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- New post: A Fictional Example of Innovation wp.me/p1FzO5-h9 11 hours ago
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I read yet another research report that espouses the need to work closely with your customers to develop products and get them to market faster. This customer innovation strategy–working closely with customers–implies that you’re capable of ensuring those products have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
There are many elements to making this strategy work, such as having a clear innovation strategy, technical alignment, and competitive advantage, however, I’ll just focus on one element: innovation strategy, in particular, the management of very early innovation.
This type of innovation is high risk, high reward, and often has a great deal of uncertainty. Innovation, by most conventional definitions, is the combination of technology with market opportunity. As a client recently explained, “it wasn’t the light bulb that was the innovation, it was using it to illuminate streets thereby reducing crime and improving society.” So how do you find the next street light? If you think of it as a combination of market need and technology, then you need to start collecting both of these elements.
It requires a concerted effort to seek out new and ground-breaking technologies in academia, through research, or just “digging through your R&D attic.” These technologies should be captured, periodically reviewed and categorized. The second element, market needs, can be captured in the same ways, by listening to the interactions of customer-facing employees, attending conferences, and talking directly with customers. As you catalog technologies and market needs, you’ll begin to build a picture of your strategic customer innovation landscape, and it will be easier to see what’s missing, find your strengths, and focus on your future.
With both of the elements of innovation present: technology and market need, you can begin to combine this information in unique ways to build new product/service possibilities.
Ann Augustine has written some very interesting articles about innovation and collaboration. You can check out her blog at:
- Mix of people/skills. If you’re reviewing technical ideas, should the entire idea review team be engineers? Likewise, if you’re reviewing financial processes, should everyone be an accountant? My answer is no. Your team should contain a mix of people/skills that are germane to the types of ideas that you are reviewing. If you’re reviewing lots of technical ideas, then it makes sense to have a larger number of technical people, however, a healthy balance of other skills, such as legal, financial, and marketing will provide better results and align with the personality of the organization more clearly. Besides, many people who are accountants today may have been engineers yesterday, in a previous job and/or organization. It’s not unusual at all to find people with very diverse backgrounds and experience and in fact you should seek them out. These types can add depth to your team and will often see ideas from a completely different (and better) perspective. You may also want to consider rotating people on/off the team frequently. While you may give up some of the productivity you’ll gain by having a consistent group, by rotating more people, you’ll keep the program fresh, and you’ll involve more of the organization. For many, this visibility is both an experience and an opportunity to be seen as a contributor, and can provide future benefits for the organization. Additionally, it opens your idea review process up for more people to see how the process works someone who might feel the process is unfair, would gain an appreciation for the intricacies and difficulties in making decisions.
- Reward. For many organizations, reviewing ideas is just another to-do among an already long list. While many will feel the intrinsic need to be fair and committed, others will lose this feeling quickly. Some rewards can be easy, like recognizing the team periodically, giving them additional titles, and (as mentioned earlier) giving them some accountability and control. However, you may want to consider other rewards, such as team lunches, apparel, or other small tokens.
- Commitment. Obvious, but easily faked or eroded. Make certain that each member not only has the mentality for the commitment, but also put in place safeguards to ensure it. For example, get the idea review team out of the office to a neutral location. I can’t tell you how many times that someone will pop their head into an idea review meeting, and ask one of the members, I’m sorry, but can I talk to John for just a minute? Inevitably, the interruption is longer, as John usually must attend to something urgent. It’s really hard for me to believe that anyone in the company can’t have a few hours without interruption, even the CEO. Make sure that they have some interest in pushing some of the ideas to completion the idea that is first submitted rarely is in the final form and usually requires a bit of help to move it forward. Oh, I forgot my laptop, or I didn’t have time to… This goes hand in hand with commitment. If they can’t remember the tools that they need, or don’t have the time to prepare for the meeting, they’re doing not only the review team, but all of the idea submitters an injustice. Make it clear what needs to be done beforehand.
- Authority. While it may seem obvious that the idea review team is supposed to review ideas, the end result may not be so obvious. Will they have the final say or will they have to get their recommendations approved by some other group? If they must get their approved ideas approved again, you’re taking away some of the respect (and prestige) out of the process. There’s no question that some ideas require further deliberation before they can be implemented, but if every one of the ideas must go through an additional step, then you really don’t have a review team. Instead, allow the review team to approve ideas within certain parameters, such as money, time, or cultural impact. That way, you’ll keep the review process intact as well as reducing the need for two teams to review every idea.
It’s hard to find examples where large-scale collaboration has worked more successfully than either individuals or small teams. However, it’s also hard to find examples of even small teams that were able to maintain their creative success over an individual.
Having worked with many such teams, it seems that there is a “Familiarity Factor” that can make or break success. While I don’t have an exact definition for the Familiarity Factor, I think that it has to do with the relative connection that each person has to the other in terms of daily interactions, previous social connections, and personality. Since these connections constantly change (even by the act of collaborating), maintaining a team’s creativity is nearly impossible, because it requires making frequent changes to the team, sometimes difficult changes, to keep the connection-level of the Familiarity Factor the same.
Think about the last time you were a member of a new team. Assuming that your team had a realistic goal and a realistic timeline, you probably came together and accomplished your goals with some amount of success. You didn’t know all of the other team members very well, you probably even found yourself not liking some of the team members, but you pushed through the exercise to accomplish the goal. Now think about when they “got the same team back together” for another project. The familiarity has increased, you’re more comfortable, the other members are more comfortably, and your less likely to “bend” for the good of the team. The creativity and accomplishments decrease. Even for the best performing teams, over time, this happens.
As another example, consider musical groups. It’s hard to think of many groups that stay together for very long. In most cases, they come together for a few collaborations, and then inevitably split apart. My guess is that the familiarity increases past a point where creativity can occur, in part due to the original closeness, new social connections that are made, and of course, personality.
Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, analyzed the collaborations behind thousands of Broadway productions. He discovered that plays produced by people who knew each other well in addition to plays produced by teams who didn’t know each other at all were more likely to fail (as defined by the box office and critics). What Uzzi discovered was there was only a small window between the two extremes that produced successful plays.
According to article published by the British Psychological Society, people who have been moderately impaired with alcohol fair much better on creativity exercises than their non-impaired counterparts, by a sizable margin: (they solved 58 per cent of 15 items on average vs. 42 per cent average success achieved by controls, and they tended to solve the items more quickly 11.54 seconds per item vs. 15.24 seconds).
The impaired participant’s blood alcohol level was 0.07, (barely below the legal limit in most U.S. states). The researchers were careful to note that participants performed more poorly at on memory tests, and that higher levels of impairment did not produce the same creativity–so more was not better.
The general finding is that people who are not functioning at their peak mental capacity, have more creative insights, most likely from not thinking along conventional lines. This hypothesis was evidenced in this post, The Best Time for you to Solve Problems, where more creativity was found in people who worked during their non-peak part of the day (for morning people, the night was more creative, and vice versa).
So, while I’m not advocating a Happy Hour to inspire creativity, shaking people out of their comfort zone certainly seems to help.
Why does it seem that the most creative people are the craziest? History is ripe with accounts of the eccentricities of creative people. Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Vince Van Gogh, Howard Hughes and others dazzled us with both brilliance and unusual traits. But are creativity people really crazy, or are they just victims of popularity, jealousy and tabloids?
In a 2011 study by Gino and Ariely, they concluded that:
- Participants with creative personalities who scored high on a test measuring divergent thinking tended to cheat more;
- Dispositional creativity is a better predictor of unethical behavior than intelligence;
- Participants who were primed to think creatively were more likely to behave dishonestly because of their creativity motivation and,
- they had a greater ability to justify their dishonest behavior.
In a 2008 study by Wazcheic, et.al., they found that creativity individuals tend to be better at lying. Their premise was that lying, although frowned upon, was very useful in accomplishing many social goals, such as collaboration and exploiting others. They found that the best liars where also the most creative, perhaps because of their ability to get what they wanted the quickest.
Finally, in a 2011 article by Mayer, Jennifer; Mussweiler, Thomas, the researchers tested whether creative people where more distrustful. Their basic conclusion, was that they were, and is probably a result of their tendencies to wonder why something had to be done a certain way.
A New York Times article written several days ago addressed how spending time alone is out of fashion, and that collaborative innovation is hot. There are a myriad of ways to constantly stay connected to your social networks, whether through smartphone applications, the web, open office space/cubicles, collaborative zones, and other software tools.
Every group has jumped on the bandwagon from business to academia, and there has been a plethora of software tools to support the process. The results have been quite unspectacular. It’s hard to point to examples where collaboration has produced a notable creation (think iPhone), whereas there are many examples of collaborative innovation producing polished copies (think Linux).
The realization is that most creative thinking is the result of “alone time,” and its been proven repeatedly. I believe that this is a result of several forces, however, two major elements are intuition and intellectual property. Human intuition allows us to make seemingly intelligent choices without having all of the information/data at hand. Having recently read about how Steve Jobs made choices for the iPod, he clearly did not do it collaboratively, but with an innate sense of what was right. We can already image what a collaborative innovation process would have produced, the MP3 player that already existed. The other element is intellectual property. When you (as the inventor) are creating something, you have a strong drive to keep the information private until have maximized the value (to yourself). Imagine that you were working on an algorithm to figure out how to beat the television show, Jeopardy. Would you share how to do this before or after you won a record dollar amount? Ask Roger Craig if need the answer.
So before you start figuring out how to build collaborative innovation into your organization, you might want to consider the outcome.