From “HBR“…

Building an Innovation Engine in 90 Days

Practically every company innovates. But few do so in an orderly, reliable way. In far too many organizations, the big breakthroughs happen despite the company. Successful innovations typically follow invisible development paths and require acts of individual heroism or a heavy dose of serendipity. Successive efforts to jump-start innovation through, say, hack-a-thons, cash prizes for inventive concepts, and on-again, off-again task forces frequently prove fruitless. Great ideas remain captive in the heads of employees, innovation initiatives take way too long, and the ideas that are developed are not necessarily the best efforts or the best fit with strategic priorities.

The article quoted above highlights a significant problem area for many organizations–how to create a systematic environment for innovation with limited resources.  As innovation is a core requirement of the executive role, this question is particularly important.  The guidance provided in the source article is a sound approach to establishing such a system.  But, we should note the difference between product enhancement and true innovation.  This clarification is critical to the charter, intent and scope of the system that we intend to build.

From “The Junior Executive“…

So, what is innovation?

Innovation is the robust unconscious automation of function.

This sentence is a bit opaque, so it must be decomposed. Function refers to any non-static state of a subject (i.e., change). Sorting mail is a function, as a pile of mail is changed into groups based upon meaningful criteria. Driving a car is many functions combined. So, innovation is a concept that requires changing a non-static aspect of a particular subject and thus changing how the function associated with that subject is executed. To follow in this way, we see that the carriage return of the first typewriters was an innovation. Automation is relatively straightforward and is better qualified in this context by the word “unconscious”. Many functions are automated and many combined functions are automated as processes. But, a majority of them that we see in our organizations require conscious action to initiate and manage the automation. Advancements in the telephone provide a good example. Initial rotary phones required physical action to generate tones that could be translated in Central Offices to initiate, broker, monitor and terminate telephone call circuits. An initial, incremental innovation was to automate that tone generation through digital dial tones. Thus, rather than the rotor-generated tones, a button was pushed and the phone automatically generated the applicable tone. A further, combined innovation was the introduction of automated dialing based upon a single button-click. We see this today when we choose the ‘call’ button associated with the contact we intend to call. These, of course, are minor innovations, but demonstrate the concept of what an unconscious automation entails. Rather than consciously managing the complete function of generating analog dial tones to initiate a call to a point of contact, we simply push a button. Thus, our mental processes are freed up for other thinking tasks, and this is the core benefit of innovation. For the benefit to be realized, however, the final qualifying word should be examined. Robustness means the reliable operation of some function. Unless the unconscious automation of the function is robust, it is not truly innovative. Our conscious thought processes are not freed by the innovation unless we can implicitly trust that it will be completed as expected. Once this trust is gained, or better never even questioned, the innovation yields its value. Users are freed from some function that required their conscious attention and can now focus on other value-creating activities.

One of the best examples of innovation in the technology product space in recent years was the initial launch of the Research In Motion (RIM) Blackberry. Prior to this device, it was possible to wirelessly synchronize and send/receive e-mail, notes and calendar events. But, it was technically challenging and highly prone to failure. Thus, few people tried to integrate this feature into their lives and even fewer kept up the effort after it became clear how difficult and unreliable it was. RIM succeeded in innovating because they created a product that delivered robust unconscious automation of wireless e-mail and calendar synchronization. In reading most analyses of the RIM Blackberry’s success, focus is given to their security model or the strength of the integrated hardware and software design, et al. These were contributors and enablers of their true innovative feature—required, to be sure, but not the core innovation. When using the RIM Blackberry, there was no conscious thinking required to receive the benefit of the service. As long as the device was powered, it robustly delivered the synchronized data. Thus, users were able to free their conscious thought-processes to address other problems and leverage the benefit of having synchronized e-mail and calendar data. It was incredibly innovative and launched RIM as a hugely successful company at the time.

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