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 #).”
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.
“What business are you in?”
How do you answer this all-too-common question?
Do you name the company you work for?
The industry you’re in?
The function you perform?
Bad news, your business isn’t defined by the company, the industry, and even your function.
Good news, the business you’re in is defined by your customers.
And their definition unlocks incredible potential for innovation and growth.
The 2:00 am Answer
In my first few months as an Assistant Brand Manager at P&G, I had a truly terrifying experience. Sitting in a training session, a senior executive locked eyes with me and asked, “What is Brand Equity?”
My first thought was, “you tell me, buddy. I’m the newbie here.” My second thought, and the one that came out of my mouth, was probably something straight out of a marketing textbook.
“Wrong!” he exclaimed. “Brand equity is what a consumer says if you wake them up from a dead sleep at 2:00 am and scream ‘What is [brand]?’ in their face.”
I don’t know what scared me more, being yelled at for being wrong or the idea that breaking and entering and screaming brand names at unsuspecting sleepers was suddenly part of my job description.
The 2:00 am Answer is the business you’re in
The 2:00 am answer applies to more than just brand equity.
It reveals the business you’re in.
Because it’s the Job to be Done your customers hire you to do
As the training went on, we learned how this mantra manifests in everything a brand (or company) does – its products, pricing, packaging, distribution, and marketing.
For example, if the most important thing to you about laundry is that clothes come out of the washing machine clean, you have dozens of options and probably buy the cheapest one.
But, if you want to be sure that clothes will be immaculate after the first wash because you know your kids will wear anything, even if it has stains, which will lead the other parents to judge you, you have one option – Tide.
Why the 2:00 am Answer matters
The 2:00 am Answer also defines where you have a right to play and to win.
Sometimes this space is bigger than you expect, revealing incredible opportunities for innovation and growth.
Sometimes it’s smaller than you want, exposing a strategic misalignment between what you offer and what your customers want. This happened to LEGO and took the company to the brink of bankruptcy.
In 1998, LEGO posted its first loss in company history. To reinvigorate growth, it shifted from being in the business of Toys to being in the business of Play. This led to two decisions that, while strategically aligned with Play, almost bankrupted the company. First was the introduction of new toys specifically designed to be built in less than 10 minutes so kids could start playing quickly. The second decision took LEGO into other aspects of play – video games, amusement parks, and a TV show supported by a line of action figures.
In 2003, LEGO reported a $238M loss, and with only one profitable product line, the future was bleak. So, LEGO started talking to customers (though probably not at 2:00 am). Through the conversations, LEGO learned that its expansion into all forms of play and the prioritization of Play over creation (building) wasn’t LEGO-y in the minds of consumers. So they rejected the new offerings. Instead, people loved LEGO because it offered “creative play” – the freedom and ability to turn ideas into tangible and interactive 3D models.
LEGO listened and went “back to the brick.” The results speak for themselves. In 2015, LEGO overtook Ferrari to become the world’s most powerful brand. In 2021, LEGO earned $8.06B in revenue, a 27% increase from the prior year.
How to get and use the 2:00 am Answer (without committing a felony)
First, get clear on the business you WANT to be in. Ask yourself and your colleagues, what do we want our customers to hire us to do? Push beyond the easy and obvious answers (usually functional Jobs to be Done). How do you want customers to feel after hiring your company (emotional Jobs to be Done)? How do you want them to be perceived (social Jobs to be Done)? What Job to be Done do you want to do uniquely well?
Second, talk to your customers one-on-one at a time and place of their choosing. Ask them why they hire your business. Again, push beyond the easy and obvious answers to understand what they want to feel and be perceived after choosing you. Ask what other options they considered and why they hired your business.
Find and close the gap. What’s the difference between what you wanted to hear and what you actually heard? If the gap is bigger than expected, how can you expand and innovate your business to grow into all the Jobs people want to hire you to do? If the gap is smaller, how can you shift or redirect efforts to grow in ways where you have permission to operate?
The 2:00 am Answer can be the key to defining, growing, and transforming your business.
Who says nothing good happens after midnight?
In the Before Times, we attended conferences to learn, make connections, and promote ourselves and our businesses. Then COVID hit, and conferences became virtual. Although that made them easier to attend, it also made them easier to skip. Because, if we’re honest, most conferences were more about connecting and promoting than learning.
Last week, I went to one of those rare, almost mythical, conferences more focused on learning and connecting than promoting. It was fantastic! It was also in Nebraska (which is a pretty interesting place, btw).
Here are my three biggest mind-blowing takeaways from Inside Outside’s IO2022 Summit:
“Strategy is the direction you take to win in the future“
Kareen Proudian, Managing Partner at Faculty of Change
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but if you asked me to define “Strategy,” I’d respond with a long and rambling answer. Which means I can’t define “strategy.” This admission is especially embarrassing because I have a resume littered with places where I developed, drafted, and implemented strategies, so I should have learned what the word means. But nope, I didn’t.
I suspect I’m not alone.
Asking for the definition of strategy is like asking if you must wear clothes to the office. You should know the answer. But unlike whether or not clothing is mandatory, most of us don’t know the answer, AND it’s easy to get away with never knowing the answer.
The elegant simplicity of Kareen’s definition of strategy blew my mind. It’s short, memorable, and something that most people can understand. Maybe I should share the definition with my alma maters and past employers.
“When we feel threatened, our IQ drops 50 to 70 points”
Alla Weinberg, CEO at Spoke & Wheel
When I first heard talk about Psychological Safety and Safe Spaces in today’s business world, I rolled my eyes. Hard. As a Gen X-er, I grumbled about how we didn’t need “safe spaces” when I grew up because we were tough and self-reliant, and I lamented the inevitable downfall of society caused by weak and coddled Millennials.
I was wrong.
Psychological Safety is absolutely and unquestionably essential for individuals to grow, teams to work, companies to operate and innovate, and societies to function and evolve. I’ve seen teams and businesses transform and achieve unbelievable success by discussing and living the elements they require for Psychological Safety. I’ve also seen teams and businesses fail in its absence.
These results aren’t surprising when you realize that you feel threatened when you are in a complex situation in which you cannot accurately predict the outcomes. And when you feel threatened, you are half as intelligent, effective, and creative as you are when you’re calm.
So, if you’re a manager and you’re upset that your people aren’t as intelligent, effective, or creative as they should be, it may not be their fault. It may be yours.
“Stage expertise, not industry expertise, is key to innovation success“
Sean Sheppard, Managing Partner at U+
There is deep comfort in the known. It’s why we gravitate to people like us. It’s also why companies ask job candidates and consultants about their experience in the industry and choose those with deep experience and impressive expertise. Often, there’s nothing with this question or the resulting decision.
Sometimes, it’s precisely the wrong question.
Sometimes, functional expertise is significantly more important than industry experience. After all, if you’re the hiring manager at a healthcare company looking for a Director of Finance, who would you hire – a Marketing Director from a competitor or a Finance Director from a CPG company?
That’s the case with innovation.
Decades of real-world experience (not to mention the successful launch of 100+ startups) show that successful corporate startup teams had expertise (mindsets, skillsets, executional drive) in the startup’s phase and a working knowledge of the industry rather extensive industry expertise and little to no innovation experience.
Questions are good. The right questions are better. So, the next time you’re staffing up an innovation team (or hiring a consultant), choose based on their innovation experience and willingness to learn about your industry.
Innovation happens everywhere
That’s why people from San Francisco, Austin, Washington DC, NYC, Toronto, Boston, and dozens of other places converged on Lincoln, Nebraska.
We went to see innovation in action and learn about the thriving startup community in the middle of the country. We also went to learn and connect with others committed to creating new things that create value.
Getting our minds blown was a bonus.
Many years ago, Clay Christensen visited his firm where I was a partner and told us a story*.
“I imagine the day I die and present myself at the entrance to Heaven,” he said. “The Lord will show me around, and the beauty and majesty will overcome me. Eventually, I will notice that there are no numbers or data in Heaven, and I will ask the Lord why that is.”
“Data lies,” the Lord will respond. “Nothing that lies can be in Heaven. So, if people want data, I tell them to go to Hell.”
We all chuckled at the punchline and at the strength of the language Clay used (if you ever met him, you know that he was an incredibly gentle and soft-spoken man, so using the phrase “go to Hell” was the equivalent of your parents unleashing a five-minute long expletive-laden rant).
“If you want data, go to Hell.”
Clay’s statement seems absolutely blasphemous, especially in a society that views quantitative data as the ultimate source of truth:
- “In God we trust. All others bring data.” W. Edward Deming, founding Father of Total Quality Management (TQM)
- “Above all else, show the data.” – Edward R. Tufte, a pioneer in the field of data visualization
- “What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker, father of modern management studies
But it’s not entirely wrong.
Quantitative Data’s blessing: A sense of safety
As humans, we crave certainty and safety. This was true millennia ago when we needed to know whether the rustling in the leaves was the wind or a hungry predator preparing to leap and tear us limb from lime. And it’s true today when we must make billion-dollar decisions about buying companies, launching products, and expanding into new geographies.
We rely on data about company valuation and cash flow, market size and growth, and competitor size and strategy to make big decisions, trusting that it is accurate and will continue to be true for the foreseeable future.
Quantitative Data’s curse: The past does not predict the future
As leaders navigating an increasingly VUCA world, we know we must prepare for multiple scenarios, operate with agility, and be willing to pivot when change happens.
Yet we rely on data that describes the past.
We can extrapolate it, build forecasts, and create models, but the data will never tell us with certainty what will happen in the future. It can’t even tell us the Why (drivers, causal mechanisms) behind the What it describes.
The Answer: And not Or
Quantitative data Is useful. It gives us the sense of safety we need to operate in a world of uncertainty and a starting point from which to imagine the future(s).
But, it is not enough to give the clarity or confidence we need to make decisions leading to future growth and lasting competitive advantage.
To make those decisions, we need quantitative data AND qualitative insights.
We need numbers and humans.
Qualitative Insight’s blessing: A view into the future
Humans are the source of data. Our beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and actions are tracked and measured, and turned into numbers that describe what we believed, wanted, and did in the past.
By understanding human beliefs, motivations, and aspirations (and capturing them as qualitative insights), we gain insight into why we believed, wanted, and did those things and, as a result, how those beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and actions could change and be changed. With these insights, we can develop strategies and plans to change or maintain beliefs and motivations and anticipate and prepare for events that could accelerate or hinder our goals. And yes, these insights can be quantified.
Qualitative Insight’s curse: We must be brave
When discussing the merit of pursuing or applying qualitative research, it’s not uncommon for someone to trot out the saying (erroneously attributed to Henry Ford), “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a horse that goes twice as fast and eats half as much.”
Pushing against that assertion requires you to be brave. To let go of your desire for certainty and safety, take a risk, and be intellectually brave.
Being brave is hard. Staying safe is easy. It’s rational. It’s what any reasonable person would do. But safe, rational, and reasonable people rarely change the world.
One more story
In 1980, McKinsey predicted that the worldwide market for cell phones would max out at 900,000 subscribers. They based this prediction on solid data, analyzed by some of the most intelligent people in business. The data and resulting recommendations made sense when presented to AT&T, McKinsey’s client.
Five years later, there were 340,213 subscribers, and McKinsey looked pretty smart. In 1990, there were 5.3 million subscribers, almost 6x McKinsey’s prediction. In 1994, there were 24.1M subscribers in the US alone (27x McKinsey’s global forecast), and AT&T was forced to pay $12.6B to acquire McCaw Cellular.
Should AT&T have told McKinsey to “go to Hell?” No.
Should AT&T have thanked McKinsey for going to (and through) Hell to get the data, then asked whether they swung by earth to talk to humans and understand their Jobs to be Done around communication? Yes.
Because, as Box founder Aaron Levie reminds us,
“Sizing the market for a disruptor based on an incumbent’s market is like sizing a car industry off how many horses there were in 1910.”
* Except for the last line, these probably (definitely) weren’t his exact words, but they are an accurate representation of what I remember him saying
“We need to be more innovative.”
How many times have you said or heard that? It’s how most innovation efforts start. It’s a statement that reflects leaders’ genuine desire to return to the “good ol’ days” when the company routinely created and launched new products and enjoyed the publicity and growth that followed.
But what does it mean to “be more innovative?”
A is for Architecture
Architecture includes most of the elements people think of when they start the work to become more innovative – strategy, structure, processes, metrics, governance, and incentives.
Each of these elements answers fundamental questions:
- Strategy: Why is innovation important? How does it contribute to our overall strategy?
- Structure: Who does the work of innovation?
- Process: How is the work done?
- Metrics: How will we know when we’re successful? How will we measure progress?
- Governance: Who makes decisions? How and when are decisions made?
- Incentives: Why should people invest their time, money, and political capital? How will they be rewarded?
When it comes to your business, you can answer all these questions. The same is true if you’re serious about innovation. If you can’t answer the questions, you have work to do. If you don’t want to do the work, then you don’t want to be innovative. You want to look innovative*.
B is for Behavior
Innovation isn’t an idea problem. It’s a leadership problem.
Leaders that talk about innovation, delegate it to subordinates and routinely pull resources from innovation to “shore up” current operations don’t want to be innovative. They want to look innovative.
Leaders who roll up their sleeves and work alongside innovation teams, ask questions and listen with open minds, and invest and protect innovation resources want to be innovative.
To be fair, it’s incredibly challenging to be a great leader of both innovation and operations. It’s the equivalent of writing equally well with your right and left hands. But it is possible. More importantly, it’s essential.
C is for Culture
Culture is invisible, pervasive, and personal. It is also the make-or-break factor for innovation because it surrounds innovation architecture, teams, and leaders.
Culture can expand to encourage and support exploration, creativity, and risk-taking. Or it can constrict, unleashing antibodies that swarm, suffocate, and kill anything that threatens the status quo.
Trying to control or change culture is like trying to hold water in your fist. But if you let go just a bit, create the right conditions, and wait patiently, change is possible.
Easy as 123
The most common mistake executives make in the pursuit of being “more innovative” is that they focus on only A or only B or only C. But, as I always tell my clients, the answer is “and, not or.”
- Start with Architecture because it’s logical, rational, and produces tangible outputs like org charts, process flows, and instruction manuals filled with templates and tools. Architecture is comforting because it helps us know what to do and how.
- Use Architecture to encourage Behavior because the best way to learn something is to do it. With Architecture in place (but well before it’s finished), bring leaders into the work – talking to customers, sharing their ideas, and creating prototypes. When leaders do the work of innovation, they quickly realize what’s possible (and what’s not) and are open to learning how to engage (behave) in a way that supports innovation.
- Leverage Architecture and Behavior to engage Culture by creating the artifacts, rituals, and evidence that innovation can happen in your company, is happening and will continue to happen. As people see “innovation” evolve from a buzzword to a small investment to “the way we do business,” their skepticism will fade, and their support will grow.
Just like the Jackson 5 said
ABC, It’s easy a 123
Architecture, behavior, culture – they’re all essential to enabling an innovation capability that repeatedly creates new revenue.
And while starting with architecture, building new leadership behaviors, and investing until the culture changes isn’t easy, it’s the 123 steps required to “be more innovative.”