Innovation Inspiration

I just came back from a talk at Dolby that was supposed to be on Auditory Scene Analysis (ASA), a topic on which I’ve spoken and that is the basis for some of the research I’ve started at the research center where I work. Unfortunately, the talk really had nothing to do with ASA despite the talk’s title, abstract and proclamations by the speaker.

My initial reaction after the talk was one of disappointment—where the #$% was information on ASA that I came to hear? Afterwards, though, I realized that I was, perhaps, missing the big picture and that what I had just seen was an excellent example of a specific type of innovation.

The engineer who spoke is an expert on such topics as low bit-rate coding (e.g., MP3) and other technologies of interest for Dolby. He has no expertise in psychology, the field in which ASA resides, but he clearly drew inspiration from ASA to develop new ideas in his own field. Simply put, an audio engineer read a psychology book that spurred new ideas for innovations in his audio engineering work.

Exposing yourself to innovative thinking in other fields is a great way generate inspiration for innovations in your own field. I’m not talking about simply taking ideas from other industries and implementing them in your own (although that could be considered innovative). I’m referring to learning about problems and solutions in other fields—different approaches and ways of thinking that haven’t been applied in your own area—and letting your creativity take hold. Let those ideas inspire you in some way to develop new ideas of your own, even if those new ideas have only the faintest resemblance to their inspiration. Christian Sarkar alludes to this concept in his post on building innovation ecosystems where he discusses how people need to be exposed to others with different perspectives and expertise in order to create breakthroughs.

The difficulty with this, of course, is finding the time to be exposed to ideas in different fields. Many people can barely find the time to keep up with advances in their own field, let alone be able to play tourist in other fields.

So, while what I heard tonight had nothing to do with ASA, without a doubt ASA inspired tonight’s speaker to create innovations in his own field, and those innovations I did hear about tonight.

Defining Innovation

Geoffrey Moore’s blogging dialogue with Tom Forenski highlighted to me my own vagueness over what, exactly, is meant by innovation and innovative. Tom Forenski said, "I think innovation *always* has to have the quality of disruption" in response to 10 myths about innovation posted by Moore on the Sandhill website.

Moore (correctly, in my opinion) argues that there are varying levels of innovation, many of which are not disruptive. Moore’s arguement is made clear by the very fact that the term "disruptive innovation" was the focus of Clayton Christensens book The Innovator’s Dilemma: if all innovation were disruptive, then disruptive innovation would be redundant. I doubt that Christensen would have wasted his time detailing and defining a redundant concept, anymore than I expect to see a leading chef publish a book detailing how we should focus our culinary resources towards “edible food.”

Still, where do you draw the line on what is and isn’t innovative? I believe we can draw some guidance from the decades of thought that has gone into determining what is patentable. One of the criteria for whether an invention is patentable is whether it is novel or nonobvious. By this is meant whether someone knowledgeable in the field of the invention would consider this to be an obvious creation or not. A patent attorney at one of my previous companies liked to demonstrat this concept by pulling a pen out of his pocket and saying, “This type of pen may have never been produced in the color red, but that does not mean that a red version of this pen is novel or nonobvious and can therefore be patented. To anyone who knows the field of pens, the creation of a red version of what I am holding is an obvious creation.”

This criterion, perhaps, could be part of the definition of innovation. To use the example above, a red pen might be a new product, but it would not be innovative, unless there was something unique about that color which causes it to succeed in the marketplace far beyond the expectations of one who knows pens. Then, the development of a red pen is only innovative in the selling and marketing of it.

As detailed by Moore, innovation can take many forms, and can include incremental improvements that cause no disruption whatsoever. But, the development of a new product, or the sales of a new product, should not be described as innovative unless there is something special about the product or the result in the marketplace that is not obvious to someone expert in the field of that product.

The February issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article on Management Innovation, and in that article the author unintentionally provides his own description of what makes something innovative. I have slightly modified one of his statements on management innovation to speak to innovation in general:

innovation can be defined as a marked departure from traditional principles, processes, and practices or a departure from customary forms that that significantly alters functionality.

The author later states that (management) innovation stems from “unorthodox thinking” and “wisdom from the fringe”. This surely separates innovations from simply good ideas. Introducing a de-featured, lower cost version of a product may be a very good idea, but I would not classify this as an innovation.

Gordom Graham makes valid points on distinctions between different types of innovation over at Broken Bulbs. I invite readers to comment on, and bloggers to post and trackback their own thoughts on, what is meant by innovative and innovation.

Morals for Management

I just read this post over at The Innovation Insider, Fortune Magazine‘s blog on innovation. It summarizes a Wall Street Journal interview with Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons. They list "5 Tips From Richard Parsons for Managing in Times of Rapid Change."

Tip #2 is

Don’t burn down the house to cash out.

I put this right up there with "Don’t kill," "Don’t steal" and "Don’t lie." I guess I’m surprised that this is one of the top tips for managing by the CEO of Time Warner. Perhaps the Enron attitude detailed in The Smartest Guys in the Room is more pervasive that I previously thought.

Tip #3 is

Don’t treat creative people like they are just cogs in a machine.

This is true, but I think it falls in my more general category of "understand what motivates your employees." If you follow my axiom, then you will find that creative employees have quite different expectations of what they want from work than non-creative employees. Creative employees don’t want to be cogs and they don’t want to just do what they’re told, they want to contribute to the company in new ways in order to get satisfaction with from their job. If they don’t, you risk them leaving for a job where they can be contribute creatively. The worst thing that you can say to a creative employee is to "keep your head down and just do your assigned job." The same holds for every other employee: understand what their motive for being at work is, and figure out how to optimally satisfy their motivation while satisfying the needs of their company.

To be fair to Richard Parsons, the 5 tips from Richard Parsons were probably inferred and extracted from his interview by some WSJ writer/editor without Parsons actually naming the tips himself.

Best Management Ideas Contest

Management Craft recently had a contest asking people to submit their most innovative management idea, and I won as one of three runners-up. I submitted an entry on the use of wikis at work, and as a result I get several interesting management books, including one written and signed by Lisa Haneberg, the person who writes the Management Craft blog.

I found out about the contest at the Slacker Manager blog–the author of that blog was one of the judges. The post at Management Craft that lists the contest results gives many of the submissions, all worth reading. Thanks to Lisa and the judges for the encouragement.

Here are the blogs of those involved in organizing and judging the contest, definitely worth checking out:
Management Craft
Slacker Manager
Genuine Curiosity
Random Thoughts from a CTO
Thinking Faster

Simplicity Creates User Satisfaction

Hbr_featuritis
An article in the latest Harvard Business Review titled Defeating Feature Fatigue reminds me of a post at Creating Passionate Users on breakthrough ideas. The Harvard article goes into analytical detail on how companies continue to add features to their products but in the process severely hurt the usability of their products. Customers may be more motivated to buy the product that offers the most features, but will be less happy with the product once they realize how unusable the product is. Post-sale satisfaction is maximized with the simplest features that provides the best usability (sound familiar, IDEO?) So, there must be a happy medium that optimally trades off sellability with post-sale user satisfaction. The figure to the right demonstrates the HBR authors’ theoretical analysis of this trade-off, indicating that the happy medium is–surprise, surprise–not too many features, not too few. Sounds like the Goldilocks Strategy: the number of features is just right.

Featuritis
Last year, the Creating Passionate Users blog posted a very similar looking curve, which is shown here on the left. Look familiar? The point that CPU made was the same as the HBR authors. Usability has a big impact on user satisfaction, and often simplicity provides the best solution for product design. Having the most features might get customers to buy the product when they are considering different items at a store, but users prefer simplicity and ease-of-use after they actually own a product and therefore simplicity provides the most long-term user value. Users don’t want complexity and don’t want to have to read the manual whenever they want to use one of the product’s features. Great scoop on HBR, CPU!

A Great Day in the Life…

Alan Nelson over at the always-interesting Seat 1A has tagged me with the meme “What constitutes a Great Day?” Alan lists several items that produce for him a Great Day, and includes several that I would have included myself. So, I will try to think back to specific days when I have, at some point, thought to myself “This is a great @#$%ing great day!” and determine what was the cause.

Here we go:

  • Walking around and exploring a new and interesting (often foreign) city.
  • Spending the day doing an outdoor activity in a beautiful natural setting (skiing in the Rockies, hiking in Yosemite, kayaking on Tomales Bay, hiking on Angel Island, boating on San Francisco Bay, stopping at some random point down Highway 1 and exploring).
  • Spending several hours “in the zone” with my photography.
  • Experiencing some form of live art (theatre, opera, movie, band) that has my head reeling with ephemeral excitement after it’s over.
  • Spending an evening of interesting conversation with my friends.
  • And a work-related Great Day: Spending the day working in hyperactivity mode, achieving an unusually high level of productivity while collaborating with my colleagues. This is particularly satisfying when the notable results are celebrated with colleagues, even if only by simply acknowledging each other’s great work. After a day like that winds down, I’m a very happy person.
  • Okay, here’s a Great Day that I try to experience as often as I can. I love to take a day off of work and play tourist in my hometown of San Francisco when the weather is beautiful. I’ll start with a workout at the gym, then go to a sunny café and read the paper along with a coffee/chai and a pastry. Then I’ll pick a neighborhood that I haven’t been to in a long while and explore—maybe it’s an urban region like the Mission, or maybe it’s along the ocean or bay or in Golden Gate Park. Then I’ll pick a great restaurant for a late lunch, go to a museum or gallery that has an interesting exhibit, and end the evening watching the bustling tourists and business people leaving work around Union Square. If I’m lucky, I’ll get home just in time for an ocean sunset. For me, that’s a great, great day.

I’m going to tag Jon and Gordon with this meme.