Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Innovation and Auto-Immunity

Success breeds its own orthodoxy.  When an innovation defies the odds and not only survives but succeeds, it is perfectly natural to want to continue that success by perpetuating what is believed to have contributed to the success in the first place.  What those contributing factors were, however, may be more subject to multiple interpretations and perceptions than some might first admit.  This is where the next “orthodoxy” starts to sneak in.

We have been working with a company recently whose success has attracted many competitors on the outside.  Success has also required internal attention and effort to order, control and focus the innovation-born success on the inside, the need for which is not unrelated to the intensifying competition on the outside.  The dilemma facing this post-entrepreneurial stage company now is how to protect, defend and perpetuate its success while at the same time continuing to fulfill its vocation of providing innovative value to current and new consumers.  Sound familiar?

As whole companies or even product divisions seek to extend their success, they naturally develop “immune systems” designed to maintain the health of the organization.  Just as our physical health depends upon a robust immune system – a complex network of cells and molecules that normally work to defend the body and eliminate infections caused by bacteria, viruses and other invading microbes – business “fitness” depends to some degree on a corporate immune system.  These corporate “immune systems” can be comprised of a complex set of management attitudes (e.g., focus), decisions (e.g., resource allocations) and controls that serve to protect, defend and perpetuate the value proposition for customers and the resulting profits for the corporation.

However, when organizational fitness becomes more important than business fitness, orthodoxy can set in, creating conditions for the corporate “immune system” to attack the corporation’s own innovation efforts, mistaking these efforts as threats or “antigens.”  Just as immune cells can mistake our bodies’ own cells as invaders and attack them, internally developed or externally sponsored innovations can elicit “friendly fire,” in some very subtle ways.  In other words, well-intentioned and otherwise necessary corporate “immune systems” can sometimes unintentionally turn on the host and become what the medical profession refers to as “autoimmunity.”

“Corporate autoimmunity” frequently happens when the organization’s own need for order becomes more important than its purpose of providing (new) value to customers or consumers.  A classic example of an “autoimmune” response to an early stage innovation effort is when a large corporation seeking to innovate disqualifies an effort based upon size of market.  “We are only looking for billion dollar businesses,” failing to remember that the billion dollar business they are currently defending once started with relatively small and more humble beginnings.

Clayton Christensen points to four subtle, but deadly “autoimmune” responses to innovation in his new book The Innovator’s Solution.  Christensen says there are at least four reasons in established companies that cause managers to target innovations that are not aligned with the way that customers live their lives (page 86).  “The first two reasons – the fear of focus and the demand for crisp quantification – reside in companies’ resources allocation processes.  The third reason is that the structure of many retail channels is attribute [rather than customer] focused.  The fourth reason is that advertising economics influence companies to target products at customers rather than [their] circumstances.”

In other words, both internal (e.g., resource allocation) and external (e.g., comparisons to competition or conformity to the way retailers organize their aisles) orthodoxies that grow up around attempts to perpetuate an innovation’s success, frequently cause us to take our eye off the “ball” of opportunity – what Christensen describes as a “sharp focus on jobs that customers (or consumers) are trying to get done.”

Might this be the place to discover “heresy” with which to break out of the orthodoxy of success and start the next innovation in new value to customers?

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in November 2003. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.    

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Ups and Downs of Innovation

Chutes and Ladders is one of my five-year-old daughter’s favorite board games. It may provide a fitting parable for the “ups and downs” of innovation.

In the game, progressing “up” the board toward the finish is painstaking and plodding and peppered with an occasional boost from a ladder or two that catapults you up toward the finish. In contrast, the chutes “down” seem more swift and catastrophic than even the lucky jumps up the ladders. Chutes feel more punitive than ladders are rewarding.

When my daughter first started playing this game, she enjoyed the wins, but was ready to quit the game altogether after “experiencing” a chute. With a bit of coaxing, however, and enough experience from a few ladders and wins, she learned to accept the downs with the ups and kept playing. Now it is one of our favorite games.

Companies investing in innovation efforts can easily follow the experience of my daughter with Chutes and Ladders. Early progress can be exhilarating and empowering, at least until the experience of the first, then the second and then additional “chutes.” The more swift and traumatic the “fall,” the quicker the company is ready to “cut the losses” and bail on the game altogether.  It is not until a company experiences a few innovation wins – accomplished even with an “unfair” share of chutes – that a company can muster the patience to stay in the game.

What I hope my daughter is learning from Chutes and Ladders is that success builds slowly, and failures are often swift, but both are part of the game. It is a profound lesson that too few companies are quick to learn regarding innovation. High performance in the context of innovation efforts is arguably the exact opposite of high performance in ongoing operations. Faults and failures are to be eliminated in the latter; while in the former, they are occasions for accelerated learning so necessary for reducing the new idea or concept to practice.

This is the difference between innovation and a board game: learning from our failures enables innovation efforts to become less a roll of the dice or a spin of the wheel.

Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes in last month’s Harvard Business Review (August 2002) quote IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. as saying, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”  Farson and Keyes argue for what they call failure-tolerant leadership and infer fault-tolerant innovation process or framework. In the same Harvard Business Review issue, John Wolpert (who leads IBM’s Extreme Blue innovation incubator in Austin, Texas) proposes innovation intermediaries as a way to overcome the otherwise introspective and chronically ineffective innovation efforts of large companies.

What both articles are pointing toward is the very thing we are attempting to understand in our Innovation Focal Point Study) including cultivating – where and when appropriate – the intermingling of internal and external networks.  It is through the deliberate and active cross-pollination of these networks that effective innovation focal points turn a company’s experience with innovation efforts from a board game into a more reliable business process.

Some degree of fault tolerance built into your innovation process can eventually transform even the steepest “chute” into a long ladder, and ultimately into innovations that work.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2002. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.    

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Father of Invention

Necessity is the mother of invention. Few of us would deny the truth in this age-old adage. Many of us have even taken what was a descriptive truth and made it into a prescriptive suggestion for our innovation efforts. If you want to innovate, put yourself in necessity’s way so that you will be required to invent your way out.

Think of the heroic efforts at improvisation by the Apollo crew who with duct tape and their wits were able to create a makeshift solution that saved them. Extreme circumstances (i.e., necessity) call on us to be resourceful.  But where does this resourcefulness come from? If necessity is the mother of invention, then who is the father?

We recently heard Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play, talk on the subject of “play” at a conference sponsored by Stanford University’s School of Engineering and the design firm IDEO, where the focus was on “the intersection of play and innovation.” Both the conference and my subsequent conversations with Dr. Brown leave me with the suspicion that too many of our corporate innovation efforts are single parent efforts.  They are based upon necessity alone, real or perceived. Has an almost single-minded obsession with corporate performance unwittingly eroded that resourcefulness so essential to meet necessity with inventiveness?

Stuart Brown’s interdisciplinary studies of play suggest that while necessity may be the mother of invention, the father may be play.  Brown, who produced the PBS-series “The Promise of Play,” a National Geographic cover story on play, and consults with companies like Mattel, brings a fresh perspective on what is necessary for innovation. Is playfulness essential to innovation?  Does the notion of play have a PR problem in the world of work?  Is the absence of play what is ailing a lot of companies when it comes to their relative inability to innovate? We offer these questions and the following four-point hypothesis to initiate a dialog with you:

1.   Elongating the life span of a company (e.g., sustaining its ability to produce profits) requires the ability to respond to the unexpected – surprises that will sooner or later arise from its competitive environment.  Arie de Gues (The Living Company) and Peter Schwartz (The Art of the Long View) have written convincingly about this. 

2.   The ability to respond to the unexpected comes from experience gained in what can actually be called “play.”  Using the word play is appropriate because it names activities and efforts that have no direct bearing on immediate performance, as measured in the traditional ways.  Peter Senge, John Seeley Brown and others refer to this as the “learning organization” or “communities of practice.”  An example of successful ‘play’ that prepared a corporation with notable results was Royal Dutch Shell’s scenario planning that prepared them better than all competitors for the unexpected oil crisis in the early 1970s.
3.   As they mature, corporations become increasingly driven by performance, losing their ability to “play.”  This makes the “play” engaged in during its entrepreneurial and pre-entrepreneurial stages increasingly rare, and disables the company, at least in the sense to be entrepreneurial.  As a result, more mature companies slowly lose their ability to attend, act and adapt to the unexpected (whether the unexpected comes from market conditions or changes in technology or both), thus threatening their ability to sustain profitability in the long term.
4.   In order to correct this “play entropy,” some percentage of the corporation’s resources (time, money, experts) should be regularly devoted to what the company would perceive to be “play” (e.g., R&D, Invention and Design, Futures, Exploratory investigations, “free range” activities, etc.).
We would love to hear what you think of this hypothesis and encourage you to read what Stuart Brown, M.D., has to say about the value of play at work.

All in a Day’s Play
By Stuart L. Brown, M.D.

Many think of inventiveness as essentially a human capacity granted by our huge brains and special linguistic and imaginative capacities.  But let us also factor authentic play into this scenario.  Imagine feeling really safe, well rested, well fed and free from anti-play cultural restraints like chronic guilt or permanent preoccupation with responsibilities.  (When is the last time you could say you were in such a situation?)  What spontaneously happens when we are free is we seek out play and get ourselves into our own personal play states.

It is in a state of play that unexpected novel connections get established.  Somehow, nature has specially designed us as the premier lifelong and best of players in the whole animal kingdom.  We have a persistent need to play freely.  So playing is part of our strategy to survive in challenging and changing ecological circumstances.

Some futurists have said that we will need to be more inventive, creative and flexible to handle the tasks, flow and rhythm of life in this century and beyond.  A sure (and fun) way to develop those abilities is to play.  Play by yourself, play with children, play with your officemates and friends.  Encourage your children to go out and play.  If they play, their problem solving and adaptive abilities will be in better shape to handle their world and they will be more likely to choose healthy answers to situations they encounter.

Play teaches us how to manage and transform our negative emotions and experiences; it supercharges learning, and is the foundation for good mental and physical health.  The components of play – curiosity, discovery, novelty, risk-taking, trial and error, pretense, games, social bantering – are also the essential components of learning.

Yet somewhere between childhood and adulthood, most of us exchange play for work and forget to play with the abandon and joy of childhood.  Work is where we spend much of our time so that is why it is especially important for us to play during work.  Without some light moments our work suffers.  Play arouses curiosity, which leads to discovery and creativity.  It develops adaptability and flexibility, which are fundamental to positive, proactive behavior.  The ability to take on responsibility, find meaning in life, and perhaps discover our personal bliss requires a full measure of play.  Play makes work pleasurable instead of drudgery, and there is simply the sheer fun of it.

For a good and inventive life, prioritize getting yourself some safe haven times for play.  Better yet, learn to include it in all of your life tasks.  If beyond the byproduct of inventiveness, you would like to experience more openness to change, a renewed spirit of optimism, non-dogged perseverance, the capacity to enjoy and sustain intimacy, keeping your workplace fun, I urge you to find your own personal play partners and niches – and honor them.

Editor’s Note: Stuart Brown’s commitment to the subject of play stems from his background in psychiatry, long-term research into human and animal play, as well as his clinical research into the causes and prevention of violence. Brown believes play is hardwired into our genetic code and is a state of being which can be accessed and used by everyone.  Humans want to play because it is instinctive and fundamental to human existence.  It is one of the evolutionary mechanisms that has developed us to our current state; play is part of how we adapt and survive anywhere on earth. His book Play: How it shapes the brain, Opens the imagination and Invigorates the soul was published in 2009. 

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2005. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.    

Dr. Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it shapes the brain, Opens the imagination and Invigorates the soul was published in 2009.


You can contact the National Institute for Play at http://www.nifplay.org.