Category Archives: Challenge-driven Innovation

Apollo 13 Timed Challenges

Apollo 13 Command Module

Apollo 13 Command Module

One of the cornerstones of successful innovation is the use of Timed Challenges™, a concept originated by MindMatters Technologies that helps guarantee innovation results.  Timed Challenges combine the best of business processes and psychology to insure that your organization can rapidly tap the latent intellectual knowledge of your workforce.


The Timed Challenge uses:

  • Focused Problem Solving
  • Management Participation
  • Strategic Goals
  • Employee Engagement
  • Limited Resources, and
  • Time Constraints

to inspire creativity and innovation.  One of the most outstanding real-world examples of  Timed Challenges is the Apollo 13 event that turned a near-certain disaster into a spectacular save.  Apollo 13 had taken off from earth on its way to the moon with 3 astronauts on board.  Shortly after takeoff, there was an explosion that severely incapacitated the rocket and put the lives of the astronauts in jeopardy.  While there were many technical issues that were solved by Mission Control, one of the most critical was that the astronauts were running out of oxygen to breathe–their expired CO2 was not being removed and they were getting lethargic and hypoxic.  They was no question that they would die before they could return to earth.  To solve this issues, engineers had to use their limited resources (supplies available to the astronauts in the space capsule) to adapt equipment so that a “square filter would fit into a round filter” as quickly as possible.  Clearly it was a matter of life and death, and it required engineering experts in all fields to collaborate and engage.

Clearly it worked, and the astronauts made it safely back to earth.

There were many other innovations made during the entire flight that saved the crew.  It’s been over 45 years since this happened, but the methods and principles are just as applicable today.  Read the full story here.


Best Leadership style for Innovation

A recent bit of research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in the Harvard Business Review looked at the types of leadership qualities most likely to spur employee engagement, or in other words which employees were the most happy/(or not) with their jobs. Generally, they grouped individual leaders as either Drivers or Enhancers. Specifically,

Drivers are very good at establishing high standards of excellence, getting people to stretch for goals that go beyond what they originally thought possible, keeping people focused on the highest priority goals and objectives, doing everything possible to achieve those goals, and continually improving.

Enhancers, by contrast, are very good at staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others, acting as role models, giving honest feedback in a helpful way, developing people, and maintaining trust.

They drew on research from nearly 150,000 interviews (with approximately 30,000 leaders). Not surprisingly, employees believed that the leaders who were the best enhancers were considered to be the best at engaging employees. However, after carefully reviewing the survey results, they discovered that the leaders who had the best employee engagement scored highly in BOTH areas–as drivers and enhancers.

From an innovation perspective, this fits neatly with much of what I’ve seen in many organizations.  Leaders in innovation must get people to focus and stretch on important goals, while acting as role models and providing feedback.  The Challenge methodology provides a framework for building and maintaining this structure and helps guide organizations to innovation success.

It Wasn’t Raining When Noah Built the Ark

noah_arkAnd so goes innovation.  It’s easy to dismiss it on a sunny day, but once the floods start, it’s too late.

Innovation is an underlying cultural strategy.  Because it requires the coordination of many different aspects, such as management, human resources, and work processes, the foundation must be established before results can be seen.

Low workplace motivation remains a clear and present danger to productivity in 2013, and according to multiple studies/articles/research, employee engagement continues to remain at very low levels.  Perhaps the fear of looming layoffs, being skipped over for a raise, seeing an important project cut due to budget constraints, or some other factor, has caused the disconnect.   The end result is that it is impacting innovation.

In order for innovation to work, these issues must be addressed continuously.  Think about this simple example.  An airline pilot trains repeatedly on flying an airplane when one or more of the engines are not operating.  They learn how the airplane handles, what the procedures are, and the best way to solve the problem.  In reality, most pilots will never have to face the issue.  But, when they do, solving this problem is second nature, because they have done it so many times before.  (Read about the Gimli Glider which is even more amazing the the landing on the Hudson.)

In order to build a culture of innovation, use this methodology to drive innovation from the top of the organization:

  1. Engage a key decision maker in your organization on the need to solve one of their pressing problems.
  2. Meet with experts and flesh out all of the details of the problem. Make sure that
    the statement is understandable and “visible”.
  3. Advertise your problem (and process) in company newsletters, web home pages, bulletin boards and meetings.
  4. Review and comment on submitted solutions.
  5. If you’ve been successful, then you should have no trouble finding and assigning accountability to the ideas that should be implemented.
  6. Award your submitters. To figure out the best motivators for your
    organization, answer the question: “What’s in it for me?”





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.


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.


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.


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.



Innovation and Internal Competition

rodneyThere are many elements critical to a successful innovation program, such as focus, a good process, and resources. Many organizations put all of these elements in place, but they still end up failing. Interestingly, their programs end up creating worthwhile projects, but the projects never materialize or are rapidly killed.  What happened?

When this occurs, many times it’s because the innovation teams worked in a vacuum from the rest of the organization.  (I immediately think of this clip from the movie Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield  In this clip, Rodney talks with a business professor about how to start a new company).  By this, I mean that they didn’t consider the “real way” that things work in the organization and believe that the sheer brilliance of their ideas and projects would cut through any organizational issues.  In most cases they are wrong.  For the most part, large organizations are built to kill ideas–they can’t help it.  There is competition from existing projects, political connections, important customer issues, and legal areas.  New ideas can easily be quashed by any of these, so it’s important to figure out a way to navigate through the organization in order to bring these ideas to fruition.

One of the best ways to mitigate many of the problems you’ll encounter with internal competition is to get a sponsor.  Sponsors have several characteristics:

  • They have political clout–usually higher level executive
  • Have experience in an area important for your project
  • Can pull resources
  • Provide sound advice

Sponsors will help drive success for a project by providing these valuable assets.   They also will help you with the 80-20 rule, or in other words, they know how to get the most out of the organization with a minimal amount of effort.  Think about something simple that you want to do, like plant a garden.  You may have come to the conclusion that a garden would provide your family with lots of benefits, such as low cost, organic, and fun.  If you’ve never done this before, there are a couple of ways to go about it.  You could go to the library, local nurseries, and the internet and research the best practices for planting. You’d try and learn the best times, best plants, and best cultivation techniques.   Without a mentor, you’d most likely make some mistakes, i.e., planting too early, picking the wrong varieties, or not using the right fertilizer.  However, if you talked to your neighbor (who has had a successful garden for the past 10 years), he’d be able to tell you exactly what to do.  He’d provide helpful advice on the best things to plant so that you’d get the best yield, avoid bugs, and prevent rabbits from eating everything.  He’d know where to get the best deals on supplies, and he’d probably have helpful tools for you to use, like a rototiller.  The best part is that you’d learn all of this information is a short amount of time, and you’d get someone who would help you through the entire process.

The same is true for an organization.  A sponsor can help you quickly navigate all of the issues that you’ll encounter and provide you with advice and resources to get to your end goal.  Sponsors usually have “skin in the game” as well, and will benefit from your success.  They may be the ultimate manager of the product you develop, or it might be their customer’s problem that gets solved.  They’ll be able to shield your project from others, and insure that it moves forward, in essence, they’ll mitigate the competition.

There are two ways to go about finding a sponsor.  First, you can sell your idea to potential sponsors, hoping that one of them will adopt your project.  Second, you can talk with potential sponsors about what issues that they need solved and try to innovate for their success.  I believe that the second way is easier because you’re helping them with their problems, and the “sale” is easier.  The downside is that your ideas may not be 100% yours, and you’ll have to be flexible to make it happen.  However, if you’re successful with this approach, then you’ll gain more and more success, and have more control over what you create.  Think about teaching one of your kids to drive.  The first few times, you make certain that you have lots of control over the situation by picking the location and time.  However, as they progress, you become more comfortable with their decisions, and eventually send them on their own.

How to Kill Innovation

I read an article by Jason Hiner in Tech Republic talking about the 5 things that can kill innovation. Here they are:

  1. Don’t give ownership of projects
    His basic premise is that individuals do better at managing projects/ideas than teams. The old saying that “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is the acting principle here.  While it may seem “progressive” and socially acceptable to allow the team to make decisions by committee, in practice it just doesn’t work.   There is a difference between “working as a team” and being run as a team.  Consider the real world example of an airline cockpit.  Great effort has been put into getting the pilot and co-pilot to act as equals while managing the aircraft.  It’s called cockpit management, and resulted from accidents where one person–typically the pilot–acted without regard to the opinion of the other.  The pilot and co-pilot now work together, but ultimately, there is only one person in charge.  Consider the case of the USAirways flight that crashed into the Hudson river.  As soon as the birds struck the airplane and they began to lose power, captain Sullivan states, “I’ve got the plane” indicating that he is the one now in charge.  With that said, there is still an active collaborative dialogue as captain Sullivan asks his co-pilot, “can you think of anything else [to do]”.
  2. Create too many layers of management
    To create an innovative environment, Mr. Hiner states, “that you have to find ways to flatten your organization and create less hierarchy, while making sure every employee still gets a little bit of time with the boss on a regular basis in order to stay energized and on target.”  I agree completely.  Management is one of the most critical aspects of innovation, and in addition to his suggestions, you also need management that is supportive (and demonstrates their support) of innovation.
  3. Ignore brainstorming rules
    If you want to be innovative, he suggests that you keep good brainstorming rules, such as limiting negativity because, “some of the craziest ideas could morph into something amazingly useful.”  Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true, as there is little evidence (in the research literature) that anything of industrial/commercial value has come from brainstorming.   There are plenty of examples of people coming up with a 100 different ways to use a paperclip, but commercially successful innovation almost never involves brainstorming.  It goes against our nature–we’re too competitive.    Nonsense, you might say, “everyone at our organization is happy to help others develop ideas,” and I believe this to be true.  But if you open an idea up to an entire group, you’re going to do a couple of things.  First, you’re diluting the inventors’ idea, possibly in a way that doesn’t make sense, especially if the group is trying to reach consensus.  Second, you’re removing a large part of the incentive for the inventor to push the idea to completion, because you’re reducing the impact of his/her reward. One of the best examples of this is in academia.  I used to believe that this was the most open and collaborative area around, however, this is not the case.  Researchers/Professors are extremely guarded with their ideas, and rarely “brainstorm” them with an entire group.  Why?  Because in most cases, their career, prestige, and funding are directly related to the number of successful ideas that they can come up with.  Sharing can be catastrophic.    Do they collaborate?  Sure, but usually with a very, very limited number of trusted associates.  These people are solicited specifically and are invited to participate because the originator believes that they’ll benefit. When I invent something, I hope (and expect) to be rewarded in some way, i.e., keep my job, get a promotion, get a raise, get a better position, etc.   There are very few people who freely give their best ideas to their colleagues.  More realistically, when people want to collaborate, they do so with some understanding of secrecy, such as NDAs and other agreements to guard their intellectual property.
  4. Rely too heavily on data and dashboards
    Innovation has a tough ROI.  Mr Hiner writes, “Beyond some of the basic data, such as sales and customer traffic, a lot of the data requires sophisticated analysis (because it’s so ambiguous) and many of the truths it contains are relative — or worse, they hide other truths.”  This is really true.  It’s hard to create a return on investment report for an idea.  If the idea is successful, the ROI could so high it would seem unrealistic.  On the other hand, innovation rarely lasts (beyond a 6 months to a year) without payback.   One of the best ways to generate payback and ROI is to innovate against specific problems/issues.  If you innovate against strategic issues, you already have a built-in ROI.
  5. Under-resource your hidden opportunities
    The article states, “Having too many resources makes people sloppy. When you have to get something done with fewer resources than you think you need, it often sharpens your wits, forces you to hustle, and leads you to break through barriers.”  Completely agree.  It’s a great mental challenge to find an answer with limited resources.  It reminds me of the story of the Apollo 13 mission where they had a catastrophic failure shortly after launch.  One of the pressing issues was that the carbon dioxide in the module where the astronauts were living was increasing.  In order to remove the carbon dioxide, the engineers at NASA had to figure out how to fit a “square filter into a round hole” using only the materials available to the astronauts.  They obviously did it and saved the astronaut’s lives.

Problem Based Learning and Innovation

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is fast becoming the preferred method of teaching students in medical-related fields, and I was struck by the similarity between PBL and innovation.  I had the opportunity to talk with Susan Hawkins (MSEd., PA-C) and Mark Hertweck (M.A., PA-C) of Chatham University about how their PBL program works and how it relates to innovation.

PBL was implemented in the late 1960s for use in the medical school program at McMaster University in Canada.  The approach was created to address the traditional medical school teaching methods which many perceived as being of little benefit in the practice of medicine.  Instead of teaching chapters from a book, and forcing lots of rote memorization, PBL was centered around “real-life” case studies in which a typical patient aliment was presented.  Students would work to solve the patient case–a more realistic scenario.

The consensus on PBL is that compared with traditional teaching methods, it’s more effective, and students are more likely to come away better prepared for the rigors of their profession.  The traditional learning method is very similar to the way innovation has been addressed for decades.  Groups would get together to brainstorm ideas around a wide topic, such as, “How to increase sales revenue.”  The ideas were vaguely directed at the goal, but were oftentimes so unrelated or outlandish that it was difficult to see the value to the organization.  Learning, like innovation, is much harder without a goal.

From an innovation perspective, the most interesting facet is that students in PBL start with a problem.  Specifically, a real world problem–exactly the kind of situation facing many organizations and their innovation programs.  Challenges, like PBL cases, are focused problem statements that are important to the organization.  A challenge should be important to the organization, and it should have real benefits to being solved.  This is similar to a PBL case in which the patient and his/her ailment are important (potentially life-threatening) with the benefit being a cure/treatment.

Problem-Based Learning is just another example of how the innovation challenge paradigm is being employed in other disciplines for similar improvements and value-add.  So, when you begin to think about organizational innovation, consider including some of the elements of both challenges and problem based learning, such as focusing on an important problem, encouraging collaboration, using a transparent evaluation process, and providing rewards–it really works!

Comparison of Innovation Challenges and Problem Based Learning:

Innovation Challenge PBL Case
Presentation Focused challenge that the organization is facing Patient with a complaint/ailment
Time Limit Set by Organization, typically 3-5 days Set by School, typically several days
Support Management/Executives Facilitator
Rewards Recognition, Promotion, Money Recognition, Good Grade
Evaluation According to analytics determined by organization, usually based on ROI According to specifics of patient presentation, usually based on correctly identifying and treating problem

Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.–Karl Popper

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.

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?

Employee Innovation: Should we include everyone?

employee innovation

employee innovation

At a recent client meeting, they asked whether employee innovation include everyone.  They wondered whether involving everyone—the ones who never really participate or come up with anything “good”—should be invited into the process.  The reasons for limiting participation were sound.  They had limited resources and couldn’t afford to chase down every suggestion, these people had never really added to their innovation in the past, so they’d be wasting resources on training, not to mention the individuals would be working on non-work related projects, and finally, their “main” innovators had lots of domain expertise and contributed most of the innovation to the organization.

All of the points were valid.

For a white paper with more details on this topic, click Dramatically Improve Employee Engagement.

However, I suggested that perhaps these others weren’t participating due to unseen obstacles.  Would a junior engineer really speak up in a meeting when the senior “expert” had already rendered the most logical opinion—probably not, they’d see no need to stick their neck out.   While there are surely some who don’t mind starting a fight, most already have enough on their plate.  The last thing they want to do is raise the ire of senior management or expose themselves to ridicule for suggesting something outlandish.

The other thing to consider is the real depth of their expertise.  Just because an employee has only been with the company for a short time, it does not mean that they haven’t solved a similar problem in the past.  They may have expertise in a domain that is so new that your senior engineers might not have any real knowledge about a new approach.   They might have experience from volunteer work they’ve done, or knowledge of a similar issue in a spouse’s work environment.

Lastly, the problem of limited resources is real.  However, consider focusing the scope of your innovation, rather than limiting the participation.  For example, ask your participants to solve a particularly vexing organization challenge, such as how to reduce the cost of a current product.  By focusing, you’ll receive more ideas related to what you want and conserve your resources.

For successful innovation, you need the participation of everyone along with the expertise (seemingly relevant or not) of everyone.