How To Kill Ideas

We were asked a really good question last week with the visit to Bromford of the Disruptive Innovators Network.

How long should you spend on an idea?

In the early days of Bromford Lab we had a 12 WEEKS MAX rule. If we couldn’t get an idea up and running within that time – it should be killed.

We soon realised the error of our ways. Some ideas need to be timed exactly right. Now we don’t so much kill ideas as leave them languishing in the pits of our Exploration Pipeline – waiting for the stars to align.

The Premature Death of Ideas

Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of innovation.

Our colleagues generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently or how customers could be better served. These ideas – hundreds of thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

Organisations have developed numerous tools to kill off ideas.

1: Have A Meeting About It

The best way to assassinate an idea.

Meetings can crush ideas. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It’s only a matter of time before someone says “That sounds good in theory, but what’s the business benefit?” or even…“We’ve already tried that.”

Meetings are the best place to shoot down an unsuspecting victim who is trying to generate new ideas.

2: Take It To Your Manager

The middle layers of organisations are trapped between management (keeping wheels turning and not rocking the boat) and leadership (inspiring and taking risk).

People here are often scared to take risks because they’re responsible for so much. The bright spark on the team is often seeing as someone who is trying to mess with success.

There is evidence too that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

3: Suggest The Idea Is “Escalated”

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

4: Ask For A Report On It

Once you’ve written a report about an idea – it’s no longer an idea. It’s a project.

That will attract all sorts of project management attention, far too early. As soon as the Gaant chart appears it’s time to pack up and go home.

5: Ask To See The Data On It

“Data fixation” is an innovation killer. The trend towards having an evidence base for absolutely everything removes the gut instinct from your idea.  Measuring things too early means you constrain experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, the high probability even, of failure.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.

The Four Stages of Ideation

Often we think of ideas as being single events when instead they should happen in stages:

Idea Generation

Having the idea is the easy part. What separates successful innovation approaches over ‘innovation theatre’ is the latter promotes generation over action. The successful ones know know that an idea without execution remains simply that—an idea, a paper exercise, no more impactful than a passing thought.

Idea Selection

Most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Idea Deployment

We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to make available resources for prototyping and space where we can turn ideas into reality.

Idea Extermination

Your ideas might be wrong, even when your instincts are right. Knowing when to let go is vital.

Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. If ideas are allowed to live too long they can become zombie projects.

To support innovation , we need to create a climate that protects early stage ideas and become comfortable existing with ambiguity.

Rather than just being highly efficient killers our organisations need to become better at idea generation, selection, deployment AND extermination.

And if you’re really struggling to get traction for your idea why don’t you follow this advice from Helen Reynolds? Don’t tell anyone about and just do it anyway.

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Photo by Jason Abdilla on Unsplash

Lessons Learned From Five Years of Failure

Sometimes the execution of the idea doesn’t need to be the best to succeed.

In 1989 a video game designer called Gunpei Yokoi changed the world with the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy. It took gaming out of the hands of geeks and paved the way for the industry to become the most profitable and popular form of entertainment.

However the Game Boy was far from best in class. Its black and white display was made up from old technologies well past their sell by date. Gunpei called his philosophy Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. 

Withered: mature technology which is cheap and well understood.

Lateral thinking: combining these ideas and technologies in creative new ways

Innovation doesn’t actually need to be cutting edge. Rather it needs to be simple, useful and to make someone’s day that little bit easier. 

This week I was invited by Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators’ Network to outline the lessons learned from five years of Bromford Lab about making innovation simple and accessible for colleagues.

I was speaking to L&Q Futures which has been put together by Tom Way to provide people with the digital mindset and skills of modern businesses while also looking for creative ways to solve the housing crisis. The 25 people selected via a competitive process are spending 1 day per month away from their day job to learn and apply the tools and techniques being taught.

The key things I wanted to put across were:

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Think big. Start small.

Most of our organisations avoid doing things because we let them get too complicated. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing anything. If you wait for perfection before you put an idea to work, it will stall before it gets off the ground. The key for us is to assemble small teams with limited resources who are prepared to get their hands dirty.

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The idea is the driver

Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Structures that support hierarchical decision making limit opportunities for people to have influence and innovate.

We often don’t have a choice in the path our ideas take. They don’t fit within our structure charts or management meetings. You’ve got to develop a space and process that works around them and allows them to flourish. Let the idea go where it needs to go, and when.

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Don’t get distracted by Intergalactic Space Cats

Not all ideas are good ones. Some are very bad indeed. But even bad ones can prove worthwhile to look at, if only by helping to shape better alternatives.

Innovation is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

Everyone thinks that their idea is the one worthy of most attention.

Try and get the organisation to fall in love with problems rather than solutions.

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Everything is connected

People are working on the same things as us all over the world. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections, energy and the ability to fast track implementation.

The talent in our organisations is siloed. Our first task is to connect and leverage that talent and combine it with the creativity in our communities.

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Learning from failure is the measure to obsess about

Nielsen research suggests that “about two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However this is rarely acknowledged and hardly ever promoted. 

In the public sector , where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing fails. Everything is a success.

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge.

At Bromford as part of our Lab Planning we meet to talk about failure every single week. We tweak our processes to learn from it and limit it. The real learning is in our stalled concepts, not the one’s that have been successful. 

Ultimately the message I tried to give was not to overthink things, keep a wide field of vision and try to think laterally.

In many ways I think an effective innovation approach is to encourage organisations to be more childlike. As kids we learned through exploration and experimentation, not through people talking at us from a PowerPoint presentation at a team meeting.

Our organisations need to relearn how to learn, rapidly and efficiently.

Learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning always comes first.


 

This is a brief extract of the original talk – the full presentation can be seen here 

 

 

Creating The Right Culture For Innovation and Change

I’m not sure I buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation.

After all, innovation is a process consisting of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

The idea then that innovation is everyone’s job is naive at best.  Successful organisations need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time, living with two competing sets of values.

However I do believe in creating the right culture for innovation.

Indeed, for an organisation to support innovation the culture must accommodate the risk and uncertainty that accompanies it.

What kind of culture are we looking for?

For me there are four elements to this:

Just enough friction: the most effective teams have regular, intense debates. As leaders, we need to help our teams disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it. This requires a steady supply of high performing people who are committed. And if you create an environment of energy and high performance it will attract other high performers.

Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions,  calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.

The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.

These traits only happen through a commitment to creating the right conditions. These are cultures that are reinforced every day, not just by the leadership , but with active collaboration from people at every tier of the organisation.

Let’s face it – most Mission Statements and Company Values are a complete waste of time. They exist as tacked up bits of paper on a wall rather than something that sits in the hearts and minds of people.

Here are three organisations from very different industries whose values are conducive to supporting innovation:

Zappos

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Zappos , the online shoe and clothing store, are known for their unique culture and values. Their CEO Tony Hsieh has said his company’s number one priority is the company culture. “Our whole belief is that if we get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business, will just be a natural by-product of that.”

Here are the Zappos core values that are designed to be different:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  •  Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  •  Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More With Less
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble

With the call to “create fun and a little weirdness”, Zappos are making it a place that supports innovation.

Buffer

I love the culture of Buffer, a service that helps you share to social networks.  You can feel the genuine enthusiasm for the organisation from the people who work there and what they tweet and blog about.

The Buffer team has jointly decided which words define the culture and put together this list of the 10 Buffer Values and how they live them.

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What’s impressive here is that they are a continual work in progress, with all members developing them in the open.

Having dealt with Buffer on a number of occasions I can say their values are displayed both in 1:1 dealings and in their online social presence: Listen First , Then Listen More.

Bromford

(Disclosure:  I work for Bromford and have a hand in developing the DNA – but I think it’s worth sharing the story)

Imagine screwing up your mission statement , vision and values and handing it over to three colleagues to start all over again and pitch it direct to the CEO. That’s what Bromford did and it’s how they came up with their original Bromford DNA.

The latest version of the DNA though, developed under new CEO Robert Nettleton, had a completely different genesis – focusing on collaboration. Bromford held more than 30 workshops with over 500 colleagues attending and sharing their views.  After these sessions a smaller group of colleagues took part in a fusion session with Bromford Lab – and from this the final definitions of our DNA emerged.

DNA Slides

 

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The fact so many people have co-developed the DNA gives Bromford a head start in embedding the culture. When you’ve energised the early adopters, you have given the framework for the culture added impetus and traction.

Bromford have even provided colleagues with a personalised notebook for them to record their actions and barriers to consistently living the DNA.

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Supporting ideas from fruition, selecting the best ones, experimenting and growing them is a very fragile process.

All we can really do as leaders is to create a climate that supports innovation –  a climate that will help to sustain a future ready organisation over the years to come.

How To Avoid Innovation Theatre

Consistent investment, dedicated teams, proper evidencing of decisions, alignment with strategy. A simple but critical recipe for innovation in future-ready organisations – Tom Cheesewright

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is“How do you define innovation?”

This week I’ve been asked it several times so here’s a short post to recap my thoughts.

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. The mistake a lot of people are making at the moment, and hence the overuse of the word, is that they are forgetting two things:

  1. Creativity is not innovation.
  2. Continuous improvement is not innovation.

Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

  • You can bring someone in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation 
  • You can hold a one-day workshop to get your company to be more creative
  • You can get a cool space with loads of beanbags and motivational posters 
  • You can have a hack day

That’s not innovation. That’s what Steve Blank termed innovation theatre. Just for show, with no real outcome.

Innovation theatre can be of value as it can excite people and show them the possibilities. It’s fun, and fun is important. Let’s not confuse it with innovation though.

pasted image 0Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

Innovation Slide

To be innovative, we need to be good at both idea generation and idea execution.

A new idea is usually rejected or resisted by the prevailing system. Therefore ideas that are new and that could complicate or even threaten the existing way of working means creating space where we can protect them.

It also needs protection from the organisational desire to complete things quickly. All the talk about agility is somewhat misplaced. If you work in innovation or design you’ll always see a time lag from inception to implementation. Even in the best organisations, it will take months, sometimes years, for new concepts to be assimilated into the everyday culture. Many (most) never make it.

That’s why there are always questions about how innovation teams spend their time and whether it’s worthwhile. When you’re working two years into the future it’s really hard to demonstrate outcomes that fit conventional performance frameworks.

Six ways to avoid innovation theatre

  • Have a consistent way to define and measure innovation, so that it’s unambiguous in your company
  • Look for good problems rather than great ideas
  • Periodically assess the areas of your business so that you know where each stands in terms of innovation capability and capacity
  • Get senior leaders to identify and sponsor specific initiatives designed to address the key problems
  • Assemble smalls teams to work on the challenges. Use disciplined protocols to help these teams succeed.
  • Document, and track progress and share progress internally and externally

To be an innovative organisation you need to be great at defining problems, at generating ideas, at selecting and executing them, and at getting them to spread.

Innovation mostly requires a little curiosity and a lot of persistence.


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the cool graphic

The Danger Of Listening To People Who Talk A Lot

Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted personKhalil Smith

Innovation must be founded on a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve. It takes a lot longer than you think too – the bad news is that all the talk of agility is misplaced.

However, we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and being busy than on thinking. On doing things rather than solving the right problems.

Relatively few businesses place value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ doesn’t look like work. Some of my best work over the past few weeks has been thinking – but there’s precious little to show for it right now.

We default to task-oriented leadership and “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” It’s an autocratic management style from another age that emphasises completing (often needless) tasks to meet (often pointless) organisational goals.

This focus on production leads to ideas and plans which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.

It stems from school, where we are assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating. As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Very few people get promoted for asking difficult questions.  So our organisations become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

If you’re serious about solving the right problems, you need to be very good at hearing a lot of diverse opinions and seeking out some kind of essential truth.

The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot

One of the problems we face is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.

Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.

As Khalil Smith writes – when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus to the loudest person in the room. And in a group setting “airtime” — the amount of time people spend talking — is a stronger indicator of perceived influence than actual expertise.

What Is An Expert Anyway? 

The other challenge is organisations often have quite a narrow view of expertise. They rely on things like position in the hierarchy, titles and years of service. However – more expansive experience, like time spent with actual customers, tends to get over-looked.

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The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, the idea that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable, is quite a blunt way of thinking about expertise. However, I’m betting that most people regarded as experts are positioned near the top of the iceberg.

Again – we often miss addressing the right problems as we listen to the ‘expert’ or the highest paid persons opinion. Remember – we are hardwired to defer to authority and seek guidance from the hierarchy.

Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts 

We have forgotten that solitude and taking time to think have a crucial role in problem-solving.

Between a third and a half of the population of the world define themselves as introverts. They have more activity in the part of the brain involved in internal processing: problem-solving, remembering and planning. Introverts get energy from an “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and memories.

Think about that. Pretty much half the people you come across today:

  • Don’t thrive on endless meetings
  • Don’t want to solve a problem by talking about it for hours
  • Don’t enjoy brainstorming
  • Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.

Due to that inner world – introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

In the networked age the surest path to success is no longer just listening to the loud and the powerful, but widening and deepening connections with everyone.


 

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok from Pexels

Why We Need To Learn To Love Project Managers

‘There isn’t a child alive who dreams of being a project manager’ –  so said Scott Berkun.

He pointed out that project managers can unintentionally reinforce their work as (let’s be honest) dull – by trying to get everyone to pay attention to spreadsheets, specifications, PowerPoint presentations and status reports, failing to realise these are the least interesting and most bureaucratic things produced in the entire world of work.

Last year I suggested that you should never take an idea to a project management team -unless you want it to be accompanied by a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

It was said tongue in cheek, but it upset a couple of people who thought I was criticising project management.  The intention was the opposite: I was trying to show the value of controlled management – at the right time, in the right places. 

The issue is one of differing perspectives.

Exploration and implementation are completely different mindsets, never mind skillsets.

  • The purpose of project management is to predict as many dangers and problems as possible; and to plan, organise and control activities so that the project is completed as successfully as possible in spite of all the risks.
  • The purpose of innovation is to help us see beyond current convention, to counter the natural risk aversion that lies within organisations and to mobilise employees to experiment and discover new value for customers.

The behaviours this requires are fundamentally contradictory as one is about controlling risk and the other is about creating risk, usually in risk-averse environments.

Innovation tends to start with loosely defined, sometimes ill-defined objectives that gradually become clearer over months or even years. The processes used are more experimental and exploratory and don’t follow linear guidelines.

Because failure is a built-in possibility innovation teams have to fail fast and fail smart in order to move on to better options.

This is feasible in a ‘Lab type’ environment as you can control the cost and impact of failure. Whereas innovating in large projects is problematic as there are interdependencies between the components that make changes risky.

Can we combine the two approaches to get better outcomes?

At Bromford we’ve been exploring a better way to deliver change for a few years – and have now combined a broad range of colleagues with very different skill-sets all focused on one thing: solving the right problems.

You can see from our publicly accessible Trello board that the areas we are exploring are completely aligned to projects – indeed Project Managers and analysts are involved at the outset as part of innovation ‘discovery’ sessions.

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Increasingly, as work gets automated, simple problems should be eliminated. We’ll be left with the complex, messier ones – and these need a different approach to what once served us.

Traditional management models have focused almost exclusively on delivery of products and services. Newer management models, in contrast, focus primarily on the achievement of a result or the answer to a complex question.

As John Mortimer has said – maybe we need to unlearn our thinking that says, before we start doing anything, we need to define what the outcome will be, how long it will take, and what the solution will be.

Whether you are a Project Manager, Business Analyst, Designer, Researcher, Self Styled Innovator or Corporate Rebel – we have a common purpose:

Understanding problems, putting zombies down and reallocating resources to the most promising opportunities.

Everything is a project: and we are all project managers.