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:
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?

Focusing on the Ends, rather than the Means

Collaboration is a means, not an end. I’ve said it, others have said it. Great. Good. Now lets focus on some of those ends – Many of which have been in the news and media this last couple of weeks for a wide variety of reasons. Some of these ends include:

1. Connecting the Dots

2. Engagement and Motivation

3. Efficiency

4. Innovation

In other words, our hope and expectation is that collaborative environments enable us to be better, smarter, faster, more fulfilled and more fulfilling.

1. Starting with number one, Connecting the Dots:

The big ticket item this week comes from the intel community, or really, our president. To wit:

The front page of the Washington Post had this quote today: “This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” Obama said after meeting with senior national security and intelligence officials, “it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had. . . . That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.”

This was a failure to connect the dots.

No single data point on Abdulmutallab was particularly concerning, but in aggregate, they were certainly worth pulling him over at customs. (Heck – I get pulled over regularly, and I swear that I’m  deeply patriotic, loyal and completely harmless.)

Some data points: His father warned the US Embassy in Nigeria that he had become radical in his religious beliefs, and could be a terrorist. This could simply be a matter of a religious boy becoming estranged from his family – a not uncommon event, that added his name to one, very large, not tightly watched database.

He held a US visa. As do a gagillion other people.

His wherabouts were unclear or unknown for a long time. Hmm.

He bought his airline ticket with cash.

There were intercepts that mentioned someone that could have been him and a holiday period attack.

I don’t pretend to know all the facts, but this wikipedia page at least pretends to (I would be very carefully trusting its accuracy at this stage of the game).

The point is that for this information to have tripped an alarm, it would have had to come together in a cumulative manner, where it was obvious that while there were no really red flags, there were enough yellow ones to take a closer look.

Was this a failure of technology? Yes. Of process? yes. of Culture? Yes.

Is this problem something you face in your business? Probably. If you work in technology, law, medicine, pharmaceuticals or any business where thinking and problem solving is key. Though the stakes may be lower. Maybe.

Collaborative environments allow for maximum information sharing, common operating pictures and objective and heterogeneous analysis. This is an important step on the road to connecting the dots, but we need to dig down much further. Nancy Dixon has done some fascinating research and writing on heterogeneous problem solving, and she’s on my list today to reach out to.

2. Next lets talk about Engagement and Motivation. Daniel Pink just published an exciting book called “Drive“. I confess that I haven’t read it yet, but I heard him talk about it this morning on NPR. He postulates that humans strive for autonomy and that if you want great results that truly reflect their capabilities as humans, then you must give them that autonomy.

Collaborative cultures are about leveraging mutual autonomy. Really about respecting and leveraging individual expertise – aggregating it and reinforcing it with that of others.

The Conference Board just released a study showing a profound drop in job satisfaction in the last 20 years, with only 45% of people satisfied with their work. This drop crosses every  boundary of job level, company type, education, salary, age, etc. While the survey does not suggest a cause or a remedy, we know that collaborative culture is more engaging than command and control structures.

This may be the squishiest and least respective of the potential values and ends of collaboration, but that may be naive. Do you wonder why your business isn’t better? Why your results aren’t better? Why you struggle to get things done as a business? Gee, if the majority of your employees couldn’t care less, that would be one answer, wouldn’t it?

Will collaboration help reverse this critical trend? Apparently there’s quite a bit of data to suggest that it can. I’ll be working on collecting this. Let me know if you have good pointers.

3. Efficiency.

A great talk by John Seddon (thanks for the pointer, Ken) talks about systems thinking, and the benefits of tracking value rather than metrics or costs. He talks about the nonsense that comes from looking at the wrong goal, and, indirectly, the difficulty of setting good goals.

We know that collaborative teams get more done more quickly. This is partly due to engagement, partly due to avoiding the stupid stuff like cycling documents through email and ridiculous processes (not all process is ridiculous, some is fabulously important, but knowing the diff is key) and absent decisionmaking.

We also know that collaborative teams are more effective at project management and that collaborative project management can be very effective at identifying roadblocks, clarifying goals tracking progress, and solving problems. The wildly popular, but (in my opinion) rarely understood Agile Development method is an example of this.

[I just spent an hour researching what we “know” about efficiency. Lets just say that there’s a lot of opinion, and little fact (that’s readily available through google. Many of this opinion resonates as very true. Fact is generally anecdotal – lots of great management books, but little real research. This may be partially because we don’t know how to define or measure efficiency – its a bit like pornography – we know it when we see it. DO you have a reference?] So – note to self and the rest of us – document efficiency effects of teamwork.

Process can be agile, but it usually isn’t. Collaborative culture helps to build efficient, repeatable processes that embody learning and best practices so that energy can focus on figuring out the new and novel. Unfortunately, the vast majority of process is a beauracracy trying to turn people into dumb operators. People don’t like that very much, and the outcomes are generally awful. We all intuitively know this. Watch the John Seddon video I linked to above – you’ll love it.

Oh – and check out this great slide deck by my esteemed colleage, Michael Edson. It talks about process and capability maturity in a way that doesn’t make you want to fall asleep, run away or gag.

4. Innovation.

This is also extremely difficult to measure, but we seem to be seeing that giving everyone in the organization, as well as its customers,  a voice, and by enabling the back and forth that comes from truly constructive teams, we create an environment that quickly identifies problems and  unique solutions to them. This is, in fact, the definition of innovation – the ability to see things differently and act on them in kind.

In the nineties, technical innovation took place in tiny startups that were gobbled up by big companies. Recent events have made that model more difficult, so people need to figure out how to innovate within larger companies. How do you make a large company act like a small one?

Enable teams of focused passionate people to exist outside the borg, that’s how. Enable ideas to circulate widely. Use the resources of a large company to quickly vet and improve the ideas of small, innovative teams. We could go on.

I’ll be documenting any and all info I find (and I have some, somewhere) on small team innovation and its importance to great companies.

I’ve long argued (around work at least) that real work is a golden braid of collaboration, process and project management, and that we must have all three to really meet the needs. But I’m now focusing beyond these capabilities and toward what they enable as a way to look at what we deliver and how.

You can expect these ends to be an important part of the discussion for how we move forward. Its going to be  very interesting year….