Facts not opinions

We’ve been lucky enough to have Hugh MacLeod provide the illustrations for the book, and damn fine they are too. I won’t ruin that surprise.

However, I was reminded this morning of just how close in thinking much of Tom Fishburne’s work is. As an innovator in a big business, we know many clients can feel like this:

Garden of innovation (the threat to the idea).

Or this:

Or this:

Start managing innovation the same way you manage media budgets and the Christmas party, and you can guarantee the sort of brutal attack Fishburne envisages will come about. If you try and make yours just another project, you can be sure it will be managed like one – which doesn’t work for doing new things.

The only way to fight the opinions of those more senior, or disruptive, is facts. And the innovator must dedicate themselves to finding the real facts at the heart of their business idea.

What Fishburne doesn’t allude to in his fantastic cartoons is just why the nurtured idea is about to be exposed to the knives and barbs or colleagues.

And the answer here is simple: money.

If you can run your innovation effort out of petty cash, no-one will ask those question or take a swipe at you. It’s when large outlays are required, and more importantly, grand projections made that critics will circle.

Prove them wrong, and do it on a budget.

But that’s not to say that your don’t want criticism. Exactly the opposite, you should seek it out. And be your own worst critic.

All too often the adversarial process of getting and keeping budgets can convince the innovator to be bloody minded in the pursuit of their original concept. Keeping your idea away from the most sectarian and political forces may be wise, but never shelter an idea from criticism entirely. This is how your idea will grow. We’ve seen over and over again, that ideas which only ever get praised, rarely get any better, or indeed see much success.

A final Fishburne

innovationfunnel

 

What we’re saying is see the teeth in the picture above as your friend. If you are tough (not pointlessly critical) as you progress thorough every stage of assessment of the idea and build of the proposition, the process will make you (and your idea) stronger.

What’s it about?

So. Why did we write the book, Unthinkable?

The truth is that the thinking that got us to write the book is just the same as the reason the partners started the agency, Fluxx, back in 2011.

We knew from years of working with companies on new things that often the most exciting ideas and challenges were prone to end up the most disappointing failures. We knew too the reality of such missed opportunities was not of innovation teams overcome with the technical or consumer challenge but rather battling against the forces of their own business.

We recognised the need to find new ways to operate to enable the largest businesses to forget their pasts and truly embrace completely new things.

For us to get stuff done in large companies, we must spend as little money as possible, tangle with as few of these sectarian forces as we can and get output as early as possible.

We must move the game from predictive project and management thinking to foster learning and facts over bluster, confidence and unfounded optimism of macho management.

Unthinkable will be published in the first half of 2015. Sign up for our newsletter (right or below) if you would like to learn more. Contact me if you’d like to tell me your stories of getting stuff done in large enterprises.

Lean thinking

I’ve always been a fan of Lean. Most recently, Lean Startup has been very influential on me, as it has been on many others. On my desk sits an unread copy of Lean Analytics, and now, I see we have also got ‘lean strategy’, meaning not the strategy of using lean techniques, but rather the use of lean techniques to develop strategy.

In this post, Andy Whitlock of Made by Many, espouses the change in mind-set of strategist getting involved in new lean techniques.

Is this still strategy? Not, perhaps in its traditional sense. Many would say lean is almost an ‘anti-strategy’ movement, in the sense of favouring action over long planning cycles. This would make ‘lean strategy’ an aggressive contradiction in terms, a self-destructive oxymoron. And that sounds like some thing we should avoid.

But forgetting all that, what is it Andy is really saying? He seems to have three themes:

1/ The ideas can come from anywhere – strategists need to come to believe that their team is just as capable of generating useful insight as they are, and need to learn the language of their colleagues so they can take part more

2/ Don’t cook up big intellectual theories to confuse people – provide information that can actually be used to do things.

3/ Propose intermediary hypothesis and watch them adapt rather than trying to solve the whole problem upfront. Very lean.

Perhaps it was always a good idea for planners to be less precious (1), less overly intellectual (2) and less hell-bent on grand unifying theories (3). But if the lean movement underscores those needs, so much the better.

For my money, the job of the strategist / planner remains the same: make complicated things seem simpler and figure out how to solve the problem. Doing that in rapid iterations and tests is certainly unusual for the average planner, but should be welcomed by most once they’ve got over the shock of the whole thing, since it gives us a chance to break down and learn about problems in pieces as humans really do,  removing the often unrealistic expectation for a sudden, blinding flash of inspirational light.

Lean Startup isn’t about strategy. It’s about finding out about new ideas. Strategy is about growing an existing business. Find out about how we take lean techniques to help enterprises act like start ups. Sign up (right or below) to keep up to date with book.

Kodak moments

This wonderful clip from Mad Men on Amelia’s blog started me thinking again about Kodak, both a case study of success and failure in product innovation, and – now – a cautionary tale for businesses facing change. But what, if anything, can we actually learn from it?

One of the best studies of the primacy of experience in product design is that of George Eastman, Kodak and ‘You push the button and we’ll do the rest’. The company grew hugely successful on the back of that thought, successfully navigating several technology changes in its early years and developing a massively dominant position in the film marketplace.

As recently as 1976, Kodak held 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the US. This level of market leadership is interpreted as causing complacency from management, and equipping Kodak badly for battle with Japanese rival Fujifilm.

In fact, it was Kodak themselves who invented the digital camera in 1975 and the first megapixel sensor in 1986, the innovations which would prove a major component of their downfall.

The engineer who made the invention is quoted by the New York Times as describing the management reaction, “That’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.’” (because of the threat it posed to the core film business).

Whilst it is tempting to think of a beleaguered Kodak being overrun by digital innovation, the company was among the first movers in this new product space. Ranking #1 in the US for digital camera sales in 2005 and manufacturing the first Apple offering in digital photography, the ill fated Apple QuickTake. From that year onward  the company’s position fell by a position or two annually as new entrants, eventually including mobile phones (now the most popular cameras), took hold of the marketplace – making better and lower-priced products whilst generating better profits through lower costs and better efficiency.

Whatever the future of Kodak now, it seems certain it will not be in the consumer imaging market where it once dominated so thoroughly, even though other brands (such as Canon and Nikon) did manage to make the leap from film to digital successfully. Why is that?

It would be easy to assume that it was management incompetence or poor decision-making. Indeed, there are some examples of magnificent own goals.

In 1996, Kodak introduced Advantix, a hybrid film and digital product that allowed images to previewed at a cost of around $1/2bn. This was later written off.

In 1998, Kodak commenced an expensive ($5.8bn) experiment, acquiring Sterling Drug in an attempt to diversify beyond the chemicals in its products to the chemicals in pharmaceuticals. This marriage proved mismatched leading to a disposal of Sterling Drug in pieces at a large write-down.

Perhaps these several billion dollars would have provided enough of a reserve to keep Kodak in the game a little longer.

Of course, the prolonged death of the business was down to many thousands to decisions. But at the heart appears to be a lack of enthusiasm for the digital products, even when the company was successful with them, and a business which was simply geared up to do a different thing and had too much invested (financially and emotionally) in seeing film prosper and digital fail.

George Fisher (CEO 1993-2000) described the company he had found, on leaving the CEO Role:

“It was mired in debt. It had haphazardly diversified into pharmaceuticals and other areas it knew little about. Its growth, save the revenues it added on with ill-starred acquisitions, was flat. It was a high-cost manufacturer, with a bloated staff and a sleepy culture that was slow to make decisions. And it regarded digital photography as the enemy, an evil juggernaut that would kill the chemical-based film and paper business that had fuelled Kodak’s sales and profits for decades.”

At this remove, Kodak’s demise seems inevitable. How would you avoid it in your own business:

  • Avoid entrenched conservatism
  • Allow entrepreneurial voices to speak out
  • Read the tea leaves a little better
  • and so on

All nice sentiments, but how many are really practical? The systems put in place in all large corporations are to keep the super-tanker on course, to move people to adherence with a common belief set. Every incentive in business is designed for more sales next year and greater cost efficiency. In fact, Kodak, in continuing to research at all, despite it’s apparently unassailable position, almost seems like proof that macro-economics not company structures are what can continue to deliver innovation, especially after the departure of the visionary founder.

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What’s so new about innovation?

It used to be that everyone spent their time talking about design.

In the early years of the web, that was enough ‘new’ for most of us: digital, social, mobile. They all meant new ways of making things. And so design could change the world. It was the silver bullet.

User-centred thinking was new – not to the design world, but to the web community. That was the innovation. People had to learn new things. Those who knew about computers had to understand people. Those who understood people had to get to grips with the computer stuff.

Now everyone knows about design, and quite a bit about technology.

So now everyone’s in innovation – doing new things. Certainly not websites or apps or things like that. No, just new things. Having got caught on the hop by the last big new things, companies are keen to plan for the next big new things. Agencies, of course, are keen to oblige. And so we’re awash with innovation work. If not, perhaps, any actual innovation.

And, whatever else you’ve missed, you can’t have missed just how quickly it’s all happening. When I was a kid, we had to wait years for new things to happen. Remember the BBC Micro? That was “new” for about five years. Now you’re lucky if you’ve plugged in your latest shiny gadget before it’s lost its newness.

You’ve scarcely had time to screw your HD TV to the wall when it’s gone out of fashion. You’re tragically outmoded by 2k. Don’t buy one of those though. There’ll be a 50k TV in a minute – its more life-like than real life. And people don’t watch TV any more anyway.

The agenda is ‘catch up’, ‘keep up’, ‘get ahead’, but the tools are the same. We had enough headaches getting management to accept personas, user journeys, agile, user testing and all that stuff, there seems to be little appetite to consider whether we should stick with these approaches for the next phase of the journey.

At last, design and digital have a semblance of predictability. We wouldn’t want to throw out that baby with the bath water of slightly different challenges.

But design thinking and design management won’t do it. Because the barriers preventing managers from accepting radical new departures aren’t about doing things slightly differently, they’re about doing things totally differently.

As this article in Harvard Business Review argues the term innovation is simply too broad. This is true. One man’s innovation might be another’s slow evolution. But when we are talking about the most extreme forms of “new”, we are also talking about the most extreme challenges in terms of diverting from the status quo.

To succeed with breakthrough (or ‘revolutionary’) innovation requires greater changes in thinking and leadership.

That’s just the sort of challenge we’ve approached in our new book Unthinkable. How can companies step out of the assumptions they make every day, move away from the customers they serve daily and the partners and suppliers they know well, to do something completely new?

Sign up (right or below) to hear more about the book.