“What bound them was a shared belief in the nearly sacred mission of Bell Laboratories and the importance of technological innovation. The men preferred to think that they worked not in a laboratory but (…) in an institute of creative technology. This description aimed to inform the world that the line between art and science of what Bell scientists did wasn’t always distinct (…) they were paid for their imaginative abilities. But they were also paid for working within a culture, and within an institution, where they very point of new ideas was to make them into new things.” – “The Idea Factory. Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” by Jon Gerner.
“There are two ways of identifying projects to pursue. One is to recognize that a scientific field has emerged or reached an inflection point, and that it can solve, often in a new way, a practical problem of importance (…) the second way to identify projects is to uncover an emerging user need that existing technologies cannot address (…) a project portfolio should include a healthy balance of both kinds of initiatives (…) both can be identified through quantitative analyses (…) Project leaders who can successfully lead DARPA like efforts posses the skills of the best CEOs of science or engineering based start-ups.” – “Special Forces Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems” by Regina E. Dugan and Kaigham J. Gabriel.
Previous article: “Where do good ideas come from (1)?“
Old Idea by F.P. Carrion. Creative Commons.
My experience is that a good idea can actually come from anywhere, anyone and at unexpected times. Perhaps, what it takes to deliver a successful ideation process that is repeatable is a better question to ask than just where a good idea could come from. Serial ideation is a critical success factor for the following reasons:
- a one trick pony (one-offs) might not be able to sustain a company’s business over the mid and long term
- fast followers can not just catch up and compete, but also move up the value chain, unless the company remains a step ahead
- the cloud age brings about lower barriers to entry and the need for market leaders to rise the stakes
- change happens and what makes a company successful in the future is no longer what that enterprise started with
Picasso was quoted saying that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” As shocking as that might first sound, the underlying message is meant to be a thought provoking one. There is a good chance that the point behind that statement had more to do with:
- exercising one’s curiosity and being out there scouting
- engaging in public discourse, sharing and learning from others
- deconstructing, assimilating, aggregating, evolving, transforming and revolutionizing
- looking for applications in new or adjacent contexts or, simply, taking things to new levels
- making the outcome one’s own signature work and innovating in the process
To Picasso’s point, serial ideation can benefit from scouting and tuning in concepts to a particular market frequency. There are some other thoughts on this topic which I would like to share in subsequent articles. However, I would now like to provide the following list. Please keep in mind that these one-line-descriptions might not fully depict the scope of what a given item entails:
Ideation set 1:
- theory of constrains – defining limitations and operating boundaries to work with
- unconstrained thinking – devising the art of the possible without boundaries
- blue ocean – looking for new uncontested opportunities
- scenario planning – identifying context, variables and probabilities for future scenarios
- game theory – modeling decisions, conflict and resolution paths
- predictive markets – speculative markets where participants buy and sell “idea futures”
- predictive analytics – statistical analysis forecasting future events
Ideation set 2:
- cross pollination – identifying and integrating elements from different domains and projects, connecting dots
- cross functional team – collaborating across different disciplines, functional expertise, experience and levels in an organization
- holistic approach – zooming out to assess the value of the whole and how parts interact, an end-to-end systems approach
- systems integration – leveraging synergies across elements and subsystems under a new overarching solution
- situational awareness – assessing contexts and environments as well as cause-effect relationships
- network effects – exploring externalities and chain reactions
- multivariable testing – testing for more than one component or aspect
- a/b testing – comparison testing involving alternative options
Ideation set 3:
- reduction – deconstructing a problem and solving for smaller ones first
- point solution – zooming in by focusing on addressing a single problem
- post mortem – extracting learning from a finished project whether successful or unsuccessful
- reverse engineering – learning gained from the backward analysis of an existing solution
- analytics – capturing patterns, identifying leading and lagging indicators and relationships
- deep dive – immersing the research team in a given situation or problem
Ideation set 4:
- subject matter expertise – know-how delivered by specialists and analysts
- doogfooding – gathering first hand feedback from employees using the company’s own products
- role play – simulation exercise where researchers assume personas, characters relevant to a problem
- ethnographic research – unobtrusively observing users’ behaviors in real-life contexts
- empathy research – researchers experience themselves the same cases and context lived by actual users
- usability testing – gathering direct input from users as they are using the system
- user diaries – logs and activity diaries capturing test users situations, benefits and challenges
- liveblogging – rolling information shared by means updates, blogging and streaming video
- sensing network – obtaining environmental and individual data from sensors and videos
- day-in-the-life – studying interaction lifecycles (before-during-after time lapses) for a given user or set of users
- focus groups – qualitative input gathered by facilitating group discussions with stakeholders
- user interview – individual, one one one discussions
- lead user – input provided by early adopters as well as examining adaptations created by power users
- user feedback survey – leveraging conventional surveying tools
- user forum – conference involving customers
- online user forum – web based user input
- social media – conversations, listening and reputation management tools involving social networking
Ideation set 5:
- crowdsourcing – soliciting ideas and solutions by engaging external contributors online
- contests – reward based competitions involving in-house and/or external experts
- idea box – tools designed to collect new ideas, some also include voting
- boot camp – fast track experiential training as part of project development
As shared above, another article on this topic will follow. Thanks for the emails received to date ; )
“Descartes said in the Discourse on Method that it didn’t matter how smart you were; if you didn’t go about things the right way –with the right method- you would not discover anything.” – “Descartes Problem-Solving” by Judith Grabiner.
“Ideas come from need; understanding of need comes from experience; and experience comes with age. The world may not yet be ready for your idea, but if you believe in it, keep pursuing it until one day the world is ready. It is never too late for you to innovate.” – “No, You Are Not Too Old to Innovate” by Vivek Wadhwa.
“What if past experience isn’t your best friend? What if it’s your worst enemy, because it’s no longer predictive of anything, and because it’s an impediment to the disruptive change and innovation that we need? – “When Experience Betrays You” by Howard A. Tullman.
I am writing this article to discuss where good ideas come from and whether our experiences matter in that context. In parallel I’m also listening to “The Mind of The Innovator,” a special program on NPR, the American National Public Radio, which is sponsored by NSF, the National Science Foundation. This radio program is addressing what it takes to innovate and outlines the following concepts:
- problem solving based on the ability to connect dots and to create mental roadmaps
- playfulness and rapid prototyping to scout for options and to seek early and continuous feedback
- thinking of real world applications and how to bring them to market… coupled with fear of failure
Speaking of failure, the business of innovating is not for the faint of heart. One’s convictions and mental toughness become instrumental when undertaking the journey between initial research and commercial adoption:
- Some startups fail to make that transition, which is also known as the “valley of death” for emerging technologies.
- Some other succeed among early adopters, but do not get subsequent traction with a wider market; this case is known as failing to “cross the chasm.”
- There are “zombie startups” with enough capital to run operations, which are not growing enough to take the business to the next level.
- “Fast followers” and even “incumbents” can take advantage of a start-up’s market creation investments and effectively compete in no time.
- In-house “corporate antibodies” characterized by unwillingness to take needed risks can slow down and put innovations on hold.
- NIH rejection, “Not Invented Here” syndrome, severely limits partnering and outsourcing opportunities as well as integrating existing third party products to speed up overall R&D.
- “Knockoff” products, “rip-offs,” “start-up clones” and any other “copycat” companies can cause considerable havoc.
- Last but not least, “patent trolls” involve firms engaging in what amounts to frivolous but time and resource consuming litigation.
So, it would seem that the generation of brilliant ideas alone does not seem to be good enough to succeed. Does experience make a difference? I think that the answer is that our personal experiences and lack of thereof matter in both expected and unexpected ways. In today’s fast changing environment, experience will make all the difference many times, but what some perceive as stubborn and restless behaviors can also pay off in quite a few other situations. What makes us smart is to be able to sense what formula applies best under a given context and changing gears accordingly, which is easier said than done when things are in motion.
In any case, I like to quote Seneca, a Roman philosopher who stated that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” No doubt, unexpected successes based accidental innovations happen, but the entrepreneurial spirit relies on believing in one’s chances because we should be empowered to make our own luck and own our own destiny no matter what challenges and odds we face. This has to do with self-fulfilling prophecies and plenty of positive thinking psychology if you will. Yet, thinking otherwise negates the kind of risk taking and passionate disdain for conformity which most innovations depend on.
Failure happens. We embrace “trial and error” as well as “learning and recovering” to come out stronger at the other end. In that context, stress is what surfaces at the the opposite end. Just like in life* we are often first put to the test and then learn a valuable lesson, that’s what we call teachable moments. Our experiences become memories, actionable knowledge and instincts that make us who we are. Nonetheless, we might blissfully ignore many things, which coupled with our learning ability, relationships, as well as the environment we operate also contribute to define our own self. Entrepreneurial success comes with what would appear to be intractable contradictions to many, here are some examples:
- an open mindset and a broad world view will definitely help (ability to zoom out) coupled with focus and mental toughness, which also are of the essence (ability to zoom in)
- determination and discipline helps us thrive, but sensing when to press on opposed to when to shift course and speed also are critical success factors (agility)
- uniqueness and differentiation define market value while adherence to partnerships and alliances can help us get there before others do.
- every one of us can make a difference (individualism) though it takes working with others and teamwork to make things happen (cohesiveness)
- a can do attitude and positivity are required, however we also need to exercise decisiveness and the power of saying no.
I am sure that better terms and examples can be found. In the meantime, I hope that the above helps convey the underlying message. Besides, this is not so much about aiming for normalcy, meeting in the middle, striking a balance or working with averages, all of which can defeat the purpose if applied indiscriminately. It has more to do with juggling balls on a roller coaster ride and embracing the art of the possible.
In my next article I will share a list of about 50 practices and concepts leveraged in ideation, this being the discovery and generation process for new ideas. Though I need to do some more work to provide you with a taxonomy to work with.
* ”The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” – Attributed to Tom Bodett.
“Customers decided what brand is the leader, no matter how much energy and money service providers invest in trying to persuade them (…) customers do no seek out the service provider that know what they want; they seek out the one that knows what they will want.” – “Customer Centered Telecommunications Services Marketing” by Karen G. Strouse.
“Many technologies initially get pulled into the market by enthusiasts, but later fail to get wider adoption. So to create a company that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, entrepreneurs need to come up with strategies that will help them build a bridge across that gap (…) Crossing the chasm is all about getting a technology widely adopted.” – “Rethinking Crossing the Chasm” by Alex Iskold, ReadWrite.
“When superior technologies emerge, old ones usually don’t simply fade away. To the contrary, their performance often leaps suddenly, thereby extending their lives and slowing the adoption of the new technologies.” – “Beware of Old Technologies’ Last Gasps” by Daniel C. Snow, Harvard Business Review.
“Successful companies can put too much emphasis on customers’ current needs, and fail to adopt new technology or business models that will meet customers’ unstated or future needs.” – “Innovators’ Dilemma” by Wikipedia. Refers to Clayton Christensen’s research.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Attributed to Henry Ford. “Henry Ford, Innovation, and That Faster Horse Quote” by Patrick Vlaskovits.
“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have (…) It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it (…) It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – “Steve Jobs Best Quotes Ever” by Own Linzmayer at Wired.
Hopefully, the above set of quotes got your attention and, perhaps, you have already started to connect the dots on your own. Here is my viewpoint, which I have structured under four sections.
Knowing that one can make a difference is a “condicio sine qua non” when undertaking a star-up’s journey. Otherwise, why bother? In today’s day and age, teamwork, networks and partnerships are of the essence. But, what I just stated does not negate the fact that an individual’s confidence, skills, independent thinking and decisive actions happen to be instrumental.
So, “knowing” in this context relates to achieving a confidence level at which we can logically articulate a compelling vision, one that is grounded on the art of the possible, and one that can be embraced by others. This is about outlining a guiding vision that we can believe in and commit to with passion.
We also talk about gut feelings and intuition when logic does not apparently reach far enough. This can happen when we might not know how to best verbalize or help others visualize a new construct. In any case, decisions need to be made in a timely fashion even when we are way out of our comfort zone and just happen to face overwhelming complexity, intractable unknowns and seemingly contradicting dilemmas.
Working with others in entrepreneurial environments involves rallying, supporting, leading and changing roles as necessary. It also means taking unequivocal steps to move forward. Couple that with experimenting early enough to shorten the learning curve, capturing teachable moments, while navigating changing environments and, possibly, tectonic-like shifts.
Addressing the human factor at works benefits from contextual and situational awareness. It raises one’s emotional intelligence, as well as mental toughness to overcome drawbacks. One’s ability to identify logical fallacies (mind traps and errors in reasoning, especially so in business cases) and applying cognitive restructuring (turning around negative thinking) to tackle dysfunctional views and “innovation antibodies” will be unavoidable.
An innovator’s timing and the actual windows of opportunity happen to be critical success factors. Being too early or late to market are business issues of concern. Innovating is about sensing the future and getting to a given market before others do. Innovating is about being there ahead of the pack and leveraging any first mover advantages that might exist.
While production cycles happen to be accelerating in today’s business ecosystem, generally speaking, we are talking about months, if not years, of research, development and sales efforts in advance to launching a high tech application, platform, product or service. Basically, work that starts today under a given scenario might finally get to market at a time when industry conditions have changed, hence, early assumptions would no longer apply. So, innovating does take visionary spirit, foresight and agility for a new business to thrive. Some entrepreneurs share that what eventually made them successful was not necessarily what they started with.
Once there, there is no time to be complacent and overconfident. You have to “stay hungry and stay foolish” as Steve Jobs best put it. In addition to fast followers entering the market, there can be other competitive challenges and, in any case, customers will be presented with a wider range of options in no time.
As pointed out in Clayton Christensen’s research, incumbents might not be able to react fast enough given their commitment to serving well established and sizeable markets, leaving a door open for nimbler enterprises to capture market segments under the radar. In some cases, the start-up becomes an acquisition target and is bought out by the existing power player, which can actually turn to be one of the founders’ exit strategies. In some other cases, conventional technologies can still take advantage of their embedded base and economies of scale when incremental innovation and partnerships help them delay the impact and even fence off next generation systems.
There also is a need for understanding the value proposition behind alternative technologies and subsequent substitute effects, as well tangential opportunities. Start ups cannot afford be left blindsided and get the ball knocked out of their hands by competitors who happen to come from adjacent sectors and are expanding into the company’s core market. By the way, coopetition (cooperative competition) and ecosystems , are relevant subjects which I am addressing in another series of articles.
When satisfied early adopters have passionately adopted the novelty, they become the innovation’s best evangelists and help spread the word. Positive testimonials and references will assist with marketing the innovation even further.
Early adopters can be more open minded and far more understanding than other user groups when facing glitches or any other kinds of shortcomings due to the technology’s roadmap and maturity level. Some might have even personalized the product, performed hacks, customized fixes and add crafty adaptions themselves, which other users might not be interested in undertaking on their own, or not to that extent.
If the company’s sustainability calls for wider market adoption and growth, in addition to serving current customers, crossing the chasm is about figuring out what the next wave of users will require, which might (or might not) match what’s available or planned use cases. The same applies to broadening the company’s reach to other market segments.
Early in my career, a vice president of strategy who I enjoyed working for used to remind me that enterprise planning involves doing what it takes to win the business today while jumpstarting the work that will get us to remain relevant tomorrow.
”It’s the ultimate paradox for leaders: you can’t predict the future but you must make sense of it in order to thrive“ – Get There Early” by Bob Johansen.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” – Attributed to Theodore Roosevelt.
“It is today that we must create the world of the future” – Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.