I’m often asked what my job title is, and my standard reply is that I don’t have one. If pushed however I use the term ‘serendipity architect.’ Mentioning this phrase is usually a good indicator of the mindset of the person I’m talking to – if they’re open and want to know what the title means, I’m more likely to enjoy working with them.
Some people are dismissive of the term. In my experience those people are likely to be highly operational, and not the type of people that cope well with the inherent ambiguity of long term thinking and the connections to strategy and innovation.
The power of serendipity is acknowledged occasionally in the mainstream business media, like this recent example in McKinsey online:
Serendipity involves stumbling over something unusual, and then having the foresight or perspective to capitalize on it. What makes that such an attractive story? It’s the juxtaposition of seemingly independent things. In a serendipitous flash, one recent winner, an engineering firm, realized that the gear it designed for scallop trawlers could also be used to recover hard-to-get-at material in nuclear-waste pools. Surprising connections such as these set off a chain of events that culminate in a commercial opportunity. So to build this story line, think about the quirky combination of ideas that got you started and remember that serendipity is not the same as chance—you were wise enough, when something surprising happened, to see its potential.
By the way, the entire article is a good read…
A university study in Italy has simulated the effect of luck on wealth creation. The study showed that richer people were more likely to be also lucky. While this study was focused on individuals, it also looked at the wider implications, and concluded that casting wider for insights will provide better returns than placing specific bets.
If this research is able to be reproduced, it would give further support to the idea that expanding an organisation’s field of view will create long term returns.
Full details here
There’s a long history of ‘corporate antibodies’ blocking innovation. The challenge stems from the issue of KPIs vs innovation. Most organisations have a well tuned engine room that produces profit. It’s specifically tuned to eliminate variation and maximise efficiency. These two goals don’t fit well with innovation which can be messy, iterative and inefficient. In this blog post, Steve Blank offers a cunning plan to work around the anti-bodies in a manner that both enables innovation and builds capability. The essence of the idea is that organisations need a set of processes for the engine room, and another set for innovation.
In his post Steve even offers templates for how a leadership team should manage implementing this process, which is something that is increasingly rare to find online (where it’s easy to be a innovation expert on theory, but much harder to prove real-world credentials).
It’s a highly recommended read if you’re in a large organisation, and banging your head against the wall trying to move the dial on innovation.
Ten years ago a small group of us started down the path of a large-scale transformation at the Canterbury DHB. Now this work has been hailed in The Guardian as something that the NHS should follow. Read the full details here .
Geoffrey West is a physicist by training, but has crossed over into theories of biology, and then to theories about cities. More recently he has started to look at companies, and some of his research is illuminating with respect to the need for innovation in organisations.
His observation about cities is that they need diversity in order to grow, and companies need similar:
“…in what way can you make a company more like a city?” West asks. “You allow at least part of it to be a little more organic, to grow in a natural way, and let it be much more open to having mavericks, naysayers, and people with odd ideas hanging around. Allow a little bit more room for bullshit. You need some mechanism to somehow break this straitjacket that big companies take on as they grow.”
You can get further context from the full article here: The Fortune 500 Teller
In my mind innovation, creativity and curiosity are absolutely linked. In an increasingly volatile world, these traits assume new value as they allow people to assemble disparate knowledge and recombine it in order to avoid ‘failures of imagination’ about possible futures. PwC carried out a survey earlier this year of CEOs which threw out some fascinating insights:
When asked recently to name the one attribute CEOs will need most to succeed in the turbulent times ahead, Michael Dell, the chief executive of Dell, Inc., replied, “I would place my bet on curiosity.”Dell was responding to a 2015 PwC survey of more than a thousand CEOs, a number of whom cited “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as leadership traits that are becoming increasingly critical in challenging times.
Source: Why Curious People Are Destined for the C-Suite
There’s a plethora of good advice in this article on innovation, especially the sections on art, business and innovation. However the one piece that will probably ring true for large organisations is this:
At most companies that care, you can set up creative, innovative environments and teach everyone to function better within them. You can hire a Picasso. Or, better yet, you can hire several Picassos: Several extraordinary people with complementary talents, who each have strengths that the others don’t have. Having picked them, you can empower them. You can put them with 15 other people as good as they are, but in different ways. You then get a type of generative activity and creativity that you don’t get otherwise. Even then you still have to take that creativity, massage it, and create an output that’s valuable for a customer. Which is hard for most companies to do.
Meanwhile, odds are that the rest of your organization, especially middle management, will strive to eliminate them. So you need to give them top cover.
Never underestimate the need for top cover.
Source: Bran Ferren on the Art of Innovation
When I give presentations at conferences, I often get asked by people one simple question: “how do I keep abreast of all this new stuff?” My response is that people should think about getting mentoring from people younger from themselves – ‘reverse mentoring.’
Fast Company had a short piece on this recently, and it highlighted some of the benefits:
Shivananda says reverse mentoring also helps leaders connect with millennials. “Often leaders look at millennials and don’t understand them,” he says. “Reverse mentoring gives me an opportunity to do that, not just by learning in terms of technology, but by engaging and maximizing the workforce. It gives me an ability to demonstrate that this is a place to come to work and be appreciated. Somebody wants to understand and learn from them.”Reverse mentoring works best when it’s a reciprocal experience, says Shivananda, and this can help the junior employee grow in his or her own career by discussing their aspirations.
“Reverse mentoring should always be a mutual experience; I provide value by sharing my years of experience,” says Shivananda. “They give me value through sharing what’s new, what’s happening, and what’s relevant.”
Source: Why A PayPal Executive Is Being Mentored By His Millennial Employees
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.