Why Johnny Cannot Innovate

by Matthew E May

Why Johnny Cannot InnovateA few days ago a reporter for Investor’s Business Daily contacted me by email, asking several questions about innovation. I didn’t have the time to answer all of them, so I asked him what he really wanted to know. He replied that what he really wanted was a bottom line answer to the question of what makes the most difference in a company’s ability to innovate. As is my inclination, I reframe such questions to be about what isn’t there, versus what is.

Here’s my reply:

If I think about “why Johnny can’t innovate,” i.e. the things that prevent a company from cultivating a companywide culture of innovation, it would come down to a half-dozen things:

1. Innovation identity crisis.

If you assume that the consultants at Booz & Co are correct, there are perhaps three distinct approaches to innovation: needs-based, market-driven, and tech-centered. The first is the “humanist” approach good designers take. The second is the “capitalist” approach…the fast followers that optimize…like a Hyundai, or in many respects Toyota. They capitalize on Clayton Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma,” quickly copying and even improving on game-changing innovations as they hit the market. The third is the “technologist” approach, like an Apple. Many big companies simply don’t know or can’t easily conceptualize which of these categories they fall into, or should fall into, given their bench strength. They end up “kitchen-sinking” it, scattering and squandering their attention and efforts.

2. Unclear innovation strategy.

Trying to be all things to all people just doesn’t work, and big outfits have a tough time articulating the answers to the questions my friend Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School and coauthor of Playing to Win, likes to ask: given your chosen approach, where will you play and how will you win?. It’s a question of focus, which is something different (albeit a nuanced difference) than prioritization. It’s the ability to identify what you’re going to say NO to. Steve Jobs was great at this, and you’re now seeing the clear picture under his rule become blurry. He said he was always proudest of the thousands of things Apple said no to.

3. Inaccessible definition of innovation.

When I speak to groups I ask them to show their hands if they consider themselves good problem solvers. All hands raise. I ask for a show of hands for the learners. All hands up. Then I ask the true innovators to raise their hands. Less than 5% raise their hands. It’s because people hear innovation and think: gizmo. Or app. Or code. Or product. Or service. Or feature. They think of innovation as a noun rather than a verb. Best definition of innovation I’ve ever heard is by JetBlue’s founder David Neeleman: “Innovation is figuring how to do something better than it’s ever been done before.” Dirt simple, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or administrative assistant…you can innovate. Without the clear definition of what’s considered innovation, you can’t ask people to innovate and expect an intelligent response.

4. No common methodology.

We’re not taught in school to innovate. Just the opposite. The very effective ethos of curiosity we’re born with and utilize during our first 5 years of existence–which is all about observation, experimentation, and play–gets schooled out of us. We’re taught to get the right answer for the teacher. Then the right answer for the boss. We lose our natural born capacity to learn and create new knowledge. So you have to unlearn the ways of business execution and reteach what came naturally: define a problem by observing or experiencing it, guessing how to solve it, creating a solution based on that guess, and quickly seeing if what you assumed might work actually does. Without a common methodology, everything is ad hoc, hit or miss.

5. Methodology doesn’t feature experimentation.

Beyond not having a common method, you’ll often find the de facto “innovation method” in reality being mostly an idea execution process, rather than a more scientific one. The mindset can’t be “I know what will work and I’m going to ensure it does.” It has to be “I think this may work so let me try it out.” Scientists work on hypotheses, which is a fancy term for guesswork. If people aren’t getting their hands dirty out in the field with users and customers, testing early low-fidelity prototypes and adjusting a solution, they won’t be able to truly innovate. For some reason, the hardest thing for those charged with innovation is get out of the office, out of their data reports, and do what the Japanese call genchi genbutsu (go look, go see): muck about with customers and users. I learned how important it is to do this while working with Toyota. Innovation is a contact sport. So beware the pretty process that looks sterile and linear rather than loopy and chaotic.

6. Mismatched talent-to-task fit.

Companies love to move “high potential managers” into roles related to innovation. Bad move. Those folks are great at plans and budgets. They’re great at execution. But what do you think they’re going to do when you move them into the messy and uncertain world of creating something new? They’re going to try to plan, budget, and execute. Innovation is about divergence, rapid prototyping, testing and failure. Big outfits might go to school on Lockheed’s Skunk Works…Steve Jobs sure did when he broke away from Apple to start Macintosh. You have to do what Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s maverick Chief Engineer did: break away from the main operation, steal away the hip thinkers that many many consider the lunatic fringe, and set up shop in secrecy to essentially get back to the garage, with the charge being to design a working prototype under a few intelligent constraints. If you don’t, can’t or won’t, you’ll end up hiring an outside firm that’s set up to innovate for you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just doesn’t help your efforts to build innovation competency. It allows people to stay in their power zone of planning, budgeting, and executing.

All these things are required for a culture of innovation to flourish. That’s why innovation is so simple yet so hard. Hope this helps, and good luck with your article!

I’m not sure if he’ll use any of it, but I hope he does.

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Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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  1. There are a great deal of misunderstandings between what constitutes great intelligent minds and great creative minds. Although I have known for many years, it is only through recent research that is now on a scientific footing that great intelligence does not lead or equate to great discoveries being made. Indeed the opposite is the case according to the history of S&T. In this respect intelligence and creativity are two separate entities and both are completely different. In this respect someone can have high intelligence but will never come up with something that will revolutionise the world in technological terms. Indeed the best scholastic people at university with their ivy league degrees do not generally produce through their fundamental thinking, the technologies of the future; far from it. Therefore we have to start and think differently about people and to put them into different classifications of high intelligence and high creativity. If we did this we would soon start to realise that the intelligent people are secondary to advance the world’s long-term sustainability outcomes. Unfortunately those running the show are in the main highly intelligent beings and the reason why the world is failing in providing the right economic systems to guarantee the human experience being preserved past this current century. For it is highly debateable that this will be the case with the present mindsets who run government and global business. Considering that our very existence is on the line here things simply have to change for all our good, as intelligence will not do this and where great creativity, insight and intuition are the vital factors in individuals that we need to drive humanity’s future global system forward. We can see the failures of our present mechanisms with the collapse of the global financial systems as just one example, where these bankers were considered to be of the highest intelligence possible with their Ivy League education. What they totally lacked was creativity in developing new financial systems that enhanced the status quo at the time and prevented the catastrophic failure of global monetary system. This was something that they clearly were not capable of doing, as they have little in the way of creative thinking, only high intelligence. Indeed things have not changed as the high intelligent people still run our financial systems and where eventually because they have not the right thinking, the system will collapse again. The question is, are we so stupid to allow these intelligent bankers to do this again. Apparently we are.There is an old adage also that is applicable with creativity, keep it simple. Therefore the dire problem may very well lie at the feet of people trying too hard and being too complex in their thinking – being too intelligent?In this respect many of the world’s leading inventions were created from no more than their basic knowledge, intuition and bits of stuff near to hand. Baird with the TV and Kilby with the ‘chip’ are prime examples. The latter invention now underpinning a global industry turning over around $2 trillion a year that did not exist 50 years ago. Another is the modern invention of the Finite Element Method (The FEM) invented by the late Prof. John Argyris and ceded to him by the US’s most eminent structural engineer Prof. Ray Clough in his 1960 publication where he ‘coined’ the phrase the ‘Finite Element Method’ and stated that it was the ‘Argyris Method’. When Argyris first came up with the FEM no-one believed him because it was so simple and only had a limited number of nodes to calculate a solution from. Everyone said that it could not possibly be correct as it was so simple. It took a PhD mathematics thesis to prove that Argyris was right.The FEM is now the world’s most advanced mathematical engineering design tool and no engineering practice or engineer worth their salt would be without it.So the answer to many of our future problems and technologies may very well be there but where people are looking at things in a far too complex way. Indeed a new mind on the subject is usually what counts and where they can see further than all others that have gone before them. Unfortunately the US and all western economies have not learnt as yet what the golden key is to unleash the next phase of economic dynamism when it is constantly looking at them in the face. But where it has to be said that the first nation that realises this will be astounded like people were about Argryis’s world-changing invention and would over a relatively short period of time, become the richest nation per capita in the world. For great fundamental thinking according to history if in-depth research is undertaken, does not come from our universities or advanced centres of corporate R&D but from other sources. A prime example of this is in modern times is the WWW where Berners-Lee created this phenomenon by himself and where CERN had no part in the unleashing of the WWW on the world-at-large whatsoever. In this respect Berners-Lee was as a ‘freelancer’ at the time working for CERN on a 6 month employment contract and could have been working for anyone at the time when he launched the WWW after years of private creative thinking and life-changing research. But strangely it has to be stated, when you ask people they seem to think that CERN invented the WWW. Indeed if Berners-Lee had made it all his own as he could have done and charged every person on the planet every time they used the WWW at a rate of 5cents a time, his wealth would dwarf the richest person in the word by at least a factor of ten – and even possible where he could have become the world’s first Trillionaire. Good for him I say and a pointer to all others that the accumulation of personal vast wealth is not the main thing that humans were born for. More important I would say to create a great deal of good in the world that Berners-Lee has done, dispensing with of course what a few have spawned with the bad things on the web.I just wish that people would research into the ‘real’ basis of technologies at times and where especially governments could do with a dose of this for their own long-term good. In this respect things will not happen that can change the world for the better with the current thinking I am afraid to say – and so-called high intelligent thinking at that.

    Dr David Hill

    World Innovation Foundation

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