Consultant-Led Innovation

Finally, remember Innovation won’t come from plans or people outside your company – it will be found in the people you already have inside who understand your company’s strengths and its vulnerabilities.

Steve Blank, Esade Business School Commencement Speech

I think Steve Blank – well-respected thinker on innovation and entrepreneurship – has hit a key point in his speech. A company’s employees are exactly the right people to enlist in innovation efforts. Here are the qualities that make employees uniquely qualified:

  • Deep knowledge about customers
  • Understanding why customers leave
  • Strong interest in the company’s future
  • Internal informal networks to move things forward
  • Vast reservoir of existing ideas and insight about future possibilities

Organizations are starting to take these amazing attributes seriously as they think about innovation. I’ve seen some forward-thinking organizations involving employees in the process of moving forward. But not all, certainly not a majority yet. For many senior executives, consultants are still the preferred means to think about and design the future.

Consulting’s impact on employees

In my history, I’ve seen how consulting has been used in organizations, as an employee, a consultant and an observer. I sort the types of consulting into three levels of a pyramid:

Consulting stack

 

The bottom level is consulting around specific functions.  Towers Watson, for instance, focuses on HR and financial issues. This consulting is helpful in bringing new information to the employees in these functions. Consultants here see a lot of what works, and what doesn’t. With both their expertise and experience, they make people smarter in the core supporting functions of organizations.

The middle level is more about enablement across different groups. This consulting brings new philosophies and frameworks to employees. It enhances people’s ability to think about addressing the key strategic factors that impact the business. My own work consulting on crowdsourced innovation is one such example. Consulting firm Deloitte offers Lean Six Sigma consulting. This level of the consulting pyramid works in concert with what motivates employees and helps them be better in their jobs.

The top level is best characterized as strategy consulting. These firms (e.g. McKinsey) look at a company, its assets and its markets, and design a future path for the organization. This can include new markets to go after, expanding in existing markets, new products to offer and new business models. This is what I call Consultant-Led Innovation. It is actually really valuable, but can also result in demoralizing employees.

Do outsiders really know better?

I’ll relate my own experience here, see if it resonates with you. When I was at Pay By Touch, the CEO decided to bring in a well-known consulting firm. Their mandate was to examine the payments market and determine how Pay By Touch should tackle it. After doing their research and executive interviews, they came up with a strategy for pricing, and new products for a biometric wallet. I remember attending their presentation to a packed room of employees. The room was packed because it felt like the CEO was going to go with their recommendations, and people wanted to know what the consultants were thinking.

After seeing the presentation, the collective employee reaction? Meh. It suffered from two issues. First, it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been part of the discussion internally. Second, it had some fundamental flaws that people who’d been working on the edge of the evolving payment industry would have known. Unsurprisingly, their recommendations went to the shelf without further action.

But that experience always left me with a bad taste. Why didn’t the CEO call on his own people to do this strategic thinking? He’d hired smart people who knew credit cards, ACH, point-of-sale systems, etc. People who joined the company to change the way we pay. But instead of leveraging that, he brought in the consultants.

Outside consultants aren’t going to know your business – customers, markets, competitors, products – better than your employees.

Diverse perspectives and who is motivated most

I’ve written previously about how valuable cognitive diversity is. And the strategy consultants do add to that cognitive diversity. They have smart people who bring strong analytic perspectives to your business. The problem arises when their perspectives, their voices are the dominant basis of thinking for the C-Suite.

It’s an in-your-face dismissal of your “most valuable asset”, your employees.

Dilbert - employees are our most important asset

Via Dilbert.com

As I’ve described previously, the key to successfully engaging employees and having them help lead the company’s innovation is for senior executives to set a course forward and ensure that innovation obstacles don’t stifle progress. Strategy consultants actually can be useful here, in that they can help an executive crystallize thinking about the future. After that, enlightened organizations know their employees have the smarts, knowledge and motivation to work out the future. And better than some strategy inserted from outside, when employees help determine the organization’s future, their enthusiasm and energy will be critical to achieving the outcomes expected.

Don’t rely on consultant-led innovation. Make sure you’re building through the amazing cognitive diversity and energy of your employees.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and yes, I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

 

How to determine what rewards matter to employees

In the field of enterprise innovation, rewards programs are a relatively common component. This is a response to the fact that participating in innovation often comes on top of an employee’s existing duties. Organizations want the cognitive diversity, they want novel ways of addressing needs, but they also need to satisfy customers and keep the lights on. Rewards programs are put in place to provide additional value from participating in the innovation efforts (on top of the intrinsic motivation to help solve a challenge).

Rewards programs have a well-earned bad reputation for being de-motivators. Simplistic approaches – cash, gift cards, merchandise – can inadvertently wreck employees’ motivations to participate. When done poorly, they become what Daniel Pink described as de-motivators. Which then opens the question…how to do rewards “right”?

I think what matters is the type of work. Even Pink talks about how his research about motivation relates to what he terms “creative tasks”. I want to pick that up and propose the following matrix as a way to think about what rewards matter to what types of employees:

In this matrix, two attributes are keys to understanding what types of rewards would appeal to employees. Ambition level speaks to how much responsibility the person desires to have. And how much impact on the organization’s outcomes the want wants. Cognitive complexity includes what Pink calls “creative tasks”. Work that is more cognitively complex will have a high level of uncertainty, and require learning, trial-and-error and an iterative flow. To help make these characterizations of work more tangible, I’ve added some example occupations for each square in the matrix.

Together, cognitive complexity and level of ambition determine what rewards would hold appeal. If you like tasks that follow well-known rules, rewards that allow you to gain new knowledge are less interesting. If your objective is a paycheck and a great life outside of work, opportunities to meet with the CEO hold little appeal. If one’s interests run toward ways to increase career options and take on greater responsibilities, a $25 Amazon gift card offers little motivation.

I just wrote more about this in my post, Keys to success with an innovation reward program. There, I’ve described a spectrum of rewards that run from cash/merchandise through innovation program options. I map the matrix to those, and provide specific examples where rewards were done wrongly. Learn from those mistakes.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

Four categories of enterprise gamification

When you think of gamification, what are the common things that come to mind? Points, badges, leaderboards. These items are in the cognitive toolkit. But looking at the sheer variety of game mechanics, you can see that’s it’s a much broader field than that:

Game mechanics list

These 48 different mechanics (via SCVNGR and Badgeville) aren’t the complete list, but they provide a sense for the possibilities. However, the quantity of game mechanics makes its difficult to coherently analyze what, if any, means are relevant for an initiative. I found myself facing that in some work I was preparing for a client. My job-to-be-done? Provide an accessible way to understand the different gamification techniques relevant to crowdsourced innovation.

Having done some gamification work previously as a product manager, I called on that experience and various research on the topic. The following are the categories that made sense to me in the context of the enterprise environment:

Gamification categories

You might notice that I’ve couched the descriptive statement of each in the first person. That fits the approach to gamification, which is about motivations of individuals, what matters to each of us. Here’s a bit more about each.

Achievement: I work to attain an objective. This category calls on the desire many of us for mastery. To be well-versed and proficient in something. There is a sort of competition, but it’s against a standard, a benchmark. Not others.

Recognition: My contribution is acknowledged. Recognition is a form of feedback, an affirmation of one’s capabilities or position and a manifestation of status among peers. Recognition strikes me as the most powerful form of motivation.

Competition:  I compete for a limited number of awards. These gamification techniques appeal to the desire to compete. They can elevate people to moments of excellence in their participation (think of sports you’ve participated in previously). Powerful when used in an appropriate context.  But it’s a category that needs to be treated with care. Clumsy implementation of competition gamification can poison an initiative.

Valuables: I want to secure something of value. Valuables can address avoiding the loss of something or gaining something new. Valuables include the things you might expect: points-based rewards systems. But they can include countdowns to do something (I need to do something before I lose the opportunity), or competition to win funding for an idea, for example. Very useful, but Valuables need to be handled with care to avoid unintended consequences (e.g. high volumes of low value contributions; mindset that participation only happens when there’s a reward).

I’ve applied these different gamification categories to different innovation scenarios in my new post: The gamification framework for business innovation. I also look at the purpose of gamification there, some common misperceptions about it, and five key design principles.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

Gmail offers surprising innovation lessons for the Fortune 500

If you’re familiar with the story of Gmail, you know – for a fact – that it was a 20% time employee project by Paul Buchheit. A little bottom-up experimentation that grew into something big.

Surprise! That story is wrong.

It was a desire by Google, the company, to offer its own email. From Harry McCracken’s great piece How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of its Launch 10 Years Ago:

Gmail is often given as a shining example of the fruits of Google’s 20 percent time, its legendary policy of allowing engineers to divvy off part of their work hours for personal projects. Paul Buchheit, Gmail’s creator, disabused me of this notion. From the very beginning, “it was an official charge,” he says. “I was supposed to build an email thing.”

Gmail’s creation has more in common with innovation inside large enterprises than it does with the start-up world. Read on if you recognize these:

  1. Job-to-be-done thinking
  2. Reports of the death of company innovation are greatly exaggerated
  3. Corporate antibodies are everywhere
  4. Senior executive support
  5. Big Innovation takes time

Job-to-be-done thinking

Yahoo email screenshot

Image via Variable GHZ, “Why Yahoo Mail is Still an Epic Catastrophe

Anyone remember life before Gmail? We had low storage limits. ‘OK’ search. Poor spam control. Yahoo, one of the dominant players at the time, pursued the freemium strategy that required paying for more storage and better controls. Which isn’t unheard of, mind you.

It’s just…

Think of the core job-to-be-done: When I want to update others, I want to send and receive communications. Some key job tasks that define that job include:

  • Easily send pictures to others
  • Read emails from real people and organizations that I care about
  • Find old emails when I need them
  • Expand my usage of email economically

Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL were fine as far as they went, but they each were challenged on these key job tasks. Back when I had a Yahoo email, I remember the spam being awful and it seemed impossible to control.

Google looked at the offerings in the market, and recognized an opportunity to better satisfy people’s expectations for these important job tasks. Larger size limits, stellar spam control, excellent search and ongoing improvements through Gmail Labs.

Lesson: ABI (Always Be Improving) on the customers’ jobs-to-be-done. Think of the entire job flow and determine which areas are ripe for a better service and experience. Big companies can too easily focus on executing what they have rather than thinking about customers need. 

Reports of the death of company innovation are greatly exaggerated

Image via Family Life Resources

Somewhere along the line, a narrative has emerged that pretty much every big company cannot innovate its way out of a bag. Admittedly, the increasingly rapid turnover of the S&P 500 and the fast rise and decline of companies fuels this narrative. But it’s glib to say companies just don’t do it.

Google’s 20% time is espoused as the antidote to this issue. Middle management stifling innovation? Let everyone experiment on their own. But Gmail wasn’t a 20% time project. It was actually something planned and resourced for development for the organization at large.

This is an important point. If companies set their mind to innovate in an area, people will contribute and provide fantastic ways to get there. Tony Vengrove advised on a key element for success here:  “A compelling vision statement describes what the company wants to become in the future. It not only needs to inspire but ideally it should inform the innovation agenda.”

Lesson: Innovation is not dead inside companies. It does require leadership to set a vision that employees can focus on.  

Corporate antibodies are everywhere

Google is rightly perceived as one of the most innovative companies on the planet. Given that, one might assume that the innovation wheels are well greased there. But I was struck by these quotes from McCracken’s story about the birth of Gmail:

“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint,” says Buchheit of his email project. “The concern was this didn’t have anything to do with web search. Some were also concerned that this would cause other companies such as Microsoft to kill us.”

Within Google, Gmail was also regarded as a huge, improbable deal. It was in the works for nearly three years before it reached consumers; during that time, skeptical Googlers ripped into the concept on multiple grounds, from the technical to the philosophical. It’s not hard to envision an alternate universe in which the effort fell apart along the way, or at least resulted in something a whole lot less interesting.

Inquisitor vs. Corporate AntibodyIn those two quotes, you see critiques that aren’t really about specific elements of Gmail, the concept.

In Four Personality Types that Determine Innovation Success or Failure, a distinction is drawn between Inquisitors, who reflect thoughtfully on issues facing an idea, and Corporate Antibodies, who just want the idea dead. Here are hypothetical responses to Gmail by the two different personality types:

Inquisitor: “Won’t we spook people when they see ads related to the email they’re reading?”

Corporate Antibody: “Email has become a commodity. There are other products we should be building.”

Lesson: Corporate antibodies will always be with us. Recognize legitimate probing for faults versus efforts to undermine the idea in total. Spend time figuring out how to get around Corporate Antibodies, not appeasing them.

Senior Executive Support

Senior executives matter in innovation

In a land of radical transparency and holacracy, the traditional top-level support needed for initiatives is a thing of the past. Alas, we are not in that land. For the 99.9% of people who live with today’s reality, top-down support continues to be the effective way things get done.

It does put pressure on top executives then. They are held accountable by the C-suite, the Board and shareholders. Already in this post, senior executives are called on to ensure innovation moves forward in two different ways.

Set the innovation course: Leadership – be it in business, community, military – has a role in establishing the objectives for people. Indeed, set objectives and get out of the way. In Gmail’s case, Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw a future that extended beyond just search. Paul Buchheit was charged to figure out what a Google email app would look like.

Remove obstacles to innovation: We saw previously that Corporate Antibodies are alive and well. But they didn’t stop Gmail’s progress. From McCracken’s article: “Fortunately, the doubters didn’t include Google’s founders. ‘Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were always supportive,’ Buchheit says. ‘A lot of other people were much less supportive.’ “

Lesson: If senior management isn’t paying attention to innovation, it’s a safe bet no one in the company is either. Employees respond to the agenda set by executives. Organic growth comes from a clear focus that involves executives and employees.

Big Innovation takes time

One of my favorite perspectives on innovation comes from Jeff Bezos. In an interview on Harvard Business Review:

ADI IGNATIUS: Jeff, you’ve said that you like to plant seeds that may take seven years to bear fruit. Doesn’t that mean you’ll lose some battles along the way to companies that have a more conventional two or three-year outlook?

JEFF BEZOS: Well, maybe so, but I think some of the things that we have undertaken I think could not be done in two to three years. And so, basically if we needed to see meaningful financial results in two to three years, some of the most meaningful things we’ve done we would never have even started. Things like Kindle, things like Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime. The list of such things is long at Amazon.

2014 2019Note that he’s referencing Big Innovation. Concepts that are market changers. There are plenty of opportunities for small-ball innovation (or improvements). But for the really big stuff, executives need to back away from the notion that it can be done in one year.

This was seen with Gmail as well. It was in the works for three years before it was launched to consumers. Continual effort was applied to the product features, the user experience, the business model and the infrastructure to support it. During this time, the project was assailed internally, but as noted previously, senior management supported its ongoing development. Similar to the way Bezos sticks with groundbreaking projects for the long term.

Lesson: Senior management must recognize the magnitude of the innovation it seeks and commit the right time horizon, resources and support to it. This applies for small ball innovation and Big Innovation.

Google, of course is now a HUGE company, on par with the biggest in the world. Its Gmail experience provides valuable lessons for Fortune 500 firms seeking to innovate.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

Is it innovation or just an improvement? Does it matter?

On the LinkedIn Front End of Innovation group, I saw this post:

Interesting (and heated) discussions @ Unleashing Innovation Summit in Amsterdam earlier in the month: Incremental innovation is NOT innovation – it’s just marketing. REAL innovation is breakthrough/transformational… Agree or not?

I’ve seen this debate before. Attempts to finally, once-and-for-all establish just where improvement ends and innovation begins. People end up with a Maginot Line that fails to defend the sanctity of innovation. Quick: Amazon 1-click purchasing…improvement or innovation?

Does it matter that we define innovation? I once collected a bunch of people’s definitions of innovation to celebrate the multiple ways people think about it. That was a nod to the different ways people think about it. It was divergence, not convergence.

But there are times people want a clearer line between innovation and improvement. Let’s see how some smart folks have articulated the difference.

Perspectives on defining innovation

Scott Berkun: Innovation is significant positive change. This is a high bar, and it should be. What does significant mean? I’d start with the invention of the light bulb, constitutional governments, wireless radio and maybe web browsers. Perhaps you could say significant is a 30% or more improvement in something, like the speed of an engine or the power of a battery. If you know the history of your profession you know the big positive changes people made over the last 50 years, giving you perspective on the scale of brilliance you need to have to be worthy of that word. (#)

Alan Lepofsky: Both innovation and improvement are important concepts, but unfortunately the two terms are often used interchangeably. Innovation reimagines an existing process or market, or creates a brand new one. Improvement enhances an existing process or market, but does not create disruption.  (#)

Chris AndrewsI think your point highlights something important: there’s a pretty fine line between business-as-usual product improvements and real innovation, and it’s important not to confuse the two. (#)

Jon Van Volkinburg: I don’t see innovation as something that merely creates value for a customer and/or for the provider. Expanding or adding a service, feature, or function is not innovation, and these things create value. These things are growth, novelty, and invention. They are great, necessary, and can lead to innovation if the environment and timing is right. If you want, I guess you can call it incremental innovation… but I wouldn’t, to me the term “incremental innovation” is an oxymoron. (#)

What if we actually settled this debate once and for all?

Assume for a moment that we, as a society, agree on what constitutes Innovation. Then what? What is the logical flow of events and decisions that follow such a conclusion?

The reality it that doesn’t matter what something is called ex post facto. It only matters what impact it has on the consumers of the improvation.

Innovation or improvement comic

Before seeking improvation:

  • Understand the problem you’re addressing (no easy task itself)
  • Develop a sense of the magnitude of what’s required (shave a few $1,000? develop a $1 billion market?)
  • Be prepared to follow through on the ideas generated at a level commensurate with their scale

Here, it is important to understand how you define what you’re seeking. And it doesn’t matter whether you call it an improvement or an innovation. Afterwards, after the idea has become real? Again, it doesn’t matter what anyone calls it. It’s about how well it addresses the job-to-be-done. Call it what you want.

You like to-may-to,
And I like to-mah-to…

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

 

How deep does crowdsourced problem-solving go?

On the recent post, Why crowdsourcing works, Michael Fruhling of BFS Innovations asked:

A couple of related questions: for most current crowd sourced problem solving endeavors, how “deep” does the problem solving routinely go? And do the results meaningfully change if incentives are introduced?

It was a good, thoughtful question. I answered it in the comments there, and wanted to make the answer into its own blog post, below.


Tim O'Reilly tweet on crowdsourcingThe depth of the problem-solving in a crowdsourcing endeavor is wholly dependent on:

  • The question that is asked
  • The engagement of the question sponsor
  • Who is asked to participate
  • Why people would want to participate

A few points on each of those factors.

Question that is asked

As you can imagine, the question impacts the depth of problem-solving. In-depth question = in-depth problem-solving. The more specific the question, the better the quality of people’s contributions. “Specific” here doesn’t mean asking a tactical, low-level question. Rather, it means clearly delineating what is sought in a way that people can relate to .

Engagement of the question sponsor

Crowdsourcing works best (obviously?) when solving a specific problem that someone has. People will respond to the question with different concepts and questions. The feedback of the question asker (aka “sponsor”) provides the back-n-forth that breaks through initial responses to build a deeper response.

Who is asked to participate

Getting cognitive diversity is the key, as described in the post. But also, you want people who have some connection and interest in the question. Think holistically about that. Upstream, downstream, adjacent fields. Problem-solving depth requires matching a question with people who will give a damn.

Why people would want to participate

The question of “why” is closely related to the preceding question of “who”. If a question’s answer potentially affects a person, there is built-in motivation to participate: steer things in a way that makes sense to you. This works well for internal employee-based crowdsourcing. However, there are certainly questions where the personal impact may be less acute. Other incentives come in to play. Engagement with a sponsor – with attendant acknowledgments, thank you’s, feedback – are great incentives. Opportunities to see an idea through is a powerful stimulant. And prizes have great power. Prizes work best when they establish an opportunity to see an idea one is passionate about become real (e.g. investment funds). Or when the question is not one that directly impacts you. In such a case, they are compensation for putting your brainpower to work problem-solving.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

The Journey of an Idea

I’d bet most of us understand an the initially proposed idea and its ultimate implementation are going to differ. Ideas are cheap, as they say. It’s what happens after the idea is proposed where success or failure is determined. Typically, the “after proposal”  focus is on the execution of the idea. But there’s a phase between the idea proposal and the execution of it. It’s a phase where the idea is molded and sharpened.

An idea essentially goes through a journey prior to its implementation:

The probability of an idea becoming reality is affected by different types of participation. Four different personalities act of the idea during its journey:

  1. Creator
  2. Inquisitor
  3. Helper
  4. Doer

On the HYPE Innovation blog, I’ve written about them in: Four personalities that determine innovation success or failure.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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