“Innovation happens in the gaps.”
It’s a statement so simple yet so profound that as soon as my client said it, I wrote it down.*
It’s not sexy to innovate in the gaps.
Most people and companies believe that innovation must be something entirely new for the world. That innovation is all about filling a white space, thinking blue sky, or swimming in a blue ocean. That innovation must be free of constraints, that it must be pure creation.
Most people will argue that CEOs rarely get on the front page of the Wall Street Journal because their company introduced something better than what exists today. Innovators rarely win design awards for an improved version of an existing solution. Scientists and engineers are rarely celebrated for receiving improvement patents.
Steve Jobs made the front page for the iPod, an MP3 player that offered better storage and user experience than the dozens of MP3 players that existed before it.
Charles and Ray Eames were named “The Most Influential Designer of the 20th Century” by the Industrial Designers Society of America, and they’re best known for designing chairs.
Thomas Edison is hailed as the inventor of the electric lightbulb when, in truth, he significantly improved a decades-old product that was too expensive, too unreliable, and too short-lived to be commercially viable.
It’s necessary (and profitable) to innovate in the gaps.
Gaps exist because of real and perceived constraints. Innovation thrives in constraints because it is the constraints that drive creativity.
In the gap between what is and what is good enough lies a problem that needs a solution. That solution, something new that creates value, is innovation.
In the gap between what is and what is delightful lies an opportunity that wants a better solution. Innovation can deliver that solution.
Find the gaps
Sometimes gaps are obvious, like the cost and performance gap between candles and early light bulbs that contained costly platinum and only lasted a few hours.
Sometimes they’re not, as evidenced by the difference between people who owned MP3 players before the iPod versus after the iPod debuted.
To find the gaps, talk to customers. What do they use now and why? What do they not use and why? What do they wish for and why? What is not good enough and why? What is delightful and why?
To find the gaps, don’t sit in a conference room. You won’t learn anything new by talking to the same people. And don’t obsess about competition. If you do what competitors are doing, you’ll do no better than your competitors.
Talk to your customers. They’ll point out the gaps. Then innovate to fill them.
*I learned later that he had first heard it from Tim Kastelle, an Australian academic and author focused on innovation.
“Who should be on our innovation team?”
Unfortunately, innovators, especially those able to succeed in a corporate setting, rarely announce themselves with the fanfare they deserve (And if they do, run away. Trust me.)
Where to Start
You know that you need a multi-functional team to ensure diversity of experience and expertise. But beyond that, every other option is rife with trade-offs
- High performers have loads of credibility in the organization, but they may be hesitant to question the status quo and struggle with ambiguity
- Squeaky wheels are comfortable challenging the status quo but may not have the organizational clout and goodwill to get things done
- New hires bring a fresh perspective but don’t have the relationships and political savvy to navigate the organization
- Independent contributors have domain expertise but may not be able to think beyond their domain or work well in a team environment
Your instincts are right. These people could be incredible additions to an innovation team but you need to diagnose the motivation, the Why, behind their actions.
How to Succeed
Just as identifying and understanding your consumers’ or customers’ Jobs to be Done is essential to growing your business, identifying and understanding employees’ Jobs to be Done is essential to building your innovation team.
The successful innovation teams I’ve worked with all have people who fill these roles:
- Reformer – This person wants to do the best they can and support teammates to achieve the same. You can find them by looking for the person who always says, “We can do better,” never meaning it as a critique but rather as a genuine desire to achieve the team and the company’s full potential.
- Rebel – This person also wants the company to live up to its potential but isn’t willing to accept “better.” They want the best. To find rebels, look for the people asking “Why?” refusing to accept “because that’s how we do it,” and annoying more than a few people in their periphery. To find the rebels that will propel your innovation team to success, look for those whose past successes and strong relationships have earned them the freedom to be the squeaky wheel.
- Realist – This person who takes pride in making things happen, especially if it requires a bit of creativity along the way. They know just how far and just how hard to push before everything breaks, how to navigate the organization, which ears to whisper into, how to challenge people without alienating them, and which battles to fight and which to fight another day. They’re willing to be patient and play the long as long as the successful change is in sight.
- Responder – This person takes pride in making things happen together, not only as a small team but with the broader organization. They learned from experience that it doesn’t matter how brilliant something is if leadership doesn’t support it. They carefully craft the team’s agenda to be the organization’s agenda. They pull people in as advisors and thought partners. They listen to feedback, finding ways to accept it or explaining why rejecting it is in the company’s best interest.
Sometimes one person can play many of these roles, and sometimes these roles must be played by four different people. The key is finding people with the deeply held Jobs to be Done that motivate them to act in ways that will unite the innovation team, accelerate its work, and enable it to achieve real success – growth and more revenue for your company.
We are natural problem-solvers.
From the moment we’re born, we’re solving problems.
Hungry? We wail and cry
Confused at school? We raise our hands.
Computer not working properly? We unplug it and plug it back in.
From the moment we enter the workplace, we’re solving problems.
Boss doesn’t want to hear problems? We bring solutions.
Customers upset about something? We offer compensation.
Unhappy at work? We find other jobs.
We focus on solutions because it gives us a sense of confidence and control. In a constantly changing world and where we, in fact, have very little control, solving a problem gives us a momentary reprieve. It gives us something we can point to and say, “that is better because of me.”
We don’t focus on problems because it is uncomfortable, and it can feel like a failure. Spending time with a problem means we haven’t solved it and may give others the impression we can’t solve it.
But what if we’re solving the wrong problems?
What if the boss is overwhelmed and burned out and feels unable to take on one more thing? How will one more solution to one more problem fix that?
What if the customer is upset because they relied on your company’s promise, and now a significant event is ruined because you didn’t deliver? What compensation will make up for that?
What if you’re unhappy to work because your passion and abilities are in a completely different profession? How will a new job fix that?
We can’t be confident that we’re solving the real problem if we don’t spend time with a problem, ask questions, and dig until we get past the symptoms and find the root cause.
Innovation is all about solving problems. The REAL problems.
This is why true innovators start by seeking problems. They spend weeks if not months asking questions, examining things from multiple angles, building empathy, and never ever ever settling for the first answer offered.
Innovators know that to succeed, they need to fall in love with a problem, not their solution. And in innovation, just like in life, you need to spend time with something to fall in love with it. You need to learn about it, understand it, connect with it, and care about it. Just as you wouldn’t walk up to a complete stranger and propose marriage, you shouldn’t walk up to a problem and propose a solution.
How to find the REAL problems.
- Set aside your ego. Innovation isn’t about you, your business, what you want or need to accomplish. Your customers don’t care about your problems. They care about their problems.
- Create time for the problem. As much as we’re tempted to rush to solutions, we’re also pushed to them by our bosses and the pace of business. But solving the wrong problem puts you even further behind, so set aside 4-6 weeks to ask questions, learn, and find the real problem.
- Celebrate not knowing. It’s ok if you find a problem that you don’t know how to solve. In fact, it’s great! Because if you don’t know how to solve it, odds are your competitors don’t know either. And that means you have a head start on solving a very important problem – the one your customers care about the most.
Being a “natural” isn’t the same as being the best.
We are natural problem solvers, but if we’re not solving the real problems, we’re not the best problem solvers we can be. And that is a problem that You can solve.
I do. We do. You do.
My Mom taught pre-school. It wasn’t a job; it was her calling. Kids gravitated to her like she was the Pied Piper, and she greeted them with unequaled patience, acceptance, and love. Years later, her students would talk about how she changed their lives when they were only four years old. And she did it by following one simple rule.
I do. We do. You do.
Whatever she was teaching, whether it was sitting still at a table and eating a snack or writing the alphabet, she always did it first so the kids would know that it’s possible and not be afraid to try.
Then, they would do the activity together. Side-by-side, they would eat a snack or draw letters, the kids occasionally glancing to the side to mimic her and my Mom gently coaching and encouraging.
Finally, she would step back, never disappearing completely, always within sight, but no longer right there. By doing this, she created the space for them to be independent and to build confidence.
It is easy to say that she was teaching.
It is more accurate to say that she was leading.
It is precisely what executives need to do if they want to build a culture and capability of innovation within their teams and businesses.
It is not enough to encourage your team to take risks. YOU need to take risks. Ask a question in a meeting. Say, “I don’t know.” Challenge the status quo. Be the first to do something different or uncertain, so your people know that it’s possible and aren’t afraid to try.
Don’t sit back in judgment, demanding that your teams present their work to you, and bombarding them with questions that begin with, “Did you think about…?” or demands for data that couldn’t possibly exist.
Instead, coach them and encourage them. Sit next to them as they share the work they’ve done and ask questions to learn more. Work with them as they think through options and examine alternatives.
It’s tempting to want to stay in the work and continue exploring and creating, but you eventually need to step back and let the team work. Give them the time and space to make progress without constant updates. Give them the resources to do bigger and better things. Give them more independence so they can build their confidence and a track record of success.
But don’t disappear. Be close enough that when the team needs you, you’re just a shout away. Most importantly, actively advocate for and defend the team when the cultural antibodies hell-bent on defending the status quo arrive and begin their attack.
I do We do You do is what leadership looks like.
Whether you’re learning the alphabet or innovating within a big company.
Most people know that 95% of new products fail within three years of launch. It’s often cited as evidence of big companies’ inability to be innovative, keep up with changing consumer demands, and respond to the nimbleness of start-ups.
Naturally, companies don’t want to fail in the market, so they try to get better at listening and responding to customers, more comfortable investing in unproven but potentially market-defining technology, and more willing to question and change their business models.
Yet, the market failure rate stays essentially the same.
“Ah-ha!” the experts proclaim, “if companies are doing everything right and 95% of innovation projects are still failing, that means that projects are launching that shouldn’t be. That means we must get better at killing projects before they launch!”
Suddenly, Fail Fast becomes the corporate mantra. More projects start because it’s ok to fail. More projects get killed, a mind-boggling 99.9%, according to one study. Fewer projects get launched.
Yet, the market failure rate stays essentially the same.
Why? Why does the market failure rate stick stubbornly at 95% if companies are doing all the right things, including killing 99.9% of ideas and projects before they even get to market?
Because it’s not enough to do the right things.
You must do the right things in the right ways at the right times.
Here are the three most important ones:
Right Thing #1: Start with a problem
All successful innovators know that successful innovations create value because they solve problems for people willing to pay for the solution. This is why I constantly advise my clients to “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”
Right Way: Finding a problem that people are willing to pay to solve isn’t enough. Companies need to find and invest in problems that align with their priorities and strategies, not just the passions of their innovation teams, R&D department, or top performers.
Right Time: If a problem does not align with a company’s priorities or strategy, kill it before it even becomes a project. Don’t say, “let’s explore this further. Maybe there’s something there,” or “let’s get something the market and see what happens.” When the company set its strategies, it made choices about what it does and does not do, which means that before the problem was even found, the company chose to kill work on it. Respect that choice and focus scarce resources on problems and projects that support the company.
Right Thing #2: Listen to consumers
“The consumer is boss,” former P&G CEO and Chairman AG Lafley once said. He’s right. If the consumer doesn’t have a problem, doesn’t like the solution you’re offering, or isn’t willing to pay what you want for the solution you designed, then failure is inevitable. Innovation begins and ends with the consumer.
Right Way: LISTEN, don’t talk to consumers. Lots of companies talk to consumers – they tell consumers what they’re creating and ask for feedback, what other companies are doing and ask for critiques, what consumers should want and what they should do, and then ask for money in return. Listening means asking open-ended questions, letting consumers think and respond, and believing and acting on the answer, even if it’s not the answer you want.
Right Time: Always. Constantly. Forever. It’s not enough to listen to consumers at the beginning when searching for a problem to solve or in the early days of designing a solution. Listen to them during prototyping, during the MVP stage, before launch, after launch, and every single day after that.
Right Things #3: Learn fast
F*ck fail fast. Failure sucks. No one wants to fail, no matter the speed. It’s not ok to fail because it means that you made an avoidable mistake, made a decision despite the data, and took an unnecessary risk.
But learning is entirely different. When you make a mistake, you learn, which prevents you and others from making the same mistake. When an experiment results in an unexpected outcome, you make new connections between pieces of data, and that learning opens new possibilities and closes down false ones. When you weigh the data, take a calculated risk, and it doesn’t work out, you learn that chance and luck play a role in business.
Right Way: Be honest about what you don’t know, what you need to know, and what you will do once you know. In the long run, false confidence serves no one and, more often than not, leads to very expensive and very public failures. Make the implicit explicit, state your assumptions, and pursue a learning plan, NOT a launch plan.
Right Time: Early and often. Lean start-up and Agile methodologies encourage companies to surface and test assumptions starting with MVPs because it’s when the costs of progress and failure begin to become materials. But uncertainty exists right from the start. The moment a problem is found, assumptions are made about the market’s attractiveness, a solution’s feasibility and viability, and the willingness of the company to invest. Write them down, share them with key decision-makers, test them through small and scrappy experiments. Start learning from day 1 so you don’t fail at day 1,000.
100% success shouldn’t be the goal. Neither should 5%.
Entrepreneurs and innovation experts will admonish companies that, if they succeed 100% of the time, they’re not taking enough risks and truly innovating. While that’s true, there’s also a lot of space between the current 95% failure rate and the inadvisable 0% failure rate.
Doing the right things – starting with a problem, listening to consumers, and learning fast – but companies need to do the right things, in the right ways, at the right times, to be successful more than 5% of the time.
“How might we ruin a perfectly good and useful tool?”
This might not be the question that innovators, design thinkers, and brainstorm facilitators wanted to answer. But it seems that it’s the one they did.
“The most popular design thinking strategy is BS,” proclaimed the headline on a June 28 article in Fast Company. “The ‘How might we’ design prompt is insidious, and it’s time to bury it.”
I’m a sucker for provocative headlines, especially ones that challenge that status quo, so I clicked and read the article. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
The reason “How might we” (HMW) is so insidious, the author asserts, is that
The “we” in HMW refers to the people in the room, not to the users, customers, or populations for whom teams are designing their products and services. The prompt looks inward instead of outward, encouraging people to build solutions that suit their own needs and experiences. They end up with offerings that don’t serve customer needs and may even hurt the people they’re meant to help.
The problem (and solution) of “We”
OK. Fair. As I recounted in last week’s episode of “What Matters in Innovation,” I saw this exact worry come to life when I was an Assistant Brand Manager on Swiffer WetJet. While the brainstorming promotional ideas as a brand team, the most senior member suggested a Valentine’s Day promotion encouraging men to buy a WetJet, then priced at $50, for their wives “because she’s worth it.” Everyone in the room nodded in silent awe and acceptance, except one person. Me. The only woman in the room.
Once I picked my jaw off the floor, I expressed concerns about the promotion, but they were brushed aside because “what woman wouldn’t want help cleaning the floor.” Instead of explaining the help that women wanted was probably more akin to a maid or the man doing the chores, I asked my boss to call his wife and get her opinion. He made the call, put her on speakerphone, and explained the situation.
“Would you please take me off speakerphone?”
He did but it wasn’t necessary. Her furious exclamations were easily overheard.
He put the phone down and the idea was never again discussed.
But as much as that story illustrates the problem of the “We,” it also demonstrates the solution – talk to your customers!
“We” is exactly who should be dreaming up a solution. After all, if a company is going to create a solution to a customer problem, the people coming up with the solution need to know if it’s something the company can and will do.
The problem doesn’t occur when “We” come up with a solution. The problem occurs when the design and development process stops with “We” instead of continuing back outside the conference room walls to see what “They” (our customers) think of what “We” created.
The solution (and problem) of “How might”
The article gives a brief and fascinating history of HMW, busting the myth that it started with IDEO by sharing stories from its first use at P&G:
In the early 1970s, business consultant Min Basadur helped steer an internal P&G product development team toward broader thinking through an HMW-driven discussion. By shifting the team’s focus away from competing products and encouraging them to consider more ambitious questions, he got them to be wildly creative while simultaneously leveraging P&G’s innate strengths.
I’ve been in hundreds of ideation sessions, including ones at some of the most creative companies in the world, and I can’t think of one that could be described as “wildly creative.”
40+ years ago, “Might” might have been novel enough to encourage people to be creative, to prompt wild ideas, and to risk sounding silly in the “safe space” of a brainstorming session. But not today.
Today, we’ve heard “How might we” so many times that we’ve stopped listening. Instead, we hear “How should we” or “How can we” or “How will we.” The pace of business is so fast and the work on our plates is piled so high that we don’t have the time or mental space to go beyond To Do and wonder what we might do.
The problem (and solution) at the end of “How might we”
What makes HMW BS isn’t “How might” or “We” it’s what comes after those words. It’s how we finish the sentence.
Sentence finisher problem #1
Once IDEO spread the gospel of design thinking and popularized HMW, they encouraged people to use it as a tool to solve “’wicked problems’ – problems that are so complex there is no right or wrong answer.”
Here’s the problem with that – “wicked problems” are things like racism, social inequality, economic inequality, food insecurity, gender discrimination. “Wicked problems” are not things that can be solved in a brainstorming session.
Sentence finisher problem #2
Far more common, in my experience, isn’t the use of HMW to solve wicked problems but rather to brainstorm solutions to customer problems.
At least, that’s what people say.
More often, HMW is used to brainstorm solutions to the company’s problem dressed up to look like a customer problem.
Consider this HMW prompt from a recent brainstorming session I was invited to:
“How might we decrease costs by getting more customers to use our self-service options?”
Luckily, the whole session fell apart quickly when I asked, “Do we know why customers aren’t using your self-service options now?” and the room fell into an awkward silence. If you don’t understand the problem, you can’t create a solution.
HMW is not BS. How we use it is.
If we use it as an excuse to stop talking to customers, that is our mistake, not a flaw with the tool.
If we stop hearing “might” and stay anchored in should, can, and will, that is our mistake, not a shortcoming of the tool.
If we use it to solve massively complex and arguable unsolvable problems because we’re too lazy to dig deeper, tease out the hundreds of root causes, and attack them one by one, that is our mistake, not the tool’s limitation
If we pretend that our solution is the customer’s problem, that’s our failure, not the tool’s,
After all, a good craftsperson never blames their tools.