Monday, February 29, 2016

Innovation is a Team Sport (but let’s forget the Sport part)

image from pixabay under Creative Commons License
In this blog, I’ll be writing a lot about teams.  That’s because innovation requires bringing together a wide variety of skillsets and perspectives.  Though individuals can work on broadening their own horizons and become better innovators, a team of amazingly talented people will always outperform the lone genius.  Learning to build and work in these teams is critical to innovating.  Plus, working in a team can be a whole lot more fun and motivating.

It’s important to note that there are many different kinds of teams.  American leadership is obsessed with American football (but not futbol) as a metaphor for teamwork.  There are many former high-paid coaches working on filling in their million dollar wage loss by writing books on leadership and teamwork.  Do not read these books…  at least not if you’re looking into applying it towards innovation team building.

Football is about centralized leadership and execution.  Individuals are heavily specialized into narrow roles.  In professional teams, there is a separate offensive team and defensive team which have no interaction whatsoever with each other.  The head coach drills specific plays into the team members so that they can execute with perfection when it’s game time.  No doubt, there is a beauty in the trust formed and the ability to rely on each other, but players are not meant to be innovative.  They are meant to be reliable.  Any innovation in football comes from the coach.

Innovation requires a more improvisational framework.  Teams exist everywhere in life, not just in sports.  A ballet company is a team.  Your family is a team.  Your work group is a team, as is your church or even a group of friends throwing a barbeque.  A team is simply a group of people working together towards a common goal.  Since each team has a different goal, they each need to function differently.  If your team’s goal is to innovate, then a good model to look at is the Improv Comedy Troupe.

Improv techniques are now often used in team offsites and in design courses.  Why?  Because, where most art forms are mostly about the execution of creativity, improv is 90% creativity with very little preparation beforehand.  Like a good brainstorm, an improv scene is created in the moment.  However, the groundwork is laid through practicing skills beforehand, collecting the right players, and running the scene using set structures.  The result is a wonderfully hilarious and beautiful show that is a unique blend of the actors and the audience at a single moment in time.

Like innovation, improv is messy, but it can be learned and practiced.  Contrary to popular belief, improv comedy isn’t just about funny people acting funny.  It is built on many rules (as is brainstorming) which are designed to move the story forward.  We’ll go deeper into Improv rules and exercises in a future post.  But to give you a sense of how an improv team works, here are some basic rules:

Say Yes, and
In improv, every interaction builds the story.  As a rule, you must accept that story and build on it.  For instance, if your improv partner comes onto the stage and says “Hi Dad, how’s your back?” you must accept the role given to you.  It is counterproductive to respond, “Uh, what’s wrong with your eyesight, I’m not your Dad, I’m your best friend.”  Instead, use your freedom to expand the story.  “Oh, my back is sore alright.  I can’t believe I carried your mother down 10 flights of stairs .”

Don’t Try to Be Funny
Trying to be funny often leads to one liners at the expense of the story.  To continue our example, what if you respond to “Hi Dad, how’s your back?” with “I don’t know, why don’t you take a look?” and turn around and moon the  other person.  Wow, you’re really trying hard to get in a laugh.  This may make you feel like you’re “funnier” than the other person, but this didn’t move the story along.  You’ve just killed the scene.  Build the story, and the hilariousness will come out.

Follow the Follower
In an Improv show, no one is in charge.  Otherwise, it would be just like watching a directed play except that no one rehearsed beforehand.  Sounds great right?  Improv only works when the story is the spontaneous creation of the group.  Someone will initiate the scene.  Support her in this.  But that doesn’t make her the leader.  When someone else shifts the scene in another direction, support him as well.

Take Risks
When the rules above are followed, individual actors can take risks.  You can turn off the filter and say whatever comes to mind, even if it’s not the safe thing to do or takes the scene in an odd direction.  Say, you’re doing a restaurant scene, and suddenly you feel like saying “Mmmm, love baby humans.”  Sure, go with that.  You don’t need to know what that means, or where it will go.  Cannibals, vampires, aliens, lawyers?  Your teammates will support you, and you’ll end up with a more interesting, more creative, and more hilarious show.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Slower, Weaker, and Less Reliable: the Power of Tradeoffs

The tortoise trades its speed for the protection of its shell.
Image from pixabay under Creative Commons license.
Mediocre product managers find it easy to spec out the next product in their portfolio.  Secret Codename 2 is the same as Secret Codename 1 but faster, cheaper and better in all ways.  This is a great strategy until product launch when all the competitors turn out identical products.  Apparently they had access to the same technological improvements (better batteries, processors, screens, etc.) that you did.  Winner?  Nobody.

The innovative product manager understands that creating truly groundbreaking products is about choosing the right tradeoffs.  It’s true that nothing in life is free.  If you want something that is a step change better in one respect, you must give up something to make that happen.  Making the right tradeoff is the key to innovation.

Most people don’t think about it this way, but this is exactly what the iphone did back in 2007.  There were smartphones back then.   Palm Treos and Blackberries tried to combine a phone that could compete with the popular 12 key Nokias, a mobile internet browser with a touchscreen, and an email machine with a full qwerty keyboard.  The existing products were making the screen a little larger, the earpiece speakers a little clearer, the processor a little faster, and the keyboards a little easier to use.  Everything was just a little bit better which was perfect for the small professional market.

Not true with the iphone.  In order to make the touchscreen bigger and better, Apple decided it was okay to make the phone experience and the typing experience worse; still usable, but worse.  By all quantitative measures, the touchscreen keyboard was slower than a dedicated tactile keyboard, and the phone call quality was worse because the receiver speaker had to be pushed up high above the screen.  But none of that mattered, because the screen was big, and it was gorgeous.  The large touchscreen ushered in the era of the true consumer smartphone for everyone: 90% media and app machine, and 10% phone.

As another example, there’s a story of an HP executive in the nineties who visited the inkjet printer division to shake things up.  He called an all-hands, took out one of their products, and stood on it.  The engineers applauded, proud that they made such quality products.  But instead of heaping on praise, the executive chided them.  “Why would the customer ever need to stand on their printer?” he asked.  This was the start of low cost product design.  Sure, as consumers, we might reminisce upon the days when things were “built to last,” but the truth is that we are all much better off when products are not overdesigned, but designed “just right”.  What is the benefit of a housing that lasts 25 years if the electronics only last 5?  To make an amazing product (one that provides what a customer needs at a price they can afford), the innovation often comes in removing features and derating specs.

So if you want to make an innovative leap, ask yourself, “What can I make worse?”  The ability to make something worse gives you the ability to make something else phenomenally better.  The innovation lies in how you make use of a slower, weaker, less reliable, or less performant product and turn it into an advantage.  So instead of Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger, try thinking Smaller, Slower, and Weaker.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Take a Vacation: the Investigative Tourist

Image from Pixabay under Creative Commons License.
Want to hone your innovative thinking skills?  Go on vacation.  

You can learn more by going out and experiencing new environments than you can from sitting in front of a computer all day.  Developing your innovative thinking skills is all about learning new Paradigms and Metaphors and gaining fresh perspectives on the world.   A great way to do this is to put yourself in a new place with different people where you can encounter unique situations.  But it’s not enough to just show up and take a bus tour.  You must become an investigative tourist.  Here’s how.

Talk to the locals.
A book won’t tell you how Marco, your taxi driver, spends his day.  You wouldn’t learn that he used to be a factory worker but now makes more as a driver.  You wouldn’t hear about his opinion on the upcoming elections or find out how he spends a whole day waiting in line to pay his cell phone bill.  But you can learn all of this in a few minutes for free.  So chat up the waiter, taxi driver, store keeper or random person sitting in the park.  You’ll be amazed at the amazing stories that unfold.  Take these stories and try to understand this country from the lives of its people.  What do they care about?  How do they live differently?  Do they think differently?  Why?  Bring these lessons back home as souvenirs.

Be a historian.
When you see something different (e.g. architecture, attitudes, street signs, etc.) ask why.  Learn about the history of the society and try to deduce what caused this place to evolve differently than  at home.  When you go to a history museum, don’t just look at it as a gallery of dates and facts.  Think about how the past has shaped the present.  It is an experiment in cause and effect, and you can apply those same lessons as you try to shape our future through innovation.  

Seek out problems.
The key to innovation is hardship.  If everything was perfect, then there would be no room for improvement.  Next time you’re on vacation and the traffic is non-sensical, the restaurant is inefficient, or the tour is unorganized, rejoice, for this is an opportunity for you to practice your problem solving skills.  Ask why this is a problem here, but not at home.  Then go through the thought exercise of fixing it.  This typically isn’t just a case of making it the same as the US or of “replacing idiots”.  Figure out why things are fundamentally different, and then think of some unique solutions.

Appreciate genius.
People everywhere find innovative solutions to their unique situations.  Look for inspiration in the innovations, big and small, that surround you.  How do people repurpose used items in new ways?  How do businesses operate without the same infrastructure that exists in the US?  Take note of ingenious hacks and carry those images with you when you return.

Do it now.  Plan a vacation to a place you’ve never been before and start your career as an investigative tourist.  Didn’t I say innovation was fun?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Become Better at Make Believe: Choose the stick over the light saber

Image by Fraylen under Creative Commons License
“Make Believe” is perhaps one of the oldest childhood games in history.  It’s a very simple game.  Basically, the child pretends to be something that she isn’t.  Using just the tools around her (rocks, scissors, cardboard, doughnuts, etc.), she builds a fantasy world around her character (fashion photographer, astronaut, fireman, dancer, etc.)  But can one really be BETTER at make believe than someone else?  Of course.  For instance, Calvin and Hobbes (though theoretically mostly Calvin) are awesome at this game.  And like with everything else, getting better takes practice.  

There is a specific part of “Make Believe” that is especially relevant to innovative thinking: the creation of props.  Take two children, Gabriel and Gabe, who both love Star Wars because they happen to be male, under the age of 50, and are currently alive.  Gabriel’s parents bought him a fancy $200 Darth Vader Lightsaber.  Gabe’s parents clearly don’t love him because they only gave him their unconditional love.  So for their epic battle, Gabe picks up a fallen tree limb while Gabriel swings his light up lightsaber complete with sound effects.  Someone here is at a disadvantage.

But it’s not Gabe.  After sparring for a while, Gabe flips his stick down and uses it like a cane.  “I am the Emperor. “  Then he shoots lightning out of his hands.  Gabriel is stuck being Vader.  He wants to be Luke, but his lightsaber is the wrong color.  “I don’t want to play anymore,” he says, throwing his $200 toy to the ground.  Gabe throws one leg over his increasingly versatile stick.  “Oh, now I’m Harry Potter. Let’s play quidditch.”  Gabriel doesn’t know how to join in.  Gabe doesn’t give up.  He holds the stick in front of him in both hands and starts tap dancing.  Again, Gabriel doesn’t know what to do.  Then Gabe puts one end to his eye and says “Ahoy, matey.  I see land.”  Silence.  Finally, Gabe hands one end of the stick to Gabriel.  “We’re on a Viking warship.  Let’s row together.”

“Make Believe” is a game of innovation, and it’s something you can practice.  When you look at objects, try not to see just what it is supposed to be.  Try to imagine what it could be.  This is easier with plainer objects (sticks vs. lightsabers).  But even with a very specific object, you can break it down to its fundamental attributes which allows you to imagine other uses for it.  For instance, a lightsaber toy is a weapon.  But fundamentally, it is a straight object.  What else can you do with straight objects?  Use it as a cane.  Use it as a bridge.  Use it to dig.  A bed’s purpose is for sleeping.  But what is it really?  It is a structure that elevates things off the floor.  That also makes it an island in a sea of lava, a car, a coat rack, and a jungle gym.  It is also soft.  That makes it a wrestling mat and a trampoline.  Practice changing your perspective.

Now let’s look at how you can apply this to problems in the adult world.  One innovation technique is to look at the fundamental tools you have and ask “What else can I do with this?”  This has resulted in some of the most famous corporate pivots in history.  Corning used to make bottles.  But fundamentally, they were good with glass.  Glass is something that transmits light well.  So they became innovators in optical fibers.  Flickr started out as an online role playing game.  Their sharing platform also allowed for easy sharing of photos, and that is what took off.

So next time you see some kids playing “Make Believe”, go join in.  You don’t need fancy toys, in fact the simpler, the better.  Practice seeing the fundamental nature of things and ask “What else can this be used for.”