Simple Not Simplistic

April 30, 2009

People who play Personality Poker tell me that they love its simplicity.  But what they find most amazing is how this simple “game” can generate profound insights.

During a recent event, one participant commented that she learned more about herself and her team in 15 minutes than she had in her previous 15 years.

In today’s age of data-driven analysis, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that more data and more complexity lead to better results.

This is not always true.

I was chatting with Michael Wiederman, Professor of Psychology at Columbia College, this morning.  Michael did a fascinating podcast with me a while back.  Be sure to check it out.

When discussing the simplicity of Personality Poker, he responded:

“Simpler is good, as long as it’s valid/useful.   As an analogy, I recall a published study from several years ago in which a battery of all of the widely-used depression inventories were administered to the same group of people, along with some other questions. The best predictor of who was depressed?  The single question: ‘Are you depressed?’ So much for complexity.”

Common Innovation Myths

Where else do we fall prey to the belief that bigger is better?

  • More Ideas = Better Ideas.  Although free thinking is useful during the generation of creative ideas, if you are solving the wrong problem, all the ideas in the world won’t make a difference.
  • More Data = Better Customer Insights.  Data mining is the rage.  Unfortunately it only allows you to study your customers.  Quite often the greatest insights come from those who are not your customers — or those who were and no longer are.
  • More Goals = Better Results.  Goals are useful in moderation.  However, an obsession with outcomes often results in taking your eye off the present.  The result is worse performance.  Read my article on “The Performance Paradox” for more.

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I am a big believer that “Simplification is Innovation.”  Don’t confuse complexity with quality.  The greatest ideas are often the simplest.

P.S. I am reading Made to Stick…finally.  It is an excellent book on the stickiness of ideas.  Once again, we see that often the simplest ideas are the ones that stick best.

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Innovating in Tough Times

April 29, 2009

I was recently interviewed via email for a Canadian publication.  I was asked 5 questions.  Given the journalists deadline, I needed to provide an immediate response.  Here are “off the top of my head” answers – without editing.

1. What is your own definition of an innovative business?

An innovative business is one that continually adapts and evolves to meet changing market conditions. It is not about new product, new processes, new ideas, or new services. It is about staying one step ahead of the competition.

2. Why is it so important for a business to invest in innovation during recession time?

Innovation can be used to reduce costs as well as grow a business. You can either slash your business, or be creative about how to do more with less.  But investing in growth during troubling times is important too. Given that everyone else is cutting back, for every dollar invested in innovation, you get a larger return than you would have in the past. Regardless, the economy will rebound. Innovation is more like a marathon than a sprint. If you are not prepared, when market conditions improve, you will be behind the curve.

3. Do you believe that each recession leads to a changing of paradigm in the way people buy and live, and if yes, what can we expect after this crisis?

During a crisis, buying habits certainly change. People focus more on eliminating their pains than they do on pleasure and growth. Therefore, if you solve someone’s pain, you will continue to thrive even in tough times.  We also see people looking for affordability and accessibility. After a crisis is over however, the market in general (although not necessarily individuals) return to their old ways. After the recession of 1970, consumers eventually returned to old habits. After a while, we forget the pain.

4. What are the worst innovation mistakes to avoid during recession time?

Stopping innovation altogether is a mistake. But investing in the “wrong” innovation is an even bigger mistake. Albert Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” From my personal experience, most organizations spend 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter. Doing this wastes your money and the energy of your people.

5. How can a business boost its creativity during a recession when money is in short supply?

Here are several ideas 1) Instead of developing new products, adapt existing products/services to make them more affordable/accessible, 2) Use Open Innovation to reduce costs while gaining valuable marketing insights, 3) Use process improvement techniques to reduce costs, 4) Find ways of solving your customer’s pains, 5) Use a “build it, try it, fix it” approach to innovation enabling you to fail cheaply.

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Pitchmen, Pain and Positioning

April 27, 2009

My new guilty pleasure is watching the Discovery Channel show “Pitchmen.”  On it are two pitchmen, Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan, who create and star in direct response ads.  These are TV commercials that sell you a product and entice you to call now.

Each week, inventors pitch their ideas to Billy and Anthony.  Two inventions are selected and the dynamic duo then create advertisements for these products.  Then they run the ads to see if they are successful.

It is interesting to watch which products the pitchmen select…and why.  It appears that there are two criteria:

  1. The product must be visually interesting to demo.  For example, using a hammer to smash Billy’s hand protected with a shock absorbent shoe insole.
  2. The product must solve a pain.  I discuss the need to solve a pain extensively in my previous articles, including one on why a blizzard was the catalyst for the success of the ATM and why the best selling cars are gas guzzlers.

This last point is addressed more fully in a recent newsletter from The Straight Dope. In an article on direct marketing advertisements (the “As Seen on TV” brands), they discuss why now is the best time for these commercials.

In a January article in the Newark Star-Ledger, Telebrands president A.K. Khubani says tough economic times create an ideal environment for his company’s MO: not only are ad rates down, more people are staying home and watching TV. Superstar TV pitchman Billy Mays suggests that many direct-marketed products sell well in a bad economy because they help (or at least promise to help) buyers save money somewhere else. The problem of wasted food is solved with this miracle bag-sealer system! Don’t throw away those torn pants – save them with this mending kit! Even the clothes-storage products, which have been around a while, seem particularly appropriate in a time when some people are downsizing to less roomy, more affordable housing.

The rest of the straight dope article discusses the psychology of the special offers and pricing.  In particular why the price point has to be low enough so that the viewer doesn’t think twice about impulse purchases.

This reinforces the point that I discuss often in my “innovation bell curve” articles…

In tough economic times, affordability and accessibility are king.  Provide a product with a high perceived value for low cost.  Perceived value is driven by the importance of the pain you solve.  If you can solve a significant pain for little money, your customers will be eager to buy…even when they are cutting back on spending in other areas.

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Jazz, Improvisation and Innovation

April 23, 2009

What do jazz and innovation have in common? Quite a bit.

Many years ago, in 24/7 Innovation, I wrote..

“Most businesses are run like classical symphonies – long, with elaborate compositions (detailed workflows) that leave little room for interpretation. Employees are expected to follow these compositions rote.

“Unfortunately, by the time they learn the score, the music would have to be changed. This organizational symphony no longer works in today’s age of change.

“Instead we need jazz-like organizations. Innovation is not random. In fact, it emerges best when there is a structure to nurture it, much like jazz in the world of music. Jazz is heavy on innovation (“improvisation” in musical terms). Just as innovation is not random, neither is improvisation. Jazz has a simple structure, like 12-bar, B-flat blues. It has a rhythm, chord progression, and tempo.

“Businesses need much the same to succeed: Simple structures that allow innovation to emerge, in the moment, when it is needed most.”

Yesterday I attended a session at Harvard’s Kennedy School led by Frank Barrett. The title of his presentation was “Cultivating a Culture of Creativity and Innovation: Learning from Jazz Improvisation.”

He focused much more on music and jazz than on practical application to business. Regardless, there were some interesting points. He has 7 “tips” for improvisation:

  1. Unlearn habits – Be suspicious of patterns. He quoted Miles Davis, “If it sounds clean and slick, I’ve been doing it too long.”
  2. Say “yes” to the mess – No matter what happens, don’t go into problem solving mode. There are no do-overs. Appreciate the screw-ups and figure out how to leverage them. He quoted Peter Drucker, “A leader’s role is to maximize strengths so that weaknesses become irrelevant.”
  3. Have minimal structures that maximize autonomy – see my quote from 24/7 Innovation
  4. Embrace errors as a source of learning – Builds on point #2. He quoted Miles Davis again, “If you aren’t making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” I like that one.
  5. Provocative competence – This is my favorite. I wrote about this last year in an article entitled, “Relearning What You Know.” His point is to add just enough “provocation” to disrupt habits just enough to force creativity. His example was a jazz standard which is always played in the key of F. On stage, in front of a live audience, the leader counted off and said, “Play it in E flat.” Although 99% of the song was the same, it was down one note causing band members to pay extra attention. Instead of playing rote, they were fully present.
  6. Alternate between soloing and support – On high performing teams, everyone leads some times, and follows on other occasions. Both are needed.
  7. Strike a grove – This is when the musicians are “in the zone.”

These are great rules for any form of improvisation whether it be music or improv comedy.

After the presentation, someone asked, “What is the business equivalent of chord progressions?” For jazz to work, musicians need to know which chords to play when. This builds “trust” that everyone will know what to do and when to do it. But there are few similar, unambiguous structures in business.

In my next blog entry, I will discuss my thoughts on the business equivalent of jazz and chord structures. In the meantime, I welcome any thoughts you might have…

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Gossip Stoppers

April 17, 2009

My friend April Callis just published a nice spiral-bound book entitled “Gossip Stoppers: 101 Insights to Stop Gossip.”  Although I don’t think it is available yet for purchase, I wanted to share two of the quotes.

Half the world is composed of people who have something to say but can’t, and the other half of people who have nothing to say and keep on saying it. – Robert Frost

Great minds discuss ideas.  Average minds discuss events.  Small minds discuss people. – Eleanor Roosevelt

Therefore, have great ideas – and share them with the world.  We need less gossip (and reality TV shows) and more creative thinking.

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What Innovators Can Learn From Poetry

April 16, 2009

Last night I attended a book launch party to honor Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who spoke at Obama’s inauguration. After some opening remarks, she read her inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”

After her reading, she took questions from the audience of over 100 people.

The question (and response) that struck a chord with me was when Elizabeth was asked if the inauguration committee gave her any guidelines for her poem. Did it have to be a certain length? Did it have to be around a certain theme?

Elizabeth’s response was an emphatic “No.”

There were no restrictions on the poem’s length. It did not have to fit neatly into a time slot. It did not have to address any particular topic. She could talk about whatever moved her.

The only restriction was how much time she had to write the poem. Obviously it had to be ready by January 20th. She joked that this was the first time she ever had a deadline for one of her poems.

Elizabeth commented that the organizers knew that only the artist could determine the perfect length and the perfect theme. Dictating these parameters would compromise the quality of the finished product. Poetry is a natural expression that emerges best when there are fewer limitations.

Even though a topic was not dictated, I suspect the theme was immediately obvious to her.  It was to capture the historic moment of change within the country.  To honor America and Americans.  And to celebrate the inauguration of her friend, Barack Obama.

Creativity is similar to poetry. If you put too many restrictions on the creative process, you may compromise the quality of the finished product. Creativity often needs time to incubate.  And the best solutions often look different than expected.

But in business, the “theme” is not always as obvious.  Everyone has their own agenda.  One reason creative endeavors fail in business is that they are solving the wrong problem.

Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” From my personal experience, most people (and organizations) spend 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter.  For those of you who have played Personality Poker®, you know this is why the “spades” (the fact-driven, analytical people in your organization) are so important to your success.  They can help define critical themes for the creative “diamonds.”

In business, we are not creating works of art.  Our creative endeavors need to make business sense. They need to be implementable (the domain of the “clubs”) and they ultimately need to serve customers, employees, business partners, and/or shareholders.

Regardless, there is great wisdom in Elizabeth’s response.

You need to give people – all employees – more creative freedom. You need to put fewer restrictions on the creative process. And you need to give employees more latitude to let the best ideas emerge.  In doing this, your innovation efforts may just develop spectacular works of art that move, inspire, and create value for everyone.

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Climate for Innovation On the Rise

April 9, 2009

According to a recent study by Chuck Frey at innovationtools.com, 47% of companies say that the climate for innovation has “improved slightly or significantly” since the onset of the global recession.  In fact, only a quarter of the respondents felt that the climate for innovation has deteriorated.

Surprisingly, only one third of the companies say they cut investments in innovation.  37% have kept funding steady while 29% have increased funding.

However, as I suspected, those innovation investments are now being channeled into things other than new product development.  The top 5 innovation strategies are:

  • Looking for creative ways to improve or extend your existing products (50.9%)
  • Looking for opportunities to improve collaboration (47.2%)
  • Increasing focus on changing customer needs (39.8%)
  • Focusing on service innovation (38.1%)
  • Focusing on process innovation (36.4%)

Most of the innovation dollars are being funneled into getting more out of existing products, while increasing efficiency and service levels.

The one thing I did not find in the study is if companies, as part of their efforts to “improve or extend” existing products are using “simplification” as method of increasing marketshare.  To learn my perspectives on this, read about the “innovation bell curve.”  This is an overlooked opportunity to gaining marketshare by leveraging your existing offerings.

You can read the full report on innovationtools.com.  This is an interesting report and offers hope for those who believe that innovation is the answer.

Having said that…

It is important to point out that studies like these are inherently biased and are not statistically accurate as the respondents are not randomized.  The companies who participate tend to be connected to the surveyors in some (albeit indirect) way.  Therefore those organizations are thinking about innovation more than others.

When I was recently asked what morale was like at my clients, I said “challenging yet optimistic.” But my client list is not representative of the norm.  Anyone who hires me is clearly still investing in innovation and continues to see its value.

Therefore, when reading this, focus more on the qualitative aspects rather than the hard, cold numbers.  There are interesting insights to be found.  And maybe there is even a ray of optimism shining through the cloudy economy.

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New Literary Agent

April 6, 2009

News flash…I just signed on with Bonnie Solow as my literary agent. She represents big name authors like Jack Canfield and T. Harv Eker.  I am honored to be working with her.  We already have a two book deal in the works.  More details soon.

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