Last week, I spoke at the Front End of Innovation conference about the future of the US economy and where to innovate as a result. In conversations with some of the attendees, I felt like Dr. Phil talking to Sisyphus (the mythological king destined for eternity to roll a huge boulder uphill.) I think I know why. These smart, creative people may be asking the wrong question. Most conferences focus on telling you how to innovate. The problem? The ‘how?’ is worthless without first answering the ‘what?’.
Imagine you’re goal is to become a great comedian and I offered you the chance to spend 18 hours with Chris Rock. You can ask him anything you want about comedy, his favorite Jonas brother, or why he agreed to this awful experiment. What if I offered you another choice – to spend 18 hours with Yale’s Professor of Comedic Studies, Dr. Hugh Morris. He’s dedicated his entire life to understanding the science of comedy. Which experience would make you funnier? Maybe both or neither, depending on your aptitude. (I can tell you which one might lead a great comedian to prescription painkillers.)
People truly innovating (or telling jokes) are rarely, if ever, discussing their process. They’re too busy doing it – bringing real innovations to market. Or, they’re trying, failing, then trying again. Only once you’ve done something of consequence will people care how you did it. Until then, expecting resources just because you’re going to innovate like that speaker from P&G or Cisco is downright Sisyphusian.
Here are a few suggestions for innovators who find themselves rolling a massive boulder to work everyday:
- Start small and prove your case – find a specific opportunity or challenge your company faces and ask for a small budget to solve it. Do it your way. If you a marketplace success, I guarantee you’ll get a bigger problem and bigger budget to solve it with shortly thereafter.
- Know and agree on the challenges your company faces today and in the future. You’ll be amazed how different your perception of the problem is from that of your executives. Meet in the middle – or in a place that they benefit from your efforts.
- Focus 80% of your time solving for the the ‘who? and the ‘what?’, but only around high priority challenges (from #2). Get insights, talk to customers, new partners, etc.
- Agree on measures of success. If what your innovation has a 2-4 year ROI, I suggest you focus on major milestones and adoption rates to start, then revenues and profits.
- When people start asking you how you did it, pack your bags for the conference. You’re now ready to talk process.
So who would you rather be stranded on a desert island with – Thomas Edison or Michael Porter? …personally, I’d take Chris Rock or Scarlett Johansson, likely against their will.
Steve Faktor is a one man think-tank, minus the tank. By day, Steve manages portfolio optimization for a Fortune 500 company, where he develops and incubates new businesses. At ideafaktory.com, he explores, predicts, and provokes new thinking on the future of business – a mesmerizing concoction of technology, psychology, and government bailouts.