Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #4) — On the need for deeper innovation

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Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship is a series of posts written for Intrapreneurship World. Issue #4 was published on October 2nd, 2016.

On the need for deeper innovation

In last week’s Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship, I wrote about how startups, and no doubt also corporate innovation labs, try to solve non-existing problems — from ‘reinventing’ slippers and flying cars to the many startups that seem to “provide for themselves everything their mothers no longer do,” as Allison Arieff so pointedly called it in Solving All the Wrong Problems.

“Here is just a sampling of the products, apps and services,” she writes, “that have come across my radar in the last few weeks:

A service that sends someone to fill your car with gas.

A service that sends a valet on a scooter to you, wherever you are, to park your car.

A service that will film anything you desire with a drone.

A service that will pack your suitcase — virtually.

A service that delivers a new toothbrush head to your mailbox every three months.”

And the list goes on …

In Innovation is in all the wrong places, also Tom Goodwin, the senior vice president of strategy and innovation for Havas Media US, talks about a need for ‘deeper innovation’ — not token gestures on the edge, but fundamental rewiring of business from the core.

“I live a pretty cosmopolitan futuristic life atop a glass skyscraper in New York City, but I’ve yet to get a pizza delivered by drone, order a taxi from Alexa or open a hotel door with my smartwatch. I’ve also not booked a hotel from a bot (because trying that drove me crazy) nor consumed news from one, because that’s a terrible way to do it. In a world where what’s possible is advancing at breakneck speed, it’s odd that British Airways has developed an emotionally aware smart blanket, but doesn’t ‘do’ email. It’s strange that IKEA has VR to help you experience your kitchen, but struggles with the basics of e-commerce. My car rental company has invested millions in onsite video-calling kiosks, but their app loses 50 percent of the bookings I make.”

Goodwin says “we’ve got the questions wrong. It shouldn’t be how are you innovating or which project is doing new things, but why are you doing it and on what level.”

When everything is characterized as ‘world-changing,’ is anything?” — Allison Arieff in Solving All the Wrong Problems.

Like Goodwin, I believe innovation is far too much focused on how, and ‘the next big thing.’ Most innovators live in a bubble, whether that bubble is Silicon Valley, where most tech is made by tech companies, for tech people, or a corporate innovation lab that draws the brightest and most talented people from ‘Mothership Enterprise’ (but only after replacing their dress shoes for sneakers).

Biased and ‘bubbled’ as we are, we often only see people like ourselves, and subsequently mistake them for the world outside. We tend to follow the same rules, laid down in books like Lean Startup, stick endless amounts of Post-it notes on identical Business Model Canvases, and follow the lastest thing in design thinking (or whatever kind of thinking, which actually is mostly about doing, not thinking).

And yet, we fail despite we seem to do everything right. We even soothe ourselves with the thought that failing, fast and often, is part of this — of doing things right. Failing, of course, isn’t a bad thing, as long as we fail for the rigth reasons, and see it as part of our (collective) learning. Too often however, we fail for obvious reasons — for the wrong reasons. If only we had stepped out into the real world — out of our little bubble, filled with the comforting sounds and smells of conformation bias. If only we had allowed ourselves to look at our ideas from a different perspective. But we don’t, at least not often and not long enough.

So, instead of buying yet another book on how to innovate like … [please feel free to add whatever name you like], you should get yourself a copy of Dave Gray’s new book, Liminal Thinking. According to Gray, the founder of XPLANE and author of, amonst others, Gamestorming and The Connected Company, the way we think is why some people succeed at innovation while others fail. Simply put, “it’s your beliefs, stupid!” But more on this in a next post.

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” — Haruki Murakami in Norwegian Wood.

Let’s return, once more, to Tom Goodwin.

“Innovation at the marketing layer is interesting. It’s Honest and Dollar Shave Club, both pretty sizable changes to products or how they are sold, supplied and paid for. But while examples like this have huge valuations and momentum, it’s not clear how groundbreaking they are. The real examples of innovation come from companies built for the modern age. They’ve taken new behaviors, new technology, new workflows and, above all else, new consumer expectations. Here we see the obvious examples like Uber or Airbnb, but also companies like Facebook, which has become a media owner of vast scale that does not actually make any content.”

For all companies, innovation needs to be deeper. Not token gestures on the edge, but fundamental rewiring of business from the core.

“Maybe you do need an innovation lab,” Goodwin concludes at the end of his highly entretaining post. “Maybe working with startups is key. Maybe your organization needs impetus and expertise — but for goodness sake, no more iBeacon-driven vending machines, no more 3D-printed trinkets. Let’s stop thinking of technology as a trendy tattoo — a surface-level commitment best kept on a conspicuous but not often used part of the body. Let’s think of it as oxygen — essential to the beating heart of your business.”

A bit more …

“In a world that is increasingly shaped by exponential changes in technology, new opportunities are arising at an ever more rapid rate. But risk also increases because of accelerating change and increasing uncertainty. What we need are entrepreneurs who are willing and able to cope with those risks and to see and harness the opportunities on the other side,” John Hagel argues in We Need to Expand Our Definition of Entrepreneurship.

“The accelerating pace of change and growing uncertainty has spawned a backlash by established interests, who, in a quest for stability, seek to confine and constrain entrepreneurs into small corners, where they pose little threat to large, established institutions. But this is ultimately a futile effort. Make no mistake about it: We’re on the cusp of a Big Shift from an employee society to an entrepreneurial one, as Peter Drucker so perceptively predicted. The forces driving it are too big, too inexorable to turn back. That might be frightening to employees, but it’s exciting to entrepreneurs.”

On FastCoExist, Michael Brandt, the co-founder of Nootrobox, writes about the AirPods, Apple’s newest headphones. These, says Brandt, “are not actually headphones: they’re aural implants. Absent any wires, earpods are so unobtrusive that you may never take them out. Like the eyeglasses on your face, they’ll sit in your ears all day, and you’ll remove them only at night. For Apple, this is more than just an incremental update to their headphone product. This is a paradigm shift, a Jedi move by Apple where the seam between human and computer is disappearing.”

Ear detail: Mark Strozier/iStock. AirPods: Apple.

In A Roadmap for Building Corporate Innovation Capabilities, Stefan Lindegaard addresses some of the major challenges of corporate innovation. “The main purpose of the roadmap,” Lindegaard writes, “is to develop an approach that wins the support of executives, managers and employees […]. The roadmap should also make it easier for the core team to actually make things happen.”

In an interview with McKinsey, Adam Grant, a professor of management and of psychology at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and author of Originals, shares six secrets to true originality, including reframing your creative process, not worrying about being too old, and learning how to procrastinate artfully.

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Originals, by Adam Grant.

According to Grant, groupthink is probably the biggest barrier to innovation. “It leads to all kinds of bad decisions. It gets in the way of change. Every leader I work with wants to know, ‘How do I get diversity of thought?’ What most of them do is they assign a devil’s advocate. They say, ‘Look, if we have a majority opinion, we need to get somebody who’s going to argue for the opposite.’”

In When Innovation Meets the Language of the Corner Office, Dave Rochlin writes about the difference in language used by innovators and functional C-suite executives, who are often baffled by what they see and hear from their innovation teams.

When speaking to executives, innovation leaders should make sure they are not only heard, but understood.

“As with other business disciplines, innovation experts have their own language. Innovation processes now include journey mapping, need-finding, technology-scouting, business model canvasing, prototyping, design sprints, and more. While these processes and terms are becoming more widely used across organizations, they are not always fully embraced at the executive level. At the same time, executives have their own unique language and tools, often derived from the strategy consulting firms embedded on the ‘executive floor’ of organizations.”

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