Innovation or hubris?

I just finished reading a great article by Austin Carr in Fast Company. He tells the long and sordid story of a multiyear, billion dollar effort by Disney to “overhaul the digital infrastructure” and “change the fundamental nature of Disney’s park experience” for customers. Now that’s an ambitious and exciting call to action! The article struck a chord for me because I just got back from a 5 day vacation at Disney World with my family for our Spring Break.

Disney Crowd

I’ve been to Disney parks more than a handful of times since my kids have been around, starting about 15 years ago. I have to say that I did not experience any appreciable change in this last visit that I would classify as an “overhaul” or certainly not a shift in the “fundamental nature” of the experience. I did notice a few new things here and there and was quite curious about the effort it took to replace paper tickets with an electronic pass. I saw people entering with wrist bands, but my family had little plastic cards like you find in most hotels. I found out you have to be staying in a Disney hotel to get one of the bands. Oh well. They didn’t seem to do anything different than the cards and I didn’t have the kids bugging me to buy yet another little Disney item to stick on them.

The dominant aspect of my experience was waiting. Waiting in lines for rides, waiting for the crowd to move so I could get where I wanted to go. Waiting for the Park Attendant to re-set our cards because the Fast Pass names didn’t align with the fingerprint names recorded within. We discovered this problem when we tried to split up on two different rides and we all got blue signals when we tried to get through the Fast Pass gate. We had three great ride entry experiences each day where the Fast Pass shortened our waiting by as much as an hour (down from 90 minutes to something like 30). We also had to wait for transportation… wait for the Monorail, wait for a bus, wait for a boat. All the waiting made my Disney experience something I had to tolerate on behalf of my 4-year old niece who is currently in the Princess Sweet Spot. But it did not really make me happy.

It was very fun to watch my niece’s eyes light up with all the magic, and my daughters really enjoyed taking their little cousin around and experiencing her joy together. I wonder about princesses as role models, and have some vague concerns with the Disney gender stereotypes, but I’ll leave that for another time. Mostly, Disney is good clean fun and overall I’d say I’m a Disney fan, but I was very glad when the trip was over.

cinderella_laugh

The Reinventing Happiness article made me recall many observations and thoughts I had about how Disney World seems to be falling behind, or appears out of sync with today’s ideas of entertainment. It’s quaint, it’s cute, but it’s aging drastically. In Tomorrow Land I rode gasoline powered cars on the Speedway and experienced a traffic jam as the ride ended (more waiting). My son and I sat there breathing in the gas fumes and listening to the “lawnmower” engines revving and I thought, “This is not Tomorrow, this is Yesterday! Maybe they should partner with Tesla to create a driving experience that’s ahead of our time, showing how solar power can be converted to a quiet, smooth, and exciting new driving experience. That would be cool.

I liked the Disney World mobile app for the map showing ride wait times, and a way to keep track of my Fast Passes, but noticed there was no “digital layer” where I could interact with the rides. Now that I’ve read they recently overhauled their digital infrastructure, this is actually startling. While in line (waiting) with my daughter for the Expedition Everest ride, we used Google to look up “tallest coasters” to see just how scary this might be for us. In the line for Thunder Mountain, we Googled a story on the Chilean miners who were trapped for a month, and talked about why there was a canary in the tubes. These were both interesting discussions to help pass the time while we were in line and both digital (Google) experiences were triggered by the rides themselves. I remember thinking that someone should use the Disney story telling prowess to create a companion experience. I’ve been around app building enough to know it wouldn’t cost that much to make something really cool.

At the Animal Kingdom we discovered the “Up” inspired Wilderness Explorers program. It took some searching, but we found a place to get the book and my younger kids got fully engaged in “earning” the badges. I like workbooks as a learning device, and it was cool to see them with pencils stuck over their ears meeting the various “ambassadors” who shared interesting tidbits with them. But again, I started to imagine many ways a digital companion experience could be designed to make the program more powerful and to connect beyond the Park. I even thought a start-up could have a cool partnership with Disney around storytelling and animal conservation… perhaps linking to Kiva or another micro-financing service to put wells in South Sudan. Could they connect with Salva Dut? That would be really cool!

Lastly, I found it humorous and a bit sad that you can purchase a “chip enabled” mug at Blizzard Beach so you can get an “endless soda” for the day. We tested the machines with our water bottles and found that only an activated cup will make the soda flow. I enjoy a corn dog, an ice cream bar Mickey, and a churro as much as the next guy, but endless soda is simply out of sync with public health and basic wellness. A cool digital experience, but completely wrong from a family entertainment standpoint. Maybe they could do a partnership with Fit Bit or Withings or JawBone or Nike…

Unlimited Soda 2

I did experience Test Track, and even without a Magic Band I could use my “magic” card at the touch points of that ride. It was a good ride and the shortening effect on the line was real for me too. A nice step in the right direction. But I don’t think Disney can claim victory on “reinvention” or “transformation” or “fundamental change” from their billion dollar initiative. Not even close. It’s even worse hearing that they think they are leading with creativity and innovation. They are clearly not. That’s why they had to buy Pixar. They do have a great marketing engine though.

I think they demonstrated many of the reasons why many companies fail at innovation. In fact this would be a great case study article (thanks Austin!) on what NOT to do if you want to address transformation. Starting with a leader who mandates “This better work!” and then puts executives in a “bake off” to see who will win the future CEO job, and ending with a bevy of “back up” consultants costing $100 Million.

From my cheap seats on the sidelines, I think the MyMagic+ team attached to the bracelet idea too early and then set about hammering it in to place. This was not innovation, it was a desperate attempt to remain relevant. So they bounced around with a million ideas from every direction and got overwhelmed by internal politics. Innovation requires a compelling vision to overcome that kind of resistance. Innovation is driven from the “outside in” starting with deep insights into the customer experience and emerging via a disciplined process involving intimate collaboration. I’ve talked about innovation many times before, so I won’t go into it further now.

Waiting in lines and messing with paper tickets are pain points for Disney customers, so you could call that a customer insight. But removing an obvious pain point with solutions that are found everywhere, does not qualify as innovation. It is simply keeping up.

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The innovation 2 step

2stepOne of the longest standing designers at IDEO, Jim Yurchenco recently retired, and they posted a great video of him sharing some of his career lessons.

Jim Yurchenco : Reflecting on 35 Years at IDEO

The part that grabbed my attention was Jim’s statement that you should “never accept done for good, or good for excellent.” He continues by encouraging us to always ask someone you respect to look at what you are doing and say, “What do you think? What could we do better? Does this make sense?”

Innovation is a team sport, never a solo endeavor

While Jim’s first statement is a pithy, memorable bit of wisdom, the second contains the secret to innovation. Innovation is a team sport, never a solo endeavor. Innovation is a creative, iterative, collaborative process that takes place over time… not a single moment of brilliant insight. Sure, there are many insightful moments punctuating each journey, but without input from others those moments drift away, wither into nothing, or fail to hatch.

Input from multiple perspectives is imperative for innovation

Put simply, input from multiple perspectives is a requirement of innovation. It’s not that “aha moment” you have in the shower that’s the key. It’s how you share that idea with others and allow it to be shaped from an insight into an actionable idea that matters.

But even that secret is not sufficient to produce innovation in a reliable manner. You know the go-and-get-feedback routine… you create a first draft, sketch a concept, or even build a working prototype. Then you run it by a bunch of people to gauge their reactions. Some provide good ideas you hadn’t thought of, some just say “cool” and others give you feedback that just doesn’t seem to fit.

Most people take the good reactions as a sign to move forward, discount the worst comments, and perhaps choose a small improvement to add to their idea so they can get on with their plans. But this process doesn’t really transform the idea––it perhaps rounds off a few rough edges, but mostly serves to keep you in your comfort zone with this new idea. The first round of feedback is like an appetizer that gets the party started, but doesn’t really fulfill your needs.

True innovation develops through sharing information and opinions

After watching hundreds of great designers and entrepreneurs go about their daily routines, I’ve noticed they dance with an idea until it becomes something wholly different than what they started with. Sharing the “thing” you’re working on to get reactions, advice, guidance, etc. is just the first of two steps of sharing. The best innovators share the knowledge they’ve gathered in the first step with another set of people to compare the input and make sense of it. Then they start over with the first step and repeat the cycle many times.

The first step is for reactions and ideas on the thing you are working on. The second step is a meta-level “input on the input” discussion where the innovator gains a much deeper level of critique and synthesis that reshapes and improves the input. Instead of just gathering a bunch of single points and comparing them, the best innovators facilitate a spiraling dialog that might look something like this:

Innovator: Why did you say it should be round, but he said it should be square?

Person A: Well, I hadn’t thought about making it square. That’s an interesting point he’s made.

Person B: Yes, I’m sure it must be square because the technology you need won’t fit otherwise. But I see how round would be more appealing now.

Person C: I see how the technology won’t fit, but I really think the user will appreciate a different form. This feels like a compromise. We had this same problem on another project…

Innovation is the relentless pursuit of solving trade-offs until you reach a breakthrough. It’s not easy, and generally not efficient. It takes time, and most importantly, it takes input from others. Don’t hide your ideas and early concepts—get out there, ask for input and ask again (and again) until you refine and shape your idea into something truly excellent.

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Being Successfully Controversial

In a recent social media frenzy, I stumbled upon a great insight: the link between controversy and innovation. I had just finished my post about how innovation is a natural result of being human, and Lisa Kaye tweeted a quote from actress Eva Le Gallienne, stating that “Innovators are inevitably controversial.”  When I think of controversy, I immediately think of courage.

That same day, innovation guru Diego Rodriguez posted a TED talk by Bryan Stevenson encouraging us all to be courageous.  In his talk, Bryan touches on how we are all inspired by people who are the first to stand up, speak up, lead the way, draw a line, or refuse to budge on principle.  Rosa Parks was an icon of courage for civic innovation and equal rights.  John F. Kennedy was an icon of courage that spurred innovation in science and technology.  Ronald Reagan was an icon of courage for global unity.

Kennedy Space Center (Photo from Smalling Studios)

To make change, it is essential that we stand up for what we believe is right. Courage is one part vision of what could be and one part frustration with what is. Courage is the spark that ignites change and inspires others to join the process and tip from old to new.

Linking controversy and innovation makes it sound like innovation is a struggle against resistance.  Which gets me thinking about resistance as a strengthener.  People do push-ups, lift weights, carry medicine balls, or use elastic bands to build muscle.  You push against gravity to improve yourself.  So it makes sense that pushing against normal is a great way to improve the world.

Courage is only half of the equation

I’ve learned through many, many, many failed attempts, that courage is necessary, but not sufficient in successful innovation.  Courage is only half of the equation.  With only courage, you can come off as righteous, contrarian, or antagonistic.  A thorn in the side.  You face immediate rejection by the established way.  Succeeding only at creating more resistance. It’s really something to speak up, but not enough to leave it at that.  Controversy can end with polarization and gridlock (take the U.S. Congress… please!).  Or controversy can be the beginning of a better world.

The other half of the innovation equation is creativity.  By creativity, I’m not talking about the Crayola-artsy-black-turtle-neck type of creativity.  I’m talking about the well-that-didn’t-work-so-let’s-try-this type of creativity.  Lateral thinking that produces a never-ending stream of ideas and alternatives to test and explore until the right thing happens.  The way Thomas Edison tried hundreds of filament-gas-tube combinations to get the light bulb.  The way Abraham Lincoln tried running for office multiple times before finding his way to the Presidency.  They were successful innovators because they had both courage and creativity.

Against means together?

For most big problems, there is no silver bullet. No single invention.  Innovation is an unfolding, iterative, extended effort that takes place against the normal way of doing things.  So innovation is inevitably controversial, requiring us to act with both courage and creativity to achieve success.

As you may already know, “contra” is a Latin root meaning against.  And “verse” means turn. Literally, “turning against.”  Being interested in linguistics and natural human behavior, I poked around the origins of contra and found that the prefix con- is a variant of com– which means together.  This makes sense if you consider against in this usage: The ball is resting against the wall (they are sharing the same space together).

So perhaps controversial really means, “turning together.” And we humans are designed to work together and constantly improve our condition.

Bottom line: to be successfully controversial, consider your mission as a strengthening exercise you do with a bunch of other people, not a war against the other side you must win (or else!).

 

 

 

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Innovation is a natural result of being human

Our world is faced with a never-ending list of problems we’d all like solved. Some are massive public health and environmental issues that overwhelm us with their complexity. Some are daily nuisances that require simple adjustments in order to put things right. Big or small, complex or simple, when someone makes an improvement to a process, practice, tool or service, he/she is being innovative. Innovation is a natural result of being human. We humans are well-designed to solve problems and adapt to changes in our environment by actively “messing” with the resources we have on hand to improve our condition.

Caught in the rain (Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee)

Watch anyone adjust to an unexpected weather “situation” and you will see what I mean about innovation being core to human nature. People make hats and coats out of plastic bags or newspapers, wrap odd things around them to keep warm, and are suddenly willing to lose major style points when caught unprepared. One time my daughter came home from school and was locked out of the house. The day had been warm and sunny, so she had no coat, just a t-shirt and shorts. As the sun went down and it got colder, she got pretty uncomfortable. By the time I pulled into the driveway after work, she was huddled in a beach towel she had scrounged from the clothesline, and had buried herself under the cushions of our patio furniture. That’s making the most of the resources around you to improve your situation!

Another kid might have been curious about “alternative home entry methods” and found that the second floor porch door was unlocked. But in order to implement that strategy, she would have to be confident in her climbing abilities and weigh the discomfort of being cold against the risk of falling and getting seriously hurt. Given the low threat of hypothermia (her condition was uncomfortable, but not life threatening) I think she made a wise choice with the cushions and towel approach.

Innovation is not about making wild bets on the future or being a whacky creative who dreams fanciful ideas. It’s a careful assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, followed by a series of actions to close that gap. It doesn’t hurt to inject fanciful imagination (I’m sure my daughter was dreaming about a big warm fire or a fluffy comforter wrapped around her), because in those dreams we find the seeds of ideas we can actually implement.  Check out my previous post for a definition of these core skills.

Children are a great source of insight on our natural propensity for innovation. With less concern for negative social consequences, they are built to imagine and explore, and they do it all the time. My son plays with LEGOs on a near constant basis, and it’s amazing to watch his deep level of engagement as he sorts through hundreds of tiny plastic pieces to find just the right one for his latest project.

He’s built many LEGO models by following the prescribed approach in the instructions (he calls the booklets “maps”). His experience with those pre-built models has given him many core components to build on as he invents new structures. He knows how wheels go together, where a driver might sit, how to build a wing from scratch, and how to make a tower that won’t fall down. Mixing and matching these underlying components is a great way to jump-start a new idea or accidentally discover that there are more ways to build a spaceship than the “maps” tell you.

The keys in his natural innovativeness are his willingness to explore and his quick adjustment and continued effort when things don’t work out as imagined. When a structure is not built to handle real play, the feedback is immediate… it falls apart! His natural desire to play out-weighs his frustration with poor construction, so he keeps going.  But there are many times when he gets stuck, and in those moments the “magic” ingredient of innovation comes into play.  Humans are social, and we have a natural desire to help each other, so it’s not surprising that he asks for help almost immediately when he is stuck or frustrated.

The magic ingredient of innovation: asking for help

Sharing your problem with someone else when you are “stuck” brings new ideas and a renewed sense of excitement about what “could be”. When my son can’t figure out how to connect two awkward structures he asks his older sister (or basically anyone who’s within his vocal range) for help. At this moment he is ripe for coaching (motivated to complete his vision, frustrated by his own abilities to pull it off). I call “asking for help” the magic ingredient of innovation because it contradicts the dominant belief that invention (and subsequently innovation) result from a “lone genius” focusing on a problem nobody can solve. Surely, intense focus is a necessary component of complex problem solving, but it is rare that the answer comes from an isolated person devoid of input, discussion, or coaching.

The really big problems in our world require us to work together, applying our different perspectives, styles and modes of thinking to overcome their complexity.

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Innovation is a competitive capability

Companies are forever talking about how they need a culture of innovation, or that innovation is a global initiative for the next important phase of the business, or that innovation will be the engine to drive the company to new levels, etc. I’m sure you’ve seen the word innovation thousands of times in business media in only the past month.

Innovation is nurturing growth

But, really, what is innovation? It seems to be an exciting concept with a lot of fuzzy edges and an elusive magical aura. Few companies could say they have a handle on innovation as a capability they manage like other aspects of their business.  Those that do are amazing and powerful (check out this growth chart for Apple). Innovation makes an organization competitive because it is measured by growth in new products and services or growth in new users (or both).

More often than not, the World’s Most Innovative Companies are a flash in the pan (Groupon?), or have a short tenure at the top of the list and then gradually fade into normalcy. This makes innovation seem even more mysterious and slippery… something to admire, but too vague to manage.  Something based on size or timing, not a sustained advantage directed at a market.

So how can organizations get this capability and why is it so elusive? Let’s start with the elusiveness first. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, explains that many businesses have a hard time with innovation because it requires a different mindset than the way most business people approach problems. In his book, The Design of Business, he identifies three types of logic necessary for effective problem solving: deductive, inductive, and abductive. 

The problem is, most of our schools and businesses teach and practice only inductive and deductive reasoning (abductive isn’t even in my spell checker). Frankly, most of us don’t chat about formal logic over coffee and donuts, so you can see why this makes innovation slippery. The less formal version of this logic is often called design thinking and was pioneered by IDEO. But that term is awkward because design is associated with fashion, graphics and art, while innovation is more about doing than thinking. So, I just call it the capability of innovation.  I don’t disagree with Bruce Nussbaum’s focus on creativity, but that still feels incomplete to me.

The capability of innovation is a compound set of three skills that enable you to solve problems for your customers: rigorous observation, creative wonderment, and risk management. Whoa. Did you say wonderment? Yes, yes I did. (see Phineus and Ferb) Innovation is about coping with ambiguity and uncertainty while constantly moving forward to discover new opportunities. Since most business people haven’t developed these skills in their formal training, not knowing the best path forward makes them uncomfortable. So they stick with what they know, which keeps them locked in the present.

Three core skills of innovation

1. Rigorous observation. This is about being obsessed with your customers in action. This obsession involves asking questions, taking photos, and simply watching what they do (and don’t do) when interacting with a product or service. Ironically, many product managers defend their product deficiencies by saying customers didn’t behave as they should (at least they notice the gap!).

2. Imaginative wonderment. Instead of defending them with deductive reasoning, an innovative product manager would ask, “I wonder why that happened?” This is a moment of truth where innovation will live or die. If the leader shifts reasoning modes and becomes curious, the next step is to explore what could be happening instead of defending what is happening. This is not magical or fluffy, it’s a rational leap based on an observed pattern.

The exploration process that underpins imaginative wonderment is essentially the scientific method. It is the rapid iteration of possibilities that are tested against audacious goals (Like Thomas Edison and the light bulb). An emerging solution to a customer problem is driven by simple questions like, “Why not?” but is also constrained by feasibility (can it be built?) and viability (does it make business sense?). This exploration is both serious and fun. Systematic testing and elimination of ideas and options requires discipline, tenacity, and rigor. Generating an endless array of possibilities to test is playful, energizing, and empowering.

3. Risk Management. Overcoming the challenge of risk in innovation starts with a better understanding of the difference between innovation and invention. The dominant (but false) understanding that innovation comes from a blinding flash of insight, or from a lone genius that sees the world from a different angle, makes innovation seem untenable. How is a company supposed to plan for genius to occur? What’s the timeline? No wonder it’s not supported.

Innovation is not driven by breakthroughs in technology… it’s the opposite. Innovation is driven by commitment to satisfying customer’s needs and keen observations about what is and what is not working. These observations push the limits of technology and force the breakthroughs. Innovation in practice couldn’t be farther from being a lone inventor in a lab. Innovation is a collaborative, hands-on experience, taking place on the front lines with customers.

So the way to manage risk in innovation is first to stay very close to your customers, second to create a portfolio of innovation projects designed to solve their problems, and third to move very quickly to determine what doesn’t work so you don’t waste time and resources on unacceptable solutions.

Not every idea will evolve into an innovative solution (either attracts new customers or more engagement from current customers). An effective innovation portfolio should work much like an effective stock portfolio. There should be a mixture of incremental improvement ideas, evolutionary ideas, and revolutionary ideas. Investing in a balanced portfolio of several ideas mitigates the risk across all of them instead of placing “all of your eggs in one basket.”

Innovation is not whimsical, magical, or fluffy. It’s not accidental or even unpredictable. The problem with innovation for some companies could be that it’s more about nurturing than managing, a human-centered style not often associated with the titans of business.

 

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Familiarity breeds innovation

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but familiarity breeds innovation (See my recent post for the difference).  I was fortunate to have that thought quoted in a recent Fast Company interview about inspiring innovation with radical trust, but I think it deserves even more detailed attention.

I’m not sure why this concept is so hard to grasp for business people. So I looked it up and found that the Latin root of familiarity is intimacy.  Ah ha!  After a quick search on that term, it’s clear that most people associate intimacy with sex.  Which made me think of the famous Annie Leibovitz photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  She’s a living legend for pushing our comfort zones with her art.

John & Yoko Rolling Stone cover by Annie Leibovitz

So I think we should get back to the real definition of intimacy and get more comfortable with how it is so essential to innovation.  For the record:

Familiarity: close acquaintance or knowledge (Latin: familiāritās  intimacy.)

Here’s what I mean by familiarity:

1. Love your customer. Think about when you have a crush on someone. You can’t stop thinking about her and you want to know EVERYTHING about her. To innovate in business, you must obsess over your customer’s behavior and pay close attention to what they do (and don’t do) in their lives surrounding your product or service. If you don’t create intimacy with them, you end up playing “whack a mole” with your new ideas, missing most of the time because you are just guessing.

2. Engage in healthy debate: I like the word debate because it implies that you know both (all) sides of an issue and are fluent with them. Fluent enough to play with them versus trying to win over or kill the other ideas. This level of familiarity is critical to “higher order” breakthroughs because playful interaction with multiple perspectives leads to unexpected connections and the blending of ideas into new concepts.

3. Work with you best friends. Years ago the Gallup Organization found significance in the statement, “I have a best friend at work” in their research on employee engagement. Innovation powerhouse David Kelley is famous for starting IDEO as a place where he could work with his friends.  In the Fast Company article, Greg Ferenstein underscores this point by saying, “You don’t BS friends. And they don’t blow smoke and rainbows when you share with them your crazy ideas.”  Friendship is the embodiment of trust, and trust is foundational for innovation (which is loaded with risk).

For many people in the working world, the ideas of intimacy, playfulness and friendship are against their very conception of work.  But there is more than sufficient evidence linking these types of familiarity with high performance and creative production so things are starting to shift.

The potential for creative greatness in any person is there… but us humans are social beings and fulfilling our potential requires healthy, holistic, intimate relationships.

 

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Is that innovation or invention?

While closely related, invention and innovation are distinct concepts. Invention is a technology driven breakthrough, bringing something new to the world, that acts like a doorway for innovation to occur. Innovation is an iterative process of improvement that either sustains or disrupts a consumer market.

Wright brothers first flight at Kittyhawk

A great example of this distinction is the invention of flight allowing for the innovation of air transport into a major industry.  The Wright brothers are largely credited with inventing the airplane, but what they really invented was a steering device, which allowed them to make the first “controlled, powered and sustained, heavier-than-air human flight.”

Among the early innovators of air transport were Donald Douglas, who created the DC-3, a robust aircraft capable of carrying things and people, and Henry Ford who was instrumental in the development of paved runways, passenger terminals, hangars, and radio navigation.  Without these innovations, airplanes were an interesting novelty, but they didn’t fulfill a real customer need (like traveling or shipping packages over long distances).

The Ford Trimotor is an example of innovation

Simply put: Invention is driven by technology and innovation is driven by consumer need.

Another example:

At Hulu we are focused on the consumer experience of video entertainment, and innovation is one of our primary goals as a business.  What drives our forward progress is an obsession over our customer’s needs, and a commitment to delivering better and better services to meet their demands.

Innovation in digital media requires deep expertise in software and communications technologies, and along the way Hulu has been awarded many patents for inventions that push the consumer experience to even higher levels.  But we didn’t invent most of the technology we use, or create most of the content viewed on the service; rather we are assembling existing components in new ways that are transforming the media business for users, advertisers, and  content owners.

Is that innovation or invention?

Many popular web-based services are breaking ground in the way people communicate, connect, and work with each other.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if these things are novel inventions or early stages of innovation that will shift markets or generate new ones.

I wonder if Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are inventions or innovations.  They are all valued with great potential to disrupt and transform, but to me they appear more like inventions in their current forms.  They are very cool, novel ways to interact, but that is by definition, invention.  What consumer markets have they created or disrupted?

I think it’s going to be very exciting to walk through the doorways they have created and see what innovation on the other side will produce!

 

 

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It’s a thin line

It’s a thin line between love and hate. This is a great quote to underscore the inherent challenge of delivering excellence or managing to very high quality standards. Recall this great song by Annie Lennox in case you need a soundtrack in your head while reading this.  It’s easy to point out what’s wrong with something, but a much bigger challenge to make it better.

Walking the Tightrope, source: unknown

It’s like walking a tight rope… if you believe high quality is essential to achieving your goal.  On the one hand, you can take the demanding boss or snooty patron approach and simply demand better/more.  This might get you an immediate response, but often elicits such a negative reaction from the people around you that you lose their authentic trust, loyalty, and commitment.

One the other hand, if you tip towards forgiveness and understanding, you actually get less in the moment and hope that next time things will be better.  This might engender fonder feelings from those around you, but fails to set a higher bar, push the envelope, surprise and delight.  It is simply fine (given the circumstances).  Unfortunately, over time, “simply fine” leads to mediocrity.  Eeew.

It’s a difficult competing commitment: be a kind generous human being (like Jesus Christ) or be an innovative bearer of high standards (like Steve Jobs).  Can’t you be both? Sure, and to do so, vision, vigilance, and veracity come to mind.  Introducing the V-3 method of leading for quality!  It helps you walk the line of pushing for mo’ betta, while accepting the inevitable influence of variables, unexpected interruptions, and, well reality taking things back to the lowest common denominator.

  1. Vision: paint a compelling picture of what could be, so others are inspired to act.  In fact, paint is insufficient, you must craft it in Technicolor, no THX.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Powerful imagery has proven impact on individual motivation by “priming” people with impressions about what is possible and how it will make a difference.  More importantly, a great vision helps clarify a choice and “allows” others to achieve versus forcing them to respond to a command.  A clear and compelling vision attracts people who desire the same things as you, making achievement at very high levels of quality more sustainable.
  2. Vigilance: don’t let there be exceptions and don’t let there be distractions from the highest priority aspects of your quality mission.  Allowing exceptions and distractions lets people off the hook before they achieve mastery, and may negatively effect their desire to try next time. See more on this concept in Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua.
  3. Veracity: use facts and present them in ways that inspire continued efforts to try harder.  Providing feedback on progress is essential in support of persistance and high achievement.  But the facts must be relevant and presented in appropriate scales.  One study on goal achievement compared weight loss on a wide scale of 25 pounds versus a narrow scale of 5 pounds and found that participants needing to lose 4 pounds were more likely to slack off in the wide scale (because 4 is small compared to 25 while it’s huge compared to 5).

It’s a thin line between engagement and overwhelm.  One last tip:  if you tell someone something is “not good enough” the next action on your part is to pitch in and help make the situation better.  This is a doubly-good thing because mimicry is a powerful social motivator and it’s energizing to have fresh legs in the face of a difficult challenge!

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The (new) wisdom of teams

The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith is one of the most useful books I have ever read.  It provides a clear framework for team success based on sound research. That plus the memorable: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform stages of team development by Bruce Tuckman helped me diagnose and facilitate teams for over 20 years.

Key to these models is the distinction between a “real team” and other small working groups that don’t exhibit complementary skills, commitment to a common purpose, shared performance goals, and mutual accountability for their approach to the work at hand.

Over the years, I’ve come to find that team development as Katzenbach, Smith, and Tuckman observed it depends on a stable surrounding environment, which is becoming less and less common.  Today’s work place is fraught with complexity, ambiguity, and overlapping priorities.  Speed and confusion are facts of life, not the result of a poorly run organization.

photo from blog.jaciclark.com

Often teams have a hard time functioning as suggested in The Original Wisdom (choirs sing here) because the demands to perform start immediately, and there’s no time to go through the team development stages.  And I have to admit that many business leaders in my career have argued that the time it takes for team building is unnecessary.

Today’s successful teams seem to skip some of the stages and get right to work, much as people can jump up and start dancing together at a wedding with little planning or communication.  They just know what to do when the music starts. I’ve shared some of the insights about this “new” kind of team in an earlier post on teams, and it was so popular I thought I’d add some more on the topic.

Here’s some of the new wisdom emerging from my observations conducted at IDEO with my research partner Daniel Wilson:

3 Degrees of Team: we’ve noticed performance differences in teams can be correlated to various “degrees” of team complexity.  A “client-embedded, extended team” seems to out perform the other types.

1. A “core team” has 3-5 people with different skills working closely on a project.

2. An “extended team” can have 20 or 30 people who identify themselves as members of the team, but do not participate fully in all team activities.  Sometimes they offer a quick assessment of the work, while other times they make a specialized contribution to the overall work product.

2. A “client embedded” team has representatives of the sponsoring agency actually on the team versus reviewing or supporting the work from afar.

Team fluidity: one commonly held belief of a team is that it forms with an original set of members (like a rock band) and keeps those same members for the life of its work.  We’ve seen that successful teams are more fluid and can easily accommodate the arrival and departure of members over the life of their work.  This is managed with the use of project artifacts, boundary objects, and a continuing project narrative that keeps everyone up-to-date and connected to the current state of the team and work.

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Transparency beats asymmetries

As I begin this post I’m realizing transparency is a big topic, but it’s coming up all over the place in business, personal, and social situations, so I want to start picking it apart.  I noticed Seth Godin’s post earlier this week, and liked his statement that the issue is not to be viewed as a moral right, but a business tactic, tool or threat.  So this post is about sharing information as a business tactic to win complex games.

I’ve had many discussions with friends about putting things on the Web and how fearful they are about things being used against them.  I hear comments about invasion of privacy, loss of employment, Gattaca and Big Brother.   One of my best friends refuses to participate in social networking sites so he won’t make it any easier for anyone to find out stuff about him.  He’s a very sharp guy, and I think he is playing a good poker game.  And, as Seth points out, poker is not much fun if you can see everyone’s cards.

Ostrich head in sandFor me the issue here is not about transparency, but what game you are playing.  Poker is a small scale strategy game pitting one person against another.  Transparency is the exact wrong thing to do in that game.  But most “games” in life and business are far more complex, and given our 21st Century context (see Thomas Friedman), I think it’s dangerous to live life with a poker face.  It’s more like having one’s head in the sand.

In a complex system, transparency is important as it relates to information asymmetries.  This is when one “side” in a transaction knows more than another.  In such cases, people tend to undervalue an opportunity to avoid risks based on gaps in knowledge. It has been shown in economic theory that the overall value of a system is increased when everyone has access to the same information.

In markets, individuals benefit greatly by sharing their information with others to allow for fair exchanges.  This sharing brings the added bonus of systemic aggregation of information (the Internet enables this like never before).  Aggregation allows people to discover patterns that provide opportunities to adjust tactics and “win” more often.

So here’s some “games of life” to think of as markets instead of as poker:

  • Job interviews/hiring decisions… what if employers and employees knew more about jobs and candidates? Better alignment of jobs and people lead to greater engagement and less turnover.
  • Health… what if people were able to share their health information more fully? They could see trends and patterns and share them with medical professionals to get earlier and better treatment.
  • Business… what if employers shared their performance goals and metrics more fully (even when it’s bad news)?  Employees could intervene earlier and with greater permission to prevent negative trends.
  • Dating… more disclosure about values and interests leads to better match making and longer lasting relationships.

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