You know ALL the innovation tools and frameworks:
- Design Thinking
- Lean Startup
- Disruptive Innovation
But knowing and doing are two different things. When I first learned Jobs to be Done, it felt painfully obvious, exactly like the customer research I did for five years at P&G. Then I had to do it (conduct a Jobs to be Done interview), and it was difficult (ok, it was a disaster).
And teaching others to do it is a third entirely different thing. Because by the time you have the skills and expertise to teach others, you’ve forgotten what it was like to start from the beginning.
It’s easy to forget that before you can read a sentence, you must know how to read a word. Before you can read a word, you must recognize a letter.
So let’s go back to basics. Back before the methodologies. Before the frameworks. Before the theories. Let’s go back to the letters and words that are Innovation’s essence.
Let’s go back to the Innovation Alphabet.
Assumptions, every innovation has them, and every innovator tests them to reduce risk
Brainstorming, a great way to get lots of ideas and maybe even some new ones
Customers, the people we innovate for
Disruptive Innovation, cheaper, lower quality products that appeal to non-consumers
Experiments, how you test assumptions and reduce risk
Fun, what innovation should be
Hope, it springs eternal in the heart of every innovator
Ideas, where most innovations start
Jobs to be Done, the problems people have/the progress they want to make (and the hill I will die on)
Leadership, the most crucial element in innovation (and often the biggest barrier)
Mistakes, how we learn, grow, and make progress
No, the start of a conversation, not the end
Opportunities, a nice term for “problem”
Problems, where all innovations should start
Quiet, what we sometimes need to think big and create something new
Team, how innovation gets done
Uncomfortable, what innovation should make you (especially if you’re a senior executive)
whY, the one question you can never ask enough
Zzzz, what you finally get to do when you’ve changed the world
As you can see, some letters still need words. What should they be?
Are there better words for some letters?
Let me know in the comments!
“What had a bigger impact on the project? The process you introduced or the people on the team?”
As much as I wanted to give all the credit to my brilliant process, I had to tell the truth.
“People. It’s always people.”
The right people doing the right work in the right way at the right time can do incredible, even impossible, things. But replace any “right” in the previous sentence, and even the smallest things can feel impossible. A process can increase the odds of doing the right work in the right way, but it’s no guarantee. It’s powerless in the hands of the wrong people.
But how do you assemble the right group of people? Start with the 3 Ts.
Type of Innovation
We’re all guilty of using “innovation” to describe anything that is even a little bit new and different. And we’ve probably all been punished for it.
Finding the right people for innovation start with defining what type of innovation they’ll work on
- Incremental: updating/modifying existing offerings that serve existing customers
- Adjacent: creating new offerings for existing customers OR re-positioning existing offerings to serve new customers
- Radical: new offerings or business models for new customers
Different innovation types require teams to grapple with different levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Teams working on incremental innovations face low levels of ambiguity because they are modifying something that already exists, and they have relative certainty around cause and effect. However, teams working on radical innovations spend months grappling with ambiguity, certain only that they don’t know what they don’t know.
Time to launch
Regardless of the type of innovation, each innovation goes through roughly the same four steps:
- Discover a problem to be solved
- Design solutions
- Develop and test prototypes
- Launch and measure
The time allotted to work through all four steps determines the pace of the team’s work and, more importantly, how stakeholders make decisions. For example, the more time you have between the project start and the expected launch, the more time you have to explore, play, create, experiment, and gather robust data to inform decisions. But if you’re expected to go from project start to project launch in a year or less, you need to work quickly and make decisions based on available (rather than ideal) data.
Tasks to accomplish
Within each step of the innovation process are different tasks, and different people have different abilities and comfort levels with each. This is why there is growing evidence that experience in the phase of work is more important than industry or functional expertise for startups.
There are similar data for corporate innovators. In a study of over 100,000 people, researchers identified the type and prevalence of four types of innovators every organization needs:
- Generators (17% of the sample): Find new problems and ideate based on their own experience.
- Conceptualizers (19%): Define the problem and understand it through abstract analysis, most comfortable in early phases of innovation (e.g., Discover and Design)
- Implementers (41%): Put solutions to work through experiments and adjustments, most comfortable in later stages of innovation (Develop and Launch)
- Optimizers (23%): Systematically examine all alternatives to implement the best possible solution
Generators and Conceptualizers are most comfortable in the early stages of innovation (i.e., Discover and Design). Implementers and Optimizers are most comfortable in the later stages (e.g., Develop and Launch). The challenge for companies is that only 36% of employees fall into one of those two categories, and most tend to be senior managers and executives.
Putting high performers on innovation teams is tempting, and top talent often perceives such assignments as essential to promotion. But no one enjoys or benefits when the work they’re doing isn’t the work they’re good at. Instead, take time to work through the 3Ts, and you’ll assemble a truly terrific innovation team.
If you heard it once, you heard it a thousand times:
- Big companies can’t innovate
- We need to innovate before we get too big and slow
- Startups are innovative. Big companies are dinosaurs. They can’t innovate.
And yet you persevere because you know the truth:
Big companies CAN innovate.
They CHOOSE not to.
Using Innovation to drive growth is a choice.
Just like choosing to grow through acquisition or expansion into new markets is a choice.
All those choices are complex, uncertain, and risky. In fact:
Hold on. The odds of failure are the same!
All three growth drivers have similar failure rates, but no one says, “Big companies can’t acquire things” or “Big companies can’t expand into new markets.”
We expect big companies to engage in acquisitions and market expansion.
Failed acquisitions and market expansions prove us (or at least our expectations) wrong. Because we don’t like being wrong, we study our failures so that we can change, improve, and increase our odds of success next time.
We expect big companies to fail at innovation.
In this case, failure proves us right. We love being right, so we shrug and say, “Big companies can’t innovate.”
We let big companies off the hook.
Why are our expectations so different?
Since the dawn of commerce, businesses engaged in innovation, acquisitions, and market expansion. But innovation is different from M&A and market expansion in three fundamental ways:
- Innovation is “new” – Even though businesses have engaged in innovation, acquisitions, and market expansion since the very earliest days of commerce, innovation only recently became a topic worthy of discussion, study, and investment. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Innovation was recognized as worthy of research and deliberate investment.
- Innovation starts small – Unlike acquisitions and new markets that can be easily sized and forecasted, in the early days of an innovation, it’s hard to know how big it could be.
- Innovation takes time – Innovation doesn’t come with a predictable launch date. Even its possible launch date is usually 3 to 5 years away, unlike acquisition closing dates that are often within a year.
What can we do about this?
We can’t change what innovation is (new, small, and slow at the start), but we can change our expectations.
Finish the sentence – “Big companies can’t innovate” absolves companies of the responsibility to make a good-faith effort to try to innovate by making their struggles an unavoidable consequence of their size. But it’s not inevitable, and continuing the sentence proves it. Saying “Big companies can’t innovate because…” forces people to acknowledge the root causes of companies’ innovation struggles. In many ways, this was the great A-HA! of The Innovator’s Dilemma: Big companies can’t innovate because their focus on providing better (and more expensive) solutions to their best customers results in them ceding the low-end of the market and non-consumers to other companies.
Be honest – Once you’ve identified the root cause, you can choose to do something different (and get different results) or do everything the same (and get the same results). If you choose to keep doing the same things in the same ways, that’s fine. Own the decision.
Change your choice. Change your expectations – If you do choose to do things differently, address the root causes, and resolve the barriers, then walk the talk. Stop expecting innovation to fail and start expecting it to be as successful as your acquisition and market expansion efforts. Stop investing two people and $10 in innovation and start investing the same quantity and quality of resources as you invest and other growth efforts.
The first step in change is admitting that change is needed. When we accept that “big companies can’t innovate” simply because they’re big, we absolve them of their responsibility to follow through on proclamations and strategies about the importance of innovation as a strategic driver of growth.
It’s time to acknowledge that innovation (or lack thereof) is a choice and expect companies to own that choice and act and invest accordingly.
After all, would it be great to stop persevering and start innovating?
Innovation thrives within constraints.
Constraints create the need for questions, creative thinking, and experiments.
But as real as constraints are and as helpful as they can be, don’t simply accept them. Instead, question them, push on them, and explore around them.
But first, find the horse’s a**
How Ancient Rome influenced the design of the Space Shuttle
In 1974, Thiokol, an aerospace and chemical manufacturing company, won the contract to build the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the Space Shuttle. The SRBs were to be built in a factory in Utah and transported to the launch site via train.
The train route ran through a mountain tunnel that was just barely wider than the tracks.
The standard width of railroad tracks (distance between the rails or the railroad gauge) in the US is 4 feet, 8.5 inches which means that Thiokol’s engineers needed to design SRBs that could fit through a tunnel that was slightly wider than 4 feet 8.5 inches.
4 feet 8.5 inches wide is a constraint. But where did such an oddly specific constraint come from?
The designers and builders of America’s first railroads were the same people and companies that built England’s tramways. Using the existing tramways tools and equipment to build railroads was more efficient and cost-effective, so railroads ended up with the same gauge as tramways – 4 feet 8.5 inches.
The designers and builders of England’s tramways were the same businesses that, for centuries, built wagons. Wanting to use their existing tools and equipment (it was more efficient and cost-effective, after all), the wagon builders built tramways with the exact distance between the rails as wagons had between wheels – 4 feet 8.5 inches.
Wagon wheels were 4 feet 8.5 inches apart to fit into the well-worn grooves in most old European roads. The Romans built those roads, and Roman chariots made those grooves, and a horses pulled those chariots, and the width of a horses was, you guessed it, 4 feet 8.5 inches.
To recap – the width of a horses’ a** (approximately 4 feet 8.5 inches) determined the distance between wheels on the Roman chariots that wore grooves into ancient roads. Those grooves ultimately dictated the width of wagon wheels, tramways, railroad ties, a mountain tunnel, and the Space Shuttle’s SRBs.
How to find the horse’s a**
When you understand the origin of a constraint, aka find the horse’s a***, it’s easier to find ways around it or to accept and work with it. You can also suddenly understand and even anticipate people’s reactions when you challenge the constraints.
Here’s how you do it – when someone offers a constraint:
- Thank them for being honest with you and for helping you work more efficiently
- Find the horse’s a** by asking questions to understand the constraint – why it exists, what it protects, the risk of ignoring it, who enforces it, and what happened to the last person who challenged it.
- Find your degrees of freedom by paying attention to their answers and how they give them. Do they roll their eyes in knowing exasperation? Shrug their shoulders in resignation? Become animated and dogmatic, agitated that someone would question something so obvious?
How to use the horse’s a** to innovate
You must do all three steps because stopping short of step 3 stops creativity in its tracks.
If you stop after Step 1 (which most people do), you only know the constraint, and you’ll probably be tempted to take it as fixed. But maybe it’s not. Perhaps it’s just a habit or heuristic waiting to be challenged.
If you do all three steps, however, you learn tons of information about the constraint, how people feel about it, and the data and evidence that could nudge or even eliminate it.
At the very least, you’ll understand the horse’s a** driving your company’s decisions.
- To be very clear, the origin of the constraint is the horse’s a**. The person telling you about the constraint is NOT the horse’s a**.
- The truth is never as simple as the story and railroads used to come in different gauges. For a deeper dive into this “more true than not” story (and an alternative theory that it was the North’s triumph in the Civil War that influenced the design of the SRBs, click here
Q: How might we brainstorm new ideas to serve our customers better?
A: Have a brainstorming session that starts with “How Might We help customers [Job to be Done/problem]?”
If only it were that simple.
How Might We (HMW) is an incredible tool (not BS, as some would assert), but we misuse it. We focus too much on the “we” and not enough on the “might.”
Might > We
HMW was first used to prompt people to be “wildly creative while simultaneously leveraging [company’s] innate strengths.”
IDEO popularized the prompt as a way to solve “wicked problems” – problems so complex that there is no right or wrong answer.
In both of these cases, the assumption was that the word “might” would free people from the shackles of today’s thinking and constraints and give people permission to dream without fear of judgment and reality.
“We” kept ideas tethered to the reality of the company’s “innate strengths,” providing a modicum of comfort to executives worried that the session wouldn’t result in anything useful and would, therefore, be a waste of time.
We > Might
Alas, as time went on and HMW became more popular, we lost sight of its intent (prompt wildly creative thinking about wicked problems) and twisted it to our purposes.
- We end the HMW sentence with our problems (e.g., HMW cut costs by getting more customers to use self-service tools?).
- We use it to brainstorm solutions to things that aren’t even problems (e.g., HMW eliminate all customer service options that aren’t self-serve?)
- We mentally replace “might” with “will” so we can emerge from brainstorming sessions with a tactical implementation plan.
Might Can YOU Fix HMW?
If you’re not getting creative, radical, or unexpected ideas from your brainstorming sessions, you have an HMW problem.
As a result, continuing to use HMW as a tool to prompt creative, radical, or unexpected ideas is the definition of insanity. And you are not insane,
Instead, mix it up.
Use different words to articulate the original intent of HMW.
How would we solve this problem if the answer to every request is YES?
Innovation thrives within constraints. Brainstorming doesn’t.
Even when you tell people not to constrain themselves, even implore them to value “quantity over quality,” you still get more “safe” ideas rather than more “crazy” ideas.
Do more than tell. Make a world without constraints real. Explicitly remove all the constraints people throw at ideas by creating a world of infinite money, people, capabilities, willingness, appetite for risk, and executive support. Doing this removes the dreaded “but” because there is no “but we don’t have the money/people/capabilities” or “but management will never go for it” and creates space for “and.”
What would we ask for if we were guaranteed a YES to only ONE request?
This question is often asked at the end of a brainstorm to prioritize ideas. But it’s equally helpful to ask it at the beginning.
This question shifts our mindset from “the bosses will never say yes, so I won’t even mention it” to “the bosses will say yes to only one thing, so it better be great!” It pulls people off the sidelines and reveals what people believe to be the most critical element of a solution. It drives passionate engagement amongst the whole team and acts as a springboard to the next brainstorm – How Might We use (what they said yes to) to solve (customers’ Jobs to be Done/problem)?
How would we solve the problem if the answer to every request is NO?
This one is a bit risky.
Some people will throw their hands in the air, declare the exercise a waste of time and effort, and collapse into a demotivated blob of resignation.
Some people will feel free. As Seth Godin wrote about a journal that promises to reject every single person who submits an article, “The absurdity of it is the point. Submitting to them feels effortless and without a lot of drama, because you know you’re going to get rejected. So instead of becoming attached to the outcome, you can simply focus on the work.”
For others, this will summon their inner rebel, the part of themselves that wants to stick it to the man, prove the doubters wrong, and unleash a great “I told you so” upon the world. To them, “No” is the start of the conversation, not the end. It fires them up to do their best work.
Don’t invite the first group of people to the brainstorm.
Definitely invite the other two groups.
Might Will/Do YOU Fix HMW?
If you want something different, you need to do something different.
Start your next brainstorm with a new variation on the old HMW prompt.
How do people react? Does it lead to more creative or more “safe” ideas?
How might we adjust to do even better next time?