Countdown to Innovation

CalendarJeffrey Pheffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, recently wrote a short column in Business 2.0 magazine on the usefulness of deadlines. He gives a couple examples of their usefulness demonstrating how they can be effective at forcing decisions, actions, and agreements.

Pheffer notes that when Steve Jobs set a June release date for the iPhone back in January, he gave a useful deadline to the iPhone development team in finishing the product that forced them to finalize the product—but of course, anyone who works in development knows that product launch deadlines have this effect, Pheffer doesn’t need to summon an iExample to make this case.

An interesting question for this blog, of course, is whether deadlines can apply to innovation. Well…yes and no.

A process and therefore a deadline can be applied to innovation, as has been frequently mentioned with respect to design innovation. A practical example to shed light on this is the application of deadlines to research, to the extent that research represents innovation (a topic for a future post).

Deadlines can and should be applied to research projects. People with no experience with research think that researchers must work in a timeless vacuum, a limbo of thinking and investigating until the researchers discover something brilliant. The reality is that professional researchers—in academia and in industry—base their work around the investigation of hypotheses. Researchers usually have considerable expertise in the area that they are investigating and have a very good idea of the process that they are going to conduct to test their hypotheses. In fact, research grants that fund the majority of university research require a timeline for the research project, with anticipated milestones and deliverables explicitly stated. Any responsible company conducting research will require the same.

There is a difference between research project plans/deadlines and ones for product development, however, and that is that research plans are organic. Due to the nature of research, new information is often discovered that leads to further investigation. This unanticipated addition to the project plan is consistent with the stated goals at the outset of the project and is therefore both valid and valuable to execute, but it is a significant change to the plan that is usually not experienced in product development. Predicting task durations and milestone dates with research is more difficult when the outcomes of the tasks are unknown (the nature of research), but experienced researchers can still estimate them with reasonable accuracy because they have confidence that they know how to get answers to their hypotheses.

So, deadlines can be applied to research and, by association, to innovation.

There are aspects of innovation, however, that cannot given deadlines. The act of creativity cannot be given a deadline to those who are not creative. One cannot be told to have an innovative idea by Friday. Finding connections between seemingly incongruous technologies and concepts, one specific embodiment of innovation, is something that creative people live with and think about on a constant basis—they do not schedule flashes of genius.

Innovation has many embodiments: process oriented ones that make up the majority of innovative breakthrough, but also those “aha” moments where an opportunity is simply discovered. The former represents the majority of corporate innovation and should be executed by every company interested in creative product development, with schedules and deadlines in place. The latter represents key innovations that are not scheduled but result from creating of supporting culture thinking and having the type of employees to who are able to produce such creative acts.

Jobs on Design, Everyone Else on the iPod

I’m reading a book called Sketching User Experiences, which is an interesting dialogue on the philosophy of design, filled with many practical real-world examples. The author, Bill Buxton, has been a part of or exposed to many fascinating design projects over the years that he details in his book.

I want to post a quote by Steve Jobs about design from Buxton’s book:

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to ‘get it.’ You have to really grok [understand] what it’s all about.

I feel like a broken record saying this on my blog, but it’s worth repeating, particularly for new readers to this blog. Design is the science of elegant functionality, which is why having a process for design development is so important. Just like research or development—design is also a well defined process.

Jobs’ quote reminds me of what was told to me recently by a friend who is a researcher at Apple’s top competitor. He complained that, more and more frequently on projects, executives at his company were instructing him and his colleagues to, “make it like the iPod—you know, simple and cool.” I’ve heard this complaint elsewhere and it’s obvious that the iPod has become the sole definition of design in many people’s eyes—some Platonic design ideal that everyone is striving to reproduce.

Also because of the iPod, simplicity has become the buzzword of the year, but this is also a misplaced ideal. I hesitate to discuss this, because simplicity has been a mantra of mine since the ‘90s given the unique needs of hearing aid users (my field) and my general philosophy that products should be intuitive. The design success of the iPod is a result of more than just simplicity, just like the business success of the iPod is a result of more than just its design. Perhaps a better buzzword for the future is intuitiveness, from which simplicity is one solution.

My friend’s dilemma was that this demand to mimic the iPod restricted his creativity to the design language of the iPod—he couldn’t treat each project on its own terms with its unique challenges. There’s no surer way to squelch innovation than to tell someone tasked with creative thinking to mimic someone else’s creation. Not only that, the requirements that produced the iPod design may have nothing to do with the design requirements of these other products. The relationship between a product, its use and its user may require a design solution completely different to that of an iPod, but that design solution can still be brilliantly elegant and functional.

While the iPod is currently an icon of design and probably the most written about product with respect to design, I suspect that it may soon become anathema to designers if executives continue to force their design teams to mimic the iPod style. Soon there will be a growing league of ipodoclasts looking to tear down the iPod and force their own design language to the forefront of consumer product design.

What’s ironic is that companies should actually be trying to mimic Apple’s/Ives’ approach to design and learning from his process of iteration and innovation rather than mimicking the product of its/his process. Until they do (and maybe even if they do), Apple will maintain its design lead. Perhaps the iPhone, another product of Jonathan Ives design team at Apple, will be the product to demonstrate that design success can result from intuitiveness rather than simplicity, at which point I suppose executives will be clamoring for products to be made like the iPhone—you know, intuitive and cool.


SalamancaI’ve been traveling for almost two months straight, so am enjoying being back in town for a couple of weeks. Traveling so much is not pleasant, but at least there’s the advantage of being able to stay at a place like the Colegio Arzobispo Fonseca in Salamanca, Spain (pictured to the right, taken with my cell phone), built in 1519. Rooms were spartan, but the setting was amazing. I was invited to speak there at an audiology conference—an interesting meeting because Spain does not officially recognize the profession of audiology. The town is beautiful, with a large university that dates back to 1218. Also, I ate gooseneck barnacles, which tasted like tiny mussels, for the first time.

PanelThat’s me at the far right of the photo, trying to speak as slowly as I can so that interpreters can translate what I was saying into Spanish for the audience. I enjoy answering questions from an audience more than I do giving talks, so the panel discussion was a lot of fun, particularly when the audience asks insightful questions like this one did.

Too bad this was only a few days of my total travel.

Thinking About Sound

A complementary article on the research that our research center is doing on cognition and hearing was recently published at HealthyHearing. Part of the research is being conducted by Tassos Sarampalis and Erv Hafter at UC Berkeley—I wish the reporters had interviewed them as well.

Here are some passages from the article:

Engineering has taken hearing aid technology to its current high standards. However, even though 91% of all hearing devices are digital, offering improved sound quality, Edwards is quick to point out that hearing impairments still lead to slowed speech communication, diminished access to the environment and others, limited hearing and interpretation of non-speech sounds, the loss of spatial hearing and selective attention issues that impact cognitive development.

Thus, there is a need for hearing science to take a more active role in the development of the next generation of hearing aids – devices that not only improve hearing, but also better facilitate the cognitive processes once sound input is delivered to the brain.

Indeed, hearing aid technology has made major strides in the past decade and we can anticipate that improvements to existing devices will continue to be made. We can also look forward to technological advancements that improve cognitive activities in hearing impaired individuals.