Employee engagement is at crisis levels in some companies – sure, maybe your people show up physically (or perhaps not, depending on your telecommute policies) but do they show up mentally? Are they willing to give their maximum effort to your company for what you are paying them, or are they just going through the motions and phoning in their job, waiting to jump to the next company that they may be more interested in (don’t worry, there are only a few of those, so chances are low).
One of my favorite new thinkers is Jordan Peterson. I’m ankle deep in the audiobook of his first opus, Maps of Meaning, and am already engrossed in his thinking on how humans think and process, in comparison to lesser animals. He describes a study on fright done with lab rats, where a rat is placed in a cage and then exposed to all sorts of stimuli to drive a fear response.
If you look at the outcome from the epic two and a half hour interview that Elon Musk gave Joe Rogan, you’d think that all they did was smoke weed and drink. While the conversation ranged from AI to Scotch, there were a few powerful insights.
There was a recent article on an experiment in The New Scientist which explored human/robot interaction.
They took three rooms of people and put a friendly robot in one room that hung out with them and was very funny and friendly and really helpful to the people in the room. They took another room and they put in a stern robot, a not so friendly robot, a serious robot. Then in the third room, they put no robot at all. They acted friendly or stern prior to the test, once the test started they just sat in the corner and didn’t say anything.
What’s better in innovation, thought experiments or real experiments?
Many people, from philosophers to scientists, use thought experiments to determine the outcome of a hypothesis. In many of our innovation, targeted IP generation and futurist sessions, we generate ideas which can be considered hypothesis (although our futurist program typically uses thought experiments to generate a possible future state, then generates products and services to address that future state, then backcast to generate hypothetical capabilities we need to address that future state.
Once the idea is generated, however, some innovation groups remain in a perpetual state of running one thought experiment after another on it, preferring to deal in the rarified air of intellectual discussion every and every possible permutation of the idea. This is all great, but at a certain point, you have to step back and ask – where are all these thought experiments leading?
Are you simply attempting to justify moving the ideas forward into the real experiment phase, are you trying to imagine all possible negative outcomes in order to kill the idea, are you concerned that the idea is so radical that there is no possible way that this will ever be developed into a real idea.
Are you worried that the culture of your organization is not ready for ideas like this, are you worried that there is no budget for this ideas to be built, or are you concerned that there is no demand for the idea? In reality, only the last concern is of merit, and this is what is behind startup methodologies like lean, as well as the principles behind design thinking.
You can only run so many thought experiments on an idea, at some point you need to build it (or a version of it) and run it past your customers.
This is otherwise known as a “real experiment” (isn’t this one of the reasons that some groups call themselves “labs” – their whole point is not to endlessly discuss an idea but to experiment). Without stepping back, it can become very easy to fall into the thought experiment trap.
In fact, in one version of our program, the one that is designed to generate targeted IP, the only thing we should do are thought experiments, since the outcome of those sessions is patentable ideas, which by some definition, are things you simply just can’t build yet.
But I digress.
The question of when you should move from thought experiments on an idea to real experiments on an idea is simple: as soon as possible. What is the point of endlessly thinking about a concept, when you might run it past a sample of customers and get a highly negative, or even indifferent response, and the sooner you get those responses, then sooner you can determine if it is worthwhile to pursue that idea.
Continually running new thought experiments on ideas may be fun for some, but should be minimized in innovation groups – the sooner you get to your customers, then sooner you’ll know if an idea is viable – the sooner you can move on to the next one. You may have a phenomenal idea, but if it doesn’t resonate with customers, then you need to find out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, its a numbers game – in the same way, VCs make a large number of bets assuming that most will fail but a few will be incredibly successful, you must do that same – and the faster you can move ideas from thought experiment to real experiment, that faster you’ll get to that next unicorn.
Let’s leave the bulk of the thought experiments to the philosophers and scientists, and spend our time envisioning how to develop concepts our current and future customers will love.
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.
It’s In Your Pocket
I was a fan of Last Man Standing before it was canceled and during a recent binge watch there was an interesting scene of a neighbor couple bickering over a smartphone – they were sitting at the kitchen table and the husband was looking at a cell phone and the wife was talking, or at least trying to talk to him. She saw him looking at his phone and said: “Are you finding that phone more interesting than me?” He started to explain that the smartphone was the window to all of the world’s information, entertainment and people, saw the look on her face, then put the phone down.
But isn’t he right? Isn’t it true that the smartphone has become the most interesting thing in our lives?
Its no wonder that many baby boomers and Gen X folks, trying to downsize are seeing resistance from their kids when they try to give them stuff which may have a lot of meaning for them – what is the value of a prized framed photo when a digital photo of it stored on a smartphone can have the same impact? One could argue that the sentimental value of an object cannot carry to the next generation, but at the same time, have we not revised our culture to the point were many of the objects which earlier generations used to cherish, are now worthless, and their digital twins have the same or even more value?
We are starting to value the ephemeral over the solid, the rental over the ownership, the temporary use of an object as opposed to a permanent possession. At the same time, we are focusing more and more of our lives at that little screen. Because it contains all of the worlds information, entertainment, and connection to other human beings, it is the most interesting thing in your life. It will not only remain the most interesting thing in your life, it will become all that you may need, outside of things you need to consume.
The future of retail may very well be split between those focusing on consumables and those focusing on digital objects. Advanced augmented reality glasses may eliminate the need for things completely. Why buy an object when you can paint it into your vision digitally where you want it to be? Why paint your walls any color when you can repaint them at will at any time?
It’s true that time spent looking at screens has skyrocketed, and will only increase further. As we spend more and more time looking at screens, we spend less and less time looking at real things and each other.
Will we reach a point where we will not be able to interact with each other unless it’s through a screen – with its ability to augment our reality?
People will buy fewer things (unless they are consumables), need fewer things, and leave behind fewer things. Fewer things will need to be created, but their digital analogs will flourish. Digitizing then destroying real-world objects will become commonplace – like shredding trucks, I can foresee businesses focused on high definition rendering of 3D objects, then destroying the original objects.
While the older generations may mourn the loss of these sentimental objects, just having fewer non-consumable objects in the world is a good thing.
So yes, I do find my phone to be more interesting than you – but to be fair, you can’t compete.
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.