The other day, I went to a conference on innovation, and one of the panelists said something very interesting. She said that while innovation itself has been around forever (without innovation, we would still be swinging from trees, riding horses, and lugging suitcase-sized phones around with us), the concept of corporate personnel dedicated to the…
In The Langoliers by Stephen King, a plane flies through a strange wave of light and ends up landing at a deserted airport. Suddenly, strange creatures start consuming everything, including the ground. They surmise that they have somehow flown just slightly into the past, and the creatures are destroying the present. Once the Langoliers are…
Your innovation laboratories’ existential question: which concept has the potential to be worth a billion dollars? After implementing an innovation program, the most significant challenge that I’ve seen businesses face, in my experience, is not an inadequate supply of new ideas. Instead, in most cases, the reverse is true. After possibly years of not providing…
Are you reading this blog post on a smartphone? Does your smartphone ever leave your side? Do you freak out if you ever misplace or lose your smartphone? Do you ever feel less than whole when your smartphone is not within easy reach?
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.
To Be Successful, You Need Both These Attributes In Equal Measure
If you look at most of the successful startups (and internal innovation programs) throughout history, you’ll note a trend – there are usually two or more partner founders (or intrapreneurs) right there at the beginning (although eBay is a notable difference). Additionally, these partners need to have specific traits, typically one is the more extroverted sales type, and the other is the more introverted engineering type, even though there are those who have both of those skill sets.
I’d venture to say that you can build the archetypes out even further than that – and Star Trek (the original series, of course) gives us near perfect role models. Of those, the only two you really need at a minimum at the outset are Kirk and Scotty. The qualities of Kirk (or Kirk-type) that you need are his willingness to take risks, make big decisions, and be the voice of the company (just as he is the voice of the Enterprise). Then as Kirk makes deals, confronts the alien menaces or confuses the evil computer with illogic, it’s up to Scotty-type to execute those deals.
When a Kirk-type has a need based on talking to the customer, he asks a Scotty-type to execute whatever needs to happen to keep that customer happy. The Scotty-type doesn’t want or need to be the one talking to the customer, he or she is most happy delivering Warp 5 or reading technical manuals, while the Kirk-types do all of the schmoozing. While many startup founders fall neatly into these roles, what some don’t get is that the relationship between these two is truly symbiotic – without a Kirk-type, the Enterprise would not know where to go, and without a Scotty-type, the ship wouldn’t go anywhere, no matter what customers say or what orders are barked.
In every startup, you need a good working relationship between Kirk-types and Scotty-types, each understanding that the other is absolutely necessary for the startup to be successful or the ship to get anywhere.
Sadly, there have been many cases where Scotty-types, despite laboring in the engine room to deliver everything that Kirk-types ask for (and usually more) gets short shrift, people perceiving that the Kirk-type is somehow more valuable to the company than the Scotty-type, and in these cases, Scotty gets (or feels) screwed, and requests a transfer.
In every startup, in every successful innovation program, both Kirk-types and Scotty-types are equally important to the success of the startup or the initiative. It’s not enough to have the communicator/connector, you need the builder as well.
Same goes for your innovation program – you can’t just have your people generate ideas, you need some kind of execution too. Without execution, your program will fail, as your inventors realize that their ideas never get the chance to ever be built.
What about Spock and McCoy you ask? Well, as the startups get larger, you need to bring Spock in to provide that keen analysis, and McCoy to keep the culture healthy, but at the very beginning, Kirk and Scotty are all you really need.
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.
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