“It was December 9, 1968, and as Kay watched from audience, Douglas Engelbart and his fellow computer scientists from Silicon Valley’s Stanford Research Institute unveiled NLS, an online system that included the world’s first computer mouse and presaged so much of today’s online software, including everything from window-like interfaces to what we now call hyperlinks […] Many didn’t understand it […] Short for oNLine System, NLS let you work and communicate with others in countless ways. You could edit text, draw images, manipulate and organize files, send messages, and even video conference. The idea was to supercharge human intelligence through collaboration.” – “Tech Time Warp of the Week: The Mother of All Demos, 1968“ by Daniela Hernandez, Wired.
Emerging technologies are easily subject to self-defeating hype and unfulfilled promises, making it hard to tell apart what’s real from vaporware. At that point, slideware and writings alone do not suffice, demonstrations and trustworthy testimonials become of the essence.
Please note that I’m not comparing what follows with the original “Mother of All Demos.” The above quote is rather a sign of respect and a reference model, something to look up to and strive for.
Our team at the Cloud Innovation Center has been extremely busy working on an NFV portfolio demonstration and, therefore, looking into a challenging questions on what it takes to deliver the mother of all of our NFV demos, and the purpose that it would actually serve… if any.
We thought that this means shifting from a piece meal approach based on showcasing product specific demos to helping everyone experience what happens when things work together across the board. A silo busting exercise.
The industry’s initial focus on “best of breed” needs to be coupled with a modular end-to-end systems engineering where the resulting value and efficiencies clearly exceed the mere addition of any of these elements. Going back to the “Mother of All Demos” reference, isn’t “supercharging” what synergies should be all about?
Following that train of thought, complexity becomes one other issue of concern, which can undermine any good intentions from the onset. For that reason, we made picture  be our other guiding principle, striving to deliver elegant sophistication in simple terms by engaging the customer in a first hand interactive experience, and making it be a memorable one for that matter.
One more thought… we also discussed what the right ratio should be between presenting “state of the art” and “art of the possible.” Going back and forth many times on this through the process, the team consistently stuck to an 80/20 ratio where 80% of the demonstration is anchored on what becomes available this year and the remaining 20% addresses the path forward and underlying design of future things. When dealing with hot technologies, the industry can get easily saturated with Proof of Concept (PoC) and me-too projects. The more reason to clearly spell out what the real deal is.
Any conversation dealing with emerging technologies should handle two other questions regarding incremental vs. disruptive innovation. We are defining “incremental innovation” as getting better with something that we happen to do today already: showing the delta in performance whether operational or financial. We are defining “disruptive innovation” as doing something that we couldn’t possibly do before when working with legacy and conventional technologies, something of “unique value” that is.
While this might or might not be how others might define incremental and disruptive innovation, we can go beyond semantics to agree on the need for addressing the underlying framework. By the same token, note that a “breakthrough” is not a differentiation in this context, as both kinds of innovations rely on this type of high impact discovery one way or another.
In addition to the above concepts, these few pictures outline some of the tools we used in the design and development of “NFV: Service Innovation & Lean Ops,” which we will be demonstrating in Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress in just a couple of weeks. Hope to see you there : )
 Refers to a set of guiding principles: the kind of stuff you go back to conduct a sanity check and when in doubt, which I discussed above. As an example: “if you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
 This is the kick off creative brief: just a one pager outlining the mission by answering “why/what/when/who/where” to being with… while understanding that the project is an iterative journey where we will make discoveries that can make us switch our course and speed as we make progress. Project management wise, it pays to keep an eye on status, flags, % completion and remaining resources, including time left.
 Ideation techniques using both regular post-it and easel size ones for different groups, prioritization exercises leverage location and color coding. Nothing goes to waste: 3M’s Post-it Plus App for Apple’s iPhone comes in handy to capture these “boards,” which helps with post-meeting processing, collecting snapshots of any brainstorming session and keeping up with Kanban scrum boards in software development.
 Conventional whiteboarding also taking advantage of capturing what’s happening with the same app, making an entire whiteboard become a post-it note joining other pictures taken at other sessions, zooming in and out as needed.
 A variety of frameworks have helped organize and communicate information with other teams, as well as a checking for consistency and alignment.
 Low fidelity sketches were used to start visualizing key concepts early on: an agile alternative to cumbersome requirement documents at each iteration.
 High fidelity renderings of photo-realistic mock-ups aiding rapid prototyping.
 Wallpapering in a meeting room where all team members can review designs, post new items and further brainstorm throughout the project.
 Dogfooding (eating your own dog food) means that everyone in the team gets a first hand experience and understanding of what’s being developed, joining testing and contributing to next steps.
 Field trips, going out there to look for best practices and sources for new ideas outside of our own work environment and industry clichés. As an example, these pictures were taken at demonstrations taking place at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and one of Fermilab’s control rooms for the particle accelerator complex.
 Last but not least, the workload involves observational (e.g. ethnography) and usability research coupled with sessions with customers, subject matter experts and in-house stakeholders.
This is an iterative process and the above 10 items might not all take place at each iteration and/or in the same sequence at each cycle.
“You’re juggling dozens of priorities and under the gun to get a new marketing initiative under way. Do you really have time to write a creative brief? Avoid the temptation to skip it! Creative briefs help keep projects running smoothly and prevent misunderstandings and delays […] don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach.” – “Mastering The Creative Brief,” Aquent’s article on AIGA’s site.
“The brief is a starting point, not the answer […] so, it’s important that we do not ask the brief to be more than what it is”. – “The Creative Brief And The Client’s Role In It” by Will Burns.
I’ve worked with a number of creative briefs over the years, some long and detailed, some short and actually brief. What I am sharing here is the one that works best for my projects. This specific sample comes down to just one page, a landscape slide with a set of resizable widgets, these are simple movable frames with customizable headers.
There are many Word and PowerPoint templates out there which are designed as well intended forms. But when working on different types of marketing projects “one-size-does-not-definitely-fit-anything” that I need. There always seems to be a need for right sizing creative briefs to best communicate. The above example works as a artist’s canvas instead.
This model can also be enlarged and printed out as a whiteboard size tool coupled with Post-it notes and markers for workshops.
Moreover, an online version allowing for zooming in and out as needed keeps ideation efforts going even after the workshop. Pinning annotations, sketches, pictures, files and bookmarks as well as being able to freeze snapshots in time, helps with bringing back and reviewing previous iterations anytime.
My next article will provide insights on information architecture and narrative for the above. In the meantime, Plan A refers to what’s recommended as a plan of record while NBA stands for Next-Best-Alternative. That is Plan B in other words, should unknowns and conditions evolve. I am also showing a placeholder to outline “Exit” strategies easing decisions on when to discontinue a project. It takes more discipline to be agile and change course and speed than just merely sticking to a plan.
“Launching a new enterprise (…) has always been a hit or miss proposition (…) 75% of all start-ups fail. But recently an important countervailing force has emerged, one that can make the process of starting a company less risky. It’s a methodology called the “lean start-up,” an it favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development. Although the methodology is just a few years old, its concepts – such as “minimum viable product” and “pivoting” – have quickly taken root in the start-up world.” – “Why the Lean Start-up Changes Everything” by Steve Blank.
“Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales (…) if we want to be creative, we have to be dedicated.” – Adapted from “Creativity Is Really Just Persistence, And Science Can Prove It” by Drake Baer.
In my previous article I outlined 40+ items. All of them have to do with “exploring and experimenting,” which I believe to be corner stones of research and, hence, innovation engines. There is no denying that intuitive, casual and even accidental discoveries happen. Though, business wise, we need to figure out what it takes to engage in serial innovativeness. This is required to “cross the chasm” and to further an enterprise’s relevance and value.
As shared in an earlier article, we need to think and to connect the dots across (a) opportunities to support today’s business and to keep working on (c) creating the future. This makes sense whether we are involved in agile projects prompting short cycles or in long term research and development impacted by moving targets.
In my view, both assignments are clearly interrelated and share the need for analytical skills, devoting research efforts and, therefore, “exploration and experimentation” coupled with unconventional problem solving. This is what develops and nurtures creative thinking to a point at which it becomes an individual talent and an organizational asset.
I would also like to add that it pays to step back every once in a while to intellectualize our thought processes and frameworks we work with. This actually requires a curious and contemplative mind, one that reflects on what happens in context. It helps putting oneself in situations where we need to debrief on lessons learned and workflows. The basic objectives being:
- promoting – raising awareness, gathering feedback and allowing cross-pollination in the process
- propping – leveraging and refining what works well, understanding trade-offs between potential an limitations
- recycling – continuing to improve upon experiences and salvaging good ideas from failures and oblivion
- navigating – assessing contexts, options, directions, and adjusting course and speed to address whether upstream or shifting environments
Moreover, for good ideas to take off persuasive communication skills and marketing tools happen to be of the essence. From an operations management standpoint, innovativeness also has to do with creating an organizational culture, a distinctive work style where guiding principles happen to be more effective than sticking to strict processes alone. The fact is that creativeness and freedom go hand by hand. By the same token, execution and discipline are inseparable.
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” – Peter Tchaikovsky.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” – Pablo Picasso.
“If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.” – Albert Einstein.
“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.