Innovation Quarterly – Fall 2014

For a moment, set aside the frameworks, processes, methods and tools … and let’s focus on the people in innovation. This means all of us. This edition of Innovation Quarterly showcases the people side of innovation:

We are interested in your feedback and opinions — comment on our blog posts, share your reactions and ideas in our Innovate Innovation Now LinkedIn Group or drop us a note. And remember we are here to assist you on your journey to…


 Own the Unknown: The Focus on People at Inovo’s 4th Annual Innovation Summit

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“People: Mindset, Skills, Diversity” was the guiding theme of the 2014 Inovo Innovation Summit, held in September at Workspring in Chicago. Eighteen innovation leaders from large, diverse, non-competing companies met for an intense, thought-provoking day and a half of highly interactive and animated conversations about the theory and practice of innovation, now and in the future. Invited participants selected the topics, one of which was “people and collaboration.”

Here are some of our favorite people- and collaboration-related Summit quotes from these innovation leaders:

  • You can’t innovate if you’re not social. Build a team of individuals that already have a wide network of personal relationships within the company. That is how things get done.
  • The better you can tell a story and paint a picture of what success looks like, the more support you will get.
  • You need a diverse team. Project managers and domain experts, facilitators and explorers, the networkers and the thinkers.
  • Personal Style is an underutilized asset. It’s very difficult to find people who have both EQ and IQ. If you find one of them, put them in charge and coach them on how to find talent.
  • The diversity of ways you can work is more important than the way you work.
  • Ambidexterity is the ability to both judge and to perceive, and to keep those parts in constant tension. Senior leadership is overwhelmingly biased towards judging but for innovation, you need to perceive more than judge.
  • The innovator needs to challenge, push and be the fly in the ointment…and at the same time be humble, diplomatic and able to network.
  • I believe that true innovators are wired for innovation, not trained for it.
  • The goal of the innovator is not to prove an idea but to improve it.

A theme running throughout these discussions was the need for the innovator, and for company management, to exhibit a degree of mindful duality. Know when to perceive (i.e. learn and be open to possibilities that are not completely clear) and when to judge (i.e. demand proof and render decisions). This can be especially hard for companies in which the performance side of their organization is dominant.

In addition to group and breakout sessions, this year’s Summit included a “Mastermind” session during which each participant had an opportunity to pose a critical issue or question to the group and get feedback. We also held a “Feed Forward” session in which participants teamed up to ask and answer a question in rapid succession. We wrapped up with live storytelling about the future of innovation.

It was an invigorating couple of days, and we’re already busy planning next year’s event. There’s more information about the 2014 Inovo Innovation Summit on our website. Participation is by invitation; contact Steve Schwartz at via e-mail or +1 734.717.6224 if you are interested in attending.


10 Traits of the Strategic Innovator: Takeaways from the IRI Member Summit

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As innovators who leverage technology for differentiation and competitive advantage, The Inovo Group is an engaged member of the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), a 75-year-old organization whose purpose is to advance technological innovation by bringing thought leaders and practitioners together. This year’s Member Summit was held in Denver in October, and many of the presenters and keynote speakers focused on…people.

Inovo is involved in an IRI working group on How to Manage Whitespace Opportunities, and Larry Schmitt, as the group’s subject matter expert, co-presented the group’s findings (you can see our interim research report here). One of the most interesting topics the group is exploring is the traits and types of people companies look for to pursue strategic opportunities, i.e. those that are outside the company’s comfort zone. In the course of interviewing a number of innovators at major companies, the following attributes were mentioned repeatedly.

  • Sense of humility
  • Able to interact with others
  • Good communicator
  • Passion for the customer
  • Curious with a desire to learn
  • Ambidextrous (disciplined and adaptable)
  • Creative with a desire to create
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Motivated and fast
  • Individual perspective

It is clear that certain types of people are critical to successful innovation — and that these people may not fit in well with the operational performance side of the company. They are, nevertheless, important players in a company’s transformational growth efforts.

So how do innovators ensure we have the right team? What do we do when we don’t control the team we are given? We’ll keep you posted on the working group’s findings.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on what makes an excellent innovation team and how do you manage a team you are given, even if the makeup is not optimal? Tell us by commenting on our blog posts or posting on the Innovate Innovation Now Linked In group.


Think you need a subject matter expert? Hang on.

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It’s a natural reflex. Who do you turn to when you’re exploring an unfamiliar domain? An expert. We see this often in our interactions with innovators at companies of all types; when they want to innovate, they seek help from those with deep knowledge in a specific area.

Experts indeed have an important role in innovation efforts, just not the one you may think.

The attributes that make experts expert — that deep knowledge in a specific area — also can limit the breadth of perspective s/he can contribute. And it is exactly this breadth, this bird’s eye view, that is so critical in the early stages of strategic innovation.

The key for the innovator then is not to engage a specific expert early on, but to tap into the knowledge of a wide variety of experts – a community of knowledge, so to speak. In a new white paper, The Role of the Expert in Innovation, we explore why this approach works and how to do it well.

How do you think subject matter experts should be used in the innovation process? Share your thoughts in our Innovate Innovation Now LinkedIn group, our blog or email us.


Picking Your Innovation Team: Asking the Right Question

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“Who should be part of the innovation team?” We’re asked this question constantly as companies embark on their innovation initiatives. (“Constantly” might be a slight exaggeration, but not much.) Our answer to this question is always the same, and it’s often unsatisfying to the person asking it.

Choose a diverse set of people who have a passion for exploration, a tolerance for ambiguity, and the skill of creativity. Don’t worry about functional role or level within the organization.

The answer is unsatisfying because there is no good way to identify these people. There are no tests (we know of) that definitively say, “This person would be good on an innovation team.” As a result, we are left with qualitative judgments (accurate or not), tempered by political expediency and availability – two very powerful organizational forces.

The real question for those of us tasked with forming an innovation team and successfully executing an innovation initiative is not “Who should we select?” but “How do we enable the people on the team to become outstanding at innovation?”

The answer to this question lies in integrating process, tools, team organization and project management to take a diverse group of people with varying skills and proclivities and turn them into a creative, fast moving, ambidextrous team. That’s one of the hallmarks of a good innovation process.

What has your experience been on innovation team projects? Share with us and learn more on our blog Innovate Innovation or by talking with us.


 What We’re Reading

The Alliance by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh

Read by Kendra Theriot

As the HR champion at Inovo, I was anxious to read The Alliance and hear Reid Hoffman et. al propose a bold new vision of the employee-employer relationship. This has important implications not only for large, innovative companies but smaller firms as well. Guaranteed long-term employment contracts are a notion of the past, employee engagement is at an all-time low, and entrepreneurs are fleeing corporations to join start-ups. To address this trend, the authors propose three strategies for attracting and retaining entrepreneurial talent and, thereby, increasing the odds of successful innovation:

  • Time-limited “tour of duty” engagements focused on particular objectives and/or projects
  • Tapping corporate alumni (a.k.a. former employees) who can serve as contractors and bring a fresh perspective
  • Encouraging employees to expand their networks and mine them for intelligence

While the authors’ people strategies have been tested primarily with technology companies in Silicon Valley, they could certainly make it easier to attract and retain entrepreneurial talent (including millennials) at any size corporation.

If you’re interested in trying out these ideas, The Alliance offers a practical guide to implementing each of these strategies using a combination of successful case stories, social networking and straightforward coaching techniques for managers.

Inovo is a great place to work on interesting projects in a collaborative and open environment. Despite this, we realize that everyone here has a life journey that, at some point in that journey, will not include Inovo. The Alliance shows how both Inovo and the people on our team can benefit from this fact.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel, Blake Masters

Read by Dustin Smith

At Inovo, we are constantly dealing with the front-end of innovation so we were interested in Thiel and Master’s take on this phase of value creation. As one of the founders of Paypal and now a Silicon Valley fixture, Thiel has a large megaphone with which to voice his ideas and this book articulates many of them. Thiel’s central argument is that progress can take one of two forms: 0?1 and 1?n.The form that is harder, but more important and rewarding, is the move from 0->1: creating new technology.

But, according to the authors, for at least the past 40 years, we’ve been progressing only in 1?n, with the exception of information technologies. Nixon goes to China in ‘71 and eventually we have Thomas Friedman pronouncing the world flat. That disappointing world implies me-too companies (see on-demand laundry:  LaundryLocker, Sfwash, Sudzee, Washio), incrementalists (Pocket Avatars, Swiffer BISSELL® SteamBoost™) and those copying models in other industries or geographies (Yelp meets Squarespace in Lebanon). You get progress as proliferation rather than advancement.

Thiel’s remedy is secrets. Secrets that would enable 0?1 progress in the world of atoms, not only the digital world. He asks, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” and later explores the corollary, “What valuable business is no one starting?”

For instance, take the notion of first mover advantage, part of corporate and business school dogma. Gain the first mover advantage, then keep innovating to retain your edge. Often this is countered with equivalent of “the second mouse gets the cheese”: Learn from the mistakes of the first mover and assemble a truly powerful offering that bakes-in lessons learned. By contrast, Thiel contends that you want to be the “last mover,” creating a market with a technology-driven monopoly advantage that leaves you 10 times more appealing than your closest substitute.

The book has a more highly-produced feel than the Stanford class for which he originally prepared the material (notes converted into essays here by co-author Blake Masters). I prefer Thiel unplugged, riffing and digressing, but for the time-strapped, Zero to One is a fine introduction to his thesis.

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

Read by Larry Schmitt

In his most recent book, Steven Johnson, the author or the well-regarded Where Good Ideas Come From, takes a deep, historical look at six broad themes of human invention and innovation — Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, Light — to show the interconnectedness of diverse artifacts and how ideas emerge and evolve.

The Clean section illustrates Johnson’s ability to weave a good story and connect seemingly disparate dots. He follows the evolution of the human relationship with disease from before anyone could conceive of a micro-organism to the discovery of single-cell organisms (which required development of the microscope, covered in Glass) on through modern clean rooms where humans are the source of contamination.

Two underlying concepts Johnson explores throughout the six themes are the “slow hunch” and the “simultaneous invention.” Slow hunch refers to the fact that major inventions are never the result of a sudden epiphany. They are, instead, the outcome of deep immersion over long periods of time. In addition, things get invented “when they are ready.” Virtually every major invention has multiple authors who did not know other inventors were developing the same thing. This phenomenon of simultaneous invention Johnson attributes to the concept of the “adjacent possible,” explored in his previous book.

Johnson is an entertaining writer in addition to being able to make subtle connections and tease out underlying patterns and themes. This is a book well worth reading by those who want to understand the nature of invention and innovation.

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