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.

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