Why Amazon wins | Innovate the core, innovate to transform

Take a look at your organization’s innovation projects. Are you strategically balancing your efforts between the core business and future growth areas?

In advising companies about innovation, an area I stress is the value of consciously pursuing both little and BIG innovation. Often, companies pursuing innovation can be categorized as either:

  • Seeking small innovations such as operational improvements and existing product enhancements
  • Swinging for the fences to find unique, breakthrough ideas in new markets

In both cases, such myopia limits the value of innovation, focusing too low (incrementalism) or too high (core business withers from neglect). Companies do well to take a holistic look at their innovation efforts, understanding their portfolio of initiatives in the context of both small and big projects.

To understand the value of this approach, let’s examine Amazon’s innovation portfolio. Why? Their efforts are visible, and they’ve got the results to back up their innovation approach:

Amazon stock vs S&P 500

Amazon’s stock performance is no fluke. They’ve done a fabulous job mixing their innovation efforts. They have significantly improved their core, while moving into adjacent and unfamiliar ground.

 

Segmenting Innovation Efforts

To begin with, it’s useful to divide innovation efforts according to their level of familiarity:

Segmenting innovation efforts by familiarity

 

Why use familiarity as the basis of segmenting? Because familiarity manifests itself in two ways when it comes to innovation:

Institutional advantage: Companies are awash in information about current operations. Product or service features, with their strengths and weaknesses, are understood. How they’re delivered is understood. What customers like and what they want to see improved…are understood. This data rich environment makes it easier to focus on what is done today.

Personal advantage: Expertise in a given realm is why you hold your position. Executing on various initiatives related to current operations is how you’re assessed. Keeping your focus on that is a natural outcome, but one that can stymie interest in exploring new areas.

Moving outside the realm of familiarity is tough. Yet that’s where growth for the company will be found. So it takes a conscious effort to step outside the world we know, assess opportunities and try new things. Much of the organization is not geared to do this.

The matrix above characterizes innovation efforts as three types:

  1. Sustain: Innovations that maintain and even grow the core business. While this type of innovation is often dismissed as inconsequential, that;s not true at all. We’ll see that in a moment with amazon.
  2. Expand: Innovations that are adjacent to an organization’s current operations. That can be extending current offerings into new markets, or introducing new products and services to existing customers.
  3. Transform: Innovations here have the effect of changing the identity of the company. To be successful in these new markets, the new offerings are substantially better at satisfying existing jobs-to-be-done for customers.

To show the diversity and power of innovations representing each of these types, let’s look at how Amazon’s innovation have fit this model.

 

Amazon Innovations by Type

One of the more valuable aspects of the Amazon story is that it highlights the value of innovating for core operations as well as entering new arenas. The matrix below maps several Amazon innovations against the different types:

Amazon innovation - segmented by levels of familiarity

 

Sustain

Think sustaining innovation can’t make a difference? Then check out Amazon’s results here.

Collaborative filtering recommendations are those suggested products that display when you’re viewing an item. Collaborative filtering is based on product categories and “people who bought this also bought that”. At one point in Amazon’s history, its recommendation engine was responsible for 35% of company revenues.

1-click checkout is Amazon’s patented innovation that dramatically reduce friction in the buying process. With a single click, your purchase is on its way. This is a significant improvement over the multi-field (even multi-page) process that other sites provided to purchase.

Drone delivery is a futuristic idea: have drones deliver goods within 30 minutes. Bypass the traffic on the roads. Even if it is of dubious potential, it’s a good example where sustaining innovations can be “radical” in the popular sense.

Prime originated as a way for customers to pay a single price for all-you-can-buy shipping. Customers were already paying for shipping on a per order basis; Prime made the shipping a single price, no matter how many transactions. As a sustaining innovation, it has delivered impressive results. Prime members are estimated to spend $1,500 per year vs. $625 for non-Prime customers.

Expand

The two flavors of expansion innovation vary in emphasis: new products and services vs. new customers. But they both are cases of extending what the company already does. The familiarity measure is less, but still meaningful.

Affiliate marketing is a normal web practice now. But Amazon was an early innovator here, although not the first. Through affiliate marketing, Amazon reached new customers with its existing offerings.

Kindle is Amazon’s reading tablet. People who own Kindles download the digital books, and are able to search text and annotate passages. Kindle was estimated to account for 10% of Amazon’s sales in 2012.

Amazon Fresh is a home delivery service for groceries. More than a decade after the failure of Webvan, Amazon is seeking to deliver a new category to customers: perishable groceries. This extends the offerings of Amazon’s existing retail selection, for both existing and new customers.

Transform

Amazon’s growth has included investing in transformative innovation, beyond its initial core business. The risk here is much higher, as the company moves beyond the familiarity of its core business and takes on new competitors.

Amazon Web Services offers cloud computing services to companies. Its origins come out of Amazon’s work to optimize its internal cloud operations. Jeff Bezos decided to turn that work into a new offering. Introduced in 2006, AWS has been a tremendous success. In the 2nd quarter of 2015, AWS generated a profit of $391 million on $1.82 billion in revenue. Even the super secret CIA is using AWS.

Prime is now Amazon’s vehicle for delivering original content programming. While its roots were in making buying products easier, Prime has become a wide range of offers. One of these is Amazon’s entry into the world of original programming, Amazon Studios. Its shows include Alpha House, Betas and Bosch. Oh, and these new content customers are converting to full Prime shoppers.

Fire Phone was Amazon’s entry into the smart phone market, taking on Apple’s iPhone, Samsung’s mobile phones and others. Fire Phone’s notable feature was its 3-D “Dynamic Perspective”. However, it failed to offer anything that delivered better outcomes on people’s jobs-to-be-done. Amazon has stopped its work on the Fire Phone.

 

Amazon: What a Strategic Innovation Portfolio Looks Like

Amazon provides a powerful example of how companies should approach their innovation portfolios. Despite claims that sustaining innovations are a recipe for mediocrity, Amazon has shown there’s plenty of value innovating on your core. What aids Amazon in this case is a clear mission, a sense of what they want to accomplish and a CEO who continually acts on it. Lack of such clarity and leadership is the cause of innovation failure for other companies; it’s not “getting bogged down in incremental innovation”. Note that Google also dedicates significant innovation effort towards its core business.

In the Transform quadrant, Amazon takes on bigger risks. This is the harder area. AWS has turned out to be a hit. Fire Phone was a failure. But the key is (i) understanding the risks of that quadrant; and (ii) making sure efforts there are part of a larger portfolio approach across different levels of familiarity.

What’s the right mix? That will vary by company and the health of its core business. The key is to understand why you’re making the innovation investments you are.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

16 metrics for tracking Collaborative Innovation performance

In a recent PwC survey, 61% of CEOs said innovation was a key priority for their company (pdf). The only surprising result there is that it wasn’t 100%. Innovation efforts come in a variety of forms: innovation and design labs, jobs-to-be-done analysis, corporate venturing, distributed employee experiments, open innovation, TRIZ, etc.

In this post, I want to focus on another type of innovation initiative: Collaborative Innovation. A good way to think about Collaborative Innovation is that it integrates social and crowdsourcing principles:

Collaborative innovation - social and crowdsourcing

 

A definition I use for this approach:

Collaborative Innovation is defined as activities organizations use to improve their rates of innovation and problem solving by more effectively leveraging the diverse ideas and insights of employees, customers and partners.

While it seems straightforward, Collaborative Innovation is actually a fairly sophisticated activity. People with a cursory understanding say all you need to do is: (i) stand up an ideas portal; (ii) let people post ideas; (iii) collect votes on those ideas; and (iv) pick the winners.

Unfortunately, that’s just plain wrong. I’ve seen too many cases where organizations launch idea portals, only to see them die off six months later. The practice of Collaborative Innovation is a rich realm, with solid results for those who apply it thoughtfully.

This post is a look at several key metrics that corporate innovation teams should focus on as they lead Collaborative Innovation programs. The metrics are segmented by the different phases of innovation:

  1. Sourcing
  2. Decisioning
  3. Acting

The metrics below rest on two key assumptions: use of an innovation management software platform; use of campaigns to target innovation efforts.

Sourcing

Sourcing refers to the generation of ideas, as well as eliciting others’ insights about an idea.

Phase objectives

  • Distinct, differentiated ideas
  • Ideas matching needs of customers (incl. internal customers)
  • Ideas matching the innovation appetite of the organization
  • Capturing the cognitive diversity of participants
  • Growing the culture of innovation

Metrics

Metric Description Why
Trend in unique logins Measure the ratio of logins/invited over time for multiple campaigns. Want to see a rise over time until reaching a steady state (~60%).
  • No logins, no ideas
  • Confirm that the credibility of program increasing
  • Demonstrate better targeting of relevant innovation topics
Trend in multiple logins Determine the number of people who log in to each campaign 3 times or more. Divide these multi-login people by the total number of people logging in to each campaign. Look for increasing ratios over time.
  • Returning to a campaign repeatedly is a measure of engagement
  • More repeat logins increases opportunities for collaboration
Ratio of ideators to unique logins Divide the number of people who post at least one idea by the number of unique logins. Want to see a rise over time until reaching a steady state (10 – 15%).
  • Ensure those with valuable ideas are being invited
  • Track whether the campaign questions are accessible to those invited
  • Confirm credibility of the program is increasing
Average number comments per idea Divide the number of comments by the number of ideas, per campaign. Target an average of 2 comments per idea.
  • Ideas are the start, but need others’ insights to evolve and grow
  • Track the collaboration culture of the organization, and of specific org units
  • Ensure participants understand that more than ideas are desired
Average number of replies per comment Divide the number of comment replies by the number of comments. Target an average of 0.5 replies per comment.
  • Innovation dialogues are healthy for both ideas and the organization’s innovation culture
  • Sharing of insights among employees is a second level objective, and this helps track that
Average number of votes per idea Divide the number of votes by the number of ideas, per campaign. Target an average of 3 votes per idea.
  • Participants can help identify ideas with greater potential
  • Ensure the voice of the community is captured, to complement the views of experts and campaign sponsors
Unique org units | departments | locations contributing Count the number of different org units, departments and/or locations with at least one person posting an idea, posting a comment or voting. This count needs to be considered against the number of org units, departments or locations invited.
  • Cognitive diversity is a key driver of value
  • Seek inputs from people who normally aren’t working closely together, to ensure different perspectives are brought into the campaign

Decisioning

Decisioning refers to identifying which ideas move forward for next steps. This phase is the bridge between getting a lot of different ideas, and determining which ones will be acted on.

Phase objectives

  • Identify ideas presenting enough possibility to warrant further review
  • Acknowledge value of community’s perspective
  • Timely assessments of ideas

Metrics

Metric Description Why
Ratio of ideas selected for further review Some number of ideas submitted for each campaign will be selected for the next round of review. Calculate the ratio of selected ideas to total ideas submitted. Watch how this ratio changes over time.
  • Track whether campaigns are generating the level of possibilities expected
  • Look for cases of being overly pessimistic on ideas’ possibilities (too-low or declining ratio over time)
Ratio of top 5 voted/commented ideas selected for further review Of the ideas that were the top 5 for either votes or number of unique commenters, track how many were selected for further review.
  • When the community is invited to comment and vote, they have a natural expectation that their interactions will be part of the decision calculus
  • Failure to regularly consider what the community coalesces around will reduce enthusiasm to participate
Percentage of initially reviewed ideas sent back for iteration & information Of the ideas that were selected for further assessment, track the number where the idea submitter (and team) are asked to iterate the idea and/or provide more information.
  • Ideas rarely have enough “meat” on their initial sourcing, and benefit from further development
  • Watch out for too conservative a mindset by those making decisions on ideas; are they too quick to say ‘no’ without seeking more information?
Time to complete decisions Measure the time between selection of ideas for further review and selection of ideas to move forward into the Acting phase. The time will vary by the level of risk attendant to a campaign.
  • Participants will have a reasonable expectation that promising ideas move forward; delays signal a lack of commitment
  • From the world of finance, the time value of money argues for moving sooner rather than later on ideas with value
Ratio of reviewed ideas that advance to Acting phase Divide the number of ideas selected to move into the Acting phase by the number of ideas selected for review. Watch this ratio over time.
  • Moving ideas forward to action is core to developing an innovation culture; ensure this key step is occurring as expected
  • Too-low or declining ratios indicate a breakdown in the innovation process
  • Ideas that move forward are critical for ensuring the credibility of the innovation effort

Acting

Acting refers to the activities to prove out an idea, develop it and prepare it for full launch. Or to learn why an idea won’t be feasible, ultimately.

Phase objectives

  • Develop deeper understanding for whether the idea passes the three jobs-to-be-done tests that determine market adoption
  • Optimize features that best deliver on the outcomes that the idea’s targeted beneficiaries have
  • Maximize the probability of success by eliminating ideas that just aren’t working

Metrics

Metric Description Why
Average number of experiments per idea Tally the total number of experiments for a “class” of selected ideas for Acting phase, calculate the average per idea.
  • Because of the inherent risk of trying something new, many ideas need different looks
  • Learning mentality to understand an idea’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Valuable for establishing a strong innovation culture for the organization
Time to make final decision on selected ideas Track the amount of time between the decision to put an idea into the Acting phase, and the decision whether to pursue the idea at scale.
  • While this process shouldn’t be rushed, it should be treated with appropriate diligence
  • Participants will expect final decisions; failure to do so undermines the program credibility
Ratio of ideas selected for full launch Divide the number of ideas selected for full launch by the number of ideas selected for the Acting phase. Watch how this ratio tracks over time.
  • The determinant of success for this phase is the number of ideas that make to full launch
  • Ideas in this phase passed muster during the prior Deciding phase; the percentage that make it to full launch should be high
Projected and realized value of ideas that have been moved to full launch Aggregate projected and realized value of the ideas that will be or have been put into full launch.
  • The bottom line rationale for the innovation program
  • Critical for establishing credibility of the program with senior executives

The above list is solid foundation of metrics to track for your Collaborative Innovation program. It’s not exhaustive. And there are likely elements for each phase that will vary for each organization.

But these are good for watching how your program is tracking. Behind each metric, there are techniques to enhance outcomes. The key is knowing where to look.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

10 examples that show the value of cognitive diversity

In a previous post, the benefits of crowdsourcing were described as follows:

When trying to solve a challenge, what is the probability that any one person will have the best solution for it? It’s a simple mathematical reality: the odds of any single person providing the top answer are low.

How do we get around this? Partly by more participants; increased shots on goal. But even more important is diversity of thinking. People contributing based on their diverse cognitive toolkits

Cognitive diversity is a vital contributor to innovation. Bringing together people who have different expertise, heuristics and perspectives to solve problems has shown value time and again.  Professor Scott Page’s The Difference is a terrific book outlining the frameworks and value of cognitive diversity.

I thought it would be useful to collect some cases that highlight the value of cognitive diversity. The theories are powerful, but we respond strongly to specific examples. Collected below are ten cases of where cognitive diversity has shown its value. Feel free to use them for your own work as needed.


 

1. The mystery of our kidney tubules

Problem: Human kidneys have tubules. For years, they were assumed to be leftover, useless artifacts of our natural evolution. Hence physiologists assumed they had no purpose. Meaning their care and study could be safely ignored.

How diversity helped: One day, an engineer looked at the loops. He saw something different. He realized they were actually part of something called a countercurrent multiplier. These mechanisms concentrate liquids in a system. Suddenly, tubules were no longer evolution’s leftover junk. They were seen for what they were: vital parts of our kidneys’ operations.

An engineer with no special biological expertise saw things in a total different way.

Reference: Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking: An Introduction


 

2. Why this particular pathology in a drug discovery trial?

Problem: A pharmaceutical company’s R&D group was conducting a discovery study for a new drug. They couldn’t understand the toxicological significance of a particular observed pathology. They consulted with multiple experts in toxicology, but none could answer the question.

How diversity helped: The pharma firm then ran a crowdsourcing campaign, and within a few the mystery was solved. The solver? A woman with a PhD in protein crystallography using methods common in her field. An area unrelated to toxicology.

The woman with the PhD brought a completely different perspective to solving the problem.

Reference: Harvard Business School, et al study, The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving (page 11 pdf)


 

3. Who has a higher probability to solve a problem?

Problem: People with expertise in a particular domain are challenged to provide workable solutions to tough problems. But these are the ones we regularly turn to for help.

How diversity helped: Researchers analyzed the outcomes of InnoCentive’s crowdsourcing challenges. What they found was surprising. For each challenge, they identified the domain of the problem. They then looked at the winning solvers. What were their domains of expertise? They found that people whose domain of expertise was six degrees away from the domain of the problem were three times likelier to solve the problem.

Getting people who are outside the domain of the problem provides higher odds of finding the best solution to a problem.

Reference: Harvard Business School, et al study, The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving (page 24 pdf)


 

4. Stop new diamond fractures from happening

Problem: In the process of cutting diamonds, new fractures are introduced into the diamond. These fractures don’t show up until the diamond is in use. Manufacturers wanted to split diamonds along their natural fractures without creating new ones. But didn’t know how.

How diversity helped: This is a case of investigators consciously looking at different realms to find a solution, applying the TRIZ method. The solution came in an area quite different than diamonds: green peppers. Food companies need to split the peppers and remove their seeds. Peppers are placed in a chamber to which air pressure is increased significantly. The peppers shrink and fracture at the stem. Then the pressure is rapidly dropped causing them to burst at the weakest point and the seed pod to be ejected. A similar technique applied to diamond cutting resulted in the crystals splitting along their natural fracture lines with no additional damage.

This is an example of consciously seeking solutions outside the domain of the problem. Which is the crux of cognitive diversity.

Reference: QFD Institute, TRIZ workshop


 

5. Reducing surgery infections

Problem: Surgery exposes patients to infections, even with all the efforts to maintain a clean surgical environment. Reducing these infections would result in better outcomes for patients.

How diversity helped: 3M brought together people from three different areas: an expert in wound healing; an animal surgeon; and a specialist in theatrical makeup with expertise in adhering materials to skin. They developed a breakthrough product to prevent surgical infections.

While the wound specialist is consistent with what we’d expect, the makeup artist inclusion was quite different. She brought a particular expertise that turned out to be relevant to solving the problem.

Reference: Eric von Hippel, et al, Performance Assessment of the Lead User Idea Generation Process (pdf)


 

6. How to really help the homeless?

Problem: Homelessness has proven to be an intractable, chronic issue for cities. Municipalities spend money on treatment, overnight shelter, food. But the issue has vexed city officials everywhere.

How diversity helped: Sam Tsemberis is a psychologist. His training was to treat the mental health of people. He took a job to treat homeless people in the early 1990s. Not to solve homelessness, with its complex set of causes. Just to treat individuals, which fit his expertise. However, he saw things differently with the homeless. They operated in a set of complex circumstances. He felt the dominant thinking of experts in the homeless field was wrong, that homeless people are quite resourceful.

Lacking any prior experience in solving the homeless issue, Tsemberis assembled a team of people who also lacked any experience in addressing homelessness at scale. One was a recovering heroin addict. Another was a formerly homeless person. Another was a psychologist. And the last, Hilary Melton, was a poet and a survivor of incest.

Their solution? Giving permanent housing to the homeless. And it has proven remarkably successful thus far. Utah employed the method, and eliminated homelessness. Phoenix applied it and eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans.

Fresh eyes came up with a solution that challenged the dominant thinking in the field.

Reference: Washington Post, Meet the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness


 

7. Predicting solar particle storms

Problem: When in space, astronauts are at risk from solar particle storms. Knowing when these storms are going to happen is important for their safety. However, NASA had spent 30 years unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to predict these storms.

How diversity helped: NASA cast a challenge on InnoCentive, exposing the problem to much broader types of expertise. And they received a solution much better than anything they had ever developed. A retired telecommunications engineer in New Hampshire saw the issue as one involved magnetic coupling between the sun and the Earth.

The solver was not in the space field. He had no connection to NASA. He was located far from NASA operations. His fresh perspective brought new insight to the problem.

Reference: Forbes India, The importance of diversity of thought for solving wicked problems


 

8. Who starts billion dollar companies?

Problem: What is the ‘look’ of success in start-ups? Certainly understanding these characteristics could go a long way toward identifying promising ventures.

How diversity helped: Shasta Ventures ran an analysis of 32 companies that are high flyers, including Uber, Twitter, Dropbox, Twitch, etc. They looked at the companies way back when they were raising their Series A. They found a few different traits. One that stands out:

Three-out-of-four of the companies in our survey were built and run by people who were doing it for the first time. They did not have a win under their belt or deep experience in their field, but were passionate about their product and had a unique perspective on how to serve their target customer. Having a fresh perspective is important in tackling a category as people with industry experience are often constrained by what is ‘not possible’ and why it ‘won’t work’.

Shasta notes here what others have found. People get stuck in knowing what they know. Innovation benefits from fresh perspectives.

Reference: Tod Francis, Shasta Ventures, What did Billion Dollar Companies Look Like at the Series A?


 

9. Stopping a key enzyme that powers the AIDS virus

Problem: For a decade, scientists have tried to understand the structure of an enzyme that is critical to reproduction of the AIDS virus. If they could finally figure out the structure, that would allow them to develop drugs to fight AIDS.

How diversity helped: Researchers added the AIDS reproduction enzyme structure to the online game FoldIt. In FoldIt, players try their hand at folding various proteins. Proteins are core building blocks, and they fold in very specific ways. Scientists have a hard time replicating the folding sequence; researchers started FoldIt to see how amateurs could do at replicating the folding.

In this case, insights about the enzyme’s folding were provided by FoldIt gamers (not scientific experts) within three weeks. Their strategies were instrumental in helping scientists to understand the enzyme, and initiate work to neutralize it.

Reference: Scientific American, Foldit Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme within 3 Weeks


 

10. Auto-Tune to…ahem…enhance recordings

Problem: Music producers spent significant time putting together music from multiple takes. The process was laborious, but needed to ensure high quality recordings for release. Humans inevitably had inconsistencies, either in voice or instruments.

How diversity helped: Exxon engineer Andy Hildebrand had spent 18 years working in seismic data exploration. He developed a technique using a mathematical model called autocorrelation. His approach involved sending sound waves into the ground and then recording their reflections.

It turns out autocorrelation is also good for detecting pitch in music as well. Hildebrand, who had taken some music classes, recognized an opportunity to improve the quality of music. He introduced Auto-Tune to the industry. And the rest is history.

In this case, knowledge from one industry – oil exploration – was applied to an entirely different field – music. The cognitive diversity was a conscious application of expertise from one realm to another.

Reference: New Yorker Magazine, The Gerbil’s Revenge


 

While the most natural human tendency is to depend on those we know with expertise in a given, the preceding examples show the value of getting fresh perspectives. When everyone “knows what we know”, it’s time to expand your options.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Avoiding innovation errors through jobs-to-be-done analysis

The lean startup movement was developed to address an issue that bedeviled many entrepreneurs: how to introduce something new without blowing all your capital and time on the wrong offering. The premise is that someone has a vision for a new thing, and needs to iteratively test that vision (“fail fast”) to find product-market fit. It’s been a success as an innovation theory, and has penetrated the corporate world as well.

In a recent post, Mike Boysen takes issue with the fail fast approach. He argues that better understanding of customers’ jobs-to-be-done (i.e. what someone is trying to get done, regardless of solutions are used) at the front-end is superior to guessing continuously about whether something will be adopted by the market. To quote:

How many hypotheses does it take until you get it right? Is there any guarantee that you started in the right Universe? Can you quantify the value of your idea?

How many times does it take to win the lottery?

Mike advocates for organizations to invest more time at the front end understanding their customers’ jobs-to-be-done rather than iteratively guessing. I agree with him in principle. However, in my work with enterprises, I know that such an approach is a long way off as a standard course of action. There’s the Ideal vs. the Reality:

JTBD analysis - innovation ideal vs reality

The top process – Ideal – shows the right point to understand your target market’s jobs-to-be-done. It’s similar to what Strategyn’s Tony Ulwick outlines for outcome-driven innovation. In the Ideal flow, proper analysis has uncovered opportunities for underserved jobs-to-be-done. You then ideate ways to address the underserved outcomes. Finally, a develop-test-learn approach is valuable for identifying an optimal way to deliver the product or service.

However, here’s the Reality: most companies aren’t doing that. They don’t invest time in ongoing research to understand the jobs-to-be-done. Instead, ideas are generated in multiple ways. The bottom flow marked Reality highlights a process with more structure than most organizations actually have. Whether an organization follows all processes or not, the key is this: ideas are being generated continuously from a number of courses divorced from deep knowledge of jobs-to-be-done.

Inside-out analysis

In my experience working with large organizations, I’ve noticed that ideas tend to go through what I call “inside-out” analysis. Ideas are evaluated first on criteria that reflect the company’s own internal concerns. What’s important to us inside these four walls? Examples of such criteria:

  • Fits current plans?
  • Feasible with current assets?
  • Addresses key company goal?
  • Financials pencil out?
  • Leverages core competencies?

For operational, low level ideas inside-out analysis can work. Most of the decision parameters are knowable and the impact of a poor decision can be reversed. But as the scope of the idea increases, it’s insufficient to rely on inside-out analysis.

False positives, false negatives

Starting with the organization’s own needs first leads to two types of errors:

  • False positive: the idea matches the internal needs of the organization, with flying colors. That creates a too-quick mindset of ‘yes’ without understanding the customer perspective. This opens the door for bad ideas to be greenlighted.
  • False negative: the idea falls short on the internal criteria, or even more likely, on someone’s personal agenda. It never gets a fair hearing in terms of whether the market would value it. The idea is rejected prematurely.

In both cases, the lack of perspective about the idea’s intended beneficiaries leads to innovation errors. False positives are part of a generally rosy view about innovation. It’s good to try things out, it’s how we find our way forward. But it isn’t necessarily an objective of companies to spend money in such a pursuit. Mitigating the risk of investing limited resources in the wrong ideas is important.

In the realm of corporate innovation, false negatives are the bigger sin. They are the missed opportunities. The cases where someone actually had a bead on the future, but was snuffed out by entrenched executives, sclerotic processes or heavy-handed evaluations. Kodak, a legendary company sunk by the digital revolution, actually invented the digital camera in the 1970s. As the inventor, Steven Sasson, related to the New York Times:

“My prototype was big as a toaster, but the technical people loved it,” Mr. Sasson said. “But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute — but don’t tell anyone about it.’ ”

It’s debatable whether the world was ready for digital photography at the time, as there was not yet much in the way of supporting infrastructure. But Kodak’s inside-out analysis focused on its effect on their core film business. And thus a promising idea was killed.

Start with outside-in analysis

Thus organizations find themselves with a gap in the innovation process. In the ideal world, rigor is brought to understanding the jobs-to-be-done opportunities at the front-end. In reality, much of innovation is generated without analysis of customers’ jobs beforehand. People will always continue to propose and to try out ideas on their own. Unfortunately, the easiest, most available basis of understanding the idea’s potential starts with an inside-out analysis. The gap falls between those few companies that invest in understanding customers’ jobs-to-be-done, and the majority who go right to inside-out analysis.

What’s needed is a way to bring the customers’ perspective into the process much earlier. Get that outside-in look quickly.

Three jobs-to-be-done tests

In my work with large organizations, I have been advising a switch in the process of evaluating ideas. The initial assessment of an idea should be outside-in focused. Specifically, there are three tests that any idea beyond the internal incremental level should pass:

jobs-to-be-done three tests

Each of the tests examines a critical part of the decision chain for customers.

Targets real job of enough people

The first test is actually two tests:

  1. Do people actually have the job-to-be-done that the idea intends to address?
  2. Are there enough of these people?

This is the simplest, most basic test. Most ideas should pass this, but not all. As written here previously, the Color app was developed to allow anyone – strangers, friends – within a short range to share pictures taken at a location. While a novel application of the Social Local Mobile (SoLoMo) trends, Color actually didn’t address a job-to-be-done of enough people.

A lot better than current solution

Assuming a real job-to-be-done, consideration must next be given to the incumbent solution used by the target customers. On what points does the proposed idea better satisfy the job-to-be-done than what is being done today? This should be a clear analysis. The improvement doesn’t have to be purely functional. It may better satisfy emotional needs. The key is that there is a clear understanding of how the proposed idea is better.

And not just a little better. It needs to be materially better to overcome people’s natural conservatism. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman discusses two factors that drive this conservatism in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

  • Endowment effect: We overvalue something we have currently over something we could get. Think of that old saying, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.
  • Uncertainty effect: Our bias shifts toward loss aversion when we consider how certain the touted benefits of something new are. The chance that something doesn’t live up to its potential looms larger in our psyche, and our aversion to loss causes to overweight the probability that something won’t live up to its potential.

In innovation, the rule-of-thumb that something needs to be ten times better than what it would replace reflects our inherent conservatism. I’ve argued that the problem with bitcoin is that it fails to substantially improve our current solutions to payments: government-issued currency.

Value exceeds cost to beneficiary

The final test is the most challenging. It requires you to walk in the shoes of your intended beneficiaries (e.g. customers). It’s an analysis of marginal benefits and costs:

Value of improvement over current solution > Incremental costs of adopting your new idea

Not the costs of the company to provide the idea, but those that are borne by the customer. These costs include monetary, learning processes, connections to other solutions, loss of existing data, etc. It’s a holistic look at tangible and intangible costs. Which admittedly, is the hardest analysis to do.

An example where the incremental costs didn’t cover the improvements is of a tire that Michelin introduced in the 1990s. The tire had a sensor and could run for 125 miles after being punctured. A sensor in the car would let the driver know about the issue. But for drivers, a daunting issue emerged: how do you get those tires fixed/replaced? They required special equipment that garages didn’t have and weren’t going to purchase. The costs of these superior tires did not outweigh the costs of not being able to get them fixed/replaced.

Recognize your points of uncertainty

While I present the three jobs-to-be-done tests as a sequential flow of yes/no decisions, in reality they are better utilized as measures of uncertainty. Think of them as gauges:

JTBD tests - certainty meters

Treat innovation as a learning activity. Develop an understanding for what’s needed to get to ‘yes’ for each of the tests. This approach is consistent with the lean startup philosophy. It provides guidance to the development of a promising idea.

Mike Boysen makes the fundamental point about understanding customers’ jobs-to-be-done to drive innovation. Use these three tests for those times when you cannot invest the time/resources at the front end to understand the opportunities.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Radio Show Interview: Collaborative Innovation at Scale

The area of collaborative innovation is a natural extension of the social business movement. It’s the extension of social into purposeful collaboration, a term Alan Lepofsky uses to describe the evolution of the social business market.

In the innovation-focused radio show, Women Who Innovate, host LeAnna Carey, innovation expert John Lewis and I talk about collaborative innovation at scale. In other words, what are the benefits of, issues with, and techniques for getting hundreds and thousands of people to share ideas and insights, toward a common goal. It’s a different task than getting small teams to collaborate. The recording of the show is below:

This event had a unique twist. It was run in conjunction with the weekly innovation conversation on Twitter, Innochat. In both the radio show on on Twitter, the following topics were covered:

  1. How important is it to get diverse people to contribute to innovation, vs. singular creatives to generate innovations?
    • Doesn’t Steve Jobs point to the primacy of singular genius?
    • What is the model for cognitive diversity to generate innovation outcomes?
  2. What differentiates sharing in large groups vs. small teams?
    • How much does familiarity mean trust?
    • How to handle different personalities that will intersect?
  3. In environments where employee skepticism reigns, how do you change attitudes to open up sharing?
    • What are the ways in which skepticism can creep in?
    • What is the #1 issue that must be addressed?
  4. What are motivations for employees to contribute to an innovation program?
    • How much does “what’s in it for me?” come into play?
    • What are the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations?
  5. What techniques help drive participation in crowdsourced innovation programs?
    • What influence do senior executives have?
    • What influence does peer participation have?
    • How can gamification drive greater participation?

It was a thorough, fast-paced discussion. If you’re considering crowdsourced innovation programs, it’s worth a listen.

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

Talk-n-Tweet | Collaborative Innovation at Scale

Previously, I’ve described Why Crowdsourcing Works. Crowdsourcing is a case where you get many people who don’t one another collaborating toward a defined outcome.Talk-n-Tweet Collaborative Innovation at ScaleTo reiterate the principle points about the value of crowdsourcing:

  • Diverse inputs drive superior solutions
  • Cognitive diversity requires spanning gaps in social networks

Simple enough, yet actually a rich field for work and analysis. To that end, I invite to two events happening simultaneously on Thursday 25 September 2014 (12 noon Eastern):

  • LeAnna Carey’s radio show (link)
  • Twitter Innochat (link)

I’ll be on the radio show talking with Lea Carey, Renee Hopkins and John Lewis. At the same time, the weekly #innochat will follow along with the radio program. It’s a unique chance to blend live conversation with online discussion. The main questions to be tackled will be:

  1. How important is it to get diverse people to contribute to innovation, vs. singular creatives to generate innovations?
    • Doesn’t Steve Jobs point to the primacy of singular genius?
    • What is the model for cognitive diversity to generate innovation outcomes?
  2. What differentiates sharing in large groups vs. small teams?
    • How much does familiarity mean trust?
    • How to handle different personalities that will intersect?
  3. In environments where employee skepticism reigns, how do you change attitudes to open up sharing?
    • What are the ways in which skepticism can creep in?
    • What is the #1 issue that must be addressed?
  4. What are motivations for employees to contribute to an innovation program?
    • How much does “what’s in it for me?” come into play?
    • What are the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations?
  5. What techniques help drive participation in crowdsourced innovation programs?
    • What influence do senior executives have?
    • What influence does peer participation have?
    • How can gamification drive greater participation?

As a reminder, the event time across time zones:

Thursday 25 September 2014
9 am Pacific
12 noon Eastern
6 pm Central European Time

I look forward to hearing your take on this issue.

Bring customers into the idea review process

Say you’ve got some internal ideas at your company. Who takes a look at them? Assesses them to determine next steps for each idea? Figures out the value and difference the ideas can make?

How about your own customers?

I talk a lot about jobs-to-be-done here, and getting a firm grip on those to understand where innovation and product enhancement opportunities lie. But sometimes that’s not realistic. Ideas come from many sources, and more likely than not, fail to reflect hard analysis of jobs-to-be-done. But customer feedback is valuable. Any idea which can touch on customers’ experience – products, services, support, pricing, deliver, knowledge – can benefit from their perspectives.

The concept sounds right, yes? But it’s also something that’s somewhat scary. I know this because I asked innovation executives for a number of large companies what they thought of it. There was hesitancy to the concept of bringing customers into what is generally an internal – and often murky at best – process of evaluating ideas.

In my post, What if customers evaluated your company’s ideas?, five areas are examined to de-scarify this idea:

  • Differentiating from focus groups
  • Profile of right customers to involve
  • Type of ideas
  • Ways to engage customers in the evaluation process
  • What criteria make sense?

Give it a read, and see if this is something you’d consider.

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

Enterprise gamification…yes or no? Twitter #innochat Thursday May 22

What do you think about gamification for the enterprise? Smart innovation that helps deliver results? Or horrible idea that treats people as Pavlovian animals? Well, this week’s #innochat will examine that question.

#innochat? What’s that, you ask?

#innochat is a weekly conversation that takes place on Twitter, covering topics related to innovation. It’s open to anyone and is a great chance to add your perspective, learn how others view the topic, engage in a debate, and make connections. The general format:

  • Use the #innochat hashtag in your tweets
  • Follow the moderator, usually Drew Marshall or John Lewis, who will post the questions for the discussion
  • 4 or 5 questions are used to structure the conversation

#innochat runs for one hour every Thursday at the same time:

Innochat clocks

It’s my pleasure to be the guest for this week’s #innochat. For our topic, I’ve chosen: Applying gamification to enhance innovation outcomes. Click that link to read the framing post, and here are the four questions that will structure the discussion.

  1. What is your definition of gamification?
  2. True or false: Gamification is fundamentally about points, badges and leaderboards. Why?
  3. Given a magic wand, how would you use gamification to enhance innovation outcomes?
  4. What are the potential negative outcomes from gamification?

Share what you think about gamification. See you Thursday May 22, 2014.

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

 

Positive Deviance vs. Best Practices

Over time, I’ve seen people write disparagingly about the use of best practices in innovation. A recent example of this comes from Paul Martin in Say ‘Best Practice’ again, I dare you. As Paul notes:

For me the term ‘Best Practice’ conjures up images of a race toward uniform mediocrity, led by those who follow the crowd.

I understand his position. It’s a version of fast-following in a way, where people do not take a fresh look at an activity. They just follow what others are doing. You may share his passion for banishing ‘best practices’. Although be careful there. Some things really don’t need innovation if they’re not critical to a company’s differentiation and growth. For instance, if there are best practices for closing the accounting books on a quarterly basis, what issue of mediocrity is there?

The issue with best practices appears to be:

  • It’s done by an organization with which you compete
  • It propagates the status quo rather than break new ground
  • It doesn’t differentiate you, so why would you do just do what everyone else does?

There is a form of “best practices” that doesn’t violate the above. It’s called positive deviance.  Positive deviants are people who deviate from the norm and achieve superior results for an activity. They don’t have access to different resources than others. They just do things differently. A great example comes from Vietnam. The Save the Children organization wanted to address the pervasive malnourishment of children. In conducting field research, they came across families that had very healthy children. What were they doing differently? They fed their children the crabs and shrimp that were around their village. These protein-rich animals were available everywhere, but were disdained as trash, not worthy of consumption. Yet, these same disdainers had children who were malnourished.

Best practices indeed!

The point here is that positive deviance is a form of best practice that is:

  • Emergent
  • Based on experimentation
  • Consistent with internal community norms and context

While best practices may come from consultants and media coverage, positive deviance is more localized. And it’s often hidden. People aren’t openly talking about what they’re doing different. I liken this to William Gibson’s famous observation:

The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

Why not change that? In my post, Beyond Ideation: Four Fresh Ways to Generate Innovation, I talk about running campaigns for four different types of insight:

  1. Challenge orthodoxy
  2. What’s working (i.e. positive deviance)
  3. Problem-sourcing
  4. Trendscouting

These are different ways to use crowdsourcing beyond the normal ideation use case. Including finding your positive deviants.

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

 

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.

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.