Breakthrough Innovation

February 3, 2009

Cargo Cult Innovation

Filed under: Observations,Strategy,Techniques,Technology — mosesma @ 12:12 am

The common view by business analysts is that the overall failure rate for innovation initiatives within corporations is 80%. And the failure rate of individual investments by Silicon Valley venture capitalists is around 90%. That’s almost as bad as starting a restaurant!

There are many reasons for such a high failure rate – being technology driven instead of customer driven, selling when you need to learn, focusing on requirements rather than experiences, giving all the power to gatekeepers, naysayers and the fearful.

Now, the typical advice that innovation consultants usually provide when facing such a high failure rate, is that you should fail faster. They usually quote Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, who said, “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”

I disagree with that position. It’s really like a running a record business… you want a machine that reliably generates hits, not lots and lots of experiments and flops. Artistic creativity requires the willingness to take chances, but at the end of the day, you’re judged on your hit rate, on how many of your albums succeed vs how many end up in the bargain bin.

I believe that it is possible to continuously improve your success rate, by making three fundamental shifts at your company, in terms of instilling an innovative culture of success.

The three shifts are: First, you need to shift your methodologies for product design, which most likely requires that you “gather requirements” by only asking customers what they want, and not by digging deeper to understand their tacit and unarticulated needs. Second, you need to make innovation measurable and manageable at your company, because you can’t fix what you can’t measure and this is the key to continuously increasing your success rate. And finally, you need to stop doing “cargo cult” innovation. Let’s address these one at a time, starting with shifting your  methodologies for product design.

Ethnography means seeing from true perspective

Ethnography means seeing from true perspective

The first shift has to do with learning a new way to see. The top product development companies, like Apple, Sony & Nokia use a secret weapon called design ethnography. It’s about using techniques from anthropological expeditions, to detect disruptive product opportunities. It’s all about shifting the way you observe the customer, interview them, and more importantly to detect discrepancies between what your customers say and what they do, when you’re observing them.

I helped train and build one of the world’s first “enterprise services ethnography” departments at a major bank, which grew into one of that bank’s greatest success stories for generating customer insight.

Formulaic approaches to ideation, like TRIZ or other techniques, are useful but generally won’t work 100% of the time when it comes to uncovering disruptive opportunities – because innovation is actually an art, not a management technique.

Any art based on human skill, like learning how to paint with egg tempera, or learning how to play the piano, requires 5000 hours for the human brain to learn that skill. Ideation, the skill of creating ideas, is no different. Now, to be really good at painting or piano, you need to combine that skill with talent and inspiration… and even more hard work. There are no shortcuts to becoming a master of any art or skill.

One clue as to how to develop ideation skills is to look at how art schools teach students how to become artists. The first step is always teaching a new way to see. It may be through seeing negative space, or broadening the eye’s receptivity to color resolution, or seeing how any shape can be reduced into three color tones.

One of the great moments for a first time ethnographer is when s/he realizes that “innovation is suddenly seeing that something you thought was working, was actually broken, but you just couldn’t see it.” It’s like discovering a pocket of space-time hidden in the middle of your universe. This is only possible by becoming a trained ethnographer.

A dashboard from our Revolution innovation management system

A dashboard from our Revolution innovation management system

The second shift has to do with learning how to manage innovation, so it’s really about learning how to see progress. The reality is that innovation and ideation are very difficult to measure directly. However, it is possible to develop metrics and waypoints that insure you’re on the right path. One is to simply capture and count ideas as they are being generated.

Once you understand the  pipeline for innovation within your organization, you can create waypoints along that pipeline. For example, the number of ideas that  are promoted to pilot. And then the number of pilots that are successful. And then the number of ideas that eventually made it all the way, and what kind of return they generated for the organization.

If you think about it, how could a project manager within your company be successful without certain tools that measure the progress of a project? How could accounting be successful without cost controls and reporting? In the same way, innovation management requires tools, metrics, controls and reporting. However, it has to be done in a way that does not stifle the underlying fluidity of the process.

There is so much more to talk about when it comes to an innovation resource management system. If you’d like to read more about our Revolution system, click here to download the brochure.

Finally, do you know what the cargo cult is? The classic period of cargo cult activity was during and after World War II in Polynesia. During the Pacific campaign, vast amounts of war supplies were air-dropped into these islands during the Pacific campaign. But at the end of the war, the airbases were simply abandoned.

During this time, the native islanders had become accustomed to these supplies, and really wanted the planes to return. So they went about constructing mock airstrips, and made radios out of coconuts and straw. They staged drills and marches, using twigs for rifles and painting “USA” on their bodies to make them look like soldiers. But no matter what they did, no planes ever came back.

I first heard about cargo cults during a talk given by Richard Feynman, about “Cargo Cult Science”. After studying a number of companies attempting to be innovative, I realized that many companies actually practice Cargo Cult Innovation.

A cargo cult in Micronesia

A cargo cult in Micronesia

Like the islanders, Cargo Cult innovators use all the same buzzwords and expressions as true innovation… but when the chips are down, they’re usually the ones who put the NO in innovation. The harsh reality is that many companies fail when management entrusts innovation into the hands of people who have learned how to survive by the expert application of politics, the  rewarding of ego and empire-building, and the requirement of top-down control.

The position of Innovation Czar is a very sexy and desirable job for any executive, so it’s going to attract both the truly innovative as well as the cargo cult innovators. Usually, after the cargo cult innovation process fails to produce results, the organization can simply say, “hey, we tried and it didn’t work, so can we kill this innovation thing now and get back to work?”

In other words, the third shift is learning how to see reality when it comes to your own managers. Putting anyone politically motivated in charge of innovation will be the kiss of death to your initiative. The essence of true innovation is that it comes from the heart, so you need someone who has a lot of heart and empathy. You need to entrust innovation to someone within your firm who is willing to swing for the fences, who is willing to take chances.

Therefore, look for someone who is brilliant, but at the same time, humble. Look for someone who naturally uses the word “yes” more than “no”. Look for someone who believes in the potential of the human spirit, and instills confidence in his reports. Look for someone with true courage, who would be a good man in a storm. Look for someone who actually listens carefully, when anyone speaks… not just the boss. You know, someone like Barack Obama.

For innovation to be successful at your company, these are the first three steps to take. Specifically – (1) establish an ethnography training for your product developers, (2) install and pilot an innovation management framework, and finally, (3) pick the right manager to lead the innovation initiative.

There’s a lot more you have to do, but this would make for a terrific start!


January 29, 2009

So what does firewalking have to do with innovation?

Filed under: Observations,Strategy,Techniques — mosesma @ 2:21 am

Firewalking and innovation? What the heck?

Before I answer that, let me start with a question for you… what is the core of innovation? The most important factor or ingredient? Some would say it’s inspiration or pure brains. Others would say it’s perspiration or hard work. However, I believe that the true essence of innovation is courage… and in business, this translates into the rare ability to persevere when everyone around you is giving up. It’s about enjoying a persistence of vision so strong that virtually no hardship can deter you. Therefore, I believe that fearlessness is the true essence of the innovative spirit. The difference between a common and an exceptional life is the combination of courage and vision, and that is the difference between a common and an exceptional company as well.

firewalk1There’s a reason that motivational experts like Tony Robbins uses the firewalk, and in fact, has led over 200,000 people through the process. Because it works. For example, motivational coach David Fabricius reported that after leading the employees of a major bank through the firewalk process, one division at a time – every division reported a spike in revenues in the quarter directly following their firewalk event. An average of 130% greater revenues! Peggy Dylan, the founder of the Sundoor firewalking school, reports a similar jump in revenues after leading a national real estate chain had every brokerage office – one at a time – go through the firewalk process.

Therefore, the first reason for considering a firewalk exercise within the context of innovation training is because the firewalk is a remarkably effective tool for transforming the fear that limits the human mind. If every human being believed fervently that flight is impossible, then the possibility of flight could never exist. Add a little personal fear to the equation and it becomes a major paradigm that needs shifting. You need powerful tools to break through such rigid belief.

An innovator fundamentally needs to believe that the impossible is possible, which drives the need to push beyond his limits to prove he’s right. On the flip side, the greatest inhibitor to innovation is the inability to see that the thing that stops us from innovating is actually within ourselves. As long as we blame others for why we can’t innovate, we’ll never break through to true innovation. But that moment you successfully cross a bed of hot coals with your bare feet… you stand there knowing in your bones, that anything is possible.

It would probably be good to take a second and address the question you probably have on your  mind… “is this firewalking stuff for real?” The answer is yes. Firewalking is real, and it isn’t a trick. People do get burned at firewalks, but it isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as something like skydiving. The most colorful story about getting burned at a firewalk was when a TV physicist, Jearl Walker, set out to prove it’s a hoax… and ended up with second degree burns. With a certified firewalk instructor running the show, burns are actually quite rare.

The second question is probably, “how does it work?” The answer isn’t clear. As a former physicist, I’d say that there are many factors at work. For a shorter “training fire”, less than 10 feet long and with relatively cool coals, the Leidenfrost effect (steam formation separating your skin from the coal) and low heat conductivity through ash are in effect. But when you talk about walking over 40 feet of coals, or even over hot lava, like Huna shamans do in Hawaii, there’s clearly more at work. There’s definitely a bit of mind over matter happening, which needs to be experienced first hand to validate.

Third question, “who was crazy enough to think it up in the first place?” Actually, firewalking has been around for over four thousand years, practiced by Eastern Orthodox Christians in parts of Greece and Bulgaria during some religious feasts, to fakirs in India who live by begging and performance of such feats, to the Kung bushmen in the African Kalahari desert who use fire in their healing ceremonies, to young girls in Bali in a ceremony called Sanghyang Dedari – in which the girls are said to be possessed by beneficent spirits, to the Yamabushi sect in Japan – practitioners of Shugendo – an interesting mix of shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism, to Vikings who used to walk over red hot chains, to Hawaiian shamans who walk over molten lava. It’s one of the most prevalent ritual phenomena throughout the world… and now it’s arrived in America and taught by motivational speakers!

The more important question is why it was used as a ritual all over the world for thousands of years? Clearly, people used as fire ritual to unlock the mind’s healing power or as inspiration to find better luck for hunting and farming. But at a deeper level, I believe that people needed something physical to transcend their fears, to release that energy into movement and change, to validate personally their courage in the face of despair.

As a way of bringing this conversation back to innovation, let me talk about what I think was humanity’s finest example of courage in the face of despair – the Battle of Thermopylae. Maybe you’ve seen the movie 300? You know, it’s the one about the 300 Spartan warriors who held off the army of King Xerxes of Persian in 480 BC at the narrow pass by the sea. The army of Xerxes was so large – estimated by some scholars to be as large as a million soldiers – his soldiers would drink rivers dry. When his archers let fly, the arrows would block out the sun. To this, a Spartan warrior named Dieneces retorted, “Excellent, then we will be able to fight in the  shade.” This small band of 300 warriors held off the army of Xerxes long enough to allow Greece the time it needed to marshal the forces necessary to win the larger war.


My favorite quote from the history of the Spartans – when Xerxes tried to bribe the Spartan king, offering him all of Greece to rule, King Leonidas replied, “Tell Xerxes this. If he understood what is honorable in life, then he would no longer try taking things that belong to others. For me to die for my people is a far greater honor than he can ever offer.”

Now, imagine your company under the pressure of the worst recession in decades. Sales projections look pretty ugly. Your customers are going under. Another wave of layoffs is imminent. What does the rank and file do? Get scared and demotivated? Start sending out resumes just in case? Start drinking more heavily?

Now imagine what if – what if your 300 most courageous employees rose up, and formed a cadre of engineers and product marketers, to say, “we know there’s a salary and hiring freeze, but we want to help, we want to work harder, we want to increase innovation, we want to find ways to increase sales… please let us bring the battle to them!” What if your 300 best and brightest said to you, “when the economy hits us this hard, all we want to do is hit back harder!”

Now, wouldn’t that moment choke you up, just a little bit?

This is why we say that the core of innovation is courage. This is why we added exercises like the firewalk, walking over broken glass and breaking boards to our Breakthrough Innovation workshop. Sure, we also use a rational approach to managing innovation, complete with collaboration software solutions and more academic training. But because it’s because our goal is to help your employees and management break through fear, to the next level of energy and achievement, we have innovated by adding exercises that unlock the power of the human mind.


Moses walking over broken glass

Companies are like people. When they’re young, they are much more willing to take risks… whether it’s snowboarding or signing up for the SEALS, risk is for the young and macho. When people get older, they begin making excuses for resisting change and risk, for getting out of shape, for failing to learn new skills, for giving up.

Likewise, companies make excuses as well, which become part of a culture of reasonableness and maintaining a mission of only being “good enough”.  Innovation is actually about teaching older companies how to become young again. To be fearless again. To strive for its dreams again.

Note: Please do not attempt to perform these acts on your own. Moses is a certified firewalk instructor, having completed an intensive training from the leading firewalk school in the world, and has walked over fire close to 100 times.

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