.All the experts seem to have the answer. Some answers are based on history, but history isn’t a great predictor of the future. Some are based on trends and projections but rely assumptions which may or may not be true. Many are based on our hopes or fears, but those are grounded in emotions which can change from one moment to the next.
Here’s the cold hard truth: No one knows what happens next.
I certainly don’t know. I wish I did.
I’m the person who reads the last page (or chapter) of a novel before I read the first because I want to know who is still alive and whether the ending is happy or sad. As you can imagine, I want even the slightest hint of what comes next. And I’m not a patient person.
But I am a curious one.
It can feel a but weird to be curious when most of the people around you are afraid, but that’s what makes us innovators. We ask questions, seek input from a wide variety of sources, and observe how things progress.
Here are the questions I’m asking:
What will connection look like?
History says we’ll grow further apart. During pandemics, people choose, or are forced to, separate from one another, to stay at home, and to minimize contact with the outside world. Pandemics also highlight economic and social inequalities, disproportionately impacting the poor and working poor and inflaming class divisions. After the crisis passes, people remain wary of others and physically and emotional exhausted from the experience. They don’t want to re-live it by talking about it or, even worse, reflect on who they became during the experience.
History didn’t have the internet, social media, and video conferences. Yes, there’s a lot of crap on social media and Zoom-bombing isn’t helping things. But social media is also spreading good news – videos of people in Italy singing together and playing Bingo, people in various cities applauding healthcare workers, parades as substitutes for parties. Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and similar services are enable us to see the people we’re talking to, engage in the conversation (because it’s hard to multi-task on camera), and connect in deeper and more effective ways than we could by phone or email.
WHAT I HOPE is that…
Connection takes on deeper meaning, that we’ll care more about the quality of our connections than the quantity and, as a result, invest more time with the people we care about than we do in generating likes and followers.
Gratitude continues to be part of our daily social interactions, that we say, and mean, “thank you” to the people working in healthcare, retail, restaurants, delivery, and other essential businesses
Empathy remains a part of how we think and act because we have all shared an experience of great uncertainty, witnessed how fragile our lives and lifestyles are, and realized that we actually are all in this together.
What will work look like?
More people will WFH because they value the flexibility and control it offers and because employers can no longer claim that they have to be in the office in order to be productive
People are quickly growing tired of staying in their homes, relying on technology for virtual meetings, and having their calendars filled with meetings that were once hallway conversations. All this will make the office more attractive because it is “purpose-built” for work, creating physical definition between our work and personal selves, it enables direct human interactions, and it creates an environment where connections between people and between ideas effortlessly occur
What I hope happens is that employers become more flexible and people become more thoughtful. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach to WFH, employers set guardrails and given people the freedom to make choices within those guardrails. Instead of trudging to work because that’s what one does or staying home because the plumber is coming, people will learn what works best for them AND their teams and build habits to enable their potential
What will education look like?
School will look like it did pre-COVID-19. Kids will go to a school building, sit in a classroom with other students their age, and teachers will teach what the curriculum requires. In equity will continue as the richest schools are able to attract the best teachers and the most and latest resources while the poorest schools will scrap by, focused as much (if not more) on meeting basic needs like food, clothing, and cleanliness, as they do on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.
“School” is no longer a physical place but a set of activities and interactions. Parents are suddenly teachers, tutors, principals, and hall monitors. Teachers are finding new ways to teach, including recording lessons once taught live to a full classroom and then engaging live with students one-on-one.
What I hope happens is that this seismic shift in what it means to go to school will open people’s minds to what’s possible and increase their willingness to experiment as a means to reduce inequity and raise what’s “minimally acceptable.”
What I think will happen is that there will be innovation on the margins, that those who have the most resources will enjoy most of the benefits, and the majority will return to the pre-COVID-19 status-quo
What will we (especially in the US) demand as our “rights?”
The list started small – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – then it expanded to freedom of speech, the press, religion and the rest of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Now one side of the aisle talks of adding healthcare and guaranteed basic income to that list. They point to countries like Denmark and Sweden as examples that should be followed and global reports showing the US STUF STUFF STU
The Depression gave us the New Deal which gave us Social Security and Medicare. Even now we have the government sending checks, supporting small businesses, bailing out the travel industry, etc
What I hope happens is that we’ll find a healthcare and social safety net solution that works in the context of America’s culture, values, population size and diversity, and economy.
What will likely happen is that we’ll just go back to the way things were
How long will the “new normal” last?
What we’re experiencing is a fundamental disruption to our way of life. It calls into question everything we believed to be true about ourselves and our worlds. It requires us to re-think things that we took to be inviolable truths. It is impossible experience such a sudden and all-encompassing upheaval and not emerge fundamentally and forever changed.
We’re human and we don’t like change. We especially dislike change when it’s forced on us. Even in the best of times we want safety and security and we crave those things even more in periods of uncertainty. As a result, we will go back to “normal” as soon as we possibly can.
What I hope will happen is that we combine the best parts of the old normal with the best parts of the current experience to create a better new normal.
What I think will happen depends on how long the current situation lasts. The longer this situation – social distancing, stay at home orders, schools and non-essential businesses closed, the numbers of the sick and the dead leading the news – lasts, the greater the likelihood that things that felt new and different two weeks ago will become habits and expectations, and lay the foundation of a truly new normal. If the worst truly is over by April 30 and there’s no Round 2 in the summer or fall, we’ll return to the “old normal” as soon as we possibly can.
For years I’ve struggled to reconcile two observations about innovation:
- To be successful, innovation requires new structures, processes, governance, metrics, and talent
- Despite our best efforts and a robust set of innovation tools and frameworks (e.g. Design Thinking, Lean Start-up, Business Model Canvas, 3 Horizons),there’s been barely a blip of improvement in the overall rate of success of corporate innovations.
After all, research continues to show that:
- 94% of executives are unsatisfied with their innovation performance
- 85% of new consumer packaged goods launched each year fail
- 72% of companies believe that they are not out innovating competitors
- 54% of organizations have trouble bridging the gap between their innovation and larger business strategies
- 80-90% of innovation centers fail
Clearly, we’re missing something.
People (even executives) decide with their hearts and justify with their heads
When I work with clients to create their innovation strategies, build their capabilities, and build or optimize businesses, we always start with the customer. With an open mind, we spend hours talking with customers in an effort to uncover why they do what they do (i.e. their Jobs to be Done).
“People decide with their hearts and justify with their heads” starts as an explanation for why consumers do illogical or unexpected things and evolves into an accepted truth as we translate insights into ideas and ultimately into successful and scalable solutions.
However, when we turn our attention back to the organization and what needs to happen in order to get support, resources, and time for the work, we default to tangible and logical constructs like structures, processes, and governance models. We ignore the mantra that guided our consumer work and appeal only to executives’ heads. After all, “heart” stuff like culture, mindsets, and relationships are too “fluffy” to merit serious focus, too difficult to measure and monetize to justify investment, and too time consuming to attempt.
That’s our mistake.
And I just read the research to prove it.
Rebecca Henderson, currently the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard University (one of only 2 University Professors), was earning her PhD at Harvard at approximately the same time that Clayton Christensen was studying for his doctorate. Both focused their research on why large companies failed to respond to market-changing innovations.
As we all know, Christensen posited that companies are disrupted because senior executives myopically focus on the need of existing customers and dismiss lower quality competitive solutions. Unlike Christensen, Henderson’s research showed that even if senior executives recognized the opportunity offered by new customer segments and saw the value of new, lower quality solutions, they were unlikely to respond successfully to or survive in the new world.
Practically speaking, Henderson asserted that there were simply some technologies or innovations that companies could not or should not respond to, innovations she termed “Architectural Innovations.”
A very brief and simplistic primer on Architectural Innovation
In her milestone paper, “Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and the Failure of Existing firms” (1990), Henderson and her co-author, Kim Clark, define Architectural Innovations as those “that change the way in which the components of a product are linked together, while leaving the core design concepts (and thus the basic knowledge underlying the components) untouched.”
To illustrate this concept, she uses the ceiling fan as an example.
A ceiling fan is made up of several components – blades, a motor, the control system, and the mechanical housing. The ceiling fan’s architecture specifies how the components come together to move air through a room.
Innovating the components is relatively easy because the organization is likely set-up into units that specialize in each one (e.g. blade R&D, motor R&D). How to link the components together also requires specialized knowledge which tends to reside at very specific levels in the organization and occur at very specific times (e.g. the Blade R&D team talks to the Motor R&D team at Day X of the product development cycle).
But let’s say that the company wants to expand from ceiling fans into free-standing box fans. The core concept (fans) is the same but how the components link together, their architecture, is different because “the smaller size and co-location of the motor and blade in the room would focus attention on new types of interaction between the motor size, the blade dimensions, and the amount of air that the fan could circulate, while shrinking the size of the apparatus would probably introduce new interactions between the performance of the blade and the weight of the housing.”
Thus, for a ceiling fan company, free-standing fans are an Architectural Innovation and, as Henderson points out,
“established firms often have a surprising degree of difficulty in adapting to architectural innovation” because “architectural innovations destroy the usefulness of the architectural knowledge of established firms, and that since architectural knowledge tends to become embedded in the structure and information-processing procedures of established organization, this destruction is difficult for firms to recognize and hard to correct.”
In order to understand an organization’s architecture, it is essential to understand how it got to its current state.
Most likely, the organization came to be during the early days of an industry – when lots of organizations were entering and evolving. Success during this period required a lot of experimentation and an openness to learning and change. At some point, however, a dominant design emerged (think the iPhone’s touch screen versus Blackberry’s physical keys) and the industry coalesced around it.
Once a dominant design was in place, the organization stopped learning and started to optimize its operations around the dominant design, and especially its components “because competition between designs revolves around refinements in particular components” (think iPhone vs Galaxy).
What emerges is both tangible architectural elements such as production capabilities, manufacturing systems, and distribution systems, and intangible elements like communication channels, information filters, and problem-solving strategies.
Henderson’s research indicated that the intangible architectural elements have a far greater impact on whether an organization can or should innovate.
Because these 3 intangible architectural elements are so essential, it’s important to understand what they are and how they impact an organization’s operations:
- Communication channels are the formal and informal connections and “relationships around which the organization builds architectural knowledge.” They often represent how components fit together and, as a result how information is shared within an organization
- Information filters govern how an organization deals with the constant barrage of information. Because organizations, like humans, can only deal with a certain amount of information at any given time, as an organization gets better at what it does, it creates filters to help it prioritize the information on which it should act.
- Problem-solving strategies come into play because the organization often faces the same kind of problems over and over and, as a result, develop knowledge about what solutions do and don’t work.
All of these elements are critical to enable organizations to grow and scale in a stable environment. But, if something fundamentally changes, they become barriers because they are based on old knowledge. The problem is, as human, and especially humans who get rewarded for decreasing risk and delivering short-term results, we are far more comfortable doing what we know from past experience than trying something new because of present data.
Architectural understanding can lead to improved innovation success rates
As mentioned above, I think of Jobs to be Done as the WHY behind WHAT the customer does. Christensen defines it as the problem the customer is trying to solve or the progress they’re trying to make. But it’s not just when we’re in the role of “customer” that we have Jobs to be Done. It’s when we’re in any of the many roles we take on throughout the day. Including the role we have at work.
An organization’s architecture, especially the intangible elements, can go a long way to helping us diagnose and understand executives’ Jobs to be Done, the reasons why they make the decisions they do. For example, perhaps communication channels mean that they are influenced by people beyond what the org chart would lead us to believe, or information filters mean that they ignore pieces of information that others prioritize, or their problem-solving strategies are anchored in a context that is no longer relevant.
Just as we do with customers, we need to recognize the intangible architecture currently in place in executives’ hearts and heads so that we can create solutions that simultaneously dismantle it and replace it with something that better solves their Jobs to be Done.
Dismantling and replacing the current architecture requires that we follow a similar process with executives as we do with customers – conduct in-depth interviews to identify and empathize with their Jobs to be Done, develop solutions to better satisfy their Jobs, and iteratively test and refine these solutions.
Specifically, we need to do 5 things:
1. Diagnose the organization’s current architecture by exploring the existing architecture, making notes about the communication channels, information filters, and problem-solving strategies in use by the most influential and/or impacted parts of the organization.
2. Assess the organization’s ability and willingness to innovate by having one-on-one discussions with senior leaders and decision-makers. Many would argue that this discussion already happens. But, in my experience, the discussion happens in passing as people, especially senior leaders, hesitate to go on record about what they are and are not willing to do, lest they be seen as being an innovation killjoy.
3. Discuss architectural insights and innovation ability/willingness with the same level of importance as consumer insights about what the company should do (i.e. the problem to be solved and how to solve it in a way that delights the consumer/customer). Ensure that all key decision-makers are on-board with the type(s) of innovation to be pursued and understand the implications of their choice (or, often, lack of choice).
4. Focus brainstorming efforts on the types of innovation most likely to be supported but don’t be afraid to propose a few that push the boundaries. Presenting decision-makers with a portfolio of options that reflects what the organization can, should, and is willing to do will give them confidence that you’re listening, and the innovation is possible. Presenting 1-2 options outside of the initially preferred innovation types will test the accuracy of initial discussions and either confirm initial focus areas or reveal greater flexibility for innovation efforts.
5. When developing solutions, spend as much time planning and testing internal architectural changes as you do testing external market-facing changes. After all, experienced corporate innovators will tell you that solutions rarely fail because the market rejects them, they fail because the organization kills them before they even make it to market.
A lingering question…
Tangible, logical solutions like processes, structure, and governance appeal to our heads but not our hearts. That’s why they are necessary but not sufficient to move the needle when it comes to innovation success rates.
Intangible architectural elements like communication channels, information filters, problem-solving strategies and the constructs the feed (culture, mindsets, relationships) appeal to our “hearts” but can feel to fluffy to merit serious effort and resource allocation.
Henderson’s work shows that:
- Intangible elements like how information flows through an organization (communication channels), is accepted or rejected (filters), and is used (problem-solving strategies) has an equal or greater impact on innovation success as external market dynamics.
- Recognizing market disruption as its happening and innovating components as a means of defense does not guarantee success
- Organizations unwilling or unable to make necessary architectural changes are most likely to fail
The question that remains is how to use the knowledge and language of architectural innovation to get executives to embrace internal changes with the excitement, speed, and conviction with which they want consumers to adopt the new solutions launched into the market.