Having spent the last five years in front-end innovation and now moving into a new role managing an innovation process I have come across a few must-do’s when it comes to enabling innovation in companies. Innovation is one of those hip words that is back on the agenda after everyone has cost-cut their way out of trouble and Total Quality Managed themselves until even the morning coffee making adheres to a strict Six Sigma process. There is a lot of expectation on Innovation to deliver prosperity for all. The trouble with innovation is that it is a delicate thing and there are more ways of doing it wrong that there are for doing it right. To keep things simple I have tried to gather some fundamentals into this post, the must-do’s if you like – so the thinking is that if you manage to do these you are already halfway there to being a successful innovator.
1) None of us are as smart as all of us
Many companies leave the ‘innovating’ to a group of select few, thinking that only this way there will be someone dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this thinking, it is more the attitude and role people play in this situation. Innovators are at best facilitators, great listeners and connectors who bring together people from many parts of the company to distill the best thinking from around and turn it into bankable opportunities. This is the best case scenario, however more often than not these experts are easily be tempted to withdraw from the greater hustle and bustle of the organisation to concentrate on ‘innovating’ in peace.
For innovation to happen and make it to the market you need everyone and even more importantly, you need everyone’s support and insights, because you cannot afford to alienate people from the process of innovation by creating two classes of citizens: those who get to have fun and think of ideas all day long and those, whose job it remains to get on with the daily grind and put food on the table for everyone else. If this is the case you will find that magically, most ideas will get killed before they ever get to market. Why? Because the rest of the organisation became bent on ensuring the ideas from this select crew would never make it further than the Ivory tower. Why? Because by not involving anyone else, there is no reason for anyone else to champion the ideas in the absence of this ‘special’ group. And ideas get killed. Over and over again.
2) Let a thousand flowers bloom
Unfortunately this rather useful title was first mentioned by Chairman Mao and with very unfortunate consequences. Here appropriated to explaining that not every idea has to be a blockbuster. Sufficient numbers of small or incremental innovations can lead to big profits. And many apparently blockbusting innovations are in fact several clever smaller ideas combined together in an unbeatable package. So you never know where that tiny idea might lead, so let it out!
3) Innovation is everywhere
Don’t just stare yourself blind at the next product innovation, innovation can come from anywhere: marketing, production, finance, supply chain, distribution or even the famous janitor who no one ever thinks of asking except in films. And I’m not kidding. It was in fact a janitor who thought of the way to fix a textile company’s problem with thread snapping and made the company fortunes. The only reason his idea was heard was because a new executive joined who was committed to hearing out any idea regardless of where it came and his openness and affability encouraged the janitor to speak up. When asked how long the janitor had had the idea he replied ’30 years’, which goes some way to explaining how much hackneyed focus on a select few ‘problem-solvers’ alone can cost a business in the long run.
4) Don’t strangle the baby before it’s born
The random serendipitous nature of innovation is what usually freaks out anyone whose job it is to stare at a spreadsheet and far too often the rigid controls applied to established product lines and businesses are hurriedly applied to things that are only half-baked and with devastating consequences. The planning, budgeting and reviews just end up strangling the life out of any innovation efforts. Here different approaches need to be put into place and rather than focusing on how much the idea will make when launched, focus efforts on understanding who will want it, why, for what, how often etc. A detailed understanding of the insights to consumers or customers not only benefit the development process, but also highlight mismatches early on.
5) It takes effort to develop an idea, but it takes courage to change it once it has been defined.
It’s hard to get things right the first time, particularly if you are truly trailblazing in a new field. Rather than let this get you down, plan to test things often and with real users – why not involve your potential users in developing the idea, this way you are making sure things don’t get lost in Chinese whispers, but stay customer-focused at all times. Moreover, on another level, companies need to encourage employees to challenge the status quo, if people are rewarded simply for doing what they committed to do, rather than acting as circumstances would suggest, you end up creating a band of yes-men rather than budding entrepreneurs.
6) Lay off the financials, lay on the love instead
Interpersonal skills, connections, sharing the love – whatever you call it, it is what makes companies go around. Albeit loosening the financial measures on innovation, companies should absolutely demand that interpersonal connections between innovation and the rest of the business are there. Innovation is a shared responsibility!
7) Communicate don’t procrastinate
The temptation is always to stick the boffins together and assume that as long as they knock their heads together something bankable will emerge. The trouble is that experts and specialists in narrow fields aren’t always the natural connectors and communicators, patient and willing to explain in lay-man’s terms what the latest great invention is all about. Collaboration is a great lever and connectors are great at unleashing this, so never set up innovation without someone like this on-board. They are worth their gold in building support, connections for the team, bringing people on-board, mobilising help, input and ensuring that there is broad buy-in for the innovation. Moreover, they are great at keeping the team together, it is hard to innovate if no one’s in for the long haul, building trust and team spirit takes time and communication.
On a plane yesterday I was once again indulging my habit of reading random magazines that I pick up at airports while killing time waiting to board. This time equipped with the latest edition of New Scientist (4th November 2006), I stumbled on a fascinating article about Francis Crick, the man who discovered DNA. Apparently nothing like what we normally associate with the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype, Crick was neither eccentric, absent-minded or shy, quite the opposite: extrovert, loud and fond of pretty girls, Crick seemed to be doomed to remain the outsider in an otherwise quite insular scientific community.
Although a man so vividly etched in our minds, courtesy of countless science lessons at school, Crick only got going in his career as a scientist at the age of 31 when he finally gained a research studentship at Cambridge. Prior to this Crick had spent time working on anti-ship mines for the Admiralty and coasted his way through college earning himself a second-class degree in Physics. Matt Ridley’s biography of Francis Crick, the first to appear since he died in 2004, gives an excellent and fast-paced account of a long, astonishing life: Crick could serve as exemplar for late starters and for those who refuse to quit.
What caught my eye in this very entertaining article was the attitude, behaviour and relationships that Crick nurtured through countless visits to the pub, where he claims his best ideas came to him and were developed through endless conversations, especially with a series of close intellectual partners. Among them were Jim Watson, Sydney Brenner and the young neuroscientist Christof Koch, with whom Crick worked for the last 18 years of his life. Special partner or not, the rules were always the same:
” There was no shame in floating a stupid idea, but no umbrage was to be taken if the other person said it was stupid”
To me I couldn’t put it down any better myself – the essence of creative thinking and the openness, frankness and boldness that one needs to display to truly boost creative sessions to the next levels. All too often people either sit and hold in their ideas, for fear of sharing them and others not acknowledging their contribution or even simply for the fear that a ‘stupid’ question or idea would somehow brand them as ‘thick’ for the rest of their lives. Thus far too often discussions end up contrived, or silence ensues and problems don’t get any closer to being solved because inadvertently everyone’s watching each other and taking cues from the collective reluctance rather than pushing the boat out and daring to speak out.
If there ever was a motto for brainstorms – it would have to be the above statement in my mind. Stupid ideas a great if expressed in an environment where people have the guts to say the idea is stupid and why, but moreover, dare to think about what would make the idea less stupid. For any good idea to emerge it will invariably take countless stupid ideas to get the debate going and if everyone can remain objective, refrain from any personal attacks or being spiteful or ironic, those stupid ideas are the blessing which lubricates minds and gets creative juices flowing and before long, behold the truly brilliant idea walk up on stage, take a bow and save the day!
A while ago I wrote about Running Creative Brainstorms, a collection of non-method methods if you like, things I have discovered are essential to the creative process and to getting some really productive brainstorms going. I would now, in retrospect, like to add the above statement to it too, because in my mind it expresses so well the respect and appreciation we need to have for all our colleagues and team members that participate in a creative discussion – nothing shuts down minds and mouths sooner than a sense of not being valued, appreciated and respected in a team!
Few weeks into my new job I have had a rare treat to enjoy – working from home. Now, don’t get me wrong – I have been blessed with the business warrior’s tools of trade for a while, such as a laptop and mobile phone, but mainly because of the habits of my previous team, it always felt awkward to suggest working from home. To be precise: it felt like my boss didn’t think I would be doing as much work as he thought I was doing in the office. Interesting take on the issue of trust – but I reserve that to another post.
Working from home? Well, never mind how far we have got with information technology, computing and connectivity – there is still some stigma attached to this form of working, particularly in a work-obsessed country like Britain, where true men don’t go home before at least 8pm. There has been numerous discussions about this in the press, where working hours have been compared with countries in Europe and conclusions made about the fact that our working hours are in fact getting longer, not shorter despite the advent of so much ‘labour-saving’ technology. In many ways it seems that the ubiquitous connectivity through laptops, blackberries and email means we are perpetually stuck checking them and thus inadvertently our working days stretch far into the evening and our spare-time than they would if we could leave them behind when leaving work.
Back to working from home though – this seems to be either a recipe for extreme productivity in the case of some and the recipe for perpetual distraction for others, all depends who you talk to. This also colours the response you get from people when you inform them that is what you will be doing. Some tell me that the office is an escape mechanism, they actually get some work done when not continuously interrupted by their children or pets, for others home is a cave, a lair where thinking and strategic planning can occur – away from the distractions of office routines. Others struggle with motivation when alone at home, others struggle with it at the office surrounded by chatty or catty colleagues. In any case – it seems that much of this depends on the kind of work you do.
First, you need to be able to assess the type of input your current tasks require. Often our to-do lists are a mixture of all three approaches listed below, but simply being aware of which type of concentration they require makes it easier to plan your day or even plan your ‘Cave’-moments.
1. If your work requires long periods of un-interrupted concentration:
Such as planning, designing, programming, writing proposals, reports and analyses – you need to find a location where you can best do this. The office may not be the perfect place at all, as colleagues like to wander over, ring you or drop you emails which land right in the middle of your flow of consciousness and jolt you from whatever trail of thought you were trying to follow. In those cases, it is important to minimise the amount if distractions, wherever you happen to be;
- close the email and set your messenger status to away or busy:
- run only the application you need at that particular time
- have a comfortable area with a clean desk and nothing around you other than things connected to the task you are working on right now
- listen to music through headphones
- just wear headphones anyway (to make people less inclined to start talking to you from across the room)
- set your phone to forward to answering machine or on silent
- have a cup of coffee or some water handy
- keep a list of the things you need to be thinking about when doing this job
- sketch things out on paper first (think!), move to computer later (execute)
- avoid personal calls or chatting
- have lunch at your desk if necessary
- if you feel stuck, take a break and a piece of notepaper and a pen with you and go sit outside, in the canteen, in the park, another room and let your thoughts focus on some simple pointers: what are the objectives, the deliverables, the enablers, the obstacles, and the time-line?
2. If your work requires short bursts of intensive activity:
Such as phone calls, emails, meetings, routine tasks etc,
- Keep a list of things you need to do, follow the GTD method if necessary
- Avoid scheduling meetings whenever you can, make a habit of dropping by people’s desks instead, particularly if you only need to speak to one person. Most things can be covered this way and followed up with an email if necessary. Meetings are often conducted whilst sitting down, which means people’s thinking slows down too – and time is wasted unnecessarily.
- Meetings are useful if you need to talk to two or more people at
the same time – but unless you distribute an agenda before hand and stick to it, meetings can drag on and be inconclusive, so always make it clear what you want to achieve, make everybody aware of this and stick to the plan rigorously
- Meetings with more than 8 attendees can rarely
accomplish much more than be a form of information distribution and
quick questions and answers, so use them for what they are. Again, have an agenda, be strict with timing and stop discussions going round in circles. Conclusions and actionables is what you want.
- If your intention is simply to update people on the tasks for the week or day ahead, there is nothing wrong with stand-up meetings. I know these have acquired an 80′s yuppie-tinge in some circles, but again – they are very useful for what they are. If you have a set of instructions or information to give your team, gather people up, tell them and get on with it. These meetings should not go on for more than 15 minutes, but it is amazing how much information you can cover in 15 minutes standing up with everyone standing up around you, as opposed to all of you sitting down.
- Before making a phone call, make a list of things you need to cover, accomplish, agree upon or delegate and keep your eye on the list to make sure you cover all the points
- Try to avoid falling into the email trap where virtually all your communication is done via email, talk to people, ring them up and use email as a summary tool wherever possible – not as the tool for first contact.
- Be clear and to the point in your communication, make it clear what you need, and what you will do and want others to do
- Do 3 – 4 short tasks, have a break and come back – persisting too long makes you get slower the longer you persist. If you cannot finish a task in 30 minutes, allocate another time-slot for it later in the day or the next day (depending on your deadlines). If it’s a big task, revert to point one and find yourself space and time for some un-interrupted thinking and concentration.
3. If Your Work Requires Creative Team Input:
Such as brainstorming, problem-solving, concept development, new product development etc.
- These things can seldom be accomplished in busy office environments as the many distractions around us prevent the un-interrupted concentration required not just by you, but the entire team.
- Some good tips on the prerequisites for running good creative brainstorms can be found here
- Get yourself away from the office to a place which is considered ‘neutral’ i.e nobody’s ‘homeground’ so all team members are equal and devoid of all the usual office politics of rank, status and so on.
- Set aside solid time for this, but no more than an hour and a half at the time followed by a break
- End the day summarising your conclusions and be clear about what happens next. When things are fresh in people’s minds, this is also the best time to mobilise people and make it clear who needs to do what. Give people ownership of the outcome.
All in all it’s about analysing each project or task you have, understanding how you need to tackle it, i.e through long periods of intense concentration, short bursts of activity or through creative input and most projects require a combination of all three, which means you need to break the project down into constituent components that can be tackled in one of the three ways mentioned.
If you have a team, these activities apply to them too so it helps if you can be open about your thoughts and planning and make sure people know when all of you need to be together and when it is OK to be in Mode 1 and perhaps work from home, if that is the most conducive place for the person to be able to concentrate and think without being uninterrupted. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else, so be accomodating here.
Big projects in particular come down to planning and not just planning in the sense that you stick some deadlines in a calendar and leave people to it. It’s up to each and every one of the members in a team to assess their to-do lists and decide which of the three modes they need to engage in order to accomplish the tasks and communicate them openly so the team doesn’t end up disintegrating because each member is engaged in their own deliverables and forget that time together is as important as time apart, provided there are clear goals for both.