Archive for November, 2013
Many large companies take a tortoise approach to innovation and stay as hidden within their shells as possible, even some who advocate open innovation. Tortoise companies may have creative R&D staff, including many scientists doing good work, but they keep these inventors hidden in the shell rather than encouraging them to publish or present their work.
The hares, on the other hand, take greater risks as they frequently step out of their comfortable burrows. They let their inventors not just show up at conferences and other events, but take the podium and present. Or, when appropriate, publish their work in major journals. As a result, their inventors become known and get to know many others with related interests. It is that visibility that allows potential partners to find them, to learn about their work, and to come forward with proposals for partnership or further innovation. These visible minds become more highly connected and able to contribute more directly and effectively to the open innovation needs of the Corporation. They are connected to other industries and better connected to the market, and may be more likely to recognize ways to adapt their inventions for better success.
The extreme of tortoise innovator may well be the large body of government scientists that conducted high-tech R&D for decades in the old Soviet Union. One of my past open innovation activities at Innovationedge included traveling to Moscow to assist Russia (more specifically, ISTC: http://www.istc.ru/) in finding external partners for the huge body of invention that arose from government labs in past work (this public information: e.g., I am listed as a speaker on the published agenda of a biotech meeting in Moscow with a presentation entitled “Innovationedge Partnership to bring innovation from Russia to the U.S.”). Unfortunately, much of that work in the Soviet Union, in my opinion, was dominated by deep drilling into highly isolated wells of expertise, with advanced technologies that were unconnected to real-world industry and markets. Creating connections and finding market opportunities after the fact (as in “answers in search of problems”) is much less efficient that developing inventions tailored to meet real market needs in the first place. The scientists were some of the best in the world, but they were working in isolation, often in great secrecy, with little ability to discuss their work with outsiders and obtain needed feedback and insights to make their work more useful outside their immediate focus. Looking back in time at the fruits of past Soviet era R&D to me looked like closed innovation to an extreme.
My observation of the isolation of Russian R&D relative to industry and markets is consistent with the detailed observation and analysis by Dina Williams in “Russia’s innovation system: reflection on the past, present and future” in The International Journal of Transitions and Innovation Systems, Vol. 1, No. 4, 2011, p. 394-412, available via Academia.edu at http://www.academia.edu/1207385/Russias_innovation_system_reflection_on_the_past_present_and_future (free download with registration).
Success in open innovation and even in making conventional internal innovation more successful can be enhanced when innovators “get out more often” and increase their visibility in relevant communities. Innovation is frequently about crossing boundaries and making new connections, and open innovation almost by definition involves reaching past one’s own corporate boundaries to find solutions outside. What better way to do this than by having innovators physically or virtually stepping outside those boundaries and being visible to potential partners?
One of my favorite experiences during my days at Innovationedge involved seeing a technology go from an inventor’s garage to a multinational corporation where it is now being commercialized globally. A key event in that story involved speaking at technical conference where my presentation included some information about our client’s invention. Afterwards, I was approached by an R&D leader from a significant corporation who wanted to know more. There was much more work after this—open innovation success is rarely fast and easy—but that new connection took us on a path toward success. Related stories occur frequently when innovation is shared. But silent companies who rely on their tortoise shell eventually find that solid defense is irrelevant. Sometimes, the prizes go not to those who best hide behind their fortifications but to those who cross the finish line in the race for innovation.
Prisoners of Hope: How engineers and Others Get Lift for Innovating by Larry Vincent is an unusual book on innovation that I found to be a refreshing guide to strengthening innovation with great practical value. Part of what makes this book unusual and, for some, perhaps highly challenging, is that it is written from the perspective of a preacher turned innovation champion, filled with references to biblical material, including frequent passages cited from scripture and analogies, sometimes extensive and detailed, drawn from the Bible. Although I treasure the Bible, initially this approach caught me off guard. In fact, at first I felt the attempt to find practical secular lessons for innovators from Bible stories was strained, even to the point that I initially disliked the book after the first chapter or two. But after a few more pages, I began encountering many valuable insights and modern case studies that revealed the author really did understand the practical challenges of bringing innovation to life, especially in a corporate environment. Once I got past my initial challenges with the unique angle of the book, I found it well worth my time, even inspiring. I still struggle with some of the passages using scripture to explain innovation and its challenges, but others may enjoy that. On the other hand, I was impressed by his application of Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision in the Old Testament, where the prophet Ezekiel saw a valley of dried bones that became living humans again. His treatment made it a very apt and interesting analogy for the challenges inventors face in breathing life and commercial success into their inventions.
Lanny Vincent understands innovation and the life and challenges of innovators, especially those in corporations. Inventors and innovators are the “prisoners of hope” of the title, people driven and even held captive by their vision of changing the world with their innovation. It is their faith and hope that drives them forward, and this faith and hope allows for many biblical insights to be relevant. Whatever their feelings about scripture, this book can be valuable for them and for those who guide or influence them. Vincent understands how they can be more successful.
Aspects I especially enjoy are the numerous case studies and examples. While many come from the consumer products industry, especially from Kimberly-Clark Corp. where Lanny Vincent had a great deal of industrial experience, the lessons and practical guidance from the author will help engineers, scientists, and other inventors in many disciplines, and may be especially helpful to leaders responsible for innovation and business development. In these case studies, Vincent draws out key lessons to guide and inspire innovators today.
One of my favorite sections is in the middle of Chapter 6, “Inspiration and Appreciation,” where Vincent recounts how we worked with a team of automotive engineers in Michigan to help them innovate in the area of automotive suspensions. As he observed their responses and discerned that they were there because they had to be, not because they wanted to be, he departed from his normal process. He sought a way to help those jaded survivors of extensive downsizing become more inspired about the innovation task before them. He asked them to tell him the basics of the suspension system, including the history of its development. Admitting his naiveté and asking the engineers to share their knowledge seemed to engage them. They were then asked to draw a timeline of the development of related systems and then to characterize major epochs of the timeline as if they were historians. Then, in light of the past, how would they characterize the next era of development? They energetically and swiftly responded, and then Vincent simply explained that that was the area where they needed to invent. The invention workshop turned out to be highly productive.
One of the interesting insights regarding corporate barriers to innovation is the tendency for companies to promote successful innovators in their ranks to new positions where their rich innovation experience may be unused or essentially lost. The wheels of innovation are constantly being reinvented in companies as those who succeed are moved away from the field where they were able to create success.
Vincent also calls for corporations keep inventors and innovators close to projects as they become commercialized. There is a tendency in large corporations to hand off new products to others and leave those with the original vision and passion out of the picture by the time consumer feedback is being obtained, but Vincent identifies this as a huge missed opportunity. The inventors and innovators may have exactly the insights and knowledge needed to interpret and apply the feedback from the market, and they should play a pivotal role in refining and adapting the product as it moves forward.