Monday, April 19, 2010

Fate and its role in innovating ourselves

When I think about where I am in my life today, I often think back to the critical moments when fate seemed to put me at a fork in the road and simply said...choose. It dawned on me earlier in my life to recognize when a choice would have implications as to how the rest of my life would go. If we can recognize this is happening to us, we can make a more informed decision which ultimately helps us move forward without looking back.

So how do we know when we are there?

Its about introspection. Its about knowing yourself, and getting closer to your base emotions: fear, anger, happiness and sadness. If you can be touch with these things you will be able to recognize what is going on for you at that moment and learn to say to yourself, "This choice is important and I need to know that whatever choice I make, things won't be the same.".

One might say, so what? So I choose and life goes on. But does it? I learned this thinking when I was finishing college. In fact, I use this story in any interview I have because it shows convinction, willingness to take risk, and a willingness to live out of the box. And this is not my opinion but what I have been told over the years when I tell this story. And I believe it shows the point best.

The Story: In college, I majored in Chemistry something I had a great deal of passion for as a high school student. It was something I really loved. During my senior year, it became clear to me that I needed to go to graduate school, but I have to say I wasn't sure where to go or better yet where this would lead me in my future. I met with my advisor, who helped me select a group of schools to apply to. As is turns out half of them were on the west coast and half of them were on the east coast. For geographic irony, I was going to school smack in the middle of the country in St. Louis. For context, I grew up on the east coast in Phladelphia and many of my close friends in college and high school were mostly heading back east to live. So simply put, the easy choice would be to do what was comfortable.

One night I was sitting in my room (probably having a beer) filling out my many applications for graduate school. As I sat there looking at schools on the west and schools on the east, I was pretty confused on how to decide. And out of nowhere (this is absolutely true), a voice came flying into my head and said quite clearly, "if you want to grow up and face yourself you cannot go back.".

This may sound like a movie or alien hokey, but those were the exact words I heard. Now as you read this post you will expect me to say that was fate talking, and that you should listen to crazy voices in your head, but it was not. That was me talking. But what I did learn at this moment was that I was at a critical juncture in my life. And while it is obvious that going to school in a far away place would be shape my life, it is the fact that this moment helped me know that when a critical decision comes up you must know it.

So the next thing that happened was I picked up all my east coast applications and threw them away. Essentially, I made the decision that would shape my life right then and there. I listened to the voice, which was critical, but I chose a path that would reshape things. This is knowing and going forward. What I didn't discuss here is the second thing I started to say to myself after I made this decision.

About a week later, when I started wearing shorts in February (because I had gotten into UC-Santa Barbara), someone asked me if I was excited to go to graduate school. My response was this, "I want to finish what I started, and even if I never practice chemistry again, it won't be a waste of my time". And this is how we not only recognize the fate forks in the road, but also how we can take control of our choice and walk that path prepared for the downside potential our choice can cause.

Fast forward....

Did I grow up and face myself as the voice said? Absolutely. I did go to California. I did finish my graduate degree. I did grow an entire life away from my family and spent 15 years there. I did learn during graduate school that I hated working in the lab and that doing bench science and even pure chemistry was not for me. I am now working in the innovation field (something not that far from my training...because I do human experiments and develop innovation theory). But every single day I am so happy I made the second statement when placed at that fork in the road, because when we recognize we are there, we recognize what we must do, and most importantly set our own expectations so we can remember why we chose. It is this last thing that makes you successful at the fork. If going in, we can get on the balcony and understand what's most important when we choose. We have set ourselves up for success because we are innovating ourselves personally. And with this type of growth, comes the chance to produce astounding results in whatever we do either personally or professionally.

So ask yourself this...

1. Am I making a decision that will fundamentally change things going forward?
2. If it is a moment like this, what is important to me?
3. What do I want to achieve with this decision
4. What key thing must I assure myself that this is NOT a bad decision no matter how it goes?
5. How I can be sure to look back at this moment later with no regret because I learned no matter what?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hey Innovator...what skills are critical?

Being an innovator is a hard business. In fact, it is often downright painful. Why? Because you are usually a champion and in this role you must be willing to fight against the status quo and conventional thinking to lead those who don't see to a place of clarity and value. But how do you teach the skills of being a change agent? Some would say you can't. I don't agree. In fact, I have spent a long time thinking about the key skills that have helped me. And while there are some key internal skills (a topic for another day), one must realize there are some key skills a person needs as they deal with the people around them they want to change. Over my career, I have found the following skills to be the ones that have been critical to my ability to “innovate in space”. This means that wherever I am and whatever I am doing, that I am capable to assess the situation and come up with a way to influence those around me to see the value of the innovation or change I am championing. If you can know how and when to use these tools, you will be successful in driving change. The slide at the beginning of this post is a framework from what is discussed below.

Communication Clarity Skills: The idea of communication clarity is very important because it is the foundation for ensuring that you are on the same page with those you are trying to influence. Innovation is a dangerous game and when you are unskilled at communicating clearly with those you are trying to influence, you can very easily lose your credibility and lose the trust you have worked so hard to build. Communication clarity skills focus on just that...learning to get clear about what you mean.

Operational Definition Creation: I always tell the story of how when I was getting my MBA how my operations teacher who taught us nothing about operations, spent many classes talking about the most critical thing we would learn is the principle of operational definitions. This means when two people point at something and call it pink does it mean the same thing? This is critical because it is first step to creating misunderstandings between two people. If you are unclear on your operational definitions, you are starting off on the wrong path. There are many times in my career that I have failed at this and paid for it later. In fact, without it you can very easily end up working on the wrong thing and end up with a client that is pissed about wasting time. As an innovator you can really endear youself to others when you take the time to listen for mismatches here. I have saved many meetings simply hearing bad operational definitions and point out that people are not on the same page. They always thank me and it builds credibility for the innovator. It is also directly linked to poor expectation management, the other critical communication clarity skill.

Expectation Management: One of the most critical skills of innovation is learning to say no. Why is this critical? Because innovators in general love to see the possiblities in things and ultimately prefer to say, "I can do it". This fundamental love of change is our greatest asset and weakeness...unless you can learn to manage expectations. You can think of this as an innovator's power of yes, which a heavy dose of MAYBE lumped in. How many times have we promised something hoping it will work out, only to find you have stretched yourself too far and end up falling flat on your face. Being able to work with people and get clear on what you can and can’t get done is so important because in the game of change it helps you manage your integrity as a partner. This sounds obvious, but I have been amazed at people's ability or lack thereof to use candor when working in a partnership. People think that by making people feel good they will walk away from the table aligned. This is simply not true. While it can sometimes be offputting to be so clear with folks, it is critical to setting things in the right direction. This is also the foundation to building a great relationship that innovates and tolerates the issues that arrive between partners when driving change. So for me, I try to start every request or idea with..."no is always an appropriate answer". This is how I train myself to be better at this because I always remain open to hearing no, understanding why and working to manage expectations if I have gone too far with my idea for change

Collaborative Influencing Skills: The other type of skills that is needed at the higher level is collaborative influencing skills. Because in addition to communicating clearly innovators must also excel in their ability to influence when they have no authority. I have often said and stand by the idea that great innovators learn with no one reporting to them, they have no formal authority and have no budget. If you can successfully create ideas and implement them when you have nothing but your wits you can command a large group to do things for you. What this means that these skills in particular are very important because they are the second part of the external foundation that help you lead from a point of perceived weakness

Negotiation: If you think about it, everything we do is essentially a negotiation. Whether it is our children, our spouse or the people we work with you are negotiating your point more often than not. Why is this critical to innovation? Because you often have to get others who don’t believe to do just that; believe in something shocking and different. So the ability to use the formal negotiations is critical to success. I personally subscribe to the principled negotiation method. It is the innovator's friend because is a style that is based on collaboration. In this process, the first and most critical step is the idea of probing for interests. Simply put, this means taking the time to ask yourself what does the other person want? Most people do not spend the time to really think about what their partner wants, they are more interested in what they want to get in the negotiation. If you are too focused on yourself, you cannot really hear what is going on which can ultimately sink what you are trying to do. When it comes to interests it is imperative to keep poking and poking at them. Why? Because you might just learn something that makes the scenario a winner for everyone. You must play back what you hear and keep asking. When you get their interests it makes creating options easier because they will make sense for everyone. In addition, if you are clear on your own interests you will be sure what you will or won’t do. This type of clarity supports being good at expectation management as well as being strong a using operational definitions. In fact, the skills begin to flow together.

Facilitation: The last skill is something the most overlooked as a personal external innovation skill. Facilitation is the art of being able manage a group towards a goal. But what is different about innovation facilitation versus regular faciliattion? Most facilitation is merely a process by which you manage a meeting. Time keeping, agenda writing and neutrally helping a group go through the steps they outline to create value from a meeting. When it comes to innovation facilitation, a very unusual skill, the facilitator actually knows where they want to lead the group and literally drags them there in a very subtle way. How is this done? Sometimes the faciliator can say what they think and ask the group if it is a stupid idea. You goal is to bring people towards you and ellicit a reaction that is close to where you want to go. Think of innovation facilitations doing the process with an opinion. But the bottom line if you are able to mobilize a group towards a point of agreed to convergence you are on your way to helping them create something. Sprinkle in a little negotiation thinking, operational definitions and expectation management and you will see yourself moving everyone around and around to where you want them to be.

So that sort of it...

In my experience as I continue work to improve how I drive change in the world around me, I believe the skills outlined here will enable a person to really be able to tackle problems from any angle. And being able to tackle problems from multiple points of view is the essence of coming up with new ideas that ultimately need a change agent to implement them.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The ME, The WE, and The ENTERPRISE - the foundation of an innovation culture

One of the key questions on my mind in recent months since the start of 2010 is what comes next for innovation? Over the past 10 years, one of the most important movements in the innovation community is the concept of Open Innovation. This movement which has challenged how companies think about producing innovation has reshaped how innovators talk about doing their jobs. In the early 2000's, this concept made it ok to partner, ok to look outside for the answer and most importantly it enabled innovators to connect with each other to create gamechanging results. One of the most successful examples of Open Innovation's success is Procter & Gamble. The early days of open innovaiton saw its CEO A.G. Laffley create a cultural value proposition that focused on Open Innovation. When he mandated that 50% of all ideas will come from the outside, Laffley stuck a cultural stake in the ground that forced the employees of Procter & Gamble to holisitically embrace the power of Open Innovation

Over the past few years, however, I have been this movement stalling or better yet does it need to evolve? We still have many conferences and gatherings to celebrate the successes of this mode of thinking, but as the innovation leader of a company I can't help but say, most organizations haven't culturally embraced this concept in total. fact, just he other day I saw a discussion on linked in started by Stefan Lindegard asking, "Do you find open innovation frustrating? You are not alone. What can we to do deal with this?". When I saw this many of my hunches about Open Innovation became a reality. This question to me challenges the essence of what might be wrong with what is a brilliant innovation concept. As I speak with most Open Innovation Advocates, I get the sense the they preach the gospel, but the total acceptance is limited to a senior sponsor and those accountable to drive the inititave. Beyond them, however, most folks within the organization are skeptical and after many years have still not made the transition to align with this external method of thinking.

This brings to what is next. It is quickly becoming my opinion from experience and the literature that in order to get organizations to fully embrace a concept like open innovation it is critical to create a total culture of innovation where all people within an organization embrace thinking and acting differently.

If we think about this in fact we can actually come up with a very simple way to align culture to make things work. In any corporate setting there are three pieces: the me, the we and the enterprise. What does this mean and why is it important to think about when we discuss innovation culture. Let's break it down...

The ME: These are the individuals that make up any organization. As Robert Rosenfeld often claims, "companies don't innovate, people do!" And if this is the case each person who works in any company is critical to the success of creating an innovation culture.

The WE: The WE is the collection of ME's who come together to interact as a group to create competitive advantage. These are the group's that execute projects, build and create novel programs and develop strategies that produce the results for the company.

The ENTERPRISE: Essentially, this is the company. The Enterprise the holisitc entity that gives shape and purpose to the ME's and WE's who create value for companies. The ENTERPRISE is an important piece of the puzzle to call out because it sets the tone with its Mission, Strategy, Credo, Vision and Culture. The ENTERPRISE represents the boundary by which any company operates and within the ENTERPRISE are the individuals who work together to deliver against its wishes.

When thinking about an innovation culture, it is critical for these three things to be aligned in unison for synergy to happen and game changing results to ensue. Stop and think about it. If I can get the individuals or ME's to look inside themselves to understand who they are better as well as get them to respect the differences between themselves and the other ME's collaboration will happen. If the ME's are self aware and respectful of the diversity of thought that exits, then when the ME's are put together to work on problems they will be a better functioning WE. In addition, if we understand how to put the ME's together into better WE's we will get more predictable and more valuable output from their efforts as WE's. And ultimately, if the enterprise can create clarity of its innovation needs by which it expects the ME's to behave then it will create cyclical alignment between all three and this is what it takes to create innovation productivity.

So in essence...ask yourself if I want my entire company to innovate or my function or my team, have I aligned the ME, the WE, and the ENTERPRISE?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The concept of BEVIA...

As innovators attempt to drive change within their lives, throughout their professional sphere or across the corporate landscape it is often difficult to systematize their efforts. My experience has shown that finding simple and consistent principles that enable all examples to squeeze through the same lense are critical to ensuring you can innovate consistently.

This brings up the concept of BEVIA, five simple steps to analyzing one's efforts to drive a novel concept, capability, tool or process into the DNA of a company. Each letter represents a stage of development in this process. And most importanly the concept of BEVIA must be considered repeatedly during the process when dealing with an individual, function or organization (the proverbial THEY). How all three groups are relevant during the process will become clearer as we delve deeper into its theoretical application.

Believe - Do THEY believe in the concept you are selling?

Experiment - Are THEY willing to experiment in the concept they now believe in?

Validate - Do THEY feel the experiment was successful and worth replicating again?

Integrate - Do THEY think that the novel concept is worth making a best practice?

Adapt - Do THEY champion usage of the new best practice across the organization?

How can this apply to making innovation the way things are done? By analyzing your efforts almost daily to determine if you are successfully selling your concept to others. While the question BEVIA asks seem straight forward, it is the realization of its hidden catalytic nature that will help clarify one's own progress to successfully complete your desired task.

This catalytic nature is based upon its scalability across all parts of an organization (in this case the individuals, the functions and the entire organism itself...the company). Essentially, we all know that the point at which the senior leadership buys off on a concept does not necessarily mean that said concept will be successfully ADAPTED by the rest of the company. In most cases, the political machine can easily align against it to show that what seemed like a good idea is merely another far fetched innovation that didn't have the meat to make it usable.