“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.
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.
Innovation is all about embracing the AND.
- Creativity AND Analysis
- Imagination AND Practicality
- Envisioned Future AND Lived Reality
Looking back, I realize that much of my childhood was also about embracing the AND.
- Mom AND Dad
- Nursery School Teacher AND Computer Engineer
- Finger paint AND Calculus
A few years ago, I wrote about my mom, the OG (Original Gangster) of Innovation. She was what most people imagine of an “innovator” – creative, curious, deeply empathetic, and more focused on what could be than what actually is.
With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve also been thinking about my dad, and how he is the essential other-side of innovation – analytical, practical, thoughtful, and more focused on what should be than what actually is.
In the spirit of Father’s Day, here are three of the biggest lessons I learned from Dad, the unexpected innovator
Managers would rather live with a problem they understand than a solution they don’t.
When Dad dropped this truth bomb one night during dinner a few years ago, my head nearly exploded. Like him, I always believed that if you can fix a problem, you should. And, if you can fix a problem and you don’t, then you’re either lazy, not very smart, or something far worse. Not the most charitable view of things but perhaps the most logical.
But this changed things.
If you’ve lived with a problem long enough, you’re used to it. You’ve developed workarounds, and you know what to expect. In a world of uncertainty, it is something that is known. It’s comfortable
Fixing a problem requires change and change is not comfortable. Very few people are willing to sacrifice comfort and certainty for the promise of something better.
What this means for innovators is that it is not enough to identify, understand, and convince people of a problem. In order to make progress, we need to also identify, understand, and convince people that the solution is a better option. When people agree there is a problem but refuse our solution, it’s not because they’re lazy, dumb, or something worse. It’s because we haven’t given them a solution they understand. We have more work to do.
Pick Yourself up.
Dust yourself off.
Start all over again
My dad had an office job doing office stuff. We never really knew what he did, to the point that when True Lies came out, we (my mom, sister, and I) just started telling people that he was a spy.
Like everyone who has office jobs doing office things, Dad had lots of meetings and projects which means he also had some frustrating days. As I stepped out into the world, he knew I would have some frustrating days, too. So he gave me this Ziggy cartoon with a little note: “Keep things in perspective – it’s always a new day and a new opportunity for a fresh start.”
Not an easy thing for an impatient perfectionist to remember.
And isn’t that what innovators are? We’re impatient, we believe things can (and should) be better, and we don’t always react that well when other people don’t see what we believe is blindingly obvious. Sometimes we handle it well but sometimes we fall down (lose our tempers, yell at people, etc.).
Innovation, especially innovation within an existing company is hard. We will fall down because we’re trying to do something that’s really hard, drive change. But we can’t stay down. We need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again.
Sometimes a good THPPFT can help you get through a rough day
Mom was the silly one. Dad was the serious one. So it was a bit surprising when I received this card from Dad a few days before Finals.
He was right.
It’s important to remember that a good THPPFT, or burst of laughter, or *&%$#, or 30-second dance party can get you through a rough day. It breaks up the intensity and the self-imposed seriousness of whatever is happening.
Innovation, especially Design Thinking, is rooted in child-like wonder – curiosity, creativity, surprise, and joy. As innovators, if we get mired in the seriousness and stress of work, we will lose the joy and humor required to create and change. We need a good THPPFT to stay effective innovators.
One final nugget
In previous blog, I’ve mentioned a poem that Dad gave me, probably in HS, that I think about regularly. I am quite sure that there were times he deeply regretted sharing this with his head-strong, opinionated, and slightly anti-authoritarian daughter, as evidenced by the hand-written note on the paper version – “don’t think you’ll always be right.”
While I was right that I would never use calculus (or physics or chemistry) after school, he was right to share this with me. And now I share it with you:
Will The Real You Please Stand Up?
Submit to pressure from your peers and you move down to their level.
Speak up for your own beliefs and you invite them up to your level.
If you move with the crowd, you’ll get to further than the crowd.
When 40 million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea.
Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere.
So if you believe in something that is good, honest, and bright –
stand up for it.
Maybe your peers will get smart and drift your way.– Edward Sanford Martin
“You are a salmon.”
This was not the career advice I hoped for.
After months of tests, quizzes, career counseling sessions, and peer support groups, I was sitting in the expansive wood-paneled office of Harvard Business School’s Head of Career Services, eagerly anticipating learning what my ideal career would be. I did not expect to be told that I was a fish.
“You are only happy when you are rebelling against something. You are a salmon. Whatever you choose to do, you must swim upstream.”
This did not sound like a recipe for the peaceful, easy, frictionless career that I envisioned. This sounded like a career of frustration, struggle, and just generally being annoyed most of the time.
It was 100% accurate.
Innovators are salmon
Quick tutorial on salmon – they hatch in freshwater, swim out to the ocean and live in the saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn and die (assuming the don’t get caught by a bear or fisherman first).
Quick tutorial on innovators – they are born (like everyone else) with creativity and a sense of unlimited possibility, they go out into the world and face the sting of reality before returning to their natural creative state to ask questions, challenge the status quo, drive growth, and (like everyone else) die.
Swimming upstream is exhausting for fish and for people. That’s why most don’t do it. That’s why most fish and people make the sensible choice to go with the flow, work within the system, and find better ways to do the same things.
But innovators, like salmon, instinctively know that to create, they must follow a different and much harder path. Instead of going with the flow, they must question the status quo. Instead of finding a better way to do the same things, they question whether those things even need to be done and create new ways to do new things.
Companies recognize that they need innovators. They need people who think differently and aren’t afraid to take smart risks because these are the people that will create new revenue streams and drive companies’ long-term growth. But, like the river, the company can’t change how it operates.
Companies need salmon ladders
Quick tutorial on salmon ladders – they are structures on or around natural barriers like waterfalls and dams, that have a high enough water velocity to attract the fish but not so much as to exhaust them, and often have very low steps that the salmon can leap up to get to their destination
Quick tutorial on innovation processes – they are structures separate from companies’ existing processes (and the barriers that often slow progress), that allow enough freedom for creativity and experimentation but not so much as to put the company at serious risk, and often have steps or stages that innovators and their projects must leap up in order to launch a scalable business.
Salmon ladders help salmon progress more rapidly and efficiently, decreasing the odds that they die from exhaustion before reaching their destination. Innovation processes help innovators progress ideas more rapidly and efficiently through an organization, decreasing the odds that they die (or quit, or get fired) before reaching their destination.
How to build a salmon ladder for innovators
Google “innovation process” and you will get 1.8 BILLION results in 0.59 seconds. That’s because there is no one magic innovation process that works for everyone.
But as varied as effective innovation processes are, they share common characteristics.
- People over process. If you announce the implementation of a new process, send out a user manual, and then walk away, the process will fail. If you involve people in designing and pressure testing the process, support them in the first 6-12 months of use, and they experience the value of the process for themselves, the process will succeed.
- Goals are good. Constraints are better. Innovation is an investment, and the company expects a return on that investment. Be clear about those expectations from the start. Innovation is not “anything goes!” Be clear about what the company is and is not willing to support before your start.
- Guidance, not direction. Innovation is filled with known unknowns and unknown unknowns and, for that reason, the path to launch isn’t a straight line. But it also can’t be an infinite loop. Innovation processes should set guardrails for the work to be done but shouldn’t be overly prescriptive.
- Insights, not information. Innovation processes should enable learning and encourage its sharing. Building in time for teams to reflect on their experience and write down their insights is critical for continued growth. Weighing the team down with detailed analyses, complicated templates, and constant update presentations doesn’t enable and encourage learning, it slows it down.
- Celebrate milestones, not just launches. More innovation projects will be stopped than will be launched. The stopped projects aren’t failures, they’re lessons learned and steppingstones to the next big launch. Celebrating the milestones that projects achieve, even the milestone of being stopped, will keep innovators energized and swimming upstream far longer than celebrating only the launches.
Innovators do the hard work of swimming upstream.
Help them out by building a process to guide and propel them.
After all, as one of my favorite poems points out,
If you move with the crowd, you’ll get no further than the crowd
Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere.
So if you believe in something that’s good, honest, and bright – stand up for it.
Maybe your peers will get smart and drift your way
Have you heard any of these sentences recently?
“We don’t have time”
“Our people don’t have the skills”
“We don’t have the budget”
“That’s not what we do”
I hear them all the time.
Sometimes they’re said when a company is starting to invest in building their innovation capabilities, sometimes during one-on-one stakeholder interviews when people feel freer to share their honest opinions, and sometimes well after investments have been made.
Every single time, they are the beginning of the end for innovation.
But one word that can change that.
“We don’t have time – yet.”
“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”
“We don’t have the budget – yet.”
“That’s not what we do – yet.”
Yet creates space for change. It acknowledges that you’re in the middle of a journey, not the end. It encourages conversation.
“We don’t have time – yet.”
“OK, I know the team is busy and that what they’re working on is important. Let’s take a look at what people are working on and see if there are things we can delay or stop to create room for this.”
“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”
“Understand, we’re all building new muscles when it comes to innovation. Good news, skills can be learned. Let’s talk about what we need to teach people and the best way to do that.”
“We don’t have the budget – yet.”
“I get it. Things are tight. We know this is a priority so let’s take a look at the budget and see if there’s a way to free up some cash. If there’s not, then we’ll go back to leadership and ask for guidance.”
“That’s not what we do – yet.”
“I know. Remember, we’re not doing this on a whim, we’re doing this because (fill in reason) and we have a right to do it because of (fill in past success, current strength or competitive advantage.”
You need to introduce the Yet.
It is very rare for people to add “yet” to their own statements. But you can.
When someone utters an innovation killing statement, simply respond with “Yet.” Maybe smile mischievously and then repeat their statement with “yet” added to the end.
After all, you’re not disagreeing with them, you’re simply qualifying what they’re saying. Their statement is true now but that doesn’t mean it will be true forever. By restating their assertion and adding “yet,” you’re inviting them to be part of the change, to take an active role in creating the new future state.
There’s a tremendous amount of research about the massive impact of this little word. It has helped underperforming students to overachieve and is closely associated with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and learning mindsets.
The bottom line is that “yet” works.
Put Yet to work for you, your organization, and your efforts to innovate and grow.
According to a 2018 survey by NPR and The Marist Poll, the most common New Year’s resolution is to exercise more. Not surprisingly, losing weight and eating a more healthy diet ranked third and further, respectively (“stop smoking” was #2, in case you’re curious).
Hitting the gym to drop weight and build muscle is a great habit to build, but don’t forget about the regular work needed to build other muscles.
Specifically, your innovation muscles.
Innovation mindsets, skills, and behaviors can be learned but if you don’t continuously use them, like muscles, they can weaken and atrophy. That’s why it’s important to create opportunities to flex them.
One of the tools I use with clients who are committed to building innovation as a capability, rather than scheduling it as an event, is QMWD – the Quarterly-Monthly-Weekly-Daily practices required to build and sustain innovation as a habit.
Leave the office and talk to at least 3 of your customers
It’s tempting to rely on survey results, research reports, and listening in on customer service calls as a means to understand what your customers truly think and feel. But there’s incredible (and unintended) bias in those results.
Take, for example, this story from former P&G CEO AG Lafley:
One very quick story; I will never forget this. We used to do annual research in the laundry detergent business, and every year consumers would rate the Tide powder cardboard package as excellent; excellent to shop; excellent for opening; excellent in use–on, on, on.
So, probably 27 or 30 years ago, I’m in basements in Tennessee, in Kentucky, doing loads of laundry with women, and after three or four or five of these one-on-one sessions, I’ve realized that not a single woman has opened a box of Tide with her hand. Why not? You’ll break your fingernails!
So, how did they open the box? They had nail files; they had screwdrivers; they had all kinds of things sitting down on the shelf over their washing machine, and yet they thought our package was excellent. And we thought our package was excellent because they were telling us our package was excellent. We had to see it and experience it.
Here’s the problem–consumers cannot really tell us what they want. They can tell you why they like it or why they don’t like it, but they cannot tell you what they want.
Schedule a day each quarter to get out of the office and meet your customers. Ask them what they like and what they don’t. More importantly, watch them use your products and then share what you heard and saw with your colleagues.
Share with your team a mistake you made and what you learned from it
Silicon Valley mantras like “fail fast” and “fail often” make for great office décor but, let’s be honest, no one likes to fail and very few companies reward it.
Instead of repeating these slogans, reframe them to “learn fast and learn often” and role model the behavior by sharing what you learned from things you did that didn’t go as expected. You’ll build a culture of psychological safety, make smart risks acceptable, and increase your team’s resilience. All things required to innovate in a sustainable, repeatable, and predictable manner.
Do 1 thing just for the fun of it.
In the research that fed into their book, The Innovator’s DNA, professors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen, found that the most common characteristic amongst the great innovators of our time was their ability to associate – “to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, even geographies” (page 41). Importantly, their associative thinking skills were fed by one or more “Discovery Skills” – questioning (asking “why,” “why not,” and “what if”), observing, experimenting, and networking.
Fuel your associative thinking ability by doing something NOT related to your job or other obligations. Do something simply because it interests you. You might be surprised where it takes you. After all, Steve Jobs studied calligraphy, meditation, and car design and used all of those experiences in his “day job.”
Make 1 small change for 1 day
Innovation requires change and, if you’re an innovator, that’s the exciting part. But most people struggle with change, a fact that can be frustrating for change agents.
In order to lead people through change, you need to empathize with them and their struggles which is why you need to create regular moments of change in your work and life. One day each week, make a conscious change – sit on the other side of the conference room table, take a different route to the bathroom, use a black pen instead of a blue one. Even small changes like this can be a bit annoying and they’ll remind you that change isn’t always the fun adventure you think it is.
Ask “How can we do this better?”
Innovation is something different that creates value. Which is good news because that means that all it takes to be an Innovator is to DO something DIFFERENT and create VALUE. The easiest way to do that is to find opportunities for improvement.
The next time you’re frustrated with or confused by a process, ask “how can we do this better?” Better can be more simply, faster, cheaper, or even in a way that is more enjoyable but, whatever it means, the answer will point the way to creating value for you, your team, and maybe even your company.
Block time on your calendar for these quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily habits. After all, the best reflection of your priorities are the things in your calendar. And, if you stick with this, you’ll be among the 8% who achieve their New Year’s goals.
Originally published on December 5, 2019 on Forbes.com