April 26, 2008

Practical Innovation: relentless problem.solving

My heartfelt thanks to Dave Duarte: for the opportunity to guest lecture in his stead on main campus while he led the 3rd successful run of Nomadic Marketing at the Graduate School of Business. I’ve seen Dave present countless times – and trust me it’s NOT an easy act to follow – he speaks with ease and engagement on topics that straddle both traditional and the pioneering edges of business. [Though I guess that’s what you would expect from someone who specialises in the economics of attention.]

innov8.jpgInnovation is one of those spaces that has to bridge both. This often elusive strategic advantage that could catapult you intouncontested territory (with the benefits of time, little competition, easy PR and high desirability in the marketplace) is often seen as the “soft stuff” best left to the creatives/scientists/inventors to envision. Mistakenly.

Never more so has there been such an urgent need for clarity on how to initiate, manage & implement innovation with accelerated competition and tightening resources on a crowded planet.
Companies that realise that the birthing of innovation is induced through rigorous process rather than entrusting it to luck or epiphanies of genius; those who specialise in it, like Google, BMW, 3M, GE, NASA offer insight on how to apply this in our own lives, businesses and careers.

I’m going to be writing 2 posts on innovation from our lecture series to de-fuzz the fluffy concepts around this word so treasured by management consultants. Essentially just as a memory recall for the students, so forgive me if they seem a little disjointed. (though as always you’re welcome to comment and nudge me if something needs more clarity or really connects with you & you want more info)

For me, there were a couple of insights from Dave’s introductory lecture that help discern practical innovation from the trance-inducing concept of innovation bandied about in boardrooms. Something that transforms the way we work, think, connect, play vs. more marketing vapourware.


Innovation is NOT invention, nor is it improvement, inspiration or incremental change. Innovation is an idea that when applied has the ability to transform the society, market or holding pattern wherein it is let loose. It is not always positive, but always brings change.
It is a transformative solution to a known problem.


The crucial factor that strips out dumb luck/strokes of genius is to embody Edison’s model: Experiment with relentless determination to crash through a known problem. Successful business incubators like Idealab or pan-industry giants like Virgin or Google embrace the fact that not every dazzling idea will turn into a profitable endeavour, but fast implementation and reality testing are the only way to know without over-capitalising.

Whiteboards line the corridors at the Googleplex, collaboration is fostered actively online, with social spaces and 11 gourmet cafes to gather the multidisciplinary geniuses in realworld, structured brainstorming sessions, and curators of innovation process like Marissa Mayer, the Director of Web Products guide the distillation of bright ideas and get the best into production, fast. Ideas don’t get suffocated by entrenched bureaucratic layers and committees that tame scary ideas to what is guaranteed safe for shareholders before they see the light of day. So there have been lots of failures, but ultimately when the big ones hit they are worth multiple smaller crashes.

one of my fave online comics xkcd[Just in case anyone in the class felt I was being prescriptive and will say here too: This is certainly NOT for everyone, and I’m not pushing this as the only valid path for successful enterprise. It’s primarily for those who need to get a tangible grip on how to lead an innovative process, those who want to understand what is called for to gain strategic advantage in an accelerated, progressively complex world. Imitation is as valid a business model, and by far less demanding on your sanity!]


This is Dave’s repeated rallying cry. Get it out there, even if it isn’t perfect yet. In the software development world this is expressed as being in “beta” release. It requires risk, releasing a version that will be built mid-flight, with the help of lead users finding the quirks & bugs for you if you’re lucky.
Few innovations are guaranteed success first round. But the only way to know for sure is to reality test your idea/concept/product in the market and get feedback. Very few of us will take this brave move with ease, because we instinctively veer from potential failure.


Like safely watching someone absurdly wonderful/sexy/beautiful at a party and actually risking failure by asking them out; so it is with releasing into the market with a daring concept that could make us look foolish (the really good ones, the really innovative ones, always will by the way, or someone would’ve stepped in & done it already). The rewards could be utterly worth some minor terror. Unless you’re an omniscient being, slumming for some reason with us flawed humans, you simply CANNOT know all the reasons something will or won’t work. The more often we attempt, the less scared we are of trying again, the less personally we take the failures and the quicker we’ll be to spot other opportunities.The first rule for innovation (my opinion) is: Assume nothing. In both hunting your innovative idea and when the time comes to act on it.

Thanks Dave for the quote that encapsulates the real force of nature that innovators are:

Ideas are a dime a dozen, people who put them into action priceless” – franchising pioneer Mary Kay Ash

April 26, 2008