Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teleporting is a Good Walk (Failed)

I just got back from a long week in Southern California. I was presenting a paper at TRIZCon 2009 and working with several clients. While giving my paper, I made a comment on the nature of innovation practice that I make frequently during seminars or working with clients:

"Failure is not just an option. It's essential."

I noticed over at Innovating To Win that Jim Todhunter's latest article focused on this aspect of innovation. We've had a pleasant difference of opinion on this topic for a number of years. As with many of Jim's articles, I found myself re-reading some of the many books on innovation theory and practice I've compiled, and offered the following response to his latest musing.

Great article, Jim. As you and I have exchanged over the years (as recently last week as I watched you shake your head and chuckle quietly as I lectured a room on the essential need for failure in an innovation practice), we perhaps share different views on what failure means.

Or do we?

My own view (which I've written about before) is that failure is not only an option, it's essential. The journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. For many, it requires the other several million steps. For a very select few, their first step is onto the teleporter. Most management that I speak with are expecting their teams to journey 10,000 miles in one step, which is a very unrealistic expectation.

Your invocation of the brightest bulb in the innovation bunch made me go back and re-read "Innovate Like Edison", by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott. Specifically, I wanted to review how Edison treated failure.

According to Gelb & Caldicott, Edison developed five skills for successful invention:

1) Have a solution-centered mindset.
2) Use kaleidoscopic thinking.
3) Use full-spectrum engagement.
4) Become a master at collaboration.
5) Create "Super Value".

Despite mastery of these skills, Edison and his teams at Menlo Park recorded far more failures than successes in pursuing their technical and product goals. Were their failures actually failures? Edison had this to say on the nature of failure:

"I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

"Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

and one of my favorites...

"Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure."

I think what is so inspiring about Edison and others like him that we get a chance to work with every day, is that the ultimate success in any inventive effort, is the learning which results. Regardless of whether the outcome is right or wrong, the highest success-metric for innovators is that something was learned which can be applied in practice to the next attempt.

If the on the last step of a 10,000 mile journey, the inventor discovers the teleporter, that makes the discovery no less important than if it was discovered on the first step. The essential "failures" of all the in-between steps, were still essential.

The real winner, of course, will be the innovation practitioner of methodologies that minimizes the mean distance of the success path.

So perhaps, semantics is a small part of the problem, but more so, it is the owner of the success metric. As innovation practitioners, we ultimately own our metrics for success and failure, regardless of what may be imposed on us by management or markets. In my own case, a failure to achieve a specific goal of an innovation task is a step to ultimate success. Failing frequently and learning (and with a methodology for improving how I apply what I learn) means succeeding more frequently and with higher impact.

Obviously I haven't succeeded in convincing you on the critical need to embrace failure for winning innovation.

I must be doing something right. ;-)

Since posting this comment to Jim, he has suggested to me that I am merely confusing empirical method with innovation. I don't agree with him, but his feedback is very constructive. Often it is the journey that is more important than its beginning and end points. That in itself is more valuable than teleporting to the destination I'm sure we'll eventually reach.

In the mean time, I'm sure we'll share many winning failures along the way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lessons from the Roof: A Case (Study) of the Shingles

We’re just coming out of another long winter here in the Maine foothills. The storms of December (not to mention October and November), January and February have left their typical 100+ inches upon the landscape. The storms of March are adding just a dozen or so inches more, just to break any remaining appreciation for snow. With the cycles of melting, rain, and cold, one might expect the semi-permanent snowpack to run about 24 inches in most places.

If you thrive in the wild on tree bark and dead insects while stored fat keeps your buck-naked form in harmony with the elements for four months, then this level of snow causes you little difficulty.

Speaking from the gatherer part of the food chain in which I exist, I have my usual 11 feet of snow sitting outside my parlor window. This is not exactly a Norman Rockwell vision. Living in Maine means that my rooftop is frequently assaulted with 20+ inches or more of snow per storm, sometimes the heavy and wet variety. If it isn’t cleared quickly, snowfall from a typical storm rapidly turns into 12-18 inches of solid ice, and poses a very real risk of damaging or collapsing the roof. In my neck of the woods, this is not an uncommon occurrence. So several times each winter, I work with a team of shovelers to clear my roof of snow before real damage sets in.

We had a particularly bad storm in February that dumped close to 20 inches of very heavy, wet snow and was driven by heavy winds, resulting in even higher drifts. It knocked out power to about 80,000 homes and was rapidly to be followed by sub-zero temperatures before an even more rapid warm-up and rain later in the week. The combination of these meteorological events, aside from giving a political-science intern a complete set of expert talking points on global warming, was potentially very dangerous. I didn’t hesitate to call my general contractor, who, in anticipation of my call, had a team all set to help me clear the latest harassment from Mother Nature.

One of the reasons I use shovelers is for pure practicality. I’ve got roof rakes, extender poles, snow-shoes and other equipment that helps me clear a fair amount of roof-bound snow on my own from the ground. In order for me to get the really challenging stuff, I’m not the guy you want to see dancing around on an icy roof overlooking (in some places) a 30 foot drop. The shovelers are practiced in their trade and know no fear of icy inclines or college-bound children.

So as the crew ascended my rooftop, I continued to work from below. I received a quick glance and sociable wave from the senior of the shovelers who then returned to his digging. I chanced a quick verbal exchange to express my appreciations. I shouted up some idle chat about the weather, (in retrospect, it’s probably not the brightest idea to use a raging snow storm as an icebreaker topic) and was met with a blank stare, and then an apology. “I’m sorry”, the worker said, “I wasn’t paying attention to you. I didn’t mean to be rude. When I work a job I have one rule: 'Singular Focus.'”

I found this to be utterly fascinating. The task management credo espoused by the person risking his life shoveling his third of four rooftops that day is the same advice given by numerous innovation and business management gurus. Have a clearly defined job and break it down into manageable tasks. Focus tenaciously on one task at a time, each with its own goal, not allowing interruptions to get in the way.

David Allen makes outcome focusing a central theme of his seminal time-management classic, “Getting Things Done”. It would seem to be common sense, yet the number of companies I see that are paralyzed by the distractions and empty promises of complex task management (or just the lack of effective task management) are too many for me to tally. Too often, we are seduced by the sirens of multi-tasking, who would have us believe that we can focus on multiple tasks simultaneously with little or no reduction in efficiency or productivity. Unfortunately, for those who do not resist this song, their footing is no steadier than that of the shoveler’s whom I nearly distracted. The resulting metaphorical fall for companies can have far more dire consequences.

The lesson from the roof is a very simple one. When presented with a job, the best way to get it accomplished is to break it down into as many independent and smaller tasks as possible, each with clearly defined and visualized goals. Then by focusing on executing each task with a singular focus – ignoring all interruptions until each task is completed, the goals will be met predictably and efficiently.

After that last storm, I seriously doubt that my roof protector would need to go to business school to effectively lead a multi-million dollar business.

However, I know a fair number of business executives who could learn a lot from a shovel.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Regarding the Trouble with Twitters

I recently responded to an article written by Jim Todhunter over at Innovating To Win regarding the nature of Twitter. The original article and comments can be found here.

With the ever changing face of networked technology, more and more options for interactive communication materialize almost daily. Yet everything new is old again. Human failings have driven us to find ways of stimulating our social pleasure centers since we caught the first gaze of ourselves in the water.

Here was my response to Jim's thoughtful piece:

Oh the irony of ironies.

Your (well thought-out) musings on 140 characters is akin to Shakespeare writing a sonnet about a garment's washing-instructions tag. You and others are looking to find the hidden value in this medium that has gripped the world, and some might say was instrumental in putting a junior marketing executive into the Oval Office.

I hate to say it, but the only disruptive value of Twitter is one of hyper-leveraging basic human flaws - laziness, banality, and narcissism.

I also hate to say it, but I've seen it all play out before, over 20 years ago.

In the last days of an ancient contraption called the ARPANet, when bits traveled uphill (both ways) to get to their intended time wasters, and Spam was still potentially nutritious, dozens of people on closed networks were familiar with an application called "Oneline" that was very similar to Twitter, except we only had 80 characters to express our most in-depth thoughts, and we could only make one post per day. The behaviours I observed then are all too familiar in today's Twitterati.

People want to feel like they have control of their environment, no matter how trivial. People also have an amazing capability to lose all sense of time management when an opportunity to engage their pleasure centers is presented. Twitter offers people a way for people to become fortune-cookie publishers in any conceivable location, at any moment. A person can push a button and feel good that they have sent their bit of e-wit into the ether, for the benefit of society. We even have metrics provided for us that shows how we rank as important members of society, and how to improve ourselves (just look at Twitalyzer, Twitter Friends, and other tools that emerge almost daily). You and I, Jim, are ranked as "emerging personalities" by Twitalyzer (yes, I looked).

Twitter succeeds because it is a game, and games are important to the human psyche.

Twitter and other social media platforms that provide free outlets for would-be Shakespeares, are not developed for the users. They are developed for marketing and advertising concerns. We are the endless supply free that powers their machines. While we certainly take benefits from the experience (at least our pleasure centers tell us so), the disruption is not in how we benefit and how we work, but in how we are used.

Still, The Trouble with Twitters is not a problem to be solved.

Certainly I can't see the whole kitten-kaboodle being whisked away - there'd be no Twitter at all.

(I should tweet that.)

In the interest of transparent hypocrisy, you can follow me on Twitter either through the Twitter panel on the right side of my blog, or directly on Twitter.