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: 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.
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