Many pundits far and wide talk about how our newest technologies will be eliminating millions of jobs. Artificial Intelligence (AI) mostly, in addition to other new tech, for some reason to many, feels different.
Fill It Full Of Doits, And You’ll Never Be Short Of Ideas
A while back, I wrote a blog post about the two kinds of people in the world, the ShouldWes and the DoIts. You can go back here to read the full post, but in short, the DoIts are the action takers, the ones who see or generate an idea they want to move forward on that idea, no matter if the idea is incremental or disruptive, they want to take the risk and develop the idea, get in in front of customers and see if the idea lives or dies.
They would take ideas which have been considered good by a certain number of people, say possibly voted on or reviewed by a review committee, then apply their gut-feel filter on it (does this ideas seem like it will fly) then figure out some way (if there isn’t already a well-defined process for building and launching these ideas) to get those ideas, in some form, in front of customers. In some cases that means spending a few bucks to build it out (even in a rough form) and launch it to the world (or a small subset of the world). It’s the lean startup model, build an minimum viable product (MVP) and launch it.
Notable examples of some multi-billion dollar businesses which (you may have heard about) started this way – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat – someone had a core idea (a search engine which worked based on link count, an electronic version of a college Facebook, a text-based notification system, a way to share test answers in class) and instead of endlessly discussing the idea and researching the idea and thinking out all possible permutations of developing the idea, including figuring out a business model for the idea, they just built it and launched it.
Whoa, pretty scary idea, eh?
Those ideas could have failed miserably (and I’m sure that there are other versions of those ideas which were launched and did fail miserably) but they didn’t, and they are proof that ideas, when handled by the DoIts, can sometimes generate billion-dollar businesses.
On the other hand, you have the ShouldWes, who when confronted by a new idea (and yes, for some reason they seem to feel like they are confronted by them, right – they feel that reviewing and discussing the idea is a burden) its “oh here we go again – another idea with a ill-defined business model”. Or they may love discussing and researching the idea, endlessly thinking about the idea, all of the possible permutations of the idea.
They dwell in the realm of thought and ideas, never venturing into action or execution at all. They prefer to continuously mull an idea over and over, looking for ways to halt the progress of the idea towards an initial product (or any product for that matter) which could be introduced to their customers. They take the idea and compare it to the culture of the organization (this idea will never fly at Company X, its not how we do things here) or the current ethical atmosphere (this is really against the core principles of our industry) or may, God forbid, actually offend someone (oh boy, when Group X hears about this ideas, they’ll be sure to squash it).
They seem to go out of their way to find ways to dump all over the idea – especially if they are really interesting disruptive ideas which could possibly help a lot of people in huge ways, just because they are not business as usual, highly profitable business models we’ve used or are past-proven within the organization (it doesn’t matter if the model has been proven by others, if we’ve never done it, then it probably can’t be done by us).
There are already tons of ShouldWes in most organizations (interestingly enough, they seem to congregate in the finance areas of many organizations, but can really be found everywhere), but they really have no place in your innovation group. I suggest that if you are building an innovation group from scratch, being a DoIt should be an automatic qualifier, and being a ShouldWe should be an automatic disqualifier. If you’ve already got ShouldWes in your organization, maybe you can find more appropriate places for them elsewhere in the organization? If we are going to “move fast and break things” do we really need someone putting on the brakes and wrapping everything in bubble wrap?
In fact, your entire innovation group should be fully stocked with DoIts, and if possible, you should encourage the hiring of more DoIts beyond the innovation group.
There are already enough ShouldWes out there.
It may be totally groundbreaking, disruptive and even unique enough to be patentable, but right now, we can’t imagine how to monetize it. That’s a normal thought – many organizations today are subject to this malady – applying the business models of today to the ideas of the future. The ideas may be generated based on some assumptions of a predicted future – and you have to think – is this idea going to have a business model in the future – not today. Sometimes its difficult to imagine.
However, if the idea has merit (and you can easily tell this actually – you can do customer focus groups but in many cases, it can be as simple as a gut feel) it may not have a current business model.
The ideas that your employees will generate during our typical program run the gamut from incremental improvements (which can be everything from minor to major improvements to your bottom line – or customer satisfaction – over time) to truly out-there ideas.
In many cases, the reason that those ideas are considered “out-there” is that they currently lack a current business model, or they pre-suppose a predicted sea change in your customers, industry, technology or product/service mix which may or may not occur. Many of the biggest companies of today launched products in just that environment, hoping that once the idea was made real and launched into the world, then the market would find a business model for it.
This is one reason why many firms around here are funded and remain profitless for years until they find the right business model. Notable examples are Twitter (initially developed as a way for podcasters to let their listeners know that there is a new show available) and Snapchat (for kids to share their test answers with each other in the classroom), now valued in the billions – created to address a need, to help humans, not make money.
I doubt that the founders of Twitter and Snapchat ever even imagined that their little skunkworks or side project would ever become what it is today. Many of the ideas generated by our programs may fall into this category, but that does not mean that you shouldn’t pursue them.
If you are looking for truly disruptive innovation, you should be encouraging these sometimes-thought-of-as wild ideas, possibly bereft of profitability, because those are the ones that may not only end up being brand new billion-dollar businesses, they’ll also drive your culture to generate even more of them, eventually turning you into a company with innovation at its core.
So ask not if your idea can make money, ask if your ideas help humans first, then the money will follow.
My BBS was called BizBase (and its still listed on the official list of bulletin boards in the 416 area code under Bizbase, SCAN Information Services (1990-1992)), and it focused on a discussion between small businesses, how they could help each other etc.
Of course, there was nothing more lonely than an empty message board, so as a tactic to make it look like there was chatter on the board, we’d create a number of fake accounts and just start posting and answering questions ourselves, just to make it look like there were people on the board chatting.
We never thought that we were doing anything wrong, we were just encouraging people to start chatting by giving them the sense that there were others already on the board and they were discussing issues, which led others to open up more.
Any student of group dynamics understands that is how humans operate – the initial members of the group who communicate set the tone for the rest of the group – if the first few people open up and are talkative, then the rest open up. If the first few people don’t participate, then the group stays quiet.
Its almost a tribal effect – you see it when groups of people order food at a restaurant, whoever orders first sets the tone for the rest of the table – if the first person orders a heavy, fattening meal, the rest mostly follow suit – if they order a healthy salad, then the rest tend to follow suit. It’s not that they are all hungry for the same thing, its almost an unconscious expression of alliance with the group – its a signal of fealty to the group.
It works in a very similar way in brainstorming sessions – if you start the group off with extroverted people with ideas that push the envelope, then you are more likely to get ideas like that from the rest of the group. Therefore, you must have “ringers” in the group, those creative, outspoken (but not those outspoken enough to be considered intimidating) folks who are willing to express disruptive and edgy ideas.
Just like seeding the message board with discussion, seeding your brainstorming session by first telling everyone that “usually in these sessions we have an open and free exchange of sometimes radical ideas”, and then proving that by having specific individuals attend and kickoff the meeting with those disruptive ideas, will trigger the group into thinking those same kind of disruptive thoughts when they are generating ideas.
To get the most interesting, innovative and disruptive ideas out there, you may need to cheat a little – but in the end, you might end up teasing out your next billion dollar idea.
I’ve said before many times that the biggest issue with being a futurist is that you are a lot like a weatherperson – usually right, but at the wrong time. Another corollary to that is that everything that has been imagined happening, within reason, will happen, and the only question is when.
Basically, if it is physically possible to do something, then it will probably happen at some point. It may be soon, it may be 5-10 years, or it may be even further out. The trick is trying to figure out when.
In our futurist programs, we ask our clients to imagine what the world will be like 10 years out. We ask them to imagine what they will be like, what their customers will be like, what their products and services will be like, as well. We get them to project into this, for some people, far future (remember that many people can hardly think even a quarter or two out, concerned that there are massive technological and cultural shifts just around the corner.
In these exercises, we usually get many excellent ideas which are natural extensions or combinations of current thinking. We get many incremental ideas. Sometimes, we really get some groundbreaking ideas, and for those, depending on if they can be currently implemented, we take them to a proof-of-concept (which is much more easily done these days due to the frameworks, systems, and tools available), then present them directly to small subsets of users. If they like the idea, we then move it to the next step.
Some of these ideas are interesting but not radical, and still, others are so radical and out-of-the-box, they are a tough sell to move forward on. Think of it this way – if it’s a good idea, then it will eventually be built by someone. Even if there is no current business model or infrastructure to support building the concept, that will change in the future, when new business models and technologies make it possible.
For example, imagine someone, several years ago, seeing their car sitting on the driveway and thinking “why am I paying a monthly fee for my car to just sit there 80% of the time”, and then thinking, “what if I could give people rides for a fee to help cover my costs, in my spare time”. Without smartphones, Google Maps, inexpensive data plans and GPS, Uber, Lyft, and its counterparts would never have been invented. I would not be surprised if there were several people who came up with the exact same concept, just lacking the technology, the drive, or the funding to make it happen.
It’s much the same with other ideas. If they are physically possible, they will happen. They just need the right timing: for both the technology, the business model, and the culture to line up at the same time, and boom – you have a billion-dollar business.
How do you determine what will strike? That’s beside the point – because we don’t. The output of a typical ideation session could generate 20-1000’s of concepts, and you may have no idea which will become the big ideas. Or if there even is one in there. Once the idea is created and captured, however, this will trigger “implementation thinking” – now that it’s out there and formed, then someone, most likely the inventor, will drive to see that idea become reality. In this way, all ideas, unless they are fantasy, will happen, the trick is to guess when.
To guess when we need to be highly cognizant of the world. To actively seek signals which match up as precursors to this idea. Things that, when taken to a next logical (or even illogical step) will show us an embryonic version of the idea. Once we see that, it is the best time to start looking at building the capability to deliver that idea, or if that capability is available, then the ability to build those combinations and get to that idea.
Anonymity Helps Innovation
As I mentioned in a previous post, our culture and technology are making it much easier to survive and thrive in the world as an introvert, and in so doing, more and more of us are becoming introverts. With the ability to work from home, and have everything delivered 24/7, there are many people who are taking that route. Some of your best people prefer to interface with others through the internet and in non-face-to-face interactions.
At the same time, in some companies, the internal culture can be a strong innovation demotivator: if you are in one of these companies, then you constantly feel like its a war between those who want to move things forward and innovate, and those who think things are just fine the way they are and you shouldn’t rock the boat. I sometimes refer to that as the war between the DoIts and the ShouldWes.
I’ll bet that there are plenty of “closet” DoIts in your company, politically sensitive folks who are afraid to come out with some great ideas, thinking, maybe incorrectly, that they will be dismissed, or even worse, fall on deaf ears. Just like on social media, there are plenty of folks who’ve learned to be politically correct, and just say nothing, because if their true feelings are known, they could lose friends, family, jobs or more.
But when it comes to innovation, and charting the future course of your business, everything should be on the table, even those ideas not politically correct within your organization.
So how do you ensure that those contributions are heard? How do you run an effective ideation session, brainstorming new ideas in a team setting, when maybe half of your people may be too worried to speak up? If not introverts, you may have an entire cadre of folks who are afraid to truly think outside the box, lest their ideas are shot down, or in the worst case, get retribution from their manager.
Situations where the corporate culture is very hierarchical, where employees are told to go to their immediate manager with ideas, those managers may feel threatened when those ideas, which may have been shot down by the manager, are brought up again and again in these sessions.
You have to disconnect the idea from the ideator.
When running an enterprise futurist or innovation program, we typically encourage our clients to allow people to post ideas into the system anonymously, so if they feel that their ideas might be too disruptive and/or ruffle too many feathers, at least they are heard. Additionally, those who vote for an idea should also be allowed to vote anonymously, so that they can vote for an idea fearlessly.
But what do you do when you have in-person sessions? We strive to ensure that all voices are heard, so in all sessions, we include both personal ideation time and group ideation time. For example, at the start of each session, right after introduction, we use post-its or index cards and some quiet time to allow those introverts politically sensitive ideators to write down their ideas, unafraid of repercussions. We then have them place their cards or post-its in a box, then have a member of our team pull them out and put them on the board for group discussion.
At this point, the introverts work could be done – the idea is out there, disconnected from the submitter, and the idea receives consideration. By the same token, the political sensitives are also protected from any repercussions. When we present these ideas, it’s our job as innovators and facilitators to ensure that even the craziest, most out-of-the-box ideas are considered and properly discussed.
Above all, all of your innovators, whether introverted, closeted or outspoken DoIts, need to be heard.
This is why is extremely important (and one of the very first things we do) to understand the culture of the organization. What does innovation mean to this company?
Once you understand the culture – you’ll be able to figure out how to move things along. In any case, here are three solid strategies for pushing that innovative new concept to the next step, be it proof-of-concept, prototype, or even actual product.
1: Recast The Concept For a Specific Underserved Desirable Market
What do they call it when expert after expert proves beyond a doubt that something exists and is roundly agreed to be the case, but is then summarily ignored, even though the findings are real and true?
In study after study, humans have been found to be profoundly affected by their environment, writers from Dan Pink to Dan Ariely and others discuss how humans are so affected by changes in their surroundings that simply moving from one room to another in your house can cause levels of cognitive dissonance.
Repeatedly, we are told that our behavior changes when we are in a different place, but we still expect our humans to act and react in the exact same way, no matter where they are. Even though it’s been proven that people are more creative in a creative, messy space, where they can bump into other people, places, and things, it still not encouraged, even if the goal of the team is to generate creative ideas.
We still ask our people to show up every day, at or around the same time, in the same place, and ask them to hang out with the same people, and leave at the same time, then lament that they haven’t come up with any new ideas or creative solutions. On the one hand, we say that humans are affected by their environment, and on the other hand we dismiss it out of hand. Well, my suggestion is, lets start listening to the experts and the psychologists who tell us that the environment we put our humans into matters.
Our surroundings not only matter, they predict how we will act. For example, if you want to encourage creativity, you need to place your humans in a messy creative space, where they can bump into each other, and generate random juxtapositions of people, places and things. If you are looking for creativity from your team, you need to shake them up – drive them out of their day-to-day location – take them somewhere new and mix them up with new people, places or things.
In some companies, like HubSpot, this kind of rotation has been institutionalized, with teams moving around the office randomly on a regular basis to maintain their creative edge. If we acknowledge that humans work differently in different environments, then why can’t we encourage the environment which works best for the what we want the team to do.
If we want the team to be productive, put them in uncluttered closed offices and war rooms, and have them laser-focused on the task at hand. If we want creativity, then we put them in a messy place. However, we too often put everyone into the same cramped, disorganized, noisy open space and expect them to effortlessly move from one to the other.
If humans are so easily swayed to be different based on their surroundings, wouldn’t you want to use that edge as best you can? Of course, you do. In future, listen to the behavioral psychologists – to get your team to innovate, you need change their surroundings.
Do you, like most, have a bias for short-term results?
The Most Disruptive Innovation Can Start With Zero Demand
We hear a lot about profitability and ROI in my business – some of my clients innovation groups need to continually justify their existence day-in and day-out, since, for some reason, every innovation initiative always seems to need to be tied back to some level of profitability – it needs to cut costs or increase revenues out of the gate (or even before the gate) before we can even think about it.
The drum beats for ROI are loud and clear – we get it. No one likes to feel like that they are “wasting money”, which for some reason seems to be the excuse for innovation initiatives which don’t beget at least billion-dollar businesses. However, nothing spent fostering a culture of innovation and creating new products, services, and process improvements is wasted.
Where does innovation come from?
1) Most truly disruptive and incredibly successful innovative new products do not have an ROI, simply because they have zero demand when they launch. The product or service never existed before, and it may not even address a problem. Take, for example, the iPhone. The iPhone may have been the last truly independently generated product, but how can you calculate the ROI of a product which no one has ever seen before, and solves no specific problem? It’s a phone, a mini touchscreen tablet, a camera, and a computing platform all on one, and it sprang forth from Steve Jobs and his team’s imagination. No one knew that they needed one until they saw it, and everyone now needs one. The iPhone was developed secretly, and there were no users studies, there were no focus groups. There was no idea that it would fly and be the success that it was. Steve took a risk, and it paid off.
2) What if you are doing something so out there that you have no idea what will happen? Take something like Twitter – which has rapidly become THE premier communications tool for the US President, and many others. It has become the source for breaking news and crowdsourced reporting. No one had any idea of ROI when Odeo developed and launched Twitter. They thought it might be a cool adjunct for their podcasting service. They had little idea of who would use the service and for what, and its grown from nothing to be one of the powerhouses of social media. Today, you can almost not even imagine a world without Twitter, and its many, many social media variants.
3) No one is saying that the only innovation is innovation without an ROI – we don’t chase fairy dust either. All we are saying is that your innovation team should have a healthy mix of both kinds of initiatives – the solid, pragmatic incremental bread-and-butter stuff which visibly contributes directly to the bottom line, as well as a cool, edgy, interesting stuff which doesn’t have a well-defined market or ROI. There are tons of well established, multi-billion-dollar companies which were based on an untried, untested idea which just captured the hearts and minds of as yet unidentified market. Plus, it has never been easier to spin up and test a quick proof-of-concept with the tools and frameworks of today.
There’s no excuse – your lab needs a good mix of grounded stuff and moonshots to be as effective as they can be.