How To Staff Your Innovation Group

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.

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Ask Not If Your Idea Can Make Money, Ask If It Can Help Humans

A common refrain that I hear from individuals at some of the companies that we’ve worked with in the past (and some prospects who ultimately decide not to work with us) is that we are experts at generating ideas, but most of those ideas simply do not have a business model – which is, of course, a fancy way of saying “we can’t figure out how to make any money with this idea”.

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.

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Your Startup (or Innovation Program) Needs Both Kirk and Scotty

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.

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How to get the best ideas out of people? Cheat.

Prior to the widespread adoption of the web and the internet, I used to run something called a Bulletin Board System (BBS), where we would use phone lines to communicate on message boards. Every so often, our message boards would call each other and exchange messages, thus allowing us to communicate (this was in a time when long distance calls actually cost money, so the updates sometimes only happened once a day).

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.

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How To Get The Best Most Disruptive Ideas Out There

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.


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3 Ways to Deal with Innovation Resistance

Having been in the innovation business all of my career and for the last 15 years as a professional innovator, I’ve seen my share of resistance to innovation. Most of the time, individuals within internal innovation groups within organizations are typically pretty innovative, they spend time pushing forward-thinking products and services forward within the organization. In some cases, however, especially in staid, older organizations without a strong innovation culture, even folks in the innovation group themselves can put up a fight when it comes to breakthrough ideas. Even in some organizations which are tied down by market forces or regulatory burden, there’s still a need to experiment.

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 read more

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Sometimes You Need To Fight To Innovate

Stress and conflict can be a good thing.

One of the key things that I’ve seen is that is quite common among truly innovative new ideas is that they can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. This discomfort ranges from a mild creepiness all the way to outrage and pure hatred, leading to protests and lobbying for you to be shut down (see Uber, almost anywhere there is a strong taxi union, colluding with the city government).

In fact, some of the most profitable innovations of today used to be so creepy that at first thought we’d recoil – do you remember the first time Google scanned your email (back in 2004 when it launched) to run ads against it? When that first happened, there was a huge uproar. Google never stopped scanning our private emails (until recently) – it’s just a lot less obvious about what it does with that data, preferring to use it to enhance the overall profile it has of you, instead of visibly dropping relevant ads beside your emails.

We all thought it was creepy when Facebook had its first big data breach (way back in 2009!), but eventually, that blew over.

Once we get utility from giving up our personal data, we are ok with it. It might still be a little creepy, but we figure that we get more out of it than we put into it. When you introduce a disruptive idea into a group, you usually get pushback.

The more disruptive the idea, the more pushback you get. You might even, as in the case with Uber, drag up some very strong emotions about the idea – you might get all sorts of people telling you to “not go there” to not even continue to think about the idea.

Some of these folks may even be quite militant about it and attempt to shut down all conversation about the idea as a “non-starter” which we will never implement, ever. At this point, the discussion may be shut down, but it becomes the elephant in the room. Especially if the idea does have merit, and seems a logical future extension of an idea you may play in.

What do you do in these situations?

You must push it, you need to explore the conflict, you need to try to understand the pushback, you need to unearth the true cultural reasons as to why this idea stresses so many people out. If you’ve done your homework and determined that this idea is doable and may be a threat to your current and possible future business, you need to explore, despite the resistance to the idea, how you could possibly execute on the idea.

This may create an uncomfortable situation, but it is in this crucible where you may get your best innovation.

Think of it this way: you may not wish to “go there”, but there is nothing stopping your competitors from doing it. They will go there. They will steal your market share if they can. They can move faster, leaner and capture huge chunks of your business before you even can think of addressing the threat.

You need to crush your competition before they crush you.

Driving that stress, that discomfort, is essential to rooting out the true innovations, the billion-dollar businesses you may never have thought of if you were never pushed. Stress, conflict, and passionate debate are key to delivering the most interesting, disruptive, and profitable ideas.

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3 Reasons Why Moonshots Make You More Innovative

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.

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How To Pick Winning Ideas For Your Innovation Lab

Your innovation labs existential question: which idea is the billion-dollar idea?

The biggest problem I’ve seen companies struggle with, once they have launched a futurist innovation program, is not a low number of ideas. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.

After possible years of not providing any kind of systematized institutional method of capturing, collecting, reviewing, voting on, providing feedback on, and deciding on the fate of an idea, innovation labs are usually swamped with ideas once an effective program is launched.

Some ideas are slightly incremental, and may already be on the roadmap, unbeknownst to the inventor. Others are a bit too far out and may not be in a space that the company wishes to invest in, or are currently not possible, due to technological capability or the culture of the company not being ready for it.

Even after adding those filters, there are still usually a ton of really good ideas in that sweet spot – great ideas which could be implemented today and could grow your revenues or cut your costs by a substantial amount.

But which will have the most impact?

You can take a wild guess and use your gut instinct to figure out the winners, or get a team together on a regular basis of the brightest minds in the company and filter and prioritize, but in the end, you really don’t know which of these ideas are the winners.

What do you do? Do you come up with complicated schemes, using various metrics which may or may not reveal the most profitable ideas, do you throw it back out to the crowd again by allowing those with the top votes become your prioritized list, or do you randomly select a subset of ideas to focus your efforts on? In our view, none of these are the best course of action.

It may sound obvious, but you need to lift a page from the venture capital playbook and simply fund all of them.

VCs have huge floods of ideas coming into their businesses, which they do filter for all kinds of fit, type of business, knowledge of space etc. Even then, they still end up with many supposedly great ideas, but even they, with their in-depth knowledge of what a winner may be, still have very little idea which of their businesses will truly fly. They do the same – they take their pre-vetted short list and fund them all.

The key thing to remember here is that they don’t just fund all of them the same amount, they fund each of them just enough to take them to the next “proof step”, just enough to further test the idea.

These days, with the frameworks and infrastructure available to a typical lean startup, it takes very little time and effort to build a version of the business which is “testable” – enough to drop in front of real possible future users and get an idea of whether it will take off. These testable versions could be as simple as some wireframes whipped out over a few days by a UX designer, all the way to a working non-scalable simplistic prototype rapidly cranked out by a small team of designers and engineers.

Any of these variants are many times less expensive and resource intensive than they used to be. You can now quickly stand up a proof of concept within weeks or day, and quickly get something in front of real users for a thumb up or down.

With the costs of building these proofs of concept plummeting, there is no excuse – there is no reason you can’t at least afford a small amount of time and effort on each pre-vetted idea, to ensure its viability. Once its passed successfully into the testable stage and tested well, you can then move on to a more fully developed prototype.

Remember, your company is an innovation lab. Think of these as experiments. The more experiments you do, the better chance one will be a huge winner. Experiment early and often, kill the unsuccessful experiments as soon as they fail and nurture the successful into massively profitable new businesses, and possibly billion dollar ones.

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