Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rudolph's Sticky Idea

Its that time of year again when the signs of the season descend upon us. The weather gets colder. The regular holiday street players dust themselves off. Human resources sends out open enrollment notices.

I was reminded of this by an advertisement I saw on CNBC from a company whose memorable tag line is, "Ask about it at work".

I will never be able to watch the Rankin-Bass classic again without hearing "Aflac!" screaming softly in the back of my mind.

Ideas have many intangible properties. Stickiness is one of them. If Aflac's advertising campaigns over the years had employed a used-car sales approach to supplemental insurance, I doubt they'd still be in business. (I'm not sure that supplemental insurance is a blood-pumping topic of discussion, though I welcome to be proven wrong if anyone at Aflac is reading this). The invocation of pop-culture icons as a foundation in which Aflac's story is re-told, makes their idea one that is both sticky, and pervasive.

The stickiness of ideas is the subject of a book published earlier this year. In "Made to Stick", authors Chip and Dan Heath look at six essential qualities of ideas that make them effective in influencing thought, and changing behaviour.

One example is the concreteness of an idea. Chip and Dan remind us that while the language of communicating ideas is often abstract (a favorite of theirs is "idiopathic cardiomyopathy"), life is not abstract. Abstraction makes it very difficult to understand and remember ideas. I can certainly agree with this.

Ultimately, what winning ideas need is gift-wrapping from their own personal Aesop.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why Johnny Can't Innovate

I have had a unique opportunity over the last five years to teach and facilitate product and process innovation to nearly one hundred leading companies, many in the Fortune 500. Each week, I work side by side with thought leaders and senior management from many industries. Over the years, I have noticed a common set of six barriers to successful innovation. I witness these barriers week after week, independent of the specific company I am working with or its industry sector (though each company / sector adds its own unique spice of personality, politics, and process to the problem). This article is the first in a series in which I would like to share some of my observations.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote of the poorly-developed reading skills of contemporary American children, in his well known classic, "Why Johnny Can't Read". In it, he claimed that the education establishment was failing by teaching reading skills as a “read and guess” method of word association to subject context.

When it comes to innovation skills, we rarely seek out any education or skill training before the need arises to come up with a game changing idea. Most innovation practitioners, in my experience, are self-taught on a just-in-time basis. As a result, bright ideas from thought leaders tend to appear (initially) through serendipity. Consequently, repeatable innovation means guessing, a lot. The practice of innovation, then, becomes an exhaustive experience, which sets up many possibilities for failure. Innovation, taking on the stigma of risk and failure, is avoided as a general practice. It is instead marched out for special circumstances (usually a crisis), which, as a result, guarantees that a prior lack of institutional learning of fundamental innovation barriers, will stop innovation time and again.

So, in the spirit of a similar question asked over fifty years ago (with the understanding that our protagonist can be male or female):
Why can't Johnny innovate?
In my experience, some or all of the following six reasons (in no specific order) will likely stop Johnny from coming up with a great idea.
  • He doesn’t have any incentive.
  • He doesn’t have the time.
  • He’s disconnected from key technical expertise.
  • He’s not trained, adept, or comfortable with proactive, creative thought.
  • He doesn’t have immediate or easy access to critical knowledge.
  • He can’t look beyond his immediate problem-solving needs.
Even in reviewing this succinct list, there are, no doubt, short term measures which innovation practitioners, managers, and executives can take to avoid the more immediate barriers. Such measures, however, rarely translate into sustainable innovation practices or organizational transformation to a highly-effective innovation company.

Over the coming weeks, I will be offering in follow-on articles some of my observations from the field as to how each of these barriers to innovation manifest themselves, and how to mitigate or eliminate their impacts on the innovation practitioner, organization, and company.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Art of (Spinning) War

I'm on vacation for a few days, and this evening I was at my local Borders Bookstore, browsing the bookshelves and working on an upcoming article about barriers to innovation.

I'm extremely interested in early and mid-20th century graphic design, illustration, and propaganda of technology and industrial society. Long before the advent of global communications networks, blogs, and limitless viewpoints of any human event, pictures were truly the most efficient form of communication. They had to be worth a thousand words or more to get their points across. During times of conflict, posters were critical tools of governments (and their opposition) to communicate social, political, and cultural arguements using iconic imagery and visual metaphor to sway the opinions of millions.

The Imperial War Museum in London has recently opened an exhibit of war posters spanning nearly 90 years. "Weapons of Mass Communication" showcases one of the finest collections of coercive art in the world. (The exhibition runs through March of 2008.) While browsing the art history section at Borders, I spotted the book of the exhibition which features over 300 of the posters and many of their back stories. I have been unable to put this book down.

James Aulich, of the Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design, has assembled in this book, an incredible collection of war poster art. His research and commentary detail the battles waged for the hearts and minds of World War I, Interwar Europe, World War II, the Cold War and contemporary generations upto and including the current Iraq conflict.

One of the images from the exhibit is particularly striking. In 1917, Henri Montassier created this image for a proclaimation that France had "discovered the machine to end the war". The imagery depicts the scale of casualties already suffered which weighed heavily on many nations of Europe. The machine imagery is not a vision of contemporary armaments, but is instead akin to the Martian war machines described in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, published only 20 years prior.

If you have an opportunity to see the exhibit first hand, or spend an afternoon with the book, I would highly recommend it. Whether your appreciation is for vintage art styles and techniques of eras gone by, or looking through a window in time on a variety of societal levels, I think you'll find the experience rather captivating.