Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #3) — On solving non-existing problems

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Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship is a series of posts written for Intrapreneurship World. Issue #3 was published on September 25th, 2016.

On solving non-existing problems

In his recent book, titled Do Design. Why beauty is key to everything, Alan Moore writes:

“The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said the question of beauty takes us away from the surfaces to thinking about the core foundations of things. This insight is vital to understanding that good design can touch all our lives in the minutes detail — and good design is foundational to beauty and what we bring into the world.

By returning to our roots of making, crafting, designing, our world would be a better place to live.

We can use design to work on behalf of the human spirit, to uplift us physically and spiritually, to connect us to our human nature. Design elevates, nurtures and improves our lot. It intertwines our spiritual and material wellbeing.”

I bet Moore wasn’t thinking about slippers, and certainly not Ian Bogost’s new Mahabis.

In Who Needs Convertible Slippers?, Bogost wonders why people obsess over ‘revolutionizing’ products. Not everything has to be reinvented, he argues.

“‘Hang on, I just have to put my soles on,’ I call after the kids, who are racing out the door for a trip to the market. The soles in question are two dove-gray, rubber flaps that snap to the bottoms of my slippers, which I have just imported from London. A slipper-transformer that will transition me from scruffy writer-dad to euro-sleek snacks prospector in mere moments. I am excited. I am embracing design.”

Of course, Bogost’s Mahabis aren’t just ordinary slippers. Just like so many startups, also Mahabis is ‘reinventing’ something.

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Reinvention is a fundamentally modernist drive. One of its sources is a famous aphorism of the 19th century American architect and ‘father of skyscrapers,’ Louis Sullivan: ‘Form follows function.’

“As modernism became synonymous with the minimalism of Bauhaus and functionalism throughout in the 20th century, ornament and tradition gave way to simplicity and extraction. The eventual result was the fusion of art, craft, design, and technology that even slippers take as a given today. For designers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, art became an expression of structure, order, and clarity in life. The Braun industrial designer Dieter Rams evolved that clarity into 10 now-famous design principles, including innovation, utility, and longevity. Rams has had enormous impact on populist neo-minimalism in consumer goods — including Apple’s famously minimalist products and their subsequent influences, among them Mahabis slippers.”

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The problem however, is that simplicity and innovation unmoored from function. Apple’s decision to lose the iPhone’s headphone jack is not because form must follow function, but because Apple’s product roadmap demands it — better audio, thinner phones, proprietary accessories, closing the analog loophole. “Innovation also changes purposes,” says Bogost. “Removing the eighth-of-an-inch jack from the smartphone changes function by changing form. Increasingly, innovation’s benefits are unclear. Sometimes it serves secret goals, as in Apple’s case. Other times, innovation becomes the goal, no matter its contribution to form or function.”

“When lifestyle products have adopted the design sensibilities of technology, innovation and simplicity are supposed to blend, offering access to both efficiency and meaning all at once. But the result shares more in common with associative marketing — connecting products to lifestyle aspirations — than it does with functionalist design. Nike makes you believe in your capacity to be athletic. Jeep affirms your sense of hypothetical outdoorsiness. Whether you ever visit the cross-fit parlor in your trainers or take your SUV off-road doesn’t matter. The products rely on the idea of doing so as sufficient.”

Perhaps the virtue in design needed most today isn’t making something old new again, nor even in making something complex simple.

‘Revolution’ as the ultimate branding exercise. The operation of a product, whether it’s an automobile, a smartphone, an app, or a pair of slippers, is less important than the depth of its commitment to the rhetoric of innovation. It’s not just Mahabis of course. Rainshader crows about its ‘revolutionary umbrellas,’ while Forkable promises to ‘reinvent lunch.’ What it would actually mean to reinvent an umbrella or lunch, doesn’t seem to matter much. What matters though, is that the reinvention is promised and packaged, like a MacBook in a shiny box.

Bogost concludes by saying innovation has become so diluted that true reinvention must reverse it. “The true reinvention of slippers — or of anything — must involve the humility of acknowledging that most things precede us. Perhaps the virtue in design needed most today isn’t making something old new again, nor even in making something complex simple. Rather, it’s in embracing the traditions that make things what they already are, instead of assuming that what they might become is most important.”

Also Allison Arieff writes about design and innovation. In Solving All the Wrong Problems she wonders if innovative companies that promise to make the world a better place, are actually succeeding. According to Arieff, we are overloaded with new discoveries, patents and inventions all promising a better life, but that better life has not been forthcoming for most. In fact, the bulk targets a very specific, and tiny slice of the population. For most people working on such projects, the goal is basically to “provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do.”

Why are so many people devoting so much energy to solving problems that don’t really exist?

“The impulse to conflate toothbrush delivery with Nobel Prize-worthy good works is not just a bit cultish,” Arieff writes, “it’s currently a wildfire burning through the so-called innovation sector. Products and services are designed to ‘disrupt’ market sectors (a.k.a. bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems, especially those problems experienced by what the writer C.Z. Nnaemeka has described as ‘the unexotic underclass’ — single mothers, the white rural poor, veterans, out-of-work Americans over 50 — who, she explains, have the ‘misfortune of being insufficiently interesting.’”

But if the most fundamental definition of design is to solve problems, why are so many people devoting so much energy to solving problems that don’t really exist? How can we get more people to look beyond their own lived experience?

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Empathy, humility, compassion, and conscience are the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation, according to designer and theorist Jessica Helfand. In her recently published and beautifully designed book, Design: The Invention of Desire, Helfand explores design, and by extension innovation, as an intrinsically human discipline — albeit one that seems to have lost its way. Like Bogost, she argues that innovation is now predicated less on creating and more on the undoing of the work of others.

“In this humility-poor environment, the idea of disruption appeals as a kind of subversive provocation, too many designers think they are innovating when they are merely breaking and entering.” — Jessica Helfand

David Rotman takes a different angle. “Given impressive advances in artificial intelligence, smart robots, and driverless cars,” Rotman writes in Dear Silicon Valley: Forget Flying Cars, Give Us Economic Growth, “it’s easy to become convinced that we are on the verge of a new technological age. But the troubling reality is that today’s advances are having a far from impressive impact on overall economic growth. Facebook, Twitter, and other digital technologies undoubtedly bring great value to many people, but those benefits are not translating into a substantial economic boost. If you think Silicon Valley is going to fuel growing prosperity, you are likely to be disappointed — or you’d better be patient.”

New digital technologies, even such impressive ones as artificial intelligence, won’t by themselves soon revive the economy, never mind solve problems like climate change. “The fact that you have cheaper computers doesn’t allow you to store energy,” says David Autor, an economist at MIT. “You can have all the computing power you want in your Tesla. It doesn’t solve the problem that the batteries are expensive, heavy, and have low energy density.” To radically improve productivity, we need to solve key ‘bottlenecks’ in such sectors as energy, education, and health care, but there seems to be little commercial excitement in these areas.

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In 2010, Intel cofounder and longtime CEO Andy Grove, who died in March, wrote a prescient essay lamenting that Silicon Valley no longer builds what it invents. He was worried that Silicon Valley was no longer creating jobs as it once had. “Grove’s essay is a poignant reminder that our economic fate is still intimately tied to ‘old’ industries like manufacturing, and that creating jobs still matters. Digital technologies could greatly help in many sectors if businesses adopt them more fully; using software and the Internet to improve the efficiency of health care alone would have an enormous impact on the economy. But we’ll also need to invent and deploy innovations beyond digital technologies, in materials, 3-D printing, genomics, and energy,” says Rotman.

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At X, Alphabet’s ‘moonshot factory,’ they seem to realize that to truly solve large problems, it needs to go beyond the software strengths of the parent company. Indeed, X prides itself on its hardware expertise and its focus on materials and engineering. In projects like its autonomous cars, the digital and physical worlds meet up. According to Obi Felten, who is X’ ‘head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world,’ one of the criteria for selecting moon shots is that its advance could affect at least one billion people.

The executives, product managers and engineers who sit at a computer all day tend to design business software that fixes the problems of other people who are just like them.” — Stacey Epstein in Most tech is made by tech companies, for tech people.

“The success of X will depend not only on its engineering creativity but, perhaps more important, on how well it understands what different industries need and what consumers want,” Rotman writes. The failure of Google Glass is fresh on everyone’s mind. “The venture capitalist Peter Thiel captured much of the criticism of Silicon Valley when he said, ‘We were promised flying cars, and we got 140 characters.’ He’s right to question the lack of ambition in much of the tech industry, but the quote also betrays a distracting bias. Most of us don’t in fact have any desire or need for flying cars. We would gladly settle for a healthy economy and more well-paying jobs. That will take some true ‘moonshots.’”

Having been involved over the years in many different innovation projects — as a consultant, corporate entrepreneur or innovation leader — I’ve come across an awful lot of ‘Mahabis like’ endeavors. Many innovators seem to live in a bubble, and focus far too much on their own needs — on things “their mothers no longer do.” But there’s also much to learn from aesthetics and Dieter Ram’s lasting principles of good design. Afterall, both design and innovation are intrinsically human disciplines.

A bit more …

According to Saul Kaplan, business model innovation is all about the difference between incremental versus transformation change. “We are living in a century that screams for transformational change. Most of our innovation processes are designed to help us do better than what we are doing today, not to completely change it. Business model innovation is not just about improving existing business models and becoming more competitive — which you must do. To avoid business disruption, you must be able to imagine, prototype and test entirely new business models. It is imperative for leaders today to do research and development for business models the same way they do R&D for products and technology. Today, we love creating new products and we love developing new technologies but let’s face it, we have more technologies than we humans know how to access and use to solve problems. What we are missing is the ability to explore new business models. We need to start thinking about minimum viable business models. How do we make it safer and easier to manage in the real world.” — CEOs Must Create The Business Model Innovation Sandbox by Vala Afshar.

“Most people think that innovation starts out with a great idea, but the truth is that it starts with a great problem. Whether it’s Steve Jobs looking for product categories that ‘suck,’ or scientists exploring the fundamental nature of the universe, every innovation starts out as a tough problem that needs to solved.” — Greg Satell in 6 Things Every Organization Needs To Innovate.

“‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ Scott Fitzgerald wrote that. That’s exactly what leaders of organizations that focus on radical innovation need to be able to do: balance an existing business model with another one that operates on the flip side and might cannibalize the core business. They have to level out the solid (focused on exploiting) and fluid (focused on exploring) parts of their organization and keep both fully functional. Ambidextrous organizations — as Michael Tushman calls them — solve this conundrum by separating the existing business from the emerging one. The reason is that the management structures, processes, mind-sets and skills which are used to sustain the business tend to clash with those needed for radical innovation.” — Peter Hinssen in How To Protect Innovation From Corporate Death: Organizing For The Day After Tomorrow, Part 3.

“In the world of entrepreneurial incubation, design thinking, a user-centered way to conceive and create a successful product, is often compared and contrasted with the lean startup approach, which is more engineering-based and quantitative. The two methods are far from mutually exclusive, however, as both seek to effectively serve customers’ needs through a systematic, low-risk path to innovating in the face of uncertainty.” — Marina Krakovsky in Lean Startup and Design Thinking: Getting the Best Out of Both.

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“The bottom line is this: creativity is a habit; innovation is the outcome of putting those habits into action. Methodologies and their accompanying tools have their place, but not before the habit exists.” — Jorge Barba in Until You Have Creative Skills, Innovation Tools Are Useless.

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