Archives for category: Innovation CULTURE

The most recent McKinsey Quarterly has a concise article that sums up a multi-year research project by the organisation.  As the title suggests, it breaks the findings into eight areas.  While the article is rich in highly quotable insights, the one below caught my attention:

Innovation also requires actionable and differentiated insights—the kind that excite customers and bring new categories and markets into being. How do companies develop them? Genius is always an appealing approach, if you have or can get it. Fortunately, innovation yields to other approaches besides exceptional creativity.

The rest of us can look for insights by methodically and systematically scrutinizing three areas: a valuable problem to solve, a technology that enables a solution, and a business model that generates money from it. You could argue that nearly every successful innovation occurs at the intersection of these three elements. Companies that effectively collect, synthesize, and “collide” them stand the highest probability of success. “If you get the sweet spot of what the customer is struggling with, and at the same time get a deeper knowledge of the new technologies coming along and find a mechanism for how these two things can come together, then you are going to get good returns,” says Alcoa chairman and chief executive Klaus Kleinfeld.

(Source: The eight essentials of innovation | McKinsey & Company )


One of the issues that leadership teams often wrestle with is the length of time it takes for innovation to bear fruit.  I don’t think there’s a magic bullet for this, but that organisations should try a range of approaches.  For large organisations, innovation at scale can be achieved through a range of software solutions including MindJet SpigitEngage.  However it’s still hard to beat the face-to-face interaction of small teams racing against a clock in the same room.  With that in mind a new book from Michael Schrage favours the 5×5 approach:

…half of Schrage’s new book is devoted to an innovation methodology called 5×5 that captures the benefits of experimentation. In the 5×5 approach, writes Schrage, “A minimum of 5 teams of 5 people each are given no more than 5 days to come up with a portfolio of 5 ‘business experiments’ that should take no longer than 5 weeks to run and cost no more than 5,000 euros to conduct. Each experiment should have a business case attached that explains how running the experiment gives tremendous insight into a possible savings of 5 million euros or a 5-million-euro growth opportunity for the firm.”

Schrage says that he’s been facilitating these 5×5 exercises in companies, under the auspices of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Moscow School of Management since 2009. The results: “There are always—without exception—at least three or four experiments that make top management sit up straight, their eyes widening or narrowing, dependent on temperament, and incredulously ask, ‘We can do that!?’”

via How to Avoid Bad Investments in Good Ideas.

From the excellent strategy & business publication (formerly booz) comes this short article about where the good stuff comes from.  The paragraph below sums it up:

“…breakthrough strategies rarely come from the typical strategic planning effort. Nor do they typically result from the common practice of generating and evaluating strategic options. And they certainly aren’t inspired in a traditional board offsite, executive retreat, or brainstorming session. Instead, they start with individuals working on big, specific challenges who find novel ideas in unexpected places, creatively combine them into innovative strategies, and personally take those strategies to fruition—against all odds.”

via The Truth about Breakthrough Strategies.

What exactly is a serendipity architect? I get asked this a lot, and my answer is two-fold depending on how the question is being asked.

First the title is a litmus test for who I’d like to work with. If people look at me sceptically when they ask, then it’s a fairly safe bet that working with that person is going to be difficult (like the time one executive introduced me to an audience as a “self described serendipity architect.”).  On the other hand, the people that I like to work with smile when they mention the title, or are simply curious.

Secondly it describes a lot of what I do – keeping abreast of a lot of fast moving areas, discussing interesting developments with people that know these areas well, pulling insights from the mix and then working with leadership teams to understand how they can take advantage of the opportunity.  One of the comments I hear during the last phase of this process goes along the lines of “wasn’t it lucky that we…”   My response is that this isn’t luck.  It’s designed serendipity.

If you want a longer read about how serendipity happens in an online world, Wired magazine published an extract from the book “Smarter Than You Think.”  The last paragraph of the extract sums it up nicely:

The birth of Ushahidi is a perfect example of the power of public thinking and multiples. Okolloh could have simply wandered around wishing such a tool existed. Kobia could have wandered around wishing he could use his skills to help Kenya. But because Okolloh was thinking out loud, and because she had an audience of like-minded people, serendipity happened.

I  encourage to people to mix in areas that are outside their knowledge domain, and to keep an open mind when they do so.  The reason for this is because insights often happen not when you’re looking harder at a challenge, but when you take a step back and look around to see how others have approached analogous challenges.  The January 2014 issue of Wired has an article about a doctor seeking different ways of treating cancer, and it makes for an interesting read on it’s own.  However the part that got my attention was the following when he explained where he found new directions for his thinking:

The second moment occurred five years later, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There Agus met the famed physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his work on the theory of elemental particles. Talking to Gell-Mann crystallized the ideas that Leaf’s article had set in motion. “My ‘Aha!’ moment came when he talked about the complex systems he confronted in physics and how he would go about trying to build models,” Agus wrote in The End of Illness. Physicists were able to build theoretical models of things they still didn’t completely understand and make discoveries using those models. Why hadn’t doctors approached medicine like this? he wondered.

It’s a great example of looking outside to go deeper inside.

I like TED, and the talks that it spreads freely.  Friends have spoken at the conference, and come away waxing lyrical about the off-stage interactions, the meeting of minds and the thinking that results.  However I can’t help thinking that there’s something beyond TED that’s not focussed on North America and Europe, and not stuck in the old-style broadcast paradigm.  Some of this is encapsulated in a post I was referred to (thanks Twitter):

Can a new wave of technology thinkers produce a fresh outlet for smart ideas not (yet) co-opted as badly as TED? If so, it won’t come from the well-financed centers of Silicon Valley but from the margins, the actual cutting edge.

via Against TED – The New Inquiry.

It can be quite tricky to involve creative and non-linear thinkers in your organisational structure. Many people that fit in this category prefer to have wide-ranging remits that don’t fit the normal hierarchical structures.  Fresh research (indeed it’s work-in-progress) from HBS supports this and sums up it up in the context of distributed innovation:

Many creative problem-solvers will not or simply cannot work effectively under standard employment or supply contracts. That is why distributed innovation in a business ecosystem is such a desirable organizational form.

via Organization Design for Distributed Innovation — HBS Working Knowledge.

A quick link to David Skilling’s excellent post today about the tensions in introducing new ideas to Governments, and the importance of doing so:

After years of observing governments, I have come to the view that one of the most costly features of policy-making is ‘faith-based policy’ in which certain policies become articles of faith and are not subject to serious scrutiny. This can lead to poor outcomes at any time, but particularly in times of disruptive change when new ideas are needed to enable governments to adapt to a changing world. It is the governments that respond flexibly to a changing world that are more likely to sustain strong performance.

via Landfall  ✧  On faith-based policy.

This is a great article about what’s good – and what’s bad – about the TED conference.  The paragraph that resonated with me the most is also the reason why I will never turn down an invitation to a Foo Camp but inevitably turn down many invitations to conferences:

We live in a world of increasingly networked knowledge. And it’s a world that allows us to appreciate what has always been true: that new ideas are never sprung, fully formed, from the heads of the inventors who articulate them, but are always — always — the result of discourse and interaction and, in the broadest sense, conversation.

via How TED Makes Ideas Smaller – Megan Garber – Technology – The Atlantic.

I missed this article in the New York Times when it came out a couple of weeks ago, but it’s well worth a read for a view on innovation and creativity.  The overall theme is that introverts and lone geniuses are often the ones that lead innovation.  It also has insights about working environments that lead on from this

Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers.

Leading on from this article there’s some informed commentary on the formula for innovation at Fast Company where Fabio Sergio from Frog summarises:

The idea that visionary geniuses are best-poised for radical innovation is simply misleading. Maybe Jobs or Steve Wozniak were visionary geniuses working in uninterrupted solitary isolation … when they weren’t busy working crazy-long hours with the rest of their über-talented crews in the cultural cradle of high-tech innovation.

The answer lies in harnessing positive tension. It’s an art that only a group of talented individuals have proven to be capable of mastering.

Both articles are well worth reading, and highlight the complexity around creating a culture of innovation.

UPDATE: Bob Sutton also weighs in on the NYT article with an excellent post here.