Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Inventive Innovation

[Cross-posted on LinkedIn]

In The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), Clayton M. Christensen summed up the insights as follows. He noted first that “the pace of progress that markets demand or can absorb may be different from the progress offered by technology” (p. 258). Christensen goes on to say “[r]ecognizing this possibility, we cannot expect our customers to lead us towards innovations that they do not now need.” Except in the case, I suppose, of Google Glass when businesses signaled uses that Google hadn’t anticipated.

Christensen’s second insight is that “the major reason for the difficulty of managing innovation is the complexity of managing the resource allocation progress” (p. 258). That was true until crowdfunding so perhaps it is slightly less true now.

The third insight is that another innovation problem is “matching the market to the technology” (p. 258). “Successful companies have a practiced capability in taking sustaining technologies to market, routinely giving their customers more and better versions of what they say they want” (p. 258-259). Except in the case of Apple that has made an art form of offering products for which we have no need and trying to convince us otherwise.

However, Christensen also states that “[d]isruptive technology should be framed as a marketing challenge, not a technological one” (p. 259).

I’m going to skip to the sixth insight which I think is more valuable for my purposes and that is that “it is not wise to adopt a blanket technology strategy to be always a leader or always a follower. . . . Disruptive innovations entail significant first-mover advantages” (p. 260). Unless, of course, you are the tipping point in which case you garner the advantages and the acclaim for taking advantage of the work leading towards the disruption and appearing to be the disruptive innovator. Kudos, and take your bows.

In 2003, Christensen published The Innovator’s Solution. Again I skip past most of the pages to the end of the book, though I highly recommend the “Managing the Strategy Development Process” chapter. Chapter Ten is titled “The Role of Senior Executives in Leading New Growth.” Yawn. Let me sum up: the senior executive 1) manages the resource and process flow between the “disruptive growth” and “the mainstream” businesses; 2) shepherds the “disruptive growth engine;” and 3) senses when the wind is changing direction and teaches the grasshoppers this skill.

Before we’re all in a snit that only senior executives get to play these roles, let me point out there is a reason there is only one head chef, only one ship captain, only one field commander, only one. . . well, you get the idea. Someone has to keep an eye on what is and what could be. But I also want to say that the senior executive who does teach others how to recognize the signals of disruptive growth will also have trained the staff how to make productive use of the disruptive growth engine. There are only four steps: 1) start before you need to; 2) appoint a senior executive to be in charge; 3) create a team; and 4) train people what to identify disruptive ideas. I would add that once folks know how and what to look for—and recognize that some of your people will already have these skills, perhaps intuitively—get out of the way.

In 2007, Scott Berkun published The Myth of Innovation. Say what? A book of which John Seely Brown said (and I quote the inside book jacket), “. . .insightful, inspiring, evocative, and just plain fun to read. . . it’s totally great.” I agree. I loved this book. In “There is a method for innovation,” Berkun reminds us there is little magic, but often a lot of hard work in what we see as innovation: “Innovation is best compared to exploration, and like Magellan or Captain Cook, you can’t find something new if you limit your travels to places others have already found” (p. 39).

“Name an emotion, motivation, or situation, and you’ll find an innovation somewhere that it seeded” (p. 40). So how do we get to innovation, disruptive or otherwise? There is no specific path to such righteousness, but there are categories.

Hard work in a specific direction: frame the problem; enumerate possible solutions; experiment and analyze results; adjust as needed; keep experimenting with the focus on the problem to be solved
Hard work with direction change: frame a problem and find an unexpected solution to an unknown problem so ask the question, “Huh. Wonder what I can do with this?”
Curiosity: as in the stories behind Velcro and Linux

Wealth and money: “The Internet boom and bust of the 1990s was driven by start-up firms innovating, or pretending to innovate, just enough for established corporations to acquire them” (p. 42). So have an idea and hope someone will buy into to take the risk of innovation, which is back to Christensen’s points about resources, etc.

Necessity: Well, Plato did say that “Necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (The Republic, Book II) and who is going to argue with an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician who has been proven right time and time (and time) again?
Innovations that change the world often begin with humble aspirations” (p. 43).

The good people of Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) remind us that “Innovation is for rethinking things in order to do them better, not merely differently. Ideally, it is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation to leverage innovation to help them achieve whatever it is they need to achieve.”

They also suggest it might be a good idea to think inside the box because sometimes we can be so distracted by trying to be exceptionally innovative to imagine the Next Big Thing we fail to see the possibilities in front of us.

So as we are investing in 3D printers and other technologies for our schools and standing back, awaiting student innovation, perhaps with excessive expectation, let’s keep in mind some basic principles for innovation and invention. Let’s give kids the foundations they need but let’s also give
them time for tinkering. And in the work place, let’s not put people in a conference room with chart paper and blank whiteboards and expect miraculous innovative thinking because the most likely results are heartburn and headaches.

In starting early and in putting processes in place, one of the key reminders is that to be inventive and innovative, kids of all ages need time. . . to experiment.

Other stuff you should read on this topic:

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