Category Archives: Breakthrough Innovation

Internal vs. External Innovation

Turnover

Turnover by Industry

There is a lot of debate about the scope of innovation management, principally, whether it should include “external” participants or just “internal” participants.  So, are you missing something if you focus your innovation efforts inwardly?

There several good reasons for working only with internal people. First, it tends to be easier to manage innovation from internally-based sources because you know the work environment and control management, resources, rewards, and other organization-based factors.   Secondly, there is typically less junk, less quantity, more focused innovation, and better understanding of the total competitive environment.

There are also many good reasons for including external participants as well.  First, there is a significant amount of research that concludes  “outsiders” are better able to solve problems.  Second, the perception organizations become stagnant and aren’t capable of creativity unless new people/ideas are brought into the mix.  Let’s examine both of these reasons.

Outsiders Solve Problems better than Internal People

I don’t dispute that external people are better able to solve problems and inject creativity, however, even these “outsiders” have peripheral knowledge of the problems at hand.  That is, if you are trying to solve complex electrical engineering issues, then you will most likely have to include engineers.  While you have a very good chance of solving the problem by uninterested, distant people (i.e., a mechanical engineer who spent time with electrical engineers or an accountant who used to work at an engineering firm), they still have to grasp the nature of the problem.  Two pieces of research capture the essence of this thought:

  • At the Harvard Business School, Karim R. Lakhani created a process for “broadcasting” tough scientific challenges to outsiders.  They found that people with expertise on the margins of the challenge quickly offered tenable solutions; almost a third of the “unsolvable” challenges were solved.
  • It’s a time-tested phenomenon. In the book, See New Now: New Lenses for Leadership and Life, de Jaager and Ericson report, “A study of the top fifty game-changing innovations over a hundred-year period showed that nearly 80 percent of those innovations were sparked by someone whose primary expertise was outside the field in which the innovation breakthrough took place.”

Internal People are Stagnant

Another aspect of internal vs. external is the notion that long-term employees are not capable of coming up with new solutions because they are jaded on past experiences, i.e., “We already tried that”, and the problem overcoming the not-invented-here syndrome.  However, consider an organization with 10% turnover per year.  In five years, approximately 40% of the organization will be new.  There are new positions, new thoughts, information on competitors, new information on technologies, and so on.  So with this many new people, how much not-invented-here mentality will you really have?  You can have it, but management has to actively promote it.  Also, many long-term employees become disillusioned with management’s lack of follow-through, lack of resources, and low priority for innovation.  These are issues that are much easier to solve internally.

In conclusion, the difference between the results you’ll get from internally-based innovation versus externally-based innovation can be very similar.  If it’s not, then look to your management to instill a better innovative culture.

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The Hungry Mind

brain_in_profile_Clipart_FreeI recently read an article by Kaufman, Openness to Experience and Creative Achievement, that stated that “Openness to experience– the drive for cognitive exploration of inner and outer experience– is the personality trait most consistently associated with creativity.”

He ran a variety of tests to determine several aspects of openness, two of which seemed most pertinent to creativity in science/inventions: IQ, and Intellectual Engagement.

He defined Intellectual Engagement as those with a “drive to engage in ideas, rational thought, and the search for truth.”  and stated that these types of individuals tend to be more industrious, assertive, and persevering, and are more likely to seek out variety, question traditions, try new food/activities, appreciate reading, solve puzzles, and debating.

The surprising result of his research was that while IQ and Intellectual Engagement were related, it was Intellectual Engagement that was the better predictor of creativity.  In other words, just because you are smart, doesn’t mean that you are creativity, whereas, if you are constantly seeking out knowledge, you’re more likely to be creative, regardless of IQ.  (But it certainly helps to have both a high IQ and a high level of Intellectual Engagement).

This same conclusion was reached in the academic environment, by von Stumm, Hell and Chamorro-Premuzic (2011), The Hungry Mind : Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance

If you’d like to test your own openness, try this quiz at: http://www.gotoquiz.com/personality/big-five.html

surgery

Innovation and Pain

surgeryI was reading an article in the New Yorker comparing the adoption of surgical anesthesia versus antiseptics–two very important medical innovations. Some background is essential.

Anesthesia

In 1846, surgery was both painful and brutal. For most procedures, even a tooth extraction, patients were pinned down by assistants as they screamed and writhed in pain. Surgeons were trained to work with lightening speed to minimize the duration of the pain. Clearly, there was an emotional toll for both the patient and the surgeon. In October 1856, a gas was discovered by William Morton (a dentist) that could completely render a patient motionless and quiet. He demonstrated the gas to a surgeon, who was awe-struck by its effects, and who quickly published a paper in November 1846 in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. By the middle of December of the same year, surgeons were using the gas in London and Paris, by February 1847, anesthesia had been used in almost all of the major capitals in Europe, and in June 1847 by almost all regions in the world—mind you that this is before the internet–all of this communication was by letters, meetings, and other “slow methods.”  So, in took on 8 months from discovery to wide spread use! By 1852, anesthesia for surgery was a standard procedure everywhere.

Infection

Now consider infections. During this same time period, infections were the major cause of death for surgical patients, with as many as 50% of patients falling victim to post-surgical infection, sepsis, and death. Clearly, this is a big problem. In the 1860s, a surgeon named Joseph Lister came to the conclusion that infections were caused by microorganisms after reading a paper by Louis Pasteur.   Lister perfected his sterilization techniques and eventually published a paper in The Lancet in 1867 that documented spectacular reductions in death following surgery. His process consisted of many steps, such as washing hands, sterilizing instruments, and using sterile gowns and gloves.  Unfortunately, in wasn’t until nearly 40 years later that this practice became universal.

Why?

So we have two techniques that revolutionized medicine, yet one was adopted in 7 years and another in 40 years. Arguably, more lives could have been saved if surgeons had adopted the sterile techniques that were presented, but they didn’t. Both techniques required scientific/technical discoveries, i.e., the composition of the gas for anesthesia, and the realization that germs are present and need to be eliminated for infections. There are two main differences. With anesthesia, the doctor’s problem was solved, i.e., screaming, writhing patients (not to mention the emotional toll) making their job easier and less stressful. Also, the solution solved a very visible problem–screaming patients, something that was readily understood to be a problem. With sterile techniques, the problem was solved for the patient (they didn’t die!), but the doctor had little to gain. The patient was quiet during surgery, and would die several days or weeks later. Also, the problem was invisible–the killing of germs. It was hard to see that washing your hands or using sterile instruments was really solving the problem.

How does this apply to Innovation?

There are lots of good ideas that come up in organizations, but it’s the implementation that is the problem. It becomes hard to implement something when you are not directly solving your own problem and when the problem you are solving is invisible (to you). Organization’s are typically relying on “customer feedback” about a problem. In many cases, the people solving the problem don’t encounter the problem on a day-to-day basis like their customers—they may know and understand the solution better, but are not forced to “make it work” in order to get their job done like their customers are.   Consider just the simple example of a headache. If a co-worker of friend is having a terrible headache, you’ll probably lean back in your chair and recommend they find an aspirin, but if you are having the headache, you’ll knock over walls and doors to find a bottle of Advil.  The other aspect is the visibility of the problem.  Consider that you’re car stops working and you pull to the side of the road–you have no idea what is wrong. You open the hood and everything appears to be in order. In this instance, the problem is invisible, and you will probably just wait for your car to be towed to a service station.  Now imagine when you open the hood, you see that the battery connection is completely off–you immediately re-attach it and solve your problem. It was a problem that was visible and you fixed it right away.

These are the several major issues you must resolve when implementing new innovation:

  1. You must clearly articulate the pain/problem that is solved into something that everyone understands.  (If I don’t think I have a headache, then I am not going to be interested in your solution)
  2. You must make it visible. I think it is just a fact of life that it is easier to solve something where the solution is tangible. In business, it’s harder to sell services than products primarily because it is hard to see the results of services.
  3. Timing.  I believe that the time between the problem and the resolution must be short, or you’ll have to explain more.

In the case of infections, surgeons realize that having patient’s that live increases their collections (and they make more money), experimentation and microscope improvements make the problem visible, and it the benefit was immediate (the patient stopped squirming right in front on you).  Simply said, we need “sales” techniques to convince others of the value and benefit to themselves.

One way to do this is through innovation challenges. Challenges are problems proposed by organizational leaders.  The problem has value because solving it could result in a promotion, financial rewards, or other recognition.   Challenges force the problem to be explained in concrete terms and in simplified language so that everyone understands the issue, value, and benefits.  Challenges are also time-limited in order to force the timing between problem and solution.

 

 

The Problem with Open Innovation

A recent article by Randall Wright in MIT Technology Review discussed the problems with open innovation. There has been lots of articles recently about how open innovation is the next big thing in innovation. In a nutshell, it involves open up your innovation to a large group of people in order to find new ideas.  It’s popular, and has been adopted by lots of well known organizations, such as Starbucks, Coke, and Nike.  Coke purportedly used this methodology, and came up with ideas that were very successful.  However, most of the ideas were based on consumer marketing.  In other words, they got the people that drink Coke (a large percentage of the population is at least familiar with what it is), and had them design a campaign to more effectively sell the product.  The results rivaled the quality and appeal of ads produced by top advertising agencies.  But did they innovate?  No, they “reverse surveyed.”  Instead of surveying consumers with a set of questions, taste tests, etc., to determine the best way to market, they just asked a whole bunch of people to give them the best way to market.  This is similar to asking every customer who leaves a restaurant, “How could we improve our appeal/food/restaurant?” except you do it all at once.

I think this method works well for consumer-oriented organizations.  It can help you select the best new paint colors, catch phrases, and product packaging.  It works in areas where the problems are well known and understandable, i.e., what is your favorite color.  However, when you talk about ground-breaking innovation, you’re referring to areas where the average person has no experience.  Consider Linux, the darling of open innovation, is still outpaced by the commercial products.

According to Wright, “real innovation is always the outcome of ongoing discourse among a small group of innovators who truly understand the importance of what they’re working on.”  Read his article for more insight.

 

Managing the Creative Process

Managing the creative process is daunting.  When enveloped by an organization, the organization knowingly and unknowingly forces constraints upon the process.  They look at the financial, market and manufacturing feasibility of ideas and ignore the ones that don’t fit into the model.  On one hand this is necessary.  Management is tasked with building wealth and creating profits.  Ideas that don’t match those strategic goals have to be eliminated.

The problem arises because creativity and profitability are not related.  It’s impossible to design a business process that yields a high percentage of quality innovations because high quality innovation is a lower percentage reality.  Psychologist Dean Simonton said it best when he wrote, “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

You get a few high quality innovations because you create many, many innovations.  An example of this is highlighted by Keith Richards (I hope everyone knows he was in the Rolling Stones) in his memoir,  about the origins of the song “Brown Sugar”:

I watched Mick write the lyrics. . . . He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand. I’d never seen anything like it. He had one of those yellow legal pads, and he’d write a verse a page, just write a verse and then turn the page, and when he had three pages filled, they started to cut it. It was amazing. It’s unbelievable how prolific he was.

Eventually, Richards came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to “turn the f**king tap off,” to rein in Mick Jagger’s incredible creative energy.
This same creative energy was witnessed before in the likes of Einstein, Bach, Edison and others.  From purely a percentage viewpoint, they all created more “junk” than they did “good ideas”, but compared to others, they created more higher quality innovations.  What this causes for the organization is lots of spurious stuff to look through.  Processes need to be designed to allow creativity to be unfettered.

One way of getting unfettered creativity and meeting the goals of the organization is to use Challenges.  Challenges focus innovation in the areas that are most interesting to the organization while allowing for creativity.  The Challenge is simply to address the issue with a solution, there is no constraint on the solution.  This is a midpoint in the creative process with each side getting a little of what they want and need.

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/16/110516fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all

People with Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Stones

The old adage that “people with glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” suggests that not everyone is perfect, and that before you criticize your neighbor for doing something foolish, you should think about whether you have acted similarly.

Did you ever go to a restaurant and watch parents try to manage a group of rowdy kids?  They’re making noise, throwing food, and causing a general raucous.  I know more than once I’ve rolled my eyes and thought how I would easily be able to control “those kids!”  But, unfortunately, I’ve been that parent trying to control my own children during a particularly rough day.  It’s easy–from a distance–to see the solution, “I’d just sit those kids right down and tell them that if they didn’t behave themselves, I’d….”  In many cases, you’d probably be right.  The farther we are from the problem/situation, the easier it becomes to find a solution.

A recent article by Psychologist Yaacov Trope posits that the further we move in distance from the issue we are trying to solve, the better our thinking/creativity and decision-making become.  And distance is not just physical.   It can be imagining yourself either at a future point or historical point in time, looking from a different dimension (up/down, left/right), the distance between two people in terms of social connections (my best friend versus an acquaintance), or even hypothetical, such as what might have happened.

The article suggests that the farther we move from the issue, the more general and abstract our perspective becomes and we are able to consider solutions from a wider angle.  Conversely, the closer we are to the problem, the more concrete and practical our thinking becomes.  Think about how easy it is to solve other people’s problems, and you’ll understand exactly what the article is getting at.

This is one of the principles of innovation as well.  People often think that they should only challenge engineers with technical problems, and only marketing people with sales problems.   Using these principles in the article, and based on many years of experience, I can tell you, that you should definitely open up your problems to a wider audience.  You’ll be drawing on different experience/knowledge bases, but you’ll also be creating distance–they key to problem solving.

Accidental Inventions

Accidental InventionsThis article by Pamela Cyran and Chris Gaylord of the Christian Science Monitor, contains a list of 20 accidental inventions.  Ranging from matches to potato chips, it’s an interesting look at mistakes.  While it’s fun to imagine your own organization having the same sort of serendipity, it makes more sense to create a repeatable process for innovation.

memor

How Memory Works

memoryI read an interesting article about how memory works at PsyBlog.  The nice thing about this article is that each statement is backed by legitimate research, and has examples to highlight each point.  These pseudo-facts are useful because they can help you to appreciate the difficulties that you or your team might be experiencing from an innovation perspective, and how they can be overcome.  It also provides useful advice on how to improve your own thought processes.  Here are the ten major points:

  1. Memory does not decay
  2. Forgetting helps you learn
  3. ‘Lost’ memories can live again
  4. Recalling memories alters them
  5. Memory is unstable
  6. The foresight bias
  7. When recall is easy, learning is low
  8. Learning depends heavily on context
  9. Memory, reloaded (mix it up learning styles)
  10. Learning is under your control

 

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

rollaboard invention

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, Don’t Look for Inventions Before Their Time, that talks about the reason why some inventions seem to take so long to invent.

The author gives an example of Bernard Sadow who applied for a patent on wheeled baggage in 1970, after dragging his heavy bags through an airport while a local worker effortlessly pushed a large wheeled cart past him. It seems that 1970 is very late to have invented something so simple, yet necessary, when you consider that people had been moving heavy bags to buggies, cars, trains, and planes for a considerable amount of time. The conjecture is that prior to this date, we never really needed it–there were luggage drop-off curves, bag attendants, and less frequent travel. Simply put, we didn’t have to drag our bags through the airport check-in lines ourselves until around 1970. Once we had to do it ourselves, the notion of how to make it easier (on ourselves), popped to the top of our minds–and wheeled baggage was invented. In other words, necessity was the mother of invention.

Similarly, I consider these same forces for today’s inventive process.  Think about the last time that you were challenged with a laborious task–didn’t you wish you could invent something to make it easier?

The Big Idea: Are you Ready for it?

Big Ideas and little ideasThe other day, I met with a client who told me that she was looking for big ideas from their innovation program.  When I asked her what she meant, she told me that she didn’t want cost-saving ideas, or process improvements, she wanted big, multi-million dollar businesses.  She wanted to know how to get them.

This is a fair question and a desired result of most any strategic innovation program.  But the real question is whether you are ready for it.

Imagine a brand new licensed driver stating that they want to take the car on a cross country trip alone.  If you’re like many, you’d be asking yourself if that person had the experience to not only handle the car in lots of different situations, like highways, during thunderstorms, or narrow mountain passes.  You’d also wonder if they have the experience to successful navigate in a safe and effective way.  If you’re a parent, you’d simply say, “No.”

Innovation is very similar, in that you have to walk before you can run.  If you don’t have a process for effectively capturing (the little) ideas and successfully reviewing and implementing them, then you don’t stand a chance on the big ones.   The big ideas are inherently more risky, both in terms of money and time, but also in possible success.  You have to consider your customers, the market, and political forces.  The other interesting aspect is that the big ideas are usually hidden within the little ideas.  You don’t have to look any farther than the Apple iPad.  I can’t think of a single pundit who predicted it would be successful, because it was so different, but it certainly was.  My guess is that this little idea probably was killed dozens of times in other organizations because of the risk.

Big ideas require a portfolio mentality, along with a willingness to fail—big.  You have to spread your investment across different market/product segments, i.e., new market-old product, existing market-new product, etc. to fully realize the gains from innovation.  The best way to get to this level of risk is to start small.  Become successful at capturing and implementing the little ideas, the ones that don’t necessarily have a large impact.  You’ll demonstrate your understanding of the process, your ability to accept risk, and you’ll build the confidence of your organization’s attitude toward innovation.