Some of you may not understand the title. Let me explain.
If you grow up on a farm or ranch there is a rule: “don’t name your farm animals” (Just FYI – No. I did not live on a ranch but did work on various farms and ranches while growing up). The rule has a simple inference; if you name an animal it becomes a pet, not a business. If you name a cow “Fluffy” there is no chance that you are going to ever send it off so you can have beef for dinner. It my sound crass but, it is obviously a necessary part of the business.
When I first started in engineering, I didn’t understand that how “attached” I could become to a product – or how all objectivity could get thrown out the window when your “pet project” was at risk. In technology, our products are our farm animals. Certainly we need to respect them as they bring us our livelihood but we also need to be prepared to harvest them at the appropriate time and move on.
This is an important message for every business. It is so easy to get too attached to products; they become our pets. I talked on other notes about how, I believe, almost every failure in technology has been when companies fail to see a curve in the road. That is not quite correct – these companies most likely see the curve but actively choose to ignore it.
So many books have been written on relative topics. One of the best is “Only the Paranoid Survive” by Andy Grove.
If you don’t have time for a book right now here is my short version. Remember those “magic 8 balls” that you would shake and ask a question? – well, here are my Magic 8 rules for Innovation:
Rule 1: Listen
Ever notice how customers buying older-generation products are often the most vocal about their requirements. When customers are faced with higher change costs, they will invest more time and energy to tell you what they need – and they will not be shy. Any company needs to respect these requirements - our objective is to make sure these folks feel delighted (as opposed to trapped).
In terms of disruptive innovation, however, no one will be shouting – they will be whispering. They may not even be talking to you in the first place. If they are talking, it will be in the context of business problems not feature requests. This form of listening means seeking out those who may not buy anything form you or those choosing to do something a completely new way. I bet you get my drift.
Rule 2: Create an Idea Factory
Ideas can come from anywhere. The more that you can put into the system, the more likely you can find your next innovation. Companies must foster innovation and create true idea factories.
Rule 3: Expect Disruption
Come on - this is high-tech – disruption is constant. Why would you think you product/segment is immune. The problem is generally that folks are looking the wrong directions. I believe that most disruptive innovations do not come from your traditional competitors (they are usually stuck too) – they come from new places.
Rule 4: Just Do It
Fact is – in life, we generally get what we pay for. If you don’t spend any $ you will not innovate. Spending is not enough – you need to spend it like a startup would. You need to take some risk and you need to keep the processes light.
Use your quality program to get incrementally better but (IMHO) most quality programs are one of the largest barriers to true innovation as they focus on perfection of the existing process but seldom look outside of the box. Now before I get 1000 emails from my Corp Quality team let me be clear. Every company should have a quality program – it is critical. The mistake is trying to apply your quality program to your innovation program.
Rule 5: Loose the EGO
One capability of larger companies is that they can miss a curve in that road and still recover. The key remains to simply acknowledge the change or potential disruption and take action. Often time this means doing some radical things internally. Personally, I think Microsoft has been outstanding here. They may not be first into every trend but, when they do see a disruption, they jump in with both feet.
The EGO comes in when companies simply choose to ignore a change. People’s EGOs (and status, and comfort, etc) just get too wrapped up in the present paradigm. In terms of innovation - I always ask myself the following question “if I we starting a brand new company tomorrow, what would I do?”
If something is overlooked today, it is the human factor. Human bias’s, ego’s and motivation can play a huge role in the investigation and planning process. It is absurdly easy for engineers to pretty much make data “say” whatever we want to say (yes, I know this from personal experience). It is also absurdly easy for a salesperson to build a case for something out of a few anecdotes made to look like a huge trend.
Bad data can cause a company to miss trends and also to jump into the wrong things. The trick here is not to ignore anything but to simply do your homework and check the data yourself or call some customers yourself. Understand what self-motivations might be in play. Ask a person biased AGAINST an idea to investigate it.
Rule 6: Quantify the Value
Often we get caught up in “technology” when we should be thinking about “innovation.” Innovation often involves technology but, at the core, there must be a significant value proposition. 20% better, in general, is not “innovation,” nor is EMC using a bigger disk dive or a faster interface. Disruptive innovation should be just that – disruptive. If you can’t value it though, neither will your customers.
Rule 7: Train your team for change
As I noted, most of the problems at large companies are not the ability to see change but the ability to respond. Take a lesson from the military – they train and train and train so that, when the battle does come, training (not fear) will take over. Some things to do here are to rotate people regularly across jobs, offer programs in change management, and build a culture that is rewarded and understand the challenge of change. Always reward your true (wise) risk takers but also encourage folks that risk is more about letting go of something old than taking on something new.
Rule 8: Don’t Name Your Farm Animals
Change is good.