Just something we at Wisehoney are building; timing couldn’t have been more apt.
David Burkus’s latest article in HBR Blogs highlight the key challenge in Innovation. How to get Ideas out of peoples brains to something which is meaningful in the real world. Nope, its not the latest fad in management but a plain issue of how to recognize the right ideas and the people behind those ideas.
When most organizations try to increase their innovation efforts, they always seem to start from the same assumption: “we need more ideas.” They’ll start talking about the need to “think outside the box” or “blue sky” thinking in order to find a few ideas that can turn into viable new products or systems. However, in most organizations, innovation isn’t hampered by a lack of ideas, but rather a lack of noticing the good ideas already there.
It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.
One possible solution to this “idea killing” problem is to change the structure ideas have to move through. Instead of using the traditional hierarchy to find and approve ideas, the approval process could be spread across the whole organization. That’s the approach Rhode Island-based Rite-Solutions has taken for almost a decade. Rite-Solutions has set up an “idea market” on their internal website where anyone can post an idea and list it as a “stock” on the market, called “Mutual Fun.” Every employee is also given $10,000 in virtual currency to “invest” in ideas. In addition to the investment, employees also volunteer to work on project ideas they support. If an idea gathers enough support, the project is approved and everyone who supported it is given a share of the profits from the project. In just a few years, the program has already produced huge gains for the company, from small incremental changes to products in whole new industries. In its first year alone, the Mutual Fun accounted for 50 percent of the company’s new business growth. More important than the immediate revenue, the idea market has created a culture where new ideas are recognized and developed throughout the entire company, a democratization of recognition.
In addition, it’s a system based on the assumption that everyone in the company already has great ideas and the market just makes them better at finding those ideas. It’s not an idea-solution; it’s a recognition-solution.
Earlier this year N.R. Narayana Murthy pointed out the need to position India as an ‘innovation’ destination, build products and add value by strengthening its existing areas and looking at new ones. This clarion call is resonating amongst others in the Indian industry at a time when winning deals and getting Fortune 500 companies to open up their technology budgets are getting harder.
Analysts and industry watchers are of the view that despite growth in the sector’s contribution to India’s GDP, from 1.2 per cent in fiscal 1998 to 7.5 per cent in the 2012 fiscal, the sector still missed out on opportunities to position India.
The two most often cited areas are software products and the ability to go beyond body shopping and cost arbitrage. “When I look at Indian IT services players, I can’t distinguish one from the other,” says a US-based outsourcing advisor who does not wish to be identified as he works with some Indian IT companies.
Singapore was identified as the top city in Asia Pacific in innovation, according to a study done by marketing and growth strategy consulting firm Solidiance.
The Republic beat 15 other cities in the region, including second-ranked Sydney and third-ranked Melbourne. The top three cities were separated by 0.04 points and a macro-view “photoshoot” was needed to allocate the top spot to Singapore. This means the ranking is likely to change in the future.
The study was done to prove if a city has developed an efficient innovation environment. Six main categories — human talent, knowledge creation, technology, society, government and global integration — were used to measure the level of innovation per city.
Singapore took pole position in global integration, which was in turn determined by factors such as global competitiveness, presence of innovative corporations and net migration. It ranked from third to fifth in other categories.
An oft missed point in Innovation is how to spur innovative thinking. If you are a busy corporate person, you are too engrossed in the daily grind to spend any meaningful time assimilating new inputs and mulling over the intersection of such inputs. The recent article in HBR by Whitney Johnson provides a workable solution for this challenge.
Innovation happens when we cultivate diversity and cross-disciplinary collaboration, when we play in the in-between. If you’ve learned a new language or lived in a foreign country for a time, you have likely experienced these kind of mind-opening lessons. This can, at times, feel very unpleasant, just as immersing myself in a new language and culture required a big move out of my normal way of living and thinking. But it’s this willingness to live in the unknown for a while that opens a space for truly new ideas. As you are attempting to collaborate, if it feels foreign and outside of your comfort zone, you just might be on the right track. Sprechen sie the language of innovation?
A perfect example of this is Dave Blakely, who began his career at IDEO as an engineer. He could have worked his way up to manage technical staff, but instead he volunteered to become a project manager. As Dave made the decision to move to the margin, many of his peers dismissed this an escape route from the rigor and detail of engineering. But by learning to associate himself with two different disciplines, Blakely broadened his skills, so that today he is the head of technology strategy at IDEO — a firm which by the way, has an ethos of managing on the margin.
If Amazon.com is to be believed, at least 58,000 professors, CEOs and other innovation experts are vying for our attention. Each guru has spent years creating a book about pioneers such as Apple, IDEO, Zappos and Starbucks. The result: mountains of earnest wisdom explaining the secrets of business breakthroughs.
Then there’s the fellow who calls himself Steve Musselman.
I met Musselman this week at Z Below, a small, basement-level theater in San Francisco’s Mission district, where he was running a 90-minute innovation seminar based on the business practices of YD Industries. Come again? Musselman, in full deadpan, assured us that YD is an economic giant, with 27,000 employees, a vast headquarters campus in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a product line that spans everything from medieval-themed burger restaurants to voice-compression software.
It didn’t take long for us attendees to realize that YD Industries exists only in Musselman’s mind. The company turned out to a nonstop spoof of the business cliches that we live with every day. The company’s logo: an inane combination of a duck bill and electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus. The founder, as depicted in a PowerPoint slide: a goateed relic of a different era, best known for his memoir: “Lion in the Chicken Coop.” The company’s iconic strength: “ambiguity.”
Nothing in YD’s product catalog sounds remotely marketable. Blissfully unaware of the idiocy of his wares, Musselman told brief stories about the market triumphs associated with swimming-pool gondolas, nose-hair extensions and — YD’s earliest breakthrough — a chair simulator that lets people practice sitting down.
“This didn’t do well at all in the U.S. at first,” Musselman declared. “But we achieved greater successes in Mexico and Argentina. Then, when the U.S. market was ready, we brought it back here. It goes to show the importance of our motto: IDACSU. That’s a shorthand for our founder’s great insight: “idea + action = success.”
Before long, buffoonery spread into the audience. Musselman showed slides of odd landscapes, animals and machines — and asked attendees to come up with products for each situation. Ideas tumbled forth: yoga classes for cows; robotic dog-walkers for families that didn’t want to go outside, and so on. A few minutes later, attendees huddled in small groups to sketch out designs and marketing campaigns for each one. All the while, Musselman (who in real life is a startup veteran known as George Nachtrieb) advised people: “Say yes to everything.”
The net result: some witty and imaginative ideas. They all bubbled out of the irreverent and carefree mood created by the absurdities of the YD Industries tale. It left me wondering whether mainstream approaches to innovation could use a lighter touch, too. After all, even the iPod didn’t start with Steve Jobs telling everyone to create $100 billion of shareholder value. That’s not how great tinkering happens. Instead, innovation must harness the free-wheeling ways of tinkerers who aren’t sure where they are going.
Charles Leadbeater says that innovation is democratizing and it is not a matter of professionals anymore. Passionate amateurs and consumers have much to contribute and Crowdsourcing platforms are proving it. In the video, Leadbeater talks about how collaboration can help develop new ideas and disruptive innovation.
I almost envied the speaker as he delivered his erudite commentary on stage. I wasn’t in the audience at TED, but rather listening to a slightly nerdy 11-year-old explain his science project to an audience of his peers while his mother hovered nearby. The kids sitting around me were whispering and giggling. They were annoyed by him. But I thought: Lucky, lucky guy.
True he probably gets tormented by his peers every day, but I could guess from his joyful confidence that he has transcended a barrier that prevents a whole lot of people, myself included, from creating or doing anything really exceptional: the fear of others’ opinions.
This fear is very real. For example, I often wonder: What will people think of the fact that the treadmill at the gym shows I’m running at only 6.5 miles per hour? Worse, what will they think of the show I’m watching? The erudite 11-year-old prompted me to reflect on the extent to which most of us shape our lives according to what others think of us. Or, rather, might think of us, if they thought of us at all, which of course they probably don’t.
We relentlessly work to avoid “image risks,” to borrow a term from business researchers Feirong Yuan of the University of Kansas and Richard W. Woodman of Texas A&M. They use the phrase in their study of employees’ fear of making “unfavorable social impressions” on coworkers. In an analysis of responses from 425 employees in a variety of U.S. businesses, Yuan and Woodman found that worries about image risk significantly diminish employees’ innovativeness.
“For an employee who works on a job that does not normally ask for innovativeness (e.g., a blue-collar worker whose job is assembling furniture), if he has an innovative suggestion for a new work procedure, he may be afraid to express it because of the concern that his coworkers (and supervisors) might think he is stepping out of line,” Yuan explained to me. Not even a solid and trusting relationship with a supervisor mitigates this problem, she and Woodman report in an upcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.
That’s sad. It’s sad for employees and it’s sad for companies. Everyday innovation by ordinary workers should be organizations’ lifeblood. I’m no different from the people in the study. I’m just as unwilling to upset the status quo as they are.
There are a couple of things managers can do, Yuan and Woodman say. One is to create a culture in which everyone understands that being innovative is a desirable image. That’s easier said than done, however. Another, more concrete, suggestion is to “break job position stereotypes” by rewriting job descriptions to include a requirement that employees contribute new ideas. Such a straightforward approach might help employees get over their socially induced hesitation, the research suggests.
I’ve noticed that those of us who resist innovating for fear of others’ opinions are sometimes quickest to point a finger at the innovators among us. We’re the grown-up equivalents of the whisperers and gigglers, the perpetrators of negative peer pressure. We have an obligation to be aware of that tendency. If we won’t innovate, we should at least make every effort to cut some slack to the coworker with the oddball ideas, even if he’s sometimes a little too nerdy and a little too insistent. Now that would be an innovation.
I never really thought much about toothpaste. But at the last two innovation conferences where I spoke, toothpaste was one of the hot topics.
At the FT Innovate conference in London, Unilever discussed their “Signal White Now” (and other brands) toothpaste. Instead of using harsh bleaches and abrasives, they borrowed an optical-effect technology from their laundry team. This toothpaste uses a blue pigment to make yellow teeth instantly appear whiter. This same ingredient is used to make white clothes look even whiter.
At the Open Innovation Summit in Orlando, GSK discussed how their “Aquafresh iso-active” toothpaste borrowed an idea from Edge shaving cream (now a division of Energizer Holdings, Inc). The toothpaste comes out like a gel, but foams in the mouth, much like the shaving cream. This formulation, according to the can I was given, removes 25% more bacteria than regular toothpaste – or 3x more according to the picture left.
This got me thinking. If toothpaste manufacturers can get ideas from shaving cream and laundry detergent, where else could they get ideas? Within 5 minutes, I thought up a few ideas of how to gain inspiration from other products:
1. Pop Rocks: As a kid, I loved how Pop Rocks, the carbonated candy, exploded in your mouth. What if you added Pop Rock-like crystals to toothpaste? Not only would the toothpaste foam, it would fizz and explode. Maybe this would blast the plaque off your teeth. Of course, it might blast off your teeth like Pop Rocks reputedly did a few times.
2. Shampoo: Shampoos are infused with vitamins and minerals to give your hair bounce and shine. What if you infused toothpaste with these ingredients? Or maybe you could add some homeopathic remedies – for those who believe in these alternative “medicines.” Sublingual administration (under the tongue) is a common and effective way of delivering drugs directly into the bloodstream.
3. Conditioner: We use shampoo to clean and conditioner to protect. Maybe they can create a tooth conditioner; a special toothpaste that you use after your regular toothpaste. It could coat your teeth to prevent staining, bad breath, or split ends. Even better, they could borrow the “technology” used by shampoos like “Pearl” that combine shampoo and conditioner into one formulation.
4. Moisturizers: Several moisturizers have an AM and a PM formulation. One is used in the morning and the other at night before you go to sleep. The AM formula of toothpaste could be infused with caffeine that would be absorbed into the bloodstream sublingually (see idea #2 above). And the PM formulation could be infused with melatonin to help you sleep better at night.
5. Weight Loss Products: I’m not sure how this would work, but what if you could create a toothpaste that somehow made certain foods taste bad? This might cause you to reduce the amount of food you eat. Or maybe there is another way to make toothpaste a weight loss product. OK, this one is a stretch, but there might be a kernel of an idea there!
In a breakout at the Open Innovation Summit, an innovation leader from Johnson & Johnson, when asked to name the most important word for their business right now, answered “Convergence.” By this, he meant the sharing of ideas across business units and brands.
Ideas can indeed come from anywhere. And quite often, the best ideas will come from inside your own organization- just from a different product, function, division, or brand. Where will your next big idea come from?
Most leadership experts argue that the best way to manage change is to create alignment, but our research indicates that for large-scale change or innovation initiatives, a healthy dose of dissent is usually just as important. Within an acceptable range of competition and tension, science shows, dissent will fire up more of an individual’s brain, stimulating more pathways and engaging more creative centers. In short, more of what makes people unique, innovative, and passionate is available for use.