In the game of innovation, discipline trumps creativity.
Larry Keeley, my mentor at the helm of Doblin, famously describes innovation as a discipline. He goes so far as to claim he’d prefer to take the field with a battalion of marines over a gaggle of creative geniuses.
If you make the mistake of thinking innovation happens through a creative stroke of genius, then you’re likely to surround yourself with creative types. If you come to understand innovation as a rigorous process, you realize that repeatable success takes, as Edison characterized it, one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
Discipline effectively means applying a diversely talented team to a repeatable process informed by valid data. Edison’s labored experimentation stands as an iconic example for disciplined innovation.
By contrast, “creativity” conjures up the false image of a lone genius screaming eureka! as lightning strikes. Steven Johnson’s terrific book, Where Good Ideas Come From, helps to set the historical record straight.
Sadly, the skewed mythology of innovation holds a strong grip on the imagination.
Leaders fall prey to arm-waving charlatans, thinking that if they introduce a playful environment with squeaky toys and colorful furniture that they can think big thoughts about old problems in new ways. They believe this might make lightning strike.
Another common tactic: pull a crowd into a room to brainstorm under the flawed premise that there are no bad ideas. Wow are there some bad ideas — starting with brainstorming, which sends innovation down rat holes, and frankly sounds like a euphemism for an aneurism.
Corporate brainstorming — in the service of innovation — produces bad ideas because the voice of the end user is typically absent. Worse than bad ideas, brainstorming creates the illusion of progress, which slows down real progress. Adding more uninformed people into a conversation of ignorance only makes it louder. Save the Post-It notes.
“We really haven’t got any great amount of data on the subject, and without data how can we reach any definite conclusions?”
~ Thomas Alva Edison
Innovate in 4D.
Use an established method, familiar to engineers, architects and designers, to introduce discipline into your innovation efforts.
1. Define the problem in internal terms
Find the person who owns the problem – ideally someone with a P&L who needs more P and less L.
What does she want to achieve for her business? What is the goal for growth?
Write it on the wall, in the currency that makes or breaks careers: net new revenues or market share.
“We need 12 percent growth to make plan. Our forecast of current products adds up to 9%. That 3% gap means we need to do something new that generates at least $250 million by year three. Find me that growth!”
2. Discover unmet or under-served needs.
Dive headlong into the market and study humans in pain. This requires ethnography expertise.
You have to study humans the way Jared Diamond studied aborigines or Dian Fossey studied gorillas. Modern man is only harder because he wears funny costumes and tells you what he thinks you want to hear.
Oh, and for godssake, don’t use focus groups for innovation discovery. They have their place later, when you’re prompting reactions to prototypes, or to solicit collaboration among experts. But when it comes to needs identification, human nature and poor design make focus groups a petrie dish for misdirection and smiling bald-faced lies. Lock me in a room full of strangers and ply me with M&Ms and chicken salad. Believe me, I’m gonna tell you what you want to hear. Focus group? Water boarding? Tomayto, tomahto.
The good news, if you use the right tools, and the right team with the right training, you don’t have to look that hard. The truth is out there. Where there is angst or frustration, waste or cost, there is opportunity. Chicago’s Institute of Design hosts one of the top masters degree programs in design for innovation including these methods. Here’s a video primer on ethnography.
Recognize that your customers may not yet observe their accepted pain or frustrations as a “need”. To them it’s not a “problem” per se. It’s just the status quo. Like English people docilely standing in a queue as if it’s an Olympic sport — they’ve come to accept it.
But the fact remains that there is latent demand bubbling below the surface. Tap it and watch it blow.
I’m a busy guy. I raise two boys. After a rough day in the innovation coal mines, the last thing I want to do is scramble together the dinner they deserve. I only know it takes forever to cook dinner. Takes even longer to clean up. And half the time they can’t stomach the “innovations” I concoct. So sure, I have a problem. Hell, I gotta bunch of problems. But if it has never been invented before, I can’t tell you that I need something called a microwave oven or a frozen pizza.
Stick to identifying the problem; don’t fumble around jumping to solutions.
“I want to feed my family like my mother did, with a well-balanced home-cooked meal. But I don’t have time. I harbor silent guilt. I’m failing my family!”
Find pain. Give it a name.
3. Design solutions that match supply to demand
Play to strengths. Stick to the places where you have a right to win. Match your assets to the markets needs. If you’re good at electronics, introduce the microwave oven. If you’re good at tossing dough, invent frozen pizza.
Bias for rapid prototyping. Test ideas early and often with quick, low fidelity, back of napkin constructs. Depending on the nature of the challenge, solution design may call for a wide variety of talents, from engineering to finance, videography to coding, microwave mechanics to dough refrigeration sciences. So I’ll save that description to treat it responsibly, particularly because the approach is counter-intuitive for most of us. For now you can get a running start from Vijay Kumar’s 101 Design Methods.
4. Deploy new solutions as a continuation of prototypes.
Avoid the mistake of launching the “right” product. There is no right product or service. Pilot and learn from the wrong product until you get it right enough. This is the science of product launches that many companies practice effectively today. The common mistake is simply thinking you’re supposed to get it right the first time out of the chute.
Keep cycling through versions even as you pilot in test markets. Only make changes based on real-world inputs. (You’ll be tempted to tweak based on your own preferences. Avoid that – it’s too easy to go backwards.)
Turn up the fidelity as you push each iteration farther out into the market.
That’s all it takes. Uncommon people doing uncommon things, crafting novel solutions to previously undiscovered needs.