Sunday, June 29, 2008

How To Eat Soup With A Fork

Note: This is the 4th article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.

At the end of my recent article, “Five Minute Innovation”, I left you with an admittedly intentional cliffhanger. I told you that the secret to five-minute innovation was learning to eat soup with a fork.

(Those of you who’ve just pulled out a spork and feel as if you’ve accomplished something might want to hold off on the victory dance for just a few minutes.)

At its core, innovation is the process of creating or discovering ideas that solve a problem, or fill a need. Logistical details regarding the quality and implementation of ideas generally reside outside the innovation process which creates them. History teaches us that for any kind of innovative breakthrough, whether in industry, art or academia, many ideas need to be created and evaluated before a winning idea emerges. The Economist estimates that the number of ideas needed to fuel a successful product development initiative approaches three-thousand.

Think about that for a moment. For a winning idea which is made manifest as a product in today’s markets, hundreds or even thousands of similar ideas have to be created, validated, and filtered. Winning product development companies recognize this, but their challenge is none the less a formidable one. In order to fill a product pipeline, a winning company (or individual) must have an ability to come up with more ideas of higher quality, and in less time to compete in a global market.

They must master sustainable innovation.

Is it really possible to minimize the time it takes to create or discover an idea? In my experience, successful, rapid and repeatable innovation first means breaking problems down into their simplest, independent forms. Repeatable methodologies and task-based tools are then applied to tackle these simpler problems. Mastering skills and tools that enable quick creation of even a few ideas to solve simple problems is the key to developing breakthrough ideas when solving much larger problems. All it takes to develop these skills is a bit of mental calisthenics, and the will to exercise on a daily basis. The essential (and only) innovation exercise you’ll ever need is this:

Challenge yourself to create and validate just one idea in 5 minutes.

I often pose this challenge to industry leaders, executives and students. Take the dumbest, simplest problem you can find and try to independently create one new idea to address it. Learning to eat soup with a fork is a perfect problem because the goal is so absurd. Why would we actually choose to use a fork to eat soup? The obvious answer is that we wouldn’t. There is safety in this exercise, because very likely we don’t care if the idea is good or not, and that’s exactly the point.

Often we let the fear of failure and the high stakes of success constrain our creative and critical thought processes. We often focus on finding the right answer as the first answer, which means that we rarely learn anything about our own thought processes, let alone try to improve them. Five Minute Innovation changes the focus from finding the “right” answer(s) to honing our creative thought processes and finding one answer quickly.

So, first we need a methodology of thought, but which? The Scientific Method? Six Hats? Deming Wheels? Creative Whack-Pack? Rider-Waite? Take your pick or bring your own method – the important thing is to be consistent in any thought method’s application. For our creative plunge into the soup, I’m going to use a methodology known as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or as it’s known in the original Russian form, TRIZ.

A word or two about TRIZ: TRIZ is a wonderful problem solving methodology. Unfortunately due primarily to language barriers, it hasn’t been as widely practiced as other methods over the years. The fundamental benefits and applications of TRIZ are relatively simple to master. Software applications such as Invention Machine Goldfire Innovator provide automation and facilitation of key benefits from the TRIZ method. For more information on the TRIZ methodology itself, the TRIZ Journal website is a good place to start reading.

Getting back to our forking soup problem, we have a definite tradeoff here, or what often is referred to as an engineering contradiction. A part of our system’s design (presumably with the goal in mind of transporting soup) is completely at odds with what’s happening (the soup falls through the fork tines). In the TRIZ method, this is a sweet spot for rapid, creative thinking. We are encouraged to consider using what are known as some of the Forty Inventive Principles by thinking about the problem through a pre-defined contradiction analysis. I’ll spare you the theory here, but let’s jump to the thinking part. One TRIZ-based analysis suggests that with this given tradeoff, we look at solving the systemic problems by any of several approaches:
  • Change any parameter of the system including its phase, flexibility, consistency, temperature, (etc.)
  • Introduce a porous element or intermediary into the system
  • Do something in advance to increase the current system’s efficiency

So, given these constraints for thinking about a way to solve the problem, what can you think of in just five minutes?

How about:
  • Freeze the soup. (“Waiter, I asked for some really cold Gazpacho.”)
  • Use the fork to pick up a piece of bread which can then be used to soak up larger volumes of soup.
  • Bend the fork tines to create a pair of pincer grips for grabbing the edge of the soup bowl, and bend the fork handle around to look like a cup handle. Grab the edge of the bowl with your newly formed pincer grips. You’ve just turned the bowl and fork system into a gigantic mug. (I take no responsibility for your dry cleaning bills or any restaurant blacklisting you may encounter should you try this idea.)

Are all these ideas winners? Probably not. The point is that it only took a short time to create and explore them.

Many ideas usually need to be created and evaluated before confidence to choose any single idea is sufficient. While everyone’s creative capabilities are different, everyone has the ability to improve both the level and frequency of simple, pro-active problem solving through short and repeatable exercises.

Five Minute Innovation is a method which, when consciously applied, can help hone and tune technical and creative thought processes. If gaps or blanks appear during its application, that’s just as important as coming up with new ideas. It indicates a need for additional knowledge and perspectives, which helps both current and future innovation cycles. Acquiring and managing knowledge is separate from the innovation process, but is another barrier to Johnny’s innovation, which I’ll talk about in a future article.

So, when you have five minutes to spare, what new ideas will you create?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ideas of Futures (Passed)

I'd like to take a brief interlude from my recent articles on innovation, and indulge in something a bit more personal.

As much as I enjoy connecting with the challenges of defining the future, I really appreciate looking at futures past, or more aptly, those that were passed over. I especially am drawn to creative expressions of what technologies and society might have looked like, but never saw the light of day except as some tangential form of entertainment.

A blog I discovered about a year ago truly fascinates me. It's called Paleo Future, and it is perhaps one of the most unique collections of past (and passed) visions of the future that I've seen. A recent article particularly caught my eye, and included a slide show that was being developed for a girl geek dinner. There is another slide show in the article itself, but the one that caught my eye the most is shown below.

It takes so many ideas from creative people and processes to acheive the breakthroughs that future generations enjoy as everyday amentities. We tend to forget ideas that didn't quite make it (and rapidly lose touch with the fact that they were once created).

Recently, one of my favorite forgotten ideas surfaced over at Damn Interesting. One of Ford's answers to the '57 Chevy was a design concept that was never prototyped - the 1957 Ford Nucleon. An elite team of Ford's engineers were asked to look far into the future, and dreamed of a world without fossil fuels or harmful vapors. The Ford Nucleon would have used a steam turbine to drive both torque propulsion and electric generators that would satisfy all of the automoting customer's needs. This wonderous vision of the future was powered by a pint-sized nuclear reactor in the trunk. It gave a different meaning to "green" transportation.

The future is built on creativity and the freedom to fail, as well as succeed. Governments, academic institutions and industry giants have recognized and succeeded on this principle of human nature. As important as it is to be reminded of examples of where our creativity will take us (such as the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair), visions of past inventive creativity (successful and otherwise) should not be far removed from anyone's innovation toolkit.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Five Minute Innovation

Note: This is the 3rd article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.

In my previous article in this series, I continued my commentary on a growing race of highly efficient and skilled predators snuffing out innovation initiatives at some of the biggest and brightest product development companies. The deadliest of these predators, however, doesn’t have to work as hard as the others. In fact, he’s quite complacent phoning in the kill from a comfy chair. His secret weapon: the fear of losing time.

Of all the reasons why innovation initiatives fail to gain traction, the one I’ve observed that tops the list again and again at over one hundred companies is: a perception that innovation takes significant time to achieve.

I want to let you in on a little secret I’ve discovered that may change your business (as well as your competitors’). It is a secret that has, amazingly, been overlooked by some of the sharpest and brightest product development companies, academic institutions, and analyst firms. I think you’ll be astonished by how simple and yet how powerful this secret is.

All innovation occurs in 5 minutes or less.

I realize this may sound like an extreme over-simplification, or some catchy, feel-good guru-speak, but trust me when I say from years of experience facilitating innovation projects, that it isn’t. The time it takes for a subject-matter expert to move from blank stares at a seemingly impossible problem to the eureka moment that marks the beginning of a critical path to success is measurable in seconds or minutes.

The challenges which lead to tremendous amounts of time being lost before innovation occurs are formidable. One challenge is entirely self-imposed. Initial failures of any innovation process occur because ‘now isn’t the time’. There are an endless number of justifications, fears, and excuses companies use to put off innovation. I see this week after week.

I get to work side-by-side with some of the brightest thought leaders from many industries including aerospace, automotive, energy, medicine, industrial and consumer design. I’ve learned that there are no limits in the creative innovations that individuals and teams can develop. I’ve noticed, however, a disturbing phenomenon. If I leave a client alone for more than a few weeks, the result is often as if someone turned out the proverbial innovation light bulb. The same phenomenon appears to many of my innovation consultant colleagues in different practices.

The correlation between our presence with a client and a client’s innovation activity has absolutely nothing to do with our subject knowledge or creative influence. The correlation is much more basic, and frankly easy to understand, yet is often overlooked. When an innovation consultant shows up at his or her client, the client’s management is well aware that they’re paying for the consultant’s time, and innovation tasks suddenly are given both a very high (almost crisis-level) priority, and a limited time for delivery. It shouldn’t take a managerial response to controlling expenses to dictate when innovation is a priority, yet this impacts innovation as much as any factor I’ve witnessed.

There are two factors that I’ve observed about people who put off innovation because of self-imposed priority or time constraints, independent of project, background, or industry.

Factor 1: People generally want the easiest path from point A to point B. This is not only human behavior; it is an aspect of physical laws governing nature. Consider the laws which govern electricity. Electric charge will always find the path of least resistance to a lower potential, without exception. Whenever you see a highly-twisted and random lightning bolt, you’re looking at the shortest path to ground that the bolt could find. Unlike a lightning bolt which finds its path in a split second, human beings will spend hours, sometimes days to find a solution path that takes 5 minutes, which leads me to the second factor.

Factor 2: In today’s interrupt-driven, task-oriented and globally connected world, many people have lost the ability to recognize the difference between research and innovation. Worse, they tend to practice one when the other is required. The results are both unsatisfactory results, and lost time. Let’s focus on this second factor for a moment.

Research involves looking at the past, whether that past is a conversation someone had 5 minutes ago, or is an important technical article written 5 years ago. Effective research is dependent on access to a knowledge management infrastructure. Such infrastructures can be: a library; a search engine; a research archive, (etc) that has been pre-populated by the content we’ll need now or at any point in the future. Research has strategic roots, and is a tool that has great strengths in helping us learn basic or detailed information for any topic, provided that at some point in the past, the information we are interested in now was actually created, captured, and made accessible by the research vehicle of our choice. Research looks for answers to questions that someone else has already asked, directly or indirectly.

Innovation is fundamentally dependent on asking (and answering) an “original” question. This process is not as difficult as it may seem. It merely requires a little bit of discipline, a willingness to surrender a small amount of the creative process to one or more methodologies of thought, and a willingness to put a time limit on success or failure. I’ll explore this in more detail in my next article in this series, but I’ll leave you with something to think about in the mean time:

The secret to successful five minute innovation is: learning to eat soup with a fork.