Given a problem to be solved in a new way,
(a) What is the right team build?
(b) How do you shape the environment around them and equip them?
As a reminder, what we’re trying to do here is optimize the following – (1) starting as wide as possible, (2) narrowing down as best as possible, and (3) doing it as fast as possible. Ah, yes, and (4) executing on the result set.
All this happens in the context of a team – whether it be a small shop or the billion-person gargantaur. You want a team that is highly effective at the following:
(1) Brewing – “starting as wide as possible”
Brewing is about inspiration, drawing a wide net, making connections between seemingly unrelated things. It is about more than the classic wacky creative – it is about diversity of thought, intellectual curiosity, lack of ego. It is the freedom, the courage and the will to reach out into the world beyond the easy arena by taking a trip, doing site visits, talking to different kinds of people, following them around until you can get in their heads. It can be starting a conversation or community on an industry message board, Quora, Twitter, Facebook or custom mobile ideation platform. It is about, at times, branching out into realms that may seem irrelevant, and avoiding the temptation to control when the cost of branching out is low.
Steve Jobs, while not the greatest example of a egoless individual, was a great example of the power of curiosity. He studied calligraphy at Reed, which resulted in multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts on the Mac. He loved and invested in the art and storytelling of animated shorts, which turned into the wildly successful Pixar powerhouse. When I heard his speech at Stanford about the dots only connecting looking backwards, I thought two things. First, that everyone’s dots connect looking backwards because we all live in time and learn throughout that time. Second, that Steve Jobs’ dots probably have a more intricate pattern because he has a large portfolio of disparate dots.
I will emphasize that brewing is embodied in the group, not the person – no individual has more than a “personbyte” of information in them. The group's culture must offer space for different thinking, and recognition and validation for even those ideas that don't get carried forward - an environment where "no" is never heard but rather "yes" is said to a few ideas in a growing pool. An individual can be, however, the touchstone for reminding the group to throw its arms wide – whether that individual is the connector, the polymath, or the ethnographer.
(2a) Whoing – “narrowing down as best as possible”
There’s no one right model for innovation. Each problem is different. As I have mentioned before, a problem is about people. No problem exists without a holder (or many holders). While the average strategist might look for patterns, the great strategist will develop a deep empathy for the problem and the people around it, an empathy that is accelerated by the patterns they have seen.
It is impossible, full stop, for a team to do great innovation without a deep empathy with the end-user.
That means dropping out of the “I know” school and enrolling in the “I don’t know” school. Unless you are both a sector specialist and a long-time member of the core user base, you have to start with humility. In all my time looking at markets and industries, I’ve never encountered one that didn’t have unique grooves and curvatures, its own thumbprint. And in my opinion, people are far more nuanced and complex than any market or industry.
What are the nuances of the problem? How does this sector work, what are the dynamics? Where are the bottlenecks? What has been tried in the past? What is missing from all previous solutions? What has kept this problem from being solved to date?
What is it that drives them, the holders of this problem? If your answer is features and cost, then you’re missing the point. Is it saving time because their lives are so hectic and they want to spend more time on their family and passions? Is it status or recognition amongst their peers? Is it deeper relationships, a more connected network? Is it the fun of a meaningful challenge? Is it the inspiration of an absorbing piece of art?
Empathy is about standing in their shoes, viscerally. You can get lucky sometimes, with an insightful user coming up with a great idea, but you can’t always ask users what they want and get a good response. You have to get to the point where you respond emotionally, in your gut, the same way the user would. Only then can you make something great.
(2b) Hewing – “narrowing down as best as possible”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “hew” as to “make or shape by cutting a hard material such as wood.”
In innovation, the ideator is the sexy role, the equivalent of lead singer in a band. The facilitator is at best relatively unappreciated, and at worst, denigrated as “process.” Great facilitation is about more than process – it is about progress, and the right kind.
It is about knowing good analysis from bad, drawing real insights from both the numbers and market reach effort, calling upon deep sector specialist knowledge, factoring in costs and resource constraints, obviating the group’s tendency to leap to the answer, holding a seemingly crazy idea in play until the “why nots” are thoroughly answered, and managing all the personalities in the room. It is strategy on your feet, and hard.
It’s also about prototyping, testing, iterating, learning by doing. This is particularly useful now when prototyping – software or hardware – is relatively cheap. When the discussion begins to run in circles, you can break free by placing yourself and your team under the rigor of having to make something. As Joi Ito has said, plan by building.
Finally, depending on the problem, it can also be about designing platforms and protocols to enable the billion-person gargantaur to narrow down the pool for you. It could be voting, decision markets, epic contests, wiki-likes, collaborative gaming. Or taking the ideas of many and doing the time-consuming work of organizing and shaping them.
The “how” is not random – it is implied by the nuances of the problem and the characteristics of the people around it.
"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it." —Michelangelo
(3) Gluing – “doing it as fast as possible”
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” -- Leo Tolstoy
I have a degree in math and spent a lot of time in my early years programming (in Basic, Turbo Pascal and C++), and really only in the past 7 years has my appreciation for the power and complexities of people truly blossomed. One of the best things I ever did – despite a short-term negative ROI – was take a year off to study organizational and social psychology.
It helped me understand that the scarce commodity in an organization – the bottleneck to success – is rarely a held asset, technology or particular expertise. These or some substitute are often acquirable (and should be acquired if needed). The scarce commodity, however, is most often the coherence and cohesion that creates an effective organization. Call it what you will – culture, communication, shared language, collaboration, integration, silolessness – it is that magic that permeates a great organization that results in people talking to each other, intuitively understanding what each other means, sharing knowledge, and driving towards common goals.
Creating this magic is three-part. The first part is about leadership. The experience of living through the politics of 2001 through 2009 should have disabused us of the notion that leadership doesn’t matter. Leaders choose values and a shared language, and reinforce it every day and in every action. They also craft strategy and align the structure of the organization to match. They are responsible for the coherence side of the equation.
The second part is about human relationships. The idea that people can separate the personal from the professional has proven to be crap. Anyone that has spent time in an organization knows that the best professional relationships stem from healthy personal relationships. Relationships are built on trust and information, which may include but don’t necessarily require rich face-to-face interactions. If the individuals in your group don’t know each other or don’t like each other, then productive innovation is insanely hard.
The third part is protocols. Terribly boring-sounding, which is the reason why it gets underplayed in the innovation realm where sexiness often is equated with novelty. Protocols in a team exist for two reasons: managing uncertainty and maintaining relationships. They are the “handshakes” that make the team (or gargantaur) run smoothly. Examples of protocols can be how conference calls are conducted, expected punctuality, how invitations for meetings are sent, how requests for information are made (and the implied respect for the counterparty’s time), the level of responsiveness expected, how vacations are communicated, how action items are distributed and individuals are held accountable, the format for opening and closing an email, the use of emoticons when feedback is given, and the care given to thanking others. Even large communities, such as Wikipedia or open source, will adhere to agreed-upon guidelines. They can be explicitly established or emerge organically but will fold into culture only if proven useful. These are the nuts and bolts of any organization, though they somehow seem to go by the wayside more frequently in groups that call themselves innovative. Despite the existence of protocols, however, individuals can still feel free to “ignore all rules.”
By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately and well. That is one of the ends for which they exist. — Robert Bringhurst
The code is more what you call "guidelines" than actual rules. — Captain Barbossa
(4) Doing – “executing on the result set”
This post is about “Productive Innovation,” not just having an idea, but concretizing it into something whole, (almost) tangible and valuable. You can’t stop at idea selection and strategy, at the water’s edge. Or even at prototyping. The world is not changed through a prototype.
The capabilities to roll out an innovation and put it in the hands of many do not have to sit in the innovation team (though it could). But they do need to exist somewhere, and there needs to be a clear lifecycle, a long warm handshake, a defined roadmap and an owner with the drive, knowledge and resources to make it happen. I leave this to the end and give it short shrift here but I cannot emphasize enough its criticality.
“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” — Thomas Edison
I’ve come the long way around to answer the two questions we have in mind. So just optimize the above and put together a great team build and well-lit greenhouse. Easy, right? :)
The real takeaways here should be in the questions that you ask – of yourself and of the individuals you are considering for your team. Avoid the temptation to hire one person per desired outcome, and craft the team in its entirety. While each may bring a different skillset, every member should have at least the capacity to empathize deeply with the user and be a functional member of the team, able to generate both trust in their competence and trust in their integrity. Disparate viewpoints and skillsets are important – analytical and intuitive, macro and micro, thinking and doing, senior and junior – as well as the capacity to bring those viewpoints together and make progress. Fun!
Next up (at some point): Archetype models for innovation.