Analogy Driven Innovation

February 19, 2008

Creative Commons License photo credit: Peter Emmett

Here is another tip from our “Little Book of BIG Innovation Ideas.”

As adults, when we try to solve a problem, we often ask, “What does this mean?” We try to pull the answer from our knowledge bank, just like finding the solution in an encyclopedia. Solve the problem the way it has been solved in the past. This can be useful, but it provides a limited set of possibilities.

An alternative (and more insightful) way of looking at problems is to ask, “What is this like?” Make connections. Find analogies, metaphors, and associations that fit the problem you are looking to solve. Recombine ideas in new ways.

If you are redesigning a business process, you may want to borrow best practices from a different industry.

South West Airlines did this when it benchmarked an Indianapolis 500 pit crew to improve plane turn-around time. Hospitals gained new insights by studying the check-in process of hotels. An office supply company improved the return of empty toner cartridges by applying NetFlix’s DVD subscription process.

Take it a step further and look to non-business analogies and metaphors. If redesigning a product, ask what the product is really like. If redesigning a computer chip, look to racing circuits, rivers, or anything with a flow. A gas pipeline company developed a new technology for finding and sealing pipeline cracks by mirroring the clotting agents in the human body.

To find solutions from other industries, processes, products, or disciplines, ask the following questions:

  • What are the attributes of the problem?
  • What is it like?
  • Who else addresses a similar problem?
  • How could you adapt their solution to your problem?

An example of this was in today’s news. Researchers developed a new adhesive by studying the gecko lizard’s “gravity-defying feet.” This new waterproof bandage is biodegradable, sticks well when wet, and is safe to use inside the body to augment sutures or staples.

Sometimes the best solutions have been around for centuries. We just need to adapt them to our specific needs.

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Design Emotion First

October 9, 2007

Here’s a useful innovation tip.

Designworks, a division of BMW, designs cars and other products such as cell phones, computers, and tractors. Their design process is particularly interesting. Instead of starting with functions and features, they start with emotion.

Designers first meet with company executives, employees, and customers in order to capture the emotion that customers will feel when they use this product. This is done using sketch artists rather than words. Only after everyone agrees on these emotions will the design of the form and style begin.

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Use Campaign Driven Innovation

August 17, 2007

If you have creative people in your organization (and trust me, you do), then you may find yourself with TOO MANY solutions. This is why suggestion boxes (physical or online) do not work.

Therefore you need to move from suggestion boxes (give us your solution to everything) to a campaign-driven approach (we want your best ideas for specific high-priority problems).

Management first determines the most critical issues to be solved, and then they send out the challenge to the organization. This focuses the creative energies of your people on the most critical opportunities. Campaigns are typically time-based and last only a few weeks. This creates a sense of urgency and entices people to contribute. Be sure to implement the best ideas and reward the organization for their contributions.

When issuing campaigns to the organization, here are some simple guidelines for each step of the innovation process:

Step #1: Define Opportunity

  • Clarify problem statement
  • Define selection criteria
  • Seed campaign with obvious solutions
  • Define rewards
  • Select VP sponsor, campaign owner and evaluation team
  • Allocate implementation resources

Step #2: Find Solutions

  • Run campaign for 2 or 3 weeks, with 1 week off
  • Provide links to creativity toolkits
  • Capture the following information:
    o Idea name
    o Description
    o Value
    o Implementation complexity
    o How idea was derived
  • Reward contributions

Step #3: Strengthen, Select and Plan

  • Evaluate against evaluation
  • Create shortlist of 15 – 20 ideas
  • Rank shortlist ideas:
    o Platinum: Game change
    o Gold: High impact
    o Silver: Moderate impact or quick win
    o Bronze: Archive

Step #4: Implement

  • Commit to implementing at least one silver idea from every campaign
  • Assemble task team for ideas requiring additional review (Platinum & Gold)
  • Implement top 1-3 ideas selected
  • Consider creating a Program Management Office to monitor progress on implementations and the value achieved

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Build It, Try It, Fix It

July 30, 2007

Here is another “innovation tip.” This one is simple, yet incredibly powerful. In fact, I am using this concept right now with this website. But more on that later.

One of the biggest barriers to success is analysis paralysis. It is the belief that studying the marketplace infinitum will yield better results. This is just not true. We can never predict what will happen in the “real” world, no matter how much Customer Relationship Management (CRM) data we have, how many focus groups we conduct, or how many strategy consulting firms we hire.

Rather than using the “analyze, design, build, test, deploy” model, use the “build it, try it, fix it” model – build something, try it out for a while, and learn from your “experiences.” Although some may call these experiences “failures,” I think of them as valuable information about the real world.

The process is simple. Develop a small experiment where the risk associated with failure is limited or controllable (build it). Learn from the results (try it). Adjust the experiment (fix it). Continue to iterate with larger experiments, increasing the scale. Stop pursuing an idea when the experiment suggests a lack of viability or desirability

Example: A clothing manufacturer wanted to venture into retail stores. Rather than developing detailed plans based on years of analysis, they rented empty space in a local mall and set up a trial shop in a matter of weeks. The store was set up with video cameras and other equipment to help analyze the results. Although the store concept “failed,” they learned more during two months of running the experiment than they would have spending a year analyzing the marketplace. They quickly reworked the store and tested out version 2. This continued—with frequent iterations. Over time they increased the size of the experiments until the stores were rolled out on a national level.

How am I using the “build it, try it, fix it” concept with this website? Some of you may have noticed that the tag line has changed a few times over the past several months. This blog was originally titled “Goal-Free Living.” Unfortunately, I found that it limited my ability to incorporate my corporate innovation & creativity work. I also discovered that the “goal-free” name turned off many goal-obsessed organizations.

Next I tried “The Science of High Performance.” The word “science” confused some people. And “high performance” was not quite right. Besides, it was too close to Accenture’s tag line – “High Performance. Delivered.”

My latest tag line is: “Unconventional Thinking for Explosive Business Growth.” This too is an experiment. Although I like this tag line, I am not attached to it. What I like about it is that it focuses on what I enjoy most: getting people to think differently. I renamed my speeches too:

  • Unconventional Thinking about Innovation (this is my 24/7 Innovation content)
  • Unconventional Thinking about Creativity (this is my SpeedInnovating content)
  • Unconventional Thinking about Goals & Performance (this is my Goal-Free Living content)
  • Unconventional Thinking about Thinking (this is the content of my TV show)

What do you think? I welcome your comments on my “Unconventional Thinking” brand. I also am interested in examples of where you applied the “build it, try it, fix it” approach and had positive (or negative) results.

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Make Everyone Accountable

May 14, 2007

Here’s another tip from my innovation book… 

Because a few individuals at the top cannot possibly plan all of a company’s activities, give employees a set of rights, responsibilities and rewards that make them accountable for their own actions.

Example: Koch Industries (the largest privately held company in the world) wanted to achieve world-class safety. Rather than have a few safety engineers scour the company, Koch gave this responsibility to all employees, with rewards both for uncovering unsafe conditions and for discovering new ways to conduct business more safely. This initiative resulted in as much as a 50-percent improvement each year in the number and severity of accidents across Koch Industries. Within one year the company had moved from middle of the pack to one of the best safety records in its industries.

The same principle works with innovation. In the beginning it makes sense – in fact, it is necessary – to have an innovation core team. However, after a period of time, innovation should be the responsibility of all individuals and not a centrally controlled or coordinated group. At that time, the innovation core team can be dismantled.

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Phrase Concerns as Opportunities

April 18, 2007

One of the most simple, yet most powerful approaches for increasing your creativity potential is to phrase concerns as opportunities. 

When brainstorming, inevitably someone will say, “We don’t have enough time to implement this idea,” or “We don’t have enough money.”  When you say this, you are stating it as fact.  Instead, state this concern as an opportunity.  For example, “How might we get more money?”  Or, “How might we do this for less money?” 

Once you have a new opportunity defined, you can use creativity techniques to find new solutions.

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Move From Consensus to Alignment

March 26, 2007

Here is another tip from my new “innovation tips” book.

There are two extremes of innovation culture. One is “the right of infinite appeal.” This is a culture where anyone, anytime, has the right to veto any suggestions, bring the process back to the starting point. In this environment, very little gets done, and innovation is completely stifled, as everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator. This is the most common culture – the consensus culture.

The other extreme is “run and gun.” These are companies with lots of people with lots of ideas, all of which seem to be getting implemented simultaneously. The good news here is, there is in fact quite a bit of action. Unfortunately, no one is talking to anyone else, and everyone is doing work in his little corner of the universe. It creates more anarchy than progress.

A company needs to strive for a combination of these two: well-thought-out ideas that get incubated and propagated rapidly through an organization.

The solution?

Organizations should strive for alignment. Using this philosophy, people in the organization say, “Even though this is not my solution and is not the way I would implement it, I will support it as though it were my idea.”

This is a simple, yet wildly powerful tool for gaining momentum with teams. Instill this mindset early in the process and you will find incredible gains throughout your innovation journey.

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Ethos, Pathos, Logos

March 7, 2007

Today’s blog entry is from my new “innovation tips book.” But this is also an extremely useful concept in every day life. In fact, anyone who knows me eventually hears me say: “ethos, pathos, logos.” Selling is fundamental to your success – personally and professionally. Ethos, pathos, logos is a simple recipe for selling anything – products, services, or ideas.

Ethos, pathos, and logos are the three corners of Aristotle’s “Rhetorical Triangle” – the use of language to persuade. Ethos is credibility, pathos is empathy, and logos is logic. I find that selling your ideas using this construct, in that order, leads to more persuasive arguments.

Ethos: First, establish your credibility. You need to get people to listen to your ideas. They will only listen if you have credibility. Why should they believe you? So, before trying to sell your ideas, make sure people believe you, trust you, and want to listen to you. Maybe you can start with a story that establishes your credibility. When someone hears that I was the cover story in O, The Oprah Magazine and I am one of Tom Peters’ “Cool Friends,” they listen to me differently. Testimonials and trusted references build credibility. Do this first, without sounding like you are hyping yourself, because at the end of the day, you are there to create value for others. This leads to the second step…

Pathos: Create an emotional bond with others. Speak their language. Address their needs. Tell them what they will get out of paying attention. Why should they care? This is all about context. Remember, people rarely listen to the emergency procedures when an airplane is taking off, but they are highly attentive when the plane is about to crash. You must get people to the point where they really want to hear what you have to say about the proposed solution.

Logos: Finally, after addressing credibility and empathy, you get to the solution. Features and functions. How will the change be implemented? How will it affect them? What do they need to do differently? What actions do you want them to take?

Want a successful change effort? If so, you must be able to sell your ideas. In order to sell your ideas, you need to understand how people make decisions. People rarely make decisions intellectually, they make them emotionally. Ethos, pathos, logos is a powerful, emotionally-driven, non-manipulative formula for persuading others to take action.

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Move Your Innovators to the Front-Line

March 1, 2007

I am writing a new book on innovation that contains over 100 tips for turning creativity into profitability. Every tip is bite sized (typically one page in length) in order to be easily digestible. Each week I will post at least one tip from the book. Organizations who are interested in creating a culture of innovation can request an early draft of the book by writing us at

Here is tip #1 from the book:

Move Your Innovators to the Front-Line

A study carried out at Eckerd College in Florida challenges traditional “back-room” innovation models. Managers at the school were tested to determine whether they were “innovators” (those who do things differently and break the rules) or “adapters” (those who do things better within the rules).

The managers were then broken into teams to solve a given problem. Each team was comprised of two groups: 1) the “planners” who had to work out a solution to the problem, and 2) the “implementers” who were charged with making it work. There were three teams, each made up of planners and implementers.

Team #1: The planners were made up of the “innovators” and the implementers group was comprised of “adapters”.

Team #2: The planning group had both “innovators” and “adapters,” as did the group of implementers.

Team #3: The planning group contained only “adapters” and the implementers group contained only “innovators”.

Which was most effective? Although most organizations use the first model, the third model was most effective. The “adapters” were able to come up with a design very quickly. The innovators were then able to take that design and build something from it, correcting and improving as they went along.

Move innovation out of the back room and bring it to the forefront of your organization. This creates greater speed, responsiveness, and flexibility.

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Speaker’s Corner Brainstorming

November 21, 2006

Today’s blog entry is a goal-free approach to brainstorming.

Brainstorming sessions are useful. The standard approach is one person up front facilitating, while the conversation is single-threaded. To overcome this limitation, some groups use breakout sessions. The problem with this is that they do not allow for cross-pollination of ideas.

To combat these problems, I developed a powerful technique called “Speaker’s Corner” – named after the place in Hyde Park London where people can speak on any topic of interest (typically religion, politics and aliens). Instead of one conversation, there are many conversations. Instead of the leader deciding what to discuss, everyone decides what is important.

Here’s how it works:

  • The group captures (either in the meeting or in advance) a list of topics that are of interest to the individuals
  • The group then prioritizes this list down to critical few – typically the number of people divided by 8. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are 30 people, and hence four topics/corners.
  • We ask for four volunteers (one for each topic) who agree to facilitate a conversation. Each facilitator goes to a different “corner” with a flip chart to capture the ideas associated with their assigned topic.
  • All other meeting attendees then wander freely from corner to corner as they see fit. The only rule is to make sure they are either adding value to a corner, or are receiving value from a corner.
  • Any person, at any time, can create a new corner around any topic.
  • A corner leader can recruit a new leader if that individuals want to participate in other corners.

What you find is that the most important topics with the highest level of energy attract a lot of people. The conversation can continue for quite some time. Topics which fail to attract a crowd wither on the vine (just like in Hyde Park – time to pick up the soap box and call it a day). This is the ultimate “free-market,” egalitarian approach to meetings. In one hour, you can capture more ideas than you would from a full day meeting. And each topic benefits from the cross-pollination of ideas from all attendees.

Rather than having a specific meeting goal, let the attendees determine what is of value. Let go of control and you will find unpredictable – and spectacular – results.

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