Month: April 2010

42: Why innovation is a hard sell.

This is an argument about semantics. But semantics can be decisively important.

I build and market tools that enable companies to make better use of the intelligence, insight, experience and output of their workforce. I do this because this is nearly all I ever think about (excepting chocolate, coffee and my kids).

Many people I work with, and in the industry, wish to market these collaborative tools by suggesting that they drive or improve the process or outcome of innovation. I always hesitate to adopt this as our positioning.

Here’s why. “Innovation” is a vague and misunderstood term. Most executives pay lip-service to wanting to be innovative. They don’t mean it, and you can’t sell it to them. Its not that these guys (women too) are stodgy or against “innovation”, its just that they don’t really believe in it (because we don’t really know what “it” is – and something is generally labeled as innovative after the fact – not up front). You can’t depend on “innovation” because you can’t predict it. You can’t create business plans that depend on “a great miracle happens here”. See that? I just equated innovation to a miracle. And I think that’s how many organizations see innovation – as a miracle to be prayed for. And most organizations are non-believers.

There are a number of “innovation management” and “idea management” products and methodologies out there. Some are superbly good at it. Many now invite the public into “collaborative” forums for business brainstorming. They collect, manage, rate, evaluate. Some have been brilliantly successful – like at Starbucks or Dell. How much has this type of innovation moved the bottom line for these companies? I don’t know, but not that much, I think. Currently, these initiatives likely pay off more in good will and customer insight than they do in direct business results (a plenty good enough reason to use them). NASA and DARPA have both crowdsourced remarkable solutions to remarkable problems. Of course crowdsourcing is another subject, and shouldn’t be confused with ideation or innovation – (though ideation is a valid use case for crowdsourcing).

You’ll notice that I’ve put quotation marks around “innovation” throughout. That’s because I believe that this word has been misunderstood and poorly defined in society. So I’m going to use some other terms. The most important one is problem solving.

Every enterprise has problems to solve – you’re trying to solve a problem for your market – that’s why they give you money. You have the problem of figuring out what that problem is, who has it, and how best to solve it. You have organizational problems – how do we structure the organization so that its most effective? (What does most effective mean?). What kind of infrastructure do we need and how do we build it? You have product design problems – how do we create a solution in a timely, cost effective manner that meets a users needs? How do we distribute it? How much should we charge? Who should pay? How do we anticipate market changes? How do we compete?

What I’m saying here is that even if you can’t take the seemingly dramatic leap of faith that “innovation” would appear to require, you undoubtedly need to solve problems of all kinds.

So I am driving the focus to Solving Problems. How do you help solve problems? In the past, the best method was divide and conquer – and in fact most organizational structures are designed to support that. But problems are getting harder, more complex, less divisible. So how do you solve irreducible problems?

First, you get rid of the distractions – by enabling effective communications, shared workspaces, and eliminating geographical and time-zone inconveniences. OK – that’s the (relatively) easy stuff. Now to the hard part.

I will argue that there are 3 core challenges that make problem solving hard. It is these areas where we must focus if we are to truly take advantage of all this new technology and methodology, techniques and so forth. I’ve based this on wide reading, interviewing and experience, and I’m building a bibliography (which I’d welcome your contributions to). but for now – please accept this as the raw thinking it is.

Number 1
42: Anybody here that hasn’t read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?

My point of course is that the hard thing is framing and articulating the problem – what is the goal?

The hardest part of solving the most difficult problems is asking the right question. And getting a wide variety of people to agree on that isn’t the easiest thing either. This is the difference between what is often labeled “innovation” – that is ideation and brainstorming – versus directed problem solving. The goal isn’t to come up with a million ideas and pick one, the idea is to ask a very specific question, and come up with a million possible solutions, evaluate them and, the most important thing – execute and implement. This confusion of innovation and ideation is not helpful. Innovation isn’t about ideas, innovation is about using ideas. Oh right – we’re not innovating – we’re problem solving.

Number 2
Aligning Stakeholders
This, in fact is a key part of Number 1 – that is if you have 2 dozen people involved, you might have 3 dozen or more world views and perspectives on the problem. Creating a shared understanding of the problem, or a “Common Operating Picture”, as the say in the military, is critical to aligning, and leveraging the various stakeholders.

There are methodologies, tools (don’t get me started on mindmaps – I find them useful for brainstorming, but not much else most people disagree with me on this, so you’re in good company).

But most people agree that having a visualization of the problem in some form (preferably digital, interactive and evolving) is central to understanding, aligning and solving the problem.

Number 3:
Execution
Once the problem has been framed, and stakeholders aligned (not necessarily in that order) the solving part of problem solving begins.

– Come up with potential solutions – through research (what do we have internally, what is out there in the world?), ideation, brainstorming, and great debates.
– Develop a plan – the plan should become part of the common operating picture, keeping stakeholders aligned, and making it vastly easier to identify roadblocks, new challenges and assumptions that proved false.
– Execute – and likely many of the execution steps must reflect a similar process (recursive problem solving, recursive leadership…).
– Gauge progress
– Identify barriers, problems and new information
– Spiral toward solution.

In other words, if we want to assist organizations and society as a whole in solving hard problems, the answer isn’t innovation, social media, crowdsourcing, networking or whatever – though those can be invaluable tools along the way. What we need to do is eliminate barriers and facilitate the divergent and convergent thinking required to get the job done. For more on this, I strongly recommend Nancy Dixon‘s scholarly, yet readable discussion of problem solving, and her excellent list of resources.

In summing up. I think innovation is a hard sell, because people don’t know what it means, and feel its not something you can take to the bank. Problem solving, however is what we each face day to day. Its what we excel at – and what we want to be doing is facilitating that process. In trying to sell you innovation, I’m selling you a dream, in selling you Problem Solving, I’m addressing a real need.

Agree? No?

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Frictionless Media – or why Open Text Media Management 7 is a big deal


My team is celebrating the launch of Media Management 7.0 from Open Text. And so, I’m wondering this:
What would you do, if you could wave a magic wand, and suddenly you could create any kind of rich media experience and deliver it anywhere, to whomever you wanted with no talent, technology or process to hold you back?

How would you better entertain, persuade and inform your organization? Your Market? Your customers?

A number of companies are doing just that these days. And they aren’t limited to media companies. Burberry is transforming the luxury goods market by doing extraordinary things with media – including allowing anyone in the world (with a good, fat internet connection) to participate in its runway shows, and even design its next products.

But what is holding companies back? Organizations of every type are relying and leveraging media more and more for everything from instruction guides to marketing to training to supply chain management – but there are barriers.

First – not everyone can create beautiful, impactful media. Some organizations spend fortunes on outside agencies to produce it for them. But what are they paying for? The bulk of it is for the essence of that media, and the talent and vision of the agency. But a not insubstantial chunk is to maintain that media on the company’s behalf so that it can be reused and repurposed. That may not be the best use of cash.

Those organizations that create media internally have a specialized set of almost universally over-burdened creative teams who again, spend the bulk of their time practicing their craft and applying their talent and vision, but a very significant part of their time, reviewing, managing versions and comments (often contradictory) from an ever increasing set of stakeholders. I don’t believe that anyone involved in this process – the creatives or their stakeholders – wouldn’t appreciate an easier way to get it done.

Then there are the technical issues. Media comes in so many formats, the files are so big, it can be darn hard to manage them so that they can be found (by the appropriate people) and used (in the appropriate way). In some media focused organizations the burden of finding and storing leads to warehouses full of material and small (or sometimes large) armies of archivists who are the keepers, and often accidental gatekeepers, to this material.

The result? The great media you’ve invested in sits on shared drives (a recent AIIM survey shows that nearly 50% of organizations keep their media on a shared drive somewhere) out of site, and out of mind, meaning lots of lost opportunities, inconsistent use and unnecessary creation of additional media which then gets thrown back into that increasingly impenetrable pile of media.
Or begins to create yet another.

The we can talk about publishing and distribution. Your media can only have impact when its in front of other people – whether that’s a youtube video, your website, Hulu, iPad, kindle, or a poster, the more you get it out there, the more opportunity you have to inform, entertain and persuade.

But its hard. There are not nearly enough standards in this very rapidly evolving media world. And the process of packaging up, formatting, re-encoding, and transforming media is very time consuming. And every new destination has its own set of requirements. So companies tend to resist publishing to new places because its hard and expensive.

These are the barriers that Open Text Media Management 7.0 is designed to take down. Findability, workflow, access, reuse and automation combine together in a new, thoughtfully designed user interface to make it easier and less costly for your organization to effectively produce, manage, publish and re-purpose media.

While there are a extraordinary breadth of uses for and types of media, there are really 4 basic processes that are common to nearly every use case we need to do with it.

1. Creation – it has to come from somewhere, and in many cases this is very hard.

2. Publication – with all the new places that media can be published, companies can’t afford to spend hours, even days, prepping each piece for distribution to each channel. Whether its print, partners, web, ebook, TV or theatres, you want to automate this process.

3. Repurpose – the primary barrier to reusing media is finding it. you can’t use what you can’t find, and media is notoriously difficult to find. Media Management software makes media findable.

4. Manage
Media has a lifecycle and a purpose. Rights, royalties, and dozens of other dimensions, both technical, business, content focused and aesthetic. OTMM

While I normally write about social media and collaboration, media itself is a big part of what is transforming within and without organizations. The democratization of publishing, and the saturation of broadband has meant that media is simply playing a bigger and bigger role in how we communicate – as people and organizations. Media Management software takes (much of) the friction out of the process so that you can focus on the essence of the experience.
Want to see a little bit of demo? Let me know what you think, please.