Innovator’s DNA: Some are born, others can learn

A couple of related articles in INSEAD Knowledge (Innovator’s DNA and Innovator’s DNA: Some are born, others can learn) are quite interesting:

Some people are born innovators. Others can become innovators, providing they follow some simple guidelines. That’s the thesis of ‘The Innovator’s DNA’, just published by Harvard Business Review Press, by Hal Gregersen, INSEAD Senior Affiliate Professor of Leadership, with Jeffrey H. Dyer of Brigham Young University and Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School.”

The premise is that we can all learn to be more innovative:

Research involving identical twins suggests that only about 20-25 per cent of our creativity ability is geneticically driven. “This means the other 75-80 per cent comes from the world we live in…

 Here is my takeaway about five skills that can make us more innovative:

  • Observing: Innovators are “intense observers.” They learn from observing others.
  • Questioning:  Innovators ask questions about what they have observed to find out if there is a better solution. 
  • Associating: Innovators make unexpected connections and combine known pieces into new solutions (such as iPhone or iPod).
  • Experimenting: Innovators experiment with solutions to potential problems to find the optimum.
  • Networking: “Innovators are intentional about finding diverse people who are just the opposites of who they are, that they talk to, to get ideas that seriously challenge their own.”
Here is all of it put together in a nice summary:

Take notes when observing others. “Step back from (the problem or situation), talk to people: ‘What did you learn? What surprised you? What was interesting?’ If you like to talk to people, talk to somebody different: maybe on another floor, a different building, a different office, another country, but talk to somebody who’s 180 degrees different from you. These are things that we can do and they don’t take a lot of time to do them.”

Collaboration for New Service versus New Product Development

Another quick note: This one about differences between collaboration in new product development vs new service development in the Journal of Product Innovation Management (A Comparison of New Service versus New Product Development: Configurations of Collaborative Intensity as Predictors of Performance):

Collaboration among firms for innovation has received considerable attention. However, little is known about how firm-to-firm collaboration is configured in new service development (NSD) versus new product development (NPD).

The article measure the impact of 1) Good processes / communication vs 2) Good relationship / trust.  They find that collaboration on products is more effective with good processes while collaboration on services is more effective with trust.  Probably makes sense: Services are inherently unprotectatble and trust is needed to ensure the partner plays well.

How Fast and Flexible Do You Want Your Information, Really?

Here is a quick note about access to corporate information from the Sloan article: How Fast and Flexible Do You Want Your Information, Really?

access to corporate data in organizations is rarely as rapid as an Internet search. “Why can’t I get information on our sales just as quickly as I can search the Internet?” is a frequently overheard complaint. That frustration has led many organizations to try to speed up the delivery of data and analysis, particularly in the context of decision making (typically described as “business intelligence,” or BI). But few organizations have reached an optimum with regard to how fast important information reaches in boxes, desks and brains.

The article suggests that more information is not necessarily better:

Consulting companies that study information consumption routinely find that more than half of all standard reports aren’t being used by anyone anymore. Inflexible standard reporting means not only that paper is wasted, but that an even more valuable resource — executive attention — is misdirected.

Here are their findings:

  • The aim should be to enable faster decision making, not faster information. Focus on information speed and flexibility that facilitates that.
  • Not all information is needed equally fast, nor in equally perfect condition.
  • Executives often ask for more information than they use.

Key to success is right metrics to report so that managers can make effective decisions.  Unfortunately, this is difficult to do  – many times because other managers do not want to have their performance be easily visible.  Good points to keep in mind though.

Considerations for determining executive compensation

We have often discussed problems with financial incentives.  It has been shown that stock options lead to excessive risk taking.  Corporate Executive board suggest we ask the following question in Exec Comp: The Ultimate Decider:

Will this executive compensation policy provide meaningful incentives for executives to create long-term shareholder wealth without incurring excessive risk?

Their suggestion is to keep the following in mind – it is a pretty good list:

  1. Calibrating Compensation: The ideal exec comp plan is less about motivation than about providing guidance to executives as they navigate ambiguous decisions.
  2. No Silver Bullets: Do not put faith in any one policy, such as mandatory share ownership, for aligning executive and investor incentives. Use a mixture of long-term metrics appropriate for your company.
  3. Reasonable Ceilings: While setting stretch targets for annual variable cash compensation, high performers also impose a reasonable ceiling to discourage unchecked risk taking.
  4. Longer Vesting: The executive labor market is increasingly converging on longer vesting periods of four or more years.
  5. Balanced Equity Vehicles: Executives can over-optimize to any individual metric, including share price. Embrace some extra complexity to encourage a more three-dimensional view of firm performance.
  6. Objective Performance Measures: Reduce the role of board discretion in your compensation; use more objective metrics, even for soft factors like customer satisfaction and employee engagement.

Clearly this is hard to do, but as Prof. Kaplan pointed out, “If you have high power incentives, you’d better have even higher power controls.”

Necessity is the mother of Innovation (Continued)

We have had a theme here at the blog: Innovation does not happen by accident, it requires challenges. If the external environment does not generate the challenges on its own, R&D managers have to create those challenges. Here is some more evidence to support the thesis. Last year, China clamped down on the export of rare earths metals crucial for modern electronics and motors.
The industry has responded with innovation!  The first is a rare earth-free motor from Continental Corporation that provides better efficiency than rare earth magnets without the rare earths!

As for the drive unit, Continental has opted for an externally – excited synchronous motor. Compared with a permanent magnet electric motor, this technology offers an better overall level of efficiency across the whole of an electric vehicle’s operating range, and also enhances the safety of the electric drive system. In addition, no expensive rare earth metals are needed for magnets.”

The new motor would have been developed regardless of the shortage of rare earths.  However, the shortage is definitely driving innovation elsewhere. A Japanese group is focusing on developing novel materials that provide rare earth performance:

A Japanese research group succeeded in producing powder of iron nitride (Fe16N2) by the gram. The group, which consists of Migaku Takahashi and Tomoyuki Ogawa, professor and associate professor, respectively, at a graduate school of Tohoku University, and researchers at Toda Kogyo Corp, succeeded in generating Fe16N2 powder with a purity of 91% and a reproducibility for the first time in the world.

This technology will have repercussions beyond replacement of rare earths. Another technology being pursued is recycling of rare earths from old components:

Hitachi Ltd developed a technology to recover rare earth materials such as neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy) from rare-earth magnets used in the motors of hard disk drives (HDDs), the compressors of air conditioners and so forth.
The company developed equipment that separates rare-earth magnets from used products and succeeded in recovering rare earth materials from the magnets by using a new method.

In summary, three new (and hopefully innovative) approaches to address a challenge posted by lack of availability.  May be we need to pose more challenges….

Yahoo: Bet Big, or Die

Recently Yahoo appointed a new CEO (Tim Morse).  Here are some suggestions to Yahoo from [email protected]  in The ‘Morse Code’ at Yahoo: Bet Big, or Die: “

Hosanagar suggests that Yahoo should go back to its roots in media products. “It needs to come out with a new compelling product that is not an effort to catch up with Google or Facebook or anyone else, but instead is revolutionary. It should think about how to create that culture of innovation within and find that spark that resulted in Yahoo being formed in the first place.” Efforts to catch up or beat Google at search or email, or to compete with Facebook in social marketing, “will be misguided,” he notes. ” Just like Nokia, the challenge is in developing new products.

Interesting! Just like Nokia, the answer to Yahoo’s trouble is also in getting innovation to market through effective R&D.

Hosanagar notes that Bartz seemed focused on financial and organizational re-engineering. That “was fine to an extent … but she never successfully positioned herself as an innovative CEO who is seeking to bring new products and services to consumers.”

Furthermore, just as in case of Nokia, the resources and R&D teams are in place. Effective R&D management remains the most important challenge.

Morse has sufficient momentum to build on, says Werbach, pointing to Yahoo’s “valuable assets, lots of users and some very talented people.”

The mangers need to come up with a vision and challenge the R& D team to innovate.

Yahoo needs to find a strong future strategy if it wants to remain an independent company, he adds. “The very few large tech companies that have successfully turned around [such as IBM and Apple] had long-term visions that played to their unique strengths.”

However, this is very hard to do.  I wish them luck…

Procter & Gamble: Mastering the Art of the Innovation Tournament

[email protected] has an interesting article Procter & Gamble: Mastering the Art of the Innovation Tournament.  P&G CEO has set up a great challenge for the company (A great way to foster innovation is for the leader to create or emphasize challenges):

Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald is a man with a plan. Last year, he and his company declared a bold vision — one that includes making all products and packaging with recycled or renewable materials, and ensuring that no waste from P&G products touches a landfill. Prominent in the vision, too, is powering all plants with renewable energy. Because all of this will take decades to achieve, P&G also declared a series of shorter-term, 10-year goals to guarantee that the company is making progress. The 2020 renewable energy goal is to power 30% of P&G’s energy needs for 180 plants worldwide with renewable sources.

Interesting: the no waste recyclable product idea became accessing renewable electricity.   The challenge could have been used to drive P&G engineers to develop new innovative renewable products…  Anyway,  the energy problem was solved by an Innovation Tournament.  I am not sure if accessing renewable energy can be counted as innovation, but there are some interesting lessons in the article.

First: P&G defined a narrow scope for the brainstorming (innovation tournament).  This would help focus the discussion and help generate more useful results.

Second, P&G involved both internal and external experts in the brainstorming. There were more internal participants than external. Hopefully, this would get more internal buy-in to ideas and ease the transition of external ideas into practice.

Instead of a far-flung event like X-Prize, P&G chose a more controlled process, inviting seven external experts to propose and brainstorm solutions with a team of 20 internal experts. Common among corporations that need to protect proprietary information, this format also made sense in P&G’s case “because a lot of it was about process innovation,” says Favaloro. “We wanted to engage people in an ongoing process that involves interaction between internal and external teams. They needed to be steeped in the process itself, instead of the next big widget.”

Third, everyone was asked to do preparatory work before the brainstorming sessions.  This not only increased the quality of ideas, but also ensured external experts’ discussion was more relevant to company needs:

Moreover, significant spadework at the outset resulted in a fast-paced, productive final round in late July. To start, P&G’s internal teams delivered in-depth briefs via webinar to bring the external experts up to speed on the plants so they could frame more workable, tailored recommendations. Then the outside experts submitted 150 ideas, which the internal and external teams together winnowed to 45 via online voting. By the time the groups met in person, “it was a supercharged environment,” says Favaloro. “Everyone was up on the problem and had already worked on it independently.” Adds Stefano Zenezini, P&G’s family care product supply vice president: “One hour into the discussion, [and] you’re already discovering new things.”

Fourth, a very broad set of experts were selected that could represent a wide variety of perspectives (e.g a public policy expert and a project finance expert):

From this discussion came one of the biggest differences in perspective between the external and internal teams. External finance expert Gardner suggested that P&G should add utility-sized renewable power projects to its portfolio. “Their overall electricity demand is 800 megawatts worldwide,” says Gardner. “At each plant, if you have less than five megawatts of renewable energy potential, that’s not significant enough to move the needle to 30% renewable energy at each plant. You could get 25% of your goal with one few-hundred megawatt wind project.”

Fifth and final point, there was enough time allocated to follow through and have detailed discussions about new ideas:

The P&G team was intrigued enough to ask for more information, and Gardner spent the first evening of the tournament preparing a presentation on project finance for the next day. From the presentation, it was clear that new approaches could be beneficial, in particular for large projects.

Pretty good addition to the checklist for my next brainstorming session!

Apple Without Steve Jobs

As most regular readers may know, I admire Steve Jobs for his ability to manage R&D and deliver innovative products.  Here is a summary of a series of articles that might help us learn a bit more of his methods.  Let us start off with INSEAD Knowledge (Apple Without Steve):

Steve Jobs was a master at the five skills of disruptive innovators. He personally excelled at connecting the unconnected, or associational thinking. He was constantly on the hunt for new insights by observing the world through the eyes of an anthropologist. He regularly networked for new ideas with people who were 180 degrees different than himself. And he constantly experimented with different prototypes of every product and service Apple ever produced. At the very core, Jobs was exceptional at asking provocative questions, ones that challenged the status quo, inside Apple and out. Put simply, Jobs thinks different because he acts different — habitually.

It is a great summary of skills we might all want to develop. However, it is easier said than done! The simple (but wrong) path would be to ask “What would Steve Do” and try to imitate.  As shown by Disney (when Walt Disney passed away), imitation would inhibit innovation. Knowledge at Wharton points out that it would be a mistake to copy Jobs and suggests the following to the new CEO [Cook]:

A copy of anyone is going to come off looking bad. It will never be as good as the original, and people will spend their time focusing on the differences,” Cappelli notes. “I think [Cook] should be himself.” But when it comes to Apple’s business strategy, Cappelli says it would be unwise to depart in any significant way from the path set under Jobs. “I think a ‘steady as she goes’ approach is a good idea, and also about the only option at this point.

A better approach would be to ask “How would Steve address this situation” and “What should I do.”  Jobs answer to this seems to have been Apple University (LA Times):

With Apple University, Jobs was trying to achieve something similar, people familiar with the project say. He identified tenets that he believes unleash innovation and sustain success at Apple — accountability, attention to detail, perfectionism, simplicity, secrecy. And he oversaw the creation of university-caliber courses that demonstrate how those principles translate into business strategies and operating practices.

It is a fine line though.  The same article says this as well:

“It became pretty clear that Apple needed a set of educational materials so that Apple employees could learn to think and make decisions as if they were Steve Jobs.”

Another article in Knowledge @ Wharton points out that:

But there is no getting around the fact that, as it moves from a company built around one man’s vision to more of a team approach, Apple will have to start doing things differently. And beyond any leadership challenges, the company is also operating in a highly competitive and quickly evolving sector where a number of companies are grappling to take the lead on smartphones, tablets, digital music and cloud storage initiatives. “At this point, Apple has a firm, loyal customer base,” says Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Andrea Matwyshyn. “What happens in two to three years may be different story.”

So, the idea is for the Apple executives (or all R&D managers) to be themselves.  Instead of trying to imitate or think like Jobs, learn from him and bring their own unique flavor to the company:

But Apple’s success is due to more than Jobs alone, says Wharton operations and information management professor Eric Clemons. “Apple leadership has been brilliant,” he notes. “The team, clearly led by Jobs, but clearly more than Jobs alone, has become the best technology style house in the world. We pay a premium for Apple products because of how they look and how they feel foremost, and then how easy they are to use and to integrate into the rest of our technology and into our lives.”

p.s.: One last bit of useful info about small team organization structure at Apple:

Mueller’s research illustrates the challenges Apple may face as it transitions from moving product decisions primarily through Jobs to a team of executives and managers. In a study that looked at 212 knowledge workers in 25 teams ranging from three to 19 members in size, she found that larger groups at the top often “experience more coordination loss or difficulty and inefficiency.” “It is so hard to get ideas through the pipeline at large companies,” Mueller says. “Creativity is viewed as risky and the corporate culture is designed to squash creative ideas. Will the average person rising through the ranks be rewarded for being creative?

How ‘Undiscussables’ Can Undermine an Organization

The article Don’t Mention It: How ‘Undiscussables’ Can Undermine an Organization in [email protected] has some interesting pointers about how and why risks are ignored:

After everything falls apart, the failures to act become obvious: Why didn’t somebody at Penn State do more to pursue allegations that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys? Didn’t anybody at MF Global Holdings notice that something was wrong before $1.2 billion in customer cash disappeared? Why, decade after decade, didn’t anyone at Olympus protest $1.7 billion in accounting irregularities?

So, why does this happen? The article lays out the following scenarios:

  • Lack of Clarity: Problems are not obvious to everyone, many have self doubts
  • Fear of Retribution: Difficult to point a finger at the boss or his peers
  • Group Loyalty: Protecting the team
  • Group Dynamics: Desire to not stir the water

So what we R&D managers do to ameliorate this?  The article suggests the following (very hard to do, and almost impossible to do well):

Companies should also establish metrics, routines, audits and incentives to help identify problems and suggest areas of change, says Wharton management professor Lawrence G. Hrebiniak, who has acted as a consultant to dozens of companies such as General Electric, AT&T, Microsoft and DuPont. When top management diligently works to measure performance, elicit feedback and respond openly to problems when raised, it can usually make progress, Hrebiniak has found. “Control systems are important to implementing strategy and identifying problems,” he says.

The problem, of course, is with the senior leadership that makes topics undiscussable:

When companies have a culture in which managers are “more interested in hiding things than solving problems,” there is little anyone can do to help, Hrebiniak says. “You need top management to react strongly. If they bury the stuff, they’re dead.

Is Morale Irrelevant?

A quick post about Is Morale Irrelevant? in the Sloan Review:

“However, a lackluster economy should not give organizational leaders a “free pass” to ignore morale issues. With all of the changes that occur in any organization over time, employee morale will undoubtedly be affected. ”

Here is the take away:

While turnover associated with low morale may not be as likely during uncertain economic times, productivity and performance issues should command executives’ attention. There is still debate over whether a happy worker is always a productive worker, but researchers and businesspeople alike are likely to agree that low morale will not help boost productivity or improve performance. More generally, senior leaders should realize that low morale can be detrimental to the overall climate and culture of their organizations. Low morale stifles “going-the-extra-mile” behavior, and an “it’s-not-my-job” syndrome can become epidemic when managers are not paying attention to the organizational climate they are creating. Over time, a decline in organizational citizenship behavior can translate into an unhealthy cultural shift that erodes the business’s overall competitiveness.