Whelp, the apocalypse is upon us. Again.
This time the end of the world is brought to you by AI.
How else do you explain the unending stream of headlines declaring that AI will eliminate jobs, destroy the education system, and rip the heart and soul out of culture and the arts? What more proof do you need of our imminent demise than that AI is as intelligent as a Wharton MBA?
We are doomed!
Did you get the panic out of your system? Feel better?
Because AI is also creating incredible opportunities for you, as a leader and innovator, to break through the inertia of the status quo, drive meaningful change, and create enormous value.
Here are just 3 of the ways AI will help you achieve your innovation goals.
1. Surface and question assumptions
Every company has assumptions that have been held and believed for so long that they hardened into fact. Questioning these assumptions is akin to heresy and done only by people without regard for job security or their professional reputation.
My favorite example of an assumption comes from the NYC public school district whose spokesperson explained the decision to ban ChatGPT by saying, “While the tool may be able to provide quick and easy answers to questions, it does not build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success,”
Buried just under the surface of this statement is the assumption that current teaching methods, specifically essays, do build critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
But is that true?
Or have we gotten so used to believing that essays demonstrate critical thinking and problem-solving that we’ve become blind to the fact that most students (yes, even, and maybe especially, the best students) follow the recipe that produces an essay that mirrors teachers’ expectations?
Before ChatGPT, only the bravest teachers questioned the value of essays as a barometer of critical thinking and problem-solving. After ChatGPT, scores of teachers took to Tik Tok and other social media platforms to share how they’re embracing the tool, using it alongside traditional tools like essays, to help their students build skills “essential for academic and lifelong success.”
2. EQ, not IQ, drives success
When all you need to do is type a question into a chatbot, and the world’s knowledge is synthesized and fed back to you in a conversational tone (or any tone you prefer), it’s easier to be the smartest person in the room.
Yes, there will always be a need for deep subject-matter experts, academics, and researchers who can push our knowledge beyond its current frontiers. But most people in most companies don’t need that depth of expertise.
Instead, you need to know enough to evaluate the options in front of you, make intelligent decisions, and communicate those decisions to others in a way that (ideally) inspires them to follow.
It’s that last step that creates an incredible opportunity for you. If facts and knowledge were all people needed to act, we would all be fit, healthy, and have absolutely no bad habits.
For example, the first question I asked ChatGPT was, “Why is it hard for big companies to innovate?” When it finished typing its 7-point answer, I nodded and thought, “Yep, that’s exactly right.”
The same thing happened when I asked the next question, “What should big companies do to be more innovative?” I burst out laughing when the answer started with “It depends” and then nodded at the rest of its extremely accurate response.
It would be easy (and not entirely untrue) to say that this is the beginning of the end of consultants, but ChatGPT didn’t write anything that wasn’t already written in thousands of articles, books, and research papers.
Change doesn’t happen just because you know the answer. Change happens when you believe the answer and trust the people leading and walking alongside you on the journey.
3. Eliminate the Suck
Years ago, I spoke with Michael. B Jordan, Pixar’s Head of R&D, and he said something I’ll never forget – “Pain is temporary. Suck is forever.”
He meant this, of course, in the context of making a movie. There are periods of pain in movie-making – long days and nights, times when vast swaths of work get thrown out, moments of brutal and public feedback – but that pain is temporary. The movie you make is forever. And if it sucks, it sucks forever,
Sometimes the work we do is painful but temporary. Sometimes doing the work sucks, and we will need to keep doing it forever. Expense reports. Weekly update emails. Timesheets. These things suck. But they must be done.
Let AI do them and free yourself up to do things that don’t suck. Imagine the conversations you could have, ideas you could try, experiments you could run, and people you could meet if you no longer have to do things that suck.
Change is coming. And that’s good news.
Change can be scary, and it can be difficult. There will be people who lose more than they gain. But, overall, we will gain far more than we lose because of this new technology.
If you have any more doubts, I double-checked with an expert.
“ChatGPT is not a sign of the apocalypse. It is a tool created by humans to assist with language-based tasks. While artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies can bring about significant changes in the way we live and work, they do not necessarily signal the end of the world.”
ChatGPT in response to “Is ChatGPT a sign of the apocalypse?”
You know that innovation is something new that creates value.
(But not too new)
Sometimes the value can be hard to describe, let alone quantify. You know that, ultimately, the value needs to be financial – more revenue, lower costs, higher profit. You also know that the value created in the short term will likely be more intangible – increased satisfaction, improved brand perception, and greater loyalty.
Your challenge, especially in tough economic times, is to tell a story that connects success indicators seen in the short term to the financial returns realized in the long term and maintain support and funding as the story unfolds.
That is a HUGE challenge! One that overwhelms most managers because they don’t know where to start let alone how to maintain support and momentum.
But you are not “most managers.” You know that the best place to start is at the beginning.
What is the Goal of Innovation (i.e., why are we investing in this)?
Goal #1: Create (or keep) a competitive advantage
Innovation is essential because it keeps you ahead of the competition.
Your business is already a leader in something that creates a competitive advantage, and your innovation efforts focus on keeping it that way.
For example, imagine you’re the President of Big Machine Co (BMC). You’ve been in business for decades in an industry with commoditized products, few competitors, high barriers to entry, and medium barriers to switching (i.e., it can be done, but it’s a pain).
You know that customer relationships and loyalty are the fuel that drives your business and why you’re #1 in the market. As a result, you focus your innovation efforts on creating new products or services that deliver unique value to your customers and provide easy and fast resolution to service issues.
Goal #2: Avoid (or overcome) competitive disadvantage
Innovation is essential because it keeps your business alive.
Your business is falling behind the competition either because you’re not keeping up with their pace of innovation or because you’re failing to deliver on table stakes like quality, price, or accessibility. You invest in innovation to catch up to the competition or regain your place in customers’ consideration.
Let’s go back to Big Machine Co. Because of the amazing growth you achieved as President, you’re now CEO (congrats!). The new President continued your innovation strategy but got so excited by everything new he forgot to pay attention to the “old” things – existing products, manufacturing capabilities, and people. Now, you’re #2 in the market and losing customers at a concerning rate.
It’s time to get back to basics and invest in “new to BMC” innovations by creating products that customers want and competition can already offer, investing in manufacturing equipment and processes that improve efficiency and quality, and retaining people who have the knowledge, experience, and relationships that are the heart of the business.
Goal #3: Build a reputation for being innovative
Innovation is essential because doing it makes the company look good (and executives and shareholders feel good), regardless of whether it produces results.
Your business demands innovation, new news, and big splashes. Your customers want novelty, not perfection. Image is everything, and perception is reality. You invest in innovation to show what’s possible, provoke conversation, and stay in the spotlight.
Believe it or not, this is on your mind as CEO of Big Machine Co. Your customers demand perfection, not novelty, but they need to shed the perception that they’re boring companies in a boring industry moving at a glacial pace to attract and retain the next generation of talent. You can help.
You look beyond the market to identify trends and technologies in the news but not yet in your industry. You identify the ones that could transform industries and make your customers’ eyes light up with wonder and excitement. You create proof of concept prototypes that make the vision tangible and discuss the plan and timing of the first step toward that vision.
How to Goal Helps
Your reason for innovating informs everything else – your strategy, structure, activities, metrics, and governance.
That is why you can only have one Why at a time.
Yes, it’s tempting to try to do a bit of everything, but that often results in achieving nothing.
Think back to Big Machine Co:
- If the products break, don’t perform as they should, or aren’t available when needed, it doesn’t matter how excellent the customer service is or how cool the new products are. You must achieve Goal #2 (avoid or overcome competitive disadvantage) to earn the right to pursue Goal #1 (create or maintain competitive advantage)
- If the products are the right quality, perform as expected, and arrive on time but the customer service is poor, and there are no new products, it’s hard to believe that a company that struggles to deliver incremental innovation can deliver on a radically innovative vision. You must make progress against Goal #1 to have permission to pursue Goal #3 (build a reputation).
The next time you face the challenge of connecting your innovation’s short-term success indicators to the long-term financial returns and maintaining support and funding, don’t be overwhelmed.
Go back to the beginning and explain, “It achieves (Goal #) so that we earn the right to invest in (Goal #).”
What happened the last time you asked your team for ideas?
A. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
B. Got some ideas but nothing new or noteworthy
C. Got lots of ideas, but very few were relevant, new, or big
D. The clouds parted. The angels sang. The Ideas forever transformed our business.
My guess is you answered A, B, or C
(If you answered D, let me know because I need to learn how you did it).
While there are dozens of reasons why D did not happen, the most common one is this:
You asked for ideas.
You said, “Hey, I want to hear your ideas.”
Or maybe you got more specific and said, “I want to hear your ideas about how we can do better.”
What your team heard was “Hey, I want to hear your ideas as long as they’re the ideas I want to hear and pertain to the topics I want to hear about, but I’m not going to tell you the topics, so share at your own risk and may the odds be ever in your favor.”
So your team stayed quiet.
Good news, you can turn the odds in your favor if you do this ONE thing:
Give them constraints.
It seems counterintuitive.
After all, shouldn’t creativity be unconstrained?
Isn’t ideation all about blue sky crazy thinking?
Doesn’t innovation require us to unshackle ourselves from what is practical and dream of what’s possible?
No. No. No.
Constraints fuel creativity
You don’t have infinite money, people, or time. *
Which means you have constraints.
Don’t run from that fact. Don’t hide from it. Don’t ignore it,
Embrace it because it is what fuels creation, innovation, and growth.
No one knew that better than Orson Welles (and he was a pretty creative guy)
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations, ” he told filmmaker Henry Jaglom. “Economically and creatively, that’s the most important advice you can be given. You have limitations; you don’t have $ 1 million to blow up that bridge, so you have to create something else on film to produce the same effect. Instead of having money to hire hundreds of extras, you have to sneak a cameraman in a wheelchair through the streets of New York City and steal the shot, which gives you a look of much greater reality.”
If constraints can create Citizen Kane, imagine what they can do for your business.
Constraints demand focus
Think about the last movie you saw that was way too long. Or the book that could have been an article. Or the meeting that should have been an email.
When you have all the money, time, or resources you need, you can do anything and try to do everything. Unfortunately, the result is usually a bloated confusing mess that leaves your customers feeling like they’ve lost more than they gained.
But when you only have 2 hours or 300 pages to tell a story, 20 minutes instead of four hours for a presentation, or $10,000 to create a new product, you get crystal clear on what you’re trying to accomplish, prioritize what you need, and leave everything else behind.
Constraints cause tension which leads to choices
In The Offer, a fantastic series about the making of The Godfather, there’s a great scene in which the studio executive demands that Francis Ford Coppola cut 45 minutes from the film (and helpfully suggests cutting all the scenes set in Sicily). The reason? So that theaters can host five showings per day instead of four.
Two hours is a constraint.
Sicily is where Michael abandons all hope of a normal life.
The tension between revenue and story, business and art, is real.
Tension requires you to make choices. Constraints shouldn’t always win. But they should always be present.
Constraints create value
The next time you ask for ideas sprinkle in some constraints.
- “I’d like your ideas for how we can use existing assets to expand into new markets.”
- “How can we earn more money from existing customers without raising prices?”
- “What can we stop doing so we can focus on high-priority work and avoid burnout?”
You’ll find that adding a few constraints to your request for ideas will be an offer your team can’t refuse.
*If you do have unlimited people, money, and time, please let me know. I’d love to talk to you.
Everyone is an innovator on January 1.
That’s the day when each of us resolves to do something new that creates value.
- Start working out so I lose weight, look better, and feel healthier.
- Stop smoking, so I live longer.
- Turn off my computer and phone at 6:00 pm so I focus on family.
Only 20% of people are innovators on February 1. The rest of us gave up our resolutions and decided to keep doing the same things that create (good enough) value.
Your business is no different.
At the start of the fiscal year, you resolve to innovate!
- Explore new offerings, customers, and business models
- Experiment with new ways to get things done
- Enter new markets
Then something goes wrong, and you divert some people (not everyone!) from innovating to fixing an operational problem.
Then the first quarter starts coming in below expectations, and you cut budgets to stay on track to deliver the bottom line.
Then something else happens, and something else, and something else, and soon it’s “February 1,” and, for excellent and logical reasons, you give up your resolution to innovate and focus all your resources on operating and hitting your KPIs.
Resolve to Revive.
Innovation is something NEW that creates value.
New is hard. It’s difficult to start something new, and it’s challenging to continue doing it when things inevitably go awry. Investing in something uncertain is risky, primarily when more “certain” investment opportunities exist. It’s why New Year’s resolutions and Innovation strategies don’t stick.
Revival is the creation of new value from OLD.
When you work on Revival, you go back to the old things, the things you explored, tried, implemented, or even launched years ago that didn’t work then but could create more value than anything you’re doing today.
Your business is filled with Revival opportunities.
How to Reveal Revivals
Ask, “What did we do before…?”
Everything we do now – research, development, marketing, sales, communication, M&A – was done before smartphones, laptops, desktops, and even mainframes. Often new technology makes our work easier or more efficient. But sometimes, it just creates work and bad habits.
If you are trying to make Zoom/Teams calls less exhausting and more productive, try to remember meetings before Zoom/Teams. They were conference calls. So, next time you need to meet, revive and schedule a phone conference (or a cameras-off Zoom/Teams call).
Find the failures
Most companies are highly skilled at hiding any evidence of failure. But the memories and stories live on in the people who worked on them. Talk to them, and you may discover a blockbuster idea that failed for reasons you can quickly address.
Like Post-It Notes.
While some parts of the Post-Its story are true – the adhesive was discovered by accident and first used to bookmark pages in a hymnal, most people don’t know that 10 YEARS passed between hymnal use and market success. In that decade, the project was shelved twice, failed in a test market, and given away as free samples before it became successful.
Resurrect the Dead
The decision to exit a market or discontinue a product is never easy or done lightly. And once management makes the decision, people operate under the assumption that the company should never consider returning. But that belief can sometimes be wrong.
Consider Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery and one of its old ice cream shops.
In 1829, David G. Yuengling founded Eagle Brewing in Pottsville, PA. The business did well until, you guessed it, Prohibition. In 1920, D.G. Yuengling & Sons (formerly Eagle Brewing) built a plant across the street from their brewery and began producing ice cream. When Prohibition ends, brewing restarts, and ice cream production continues. Until 1985, when a new generation takes the helm at Yuengling and, under the guise of operational efficiency and business optimization, shut down the ice cream business to focus on beer. TWENTY-NINE YEARS later, executives looking for growth opportunities remembered the ice cream business and re-launched the product to overwhelming customer demand.
Just because you need growth doesn’t mean you need New.
Innovation is something new that creates value. But it doesn’t have to be new to the world.
Tremendous value can be created and captured by doing old things in new ways, markets, or eras.
After all, everything old is new again.