Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
Wednesday 16 November 2011
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your twice-monthly (or thereabouts) newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.
Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found at the end of this newsletter.
INNOVATION VERSUS VISION
Take a look at the “Home” and “About” web pages of the world’s most innovative companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Gore. There is a word you will seldom, if ever, see on their web pages: “innovation”. That is because these companies do not strive to be innovative. Now look at averagely innovative companies, the ones that come up with new products that aim to compete with products developed by leading innovators. Most likely you will see the word “innovate” and its derivatives, such as “innovative” and “innovation” all over the place. That’s because these companies are striving to be innovative.
So, what’s going on here? The truth is, truly innovative companies, those the come up with breakthrough products and services, those that are game-changers in their sectors or that create new sectors, do not aim to be innovative. Rather they relentlessly strive to follow a unique strategy. Facebook originally aimed to create the ideal social network. Now they are trying to become an alternative to the world wide web itself. Apple has relentlessly focused on making beautifully engineered and designed gadgets such as mobile telephones, computers and pads.
Their leaders, such as the late Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, are not innovators. They are visionary leaders who so focused on their strategies that they are probably dreadfully boring at cocktail parties! But, by sharing their visions and their enthusiasm for their visions with their employees and business partners, they enable their companies to innovate. However, that innovation is focused on achieving unique strategic aims, rather than innovation for innovation’s sake.
In such environments, employees understand that top management is eager to implement ideas that help them in the pursuit of strategy. Indeed, the sole purpose of most teams is in one way or another to achieve strategic aims. Middle managers in visionary companies know that their jobs depend on working towards strategic goals. Innovation, on the other hand, is not important to them. That may seem ironic as they are following the best practices of innovation. But the key is that their aim is not to be innovative. It is to meet strategy based goals.
What do I mean by unique strategy? Many companies, especially large companies involved in varied business lines, tend to have bland strategies, such as to be the best in every sector in which they operate. Their strategic statements tend to be generic and could be used equally effectively by just about any company – even one in a completely different sector.
Visionary companies, on the other hand, tend to have much more specific strategic aims. For instance, Google’s original strategic aim was to produce the most relevant search results by using a special algorithm in their search engine. Gore aims to manufacture revolutionary products to solve specific industrial and medical problems.
Averagely Innovative Companies
Averagely innovative companies on the other hand tend to have blander strategic aims, such as to make high quality products. Their web sites are littered with the word “innovation”. Lenovo, for example, makes fine quality computers that can be found in households and businesses globally. It is an admirable, growing company. But it is not a particularly innovative company. As a result, the words “innovation” and “innovative” appears numerous times on their “About” page.
I have never worked with Lenovo, so I do not know what their situation is like internally. But I have worked with similar companies: quality, well run businesses that have recently decided to become more innovative. One of the first steps such companies take is ti use the word “innovation” more frequently in corporate documentation. This is followed by hiring people to be innovation managers and to launch programmes to promote innovation.
Idea management software, or at least suggestion scheme software, is installed to capture ideas. Very possibly innovation consultants and trainers are hired to help guide the innovation initiative.
As a result of these activities, the company does indeed become more innovative. However, the innovation efforts tend to be unfocused. The result is usually incremental and medium level improvements on products, services and processes. It is extremely rare that these initiatives result in breakthrough innovation.
This is not a bad thing. Often, averagely innovative companies produce products that are better in many respects than the innovators. Apple may have led the pack with their innovative smart phone. But now many averagely innovative companies have produced smart phones that better Apple’s iPhone in various ways – and often for a lower price. Moreover, not everyone wants an iPhone. Many people want simpler, cheaper or less stylish telephones.
If your company is not an innovative leader, if it is not focused on relentlessly pursuing a unique strategy, you need to be realistic about where innovation can take you. In theory, you can transform your company into a visionary company that becomes a true innovator like those cited at the beginning of this article. This tranformation will probably mean replacing your CEO with a visionary leader who is willing to make drastic changes to every aspect of your company, starting with its strategy. She will probably need to sell off vast chunks of your business, transform the way you work and get rid of a lot of employees. Those who remain will need to learn to work in new ways. They will also need to legitimise their activities in line with strategy. Budgets, project management, approval methods and much more will need to be changed.
If you work in a medium to large company, you are probably smirking to yourself right now, thinking “Jeffrey is crazy. That’s never going to happen in my company!” And you are right. It is extremely rare that a company, except a very small one, will make such drastic changes. The board and shareholders are unlikely to authorise such actions. Even if an innovative leader is taken on as CEO, employees reluctant to change will do everything that they can to impede her changes and guarantee their jobs. After all, when things change in large companies, most people worry about their own stability and future rather than their employer’s innovation potential.
Not surprisingly, such change is extremely rare. The closest example that comes to my mind is Nokia, which started life as a rubber works and eventually became a Finnish industrial conglomerate involved in many industries. It was only in the 1990s that Nokia rid itself of many of its lines and focused on mobile telecommunications. And, during the 90s, Nokia was an innovative leader in GSM technology.
Most likely, you are not going to transform your company into an innovative leader. But, as I have said, there is nothing wrong with that. Most companies are not innovative leaders. But, by focusing on incremental and medium level improvements to products, services and processes, you can nevertheless have an extremely successful company. In fact, in many industries, such as fast food, soft drinks and construction, there has been little breakthrough innovation in recent years.
Moreover, you can learn from innovative leaders. Most importantly, review your strategy. Is it unique to your firm or is it the kind of strategy that just about any firm could claim. If so, make it better.
Once you have done this, do not launch an unfocused innovation initiative. Rather, ensure that your innovation initiative is aligned with strategy. This can be done through brainstorming, ideas campaigns and other activities that generate ideas to solve specific strategic problems. Do not simply focus on being innovative. That tends to result in a lot of small ideas that improve bits and pieces of your operations, but do not make a big difference to your company. Rather focus on your strategy and use innovation as a tool that enables you to do that.
INTEREACT WITH ME ON THE SOCIAL NETWORKS
Like everyone else on the planet, I am on most of the major social networks.
But I am tired of listening to myself talk. What I would really like is for
you to share with me. So, let’s communicate!
Find Me on Twitter: @creativeJeffrey
Follow CreativeJeffrey (that’s me!) on Twitter at http://twitter.com/creativeJeffrey.
Link with Me on LinkedIN
If you want to connect with me on LinkedIn, I’d be delighted to connect with you too. But unless we have corresponded in the past, let me know you are a Report 103 reader! http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=8967
Talk with Me on Facebook
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Help Me Work Out Google+
I’ve recently started exploring Google+. So far, I have yet to see what additional value it can provide. Perhaps you can provide advice. I’m at https://plus.google.com/109456679619161722353/
NEED AN INNOVATION CONSULTANT? HIRE A NAÏF
I recently corresponded with a chap who is in contact with a lot of relatively recent graduates who are going into innovation consulting. They all are highly knowledgeable, enthusiastic and full of energy. They all are also finding it extremely difficult to get work. The chap in question asked me if I thought this was a result of the current economic uncertainty in America (where he was based).
I explained to him that in my experience (through my work and correspondence with many people in the innovation business), most innovation consultants are struggling to find sufficient work to make a living. Moreover, this was true even before the recent economic problems in America and Europe.
Ex-Fortune 100 Company Employees
Most of the successful innovation consultants I know were once high ranking Fortune 100 company employees. Usually, they will have worked for more than one such company. Their on-line CVs make for impressive reading and it is not surprising that they are finding consulting gigs. Moreover, with their backgrounds in leading corporations, they doubtless know how to talk the appropriate talk. And I am sure they know a lot about innovation. Certainly those with whom I have communicated know their stuff.
Nevertheless, if a company is seeking to teach its people to think more creatively in order to facilitate an innovation programme, I feel that hiring a consultant with a very similar background to your own is not the best choice. Sure, these consultants know how things work in a big company like yours. That makes it easy to sell their services and make practical suggestions that do not threaten employees or managers.
However, a consultant with a background as an artist, musician or truck driver; a person who took two years off her life to travel the world; an ex-Buddhist monk who lived in Tibet for five years; a soldier who has fought in wars in countries that you have never heard of; or anyone with an unusual non-corporate background is unlikely to talk the talk. She will not know how things work in big companies like yours. She will suggest outrageous ideas that someone with a corporate background would never dream of proposing. She will make you and your colleagues uncomfortable and people will probably brand her as being naïve.
But think about it. Is your innovation programme about making you more like your competitors? Do you really expect to be an industry leader if you follow the same tried and tested approaches that your competitors are using?
Or might it actually be better to have a fool suggesting crazy ideas that make you and your colleagues stop and think? Might you actually be more innovative by being creative with your innovation approach rather than following the approach nearly every other big company is following? Might it actually be a good thing to feel a little uncomfortable and even threatened in order to shake your ways of thinking?
My feeling is that if you truly want to put your company on the path of innovation, you need to bring in a breath of fresh air; you need someone to think the unthinkable and suggest it as being thinkable. Even if you cannot apply every proposal of your naïve consultant, you can learn a lot from her – and apply a lot of it.
Okay, I lied earlier. There is another category of innovation consultant who is often successful. We might call them “camouflage consultants”. They are consultants who do not sell themselves as “innovation” consultants. Rather, they offer consulting and training services in selling, marketing, strategy development, change management and so on. But, once they get inside a company, they use creative thinking and innovation process methods to deliver their services.
Corporate buyers tend to like these more traditional services and particularly the fact that the value delivered can be more easily measured. Knowing that their sales people have improved their selling skills is a clearer value add to most managers than knowing that their people are more innovative. Indeed, most managers would find it difficult to understand, let alone measure, the greater innovativeness of their people.
There is a lesson to be learned here if you are a struggling innovation consultant without a Fortune 100 pedigree. If that describes you, I suggest you take the camouflage consultant approach. Look at your skills and experience. Then fashion a consulting or training service that you can offer, one in which you can apply creative thinking and innovation process methodology. Not only is this more likely to bring you work, but once you have demonstrated your value to clients, you may find that you can sell innovation as well.
READ MY BOOK!
If you like Report 103, you’ll love my book: the Way of the Innovation Master! Learn more and order it here!
It also makes for a great Christmas gift!
VIDEO GAMES MAKE KIDS MORE CREATIVE
If you worry about your children playing too many video games and fear that it may be detrimental to the development of their creative thinking skills, fear not. Indeed, sit your kids in front of their computers, Wiis or Xboxes and tell them to have fun! It seems that playing video games actually makes kids more creative. At least that is the findings of a team of researchers at Michigan State University.
Their findings hold true equally for boys and girls as well as across racial divides. In short, no matter what sex or colour your children are, playing video games is good for their creativity. Moreover, the type of game made no difference to the results. Violent games are as effective creativity enhancers as non-violent games.
That said, childhood development is about much more than creative thinking and there are certainly other reasons to get kids away from their video games, not least the importance of getting sunshine and exercise. Nevertheless, if like me, you sometimes worry about the amount of time your children spend playing games on screens, this research is reassuring.
The research is based on observations and tests of some 491 boys and girls, all 12 year old, and of various racial backgrounds. For more information, follow the reference link below.
Linda A. Jackson, Edward A. Witt, Alexander Ivan Games, Hiram E. Fitzgerald, Alexander von Eye, Yong Zhao, Information technology use and creativity: Findings from the Children and Technology Project, Computers in Human Behavior, Available online 1 November 2011, ISSN 0747-5632, 10.1016/j.chb.2011.10.006.
MISSING REPORT 103
You may have noticed that there was no Report 103 during the first week of November. This is because I was on a holiday, roughing it without electricity, heat or hot water. We had to grill our food over a gas fire and boil water over a log fire. We also had to clear wood in order to get around.
Sadly, I was not on a camping holiday. Rather my sons and I travelled to visit my parents in suburban New Jersey. We arrived on Saturday, 29 October as a heavy snow began falling in that part of East coast America. After a challenging ride from the airport, owing to unseasonably early snow covered roads, we arrived at my parents’ house. Within two hours the power went out. It remained out for five days and only came on again Thursday afternoon!
Unfortunately, my parents are in poor health, especially my father who is suffering from the late stages of an extremely unkind neural degenerative disease called multiple system atrophy – or MSA. So, lack of electricity was a worrying development.
Nevertheless, my brother and I applied a bit of creativity and, thanks to a barbecue grill and a fireplace, we were able to keep one room of the house warm, cook warm meals and even provide warm water for washing. Nevertheless, it was not much of a holiday!
Normally, because my parents are not particularly active, I had expected to be able to write Report 103 in spite of staying with them. Indeed, time away from home and work brings new inspirations. But with no electricity and our energies focused on basic things that are normally performed by technology, I had little spare time. In addition, of course I had to entertain my sons, do some shopping (clothes in America are so much cheaper than in Belgium!) and see an old friend.
So, that’s why there was no Report 103 last week. It’s also why, if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, I seemed to disappear off the face of the earth for a week. In a way, I did exactly that!
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