Tag Archives: innovation

Advancing in the Resurgent Economy


Change the gameI was asked recently to present at the upcoming spring conference of the Project Management Institute, being held in the Detroit area (Novi MI).   Their theme this year, “Advancing in the Resurgent Economy” evokes a call to more innovation and change.

I was asked to speak on the topic of innovation.

So check out the conference, and come hear my talk if you wish.    You can visit the conference website

What: Spring Symposium, PMI Great Lakes Chapter

Time: 0800a to 5:00p

Where: Suburban Collection Showplace, Novi MI

INNOVATION TRACK

My presentation: Changing the Game: Tools & Mindsets for Building Innovative Problems Solving Teams 

Morning Session #1 |10:00a | Room: Crystal Ballroom

What I will talk about:

Achieving a sustainable competitive advantage is the strategic objective of every organization. Since all companies everywhere in the world have access to the same technology, information, knowledge, and capital, these alone cannot be a source of that competitive advantage. It is through the innovative and creative ways these things can be applied that we can achieve break-through ideas that can change the game in our industry. This is about tapping the creative energies of our workforce. Developing our innovation muscles is vitally important. We will look at the need to be innovative, and the consequences of failing to do so. We will look to the global best practices being used by firms like IDEO, Google, Bell Labs, Pixar and others to see the common threads. The presentation will discuss the formula for developing an innovative team and show some real examples of how these practices are being applied.

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Stuck? Try Using Innovation by Analogy


weightsWhen people are engaged in problem solving, it is not uncommon that they get stuck when searching for solutions.   Or, you may not be stuck per se, but you feel your ideas lack imagination.   When either of these occurs, we can benefit from some external stimulus to help us break through to new creative insights.    One tool that you can use is called Innovation By Analogy.

University of Texas Cognitive psychologist, Dr. Art Markman, is one expert into how people think.  He explains in his book Tools for Innovation: The Science Behind the Practical Methods That Drive New Ideas that very often we have in our minds the information to creatively solve problems, but we often have difficulty accessing it or even recognizing how what we already know can be applied.   Often, innovative solutions are merely the re-application of other solutions in some slightly different way.   The trick is figuring out which pieces of knowledge are relevant to the new problem you are trying to solve.

We think, says Dr. Markman, by looking at a problem in a certain way, and then searching our mental “data banks” as if our brain were like Wikipedia looking for the right entry to read.   Just as in Wikipedia (or using Google, for that matter) the references you uncover are dependent on what “search words or phrases” you decide to type into the search window.   For those of you who have tried Google searches before, you know it is somewhat of an art form.   Deciding on the correct search terms is key.

Imagine this as your problem:

You have just started a weight training program, 4 days per week.  Your spouse bought you a weight set for the holidays, and you have been highly pleased with your progress so far.  You are assigned a new job that will require extensive travel, and you would not like to see your new personal health initiative abandoned.   You can’t depend on the chance that every hotel will have an adequately equipped fitness center.  The idea of lugging your weights with you (in a separate suitcase, perhaps) seems like it will push you past your baggage weight limit with the airline).  So, how might you solve this problem?

There are multiple solution pathways you might go down.  The one(s) you choose depends largely on how you choose to frame the problem statement.

You could think of the problem as “how do I bring my personal weight set with me when I travel?”   Framed in this way, it is a transportation problem.   What is the cheapest means of shipping precious or heavy materials with you when you travel?  You could pay the baggage surcharge and ship them on the airplane.   You could consider other freight forwarding services as well.

If you wanted to get creative, you might ask yourself, “Who else has solved this problem?”  What about musicians who perform in a different city every night?  What about someone with a health condition who needs oxygen or other specialized medical equipment to be nearby?  Investigating these analogous situations (even though they do not have anything to do with your weight shipping problem), may lead you to other possible solutions.   Perhaps the solution is traveling by bus or van (where you can bring more weight).   Maybe there are freight-forwarding services that specialize in quick, personal service.  Maybe you could choose to rent some equipment in your destination city.

Another way to think about your problem might be, “I prefer NOT to lug my weights with me, what can I do when I get to my hotel that allows me to keep up with my exercise regime?”  In this case, you have taken YOUR WEIGHTS out of the equation.     Now this is a problem of substitution – what else might I be able to do while on the road the yields the same benefits as my weight program?  This line of thinking may lead you to improvising exercises with things you will readily find in your hotel room (how about a new use for your night stand?).  Or, you might think about other forms of physical conditioning that build core body strength without depending on weights.   You might ask here, “who else has solved this problem?   Well, your research might lead you to a program developed by the Navy Seals called TRX Training.  It replaces machines and weights using your own body weight to provide the resistance you need for muscle development.  So, you might find some TRX exercises that you could easily adapt to some of the settings you might find in a typical hotel.

Or, how about reframing your problem this way: “I want to have a set of weights that don’t have the weight or the bulk in them while I’m travelling, but can have the weight added at the time I want to use them.”   Notice, that what we’re doing here is to think about the problem more abstractly for a second. We’re not really talking much about the weight as the item to be transported any longer.  Instead, weight is just something to be added when it is going to be used.

Does reframing the question in this way lead you down yet another path?   What other things can you think of that collapse when in storage, but can have something added to it when you want to use it?

How about an air mattress?  In this case the analogy is a bit removed in that the thing you fill an air mattress with has very little weight.  But the idea is the same, filling something in your hotel room, (say with water at 3.785kg per gallon).   Now your analogous thinking has led you to consider what you could bring (e.g. a deflatable pouch that could be filled with water and hung from a bar in some manner.)

So there in a nutshell is the process in innovation by analogy.  Just follow these steps.

1)    REFRAME the problem.  Like we did with our weight problem above.  Re-state it making different assumptions as you go. (taking my weights, substituting something for them, and taking them in a different form than is common) You might want to reframe multiple times to force yourself to consider a richer array of solutions.

2)    ASK “What is it like?”  Use analogies, metaphors and associations to connect other situations to your newly framed problem statements.   As an example, one oil pipeline company concerned with the habitual problem of leaks, considered the process of clotting in the human blood stream as their analogy.  They investigated what chemical additives they could add to the pipeline contents that would exhibit similar clotting behaviors as human blood when exposed to air.)

3)    ASK “Who (or what) else solves this problem?”  Think about other organizations products, groups companies (most likely outside of your industry) who have tackled the aspect of the problem you are now considering.  Think also about examples from nature.  Then study them.   Here is another example:  One health care organization I know was thinking about improving its patient satisfaction scores.  They recognized that one source of patient dissatisfaction came from waiting – which is a common occurrence.  They asked themselves who else has managed to make waiting seem less unsatisfying.  Their thoughts turned to DISNEY.   This led them to consider how they could make their waiting environments more stimulating, educational, and engaging with artful decoration, TV programming, toys for children, etc.

4)    CONSIDER “how might I adapt their solution to my situation?”   This step should be easiest. You need to figure out how the analogous solution could be modified in some manner to work in your specific situation, cultural environment, within your desired budget, and so forth.

So the next time you are stuck, or unimpressed by the inventiveness of the options you are considering, try the technique of Innovation By Analogy.  Who knows where it might lead you?

Other Resources:

Analogy is the Essence of Innovation, by Art Markman, Ph.D., in Psychology Today

How to use analogies for breakthrough innovations, by Dipl. Wi.-Ing. Katharina Schild, Prof. Dr. Cornelius Herstatt, and Dr. Christian Lüthje, Institute of Technology and Innovation Management, Technical University of Hamburg

Analogies Are the Way of Breakthrough Innovation, by Michael S. Slocum, realinnovation.com 

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An Innovation Committee?


There has been a lot written lately about the decline in innovation, or R&D productivity in the US and elsewhere. 

Flattened OutLabor rates (in the US in particular) have flattened out, and are now in decline.  (see as an example, the chart labeled “Flattened out”)  The argument is that we are not bringing out new technologies at a fast enough pace to sustain the growth in wages.  Declining wages reduces consumer spending which accounts for 70%ish of total GDP.   And thus, some economists argue that technological innovation is a key driving force in overall economic vitality and growth.

Often over recent history, evolutions in core technologies (the internal combustion engine, electric power, oil and gas, transportation, cellular communications, computer technology) have propelled economic growth.  In the US for example, when our “innovation engine” was running well, we saw a blistering economic growth rate of about 2.5% per year.  Since the turn of this century, that rate has fallen to about 1%.

While R&D spending hasn’t dried up, some argue that the significance of what is being invented today is less than in the past.  The Economist reported on one study suggesting that R&D workers 60 years ago contributed about 7X more to economic growth as compared with their successors who are in our laboratories and engineering departments today.   I am not sure of all the reasons why, but I have read articles suggesting that our fixation with lowering risk is forcing shorter time horizons and companies to focus on smaller non-game changing projects that have more certain chances for commercial success.

Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley visionary, and founder of PayPal puts it this way, “[we grew up dreaming about] flying cars, instead we got 140 characters [in 73 different type fonts].”

So how do we re-kindle that spark of innovation?

Here is a website that suggests that one effective way to accelerate innovation within your organization is to form your own innovation steering committee.  The idea is to create a band of senior executive leaders to discuss how they could instill innovation across the enterprise.   This may be a good idea . . . creating the so-called “guiding coalition” that drives innovation.

I’m not so sure.

Innovation is not top-down driven.  It must become an embedded element of organizational culture.   The leader’s role is to find ways to encourage a prudent amount of risk taking, where it is ok to stumble along the way – so long as we learn from and improve upon it.

In my MBA class the other night we were talking about how sometimes organizational structures create barriers and we started considering ways of getting around them.  One student talked about her company (in this case a highly regarded organization) which created an Innovation Committee to whom all ideas for new stuff flowed.  She told of an example where she came up with an idea to promote conversion of some forms of information into electronic formats, which she believed would save space, and improve worker productivity.  So, she dutifully filled out the requisite forms and submitted them to the Innovation Committee.   “I received a polite thank you note from them”, she said, “but nothing ever happened.”

How many times do you suppose that outcome needs to happen before employees stop sending information on through channels?   Now in her case, she had the determination not to accept silence as an answer, and pursued her idea anyway, which is awesome.  But what if she wasn’t quite that stubborn?

It felt, listening to her, that the purpose of the Innovation Committee was to “protect” the organization form a potentially “bad” idea rather than encourage more and more ideas from anywhere.

Linus Pauling, Nobel prize-winning biochemist, was once asked how he came up with a good idea.  His response was that “it helps if you start with a lot of them”.   It is a simple idea that divergent thinking generating lots of ideas increases the odds of finding the good one.  It is one key premise behind innovation and creativity.

If you want your organization to be a product development engine, then it helps to start by being an idea engine.  In my mind this isn’t about what you write down on forms for submission to the Innovation Committee. Instead, you want supervisors, managers, and leaders who:

  • Create environments around them where ideas are valued, respected, and appreciated.  We can do this especially by encouraging ideas that contradict our own.  We can do this by sometimes challenging our colleagues saying “I’d like to hear more ideas, the ones we have discussed so far aren’t bold enough”.  We can do this by restraining our teams from diving into solutions before they have thoughtfully explored what the problem really is.
  • Promote “smart” risk taking.  We need to drop our belief that there is only one solution to a problem.  If someone has an idea that seems reasonable, why not let them explore it.  It might surprise you and work!   If not, there is both a learning opportunity for your team and a coaching opportunity for you to gain something from each failure we can apply in the future.
  • Are bridge builders.  We all know that gaining cooperation from other departments (silos) can be a challenge.   When this is too hard, our natural tendency is to focus on solutions that are mostly or totally within our control.   We narrow our focus, when a broad solution might be far better.  We might implement something, but it will be less likely to be game changing.  So, our job as leaders is to form alliances with counterparts in other departments who can help us. We need to be sales persons.  We need to offer to help them (building a sense of obligation that you can use later when you need to ask them for help).  Or, by reframing problems so that the solution benefits both groups, causing resistance to melt away and making the job of your team members easier.

If you decide to have an Innovation Committee, then at least ask them to focus their energies promoting the ideas we have spoken of above.   Get them to promote company-wide competitions for teams that generate the “best” ideas.    The prize might be a tangible budget for implementing them.  Have special prizes for the ones that link together people from multiple departments.  Celebrate and communicate the success stories.   Make it seem valued by the organization to find clever new ways of doing things.  Disseminate the knowledge.  Mayo Clinic’s famous Transform Conference started as an internal best-practice sharing session within the clinic.  It has grown from that to a global program where people come annually to talk and think together about how they can make health care better.  Notice also that the way they named it speaks loudly to what they think the purpose of innovation is.

Make your organization a bubbling caldron of ideas.  When you do, you won’t likely need an Innovation Committee to choose the projects. Your teams will know which ones can best help them.  Let your committee be an enabler, rather than a screener of good ideas.   There is a big difference.

 

Other Resources:

Innovation Almost Dead. Perhaps Not So In Electricity, by Peter Kelly-Detwiler, Forbes Magazine.

Has the ideas machine broken down?, from the Economist

 

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Bodymetrics—Innovation in Strategy and Business


BodymetricsI love to find interesting examples of new businesses or business models that are unique or reflect a subtle understanding of emerging trends.  I have found a good one, I think, in the company Bodymetrics, a British firm that started from a university research project. 

More and more of us choose to buy our products (including shoes and clothing) from on-line merchants.   But until now, finding out if they fit couldn’t be done until the product arrived and you found you couldn’t zip your new jeans, or perhaps found them to be undesirably baggy.

Bodymetric’s technology creates 3D body maps. Unlike the controversial systems used by TSA which take X-ray-like images, the Bodymetrics version only measures the outside dimensions of your body, converting them into a virtual 3D image.  They moved from the laboratory into British retailer Selfridges installing a pod that a customer could walk into and have their measurements taken.  It would then recommend which sizes and styles of clothes would be a perfect fit.

Here is a clip of one of these in-store pods.

The in-store pods, while expensive, were a big hit in London and in Palo Alto.   But the high price would not support a widespread expansion of the system.   The next generation is an in-home version selling for about $150 that uses Microsoft Kinect technology (the same motion sensing system used for video gaming on products like the Wii).  Now, at home in your work-out clothes, you can shop for, virtually try on, and add clothes to your shopping cart and make a purchase.   Check out this video featuring the in-home version.

What this story illustrates is that their business success is based on tuning into important shopping trends and emotional motivations, and responding to them in a creative manner.  Bodymetrics seems to recognize:

1)      that shopping can be a frustrating and overly time-consuming activity.

2)     that many people prefer to shop on-line, even though buying clothes in that way can be very “hit-or-miss”.  Yet many of us still would prefer the convenience of shopping from home.

3)     that we want and appreciate a customized shopping experience (similar to what Amazon does by feeding us suggested items based on our past browsing history).  We want to be communicated with as if the seller of services is speaking to and interacting with us on a personal level.  (As social media guru Seth Godin says, we don’t want to receive e-mail anymore.  What we want is “ME-mail”).

4)     the trends in mass-customization and democratization of fashion (putting consumers more in a position to influence shopping experiences and trends.)  Note the company Polyvore whose web site allows visitors to create mix-and-match outfits, publish them and then see what styles are “trending” based on consumer submissions rather than the opinions of elite fashion designers.

The entire notion that we want to take greater control over our lives accessing and using information and technology to better serve us is at the core consumer motivation.  We live in a world where we have more choices and less time.   This means we ignore most of the traditional marketing messages aimed at us as we seek out situations that speak to us on a personal level – and put US in control.

Who knows, the term Kinect Shopping might someday soon become part of our lexicon. 

Two Approaches to Innovative Strategy Development

We spend a lot of time in business school teaching strategy as a process of understanding the competitive landscape, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of competitors and trying to figure out how to beat them.   That is one approach, and it is sometimes inevitable.

The other approach is to forget about competitors, and focus instead on the consumer.  What if we could understand their emotional drivers more deeply than anyone else?  What if we could see things that elude our main competitors?  This can be possible because we worked harder too empathetically understand customer needs.  Such is a path to leadership in your industry or segment.  In fact, we might even find ourselves on the forefront in shaping a whole new segment, product or service.  Isn’t that the magic of Steve Jobs and Apple?

It comes from exercising our powers of observation BEFORE engaging our powers of imagination.   We need to observe the world around us, sense which way the winds are blowing, and then ask how we might take advantage of key trends and serve unmet needs. 

This is not necessarily the domain of large corporations

Some of us think of Apple, with all their financial and human resources and think innovation is the domain of big companies.  Not so, as discussed in the article on Creative Disruption by Waldeck and Hopkins-Callahan (see below).   Small businesses are equally capable.

Consider the case of the owner of a small pool company who offered pool and water quality services for municipal, commercial and residential customers.   He charged per service call.  He also sold heaters, pumps, and other related pool care equipment as well.   In the case of their municipal customers, water quality monitoring was a big deal, but the systems to provide it were more expensive than most commercial and residential consumers were willing to pay.  Smaller pool owners wanted good water quality, but it had to be reasonably priced.  When the pool company owner attended a trade show, he saw some moderately priced new technology.   So he purchased a few systems himself, and offered the monitoring service to his smaller clients with a modest monthly monitoring fee.

In a sense, he saw the opportunity to exploit the new technology by changing his business model, getting into the equipment leasing business.  This was an innovative solution (I think) that was enabled by a new technology, and required flexibility on his part to change.

This is not unlike the Bodymetrics story – In their case the enabling technology was the Microsoft Kinect technology, which opened the door to a low-priced in-home solution rather than the expensive walk-in pods they had sold to Selfridges and Bloomingdales.

In both cases (pool and body-mapping) there was a common thread – the understanding of consumer desires, needs, and preferences.   They also were open to the possibility of changing their service offering and delivery method.

Too often we turn our attention internally, to our own R&D departments where our own very smart people think they know best what our products should look like.  Or, we turn to our marketing departments to the word out better.   Looking outside is much more likely to produce a sustainable competitive advantage, products that WOW users, and breakthrough innovations.  

Other Resources

How Bodymetrics and Razorfish are out to Change Retail, by Shareen Pathak

Creative Disruption: Innovation Lessons From Small Business, by Andrew Waldeck and Renee Hopkins Callahan 

Mass customization is trending so hard right now, by treehouselogic

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Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions


IPODSIn my last article, Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation, I introduced the Empathy Map as a technique to aid your team in conducting insight generating field immersion research.  It is intended to supplement the hard research you collect as a part of any planning process, and should promote a deeper understanding of your industry, business product, service or customer.

The goal of conducting Empathetic Observations is to enable you to go deeper into the motivations that drive customer behavior.  This helps you to ask better questions to identify the more important problems to solve.  This is the path to achieving breakthrough ideas.

Imagine Apple, a strictly computer company in 2000.  How did they transition from making Mac and Apple computers to the revolutionary iPOD?    At that time we mostly listened to our music on CD’s.   A number of companies–including Creative Labs, and Sony-had been selling MP3 players for a few years but none of them had been big hits.   So, in this case, Apple didn’t invent the concept, but it was about to revolutionize it, by understanding consumer attitudes and desires better than all the competitors at that time.

The Apple Team was somehow able to sense the possibility of the congruence of computers, the internet, and a lightweight (MP3-like) portable and personal device that could really change the game.  They did their own assessment of the market and consumer needs.   They recognized that the slow adoption of MP3 devices was partly due to price, partly due to its features, and partly due to the lack of an enabling infrastructure.

The 1999 Creative Labs Nomad had 32 MB of memory.  That’s enough for about 1 or 2 CDs and cost US$429.   In 2000, the digital music market was still pretty young and people were being pursued in court over the violation of copyright laws when they downloaded or copied “illegal” music.   There was no organized “store” from which you could download music.  Using MP3’s was cumbersome and risky. Yet Jobs and his team saw the possibility of delivering mass customized music on demand – listeners could hear what they wanted, anywhere, and at any time.

Apple spoke with consumers and thought about the problem holistically.   Their solution:

1)      Increased memory – the first iPOD could store about 1,000 songs

2)      Simpler operator interface  –  not buttons or hard to read dials, but a circular touch-sensitive element you could direct with the light touch of a finger

3)      Lower cost  –  the first iPOD cost $250 – about half of the Creative Labs version

4)      A convenient and legal platform for easily transferring music content to the device –  Apple’s APP store was created to offer this and it ultimately morphed into iTunes

5)      Easy integration to your PC  –  by downloading iTunes on your PC, you had now one simple way to organize, categorize and manage  your music collection, create customized playlists and to easily plug-in and download to your iPod

So now a holistic solution was present, and the iPOD took off, selling a quarter billion units in 7 or 8 years, leaving the competition in the dust.  It totally transformed how we all think about media.  WE are in control.  It led to the creation of “podcasting”, and is behind the trend of streaming video, TV programs, and books.

My hypothesis is that Apple’s competitors chose to see themselves as device makers – good at mass production.  They expected the retail sector to suck their products out the end of their supply chain as they had in the past.  The Apple team (under Steve Job’s direction) came to understand it needed to integrate all the above elements to satisfy consumers.

Using Your Empathy Map

The Empathy Maps your teams create are what lead to these insights – to more problems to solve that can bring about revolutionary change.  The “problem” for the tech industry was NOT how to make a better MP3 player.   Above I listed five major problems that ALL needed to be solved, and integrated together (price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.)   All five needed solutions for the revolution to take place.   While I’m not sure, it is plausible that the engineers at Creative Labs looked at the problem one dimensionally, like we need to lower cost, or we need bigger memory.  (Check out the link below suggesting that by as late as 2007, Creative’s designers still didn’t get the whole picture.)

So how do you go from the empathy maps to these innovative solutions?  Here are the steps.

1)      Have your teams share with the whole group their empathy maps and their main conclusions – 3-4 bullet points from each section of the Empathy Map

2)      Invite the assembled group to begin defining as many “problems” as possible by reading each of the bullet points and allowing your mind to run free.  Remember the Linus Pauling quote when he was asked how do you come up with a good idea?   “It helps”, he replied, “to begin with a lot of them!”    Write down these problems in the form of a “how might we” statement, such as “How Might We: make it easier for customers to transfer music to their device? Write each of these How Might We statements down on individual post it notes, and transfer them to a large board or wall.  Get as many ideas down as possible.

3)      Then group the ideas according to which ones seem to be related and put a heading on each grouping.   I am imagining in the iPOD case at least five main categories as outlined above:  price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.    Can you picture it?   5 labels with multiple post it notes grouped nearby.

4)      Assign teams to work within each problem area to generate ideas to solve these problems.

Some of you might argue that a process such as I am advocating may be too time consuming and requires too many resources pulled away from their day jobs.   If that is your impression, I would ask only “what is the cost of failing to do the kind of thorough analysis that leads to the holistic solution?”   Apple’s market share in the iPOD business was over 75% by 2007.   It enjoyed a zero share in 2000.  Those share points came from someone.

Other Resources:

How Apple Transformed Music and Our Lives, by Sam Costello, About.com

Creative Labs NOMAD MuVo² 4 GB MP3 Player–A Failed Attempt to Rival the IPod Mini, from Yahoo Tech

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Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation


ObservingDeveloping great strategy that produces a sustainable competitive advantage comes from one of two methods.  One – you can study your competitors closely, try to figure out what their game plan is, and then decide how to beat them. Or, two – you can understand your customers better than anyone else; looking for insights about unmet needs and then satisfy them more fully than anyone else.

When we discuss the second approach the obvious question is “how do we come to understand our customers?”   For those of us who were students of engineering, the sciences, and possibly business, the first idea seems to be to collect data.  Yes, we love data.   We think about doing surveys that produce data which we can analyze, parse, cross reference, and review – with statistical precision.

Data Doesn’t Always Do It.

I am an engineer by training and I love numbers more than most but often times, the data does not yield insights that enable breakthrough innovation.  Surveys themselves are helpful only when you are insightful enough to ask the right questions.   In addition, how each is worded can also impact the responses. The ability to craft meaningful surveys when you yourself do not have a deep understanding of the consumer behavior of interest is rare.

Numerical data is one-dimensional and sterile.   It can reveal information about preferences, but without insight about what consumer motivations lie beneath.  It is often the subtext that triggers insights that produce game-changing new product ideas.

A third problem with data is that it comes from looking backwards in time.   While data on what has been happening can be interesting, there is no guarantee that the future can be divined by merely extrapolating past trends.  In a dynamic world, the past is not always a good predictor of what’s next.

A fourth problem is that data does not reveal root cause.   You could study various data sets and find a positive correlation between housing starts and bicycle sales, for example.   The fact that these two sets of data move together does not mean that one causes the other.  Understanding causality is pretty important.

Focus Groups Don’t Always Do It.

Many of the scientific and engineering people I know are cynical about wasting time to ask customers what they would like.   “They don’t really know themselves”, an R&D executive once told me.    This is true.   If you asked people 15 years ago how they would like to access and share information, it is unlikely they would describe a smart phone as it exists today. Their ability to describe new products and services is related to their life experiences, knowledge of what is possible, and their ability to imagine the unknown.  Now, if you showed them a prototype, they could probably give you some useful feedback on likes and dislikes, but if your goal is breakthrough innovation, this avenue does not seem productive either.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for data, and data collection and review should be a PART of your research strategy.  But we need more.

The Art of Empathetic Observation.

The idea of observing consumers (up close) as they shop for, buy, and use your product or service can yield new understanding that can complete the picture data alone cannot paint.   Observations can yield information that cannot be obtained by other means.   When the makers of Cheerios observed moms they saw that many were using the cereal in unintended ways – packed in baggies and doled out one at a time when an infant needed a snack or distraction.

A maker of a leading cooking spray found some consumers using their product to coat the underside of their lawnmowers to reduce the buildup of wet grass (another completely new market for them).

Sometimes we can learn things in more empathetic ways.  We can listen to the tone of voice, look at body language and  notice facial expressions that allow us to “read between the lines” when speaking with customers.  In this manner we can often infer subtle things about their motivations and buying behaviors.

As described in my recent article Innovating a Mature Product – the Sealy Case, these people saw things by talking with and observing people shopping for mattresses that surprised them.  How the product looked and felt in the showroom really mattered (which was counterintuitive to them because their product was neither seen nor felt when in use).   They saw that there was a certain category of buyers for whom a mattress was a major investment in their health, productivity, and well-being.  They recognized that the mattress was, in a sense, a reflection of their personality. So the Sealy people concluded they needed to give their product a suitable personality to match.  This, they did, actually raising product costs by 25% and the selling price by 40% resulting in two consecutive quarters of record sales!

The graphic below, called an Empathy Map, is a tool you can use in your own field research efforts.

Empathy MapStart by designing your field immersion learning experience.  Think about whether to do an interview, observation, field trip, etc. and create a field interview/observation guide.    (You can contact the writer for examples).  Select your research team (eclectic and diverse is best).   Send them out into the field and tell them that the end product of their effort is the creation of an empathy map (using the template above.)

It has several sections – as outlined below.

1. See

What issues and problems surround them? What are market and environmental factors that seem to be most influential?

2. Think and Feel

What are their guiding thoughts and beliefs?  (Things they never overtly expressed, but you inferred using your empathetic observation skills)  Whose opinions might be influencing them, too? What emotions might have the greatest impact? View Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.

3. Say and Do

Who do they say when they are in public? What are their attitudes and actions?  What are they saying to others?

4. Hear

What are they hearing from other people? The most prevalent thoughts and opinions surrounding them by friends, co-workers, family, and the communications channels (like social media, broadcast, etc.) that are they plugged into?  (The things they hear that are most likely influencing what they are thinking)

5. Pain

What are their frustrations, dislikes or concerns?  What compels them to action, or what stops them from taking action?  What problems do they have that you might help solve?

6. Gain (Wants and Needs)

What are their aspirations and motivations? What benefits do they gain if you can better serve their needs and solve their problems?) What do they really want to achieve?

When this field work is completed, then your researchers can bring these Empathy Maps back stimulate discussion and ideation.    I will offer more about this topic in future articles.  In the meantime, try this tool (or play the Innovation Game referenced below).   See what you might learn.

Other Resources:

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, Harvard Business Review

Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry, by Carolien E. Postma, Elly Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, Elke Daemen, and Jia Du, International Journal of Design. (Note particularly the “Baby Care Project” case example)

Empathy Map – Goal: Understand What Your Stakeholders Want from Your Business, from Innovation Games

 

Using Empathy Maps, by Bryann Alexandros, from Skylance.org

 

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Looking for the Breakthrough Innovation


I just finished a two-day Creative Problem Solving workshop with a group of highly technically proficient people.  The group was engaged and worked very hard not only collecting information and interviewing customers prior to and the again throughout the intense final 2 days.  The team did a great job sharing their field immersion learning points, generating lots of “problems”  to solve, and developing many logical “idea cards” (which define how to solve the most important problems).

Many of the idea cards were specific and addressed unique problems that the group carefully identified.  Some of them were tactical, and addressed various performance shortcomings they learned about from their interviews.  One of the participants came to me in the middle of the session saying “these are all good ideas, but I don’t think I see some ‘breakthrough’ innovations that could allow us to leapfrog our competition.”  This was a reasonable comment.  It made me think about the answer.

Not all Innovation = an iPAD

The Creative Problem Solving Process we use at Xavier Leadership Center guides people through an array of fact-finding activities that help them look at their business through an external lens.  Listening to customers is pretty important, and the issues they raised, whether large or small represent things worth paying attention to.  If the customer is right in their concern, then it is probably worthy of being addressed on its own merit.   As a consequence, some of the ideas generated in a CPS workshop might seem overly tactical.

However, we are also trying to get ourselves to begin thinking about underlying trends or themes that lead us to root cause insights. Perhaps your sales process creates a set of false expectations that later manifested themselves in customer dissatisfaction; or there might be an installation and training solution that needs complete re-thinking.

Building Momentum

A bit later in our workshop, the teams were asked to build a series of one year improvement initiatives based on the idea cards they generated.  One broad theme was about customer service, another was related to installation, and a third theme area related to the sales process.   We asked the teams to select the idea cards they felt were most impactful, and then create a one year action plan.   By this time, we had as a group discussed the topic of game changing ideas compared with others that simply allow you to achieve parity.  After a while, one of the participants came to me and remarked “you know . . . when I first looked at each of the idea cards by themselves, I didn’t think we were looking at breakthroughs.   But when you start to combine several of them together, it is a completely different story!”

Isn’t that often the case?   In fact the entire notion of continuous improvement is about creating momentum though a series of ongoing small innovations with a similar trajectory.  This too can produce sustainable competitive advantage, especially if you can learn to maintain a fast pace to your innovation agenda. Also, taking many small steps has less risk.   This is related to what Jim Collins called the hedgehog concept and the flywheel effect in his book, Good to Great.

Ask Better Questions

Sure building momentum is a powerful competitive approach to consider, but does it lead to a revolutionary idea?  Perhaps not. That requires a change in perspective lead from asking better questions.

Most of us own a DVR at home, right?  So why is it we have one?  Is it because we have a burning desire to record programs?  Or, does this product meet a much deeper need, like helping us gain greater control over our already too hectic lives?

If you are the engineering team at the DVR manufacturing company, your product planning probably focuses on what it takes to make a better DVR.   How much memory should it have?   How many buttons should there be?  What color should the display panel be? And so forth. However, when your focus is too narrow, what you are likely to end up with – at best – is a marginally better DVR.

Alternatively, if you asked the deeper question “what other things would people like to have more control over in their lives – that we might be able to provide?” you open the door to many other possibilities.   You might develop a computer device that didn’t store anything, but controlled other aspects of a consumer’s life. You might even consider a service rather than a product.  Choosing which problem you are trying to solve is HUGE.

The Creative Problem Solving process guided participants to ask many more questions than they might n normally (typically 200-300 or more in a session) in search of new problems to solve.   The game changer problems are probably not the obvious ones you normally talk about.

Gluing Car Doors Together?

My company was in the welding business serving the auto industry.   Welding was and is a challenging process. You press two pieces of steel between a pair of electrodes, apply pressure and pass a controlled current through them to melt and forge the steel together.  The process variables are many (steel dimensional variations, the electrodes wear and get thicker with each weld, power line voltages change, die oils sometimes coat the steel, and so forth).   Maintaining quality as all these things change is sometimes a nightmare.   Everyone in the industry focused their engineers and scientists into understanding and controlling the physics of a 5-7 mm in diameter weld spot.  The question they asked was “How do we make a better welding system?”

Our solution ultimately was to replace the welds completely, using instead, pumped structural ADHESIVES which were cured using an electromagnetic field.  What we developed was stronger, provided less car body panel vibration, resisted corrosion better, required less maintenance, and was cheaper.  This innovation for us was responsible for a 10X growth in sales revenues over about 5-6 years.

The point I am trying to make is that as long as we saw the “problem” as designing a better welding system, all we would ever create was better welders.   The capacity to see this as NOT a welding problem was the first step in imagining the idea of gluing car parts together.

If you are looking for breakthrough innovation, ask more and better questions, and then look for new problems to solve.

The group I was working with this week discussed many technical features and benefits of their current product offering.   Many of them seemed to define the theme “How might we simplify the lives of our customers with the technologies and services we can provide?

That is a pretty good question.

Other resources

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition, by Wayne Fisher, Xavier Leadership Center

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