know but your organization may not. These may be ‘orthodoxies’ or mind sets that may be discernable only with the help of a detached observer. And finally, the Unknown pane contains those future factors that are yet to emerge and are currently outside of the awareness of anyone who may be interested.

For each of these panes in the window, the implications are different. For the Open frame we would want to make its contents explicit and widely disseminated throughout the organization. For what is in the Hidden frame we would want to both increase the quality and quantity of its contents to grow a competitive advantage as well as maintain its propriety character (i.e., trade secrets, proprietary user insights, and other intellectual assets). Clearly identifying what may be proprietary should be well understood by those who are aware of this frame’s contents.

For the Blind Spot frame the challenge is to discover what may be known by competitors or others of which we ourselves are unaware—or as Mark Twain said, “It’s not what you don't know that hurts you so much; it's what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And finally, for the Unknown frame the challenge is to discover factors before your competitors do or before they are generally recognized.

To gain a complete and balanced picture, all the panes of the window must be considered. The blind spot and unknown frames are particularly of interest in our Opportunity Foresight process. The process helps companies clarify a shared outlook on the emerging external factors shaping their future. It is a more agile, cost-effective and robust process than scenario planning.

Having the organizational capability to see into the future and more quickly identify, understand and time opportunities, threats and strategic shifts is no less important for any company today than it was yesterday. However, exercising this capability in more varied contexts may be become more of a necessity than an optional luxury, particularly if we want to avoid the fatal mistake of the turkey. The trick is, of course, keeping the window clear enough to prevent it from becoming a mirror.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Rememberers by Jane Gannon, Associate

The other day as I was pursuing my newly found passion of canning homegrown, vine-ripened tomatoes, I was thinking about my grandmother and how canning fruits and vegetables was part of her summer routine. Not being interested in learning this skill from her when I was a child forced me recently to seek out a friend to teach me how to can. Now as I filled glass jars with plump, juicy tomatoes, I was mindlessly listening to the radio when Katherine Paddack, the clan leader of the Tlingit Tribe of Alaska, started talking about a gathering of her tribe happening here in the Bay Area. 

Paddack spoke of her Tlingit tribe’s history and how they learned to work with the white explorers who came to Alaska rather then become a victim of the white conquest. Due to its harsh geography, white explorers depended on the Tlingit Tribe, and so the tribe itself survived and prospered, and its identity is still in tact. Even though the Tlingit’s lost many members due to diseases brought by white explorers; they did not lose their culture.  

Upon “white contact,” many other Native American tribes lost their leaders and people to disease and genocide. Many tribes were destroyed and lost their stories, their ways of life and their culture because tribes had an oral rather than written history. One of the ways the Tlingit Tribe was able to maintain its identity is through the role and discipline of the rememberers.  

Rememberers are those who hold and pass on the stories of the tribe. They carry the history and traditions and tell them to other members of the tribe orally. As they sit around the circle one of the rememberers will begin telling a story of the tribe. As he or she talks, others listen. If the storyteller gets something wrong in the story, another rememberer in the group will take over telling the story and correct the mistake, to the agreement of all the rememberers present. The first rememberer will then pick up where he or she left off, and continue telling the story. In that way, the members of the tribe all continue to learn the same history, through the collaborative and oral wisdom of the rememberers.  

According to the Journal of American Indian Education, “One of the sacred duties of certain elders of the tribes was the handing down of these histories to their successors. As they repeated them, they impressed upon the hearer the importance of remembering the stories precisely as told, and of telling them again exactly as he had received them, neither adding nor taking away anything.”

The rememberer is an honored person in her tribe like a shaman or healer, she is held in high esteem by others in the tribe. The rememberer is the history. He is the living record of all the stories of the tribe, telling the stories and tales that would be lost forever without them. As a result of the contact, conquest, and settlement of white explorers and pioneers, many tribes lost their rememberers and thus lost their memories and cultural histories. 

Many of you have heard Lanny talk about creating a “knowledge-creation and codification commons,” a human system of sharing what it is we know so as to enable the learning of what we don’t know. This is an essential and possibly the central element in Toyota’s innovation management system. 

We are struck with the how the role of the rememberer in the Tlingit tribe describes and offers a role and discipline for our organizations that may be necessary in building a sustainable innovation system. Rememberers can help us avoid re-learning and, by keeping the history, point us in the direction of where what we are learning may be applied to creating value. 

While I remember my grandmother so well, my memory is now hazy and it seems like such a long time ago those summer days spent in her kitchen. I wish I could see her again. I wonder what story she would tell me?  

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in October 2008. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.

Amid Chaos, Necessity is still the Mother of Invention

As the financial crisis is all around us, the old saying “it rains on the just and the unjust” comes to mind. It seems applicable to the realm of innovators as well. It rains on the operator and the innovator. Not that operators are just and innovators unjust, or vice versa. It's just that both are affected by the “rains of fear” coming down on us all from the dark storm clouds of chaos in our financial markets.

Typically Innovating Perspectives prefers to stay with principles and practices of innovation and its management, seeking timeless wisdom and practical experience to innovators in their networks and communities of practice. However, the turbulence and apparent chaos of the financial markets that is affecting all of us—and will likely affect us for some time to come—has given us pause. 

The speed, volatility and pervasiveness of what is raining down on all of us—our host organizations, our nascent and vulnerable innovations-in-development, our customer’s readiness for something new, our personal anxieties about our 401Ks, retirement plans, and stock options—all seems at risk, if not completely under water and thoroughly soaked. It is difficult not to ask, “what’s going to happen to us?” It is also very tempting to follow Chicken Little into the conclusion that the sky is indeed falling.

Thanks to the recommendation of our friend Ivy Ross, a very observant and wise leader and current EVP of Marketing at The Gap, I finished reading Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science (1992, 2006). The essay is a fascinating thought experiment challenging us to rethink management and leadership by pointing us to what the new sciences of field and chaos theories reveal about how post-Newtonian nature really works. I am grateful to have read this book amidst this financial chaos. 

Here are a few lines that are helping me maintain some emotional balance: 

“It is chaos’ great destructive energy that dissolves the past and gives us the gift of a new future.” 

“We have held in us the dance of creation and learned that growth always requires passage through the fearful realms of disintegration.” 

“The destruction created by chaos is necessary for the creation of anything new.” 
The destruction of wealth that is happening around us and from which none of us can escape—as individuals, as innovators, and innovation sponsors in our host organizations—is undeniable. However, this chaos should not evoke in us a self-centered fatalistic cynicism, nor drive us to escape into a Pollyanna hope that “everything will turn out alright.” Instead, it might call forth in us the prophetic role many of us as innovators can and do play in the context of our host organizations, particularly with those colleagues who view themselves not as innovators but operators. 

In the role as prophetic catalysts for the future—the host organization’s future—we can and should bring the voice and perspective that there is opportunity here, even here and now, and it needs our attention. This is not to deny nor give in to the tragic and deterministic narrative to which simple straight-line projections confine us—too often the thinking of our counterparts in operations and finance. Many of them are just doing their jobs.

We ourselves need to remember our own experience and take careful pains to remind our organizations, the perennial truth that necessity is the mother of invention. That this potentially protracted period of necessity we are likely entering is not something that should shut down our innovation efforts. Instead, this time may prove to be a period, though painful, where necessity becomes a ‘tough love’ mother for our current and future innovation efforts, not the coroner. It may be a painful blessing in disguise.  

Joseph Schumpeter described the entrepreneurial pattern of creative destruction and postulated that dynamic disequilibrium brought on by the innovator rather than stability and optimization is the ‘norm’ of a healthy economy. Even before Schumpeter, J.B. Say, the French economist who coined the term entrepreneur, defined innovation not as either “innovation” or “entrepreneur” as is commonly understood. He defined it with this tough love mother in mind when he described it as improving the yield of resources. 

Innovators (or entrepreneurs) always shift economic resources from areas of lower productivity to areas of higher productivity and yield. Peter Drucker reflected on Say’s influence this way: “The essence of economic activity is the commitment of present resources to future expectations, and that means to uncertainty and risk. To be sure, people who need certainty are unlikely to make good entrepreneurs (innovators).”

These are times that call forth from us that most basic of all principles that quietly and implicitly animates so much of what innovators do—faith. By faith we don’t mean to refer to a religious or spiritual set of beliefs that you may or may not hold. Rather we refer to “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” that has enabled us to move forward in the past through these headwinds of fears—whether those winds of fear are coming from the prevailing Northerlies of uncertainty, the periodic Southerlies of rejection, or the powerful Nor’easters of loss (of control) and failure. By faith, we mean to recognize a common muscle that resides with innovators—prisoners of hope—who put that faith into forward movement through the winds of fear because their future expectations won’t let them do otherwise.

The inherent and inescapable discipline that comes from times of necessity can spur us to return to the fundamentals and roots of innovation, even open innovation—generosity, trust and transparency. Perhaps this will be such a period of radical, necessity-born innovation.  

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in October 2008. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call  (415) 387-1270.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Inventing for the “Next Bench”

If necessity is the mother of invention, then this period we are all going through could prove to be a golden age of invention.

The value of the “gold” in this golden age may derive more from the quality than the quantity of the inventions created during this period. By quality, we mean the invention’s impact, its breadth and duration of influence on society. While there are an enormous number of inventions clogging global patent and trademark offices, the substance, value and societal significance of many of these inventions may improve the patent holder’s competitive interests more than advance society’s intrinsic interests.

Several years ago client work took me to Cleveland, Ohio, and so I scheduled an extra day to visit the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in nearby Akron. The building itself is an interesting monument to invention and design as the architecture creates a pathway that guides the visitor through a history of invention in the U.S. and winds its way to the inventors’ wall of honor.

Hanging on this wall are over 200 photos of the inductees. As my eyes went from one portrait to the next I began to ask what all these inventors may have had in common. I also noticed some inventors were “absent,” like Buckminster Fuller, who I would have expected to see, but did not. The surprise at these omissions caused me to inquire about the selection process. What criteria did they use to select these particular inventors?

The lasting and widespread impact that the invention had on society was the answer. If the inventor’s invention had made a significant impression on society—both in its breadth and duration—the inventor became a viable candidate for the hall of fame. It was not the number of his or her inventions, nor even the admiration, money or worldly success enjoyed by the inventors as a result of their inventions. Rather, it was the sustained value to society of their contributions.

Now with the banks’ plumbing clogged with mistrust, the precipitous decline in home values, and the fear based cuts being made by so many of our companies in response to what appears to be a protracted recession, mother necessity should be very fertile with invention. However, it may be a very different kind of invention—the kind not driven solely by the interests of competitors.

While our own companies suffer from their own necessity during these times, it is important not to lose sight of the necessities affecting our customers. Inventing with their interests in mind may be more important to them and to us, than keeping our competitor at bay. The challenge is to see empathetically beyond our own necessities—those that often blind us to the needs of others—so that we can make the contributions that need to be made.

In Hewlett-Packard Company’s go-go years, there was a lot of “inventing for the next bench over.” Engineers would rub shoulders with future business opportunities by merely seeing a problem lying there on the next bench over that could be inventively solved. Their proximity to the problems enabled their empathy, imagination and knowledge to create a rich ground for invention to occur naturally.

Perhaps these times of necessity will bring us closer to those “next benches over,” giving urgency, relevance and necessity to our creative focus and efforts.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2009. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Between the Shoulders

Remember those cartoons depicting a little angel on one shoulder who whispers, “do the right thing” in one ear, while a little devil on the other shoulder urges just the opposite?

Innovators have analogous counselors on their shoulders. Instead of angels and devils, however, innovators find themselves between “prophets” and “priests.” Prophets speak about change, possibility, and how things could be different. Priests, on the other shoulder, speak about accepting reality, security, and honoring the wisdom of past. Keeping your head between these two perspectives, without losing your mind, can be a daily challenge.

I confess (where’s a priest when you need one?) that in my thirty years as a perpetual student of innovation, I have been biased toward the prophetic voice. The future. Change. New. Invention. Learning. Being on the cutting edge. Creative destruction. The Maverick Way. All very fresh, adrenalin-laced stuff.

Like many though, I often mistakenly think that the prophetic voice is about predicting the future. We believe if we can predict the future—even partially—then we have a chance to gain an edge on the competition. Yet prophetic tradition is less about predicting the future than in its about changing the way people are thinking and behaving in the present, so as to help them live more fulfilling, purposeful and loving lives. This may be more at the heart of innovations that endure with people than the new, edgy shiny surfaces of innovations that we read about in the press. The value that innovations bring in the long run may be more important than their novelty.

On the other shoulder, the innovator has to contend with the voice of the priest. Avoid risk. Disruption. Honor the “core” business. Defend market share. Manage boundaries. All very conservative, care-related stuff.

Like many others, I often mistake the priestly voice as overly concerned with preservation and loss avoidance. However, the priestly function is also about confessing—admitting our mistakes—the first step in changing our way of thinking. Perhaps the priestly and the prophetic voices are not all that opposing after all.
Webster’s definition of each word gives us a clue. Both words etymologically have the same root word “pro” which means “going before.” In the case of the priest, it is going before the herd. The priestly role in our organizations—think IT and HR—is oriented toward the organization. In the case of the prophet, this “going before” is oriented toward direction, what awaits in the future, “out there.”

The Boston Consulting Group recently published its annual Innovation Survey. One of the findings states “that a risk-averse culture has been consistently identified as one of the largest obstacles to maximizing the return on innovation investment” in past surveys and it was the biggest obstacle in the 2009 Survey. (Two sectors—technology and telecommunications—were noted as the exceptions to this finding, which cited their cultures to be a particular strength in their innovation efforts.)

Innovators can see in their mind’s eye, and even craft with a sculptor’s finesse, an elegantly designed prototype. Both can represent a persuasive and promising vision of changed thinking, demonstrating what is possible. However, the innovator cannot ignore the organization. The “herd” is never too far away. Without the organization, the innovation either will be stillborn or it will never attract the support and resources necessary to bring it into reality.

Innovators are surrounded by a multitude of voices, some prophetic, some priestly, some just Monday morning quarterbacks. We are especially grateful for the innovators among you, who, amidst all these voices, hear the still quiet voice of your customers’ needs, and listen closely to the resonances in your own imaginations.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in May 2009. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.