Wednesday, February 29, 2012

“Just-In-Time” Innovation

Having a dependable supply of product innovations is a goal of many companies. Millions of dollars earmarked for Research & Development are budgeted each year in company after company for this purpose. Efforts to fill the new product pipeline are initiated every year leaving the corporate “cupboard” brimming with unused and neglected product innovations. Isn’t it odd that the marketplace is riddled with so many failed new products when compared to the abundance of unused product innovations stockpiled on companies’ “shelves”? Do we have an innovation “inventory” problem?

The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos meant the passage of time: time that can be measured by the minute, hour, day, week, etc. In other words, clock time. Kairos, on the other hand, meant a special time: time that is endowed with meaning and purpose, in other words, the right time. The notion of a “window of opportunity” might be a close approximation to the Greek’s notion of kairos.

Might the unused inventories of product innovations in corporate pipelines be related to the high mortality rates of new product introductions? Might both be related to a failure to understand the difference between chronos and kairos?
In the late 1980s, Weight Watchers Frozen Entrees had been regularly introducing a stream of new products. Many of their new products were aimed at the gold standard at that time Lean Cuisine.  Weight Watchers was so successful at this strategy, in fact, that they suddenly found themselves in the lead position. Instead of aiming at the target, they became the target!

Their first reaction to competition assaults was, quite naturally, to do what they had done so well, for so long—introduce another new product. Only this time, it had to come out the innovation inventory faster. Accelerating development time caused considerable havoc to their delicately balanced project portfolio process. In their rush to market, Weight Watchers made assumptions about consumers’ needs, which ultimately proved incorrect. It wasn’t long before they were overtaken by Healthy Choice™ in the frozen food wars.

Weight Watchers had followed a “chronos strategy” of new product innovations. It worked for a while. When their competitive position changed, however, and they became the leader, chronos turned to kairos, leaving them with an inventory of product innovations what was “out of date.”

Constant vigilance to even subtle change in the attitudes and behavior of customers and competitive dynamics may be even more important that a dependable supply of innovations. Chronos can turn to kairos quickly. Resources devoted to keeping the pipeline full may be better spent attending to the quiet shifts in the posture of customers and competitors. Then we may be better able to innovate, just-in-time.


This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in October 1993. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.   

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Aesthetics of Innovating: Sixth Sense of Innovators

When I was in the innovation management group at Kimberly-Clark in the early 1980s we
asked then CEO Darwin Smith how he would judge ideas worthy of further investment. He told us there are only two things we need to worry about: “shoemaker stick to your last” and “make it snappy.” As to the first, much has been written about core business and core competencies and adjacencies to the core. Of the second, much less has been written or said, partly because what one person may regard as “snappy,” another person may not.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” It is difficult to deny the fact that what one person sees as plain or common, another might see as beautiful and fresh. Subjectivity in assessing the potential of an idea, particularly a new idea, is probably inescapable. At the very least, when it comes to assigning potential value to an embryonic innovation—ultimately one that will require some investment of the innovating company’s limited resources—who the assigner or beholder is matters a great deal.

When asked how he and his peers decide what ideas to pursue further, one of our more experienced innovators says it depends in part on how “cute” it is. He defined cute as the idea or invention’s ability to speak for itself, in terms of its relevance to customer need and the core business. The less explanation the idea needs, the more its “cute” quotient. While his explanation made sense, it did not avoid the subjectivity problem. To which he quickly reassured me that it wasn’t his perception of cuteness alone that made the difference. Rather, it was a shared sense of “cuteness,” shared with the CEO and corporate development officer, and, eventually, others.

That there is an aesthetic factor at play in how ideas are judged, along with all the other analytics, is likely inescapable.  And while subjectivity is frequently regarded as something to minimize or escape, there may be another, more subtle point worth considering. This subjectivity may be something to welcome instead of something to avoid.

An aesthetic sensibility is something often not associated with engineers and technologists engaged in the more mundane trenches of innovation efforts. However, I am increasingly persuaded that experienced and more successful innovators have a deep sense for the aesthetics of the innovation they are developing. Shape, symmetry, simplicity, elegance in the way the problem is solved or solution is delivered or the need met or profit increased, all weigh heavily for the innovator. Perhaps subjectivity—or at least an aesthetic sensitivity—should be embraced rather than avoided or sacrificed to the dogma of analysis and data. 

While I am not against sound analysis of valid data, I am suggesting that we might want to pay even more attention to our individual and shared sense of what is cute or beautiful in the innovation as a necessary compliment to all the data that we can amass, anecdotal and otherwise, when we assess whether a particular innovation deserves more or not. 

We all know that a lot of frogs have to be kissed before a prince or princess appears. But how can innovators differentiate between frogs and royalty, without relying on their aesthetic sense? Furthermore, what is this sixth sense? If the innovator beholds beauty in the nascent innovation, what does the innovator perceive, if not the intersection of function, fit and form?

The Irish poet John Keats finished one of his poems with the phase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Perhaps that’s all the innovator needs to know in the sincere and evidence-based belief that the customer will recognize it too.    


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 or call (415) 387-1270.   

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Learning from Experience

Most of us regard the economy as generally negative, at least compared to the more robust economic conditions prior to September 2008. Yet this “new normal” may be what my mother called a “character building” experience, at least as far as innovating is concerned.

Many companies are increasingly responding to the new realities they face as an invitation to rethink what they thought they knew about their business. Many seem to be more willing to reexamine some of their underlying assumptions, which in more robust conditions left little motivation for questioning. With pain and loss there is the promise of new gains in the offing, if we are willing to learn.

Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, reminds us that the first hurdle of learning is to unlearn what we thought we knew for sure. Unlearning is especially challenging for companies with successful track records. Karl Deutsch, a social and political scientist, once said “those in power don’t have to learn,” which sounds close to what another sage said 2,000 years earlier: “the meek shall inherit the earth.” This strength-emerging-from-weakness narrative so often ignored by the media, can be seen today in the unfinished Arab Spring, the “Occupy” movement, the re-balancing of global economic power, and even in the emergent nature of innovations themselves.  

As a student of innovation for over 30 years, I have been reexamining many of my own underlying assumptions about innovating. I am struck with how much I don’t know, really, as I reexamine what I thought I knew. The result is a new found humility regarding the nature and character of innovating itself.

Innovating is similar to parenting in many respects. For example, there has been no one authoritative canon on parenting, which has survived more than one generation. What happened to Dr. Spock and all his wisdom? Did he become irrelevant, trumped by books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting and the latest findings from developmental, neurological and psychosocial research?  The same is true for innovating. Like parenting, innovating is inextricably entangled with the particularities and embodiments of each individual invention. Generalizations about innovating are frequently made, but quickly evaporated in the wake of market conditions, competitive dynamics, technological constraints, and organizational preferences.

While many of us want to believe that innovating can be codified into a repeatable and sustainable process, our experience suggests otherwise. Innovations, innovating and innovators seem to defy formulaic generalizations. They are persistently original and they are consistently “emergent,” to use a term from complexity theory.  Parents experience a similar set of challenges.

Lately many of our core clientele—product developers and R&D-based innovators—seem more willing to move forward in the
new normal, despite not having all the answers. Powerlessness (not to be confused with helplessness) is now being more freely admitted by both big and small enterprises alike. Veteran firms and early stage start-ups, while more circumspect about their innovation opportunities, seem even more willing to consider first what is going on before rushing into a plan of action. This newly found humility bodes well for improving the prospects of innovating. Why? A willingness to stay open, to learn, and to adapt are summed up in humility. Staying open, learning and adapting are also the healthy precursors to successful innovating.    

People who analyze external conditions seemed to be using words like “uncertainty,” “volatility,” “insecurity,” and “complexity” more frequently in their descriptions. I’m not sure whether things have actually gotten more complex. Perhaps we are just more aware of the complexity that has always been there. Whether it's increased in reality or not, many seem to be more aware of how partial and incomplete our knowledge really is. 

A feeling of uncertainty, volatility, or complexity can evoke anxiety in us. It can also catalyze us to discover opportunities amid the threats. Whether we approach it with an anxious defensiveness or an animating hope, the month of January implicitly asks us each year: what have we learned? January—named for Janus, the forward- and backward-looking Roman god of transitions—finds us simultaneously looking back on what we learned and forward to the opportunity for applying and testing what was learned.

Each January for the past 20 years we have reflected back on what the previous year has brought us. Most of those reflections have consisted of a list of lessons learned. This year, there is but one item on the list about innovating: and it is parenting. We hope this does not reflect a flattening of our learning curve as much as it does our appreciation for the importance of the one lesson we learned about innovating, which we want to bring to your attention.

In a nutshell, the lesson is this: powerlessness may be a silent, early partner to innovators. To some extent all innovating efforts are built upon a foundation of learning, especially when the learning is from direct experience of something ventured without a guarantee of success. The point at which we try something that may not work, whether we succeed or fail, this is the point wherein we act our way into a new way of thinking, which is the essential foundation of successful innovating.

Ingredients of established power—whether status, reputation, or market share—tend toward defensive reaction more than adaptive response. The powerless, in some ways, are actually freer and more motivated to learn than the powerful. However, it would be erroneous to conclude that the small and less powerful have an advantage when it comes to innovating—whether disruptively or incrementally. The Economist’s Schumpeter Column (12/17/11) reexamined a common assumption: that disruptive innovating favors the small and fast over the big and powerful. Like a parent, the innovator’s passion and care for the product may be a more important factor than the relative size of the innovating enterprise. 

This was made clear in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steven Jobs, which brings forth Jobs’ own lifelong effort to sculpt value at the intersection of engineering and the humanities. The position Jobs seemed to place himself was where design, marketing and engineering met—in the product. Like Bob Lutz’s impassioned plea (Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business) to find leaders who are passionate about the product, Jobs was clearly passionate about the products and services in which he was engaged, from personal computers to music, from animation to mobile devices.

Powerlessness enables innovators to rely more on their ability to listen and observe than on what they think they already know. Powerlessness leaves innovators more reliant upon their empathy and identification with the end-user than dependent upon the false and short-lived confidence from doing what they already know will work, which leads to imitation, not innovation.

Innovations emerge from passionate people who invest themselves in learning experiences that lead to new ways of thinking. Learning is the capital in which we all need to invest even more of our selves and our resources.

Thanks to so many of you who continue to invite us contribute to your experience-based learning investments.

Some highlights of 2011 for Vincent & Associates, Ltd. include:

•    The completion of Lanny’s book Prisoners of Hope: How Engineers (and Others) 

      Get Lift for Innovating (Westbow Press, December 2011).

•    Client assignments that took us around the U.S. and to five continents.

•    Engagements with Malaysia’s Innovation Initiative “IP-Driven R&D.”

•    Our recent move to San Francisco, near the Cliff House on Ocean Beach. Our new address is 

      Vincent & Associates, Ltd., 534 48th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94121.


This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in January 2012. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.