Thursday, March 31, 2011

The politics of innovation introduction...

Without mincing words, politics kill innovation.  If you are not careful, anyone's brilliant new idea can be squashed without one knowing it, realizing it is happening and in some cases you are standing right there when it happens in your face.  You might say, boy that's obvious, politics is rampant and everywhere we look.  I agree this is the case, but when you are thinking about  being a change agent within any business the odds of politics killing your new ideas is always high.

Why?  Because all organizations have their cultural attributes and morays and if you are challenging convention the opportunity for the organism to react to something different inherently feels much higher.  Think about it...even if you live inside a relatively new culture, if you "go against the grain" you will have to make your case as effectively as you can to bring about change.  It is easier, but politics will dictate whether you are successful or not.

Over my career, I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to learn to be an innovator with no budget, authority, or people from the bottom, middle and top of the organization.  And in the last few months, I have broadened that opportunity as I am now doing it at a small company with little resources at all.  Having this chance to view driving change from all levels and sizes of organization has given me the chance to think about and formulate methods that enable one to think about any situation to enable them to "innovate in space"  I will spend the next set of blog posts bringing the principles I use personally as an innovator from my politics of innovation deck into the blog.  Much of the content in that deck was created a few years ago, but after utilizing these principles in my work life, I have had a chance to use them, teach them and refine them to a place that I have been surprised that they still hold water.

As I have stated in earlier blog posts, having broad rules of thumb or principles that help you in any situation are great ways to help you make decisions more quickly in tough situations both personally or professionally.  To help you drive change of any kind, knowing what is happening around you at all times is ALWAYS the difference between success and failure to launch that change.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Bridge to Innovation - from theory to reality

When it comes to innovation, I never cease to hear people discuss how mushy it is.  They often discuss how many of those in the innovation field make wild claims on what can be accomplished, but very few of them produce anything tangible.  Why are innovators so easy to attack?  I believe it stems from a variety of things, not the least of which is the issue that great innovation theory is too far away from the tangible results most corporate leaders look for and crave.  Too many times we hear people at work say, "We are all in this to make money,  right?"  And this statement is usually follow up by a horrifying laugh that makes my skin crawl as the narrow minded financially focused belt on.

To best understand how to make a difference as a change agent, we need to get clear on how to think through things conceptually in order to be able to make real change happen.  Below is one way to think about the link between theory and functional execution.

Essentially what this visual highlights is a simple way to think about each thing an organization needs to make a great innovation live. And more importantly, it gives the innovator a way to think about where they are in the process to best understand what step is next and what is missing.

Theory:  This is the foundation for big innovation. Innovation theory is where great ideas are born. Theory can add great impact to anything, because when the net is cast wide enough it can catch a lot of fish. The problem with theoretical constructs is that really have low dollar value until they are distilled and ultimately proven correct. And while they are usually one of the most exciting things for an innovator to work on, its limited business value can often keep them from ever really getting off the biggest idea off the ground. Is it folly to be a person who loves theory, no! Theory is what brings many efforts into context and creates what are often the most powerful and scalable innovations. Without the theory of open innovation, the explosion in external partnering in the late 90's and 00's would have never happened. In this case it took theory to give people a way to think about the change.

Process: While more tangible, process does not always drive the bottom line. In this case, we are not talking about the process design to make a product, we are talking about business processes by which corporate scale is often created. As stated on this slide, process brings the needed order to things, but its downside is it often crushes the spirit of new ideas because "we have a process for doing this...and that is outside of it". We have all heard these dreaded words and they are usually involve the next level on the bridge (politics/culture), but without good process many innovations die in the one-off graveyard.  Where process shines is in its ability to bring people together.  Process can be the birth of corporate collaboration (the needed order).  What is probably most intriguing to me is the way a process can help those involved defocus the personal and collaborate more professionally as a team.

Politics/Culture:  This sits at the top of the bridge for a very simple reason...politics and culture are the difference between succeeding and failing in the change game.  Every company or group has a methodology for doing things and those within the culture often fight to lead and get their ideas implemented.  As someone who often is focused on changing either the structure or culture, knowing how to move between the cracks is essential.  If you don't, change will die quickly, if you do it can speed everything up substantially.  Being a student of politics and culture in the innovation/change agent game is critical to helping you accomplish the innovation goals any organization has for itself.

Organizational Structure:  As you come down off the peak of innovation to organizational structure, you begin to come in contact with the more mundane structure of a organization.  On the theory side you have process which is the needed order for how you drive change (the process).  On the concrete side of things you have the organizational structure (the people).  This can be a very difficult part of making innovation real.  The what's your role and should you be doing this is where corporate turf wars live.  On the other hand, knowing who does what can help the innovator focus on targeting the right part of the organism to affect change.  Finding the right pressure point and then getting it do break ranks from the structure is a trick worth thinking about as you move forward as an innovator.

Functional Execution:  Like the big thoughts of theory that have little impact on the bottom line, when you are executing innovation you are making it real.  But at what expense?  Often times when those who are great at making innovation tangible, often lose the vision of why it was created in the first place.  This step can lead to a launch that delivers less that it should have because "the box" got it done, but did it get done right?  Thinking ahead and planning for this is critical.  It is where a scalable theory is critical, a good process for aligning people for the change is paramount, knowing which players can accelerate things, who needs to buy in so in the end the functional execution is done with excellence.

All part of the bridge are needed to make it real.  Start to far to the right you will be only incremental.  Stay on the theory side and nothing gets done.  All five parts are key...but that being said, the politics of innovation are where a person ultimately succeeds or fails in their quest to become an expert change agent...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Innovation is to pupa as Change Agent is to butterfly

What is an innovator really?  For many years being considered innovative was primary to my goals.  Whether this meant working on the front end of the business, being the person people would turn to for "different ideas", or simply being the square peg in a round hole for whatever company I worked for, I relished the thought.  And above that, leading an innovation effort was my real interest.  Actually, I am not sure why this was my quest, but seeing new ideas and methods come alive was what I enjoyed and all that really interested me.  And I guess the ME at the end of the last sentence really highlights the issue that needed to be overcome.

After many years of looking for the opportunity, my chance to lead an innovation program came to pass when I become global vice president of innovation at Daymon Worldwide.  During my early days at Daymon, something happened.  I am not totally sure when it occurred or how it occurred, but when I was in a position of "innovation leadership" it became clear that the innovation mantra was overrated.  The more respect I received because I was in a position of authority on the subject of innovation, the more I saw it as my job to help others see why no single person can own an innovation effort.  Don't get me wrong, I always wanted to have a chance to impact a lot of people by making their job fun and work as a place of self discovery, but not for my own ego's sake.  In fact, after starting my twitter stream in 2009, I wrote something that helped me externalize what was happening. 

Early in my learning this new social media technology, I wrote something that struck me as interesting...

Simply put...Innovation is to pupa as change agent is to butterfly.

Read it again...Innovation is to pupa as change agent is to butterfly.

Think about it.  After writing it, it made perfect sense to me.

Innovation is merely an amorphous thing that people spend a lot of time fighting to define.  How many of you innovators sit around defending your corporate existence arguing about how your efforts directly impact the bottom line?  You can scream till your blue in the face about your efforts, but someone who is way more concrete than you will always argue that what you are pointing to is, "not innovative at all".  They might go on and say its all our job to be innovative and what makes what you do any more innovative than what I do?  And thus the merry go round goes round again.  And again.  Innovation is a great thing when it happens. It can be so obvious when it comes to life.  That being said, I feel that what most innovators miss is how we can have the most impact on everyone.

And the word EVERYONE at the end of the last sentence is the point of this blogpost.  After writing that twitter post, I began to realize that I was changing as an innovator.  I realized that the concept of innovation, in my opinion, was merely a subset of the being a change agent.  Change Agents (often referred to as innovation champions) operate on an entirely different plane.  I began to recognize that if everyone could be about 5% more innovative the impact to the company would be so much greater than if my small team was 200% more innovative.  The power of helping others see why they owned innovation became the focus, not the ideas or even the products/services.  Our concrete friends are right, it is everyone's job and everyone is innovating everyday.  What they fail to see however, some people use their culture, their process or their loyalty to how things are done are the seeds of where innovation stops and the need for change agency starts.  It is only when a leadership team takes on the goal of showing everyone the power of having a culture of innovation that is based upon trust that true change can happen.  And when I could see the power of culture and people as a key part of my role did I know I could always have an impact where ever I worked.

I recently received a complement I won't soon forget.  I was having a conversation with a colleague who wanted to know more about what I had done at Daymon Worldwide.  And as I shared with him some of my thoughts on how to build an innovation culture based upon trust, he listened attentively.  After a back and forth discussion for about 15 minutes, he stopped me.  He looked at me across the table and told me that my approach was different and that he really saw the power in the concept of innovator as change agent.  I was very curious why he said this.  I truly believe in the work I do, but like any good leader, I am always wary of my ego and hubris, because over my career when ever I feel like I am really doing great, someone always knocks me off my pedestal.  So I asked him what I had said during our conversation that made him say this.  He looked back at me and very directly told me.  You know, I have sat in front of many innovators in my day, most of them always throw around the words innovation and strategy.  You are one of the only ones who used the words people and culture.  In fact, you didn't say innovation or strategy at all and that approach is different and refreshing.  And at that moment I realized I had hatched from my cocoon and become a butterfly.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Financial Landscape vs. Authority - Getting the money right for innovation investment

Have you ever worked with an external partner who has something great for your organization but asks for too much money to do the initial project together?  At this moment in an innovator's cycle you have three choices; you can take the price and try to get it funded, you can think their screwing you and reject the partnership or you can get strategic on the issue.  Most innovators have a never say die attitude in moments like this, but as with most efforts as a change agent, I believe you need a simple principle to handle every situation.  In this special case, I call it thinking about FINANCIAL LANDSCAPE VERSUS AUTHORITY.

What is financial landscape versus authority?

If your partner asks for some amount of money for a project, in most organizations there is a distinct financial authority someone has before they must ask their superior.  And if they have to ask their superior there is a chance that the "landscape" they can spend that money on widens.  As the landscape widens the odds of getting your idea funded diminish greatly.  So if your partner asks for say $250,000 to do a project, in most cases this level of funding will be taken on by a Vice President and when you get to this level stop and think about the number of choices that person could spend that money on.  Odds are their are so many you could be dead in the water, because most innovations are riskier investments than standard ones and unless that leader is special or you have major credibility it can be hard to get to yes.

How do you deal with this?

What is most important is to know what your internal partner's financial authority for spending is.  You want the amount you are asking for be within their authority AND to be something they want to do.  If you get the level of investment within those two parameters you will find a strong internal partner for doing the innovation experiment that can help your company win on the marketplace.

How do you deal with your external partner?

It is imperative that you deal openly and honestly about this issue as you negotiate pricing.  Do it collaboratively, don't do it positionally.  The greatest successes in innovation come from collaborative and trusting partnerships, not ones that are steeped in questions.  There is always time for tough questions, but it can often be less valuable than using trust and clarity.  In the case of financial landscape versus authority, simply telling your partner it won't get funded and exactly why is the best course to make it happen.  If they believe in you they will work with you, if they are merely interested in short term gains, they might walk away.  Better to find that early than after you start and learn the price of doing business is too high to move forward.

Should you never go big? 

Of course not...going big is in the innovator's DNA, but for you "infection" of the corporate body, you want to get started small and cheap with a focus on developing data and a partner champion that will allow you to go bigger next time.  If you get a business partner who is championing your effort, then you sound less like an heroic evangelist and more like a savvy innovator who is "connected to the business".

Financial Landscape versus authority in action...

One of greatest successes involved getting my company to fund an experiment in social media.  When I first discussed the price with my partner, they asked for $250,000 for a 16 week partner.  And while I believe the project would give more that $250,000 in value, I realized quite quickly that I needed to go the that dreaded VP level to get the funding.  I had a good director level partner who was eager to do the work because of the situation he was in.  So rather than try to get him to fund it and end up in front of the VP who probably would look out on the horizon and choose not to, I told my external partner it wouldn't work.  Instead, I figured that my internal partner could fund the project for about $100,000 and told my external partner that the chances of funding at this level were faster and easier.  It worked, the internal partner funded it and we did the project.

What happened afterwards?

After the initial $100,000 project, the external partner has enjoyed a 5 year relationship with my company.  This partnership yielded over $1,000,000 dollars over that four year period with the second deal totaling $275,000 dollars about 4 months later (funded by a vice president).  In addition, I left the company two years into the partnership and the relationship has survived in some financial form even today.

When can you go big right away?

There are many principles that make an innovator successful.  And this is something I will talk about in a later post....

Thursday, March 17, 2011

If you lead the horse to water...its your responsibility to make him drink

Often times as an innovator, I have found myself feeling like an outsider looking in.  Why?  Because as a born contrarian and a natural divergent thinker, my process and method for doing things is often different from others.  Over the years, I have come to learn that this style difference is merely that a difference in how I like to innovate versus others.  And while that is the topic for another longer post, I will say this...regardless of how different we are as innovators, to bring change to others it is up to us to figure out the coping mechanisms to "get along" with those we encounter everyday.

How often in your quest to work on novel and different ideas that often go against the grain do you get frustrated because others don't understand where you are going, how you are getting them there and most often even what you are trying to say?  I would say in the beginning of my career way more often than now.  And while this frustration will always remain, I have learned to accept that if I can't get the horse to drink it is my fault not theirs.  Too many times, it is too easy to say to others who are different from us that they just don't get it or their too afraid.  In reality, if you are really pushing the envelope, you need to take responsibility that this in our quest to bring what are often considered risky and different ideas, we must find ways to help other see what we see.

And while this isn't easy, it is critical.  Earlier I wrote about the concept approach principle. where understanding that your struggle can often be not your concept but the approach you want to take.  This will often bring instant clarity to any situation, it is only the first step.  Acknowledgement that bringing people along to your way of thinking is your responsibility can often create even more clarity because when we own what is ours (in this case the differential in thinking) we find ourselves moving more quickly towards growth and new skills.

And in the end, we can only improve as innovators and change agents if we are readily willing to take on the constant challenge to grow and change for the good of bringing about the wonderful ideas that give us passion...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crossing your arms or reach out for a hug - the innovation partnership difference

What is the difference between speed in implementing innovation and never getting it off the ground?  Trust!  That being said, one of the key things to think about when you first encounter an innovative idea is this...

How do you first interact with the idea/concept/solution/product etc?

Do you question and doubt everything you hear until the potential partner proves to you the value they bring? Do you worry about if it is worth the risk?  Do you actually sit there with your arms folded across your chest?

Or do you bring trust and accept what you hear at face value first and then over time determine the positives and negatives of what you have just heard? 

I believe the majority of folks cross their arms rather than reach out and embrace what they hear and because of this attitude/behavior many great opportunities for individuals and companies to shine are lost.  You may say yes, but only about 10% of ideas are really worth launching.  Or you might say, hey that is off strategy for our business.  These things are all true, but resting on the obvious reason to say no only makes the point even more. 

Many of my greatest successes have come by bringing trust to my relationship from the moment I first meet someone.  This does not mean show every single card.  It means being clear (expectation management)about your interests and your company's interests, being honest about what you need to be successful in the partnership, and being forthright about the cultural challenges you may see or have with the path to success.  In my earlier post being the benevolent virus, I talk about this as the first phase of building an innovation partnership.

While I have many examples of this, my current role at NetBase started in this way.  In 2006, when I first came across NetBase's fantastic technology rather than question the value of their solution, I saw potential and shared it very openly with my partners.  I told them very clearly what it would take to succeed and never deviated from the things I promised to them.  This included sharing how Clorox's culture took time to try new things, it involved being open about the amount the company was willing to spend on a pilot for a new idea, and most importantly it involved getting very open with them about the folks they met during the journey (essentially exposing them to the strengths and flaws of those who were involved).  This building of trust enabled us to figure out a creative way to do our first project together and ultimately led to a financial relationship that lasted over 2 years after I left Clorox and was no longer there to champion the effort.  And the financial result?  Over seven figures in sales in total over a 5 year period.

This all started because I was willing to take a risk in how I approached people I didn't know well as well as how I treated an idea that I believe had potential

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The concept/approach principle - influencing clarity

How many times have you tried to drive change only to be brushed aside by a critical stakeholder? Have you ever thought why beyond the fact that they just don't get it? Is it possible that you didn't help them get it enough?

This leads to a simple innovation principle called the concept/approach principle.

What is the concept/approach principle? This principle is a simple way to analyze a situation when an innovator is trying to influence someone. When you are trying to share a new idea with a stakeholder if you are having trouble getting your point across you must ask they not understand the concept I am presenting them or do they disagree with my proposed approach? This is an extremely critical distinction because if we can separate where our problem is we can have insight into how to fix our arguments to achieve our goals.

It also helps to cut down on frustration because if we recognize that someone doesn't understand our concept, it is easier to understand that we need to work harder to make sure they can get the concept we are selling. We might even decide there is another politcal route to getting this concept understood and ultimately implemented.

As for approach, if we are losing on approach it may be a bit easier to accept because this can be a difference in opinion. And while it is harder to convince someone to change ther emind on approach, at least we can make more sense of our disagreement. In addition, I have found if you can point out to someone that you don't have a concept problem first (they feel understood) so when you poiint out that it is about approach they might even get a bit more open minded to what you are saying because have done aq good job of cliarying the situation.

While it seems so simple, understand the issue in this simple way can help you better react in real time and be successful at driving the change you crave to implement.

Culture Based Adoption - Driving Change from the inside or the outside

As a person who has worked on the front end of the business my entire career I have often been curious about how to make bringing new opportunities to life something that have repeatable principles. And over time working inside large organizations (CPG companies) and now working outside at a small innovation organization (social media SAAS startup), I am starting to think through how we can create a simple principle to think through the most complex of changes.

I call this concept CULTURE BASED ADOPTION. What is it? Culture based adoption is the simple principle that getting people to do something new is actually a "2-step dance". The first step in the dance is usually based on getting someone to use something new whether it be a product or a service. If you think about this first step it is a scalable principle. From a business perspective it could be the interaction between your company's product or service and the customer/consumer that interacts with it. So whether you are a SAAS company selling a tool or a CPG company launching a new product concept, we must all get our end-user to understand how and why they should use it. The second step in this process involves the culture part. To explain this best, it is probably better to focus on the corporate side of things. The simple point here is once you get someone to understand how and why they must use this new product/service you must then ask yourself will this involve a culture change that could be rejected by the "others" involved?

A great example comes from the adoption of social media tools/services that are flooding the marketplace. As I work with NetBase solutions, we have a new way to mine social media through understanding the language of the web. This interface give its users the opportunity to interact with consumers anytime anywhere from the comfort of their desk. And essentially for a single price they have the freedom to not only talk to them anytime, but to also perform the same research on brands they never in their right mind would spend money on. Here is the problem with step one. Even when someone really gets this new interface and way of interacting with consumers, they still must decide whether they even like to use tools at all. Think about it...a way to do market research on nearly any subject at about 10% of the cost of their current method of operation. And many users will say, I don't have time. Instead they will not use a tool and simply take more time and money to have someone else do it for them. This is a micro version of the two step dance. First, I need to learn something new and second I personally have to change my way of doing things. And while it may be more efficient and less costly, there is real push back because of the "other work" or the "the way we do business". But what happens when they do want to learn something new and become a champion?

This is where the real second step of the Culture Based Adoption comes into play. While many people may understand this new tool's value, they may shy away from it because we are now asking a company who never even would consider a new data source like social media to be valuable. This is where the champion DNA meets the road. Knowing and being willing to fight your culture to bring new value to it starts with an awareness that your organization is throwing away money by doing it the old way. And from the sale side, it is imperative to understand this because it is not simply enough to wonder why things are going smoothly. You must ask yourself if your offering or idea falls into the concept of culture based adoption. That is learning to do something different and then changing the behavior of others to make it real and continue.

So how do I adjust?

Be Aware: You must analyze your idea/offering to say it hard to use and will it require people to do it differently? If the answer is yes and yes you need to think through a process to help them see why?

Collaborate: While all innovations may be valuable in your mind, you must also realize that only through others can you affect change. Great innovators are born with no budget, authority or people. If you can drive change without these things then you can "innovate in space" and bring change when you need to. I have learned time and time again, if you can be patient and bring others along to your way of thinking then they will own it and help you make it real.

Build Trust: In a sales cycle, many people make the mistake of thinking that selling innovation involves making others believe that everything is perfect and there is no issue. I think this is wrong. Selling the hardest innovation requires a huge measure of trust between you and your clients whoever they are. If you use strong expectation management and negotiate fairly (in terms of what you will commit to doing) you can go far. In addition, sometimes showing your warts and acknowledging the problems will help you bring people closer to what you want to accomplish.

Bring Fortitude to the Party: Delivering innovation is not for the those who can't withstand the heat. My good friend told me that innovation is not a team sport but a contact sport. Be aware of where the contact is coming from and be ready to defend your position to make it happen.

In the end, driving new usage behavior and changing the culture of your customer/consumer is something that is hard, but the biggest breakthroughs in the world are never that easy...make it happen