Malcolm Gladwell’s article How David Beats Goliath is one of the 100 most interesting things I have ever read.
In his book FedEx Delivers: How the World’s Leading Shipping Company Keeps Innovating and Outperforming the Competition, Madan Birla states that his experiences “with one of the most innovative companies in the history of free enterprise—FedEx—and my success in helping other companies become truly innovative” has shown him four key things about innovation:
- Everyone has the capacity to be creative.
- Creativity is a function of the mind and must be understood in the context of a mental model.
- Developing creative people (minds) requires the right mental environment (model) and the right leadership practices.
- A critical mass of creative people will enable the development of an organization-wide culture of innovation.
For his book The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun researched lots of mechanisms similar to Google’s 20% time. He summarizes some observations regarding the most common misconceptions of the concept in a helpful post from a few years ago.
Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence, quoting Theodore Leviit:
The trouble with much of the advice business gets today about the need to be more vigorously creative is that its advocates often fail to distinguish between creativity and innovation.
Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things. . . . A powerful new idea can kick around unused in a company for years, not because its merits are not recognized, but because nobody has assumed the responsibility for converting it from words into action….
If you talk to people who work for you, you’ll discover that there is no shortage of creativity or creative people in American business. The shortage is of innovators.
All too often, people believe that creativity automatically leads to innovation. It doesn’t. . . . The scarce people are the ones who have the know-how, energy, daring, and staying power to implement ideas. . . .
A good post with a letter from Thomas Edison to a young engineer in his company, from the new blog Online MBA.
This is from my notes — I think I got these from an article a few years ago:
- Innovation can come from without as well as within. Apple’s real skill lies in stitching together its own ideas with technologies from outside and then wrapping the results in elegant software and stylish design. Apple is an orchestrator and integrator of technologies, unafraid to bring in ideas from outside but always adding its own twists. This approach is known as network innovation.
- Apple illustrates the importance of designing new products around the needs of the user, not the demands of the technology.
- Apple teaches us that smart companies should sometimes ignore what the market says it wants today.
- Fail wisely. Learn and try again.
The latest issue of Fast Company ranks the world’s 50 most innovative companies and contains a good article on why Facebook is number 1.
When looking for these creative ideas and innovative solutions, it is often said that one should “think outside the box.” But what exactly is this proverbial “box”?
You can think of it as the space in the brain that contains all those bits of information and connections made so far. A dot is a bit of information in the knowledge base. And after solving a problem, repeatedly the same way, the connections become automatic. So, when a person is faced with the same problem, the mind, without any conscious effort presents the old, known solution.
In many ways, the mind operates like a computer. It scans the knowledge base of the memory (mind) to come up with creative solutions. If the knowledge base is old, the ideas generated may be obsolete. If the knowledge base is limited to a very small part of the total business process or operation, then the solution will only take that area into account.
Solutions that are derived from the same thought processes that the mind has used for years are unlikely to be innovative. The requirement for outside-the-box thinking is the ability to make new connections. New connections can be made in one of two ways: (1) having more dots to connect (a new or updated knowledge base) or (2) connecting the old dots in new imaginative ways.
Because creativity is the ability to connect seemingly unrelated variables (the dots we store in our minds) in imaginative ways, employees must continually update their knowledge bases…
Creativity in the business world involves continuously asking “What if . . . ?” Yet when faced with a problem, people tend to quickly lock into “how to” — a quick solution — before exploring all the options.
An easy way to measure the creative environment in an organization is to count how often someone in the company asks questions like “What if we frame the problem this way?” “What if we look at the relationships between these variables?” “What if we explore these options?”
When it comes to innovation, the question is not how to innovate but how to invite ideas. How do you invite your brain to encounter thoughts that you might not otherwise encounter? Creative people let their mind wander, and they mix ideas freely. Innovation often comes from unexpected juxtapositions, from connecting subjects that aren’t necessarily related.
Another way to generate ideas is to treat a problem as though it were generic. If you’re experiencing a particular problem, odds are that other people are experiencing it too. Generate a solution, and you may have an innovation.
Also, here are two very dense and interesting sentences from the article:
“Every piece of the business plays a part, every part is indispensable, every failure breeds success, and every success demands improvement.”
“If the company’s expressed mission is to organize the world’s information, it has a somewhat less exalted but equally important unexpressed commercial mission: to monetize consumers’ intentions.”
Harvard Business Review has a good article on how five discovery skills distinguish true innovators.
Here is the idea in brief, from the site:
The habits of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and other innovative CEOs reveal much about the underpinnings of their creative thinking. Research shows that five discovery skills distinguish the most innovative entrepreneurs from other executives.
• Questioning allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities.
• Through observing, innovators detect small behavioral details—in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies—that suggest new ways of doing things.
• In experimenting, they relentlessly try on new experiences and explore the world.
• And through networking with individuals from diverse backgrounds, they gain radically different perspectives.
• The four patterns of action together help innovators associate to cultivate new insights.
Every business and organization needs to anticipate the future. Failure to anticipate where things are going often results in outdated models that hinder organizational effectiveness. But how do you predict what is going to happen?
You can’t. But one part of the solution is found in the title for a book that Peter Drucker once said he wanted to write: “The Future that has Already Happened.”
Joseph Pine, co-author of The Experience Economy, put it this way: “We see what’s going on in the world — not what will happen, but what is already happening that most people do not yet see. Then we develop frameworks that enable others to see it too and determine what they should do about it.”
In other words, the critical skill for anticipating the future is actually the ability to understand the present. That is, to understand the present in a way that goes beyond the obvious. The way things will go tomorrow is to a large extent a function of what is happening now, but which most of us just don’t have the frameworks to see.
Chip and Dan Heath have a good article on how sometimes you don’t need to “think outside of the box.” Instead, you might just need a different box because constraints can free your team’s thinking.
Tom Peters gives a good example from 3M of what a culture that encourages entrepreneurial activity looks like:
A good staring point as any is [3M's] value system, in particular its “eleventh commandment.” It is: “Thou shalt not kill a new product idea.”
The company may slow it down. Or it may not commit a venture team. But it doesn’t shoot its pioneers.
As one 3M observer notes, the eleventh commandment is at odds with most activities in large corporations. Moreover, he adds, “If you want to stop a project aimed at developing a new product, the burden of proof is on the one who wants to stop the project, not the one who proposes the project. When you switch the burden from proving that the idea is good to the burden of proving that the idea is not good, you do an awful lot for changing the environment within the company with respect to the sponsorship of entrepreneurial people (In Search of Excellence, pp 227-228).
Joe Duffy has a great article at Fast Company on the importance of thinking beyond the notions of a 9-5, in-the-office mentality for keeping fresh, staying engaged, and generating new ideas.
Chip and Dan Heath’s latest article in Fast Company is on how sometimes you don’t need to solve your problem, but instead need to look for the folks who already have.
Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic.
This is a great article by Patrick Lencioni:
Maybe it was just the kind of kid I was, but I’m guessing that most children are constantly reminded by adults to be more efficient. Maybe not exactly in those words. More likely it comes in the form of phrases like “don’t be late”, “use your time wisely”, “don’t waste money” or even “turn off the lights when you leave a room”.
And while it’s difficult to argue with a parent’s or teacher’s or coach’s motivation for instilling these principles in the youngsters they’re responsible for, there comes a time in life—especially in certain situations—when those very traits become problematic. One of those situations is the call to innovation or creativity.
I’ve become convinced that the only way to be really creative and innovative in life is to be joyfully inefficient. Again, maybe it’s just my personality, but I’m guessing it applies to most of us whose jobs or lives involve dreaming up or improving on new ideas. And this makes sense. Asking someone to be both creative and efficient reminds me of that quote from Einstein: “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” The two activities are fundamentally opposed to one another.
Efficiency requires that we subdue our passion and allow it to be constrained by principles of logic and convention. Innovation and creativity require us to toss aside logic and convention, even without the near-term promise of a payoff. Embracing both at the same time seems to me to be a recipe for stress, dissonance and mediocrity, and yet, that is exactly what so many organizations—or better yet—leaders, do.
They exhort their employees to utilize their resources wisely and to avoid waste and redundancy, which makes perfect sense. They also exhort them to be ever-vigilant about finding new and better products or processes, which also makes sense. And yet, combining these two perfectly sensible exhortations makes no sense at all, and only encourages rational, responsible people to find a middle ground, something that is decidedly neither efficient nor innovative.
So what are leaders, who want both, to do? First, choose their poison; decide which of these two characteristics are truly more important and live with the consequences. And when you simply have to have both, create skunkworks efforts which allow a small group of people to be joyfully inefficient. No guilt. No confusion. No hesitation. And keep them largely separate from their efficient peers, at least until they’ve developed their ideas and are ready to share them.
But whatever you do, don’t chide creative, innovative people for their inefficiency. And try to avoid throwing faint praise and backhanded compliments at them (e.g. “I guess you creative types just aren’t capable of hitting a deadline or staying on budget”). Few people have the self-esteem and courage to continue being inefficient when others are calling them out as being flaky, irresponsible and unreasonable. If we’re serious about innovation, we have to celebrate—yes, celebrate—the inefficiency of the people who we rely on for new ideas, even if it means they are late for meetings, they waste a little time or money and they leave the lights on when they go home.
Update: This is from Patrick Lencioni’s monthly email newsletter. It’s not posted on his site yet (as of Thursday morning), but you can find all of his past newsletters there (and this one should be there shortly). I would highly recommend signing up to receive his monthly newsletters, which you can do here.
Good companies should be close to the customer and fanatical about customer service. But this doesn’t mean that they should let the customer lead. Joseph Morone, President of Bentley College, notes that if you only follow the voice of the customer, “you’ll get only incremental advances.”
Doug Atkin, a partner at Merkley Newman Harty, rightly puts it this way:
These days, you can’t succeed as a company if you’re consumer-led — because, in a world so full of so much constant change, consumers can’t anticipate the next big thing. Companies should be idea-led and consumer-informed.” (Quoted in Re-Imagine!: Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, 297).
That is an excellent insight:
Be consumer-informed, but idea-led.
From Seth Godin on why it’s a bad idea for Microsoft to attempt to be “the next Google” with its relaunched search:
Microsoft, home of the Zune, has just announced that they’re going to launch Bing, a rebranding and reformatting of their search engine. So far, they’ve earmarked $100 million just for the marketing.
Bing, of course, stands for But It’s Not Google. The problem, as far as I can tell, is that it is trying to be the next Google. And the challenge for Microsoft is that there already is a next Google. It’s called Google.
Google is not seen as broken by many people, and a hundred million dollars trying to persuade us that it is, is money poorly spent. In times of change, the rule is this:
Don’t try to be the ‘next’. Instead, try to be the other, the changer, the new.
(By the way, this does not deny that there is wisdom in the words “geniuses copy.” Most new things are not wholly original — and shouldn’t be. The key is to take what is indeed excellent from what has been done before — and relevant to what you are doing — but to do it in your own way, integrating it with other excellent ideas [some of which may be unique to you] such that you are creating a new synthesis. That’s how you create something new.)
Creativity Online has a helpful and engaging interview with some folks on where creativity stands and the role it can play during these challenging economic times. Here are three key excerpts:
Sure, times are tough, but history has shown that recessions can lead to innovation and enlightened ways of thinking. Here, creatives reflect on opportunities to be mined on the tough road ahead. Additionally, we present some of the most brilliant breakthroughs to come out during financial slumps.
The campaigns that I am most proud of had little or no budget. When you have no money, the idea has to be fantastic.
Lots of marketers will be under pressure to reduce their budgets. Now, that’s not a great idea because, as The Economist and many others have pointed out: (a) you still have to sell into a down economy (probably harder) and (b) if the competition is pulling back it’s an opportunity to take more of the conversation. But let’s take budget pressure as a reality. You’re a big marketer and you can spend $3 million dollars on 30 seconds in the season finale of Lost. Or you can spend $1.5 million doing something digital that provides conversation value, social value, function. You can do something as or more effective with a lot less money, because digital doesn’t usually carry the same cost of production process and bloat that big splash TV does. That doesn’t mean that spending half as much online makes you twice as smart. You have to use that half of your budget thoughtfully. That’s where creativity and innovation comes in.
According to ZDNet, the above video was “prepared by NASA engineers to demonstrate the problems in any large bureaucracy that values requirements over new ideas, and process over [initiative].” It’s about ten minutes long, but the point is well made within the first two minutes.