Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Certainty and Creativity—The Constraints of Mental Filters In Innovation

By James P. O’Shaughnessy

What is it about novelty that causes us to initially reject it? It is the process of mental filtering. Mental filters are strong barriers to creative thought. They impede us when formulating and then uttering our truly novel thoughts. Yet, these are the very ideas and raw material we strive to create while inventing.

As Will Rogers observed: “It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us so much, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Mental filters tend to be the things we know for sure; and most of these “certainties” are far from that—some are misleading and others downright wrong. Thus, the operation of mental filters is counterproductive to the overarching goals of an Innovation Workshop when we seek to develop a strategic portfolio of patents as well as corresponding innovations.

Innovation Workshops are exercises in thought experimentation centered on a concrete objective set forth as an opportunity statement. Its output is a series of strategic innovations within the scope of the stated opportunity, and, near term, patents covering those new creations. These innovations, due to their strategic characteristics, can often seed a company’s organic innovation processes as well.

The active workshop process unfolds over a several day period, during which participant inventors delve into the opportunity, harnessing their collective creativity to develop novel ideas within its milieu. The workshop is structured around an implicit tension between what is and what could be. That tension is embodied between the experts rooted in the subject matter and the catalytic thinkers who challenge the conventional or delivered wisdom of the field. Much like flint and steel, the creative sparks are seen to fly as the two integrated talents work productively in exploring new ground and, in that process, inventing during hundreds of facilitated thought experiments.

We know from experience that there is a direct correlation between the newness of an idea and its rejection, at first by its originator and then by its evaluator. We should be highly attuned to the rejection of an idea, for this is a telltale of novelty. These filters thus operate as first order tools of rejection of the very novelty sought in Innovation Workshops.  

The output of a workshop in large part is a strategic portfolio of patents as well as corresponding innovations. To qualify as “strategic,” this portfolio must embody two essential characteristics: the portfolio must have the capacity to “control, manage or influence;” and it must exert that capacity on “markets, sectors or relationships.” Putting this together, we aim to create a portfolio that strives to “control, manage or influence markets, sectors or relationships.”

Because most of us are steeped in the traditions of organic innovation, our mental filters are well honed to be egocentric. We invent and then patent things important to us (the ego). However, inasmuch as patents confer rights of exclusion, considerably greater value can be extracted from patents important to others (“allocentric”). Thus, throughout this description of mental filters, the reader would do well to keep in mind the simple and straightforward admonition: “Patent things important to others.”  

Here are some of the filters commonly encountered:

·      We don’t do/make that.”  This is the analog to “Not Invented Here” or “NIH.”  It is aptly termed “Not Sold Here” or “NSH.” We think, if we don’t make or do or sell that, whatever that is, then that is not important to us. Change your vantage—if it is or could be a good invention touching on or concerning products or services important to someone else, it has the very strategic component we seek. NSH is a common and pernicious filter.

·      We can’t do that” or “It can’t be done.” The logic of the statement often cannot be denied, were we limiting our consideration to a commercial product in the next few quarters or even years. However we strive for patents that have an enabled disclosure of a viable way to produce that product. Patents issuing on those enabled conceptions will have a life of 20 years from filing. It may be true that commercialization of the patented product may be infeasible now. But, having strategic rights for some balance of the lifespan of the patent can confer significant benefits as it eventually covers commercial reality.

·      It’s too costly.” Simply put, something too costly to produce at a reasonable profit today may tomorrow become the dominant design. It is often the case that other enabling technologies are required before a product is commercially viable. Once again, to have patents important to others for even a few years of the 20-year span can bestow strategic advantages.

·      It’s not practical.” This filter is based on a faulty premise that practicality will be measured tomorrow as today. It also fails to acknowledge that whatever impediment prevents practicality will fail to be overcome within the life of a patent.

·      It’s not reduced to practice.” Many inventors have been indoctrinated to believe an invention must be reduced to practice—saying that it must be tangible and shown to work. That is one of those things we know for sure that just ain’t so. If the inventor can conceptualize the invention and articulate a workable hypothesis for its operability, the patent application later filed on that invention constitutes a “constructive reduction to practice.” That is equally effective.

·      There’s no market for it.” This filter is predicated on a prediction of the future over a period too long to be susceptible of accurate prophecy. If the market materializes in even 15 years, an enormously long time in today’s fast-paced society, there will still be about five years during which the company can enjoy the commercial influence of the patent. That can yield tremendous market advantages.

·       “It’s not good enough.” An invention—because it is new—often lacks simple elegance. It can be rough around its edges and need more work to polish it. However, features not yet good enough are typically commercial attributes important when a product or service is marketed. Patents are more tolerant of such imperfections.

·      It’s silly.”  This common filter operates all the time in everybody. How often has it happened that we have an idea but fail to express it, only to find someone else with a lower threshold for silliness says the same thing to great acclaim? Along these lines, Albert Einstein once offered the acute observation that an idea that is not at first absurd has little prospect.  

·      It’s fractionally baked.” Some seem to think that so-called “half-baked” ideas should be rejected as ill-thought or ill-formed. In an Innovation Workshop, half-baked is wondrous while even smaller fractions are entirely welcome. The trick here is to find the kernel of the idea that has prospects, according to Einstein, and further develop that kernel into an invention.

·       “It’s already known/done.” When this statement is accurate, it is not a filter but very important information that guides an inventor’s productive energy. However, it is rarely the case that this filter is accurate. Moreover, when this filter operates, it tends to block the mental path of the participant inventors. It is okay that they follow the same trail others have blazed if it positions them to leapfrog earlier thinking.

·       “Party X would never let us do this.” Some companies exist in markets dominated by one or a few very influential companies. This can create an interfering mindset when workshop inventors filter out good ideas because they challenge or threaten to shift market power. But, again, 20 years is a long time for any company to hold market sway and, it’s better to be the party holding a patent than the one against whom it is asserted. Patents have the ability to change the rules of the market—good ideas should not be rejected because they threaten the status quo.

The power of Innovation Workshops lies largely in the ability of facilitators to create an atmosphere in which participants can be both analytical and playful with raw ideas in a comprehensive series of thought experiments. We all must be on guard for the operation of filters that will interfere with those dynamics. These filters are always present and it would be foolish to deny that reality. Thus, it is a matter of suppressing their harmful effects. This is a goal and responsibility of both facilitators and inventors alike.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2006. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dangerous Dichotomies

Prophets and pundits of change often express how the future will be different by using dangerous dichotomies.  

For example, the new economy infers that there is an old one—one that is somehow less attractive.   High tech suggests there is a lower class of technology that might not be as valuable. Revolutionary change can easily infer that evolutionary change may not be aggressive or cool enough. Even the phrase out-of-the-box tends to devalue ideas that might be in the box. While these dichotomies may make for good sound bytes, they can lead the innovator and innovating company astray.

Peter Drucker observed years ago in his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that contrary to much of what the literature would have us believe, the more reliable sources of innovation are right under our corporate noses: our own successes and failures. Emphasizing how different the future will be, and thus, implying that it will require nothing less than a wholesale change, not only gives the corporate immune system a juicy target; it may not always be the best or most accurate way of describing the emerging future.

Years ago a heralded innovation called oriented strand board (OSB) was touted as a plywood replacement. What happened? Those companies with heavy investments in plywood assets worked harder and smarter to improve plywood, partly in response to the very threat of OSB. The reality that ensued was not the elimination of plywood. Rather we now have both OSB and plywood. This plot line of innovation in an industry has been repeated in other contexts as well. In many cases, the new does not replace the old. Instead, the new and the old co-exist and together, form a new reality. For example, General Electric seems to be more enabled than “disrupted” by its embrace of e-business technology. Perhaps it really is not what the change is, but how you respond to it that makes the difference.

Just as organisms adapt to their surroundings in order to survive and succeed, so organizations must do likewise. Innovation is simply the complex set of activities that make up that adaptation process. Even though the economist Schumpeter said that innovation is both the creator and destroyer of corporations, it seems that this is but another dangerous dichotomy about innovation itself.

Yes we need to be open to the new, but not to the extent that we disregard or denigrate the old. The innovation management challenge for the established corporation is to both improve the existing and embrace the new.  

Managing innovation with purpose and perspective requires more finesse with the subtleties of emerging and current realities than dichotomies would otherwise lead us to believe.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in June 2002. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Learning to Accelerate Innovation Efforts

Speed, cost, and quality are often thought to be unavoidable trade-offs when innovating. While conventional wisdom says innovators can achieve only two of these three goals at a time, research suggests otherwise. A study by Eric Kessler and Paul Bierly* cites that more than any other factor innovation speed drives project success, is associated with superior performance, and does not necessarily lead to higher project costs.

So much for conventional wisdom.  

If speed is the critical factor, what can be done to accelerate innovating efforts? The ability to go faster turns out to be partly a result of its opposite: having a good set of brakes. Productive “brakes” in the action enable innovators to ask and answer “what’s the next right thing to do and why”? A confident collective answer accelerates progress.

Speed is a function of time and distance. In the context of development, speed has to do with how quickly and how well collaborators learn together. The rate at which collaborators complete each cycle of the learning loop and the “distance” they achieve in the move from one iteration of the loop to the next depends upon how efficiently they can synthesize their collective perspectives. 

The bringing together of different perspectives within and between learning loops is key to controlling speed, whether the innovation is motivated by invention or differentiation, and whether the innovation is in early or late stages of development. 

Dr. Allen Ward, an expert on Toyota’s Product Development System, summarized the innovating process as “learning applied to creating value.” The learning loop of searching, expressing, modeling and empathizing is accelerated when all the contributors are fully and freely engaged. A facilitator experienced in the innovating process can ensure full and free engagement of participants. The feedback and the “feed forward” are more closely coupled when a team has facilitation assistance, and so the rate of progress can be accelerated both within and between iterations of the learning loop. Innovating teams stay agile yet grounded in the knowledge-creation necessary for successful, substantive innovation depending upon the rate and quality of these loops.

The rate and quality of learning that occurs within and between learning loops often encounter “bottlenecks,” for example:

1.    The creation/invention required for innovating can lead to communication challenges. The chance for misunderstanding is perhaps higher than it already is in normal dialogue because when the new is expressed for the first time, it often doesn’t come out crisply or clearly. 

2.    The collaboration required for innovating can lead to “group think,” the frequent social norm that can influence a team’s desire to avoid conflict and maintain group cohesion, often at the expense of productive dissent. Group think may be good for consensus, but it is not necessarily good for innovation. In effect, it is a subtle form of unconscious voting. 

3.    The diversity (of expertise and perspective) required for innovating can lead to dissent. Dissent can be either positive or negative for innovating efforts. When dissenting opinions are encouraged early on, development cycles are stronger, enabling greater advances from one iteration of the learning loop to the next. When dissent is left unexpressed, it can cripple the effort and waste more resources than time alone. However, at a certain point, convergent thinking must resolve into concerted action if progress is to be made. 

4.    The knowledge-creation required for innovating can erode the project’s focus. There is always more to learn and uncertainty always lingers, especially when innovating. Sometimes it requires raising the question whether the focus, scope or direction may need rethinking.

5.    Concentrated and uninterrupted periods of time are necessary for innovating. Time and space for experimentation, observation, and reflection are difficult for project teams and leaders to carve out. Normally project team members are engaged in other responsibilities, frequently unrelated to the project’s progress.  

Objective, experienced facilitation and guidance can reduce these “bottlenecks.” With a facilitator, knowledge among team members is disseminated better and faster; know-how is captured and made explicit; mental and physical models are shared more thoroughly; divergent thinking is sequenced with convergent thinking; and technical competence can remain more influential than procedure compliance. Even the number and degree of uncertainties can be reduced more effectively.  ❑

*The research study “Is Faster Really Better? An Empirical Test of the Implications of Innovation Speed” was conducted by Eric H. Kessler and Paul E. Bierly and published in IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management in February 2002.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in May 2011. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call(415) 387-1270.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Innovations Emerge

 By Bruce Beihoff

This is a short story. A love story. It starts with a classification of systems and ends with recognizing the process of innovation and invention as a type of system—an emergent one.

Classifying things has been a perennial method used for over 5,000 years to understand both the diversity and complexity of our environments, ourselves, and also to define sameness and difference. Classifying depends on a common understanding of what a system is. Russell L. Ackoff first published in his 1971 article Towards a System of System Concepts what many use as a basic working definition: “A system is a set of interrelated elements. Thus, a system is an entity composed of at least two elements and a relation that holds between each of its elements and at least one other element in the set. Each of a system's elements is connected to every other element, directly or indirectly. No subset of elements is unrelated to any other subset.”

Ackoff went on to classify systems as “abstract” and/or “concrete,” linking thereby the worlds of operations research and engineering science. His definition has held up over the years as a simple and coherent description of fundamental precepts necessary for a common language and understanding of perhaps the broadest paradigm in human thought—systems.

He went on to note that the interactions within and between system elements define a range of dynamic activities that in total have an effect on the overall behavior of a system. Classifying these interactions has become a key to understanding and developing systems. Systems dynamics has become a potent toolbox for understanding and for our ability to invent and innovate. Models (visual, logical and mathematic representations of the system elements and their interactions) help us use the tools in the toolbox of systems dynamics.

Five types or classes of systems, based upon their overall dynamic behaviors, can be described as deterministic, stochastic, mixed mode, chaotic, and emergent.

Deterministic: systems in which the output can be predicted with a high percentage of certainty without using probability distributions.

Stochastic: systems in which the output can be predicted within a known set of probability distribution(s).

Mixed Mode: systems in which the output can be predicted with a high degree of certainty in some states and within a known set of probability distributions in other states.

Chaotic: systems in which the output may be predicted within a known set of probability distributions for some period of time, but cannot be predicted beyond that time because of two factors: the sensitivity of the system’s dynamic responses to even small changes in initial conditions and the ability of the system to change its topology (to change the interactions between its elements).

Emergent: systems in which the output can be predicted only within broad probability distributions and during short observation periods due primarily to three predominant factors: (1) the system involves agents with choice (and in some cases, purpose), (2) the rules governing the actual dynamics of the system evolve much faster than the our ability to model them, and (3) the interactions between the elements are complex and have the ability to change their topology.

These system classifications are additive, from deterministic to emergent. The process of innovating or creating improved solutions involves all of these factors but is driven primarily by human agents who choose, often with deliberate purpose. As a result, the best system type for understanding innovation and invention is an emergent one. Innovation and invention are inherently emergent systems. When approached as deterministic, stochastic or chaotic, misunderstandings proliferate too easily and innovating efforts fall short too often.

What does all this mean to the stewards of innovation: managers, mentors, sponsors, midwives, inventors, intrapreneurs and innovators?  Here are a few thoughts to consider:

• Significant advantages accrue to those who use the lens of emergent systems in the practice and management of innovation and invention. Most of the important solutions needed by our increasingly complex and dynamic world need to be understood as more complex and dynamic systems—emergent ones—in order to better perceive, imagine, invent and innovate.

• Managing the practice of innovation purely as a simplistic deterministic process or a completely black box statistical distribution has equally sub-optimal outcomes.

• Being aware of innovation as an emergent system can prove to be a constant reminder of the central role of the agent’s (e.g., customer’s) choice and purpose.

• Be not afraid. All of this non-linearity is what makes innovating and inventing ever-renewing and ever-improving. In fact, much of this non-linearity is the terrain from which the more significant and substantive innovations needed for our future will emerge. It is also the renewable source of our ability to improve our understanding of what is needed, valuable and possible, every day.

Why is this a love story? The answer is simple, really. I am a systems modeler, an inventor and innovator. For me, and others like me, working on innovation as an emergent system is the most exciting systems problem in the world. What’s not to love?  

Bruce Beihoff is a close associate of Vincent & Associates, Ltd. He recently retired from Whirlpool Corporation, where he was the Global Leader Advanced Systems; Senior Principal Technologist, and Director of Innovation and Technology–Systems and Process Research. Previously he was the Principal Engineer and Group Manager in the Advanced Development Group at Rockwell Automation and Rockwell International. He can be contacted at bbeihoff@sbcglobal.net.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2011. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 460-1313.