Archive for horn of innovation


Innovation and Potato Peelers: Beware Cheap Imitations

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My imitation potato peeler

My imitation peeler

Pictured to the left is my potato peeler/fruit peeler which I purchased in Shanghai. It is dutifully based on the design of typical peelers long sold by Western companies. But I suspect this imitation object was copied and manufactured by people unacquainted with the finer points of peeling potatoes. In peeling potatoes, one frequently encounters eyes or other bad spots that need to be gouged out. Good potato peelers have a curved metal end that can be used for gouging potatoes and fruit. My Shanghai peeler has dutifully copied the general shape of other peelers, with a somewhat pointed tip and a concave surface below it, but the tip is made of thick blunt plastic that is useless in gouging. It is a classic example of imitation without understanding the details of how something works. It can look the same, but the results are disappointing.

The innovation efforts of many companies are like my potato peeler: they imitate what they see others doing, but lack the knowledge and experience needed to make the systems actually work. So we get innovation rhetoric, a temporary budget and Big Program, with consultants sailing in and trying to change employees when the real barriers to innovation may be elsewhere. We get brainstorming sessions that lead to nowhere, momentary IP races that waste resources and leave inventors discourage, innovation funnels that become echo chambers, and improvised staged product launch systems that result in decisions made without adequate knowledge and little hope of success. In some cases it all comes down to instinct and gut feel from an omniscient leader imitating Steve Jobs or some other charismatic innovator, while overruling all logic and leaving a wake of confusion.

Innovation requires experience and deep knowledge. It requires systems and cultures designed with innovation expertise, not just a quick fix and temporary effort to imitate others. Innovation leaders need the support and attention of management at the very top, and systems tailored to enhance the innovation culture across the company. Innovation success is far more difficult that it looks when we are imitating someone who makes it look easy. It rarely is. Real knowledge and real patience are required.

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“Quorum sensing” refers to the abilities of some organisms, especially bacteria, to sense the presence of others and begin collective action such as forming a biofilm. It’s a critical area of research in immunology. There are also lessons from quorum sensing that need to be applied to business and innovation. Quorum sensing, in a sense, results in “intelligent” collective decisions that are not made by a central brain but through the sharing of signals or other information between individuals, none of whom sees the big picture or understands the meaning of all the available data. The free market’s mechanisms for optimizing supply and demand through the collective information transmitted by price is one analogy in the business world. But let’s look at lessons specifically from the quorum sensing of one ant species that lives its life in a hostile, frequently shifting, rocky environment–sound familiar?–where constant change is required. This comes from Wikipedia’s article on Quorum Sensing:

Colonies of the ant Temnothorax albipennis nest in small crevices between rocks. When the rocks shift and the nest is broken open, these ants must quickly choose a new nest to move into. During the first phase of the decision-making process, a small portion of the workers leave the destroyed nest and search for new crevices. When one of these scout ants finds a potential nest, she assesses the quality of the crevice based on a variety of factors including the size of the interior, the number of openings (based on light level), and the presence or absence of dead ants. The worker then returns to the destroyed nest, where it will wait for a short period before recruiting other workers to follow her to the nest she found using a process called tandem running. The waiting period is inversely related to the quality of the site; for instance, a worker that has found a poor site will wait longer than a worker that encountered a good site. As the new recruits visit the potential nest site and make their own assessment of its quality, the number of ants visiting the crevice increases. During this stage ants may be visiting many different potential nests. However, because of the differences in the waiting period the number of ants in the best nest will tend to increase at the greatest rate. Eventually, the ants in this nest will sense that the rate at which they encounter other ants has exceeded a particular threshold, indicating that the quorum number has been reached. Once the ants sense a quorum, they return to the destroyed nest and begin rapidly carrying the brood, queen, and fellow workers to the new nest. Scouts that are still tandem-running to other potential sites are also recruited to the new nest and the entire colony moves. Thus although no single worker may have visited and compared all of the available options, quorum sensing enables the colony as a whole to quickly make good decisions about where to move.

The standard Corporate model of centralized new product development and decision making has its advantages, but also many limitations. When rapid growth or adaptation is necessary, innovation often works best when many minds can contribute their talents, insights, networks, and scouting activities to the search for fruitful new places to colonize. If decisions are fully centralized, they take forever and many good spots will be ignored. More rapid and efficient pursuit of innovation requires distributed authority and the involvement of many and systems that can tap and respond to the efforts of many without the endless waiting for one all-knowing top dog to sift through the data and make a decision. How flexible is your organization, really? How distributed and dilute is the power to act on innovation opportunities? What systems do you have to tap the knowledge, skills, and networks of all employees?

Horn of Innovation Schematic

Horn of Innovation Schematic

One of the major concepts we discuss in Conquering Innovation Fatigue is the Horn of Innovation, a concept that turns the slow, inefficient innovation funnel around and yields a more efficient innovation system in which innovators, like the quorum sensing ants, are directly involved in all aspects of the innovation process. In our musical analogy, the innovators are able to shape and adapt the innovation in response to the feedback from the market and business leaders for rapid and efficient adaptation, rather than just tossing ideas into the black hole of a funnel and hoping somebody will do something with them occasionally. Innovators need to be included in healthy, robust feedback loops that are closer to the quorum sensing mechanisms than purely centralized, autocratic business systems. I’m willing to bet that it’s time your organization shelves its old, costly systems and implements improved paradigms for innovation. The lives and ants and the physics of horns can both teach us lessons about better ways to run innovation in a business.

The Horn of Innovation vs. the Funnel

The Horn of Innovation vs. the Funnel

For connecting one human to another, it’s been said that any two people can be connected by acquaintances in six steps, hence the concept of “six degrees of separation.” The term “seven degrees of separation” occurred to me when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of airliner accidents in his outstanding book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He observes that extensive studies of airliner crashes show that the fatal tragedies often require a combination of seven things going wrong, any one of which might just be an inconvenience or minor problem by itself, but in combination with the others can lead to disaster. When it comes to connecting skilled humans to the very disasters that they have been carefully trained to avoid, there are seven degrees of separation to disaster.

While mechanical defects, fatigue, and bad weather are often involves in the seven degrees of separation, these airliner disasters almost always involve flaws in interpersonal communication. For example, there may be a copilot who is afraid to speak up and challenge the pilot when an obvious mistake is being made, or there is a lack of clarity in communicating a problem to the air traffic controllers. When trouble is brewing, success often requires extensive communication between the flight crew, other crew members, ATC staff, and sometimes others. Plans must be made, checked, implemented, revised, clarified, conveyed, and so forth, at many levels to handle an emergency properly. When crew members keep their mouths shut and don’t share what they know or sense, when courtesy or fear stops urgent information from being shared, or when there are cultural or linguistic barriers to effective communication, multiple mistakes and miscues can accumulate, whittling away at the separation between survival and disaster. It’s that way in the world of innovation as well.

Superior IQ and innovative genius is often far less important than the ability to communicate. Disasters in innovation and new product development are often due not to lack of intelligence among the innovators and corporate leaders, but gaps in communication. Launching a product and safely navigating it through the storms of the market can be much trickier than flying an airplane. The flight of a new product always involves malfunctions and emergencies that require communication skills above all. Information from the market must be effectively shared with the developers. Plans must be shared and communicated with external partners and internal teams. Benefits and features must be effectively communicated to end-users. Expectations must be clearly conveyed to suppliers and service providers. A plethora of data must be handled and shared in ways that inspire, motivate, drive action, and keep all parties aligned.

As in an airplane emergency, “yes men” are not the people you need around to help. You don’t want devil’s advocates either or professional naysayers–you need people willing to share what they know and challenge directions and assumptions that may mislead the project or the company. You need people who can help you confront and conquer the brutal facts of your present reality. (See my previous post on the Stockdale paradox and the danger of optimism.)

More than words alone are involved in the communication relays that are essential for a successful new product flight. Intangibles related to trust, loyalty, and common agendas must be in place. It’s all about relationships, and these take time and effort to build and maintain. Unreliable or misleading communication can break those relationships and jam navigation systems, as can abusing or taking advantage of partners and employees. Bonds of trust and mutual respect inside and outside the corporation are essential to maintaining effective communication and bringing about the alignment and common purpose needed for innovation to succeed.

As Gladwell notes, the seven errors that tend to accumulate in major airline disasters “are rarely problems of knowledge or flying skill. . . . The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.” Ditto for the risky, high-flying adventure of innovation, where crashes are the rule rather than the exception. It’s not that the team wasn’t skilled or clever, but fundamental gaps in teamwork and communication resulted in the product launch smashing at full speed into barriers they failed to notice or attempting landings on runways that weren’t there. These disasters are always going to be far more likely than airplane disasters, but improved communication and teamwork across your innovation ecosystem can do much to bring you safely home.

In Conquering Innovation Fatigue, our chapter on the Horn of Innovation is devoted to illustrating the importance of including the innovation team in feedback loops that bring data from the marketplace to the innovators to allow them to make rapid on-the-fly adjustments for iterative innovation. Cut off that communication, and your innovators are flying blind. Blind innovation is what fills the convention “innovation funnel” with numerous abortive attempts that need to be weeded out. Keeping innovators inside the loop with clear and instant communication gives them a more clear map and helps them work with your team to develop the right flight plan for success.

Innovation success is all about abundant communication and teamwork, not hand-offs that isolate those with the vision from those at the helm. Innovation is disaster prone enough when everything is running well–no need wiping our a half-dozen of your degrees of separation from disaster by your own communication and relationship mistakes from the beginning.

Our Mission is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.