Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Open Innovation - What is the role of internal teams?

“If I practice Open Innovation, and get solutions to my problems from outside the company, then what does my internal team work on? How can I rely on outsiders to provide solutions to our company problems?” These were some of the questions that were posed to me when I was discussing Open Innovation with one of my class mates who was running his own business. Good question and I thought this needs further clarification – so here is my attempt.

It is a misconception that Open Innovation is the solution to all problems. Also it is very risky to rely only on Open Innovation to get answers to all your problems. Most of the problems we face at companies are filled with contextual information. This is generally information which only insiders or employees of that particular organisation understand. This could be either names of application software or hardware platforms being used or other specific information which may be unique. These cannot be exposed directly to the outside world due to security reasons and also since outsiders will not be able to appreciate the complexity involved. Hence there is quite some work in filtering this information and identifying the core problem for which you intend to seek outside help. This work needs to be done by the team inside the organisation since they are the only people who understand this. Only the core issue, stripped of any contextual information, should be identified and presented to the outside world for solutions/ideas. This has only been proven to get the desired results.

The most important and crucial phase is the realisation of ideas. Ideas or solution approaches are only the beginning. The actual work is in taking those to market successfully. There is a whole range of activities involved right from packaging to marketing to launch. These can only be done by employees within an organisation and not by outsiders even though the ideas for these again could be from outside.

So, in summary, if you were under the impression that you can just throw the entire problem over the wall and you will get some magical solutions shortly, it is time for you to do a reality check. Engaging the crowd and getting solutions from the outside world works but there is a lot of effort before the benefits can be realised for the companies posting their problems.

Monday, December 7, 2009

How do I start innovating?

Most entrepreneurs or senior managers I have spoken to all agree that innovation is both required and worth the effort but a common question is – How do we start or more importantly how do we identify the areas to focus on?

They have had many experiences in the past where they have sponsored many “innovation” project but they have nothing to show for it. So they are confused and have decided to stay away from it.

Fair point. So thought I will discuss more about this. At the outset, let me confess that there is no magic formula for this. Innovation by definition means that we are going to encounter failure. However the areas to innovate on should be defined pretty clearly and there is no scope for failure on those.

The worst thing that you can do is to initiate a innovation project based on a few journal articles you read or based on generic analysts reports. These will need further refining and unless you define the path properly, you are never going to achieve success with your innovation agenda.

The next best thing is to do it based on what your team believes. They do have a good knowledge of the product space but the risk is that they could be biased based on the existing product offering.

The best way to do this is to listen to your customers and derive the innovation requirements from them. Only one word of caution here – Don’t expect solutions from your customers but listen carefully to the requirements and their current pain areas.

Once you have defined the areas where you want to focus your innovation efforts on, next make a plan on the status quo in that area and identify the main challenges – even at this stage – stay away from getting into complete solutioning mode – the aim is just to scratch the surface and identify areas to delve deeper into.

Finally identify different areas where you need to formulate task groups or teams to dig deeper and look for solutions.

During solutioning mode, please ensure that you get your best people to look at it. The more diverse the interests of the people who look at it, the better the chances of getting creative ideas, which has been proven to increase the success ratio. Ideally (unless you have confidentiality and proprietary reasons), try to get some outside solutions also either through partners, customers or even the outside world in general. Outside people bring in a freshness and unbiased thinking which is difficult to substitute internally. Obviously you need to define some incentives which makes this interesting and appealing to outside folks.

That is it!!! When done systematically, you should get responses unless you have not defined your problem statement clearly enough. Persevere based on feedback and you will get the responses that you expect.

Remember that it is equally important to have a good way of judging solutions when they start to come in. If you are exposing this to the outside world, you can get overwhelmed with solutions. So ensure that you define a process for rating the solutions and taking this forward appropriately.

Hope this helps companies get started with their innovation efforts. Remember the name of the game is perseverance and patience. Success will come but only to those who persevere (like most things in life!!!)

Enjoy the journey!!!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Can you innovate from your comfort zone?

Is it possible to innovate from your comfort zone? This was the question I was thinking over this weekend. I had just watched a movie which had a typical “rags to riches” story and the hero in the end made a statement or an observation that he did not think he could have achieved all of this if not for the initial hardships that he faced. That set me thinking. Isn’t that genuinely true for any major innovation of our times? Or of companies which were responsible for those innovations? So what do you think? I think it is really very difficult to innovate from your comfort zone.

Now – I must clarify that I am not talking of incremental innovation but of the truly blue sky or path-breaking innovation. It is really difficult to forget your status quo and truly innovate. It is much simpler and convenient to make slight changes in your established product or offering and tout that as innovation. There is nothing wrong in this approach except that it is not fulfilling. It is like half stretching an elastic band and feeling satisfied.

So – is there a way out?

Frankly the best approach is to get some outsiders to have a look at your problem and your world. This is the quickest and the best way to get new ideas and shake people out from their comfort zones. Traditionally companies have been doing this by bringing in consultants to review and make recommendations. While this works to an extent, there is always a danger of not doing it completely. Ideally the best approach is to give the problem in a complete form to either partners or even the outside world and evaluate end to end solutions. These can then be fitted into company specific processes and released to the market with some final tweaking.

Crowdsourcing or Open Innovation is the name given to companies who follow this approach. There are many companies who have achieved good progress by following this.

Try it. It may change the way you approach your problems the next time round.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Are you experimenting enough?

How many of your company projects failed last year due to technology or business reasons and since they were being tried ahead of their times? Note that project failures due to poor execution or people management issues don’t count in the above list. If the answer is none and if you are proud about it, think again - Are you actually playing it too safe?

It takes a lot of courage to try and do projects that are innovative and being attempted for the first time. There are just too many obstacles – critics who are quick to point out why it will never work, “experienced” leaders who don’t want to associate themselves with failures, Business Analysts who just are not able to think outside the boundaries they are used to. So literally the odds are stacked against it right from the start. However, these are the kind of projects worth doing. So if you are the top leader in your organisation, these are the projects you should be tracking. The larger your organisation, the more difficult it is to run such projects.

So why does this matter? Simply - because your customers deserve it. Remember your first paying customer. How happy would he feel if you are the first to market a new feature than your competitor who is more priced than you? Because your brand deserves it. People tend to remember and associate innovative brands even better. Finally your employees deserve it. Employees love the space and fulfilment of working on projects based on innovation. The challenge gives them an incomparable high and makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Oh… and by the way – typically 1 out of 3 true innovation projects fail. Is that bad? NO. I would say that as long as there are lessons learned and the failure happens rather fast in the project life cycle, it is good. It is important however that the people associated with these projects are not treated as “failures”.

Let me leave you with this famous saying – “A ship in the harbour is safe but that’s not what ships are built for”. Similarly you can just stick to the tried out feature list but that is not what your customer is expecting from you. Every once in a while, you should be prepared to try out different things even if it means you may not succeed. Remember – nothing ventured, nothing gained

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Innovation and the theory of constraints

Remember the famous classic “Around the world in 80 days”. I remember reading that book in my early teens mainly because it caught my attention with the title and the audacious thought. It also challenged all my assumptions about how big our world really was and what it takes to go all around it. We need to come up with similar propositions that catch attention for all our company goals as well.

Think about it. The biggest stumbling block to innovation is people and their everyday struggle to think differently and without boundaries. This is especially true for large organisations since large organisation have well defined boundaries and processes. So it is easier and more tempting to stick to that and not rock the boat. Unfortunately that does not help innovation at all. So what do I do about it? Start innovation campaigns and challenge all basic thinking and assumptions. I refer to this as the theory of constraints. Innovation flourishes well in these kind of environments.

And why is this important? Well – we all know about the familiar story of General Motors who just did not think different in terms of hybrid cars and kept believing that bigger cars is the only way to go. Or what about Blockbuster who just did not believe in Netflix and other online competition until it was too late. Netflix was launched in 1999 with the online concept. Blockbuster started online rental from 2004. By Oct 2007, Netflix had 16 Million unique visitors compared to 4 Million to Blockbuster Online (source: Compete.com data comparing unique visitors between Jan 2005 to Oct 2007). Look around and you will find plenty of similar stories.

Now reflect on this. I am sure the senior management staff at GM or Blockbuster should had got information about the growing trends in their respective market. But why did they not react before it is too late? The only reason I can think of is their inability to think outside what was their comfort zones. In short, they were scared of experimenting and going along a different path. Now is there a lesson here for your business?

The answer is definitely yes. Think about it. What is your best selling product? Now think – how do I make sure that I keep it this way? The answer is only one – innovate, experiment, lead. Do not be scared of making mistakes or going along non-traditional paths. If you find that your competitor has got a competitive advantage - learn, reflect and experiment. But do not ignore or wish it away. And what about products where you are not the market leader? More the reason to innovate with that. Target areas where your competitor is weak or where there is ann opportunity and innovate heavily in those areas.

One final caution: Never become so busy with your everyday routine and fire fighting that you ignore innovation.

Act Now.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Open Innovation - Is that the missing piece of your puzzle?

I was watching my son do a jigsaw puzzle over the weekend. One by one, he placed all the pieces together and was visibly delighted when he could see the final image emerging. However as he was down to the last 5 pieces, suddenly he seemed to freeze. Though he tried different combinations, he somehow could not get it right. While I was debating whether I should step in and help him, in walked his friend. Soon both of them started discussing and doing this together and magically within a short time, were able to get it right!

A very ordinary or day to day experience but I thought there was a profound or deep message for all businesses. Think about it. How many times in the past have you thought you were making good progress with your innovation project or your cutting edge research project before suddenly hitting a wall and ultimately giving up? Isn’t that a shame? All the hard work and the struggle to get it down to the last wire just wasted away? See where I am going with this…......

Most of our solution approaches works by making assumptions and we sometimes struggle to progress because it is quite difficult to change our assumptions so easily. So in these scenarios, the best option is to get somebody outside the area to have a look at this problem. They come in with no bias or assumptions and usually are able to solve it much quicker.

Open Innovation is built upon this simple premise and the best part is that you can define the areas you want to get outside help from and the ones where you are better off doing things on your own.

So the next time you get stuck on a problem and are about to give up – stop and think. Is it possible to selectively get outside help or support and still take this to a successful completion?

Try it. You don’t lose anything and the results may surprise you.

In summary – open innovation in simplistic terms is just a way of getting outside help in certain areas and as defined by your terms and conditions.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Innovation and Time

Ever faced a situation where you read about something interesting and immediately got immersed in it only to hit a roadblock and then you can’t seem to go any further. I recently faced this situation when I came across an innovation challenge over the weekend. So how do you get over this situation? Different people have different things which work for them – some people find that sleeping over it helps them; some people use it as an opportunity to take a break and focus on some other activity. I generally find that discussing this with my colleagues clears my thinking and helps to identify the way forward.

Innovation or creative thinking needs time and patience. We can’t hurry the process nor try to achieve it within a very short time. But yet many companies try to come up with quick solutions and expect too much when it comes to their innovation programs. For Eg: they send their employees to a training program on innovation and expect them to become innovative overnight or have a brain storming session for employees to come up with innovative products and feel disappointed at the lack of ideas.

In other words, innovation programs need to be nurtured like a child. They need constant guidance and reassurance and even small victories should be celebrated. The only way to achieve this is by having a dedicated platform for innovation and by encouraging innovation day in and day out until it becomes second nature to your employees.

So you must be wondering if it is worth the effort. This is the way I look at it. The innovation within your employee’s brain is like a hidden treasure placed somewhere within your house. All you have is a map to this treasure and possibly a way of getting to it. But it still needs dedicated time and effort. Of course, you may be so rich that you don’t need to dig this up and are happy without it. But in today’s recessionary world, I daresay, this situation is very unlikely. For all others, the faster you start digging and the more systematic you are in your approach, the more the likelihood of success.

In summary, innovation programs need some initial investment and also constant reinforcement and encouragement. But they have huge potential to give substantial returns when done correctly. So learn to nurture innovation and explore unchartered territories of information and wisdom.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Random Thoughts

My 3 year old son has just joined a new school and I was invited by the school management for the first observation day, where I got a chance to watch a typical day at school for my little one. I was very fascinated to see my son and other children doing things their own way and exploring it at their own pace and interest. Also the teacher was ensuring that a child completes any activity it picks up before starting the next one.

At work the next day, I realised that we have forgotten both these basic lessons as adults:

Attend any group meeting for brainstorming and you will understand what I am talking about. The ideas that are picked up are generally from the ones who are very loud and can get others in the group to support him/her. A different school of thought generally gets dropped since it not popular and others could not understand it (even if it is promising!!)

Multi-tasking is an activity we all pride ourselves on as adults. But sometimes we get so caught up with trying to juggle so many items that we just do it by extinguishing one fire after another without getting the time to pause and think if we can do it better. Employees are measured at work by their ability to multi-task.

And thus we find that innovation takes a back seat and running the business (even if it is done inefficiently) is the main aim which is rewarded.

Before you think I am being idealistic and we have no choice but to accept this reality, think of these alternative ideas:

  1. All brainstorming or identifying new ideas occur online through a platform where identities are not disclosed and any kind of bias is not encouraged. This ensures that ideas are judged only on the basis of their relative merits in an unbiased manner.

  2. Identity couple of senior people in the organisation (who knows the organisation processes inside out) and free them from all regular business as usual activities and only encourage them to think of new and better way of doing things. Specifically they should be asked to focus on ensuring that they touch processes, which make it simpler for the end customer. Also they should not be scared of suggesting major changes as long as it achieves its end goals.

Run with this for a quarter or two and you will be surprised at the results.

Innovation needs time and dedicated focus. All of us actually don’t realise how much of our regular time is taken up by “business as usual” activity leaving us with no time to innovate. So we end up just paying lip service to innovation.

Eliminating bias and creating a transparent way of judging innovation and new ideas will go a long way in building the innovative culture within an organisation and helping to promote the best ideas.

A small step, maybe, but definitely in the right direction!!!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Innovation and the circle of influence

Do you remember how we used to do our homework when we were kids? We used to try to do it ourselves first and the ones, which were very difficult, keep getting help from various people. We first used to approach our family (maybe an elder brother or Dad/Mum if they are in a good mood) and then slowly expand our circle of influence. Our close friends next, and so on, expanding our circle of influence until we find somebody who has all the answers.

Cut back to our office today – we seem to have forgotten this old and sure shot way of solving problems. We let our egos and other silly adult habits get in the way of collaborating openly and finding solutions. Today in most large organisations, people are more comfortable passing problems around and finding excuses for not working together rather than solving problems together. And how is this affecting us? This affects the organisations’ ability to innovate and its ability to react to business changes in a timely manner.

So how do we solve this problem? Unfortunately there are no easy methods of bringing about changes and any change is going to be resisted and opposed by many. However there are many steps which can be taken to break this chain. Here I have highlighted the major steps in this direction:

  • Encourage employee to employee communications – Employees (mainly those having a flair for problem solving) enjoy finding solutions to challenges. They don’t let organisational structures and hierarchies get in their way of problem solving. These are your best ambassadors to break the shackles. Identify them and encourage them and provide tools to facilitate and achieve their goals.

  • Increase Transparency and remove all bias – The best performers within an organisation should be known to everybody within the organisation. This is possible only if there is a transparent way of showcasing their achievements for all within the organisation to see. Managers or other executive staff should not have any way of manipulating this. This will lead to increased transparency and less political interference.

  • Incentive to Innovate – It is a well known fact that time is of the essence when it comes to innovation. Also the world will not stand still while the innovators are at work – in other words there will always be business as usual work to handle along with innovation related work. So how do I prioritise and encourage innovation related work? By offering an incentive. It is also a good way for employees to discover their hidden potential by exploring problems outside of their focus areas.

  • Channel for mentoring and grooming new talent – Slowly over a period of time, this channel can be used as a means of identifying and nurturing talent throughout the organisation. Best Performers who have distinguished themselves through the innovation channel and best placed to play the role of mentors and responsible for grooming new talent.

Let me end with a story which is well known amongst the cloud computing fans. In 2007, the New York Times faced a challenge. It wanted to make available over the web its entire archive of articles, 11 million in all. It had scanned all the articles, producing a huge pile of 4 Terra bytes pile of images in TIFF format. But since TIFF format is poorly suited for online distribution, the NY Times thought of pre-generating these PDF files so that it can be rendered more easily when requested by the customer. That was a huge computing chore, requiring a lot of computer processing time. Fortunately one of the software programmers at NY Times accidentally came to know of this challenge and to make a long story short, was able to use his knowledge of Amazon Cloud Computing facility(gained by generally playing with it) to solve this challenge with the minimal of money and in a very short time.

So in summary - learn to break your organisational barriers and make your biggest challenges known to as many employees as possible. The solutions and the different thinking that comes from the different groups within your organisation will surprise you truly!!!

Try it!! You don't lose anything - you only stand to gain....

Monday, September 28, 2009

Innovation and Exercising

This weekend, when I was on the treadmill exercising away, I realised how much of similarities there is between exercising and innovation as pursued by different companies as part of their corporate strategy. Here are some quick similarities that I could think of:

  • Both needs discipline and patience to implement.

  • Both don’t produce any quick results and it is very simple to find excuses why we can’t do it.

  • The biggest challenge is sustaining a routine and doing it regularly. It is very simple to start and stop and do it irregularly but that does not produce the desired results.

  • We all know the truth about the importance of this but still somehow manage to avoid it or find excuses not to do it.

  • There is no point in overdoing it and trying to do it at the last minute. Miracles cannot be achieved overnight and the only thing that counts towards good results is regular sustained effort.

I can go on but I think you get the drift.

So the question is – What can be done about this and how can companies make innovation as part of their regular agenda.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Invest in an innovation platform – This will help you in setting up the infrastructure to do this on a regular basis. This will also make it simpler for you to run innovation programs and popularise this throughout your organisation.

  2. Celebrate Milestones – This is true whether it is for an innovation program or exercise regime. Learn to celebrate small achievements which will encourage, motivate and keep you focussed on your targets.

  3. Find company – Identify partners who will help you with your innovation efforts. This will serve 2 purposes. First it will allow you to bounce ideas and get an outsider view which is very helpful for innovation programs. Secondly it will help your discipline since you will find that your partner is sometimes pushing you when you lag in your innovation effots.

  4. Constant feedback – Continuously monitor what is working for you and what is not and make any corrections accordingly. The constant feedback mechanism ensures that lethargy and boredom is avoided. It also helps you to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are and fine-tune your future programs accordingly.

  5. Keep the end goal in mind always – It is very easy to forget the end goals in such programs since they are typically long term by their nature. Hence these programs need to be monitored and reinforced by somebody from the executive team who will ensure that the program is kept on track.

So, is it worth the effort? Experience and history will tell you time and again that innovation is not only important but in fact a survival technique for organisations and their best chance to be ahead of their competitors.

Unfortunately as all good things in life, it does not come easy and there is no short cut to success. It requires sustained effort and patience to make an impact.

In Summary – as regular exercising helps your body in the long run from falling to illness, innovation helps organisations remain nimble, focussed and well ahead of their competitors. All it requires is dedicated effort, patience and constant reinforcement.

So clearly the choice is yours – would you invest in the long term success of your organisation or look for reasons or excuses why you can’t invest in innovation this quarter?

Think about it.

The future of your company depends on this.

Monday, September 21, 2009

How do I discover my true potential?

Human beings have always been innovative. But they need a trigger or cue to get the best out of them - Think of Sir Isaac Newton whose thinking was triggered by the apple falling on his head or the Wright brothers who were inspired by watching birds fly. My point is that all of us have some talent but unfortunately, it needs some effort to find out what our true strength or talent is. The ones who truly discover this use it to their advantage and achieve greatness. However this article is about the majority of us who are still to discover our true potential.

So the question is - what stops employees from finding their true strength and more importantly - what can organisations do to facilitate this process?

Well, the reasons could be plenty but I can think of at least 3 strong reasons:

  1. Stereotyping - Organisations are quick to stereotype employees and make them fit to their defined job definition or requirement. This only results in increasing the frustration levels of both employer and employees and in the worst case - lead the employee to quit. I know employers have reasons for this but still the fact is - each individual is different and the quicker they try to work out the strengths of the employee and map it to the job requirements, the better. Many a time the unique view of the employee gives a different perspective to the job requirement which can still be leveraged. But that requires maturity and an ability to deal with ambiguity from an employer perspective. Both these are rare skills especially in today's fast world.

  2. Bad Performance Rating - Performance Planning at work was initially intended as an exercise to identify strengths and work out ways on how it can be improved further to develop win-win relationships. Unfortunately in most organisations, this meaning no longer holds. It is used as a weapon to force employees to fall in "line" - so getting a bad rating is seen as a failure and no genuine effort is made to analyse and take preventive action. In most cases, getting a bad rating means that maybe that person is not cut out for that role. That is not such a bad thing - it just means that his actual strength could be elsewhere and some effort is required before the organisation discovers his potential. But this honest evaluation is possible, only if employers have time and interest. In today's world where results are everything, both of these are a luxury and so ignored.

  3. Ability to move within the organisation - Ideally all employees should be thought of as champions and potential CEO material. So the question becomes - how can they be leveraged and how can their unique innovative skills be tapped? If this means that they may have to try out 10 different roles to discover this - so be it. End of the day, once the employee discovers his true strength, there is no holding him back and he/she needs minimal attention after that and the results will be truly amazing. So it is an investment, yes - but I would argue - a worthwhile one at that. But this cannot be achieved without active encouragement and also guidance especially during the initial stages. Question is - do you care and are you willing to do it for the long run?

In absence of these, employees just drift in and out and never discover their true potential. Organisations also ride on the success of few employees and accept that the majority of their employees are not innovative. But is that really true?

How can organisations solve this problem?

I would suggest these initiatives:

  1. Expose the majority of the employees to the organisations problems (regardless of the area) and encourage participation - A simple step but a good beginning. You may be surprised by the results!! This may be a quick and painless way to discover hidden potential but important to make sure that there is an incentive, encourage and be persistent. Remember that this could be a new territory for some of your employees and they may hesitate. Employers need to reinforce and encourage to get the best results.

  2. Encourage diversity within your teams - Diversity teaches employees to be more tolerant of people who have different thoughts or ideas and also brings unique perspectives. Use this to define job requirements and keep it flexible rather than defining everything in clear terms and using that as a measure. This also helps to groom your future generation of leaders who will have to deal with ambiguity in tomorrow's world.

  3. Celebrate Successes - Nothing breeds like success. So celebrate your successes and use it as an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment. Over a period of time, employee will realise the benefits of being their true self, let go of their inhibitions and work out win-win relationships. This will also increase your employee engagement levels.

In summary, this blog looks at how organisations can help their employees to be their innovative self and also identify a few reasons why employees don't innovate as much. Once these road blocks to innovation are removed, ideas should definitely flow through and then the sky is the limit!!

Are you ready to discover the next Einstein amongst your employees?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Innovation - What does it mean to you?

I decided to catch up on a movie this weekend. So went to the local theatre web site, selected my seat, went ahead and entered my credit card details for payment. Under normal circumstances, this should have completed fairly quickly but, this time, it seemed to take a long time. After a nervous 5 minutes wait, got a message saying that the tickets have not been booked due to a technical failure. Within another 5 mins, I got an SMS informing me that the tickets had NOT been booked. Reasonable experience, you think?

Somehow I felt that they could have done more. They knew my mobile number (since I had registered previously) and they had the good sense to send me an SMS informing me that the ticket had NOT been booked. But according to me, they missed an opportunity to impress me even further!!! All they had to do was to get somebody from their ticketing team to give me a call and ask if I needed help to complete the transaction which was still incomplete, due to no fault of mine. This should have been such a small step for them (given that they had all the relevant information) but of huge value and importance to me. Also in this situation, they would have ensured that they have got my business.

So why am I highlighting this story? Since, I believe, this company had a huge opportunity of using technology in an innovative way to make a difference and stand out from its competitor but missed out.

Sounds familiar? Think of it. I am sure you had many such experiences where you were left unsatisfied or with a reasonable experience but nothing that makes you remember this or stand out. Why do companies continue doing this? It is not that they don’t care but just that they are not able to think from their customer’s perspective. They are more inwardly focussed – more worried about how they are internally organised and it is up to the customer to figure out how it works. Unfortunately that is not a good enough stand especially in today’s world when you have so many choices and differentiation is the key to survival!!

Another reason is that most of these processes are thought up by one group working in a silo manner and these have not been discussed or brain stormed by a diverse group. Now I could be sticking my neck out, but I will be surprised if a diverse group of people, who know the customer pretty well, have not picked this.

So you must be thinking – interesting but how do I get started? Here are my tips:

  • Focus on the rough edges within your site – A lot of attention should have been paid already on the successful use cases but not enough time should have been spent on the abnormal path. However these are opportunities as well and I would argue – need more attention. So they are a good place to start.

  • Get inputs from the technical or account support staff – Support staff are the first people your customer contacts when they face any issue. Spend enough time with them to understand the kind of issues your customers face or report and then proactively start looking at whether that can be improved.

  • Think everything from your customer perspective - It is important to keep your customer at the centre of everything that you are doing. It is only when you live and breathe like your customer that you can get the experience right. So focus on it and don’t compromise.

In summary, innovation need not mean disruptive or ground-breaking changes only. While that is a form of innovation, we can use innovation in other simple day to day situations to make a difference and keep our customers happy and satisfied. If done correctly, it has huge potential and can even become a differentiator for you from your other competitors.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Do you know the real "you"?

Googling around – This has become a regular and accepted part of our work life where we use google to search for information in the World Wide Web. But I still believe there is one huge gap still despite the advances google has made. Google can never search the knowledge present in the human mind unless it is expressed in words and posted on the web. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can somehow access the human brain as well and tap into the unwritten idea?

At the minimum, the expectation of any employer is that the knowledge present in the mind of its employees is completely accessed. But is this really true? I would argue that for any medium to large sized firm, this is hardly true. With the exception of very small organisations, where they operate out of a single room or building and the flow of information or knowledge sharing is continuous – in all other firms, the flow of information is restricted and obstructed by many barriers (internal groups, politics, structure, silos – I think you get the drift). So within a short period of time, people stick to their boundaries, reply when asked specifically and just learn to do their day jobs and “fit” into the system (which typically means find the power centres and keep them happy!!!).

So you may be thinking – how can we break the shackles and get to uncovering the real “brain” of the employee? Well, as always – there is good news and bad news.

  • Bad news – Unfortunately there is no magic wand to wave and these problems will go away. Also any solutions put in place will require constant reinforcement and time before they can reap results – not something any decision maker wants to hear but there you go!

  • Good news – It is pretty simple to start, costs very little, the potential for extracting value from your employees is unlimited and more importantly when this is done correctly, it has the additional benefit of leaving your workforce fully energised and engaged.

Ready to get started? - These are the simple steps you can take to start leveraging the true power of your employees’ brain.

  1. Establish a platform for this purpose – This can be a mix of both technology and change processes. Essentially an area where the “true” ideas of an employee can be explored without any boundaries.

  2. Encourage and reward – The encouragement could be simple items to start off with – for eg: peer recognition, recognition by a well known leader within the organisation etc. Also ensure that all attempts are encouraged not just the popular ones.

  3. Select broad themes – Remember – this is not a problem solving network – refrain from posting simple challenges which targets only a particular group. The challenges posted should be broad-based to appeal to the entire employee base and the goals should be clearly defined.

  4. Monitor and adapt – The evaluation process should be fair and transparent. Periodically review and take any corrections as per the usage and the feedback received. Communicate as much as possible about the goals and ensure that individual feedback is given as much as possible and the top contributors felicitated.

  5. Sustain – Finally remember this is a journey and the important thing is to sustain this for a long period of time. Start and Stop approach only tends to create confusion in the employee’s mind. If you feel, interest is dying down, rejuvenate by introducing new challenges or new rewards or publish success stories which will keep the interest alive.

In simple terms, every employee also wants to contribute his best to the organisation – nobody comes to work thinking that they want to do a lousy job. I also don’t believe that employees lack the motivation to “go the extra mile”. So what happens then? The problem is the environment at the workplace. Every employee has ideas and views – especially if they are coming from other organisations. Ultimately only a receptive environment within an organisation will help uncover all the ideas of your employees and help unleash the true potential of your employees.

Establishing a platform for your employees to contribute their best ideas will go a long way in freeing up your employees to think without boundaries and encourage open and free flow of ideas. So start today and you will be surprised by the true “brain” of your employees.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Innovation and Micro Management

Picture this. Your son is just about to take his first step. He walks one step convincingly and then starts to falter. If you are a typical parent, you will immediately be on your alert to catch your son from falling down and getting hurt. But we all know that falling down and getting up is part of the learning process.

A innovation project is a similar kind of experience. Many a time, project sponsors are over-protective and so short-circuit the success due to their over-zealous nature. Innovation Projects need to run for some time and find its groove. There is more harm than good in trying to micromanage and dig further during its initial run.

Half the time what people need is time to innovate and for their sponsors to have confidence in their skills and judgement. They also need a long leash where people are not bound by rules or pre-conditions. If anything, they need to be told that the only thing not acceptable is following a known path. They need to explore without boundaries in these innovation projects.

Another important point is the freedom to observe how their customers use their products and when I say observe - I mean as a full time activity and without judging or even being seen by the customers. This knowledge will go a long way in understanding the areas of improvement and where innovation is required. The ability to empathise with your customer and see the product from a customer's eyes is the best gift that your team possess and if they act on that basis, success is not far away.

So - all this sounds so obvious that you may be wondering why I am highlighting these points. Well - frankly - even though these are obvious, it is amazing how people keep forgetting these simple but effective points. So the next time you are planning that offsite to come up with the next generation product design - think - have you looked at it from your customer's point of view? Would he appreciate the features that you are planning to add? If you are not sure, first observe from a customer perspective and walk in his shoes before undertaking the offsite - It will make it more productive and useful!!!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sustain Innovation

"So how do I ensure that innovation is continuously looked at by my staff on a 24*7 basis and in each of their activities?. How do I make them enjoy it and become second nature to them?" This was the question posed to me recently. We were discussing about how innovation projects were well received and participated during the initial days but of late the interest seems to be waning.

Frankly this is quite a common occurence in many organisations. Most of them enthusiastically start off with innovation and promote the initial projects but very soon the interest dies down. So much so that it looks like a flavour of the season or a fad rather than a long term strategy or vision. The reasons for this are many but thankfully there are a few things you can do to change this perception:

  1. Invest in a innovation technology platform - This sends out a clear message to the employee base that the company is serious about innovation and it is not a one off effort but they are in it for the long term. The technology platform will enable them to track the response and take corrective action if needed. It will also encourage others to participate and help institutionalise it.

  2. Ensure that the top management gives consistent messages regarding innovation - Monitor the signals being emitted from the top management or leadership team. They need to support innovation in all their actions and be consistent. This could be the weakest link if not controlled. Remember all the action of the top management/leaders are being observed by the staff and actions speak louder than words. If you mess up with this, staff would be quick to retreat back to their shell and then it is going to be a struggle to get them back.

  3. Encourage all bold attempts even if it results in failure - An innovation project is not like your typical project since the chances of failure are pretty high. Statistics show that only 30% of innovation projects are successful but the good news is that the 30% of success will make up for all the money spent on failures. So it is still worthwhile to search for success even when you don't get it first. Important thing is to learn from failures and not repeat mistakes. Apart from that, encourage and even reward bold attempts. Nobody remembers the number of failed attempts that Edison had before he discovered the electric bulb but the discovery of the electric bulb made Edison amongst the best known inventors.

  4. Have minimal rules and make it easy for even the junior most staff to contribute - Have no entry barriers and design your innovation platform in such a way that contributions can be done very easily. Also respect and encourage everybody to participate whether that is a recently joined intern or a seasoned professional. Over a period of time, this will also become a channel to identify the staff with potential and also mentor upcoming resources.

  5. Ensure that the best ideas are implemented quickly and with no political interference - End of the day - this is the ultimate goal. Once you identify an idea which has the potential, take the ownership of implementing this quickly and ensure that the rewards are passed on to the contributor. When this is done consistently this will spread and soon all the employees will aspire to get recognised in this platform.

These are the main points that I feel will help you to sustain interest in your innovation projects. While this does take some effort to institutionalise, the returns will be manifold as it spreads throughout your organisation and the quality of the contributions improve. Over a period of time, this platform will be self-sustaining and could even give your company a competitive advantage.

In summary, sustaining innovation projects takes time and unfortunately there is no short cut but the good news is that with the small steps outlined above, it can go a long way in making innovation the bloodline of any organisation.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Innovation and You

So what stops us from being innovative? I was observing my 3 year old son as he went about his daily activities and found most of the answers. As small kids, there are no rules defined and exploring means that in the true sense of the world. There are no assumptions apart from the high level ones concerning safety and kids truly revel in this and are at their innovative best. So what happens after that? As we grow older, we become more conscious about ourselves and try our best to "fit" in with the society around us and unfortunately that also means that we become accustomed more and more to play by rules and stop challenging assumptions.

This becomes very more institutionalised in our professional lives where we have clearly defined job responsibilities which are according to our professional qualifications. But is that truly our strength? Have we ever got a chance to explore other areas which are reportedly not our traditional "strengths"? The answer is frankly NO. In fact we are discouraged from doing this at work.

I was reading an article recently about a person had done his doctorate in archaeology and spend a lot of time exploring excavations in Egypt and then one day decided to do something new. He tried his hand at statistics using his knowledge of data analysis and mapping which he used during his days as an archaelogist and today he is employed in a software company using his skills to crunch data and generate new search patterns. That to me is an example of the true potential or strength of the human mind and a strong reason why we should not stereotype people. But how often does this happen and if it does happen, is it just by chance? Is there any institutionalised way of encouraging this within your organisation? Think about this.

So you may ask, what is this go to do with innovation? Innovation to me is a new way of looking at things and trying out ideas. The best way to kickstart innovation is to bring a new set of experts (maybe from different diverse fields) and ask them to approach the problem. You will find that they are able to think with a newly found freedom which their peers working on this problem for ages were lacking.

But this is still only half the story. The picture is truly completed only if the leadership team who are evaluating these innovations are also able to break their shackles and think with the same innocence as that of a child - basically no boundaries and with no pre-defined assumptions. This is truly a challenge especially in the initial days since we are so conditioned with think with our pre-defined assumptions that we will find it easier to shoot down proposals rather than think differently about how to make it work.

But if we fight the temptation to resist and truly think differently, success is only a few steps away and as they say - nothing succeeds like success.

So in summary - don't attempt to stereotype your employees and encourage them to try out different areas and realise their true potential. Also get new set of eyes looking at old problems and encourage new thoughts and ideas. Over a period of time, this will get you truly innovative ideas and you will be surprised at the true potential of your employees once they are truly allowed to break free.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Innovation Quotient

"Is there any quick way to check the innovation quotient of my organisation?" This was the question posed to me by a recent acquaintance of mine, whose firm had expanded quite a bit recently, and was looking to enter the big league. Hmm...Interesting question!!!

"As an example", he continued, "SEI-CMM or ISO is a measure of the quality processes in the organisation. The revenue and the Profit and Loss financial statements are a good measure of the health of the organisation. Surely we can devise some way to check the innovation culture in a similar fashion".

That set me thinking. Yes - we can look at the spend on R&D by the company or the amount of money got from new products introduced but that will need a fair amount of digging and you can never be sure of its accuracy. But is there any other quick or definitive measure?

Here are my thoughts:

The easiest and the best measure of the innovation culture of an organisation can be guaged by the reaction to these couple of situations:

  1. How are failures treated by the organisation when the failures are due to trying out different or new ways of doing things?

  2. How many top leaders and role models of the organisation believe in innovation and encourage people to try out new ideas and how much of freedom do they give to these initiatives?

Let us look at these points in more detail and I will explain my thinking.

The first point shows the creative spirit of the organisation and how open they are to trying out new and different things. You may think it is straight forward and simple to implement but try enforcing this to your middle management layers. The middle management staff are most concerned about productivity and effectiveness and frankly will not be very receptive to your ideas about improving the innovation culture. Now is that bad? Not really since really the immediate results are thanks to these staff and their measures. But the side effect of this is that people are equated to machines and told to just follow a process and not think differently. Also you only need to criticise a few failures and you will find that people are more than happy to go into their shell and follow the safe path. Ideally we need a mix of the two. A set of resources (ideally senior staff with enough experience and those who understand customer needs) should be given the charter to think of new ways and actively encouraged to fail and try different ideas. In the long run, some of these will surely be successful and that will make all the failures worthwhile for the organisation.

The second point is more about setting an example to the majority staff who will be junior. Not all managers and leaders realise it but they have tremendous power and influence over the junior staff in the organisation. They should be aware of this and need to use it effectively. As an example, if the top management staff in the organisation spend as little as 1 hour in a week meeting different teams and enforcing the message of innovation and openness, it will go a long way in encouraging staff to trying out different things and motivating them to break the shackles and think differently. Another equally important point is about freedom and the power to change. It is not enough if employees are asked to think new ideas and differently, equally important is the resources and freedom to implement a few of their ideas which they think is worthwhile. Again if the top leaders of the organisation encourage this, they can be assured that soon it will spread and everybody will be trying different and new things. Agreed that not all of them will be successful and there may be some resources and money wasted, but I am sure the few items which do become successful will pay for all the bad failures.

So leaders - what do you think? Do you have the courage to introspect and ask these bold questions? More importantly are you bold enough to take some corrective action or do you want to take the easier path and blame the lack of innovative ideas on your resources?

Can you think of more measures? Happy to get your thoughts and ideas on this topic.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Innovation – How can Small and Medium organisations pursue it?

“Innovation – Is it not something for the large organisations to pursue? How can I, running a small organisation and still finding my foothold, invest in innovation?” -These were the questions that were raised to me by my friend who had just started his small organisation and who had a pretty good first year. “Well – big or small you need to pay attention in today’s world to retain your advantage”. I told him and gave him some examples of how innovation can open up some new opportunities for the small and medium organisations. Even though my friend agreed with me on the importance of innovation for all – there was still one pressing question - How can small organisations do innovation effectively with minimal investments? I did not have any direct answers for him and so decided to spend some time finding options and then giving him a detailed answer.

When I started researching, I understood the problems faced by my friend or other SMEs in their pursuit of innovation. How do they do it without spending huge amounts of money and by normal traditional means? For example - these options which are open to large organisations are not really open to them:

  1. Set up a task team to investigate new options - Large organisations can afford to have some resources engaging in research and other activities which don't yield direct benefits but small firms will struggle to do that since cash flow is a pressing and immediate concern for them.

  2. Work with partners to come up with solutions - Again large and established organisations will find it easier to partner with specialised firms who may hesitate to do so with small organisations since they are yet to prove themselves.

  3. Pay for consultants to come and help them with roadmap/strategies/studies etc - Since large companies have a larger portfolio they can afford to allocate some of their income towards consultants. Small firms will struggle to do this again because of cash flow concerns.

So the question is - what can small firms do in this scenario?

After doing some research, here are my thoughts and findings:

  1. Try to partner with other small firms in niche and specialist areas of innovation - The key here is to work out win-win relationships in complementary areas and such that they can leverage each other's area of specialisation. The challenge could be to find such symbiotic relationships but the benefit is compelling and can open more opportunities than through traditional channels

  2. Tap networks which are new but working on the areas the company wants to innovate thus exposing them to multiple channels but on a "pay for results" basis - Since small firms cannot afford to have task teams the next best option is try and partner with networks that tap solver communities that engage in research in certain areas on the basis of paying only for successful results. Thankfully due to the gaining popularity of Open Innovation, such networks are blossoming and it is definitely affordable. There is some effort involved in finding these networks and the initial engagement with them but over a period of time, the results will surely justify this investment.

  3. Use agility to engage with their customers and get them to dictate the areas of focus for innovation - One of the biggest advantages for small firms is that they are extremely agile and so they can use this opportunity to engage with their customers, listen to their ideas and work on implementing the ones which are most popular and which is doable without significant investments. This could be small steps initially but this can be used as a launching pad for all their future innovations

In summary, in this blog, we looked at some of the challenges faced by small and medium organisations in pursuing product innovation and also looked at some of the options available to them. I am sure all of you should have heard of the David and Goliath story - if you equate this to the fight between large firms and small firms, innovation is one of the big weapons in the small firms quiver using which it can spring quite a few surprises.

So small firms - learn to innovate and focus on product innovation on a continuous basis. Only innovation has the potential to level the playing field and also give an advantage to any small organisation as well, if done correctly.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Top Reasons for companies NOT to innovate

Reason 1: The decision maker says “Oh!! My company is committed to innovation but don’t know where to start”

Reality: This is by far the easiest reason to use. Agreed we don’t have too many tools or platforms dedicated to help companies to innovate. But that is not a good enough reason to put off this activity altogether. All it takes is to identify few focus areas within the company and get started. Of course, having started this initiative, the decision maker should encourage and nurture this area or you will find that your employees are quick to shun this and return to their more familiar territories.

Reason 2: The decision maker says “Oh!! But it is so expensive to invest in R&D labs and do innovation. Especially in these troubled times of recession.”

Reality: Innovation need not necessarily mean investing in huge R&D labs and making huge investments. In a simplistic form, innovation is looking at some of the current pain area or practices followed and trying to identify better ways of doing it. So we can always start small and get ideas. Just remember to get it from all the people involved – not just your R&D team. You will be surprised by what you get if you try honestly. You can then decide what is worth pursuing. You can take the simplest ones first if cash flow is a big concern for you at the moment.

Reason 3: The decision maker says “We have tried it in the past but have been rather unsuccessful. It is very difficult to keep pumping money into initiatives where there are no immediate returns. I need to face the shareholders every quarter”

Reality: This is a genuine concern. However this should be viewed like you would consider constructing a new building for your future growth. Even though these will be construed as expenses in the first few quarters, the benefit will be there for all to see in the future. Also there is an even bigger cost to bear if this initiative is not done at all especially considering that your competitors will not stand still watching you succeed. So the earlier you start, the better your chances of getting a big competitive advantage.

Reason 4: The decision maker says “My resources are all busy with other business as usual activities and so I really struggle to assign my top resources to this initiative”

Reality: Again a genuine reason especially in recessionary times like today. But in every crisis situation, there is an opportunity. If used well, this is a genuine opportunity to look at all your processes critically and identify areas for improvement. This will ensure that you are well positioned for growth when the market starts opening up. Also this is an opportunity to engage employees in slightly different activities from their regular job and they should enjoy this. A small incentive will also help in ensuring that it is done at the earliest given that it is going to be done along with the other normal activities.

Reason 5: The decision maker says “We have been thinking of entering into this new area to take our product to the next level but we are not sure how to start and we can’t hire new staff since there is a global freeze on hiring”

Reality: This sounds like a genuine opportunity to use Open Innovation concepts that you have been reading about but have not found the time to explore. It is now possible through Open Innovation to get ideas on your selected new area from experts without hiring them and at a fraction of the cost involved. These experts could be either within your partner organisation or elsewhere. It is up to you to decide your level of openness. Once you get these ideas, you can take this forward with your internal team who are best placed to appreciate the internal dynamics of your company. Try it and you will be surprised at the results!!!

In this blog, I have tried to highlight what I believe are the main reasons why companies don’t go all out for innovation. As you can see, it is a mix of some genuine concerns which makes them ignore innovation for now and some misconceptions which makes them believe that innovation is difficult to pursue unless they have huge resources at their disposal.

Hopefully this should help challenge some of their beliefs and help them re-evaluate their positions on this.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What are the other big reasons you have heard? How have you worked your way around them? Do share your experiences.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How usable is your innovation and why you should care?

Think about this.

  • Apple was NOT the founder of the MP3 format or the first to introduce it but they definitely captured the imagination of the people with iPod and made it a huge success.

  • Google was neither the first to introduce internet search but definitely should be credited to making it hugely popular.

  • Microsoft was definitely NOT the first to think in terms of a graphical user interface for computers but should be definitely credited with making it hugely popular.

Wonder where I am going with this? What is common between all the three scenarios identified above? The main one, I believe, is that all the 3 companies were able to innovate on the user experience and use that to establish themselves as market leaders.

We normally associate innovation with cutting edge technology which changes the way we live or work. While that is true once in a while, innovation, simply, is a new way of looking at things and redefining existing landscape or assumptions.

Of course, we can argue that usability is not the only difference in the above 3 examples and there are lots of other supporting infrastructure which helped and also about market timing, marketing, product positioning etc. While all that is true, without usability, I don’t think, they would have achieved the scale and popularity.

So it begs the question – Why did others not think about it before? Why do we generally ignore usability when we launch something innovative or new?

There are many reasons but here are my main ones that come to the top of my mind:

  • First to market advantage: Companies are under constant pressure to be the first to release some cutting edge innovation. Due to this pressure, they sacrifice or compromise on the user experience in their race to launch first. As you can see from the above and countless other examples, this could prove fatal.

  • Geeky Product Managers: The main focus of the technical product staff is on showing off the technical advance or new features that they sometimes ignore the user experience. Again a faulty or risky strategy.

  • Eco-system or supporting infrastructure: Another aspect which gets ignored is the supporting eco-system for the user to make it complete. All the applications made available for Windows played a huge role in making it successful. Similarly iTunes played an important role in the success of Apple and iPod.

So what are the lessons to be learnt and how can we improve this for all our future innovations. These are my thoughts:

  1. Ensure that your product team has a mix of both technical and non-technical resources working together. The non-technical resource should be from the user community who will ensure that the usability issues are not ignored. I think it is best to involve them from the beginning to ensure that the final design is acceptable from a user point of view.

  2. Get the product team to spend some time actually watching how their product is being used by their end users and the challenges the users face. This will help them plan the future direction of the product.

  3. Plan for end to end testing. This not only includes the experience related to buying your product but also should look at other related factors like supporting environment, applications or any other factors involved in improving the complete user experience of owning the product.

In summary, usability, as a field, has got some attention these days as far as web site design goes. But it still has a long way to go before it is considered even for technical gadgets or hardware/electrical appliances or software products. This is not right and frankly all our innovations (whether it is a new music player or complicated software for scheduling or it is a new invention in the area of medicine) should focus on making it usable and enhance the user experience to achieve its full potential.

So the next time when you plan the budgets for your R&D projects and the “Go to market” strategy is being planned for your next killer innovative product, make sure that appropriate attention is paid to the usability side of things.

Make your innovation usable. The world deserves it and you stand to gain as well!!!!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Six Sigma and Innovation – Can they co-exist?

My friend was proudly talking to me about how he had implemented Six Sigma in his organisation and how it has improved efficiencies all across. “In fact”, my friend was boasting, “we have made it such a controlled environment that our people don’t need to think anymore. Just focus on execution and eliminating waste”. The last statement made me react. I challenged my friend “Now even though I have utmost respect for Six Sigma, I wonder if it is a good thing to streamline operations so much that it does not make people think?. After all, your people are your biggest assets. Do you want to miss out on the opportunity of utilising this resource to the best of its potential by blindly asking them to follow instructions? Surely that is overdoing it and this was not the purpose of Six Sigma.” We had to cut short our conversation since my friend got a call from his home. But I decided to explore more on this topic.

Back at work, I read more articles on this topic which made me realise that there are some inherent contradictions between Six Sigma principles and Innovation. Six Sigma by its nature, is more focussed on operational efficiencies and so tries to eliminate risks (in terms of deviations or new work practices). So this could in the best case lead to small incremental innovation but nothing beyond that. On the other hand, innovation is all about finding new ways to do things and this will mean challenging all the existing assumptions and norms. This is the only way to achieve path breaking innovations.

The main problem is for the managers and employees involved in these programs. They have different charters and so it sometimes can become confusing and misleading. But everybody agrees that for an organisation to succeed, you need both Six Sigma programs and innovation programs to continue and complement each other. So do you run both these programs in parallel?

Here are my thoughts.

  1. Understand the contradictions and plan accordingly. For Eg: We can run Six Sigma programs to make a process more efficient and while doing it if we realise or discover that there are more opportunities to explore more revolutionary or alternate ways of doing it, then spawn it off as a separate innovation project to explore that option. This way both programs can run in parallel without disrupting their daily schedules.

  2. Rotate staff between both programs (especially senior managers) – This will serve 2 purposes:

    • Ensure that the resources have a well rounded experience in working in different kind of projects which will enhance their work experience and also free them from boredom generally associated with routine work.

    • Help them understand the other perspective. For Eg: It will make resources working on innovation projects understand the importance of being accountable and efficient and it will make resources working on operational efficiencies the importance of being creative and challenging all existing norms.

  3. Plan for adequate training and support to help the transition for the different kind of profiles. For Eg: People who are well versed with Six Sigma should be exposed to training on creativity before they are put on innovation programs and vice versa. This will help them cope and deliver.

  4. Demonstrate senior management commitment for both initiatives – It is important for both teams to understand how their contributions fit into the big picture from the company’s future plan perspective and so feel valued. The best way to achieve this is through effective communication and by rewarding top performers in both categories. This will ensure that each of the teams support and complement each other without inhibitions.

  5. Have targets for growth from both categories so that performance is measured and rewarded – This ensures that the senior managers are made accountable and gives enough focus to both areas in the same way.

In conclusion, both these groups are like the two arms of the organisation and when both are well looked after and well oiled, they complement each other and work effectively. The Six Sigma programs ensure that the existing processes are efficient and well-tuned thus making the company profitable today. On the other hand, the investment in innovation programs ensures that the organisation needs of tomorrow are taken care of thereby securing the future growth of the company.

However remember both these programs need nurturing and support. Specifically the innovation programs needs more nurturing since it is focussed on the future requirements. Hence these programs should not be measured on the same parameters. But with a little effort and patience you can get both programs to work effectively for your organisation and get your company to prosper both today and tomorrow!!!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Crowds - Are you harnessing their knowledge?

So you have been tasked with coming up with the next generation killer product by your company. You have mainly two ways of doing this – get a killer team in place (hopefully with diverse skills), freedom to experiment and periodic reviews to ensure that work is progressing OR open out to your customer base and partners to work along with you to come up with the killer design

As you can imagine, the first approach was the traditional way of doing it and is still pretty popular amongst old generation companies. Car companies are the best example that comes to mind for this. Think of it. Every time a new car is launched, there is lots of effort which has gone into it. So it is really a pity if it is not well received by the people and has to be discontinued!!! That is a huge amount of money which is wasted. But companies are still happy to pursue this model and rely on 1 or 2 success stories ignoring all the other failures. You can argue that there are lessons to be learnt from all failures – while that is right; it is a pretty expensive way of learning. Look around and you will find this model being adopted by quite a few industries from software products to banking/insurance products. So what are the problems with this approach? The main one is that customer feedback is got only at a very late stage and can’t really be acted upon.

So, is there an alternative approach? Of course there is and it is slowly catching the imagination of the world. In this approach, the final product is developed by the company but with active participation from the customers and business partners in the design process. The most recent example of this is Nokia who opened up the design of the next generation mobile phone to all their customers or Cisco who has announced the iPrize to get some creative new ideas from the crowd which they will be implementing. The advantage of this approach is that you are getting ideas or suggestions from the people who are ultimately going to use the product and you can rest assured that these are passionate people who are very much interested in the domain. So while you can’t guarantee success every time following this approach, you do increase your chances significantly since you are working on the feedback of your lead customers in an agile kind of environment. While all this sounds good, are there any pitfalls with this approach? The main one is around the management of the various feedbacks received. Companies could find that they are overwhelmed by the response and it is certainly not possible to incorporate all of the feedback to please all customers. Hence companies need to invest in some platform to manage the responses and work with them.

Ideally I think companies should plan to use a mix of both these platforms. While customer feedback may be a very good way of getting incremental innovative ideas, it may not really work when it comes to coming up with radical or blue sky innovative ideas (those involving challenging all existing boundaries or parameters). So these are best approached with a traditional platform and by involving R&D staff (preferably through open innovation but that is the topic of another post). Also a few of the feedback may be totally impractical to implement given our challenging environment (budget constraints, time to market etc). However the strength of the customer feedback platform is the ability to get suggestions from the people who matter. In this context an example worth mentioning is about P&G. Apart from its famed “Connect & Grow” program, which was hugely popular in rewriting most of the rules about partnership, another program which is not talked about so much but is equally popular is the effort taken by P&G to actually design separate products for its new markets (China/India and other low cost economies) rather than trying to fit their existing product lines to these markets. P&G actually had their staff spend times at these different market environments observing how their product is being used by the people in the different countries and tweaking their product line appropriately. The customer feedback platform can be used for the same purpose and there is huge potential if this is used extensively.

So – for all you companies trying to come up with the next iPod killer, there is help at hand. There is a crowd out there whose knowledge can be leveraged to get the best benefit and create win-win situations. In the future I don’t think it is going to be a choice whether you want to use this knowledge or not – the case for using it is pretty compulsive.

A final word of caution – The engagement with the crowd needs to be done with the aim to create win-win situations for the crowd and the company. As I said earlier, the crowd will be happy to participate when they realise that there is something in it for them. It need not always be monetary benefits though that can be a very good starting point. But at the same time, they will be very quick to disappear if they realise that either they are being exploited or their contributions are not being valued. This is a very thin line and so care must be taken to ensure that this line is not crossed during the engagement. This is like an additional channel and these participants are like your extended employees. If you are willing to invest both your time and energy in this, it will prove beneficial in the long term. But it does need nurturing. However at the same time, if you push too hard or try to get too much benefits without demonstrating the value, you will risk closing this channel forever. The choice is yours.

I am sure you will choose wisely.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Power of Diversity

I was reading aloud to my son yesterday, one of Aesop’s stories about the strength of unity in diversity. It was a trademark story about how a jungle has different animals with all different traits and how they all work together in a crisis situation. That triggered my thoughts and I realised how we all seem to have forgotten this simple message in today’s corporate world.

Confused? Don’t agree. Think about it. When was the last time you had staff from different departments from your organisation come together to work on a corporate problem? When did you last try to attack a pressing problem by bringing together people with different and varied skill sets? All of us are so busy with our day to day challenges that we are just running from one crisis to another without even time for reflecting. Also another major factor is that most of our organisations have now setup so many internal barriers that collaborating across them requires dedicated attention and time – something that all of us just don’t have in today’s competitive world!!! So we just organise teams with similar skilled people and encourage everybody to think “out of the box”. Unfortunately that is easier said than done!!!

Why is this important? Ask any trouble shooting expert or any innovation “guru” and he will vouch for the power of diversity. The more varied and different their skill sets are, the more diverse their thinking is and that will directly reflect in the creative solutions that they come up with. I am sure all of you have experienced a situation where you are stuck with a problem and can’t seem to find a solution even after spending a lot of time on it. We get out of such situations in many different ways – some people sleep over this situation, some people take a short break away from work, some people talk it over with colleagues/friends. But all of us agree that the best way to resolve these kinds of issues is by having a fresh look at it. Look around you today. You will find that diverse teams are very difficult to find. IT guys stick together, domain experts form their own circle and it is very rare to find a mix of these diverse fields.

So what can organisations do to encourage diversity? I think the first thing organisations need to provide is a platform where diverse teams can be formed and work together using their complementary skills. This is the biggest challenge, as of today, due to globalisation and the distributed way of working today. It is not uncommon today to find that the core technology team is based maybe out of India or Brazil while the domain experts are in US/UK or Australia given that their customer base is in that region. Finally the back office processing team could be in another geographical location. In such a scenario, getting teams to collaborate together is a huge challenge without a platform. Anybody who is currently working with teams in different time zones and geographical locations will know what I am talking about.

So assuming we have a platform in place for collaboration, what else do we need? The second and equally important requirement is motivation or incentive to collaborate. This could be either in terms of reward money or it could be also non-monetary incentives like a gift voucher or holiday for two or something popular enough to motivate the experts to contribute. Why is this important? The problem today is that everybody is as busy with their normal business as usual (BAU) activities that it is a challenge to get the brightest minds to collaborate without incentives. Also this sends a clear message to the group that this is an important activity which needs to be prioritised and creates a win-win situation.

Finally the last factor, which is important, is the definition of objectives and key result areas for domain experts and star performers. This should include participation in the collaborative platform and they should be encouraged to contribute. This will help in two ways.

  1. This will help in maintaining the quality of the solutions being discussed since these are the best talent within the organisation.

  2. They will act as role models and guide other staff while at the same time ensuring that the deadlines are not compromised. Over a period of time, this platform can help groom talent and identify potential high performers within the organisation.

So – are there any pitfalls to watch out for or avoid? Well – Some attention will be required initially to ensure that the platform is being used transparently and people are having healthy discussions. Care should be specifically taken to ensure that newcomers are encouraged and valued. But over a period of time, the group will become self-governing. Regular feedback and transparent evaluation will go a long way in encouraging people to contribute regularly and keeping them interested. But the true success of the platform should be measured by the creativity of the solutions generated. The platform should serve as an avenue to demonstrate the power of diversity and inspire everybody to achieve greater heights through collaboration and through partnership.

So what do you think? Do you know of any examples of such platforms being used today? Can you think of any reasons why they are not popular and some of the challenges these platforms will need to overcome?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Myths of Open Innovation

While there is lots of curiosity and discussion around this topic, there are also some major myths which need to be shattered before this is adopted fully by all organisations. The topic of this post is to discuss these myths and show how they are wrong.

  1. Myth: Open Innovation is difficult to start and the organisation needs to implement many changes before it can be taken up.

  2. Reality: Definitely a myth or an excuse. Actually an open innovation project can be started on any project initiative. If privacy is a huge concern, suggest you start with your less secretive projects. Ideally select projects which have been attempted before internally with limited success. You will be surprised by the responses. Changes are inevitable in any innovation initiative but open innovation needs more a change in mindset rather than any major organisational change.

  3. Myth: I have a large internal R&D team and they will be jobless if I go with open innovation initiatives.

  4. Reality: This could qualify as one of the biggest myths. Open Innovation initiatives do not totally eliminate internal R&D staff. Your internal R&D staffs are invaluable since they understand your internal environment the best. However they will be able to get some important perspectives and directions from the external world through open innovation. Open Innovation is NOT outsourcing.

  5. Myth: All my innovation projects are very private and should not be visible to the outside world. Also I don’t want to run into patenting issues.

  6. Reality: Definitely a myth. While some innovation projects are truly dealing with trademark and copyrighted information which cannot be disclosed to the outside world, the vast majority of them do not fall into this category and so can benefit from the experience of the outside world. Also it is possible to remove the confidential information from most of the secretive projects and present in such a way that the outside world will not be aware of the true application of this. This is additional work but well worth the effort. Patenting issues are a concern but am sure your company lawyer will be able to handle this by Non Disclosure Agreement and other patent agreements. As long as you involve the right legal experts from the beginning, this is definitely not a show stopper.

  7. Myth: The suggestions/ideas from the outside world are not really applicable in our scenario since our company requirements are unique.

  8. Reality: A myth again. Even though not all the ideas from outside will be always applicable, it is indeed surprising if all the ideas/suggestions from the outside world are not applicable especially on a repeated basis. This only means that maybe they are not being considered seriously enough or the people evaluating them are not “open” enough to consider the outside ideas/suggestions seriously.

  9. Myth: Open Innovation initiatives are only applicable to very large organisations. Most of the small or medium organisations cannot benefit from this.

  10. Reality: This is a myth. It is definitely true that large organisations, by the nature of their size and problems, can benefit more from open innovation initiatives. But that does not mean that the small or medium organisations need to be left out. All it requires is that the small and medium organisations choose the niche area they want to focus on and then work on innovating in that space. Of course, they would need to make it worthwhile by investing both money and resources. In fact due to their agility and with prudent use of Open Innovation, small and medium firms will be able to spring a good surprise on large organisations through open innovation.

This is by no means exhaustive but covers some of the top reasons I believe why organisations do not progress open innovation initiatives. The main difference or catalyst required, which will make a difference, is the buy-in of the top management team. All open innovation needs is a few members of the leadership team to embrace this whole-heartedly and believe in this completely. Once organisations discover the true strength of the external teams, they will be transformed forever.

Are you ready to tap the potential of the outside world and work out win-win relationships? So what are you waiting for? Go forth and break all barriers and boundaries. The world truly deserves innovative products and this will not happen until the best minds collaborate together.

Together, we can do it!!!! We owe it to our tomorrow!!!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bringing in Innovation Culture - How do I start?

Location: Board Room

There was one week to go before the annual results are announced. People were poring over Excel sheets and some worry lines were beginning to show up in some of the faces. Suddenly there was a hushed silence.

Stephen was the CEO and the one who was going to face the music next week when the results are announced. He was calm, composed but everybody around the table knew that he was not overjoyed with the results. The main problem was that just recently their main competitor had released a slew of products which had so far significantly captured their existing market and was threatening to overtake their advantage unless they react. They had to react quickly and decisively. After a heated discussion on their next steps, they all decided that they will announce “Innovation” as the mantra to solve their current problems and overtake their competitor.

This scene could have played out in many large organisations time and again. The problem though is that half of these announcements are generally to pay lip service and nothing beyond. But this time, the situation is slightly different because of the existing market conditions and the immediate threat.

2 Weeks later

Stephen was relatively happy with the way he was able to explain the disappointing results. The share holders seem to trust his story on innovation and ideas. But he knew that he had to deliver and time was short.

Nadia was the recently appointed VP of Innovation. She knew that the results of creating an innovative environment was definitely the way forward but she also knew that it takes time and that was something which was not in her side. She had to show quick results and was wondering how she can do that.

Does this sound clichéd? Question is how do we tackle this issue? How can we show quick results through Innovation and how do we slowly but steadily change the corporate culture showing quick wins and progress. My feeling is that we need both short term and long term measures. Here are my thoughts on this topic and how I feel top leaders can address this issue:

Short term measures to bring in an innovation culture:

  • Identify themes/areas where innovation can be applied and get ideas/suggestions from maximum employees as possible.

  • Take people into confidence and give them maximum incentives for focussing on this.
    Appreciate that change can be difficult and so encourage and promote right behaviours as much as possible.

  • Ensure transparency and be positive in all responses. For Eg: If any ideas are rejected, give detailed explanation why (not high level replies). Also make this visible for everybody so that they can understand your thinking process.

  • Monitor the response of senior leaders and middle management staff. They have the highest influence and really drive the behaviour of the staff. People will be very quick to retreat into their shell if they are not encouraged or they feel that their ideas have not been considered enough. This is the easiest way to kill such initiatives.

Long term measures to bring in an innovation culture

  • Encourage failures and bring in a culture of experimentation and trial. No idea is bad and encourage employees to question all accepted norms and procedures.

  • Reduce management layers and get the leaders and the top management staff communicate as much as possible with the field force and the customer facing staff. This will drive open communication and ensure that all are in sync.

  • Be wary of political influences and tight hierarchical structures not adapting to changes.

  • Brainstorm regularly and make it a habit for staff to meet regularly, discuss and improve. Document and communicate these thoughts with all the employees to trigger more thinking around this and to encourage everybody.

  • Share best practices and encourage open innovation concepts as well so that the team is receptive to outside ideas and information.

I have tried to summarise some key points management teams can take up when they try to use innovation as a means of driving growth. Of course, this is like a journey and this is by no means complete. Do you have any more techniques which are worth sharing? Do share your experiences. We need all the help we can get to bring about change in our workplace.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hierarchy and Innovation

I recently caught up with my friend who had been laid off from a large organisation and is currently employed with a small start up. Amongst other things, I was asking him what the differences were between his previous employer and his current one and he mentioned that the biggest difference was with respect to the innovation culture. The start up is so very open to innovation and promotes the innovation culture that he feels the bigger organisation can never catch up with that. That set me thinking.

Most large organisations are characterised by hierarchical organisational structure and by well defined processes. Is this a deterrent to the innovation culture? This typically breeds a “silo”ed way of working where more rules are specified and boundaries dictated. This will over a period of time kill the experimental spirit of individuals and discourage “out of the box” thinking. I know there are a few examples which have defied this logic but that has happened only due to exceptional and conscious reasons.

The other fact is that most large organisations have found a way of achieving success. This in turn makes people reticent and satisfied to create boundaries and stick to that. While, this strategy may work during good times, it will bite back with a vengeance during bad times since suddenly people are shaken off their comfort zones and more importantly have forgotten or have not developed their innovation or risk taking abilities.

The start up firm, in sharp contrast, is still finding its feet and so is open to try out new things, learns quickly and progresses. This in turn makes them very agile and able to adapt really quickly. Also they have less baggage and risk to worry about since they are the underdogs and so literally free to try out new things.

This is a pity since the vast majority of us are employed in large organisations and it seems such a shame that the majority of us are not potentially using our complete skill sets or exploring the innovative side of us.

So can we do something about this? Surely there have been some large organisations that have broken this shackle. How have they achieved this? Can we learn from them?

The answer thankfully, is that, it is definitely possible. But it just needs time, patience, constant reinforcement and some able leaders who believe in this and are willing to lead by example.

So how do you get started? For starters, large organisations have to make a conscious effort to acknowledge the problem and then take concrete steps to progress this. Some of the initiatives I can think of are:

  • Reward people to break the corporate silos and participate in company wide initiatives

  • Earmark money specifically for exploring new ideas/avenues and ensure it is spent only for new avenues (not extensions of existing areas)

  • Consciously break strict hierarchical structures at work and encourage the formation of specialised groups. This will get the best minds to come together and discuss their challenges and you can be sure that some good ideas will come out of this.

  • Focus specifically on middle management layers. They are generally the most difficult to get to participate in company wide initiatives since they are so focussed on the profit and loss of their departments.

  • Ensure that the best talent is rotated amongst various departments to ensure that knowledge is shared. These resources are the best influencers and so it is important they are spread to all corners of the organisation.

  • Publish success stories and encourage talent who lead by example. This is very contagious and soon you could have different teams competing with each other to contribute to such initiatives.

Have more ideas? I would be happy to hear from you. Share your experiences or thoughts on how this can be further improved.

The path is not easy but definitely worth pursuing. Let me leave you with a thought. The problem today is that we consider innovation today only when pushed to the wall like we run to a doctor when we are sick. In sharp contrast we ought to be thinking of it all the time (like health wellness centres getting popular these days). Let us not wait for a wake up call to focus on innovation.
Alltop, all the cool kids (and me)

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