Innovation – is Analytical

Steve Brady’s series on innovation continues, this time on the analytics of innovation.

"All businesses, no matter how strong they seem to be at a given moment, ultimately fail - and almost always because they failed to innovate." - Thomas K. McCraw, Prophet of Innovation

Often we glamorize innovation and those who innovate.  We view innovation as something requiring great intellect or creativity.  We think of innovation as being a product of “serendipity” or accidental discovery.  The reality is something quite different.  While innovation may start as an idea, or perhaps a “Dream” the process of moving from the idea to realization, and then to the market, is far more robust, and requires discipline, teamwork, and analysis. 


In the last article, I quoted Larry Page in his introduction to Eric Schmidt’s book, How Google Works.  In that article, I highlighted that innovation is “people.”  And it’s true.  Pick up any book on innovation and the role of teams is a persistent theme.  But Larry Page also highlighted something else--”starting from real-world physics and figuring out what’s actually possible.”  So innovation requires people, but also an understanding of the problem, the nature of the world around the problem, and what some call “the science of the possible.”

In order to truly innovate companies need to not only embrace a culture of innovation (one that allows for failure) but also a create a process that develops and encourages teams to form with the right skillsets to match the innovation.  In their book Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs the authors make the case that Innovation is a team sport. They even go on to say that organizations that rely on individuals alone for innovation will fail.  


So how does one build an innovative and analytical  team?

As Larry Page mentions, one needs to understand the real-world physics of the problem.  Of course, not all of us live in the world of Google where you actually are dealing with the actual “physics” of a problem.  But the general principle is clear:  it is critical to understand the nature of the innovation.  

Is your innovation a new product or item? (Product)  An innovation in how you serve your customers? (Service)  Does your innovation change the way you do things? (Process)  Each of these (and several other types) require a different set of skills.  A different collection of “physicists” who understand the nature of the problem they are facing.  These could include engineers who truly understand the mechanics of a device or a tool.  But it could just as easily include people from a “softer” background such as customer service, marketing, or sales. Or perhaps from finance, who understand the “physics” of funding innovations. Or even, dare we say it, the Logisticians who understand the physics of distribution, and inventory, and supply chain integration.

There are about as many ideas (and books) on how to put together teams as there are people to place in them.   I have found that the best way to build the teams is to focus on the human element of the problem.  

Start with the customer--who is the innovation designed to help, and what people in the company best identify with them?  If the customer of the innovation is your ultimate customer then perhaps your marketing team can provide the needed inputs.  Or your sales team, since they are your front line, engaging with the customers regularly.  These are the people that will help shape the innovation to ensure that the team doesn’t just solve a problem “for the sake of the problem” (what I have heard called a “self-licking ice cream cone”) but will really meet a need.  Google has recently announced an effort to develop online tools for children (under the age of 13.)  Why did this come about?  According to Pavni Diwanji, their vice president in charge of the effort, everyone at Google is having kids.   So Google as a company is building their products based in part on what they would use--knowing that they actually represent an actual customer base.

Remember as well that the customer, or the recipient of the innovation, might not be outside the company.  Many innovations change how we operate internally.  Changes to warehouse operations, ranging from the high tech use of robotics, or drones, to the “low tech” changes to the floorplan for ease of operations, can all be innovations. Not every innovation has to be a brand new idea--perhaps it’s new to your industry, or even to your company.

Next, look at those in your company that are currently working in the area.  Is this a process innovation?  Bring in those who are currently using the process.  They will be critical in identifying weaknesses, and strengths, in the existing process.  Is it a product innovation?  Bring in not only designers and engineers that are responsible for the creation of the product, but also bring in the manufacturing team.  Make sure that the team hears from those that will face the challenge of manufacturing.  Again--understanding the “physics” of what is in the realm of the possible.

Finally, bring in a coordinator and facilitator--someone who can not only bring the team together, but can keep the focus on the innovation.  Too often innovative ideas can be derailed by allowing too much time. Too much time to discuss.  To “brain storm.”  To “think.”  Yes, the team needs to ensure they properly evaluate the problem, and ensure the innovative idea, or process, or service, is fully developed, but that means staying on target, and remaining focused.

One warning:  Beware the “Devil’s Advocate.”  Tom Kelly, in his book The Ten Faces of Innovation, warns us that:

Rather than support and grow the ideas of their team members, the Devil’s Advocate assumes the most negative possible perspective to quash fledgling concepts, often doing so with those oft-heard words, “Let me just play Devil’s Advocate for a minute…” This person represents a subtle yet toxic danger to your organization’s cause, greatly diminishing the chance for innovation with their negativity and naysaying.

The challenge here is to encourage positive, rather than negative, engagement.  The temptation is great to say “That won’t work…”  or “We don’t have the money…” WIth a team of experts, many of whom are dealing with the existing product or processes, that temptation is even greater.  Any new idea or innovation threatens the status quo, and could be seen as upsetting the apple cart.  The coordinator and facilitator in particular needs to be ever vigilant, working to turn “we can’t” into a “what if…”  Certainly, the “physics” of the problem places limits on the feasibility of a problem, but always as the question “is there another way?”

Being innovative may seem to belong to the realm of “the Creative” or the engineers.  It’s important to keep in mind that it really is instead a team sport.  As the authors of “Ten Types of Innovation” say, “Innovation isn’t the work of only scientists, engineers, or marketers; it’s the work of an entire business and its leadership.”


NEXT:  Innovation is Action


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