5 ways to Build Your Innovation Muscles in the New Year

5 ways to Build Your Innovation Muscles in the New Year

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.

 

QUARTERLY

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.

 

MONTHLY

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.”

 

WEEKLY

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.

 

DAILY

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.

 

In closing…

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

How to Get Corporate Executives to Walk Their Innovation Talk

How to Get Corporate Executives to Walk Their Innovation Talk

Things we know we should do because they’re good for us:

  1. Eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day
  2. Floss twice a day
  3. Get 10,000 steps a day
  4. Buy insurance
  5. Consistently invest in innovation

Let’s be honest, the above list could also be titled, “Things we know we should do but don’t.”

Why?  Why do we choose not to do things that years of research prove are good for us and for which solutions are readily available?

Because they’re inconvenient, uncomfortable, expensive, and, most of all, because we have not yet been burned by not doing them.

Experience is a better motivator of change and driver of behavior than knowledge. We don’t floss until we’ve had one (or more) painful and bloody dentist appointments.  We don’t buy insurance until we have to deal with a break-in.  We don’t invest in innovation until we’re desperate for revenue, profit, or growth.

The good news is that, at least when it comes to innovation, we don’t have to wait to be desperate or to get burned before we do what we know we should.  We can create experiences that motivate change.

Borrow relevant experiences

Experiencing success, even if it’s vicariously, is key to getting people to do what they know they should.  One way to do this is to find proof that the change is possible and do-able.  To do this you need to find relevant and recent examples (i.e. not a field trip to Silicon Valley and not stories about Steve Jobs). 

Find a company in your industry (or a similar one) that has successfully achieved the goal you’ve set.  Tell their story to people within your organization.  Set-up a conversation between a current or former member of their team and a key stakeholder in your organization.  Buy their product and display it as evidence that success is possible.

Create experiences of success

Innovation takes time, especially if you’re working on something breakthrough.  But people lose interest and faith quickly, especially in organizations that are judged by quarterly numbers.  As a result, the worst thing you can do is to go into “stealth mode” and try to “fly under the radar” until you have a huge, earth-shattering success to announce.

Instead, spend time learning about your decision-makers’ and stakeholders’ doubts at the same time you’re learning about your customers’ problems.  Then, when you prove those doubts wrong, celebrate the win…politely, and publicly.

Does your boss think Legal will never approve your idea?  Work with Legal, ask them what it would take to get an approval, and when you do that and get the Yes, tell your boss.  Does Finance think no one will ever pay the price for your solution?  Open a “lemonade stand” to sell the product and then take Finance out for drinks, using your first dollars of revenue to pay for the first round.

Small and steady wins give people experience with success and buy you the time, resources, and support you need to achieve the earth-shattering ones.

Immerse everyone in the experience

While borrowing and creating experiences can be powerful, nothing is as convincing or compelling as actively engaging people in achieving success.

Involve innovation leaders, decision-makers, and key stakeholders in the hard work of customer discovery, solution design, and business testing.  Make them listen in live to customer interviews, hand them the sharpie (or the mouse) during ideation sessions, and “hire” them to staff your “lemonade stand.”

By making people lean in, roll up their sleeves and do the work, they’ll experience how hard innovation is and why it takes longer than they think.  They’ll be invested in your work and your results.  They’ll feel the rush of the small successes.

Innovation is a Head, Heart, Guts endeavor

People decide what to do with their hearts, justify their decisions with their heads, but it takes guts to take action.  Knowledge feeds the head, but it takes experience to have guts. 

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

“How are you doing?  How are you handling all this?”

It seems like 90% of conversations these days start with those two sentences.  We ask out of genuine concern and also out of a need to commiserate, to share our experiences, and to find someone that understands.

The connection these questions create is just one of the Gifts of Uncertainty that have been given to us by the pandemic.

Yes, I know that the idea of uncertainty, especially in big things like our lives and businesses, being a gift is bizarre.  When one of my friends first suggested the idea, I rolled my eyes pretty hard and then checked to make sure I was talk to my smart sarcastic fellow business owner and not the Dali Lama.

But as I thought about it more, started looking for “gifts” in the news and listening for them in conversations with friends and clients, I realized how wise my friend truly was.

Faced with levels of uncertainty we’ve never before experienced, people and businesses are doing things they’ve never imagined having to do and, as a result, are discovering skills and abilities they never knew they had.  These are the Gifts of Uncertainty

  1. Necessity of offering a vision – When we’re facing or doing something new, we don’t have all the answers. But we don’t need all the answers to take action.  The people emerging as leaders, in both the political and business realms, are the ones acknowledging this reality by sharing what they do know, offering a vision for the future, laying out a process to achieve it, and admitting the unknowns and the variables that will affect both the plan and the outcome.
  2. Freedom to experiment – As governments ordered businesses like restaurants to close and social distancing made it nearly impossible for other businesses to continue operating, business owners were suddenly faced with a tough choice – stop operations completely or find new ways to continue to serve. Restaurants began to offer carry out and delivery.  Bookstores, like Powell’s in Portland OR and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester VT, also got into curbside pick-up and delivery game.  Even dentists and orthodontists began to offer virtual visits through services like Wally Health and Orthodontic Screening Kit, respectively.
  3. Ability to change – Businesses are discovering that they can move quickly, change rapidly, and use existing capabilities to produce entirely new products. Nike and HP are producing face shields. Zara and Prada are producing face masks. Fanatics, makers of MLB uniforms, and Ford are producing gowns.  GM and Dyson are gearing up to produce ventilators. And seemingly every alcohol company is making hand sanitizer.  Months ago, all of these companies were in very different businesses and likely never imagined that they could or would pivot to producing products for the healthcare sector.  But they did pivot.
  4. Power of Relationships – Social distancing and self-isolation are bringing into sharp relief the importance of human connection and the power of relationships. The shift to virtual meetups like happy hours, coffees, and lunches is causing us to be thoughtful about who we spend time with rather than defaulting to whoever is nearby.  We are shifting to seeking connection with others rather than simply racking up as many LinkedIn Connections, Facebook friends, or Instagram followers as possible.  Even companies are realizing the powerful difference between relationships and subscribers as people unsubscribed en mass to the “How we’re dealing with COVID-19 emails” they received from every company with which they had ever provided their information.
  5. Business benefit of doing the right thing – In a perfect world, businesses that consistently operate ethically, fairly, and with the best interests of ALL their stakeholders (not just shareholders) in mind, would be rewarded. We are certainly not in a perfect world, but some businesses are doing the “right thing” and rea being rewarded.  Companies like Target are offering high-risk employees like seniors pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems 30-days of paid leave.  CVS and Comcast are paying store employees extra in the form of one-time bonuses or percent increases on hourly wages.  Sweetgreen and AllBirds are donating food and shoes, respectively, to healthcare workers.  On the other hand, businesses that try to leverage the pandemic to boost their bottom lines are being taken to task.  Rothy’s, the popular shoe brand, announced on April 13 that they would shift one-third of their production capacity to making “disposable, non-medical masks to workers on the front line” and would donate five face masks for every item purchased.  Less than 12 hours later, they issued an apology for their “mis-step,” withdrew their purchase-to-donate program, and announced a bulk donation of 100,000 non-medical masks.

Before the pandemic, many of these things seemed impossibly hard, even theoretical.  In the midst of uncertainty, though, these each of these things became practical, even necessary.  As a result, in a few short weeks, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do what we spent years saying we could not.

These are gifts to be cherished, remembered and used when the uncertainty, inevitably, fades.

Originally published on Mat 19, 2020 on Forbes.com

The Innovator has No Clothes: Innovation’s 3 Great Lies

The Innovator has No Clothes: Innovation’s 3 Great Lies

I love stories.  When I was a kid, my parents would literally give me a book and leave me places while they ran errands.  They knew that, as long as I was reading, I wouldn’t be moved.

But there was one story I hated – The Emperor’s New Clothes

I hated it because it made absolutely no sense.  It was a story of adults being stupid and a kid being smart, and, to a (reasonably) well-behaved kid, it was absolutely unbelievable.

No adult would try to sell something that doesn’t exist, like the clothiers did with the cloth.  No adult would say they could see something they couldn’t, like the Emperor and the townspeople did.  Adults, after all, don’t play at imagination.

As a kid, this story seemed completely wild and unrealistic.

As an adult, this story is so true that it hurts.

The truth of this story touches so many things and innovation is at the top of the list.

I’ve spent my career working in innovation working within large companies and as an advisor to them.  I know what executives, like the emperor, request. I’ve said what the consultants say to sell their wares.  I believed all of it.

Now I need to be the kid and point out some of the lies, as I see them.

 

Lie #1: Companies can disrupt themselves
Truth #1: Companies can but they won’t

There are lots of reasons why companies won’t and don’t disrupt themselves but, in my experience, there is one reason that trumps them all: It’s not in anyone’s interest.

In most companies, there is not one single person, including the CEO, who has a vested interest (i.e. is incentivized) in taking the time and allocating the resources required to disrupt the current busines.

In most companies, however, there are lots of people who have a vested interest (i.e. make lots of money) in delivering on quarterly or annual KPIs.

Disruption takes time.  It took more than 20 years for the hard disk drive industry, the focus of Clayton Christensen’s doctoral research and the basis of the theory of Disruptive Innovation, to be disrupted.  Even in today’s faster-paced world, it’s hard to find an industry that, in a span of 5-10 years, ceased to exist as a result of disruptive innovation.

Companies have the resources to disrupt themselves.  But executives don’t have the incentive.

 

Lie #2: If companies act like VCs, they’ll successfully innovate
Truth #2: If companies act like VCs, they’ll go bankrupt

OK, this one is more false than true.

Companies need to engage in multiple types of innovation:

  • Improving their core
  • Moving into adjacent markets by serving new customers or offering something new or making money in new ways or using new process, resources, and activities
  • Creating something breakthrough that changes the basis of competition

Companies should only “act like VCs” when dealing with breakthrough innovations.

VCs are purpose-built to be financially successful in environments where there are more unknowns than knowns.  This is why the central tenant of acting like a VC is adopting a portfolio approach and making little bets in lots of companies.  When large companies who take this approach to breakthrough innovations, they, like VCs, invest in lots of initiatives thus increasing the odds of investing in a winner.

However, companies that “act like VCs” when it comes to their entire innovation portfolio simply dilute their resources, investing too little in too many things and ultimately decreasing their already low odds of innovation success.

This is because when engaging in core and adjacent innovation, the bulk of innovation pursued by large companies, the knowns typically equal or outweigh the unknowns.  As a result, it makes more sense to NOT act like a VC and make medium to large bets in a few initiatives, enabling companies to rapidly launch and scale their core and adjacent innovation initiatives.

 

Lie #3: We can pivot our way to success
Truth #3: If you’re not solving a problem, no amount of pivoting will bring success

The fact that the emperor and all the townspeople believed the emperor was wearing clothes didn’t make it true.

And no amount of “pivoting” – it’s not silk, it’s wool!  It’s not green, it’s blue! – was going to make it true.

The same can be said for innovation.

If the innovation isn’t solving a problem, there is no market.  Shifting from a product to a service, won’t change that.  Nor will changing from a transaction-based model to a subscription model.

Pivoting is how you fit a square peg into a round hole.  It’s not how you create a hole for your square peg.

 

Of course, it’s easy to come up with one, or two, or maybe even three examples of the lie being true.  It is those one, or two, or even three examples that are trotted out in every speech, book, article, and consulting pitch to convince us to believe.  But the reality is that the exceptions, in this case, prove the rule.

After all, the emperor wasn’t completely naked.  He was wearing a crown. 

But that doesn’t make the lack of clothes any less embarrassing.

5 Ways to Go Beyond Your Customers & Serve All of Your Stakeholders

5 Ways to Go Beyond Your Customers & Serve All of Your Stakeholders

Over the past several weeks, I’ve kicked off innovation projects with multiple clients.  As usual, my clients are deeply engaged and enthusiastic, eager to learn how to finally break through the barriers their organizations erect and turn their ideas into real initiatives that generate real results.

Things were progressing smoothly during the first kick-off until a client asked, “Who’s my customer?”

I was shocked.  Dumbfounded.  Speechless.  To me, someone who “grew up” in P&G’s famed brand management function and who has made career out of customer-driven innovation, this was the equivalent of asking, “why should I wear clothes?”  The answer is so obvious that the question shouldn’t need to be asked.

Taking a deep breath, I answered the question and we moved on.

A few days later, the question was asked again.  By a different client.  In a different company.  A few days later, it was asked a third time.  By yet a different client.  In yet a different company.  In a completely different industry!

What was going on?!?!?

Each time I gave an answer specific to the problem we were working to solve.  When pressed, I tried to give a general definition for “customer” but found that I spent more time talking about exceptions and additions to the definition rather than giving a concise, concrete, and usable answer.

That’s when it struck me – Being “customer-driven” isn’t enough.  To be successful, especially in innovation, you need to focus on serving everyone involved in your solution.  You need to be “stakeholder-driven.”

 

What is a customer?

According to Merriam-Webster, a customer is “one that purchases a commodity or service.”

Makes perfect sense.  At P&G, we referred to retailers like WalMart and Kroger as “customers” because they purchased P&G’s products from the company.  These retailers then sold P&G’s goods to “consumers” who used the products.

But P&G didn’t focus solely on serving its customers.  Nor did it focus solely on serving its consumers.  It focused on serving both because to serve only one would mean disaster for the long-term business.  It focused on its stakeholders.

 

What is a stakeholder?

Setting aside Merriam-Webster’s first definition (which is specific to betting), the definitions of a stakeholder are “one that has a stake in an enterprise” and “one who is involved in or affected by a course of action.”

For P&G, both customers (retailers) and consumers (people) are stakeholders because they are “involved in or affected by” P&G’s actions.  Additionally, shareholders and employees are stakeholders because they have a “stake in (the) enterprise.”

As a result, P&G is actually a “stakeholder-driven” company in which, as former CEO AG Lafley said in 2008, the “consumer is boss.”

 

How to be a stakeholder-driven organization

Focusing solely on customers is a dangerous game because it means that other stakeholders who are critical to your organization’s success may not get their needs met and, as a result, may stop supporting your work.

Instead, you need to understand, prioritize, and serve all of your stakeholders

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Identify ALL of your stakeholders. Think broadly, considering ALL the people inside and outside your organization who have a stake or are involved or affected by your work.
    1. Inside your organization: Who are the people who need to approve your work? Who will fund it?  Who influences these decisions? Who will be involved in bringing your solution to life?  Who will use it?  Who could act as a barrier to any or all of these things?
    2. Outside your organization: Who will pay for your solution? Who will use your solution?  Who influences these decisions?  Who could act as a barrier?
  2. Talk to your stakeholders and understand what motivates them. For each of the people you identify by asking the above questions, take time to actually go talk to them – don’t email them, don’t send a survey, actually go have a conversation – and seek to understand they’re point of view.  What are the biggest challenges they are facing?  Why is this challenging?  What is preventing them from solving it?  What motivates them, including incentives and metrics they need to deliver against?   What would get them to embrace a solution?  What would cause them to reject a solution?
  3. Map points of agreement and difference amongst your stakeholder. Take a step back and consider all the insights from all of your stakeholders.  What are the common views, priorities, incentives, or barriers?  What are the disagreements or points of tension?  For example, do your buyers prioritize paying a low price over delivering best-in-class performance while your users prioritize performance over price?  Are there priorities or barriers that, even though they’re unique to a single stakeholder, you must address?
  4. Prioritize your stakeholder by answering, “Who’s the boss?” Just as AG Lafley put a clear stake in the ground when he declared that, amongst all of P&G’s stakeholders, that the consumer was boss, challenge yourself to identify the “boss” for your work. For medical device companies, perhaps “the boss” is the surgeon who uses the device and the hospital executive who has the power to approve the purchase.  For a non-profit, perhaps it’s the donors who contribute a majority of the operating budget.  For an intrapreneur working to improve an internal process, perhaps it’s the person who is responsible for managing the process once it’s implemented.  To be clear, you don’t focus on “the boss” to the exclusion of the other stakeholders but you do prioritize serving the boss.
  5. Create an action plan for each stakeholder. Once you’ve spent time mapping, understanding, and prioritizing the full landscape of your stakeholder’s problems, priorities, and challenges, create a plan to address each one.  Some plans may focus on the design, features, functions, manufacturing, and other elements of your solution.  Some plans may focus on the timing and content of proactive communication.  And some plans may simply outline how to respond to questions or a negative incident.

 

Yes, it’s important to understand and serve your customers.  But doing so is insufficient for long-term success.  Identifying, understanding, and serving all of your stakeholders is required for long-term sustainability.

Next time you start a project, don’t just ask “Who is my customer?” as “Who are my stakeholders?” The answers my surprise you.  Putting those answers into action through the solutions you create and the results they produce will delight you.

Originally published on March 23, 2020 on Forbes.com