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4 people to avoid at your next Innovation Conference

7 06 2010

[tweetmeme]It’s conference season again, and I find myself in the enviable position of being able to attend many of the top conferences on Innovation, Collaboration and Social Media and just soak in the rootin’, tootin’ and high faluttin’ knowledge that pervades the atmosphere at a good conference.

This week (June 8-9th) is no exception –  I’ll be at the World Innovation Forum in New York City (#WIF10 if you’d like to follow that conference on twitter), a conference with superlative speakers, and an equally interesting attendance – and if I’ve learnt anything from nearly a decade of going to innovation conferences, it’s that you can learn just as much from the people attending a conference as you can from the speaking panel. Yet, in the same way that a speaker can turn out to be a bad penny at a conference, so can your interactions with fellow attendees.

Over the years, I’ve started to realize that I’m now able to process who’ll be interesting, and who won’t, pretty quickly and thought I’d share my observations with all of you, so that you can tell the “Makers” from the “Fakers” at the conferences you go to.

Innovators come in all shape and sizes, so pointing out physical attributes to look out for won’t work – that guy dressed in the 60s suit with the bell bottoms in front of you could end up being Kodak’s leading patent holder. The sharply dressed young lady with the expensive looking briefcase, could be the newbie software salesperson for a start-up populated by teens only just learning to spell the word “innovait..innovato…inovatii”…ah, you get my point. So the only way to truly figure it out is by listening to them and watching for certain key phrases that indicate it’s time to lace up your running shoes and head to the auditorium door for a quick getaway.

1. “Sammy Satisfied” – If anyone comes across as being too smug, too sure of themselves, and too happy with their own achievements in innovation, it’s time to back away. Why? Because Innovation is driven by a lack of satisfaction in the status quo.

Top innovators are always looking to change things because they know that taking time to sit back on their laurels is just giving the competition time to catch up. Find someone who’s satisfied with what they’ve achieved, and you’ve found someone who maybe used to be an innovator. Test them – ask them “Yes, but what are you doing that’s new, now ? “ and watch them nervously start to sweat.. The good news? If you find yourself talking to a Sammy, you can probably just wander off whilst he’s in mid-sentence – he’s unlikely to notice anyway.

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2. “Tommy the ToolMan” – usually leads with “so, what kind of tools are you using internally?” or words to that effect. Even worse is when Tommy can’t stop talking about the tool he’s using – the back end, the front end, the features and functionality…urrghhh! Treat potential Tommys with the same suspicion you would if someone randomly asked you “so what car do you drive?” as you stepped out the door of your workplace. Why? Because tools don’t really matter.

Let me clarify – tools are important, having the right tool will turbo-charge your innovation program (especially if you have ambitions to embrace collaborative innovation processes), and having the wrong tool can just as easily sink it. But let me now tell you the secret of successful tools from someone with over 7 years of experience with one of the leading software companies in the field, and had a big hand in developing the innovation management software market to where it is today…….. Tools don’t really matter. Processes do.

Ultimately there are only two things that a good innovation tool really needs to do (feel free to copy this into your next RFP):

1) Be flexible enough to support whatever collaborative process you are trying to put in place to meet your business goals

2) Stay out of the way (be reliable, embrace good collaborative practices, not force you to work around the software to achieve your aims, etc)

It’s not a long list, but you’d be surprised as to how few vendors can fulfill those two basic requirements – mainly because a lot of vendors develop software that is technically excellent and/or visually pretty, but overlook the intricate ways in which humans actually want to and need to interact with each other. My former software clients weren’t successful because of the tool the sales guy sold them – they were successful because of the way they used it. If you’re talking to someone who suggests to you otherwise – run.

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3. Peter Private – Peter talks in short phrases, measuring his words and being careful with what he says. He thinks he’s like a corporate James Bond, protecting the secrets of his company by sharing little, and listening intently. Peters are inherently worried about letting the “cat out of the bag” – about saying too much and getting into trouble. Talking to a Peter is not only frustrating; it’ll be fruitless too, as you’ll get no benefit from it.

You see, innovation is all about sharing – it’s about openness – it’s about embracing the world as a potential knowledge source – but to get, you need to give too. I’ve found that people who are truly successful in the innovation field embrace this principle across all of their interactions with people. Being open is like a bug or a virus – once you realize that the best ideas are frequently elsewhere, you’ll be on a mission to find them everywhere all the time.

You don’t have the time to establish trust and sign an NDA in the short time allotted at a conference – so if you find yourself speaking to a Peter, then it’s time to make your excuses and fake a bathroom break to relieve that irritated colon of yours.

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4. Christopher Clueless – With a subject as increasing in popularity as Innovation, it’s no wonder that conferences are filling up with charlatans jumping on the bandwagon to try and make a quick buck – and Chris is no exception. Having probably read one or two books on the subject and with no practical experience at all – he comes to the conference armed with a series of “innovation catchphrases” to give you advice with and lull you into a false sense of security/trust/interest.

My favourite of these: “Innovation should be everyone’s job” – probably one of the dumbest things ever said on the innovation circuit – usually used to eschew the presence, or need for, innovation leadership. Whilst true, to an extent, that innovation should be a part of every employee’s business life, it still needs to be someone’s responsibility in order to ensure success.

Hear that, or any of a myriad of well known phrases (you’ll usually know if they turn up during the conference by the stifled giggles coming from the bloggers’ gallery above you) and it’s time to excuse yourself from the proceedings to search for that 7th cup of coffee to take you through the rest of the afternoon.

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The trick to getting the most from the speaker panel is easy – listen carefully and glean insights that you can take back to your business.

The trick to getting the most from the attendee panel though is to talk openly and talk to a lot of people – spread yourself out, meet new people at every break, collect a ton of business cards and build a network . A network that will probably not include Peter, Tom, Chris nor Sammy though.

What other types of people do you find at conferences? Share in the comments below!

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The Innovator’s Guide to a Galaxy in Recession

20 11 2008

 

Don't Panic ButtonRecessions are funny things – on the one side economic horror story on the other harbinger of an explosion of innovation opportunities – sort of a “is the glass half full or half empty” coin toss really. 

I always find it interesting to watch how companies react during bad times – their reactions, whilst perfectly understandable from a human emotion standpoint – can be dreadfully short sighted at times. In fact – it’s this over reaction towards short term thinking that triggers the economic horror stories out there as people get laid off, companies post ever lower profits, and economic doom and gloom dominates the newspaper headlines. 

For example – take this typical strategical cycle that typifies corporate recessionary behavior: 

In a non-recessionary environment, people are employed; stability reigns, and people feel comfortable enough to part with their hard earned cash on non-essential items. And when times are really good – people approach their purchases in a more “cavalier” attitude looking at a wide array of factors beyond whether or not it simply “does the job” – and happily paying for things like extra “coolness”, the right brand, or a color that matches those shoes you bought last week.  In this environment, companies can lazily throw low-level innovations at the market with impunity to capture a fickle market that carefully matches their purchases with their lifestyle and changes frequently because of the easy availability and reliability of cash to the consumer. For the last 7 years or so (and some might say longer as the 2001-2002 recession was a short one) we’ve been facing just such a market. 

In a recessionary environment, consumers get jittery about spending their money as stability is no longer guaranteed – consumer mentalities change and so do their buying preferences. Top of the list of consumer preferences are now two simple elements, 1) whether or not the product can do the core job needed, and 2) price.

The net effect of that, on most markets, is to essentially commoditize all the products within because the incremental differences between competing products are no longer valued individually.  As a result, the companies able to provide the least expensive goods that still do the job begin to take on market share.

Consumer paying with coins

In order to compete, companies likewise begin to compete on price, initially by reducing their operating costs (i.e. headcount), which allows them to be able to maintain margins and profits on lower demand.  Then eventually they begin to sacrifice margin for increased market share in a bid to make up the reduced margins with increased volume.  Whilst these moves result in short term gains, they only last as long as it takes for competitors to do the same, which usually isn’t long. 

Eventually companies reach a point at which they are operating at minimal margins that barely cover their costs – and go on to the next stage – a battle of bank balances as companies continue to reduce prices at the cost of the business until only one remains…. 

Sound familiar? It should, the car industry pretty much just followed this model of competition to its demise, and current bid to be bailed out by the US Government.  There are several other similar cycles as the failure on one group of companies resonates up and down their value chains to affect the entire economy.

Who Dares Wins DVD cover

Yet out of every major recession, several companies emerge as winners.   Companies that have somehow found a way to separate them-selves from competition, found new ways to do business, or capitalized on new markets that no one new existed before. Home Depot, the iPod, the PC, even MTV have all triumphed from past recessionary environments.  In a recessionary world it really is “He Who Dares,Wins” (read this McKinsey Quarterly article for a fantastic quantification of this).

It’s easy to overlook the big obvious solution to the whole problem and get caught up in all the doom and gloom that dominates our media headlines as so many other commentators have. 

Recessions result in one certainty – BIG CHANGE – and the longer and deeper the recession, the more change there is – in your consumer/client, in your market, in your industry, in global business as a whole.   

Big Change is scary – but Big Change is good. Big change means BIG OPPORTUNITIES. Opportunities to change the game, to take advantage of weaker competitors, to find new and novel ways in which to not only survive, but to thrive. 

Innovation is all about realizing and capitalizing on the opportunities available to your company, and it’s the way out of vicious cycles like the one described above. 

The great news is that companies intent on winning the game are now forced to look at innovation with a sense of urgency previously unseen.  They will look towards innovation to revisit past assumptions, norms, and directions in a bid to become different from the competition in the eyes of the consumer/client.  To no longer be able to be compared on a like for like basis, and to compete in a market of one instead of many. 

Winners emerging from this downturn in the economy will develop an innovation strategy that looks at innovation in a very unique way from most companies. They will see innovation as something that can impact all parts of the business, in short and medium, as well as long-term time frames. 

1) Short Term Innovation Strategies

In the short term, winning strategies look to help companies with their short-term goals of increased efficiencies.  They do this by developing new and novel ways for the company to achieve cost reductions, process improvements, and business model changes that can catapult them into a new league of efficiencies that are impossible with old-school models.  The more sophisticated the efficiency developed, the more defendable and long lasting that innovation will become.  This will give the company a short term cost edge on its competitors, which is more conducive to the long-term health of the business than simple cost cuttings and harder to emulate.  Dell’s development of their unique business model in the 90’s is a classic example of the type of base changes that can propel a company into a market of one. 

Embracing the creative potential of their employees, GE is currently using Imaginatik’s software to drive their DMP (Direct Material Productivity) Work Out process.  This looks at reducing overall costs through design changes whilst maintaining or improving quality and customer acceptance. The results will directly impact the short-term productivity of GE’s business units. 

Another client I worked with had the interesting idea of creating a marketplace to drive efficiencies in the way the company used external consultants. Rather than individual bids or blind RFP processes – they invited all the consultants into an online system (with company names suitably anonymised) where they could not only see everyone else’s proposals, but could also add on to other company’s proposals.  This allowed the client company to pick and choose the best combination of services to fit their need – and to negotiate pricing in a very transparent process! 

The key here is to focus on short-term strategic objectives, and on areas that will result in ideas developed and implemented. In many cases this means not looking to create new projects, but rather to enhance existing funded projects by providing them with new and novel solutions to the problem they are already addressing. 

For example, why not play into Six Sigma and Lean projects?  They’re all about increasing efficiency in company processes – however all of them rely on small teams of people studying a process at length and then brainstorming between themselves to come up with a more efficient process.  In today’s technology literate and collaborative environments, it seems awfully short sighted to not involve hundreds or thousands of people in the process to come up with better ideas. cardboard toilet rolls

 

 

Georgia-Pacific was a great example of this.  One of their cost reduction initiatives I worked on zeroed in on shaving the cost of the cardboard tubes inside rolls of paper towels. By embracing the collaborative innovation infrastructure at their disposal, mill workers from among the company’s 16,000 North American employees quickly responded with little changes that shaved about $1.2 million a year, or roughly 4%, off the cost of the tubes – not too shabby, eh?  

2) Medium Term 

When looking at the medium term you can start looking at how to take advantage of some of the more obvious changes in the changing marketplace. 

Starbucks Cup and WaffleI loved one story I read about how Starbucks are doing just that.  They’re currently testing out new pricing strategies to try and overcome the recessionary effects on their consumers that are much more price sensitive nowadays, and no longer want to be spending $4 on a daily “Grande pumpkin spice vanilla latte (hold the cream, it makes me fatter)”.   One idea they’re piloting at the moment offers consumers small bottomless cups of coffee (i.e. free refills, not that the cups don’t actually have a bottom, that would be just silly…) for $1.  The move ensures that Starbucks customers return to Starbucks for their daily fixes regardless of household budget changes.  It also provides Starbucks with opportunities to up sell them additional products like music and baked goods that will contribute to the overall margin per customers that they achieve while satisfying new needs for the customer. 

Several clients I’ve worked with have also had fantastic results in the medium term by looking for adjacent markets for existing products. One performance chemicals company I worked with found a multi-million dollar new market for their existing waterproofing wrap used in the construction industry.  This was found when one curious sales person found that his client was buying the product to rapidly waterproof boats they were manufacturing instead.  

Bayer Production FacilityBayer, another Imaginatik client did something similar, collecting 147 ideas from their employee base for alternative uses and markets for one of their existing products.  This resulted in Bayer being able to enter a brand new market area with a new application in less than a year. 

Finally, when looking at the medium term, don’t underestimate the benefits of working with your business partners.  One large tech company ran one event over a 30-day period on optimizing their supply chain with select partners. The resulting ideas picked for implementation realized over $2 Million in benefits and saved them over 3000 man-hours!  I think the correct terminology for those kind of benefits in my current US homeland is “There’s gold in them’ hills”! 

3) Long Term 

Long-term strategies are all about changing the game – finding new products, new markets and taking advantage of concepts such as Blue Ocean Spaces, Disruptive Innovations, or Lead Adopters (depending on whom you choose as your academic guru of choice).  There’s no shortage of proof of the potential that a good innovation program and process can deliver to your business.  Whether it’s the ability to take your business to new heights (i.e. Apple or Google for several over publicized examples of innovation programs of different sorts at work), or more importantly, its ability to provide longevity to your business, even if that means changing the nature of the business Nokia N-Series(i.e. Nokia– originally a forestry company, then rubber products (they still make tires bizarrely), and now a telecoms giant – what could be next?).  

However, success in the long term has to be driven by success in the short and medium term. Their ability to drive real value will give you the credibility and time to drive the big changes that will propel your company into the next generation. 

After all, winners emerge from recessions and innovation is what will make you one of those winners. 





Innovation Complexity Curve

26 09 2008

 

About a month ago I got asked by a colleague if I thought that there was some sort of maturity model for how are clients address and utilize innovation tools and it got me thinking on.  What I came up with is a model based on how I’ve observed our clients taking innovation as a new concept and tool and how that usage has grown over time:

When addressing a new concept, the first stage is to see if you can use it for Cost Reduction Purposes. It’s low risk, easy to do, can generate some marginal value that you wouldn’t have otherwise achieved and if you fail, no one will notice. 

Having achieved success at that, you then start looking at finding ways in which to improve your existing processes to become more efficient and to start adding some original value to the company. 

Success in that area leads you to look at how you can begin to use the concept/tool to gain some sort of competitive advantage with your product line – at first by looking at Incremental changes to your existing product line, and then by looking for alternative adjacent offerings you can develop to complement your existing product line.

Finally you start looking to the future – first by envisioning what your product line will look like in future generations and then ultimately by opening your mind to what sort of blue sky / breakthrough opportunities the company could capitalize on in the future. 

The further up the complexity curve you go, the more potential impact on your business a project will have. However, as the complexity is rising so does the risk of failure (naturally – if it was easy everyone would do it well!) and so your attitude towards failure needs to be likewise massaged and toughened if you desire to reach the top. 

I’ve seen many companies follow this curve – it offers a balanced way to try out the new concept/tool whilst all the time building credibility and tolerance to risk in exchange for reward. 

I’d be interested in any thoughts people have – so feel free to leave them!

Oh – and yes, I realise the “curve” isn’t actually a curve – but somehow “The Innovation Complexity Straight Line” didn’t have the same ring to me as I was writing this – and I vaguely remember an A-level maths professor say something to me about how even a straight line is a curve of sorts mathematically (although I could be wrong)… 





Questions to get you started

28 08 2008

I was asked today by a client to help them by identifying the questions they’d need to ask internally in order to start identifying the workflows and processes that they would need to use to achieve success – and I figured I’d share what I wrote here: 

For either internal or open innovation processes you need to ask yourself/your sponsor the following questions: 

1) What is it we’re trying to achieve? – why are we bothering to look for ideas? What impact is it going to have on the business? How big of an impact does that need to be? What kind of ideas are we looking for (incremental process improvements? tangential product ideas? blue sky concepts?) ?  – With all of these, make sure you’re identifying them in as measurable a terms as possible – ideally focusing on those that impact bottom line revenue – or the company’s ability to impact that revenue figure. The more you tie your program to direct value generation, the more the company will value your efforts, and ultimately deem your program successful and fund future efforts/program expansions. 

2) Where are these ideas coming from? – bearing in mind what we’re trying to achieve – what knowledge pool does it make sense for us to tap into? What are the implications of tapping into that knowledge source? Think of things like – can these people “play” well together in a collaborative environment? How will we incentivize them to take part? How much can we ask them to contribute? What kind of ideas will they be able to contribute? What security/legal/IP considerations are there to take into account for this group of people?  What do these ideas look like? And how do we want to receive and acknowledge them? 

3) What are we going to do with the ideas when we get them? – Do we need to further build/test them? If so – then to what level? Can collaborative input improve them – and if so, then who should be involved and in what way? Once the ideas are built, how are we going to bring them to fruition / realization? Is there a path to implementation identified? 

When working with all of these questions – you’ll find it easy to build a rather exhaustive list of things you could ask and end up with an idea form 20 pages long and a review process that would take a team of 20 people a year to complete – but remember KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid! The more complex you make a form, the more you put off people (especially externals!) from giving you their ideas (especially the more blue sky ones that have the largest potential for impact.  The more complex you make a review process, the more of a chore it becomes for the reviewers, and the less likely they are to do it. Simplicity is the key to Usability. 

Throughout the process consider whether you a) have all the information you MUST HAVE in order to consider an idea worthy of implementation and b) how much of this is just “nice to have” – A lot of the information you’ll be tempted to add in, you’ll want to primarily because it was already there beforehand and so you might as well add it again. One way around this temptation is to try and design your form without looking at the old one – start from scratch and see what you think NEEDS to be asked. Then use the existing form as a check up to make sure you haven’t missed anything vital – rather than a template from which to build on. 








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