Author Archives: Robyn Bolton

About Robyn Bolton

Robyn M. Bolton works with leaders of mid and large sized companies to use innovation to repeatably and sustainably grow their businesses.

99.7% of Innovation Processes Miss These 3 Essential Steps

99.7% of Innovation Processes Miss These 3 Essential Steps

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Congratulations! You developed and are using a best-in-class Innovation Process.

You start by talking to consumers, studying mega-trends, and scanning the globe for emerging technologies and disruptive offerings.

Once you find a problem and fall in love with it, you start dreaming and designing possible solutions. You imagine what could be, focused on creating as many ideas as possible. Then you shift to quality, prioritizing ideas that fit the company’s strategy and are potentially desirable, viable, and feasible.

With prioritized ideas in hand, you start iterating, an ongoing cycle of prototyping and testing until you confidently home in on a solution that consumers desire, is technically feasible, and financially viable.

But you don’t stop there! You know that ideas are easily copied by innovative business models are the source of lasting competitive advantage, so you think broadly and identify financial, operational, and strategic assumptions before testing each one like the innovation scientist you are.

If (and when) a solution survives all the phases and stage gates and emerges triumphant from the narrow end of the innovation process, there is a grand celebration. Because now, finally, it is ready to go to market and delight customers.

Right?

Wrong.

The solution’s journey has only just begun.

What lies ahead can be far more threatening and destructive than what lies behind.

Unless you planned for it by including these three steps in your innovation process.

1. Partnership with Sales

During testing, you ask consumers to give feedback on solutions. But do you ask Sales?

Salespeople spend most of their time outside the office and in stores, talking to customers (e.g., retailers, procurement), consumers, and users. They see and hear what competitors are doing, what is working, and what isn’t. And they will share all of this with you if you ask.

When I ask why innovation processes don’t include Sales, I hear two things (1) “it’s too early to talk to Sales” and (2) “they always tell us the same thing – it’s too expensive.”

First, if you have a concept (or two or three) with a 50/50 shot of going to market, call a few Salespeople and ask for their reactions. Nothing formal, no meeting required—just a gut reaction. And once you get that, ask when they’d like to talk again because their perspective is essential.

Second, “too expensive” should never be the end of the conversation. It’s one piece of feedback, ask follow-up questions to understand why it’s too expensive, then ask, “What else?”  There’s always more, and some of it is useful. Plus, better to hear it now than months or years from now at the launch announcement.

2. Relay with Operations

Most companies have a process between the end of the innovation process and shipping the new offering. It’s where sourcing, manufacturing, shipping, inventory management, contracting, and many other crucial and practical decisions and plans are made.

Also, at most companies, the “transition” from the innovation process to the operational process is akin to chucking something over a wall. “Here you go,” Innovation seems to say, “we proved this will be a big business. Now go make it happen!”

Unfortunately, Supply Chain, Manufacturing, and everyone else affected usually stand on the other side of the wall, solution in hand, mouth agape, eyes wide, thinking, “Huh?”

Instead of an abrupt hand-off, the Innovation Process needs to identify when the relay-style hand-off starts, and Innovation and Operations run side-by-side, developing, adjusting, and honing the solution.

3. Hand-off to the Core Business

The hand-off to the Core Business is the most precarious of all moments for an innovation. The moment it leaves the Innovation team’s warm, nurturing, and forgiving nest and moves into the performance-driven reality of the Core Business.

The Core Business knows why it was added to the P&L, but they don’t understand how it came to be or why it is the way it is. And they definitely don’t love it as much as you do. All they see is a tiny, odd thing that requires lots of their already scarce resources to become something worthwhile.

Instead of depositing beloved solutions on the Core Business’ doorstep like an unwanted orphan, Innovation Process should ensure that the following three questions are answered and aligned to well before the hand-off occurs.

  • How material (revenue, profit) does a solution need to be to be welcomed into the Core Business?
  • Who runs the new business, and what else is on their plate?
  • What mechanisms are in place to ensure the Core Business supports the new solution during its tenuous first 1-3 years?

Create a process that creates innovation

Invention is something new.

Innovation is something new that creates value.

Innovation processes that focus solely on defining, designing, developing, and de-risking a solution run the risk of being Invention process because they result in something new but stop short of outlining how the innovation will be produced at scale, launched, scaled, and supported for years to come. You know, all those things required to create value.

BTW:

  • 99.7% isn’t an exact number. In my experience, it’s 100%. But I wanted to leave some wiggle room.
  • I am 100% guilty of forgetting these three things.
  • If you’re trying to innovate for the first time in a loooooooong time, it’s ok to focus on the front end of innovation (define, design, develop, de-risk) and tackle these three things later. But trust me, you will need to tackle them later.

Image credit: Pexels

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What Business Are You In?

(Hint: It’s Probably Not What You Think)

What Business Are You In?

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

“What business are you in?”

How do you answer this all-too-common question?

Do you name the company you work for?

The industry you’re in?

The function you perform?

Bad news, your business isn’t defined by the company, the industry, and even your function.

Good news, the business you’re in is defined by your customers.

And their definition unlocks incredible potential for innovation and growth.

The 2:00 am Answer

In my first few months as an Assistant Brand Manager at P&G, I had a truly terrifying experience. Sitting in a training session, a senior executive locked eyes with me and asked, “What is Brand Equity?”

My first thought was, “you tell me, buddy. I’m the newbie here.”  My second thought, and the one that came out of my mouth, was probably something straight out of a marketing textbook.

“Wrong!” he exclaimed. “Brand equity is what a consumer says if you wake them up from a dead sleep at 2:00 am and scream ‘What is [brand]?’ in their face.”

I don’t know what scared me more, being yelled at for being wrong or the idea that breaking and entering and screaming brand names at unsuspecting sleepers was suddenly part of my job description.

The 2:00 am Answer is the business you’re in

The 2:00 am answer applies to more than just brand equity.

It reveals the business you’re in.

Because it’s the Job-to-be-Done your customers hire you to do

As the training went on, we learned how this mantra manifests in everything a brand (or company) does – its products, pricing, packaging, distribution, and marketing.

For example, if the most important thing to you about laundry is that clothes come out of the washing machine clean, you have dozens of options and probably buy the cheapest one.

But, if you want to be sure that clothes will be immaculate after the first wash because you know your kids will wear anything, even if it has stains, which will lead the other parents to judge you, you have one option – Tide.

Why the 2:00 am Answer matters

The 2:00 am Answer also defines where you have a right to play and to win.

Sometimes this space is bigger than you expect, revealing incredible opportunities for innovation and growth.

Sometimes it’s smaller than you want, exposing a strategic misalignment between what you offer and what your customers want. This happened to LEGO and took the company to the brink of bankruptcy.

In 1998, LEGO posted its first loss in company history. To reinvigorate growth, it shifted from being in the business of Toys to being in the business of Play. This led to two decisions that, while strategically aligned with Play, almost bankrupted the company. First was the introduction of new toys specifically designed to be built in less than 10 minutes so kids could start playing quickly. The second decision took LEGO into other aspects of play – video games, amusement parks, and a TV show supported by a line of action figures.

In 2003, LEGO reported a $238M loss, and with only one profitable product line, the future was bleak. So, LEGO started talking to customers (though probably not at 2:00 am). Through the conversations, LEGO learned that its expansion into all forms of play and the prioritization of Play over creation (building) wasn’t LEGO-y in the minds of consumers. So they rejected the new offerings. Instead, people loved LEGO because it offered “creative play” – the freedom and ability to turn ideas into tangible and interactive 3D models.

LEGO listened and went “back to the brick.”  The results speak for themselves. In 2015, LEGO overtook Ferrari to become the world’s most powerful brand. In 2021, LEGO earned $8.06B in revenue, a 27% increase from the prior year.

How to get and use the 2:00 am Answer (without committing a felony)

First, get clear on the business you WANT to be in. Ask yourself and your colleagues, what do we want our customers to hire us to do? Push beyond the easy and obvious answers (usually functional Jobs to be Done). How do you want customers to feel after hiring your company (emotional Jobs to be Done)? How do you want them to be perceived (social Jobs to be Done)? What Job to be Done do you want to do uniquely well?

Second, talk to your customers one-on-one at a time and place of their choosing. Ask them why they hire your business. Again, push beyond the easy and obvious answers to understand what they want to feel and be perceived after choosing you. Ask what other options they considered and why they hired your business.

Find and close the gap. What’s the difference between what you wanted to hear and what you actually heard? If the gap is bigger than expected, how can you expand and innovate your business to grow into all the Jobs people want to hire you to do? If the gap is smaller, how can you shift or redirect efforts to grow in ways where you have permission to operate?

The 2:00 am Answer can be the key to defining, growing, and transforming your business.

Who says nothing good happens after midnight?

Image credit: Unsplash

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Back to Basics: The Innovation Alphabet

Back to Basics: The Innovation Alphabet

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

You know ALL the innovation tools and frameworks:

  • Design Thinking
  • Lean Startup
  • Disruptive Innovation

But knowing and doing are two different things.  When I first learned Jobs to be Done, it felt painfully obvious, exactly like the customer research I did for five years at P&G.  Then I had to do it (conduct a Jobs to be Done interview), and it was difficult (ok, it was a disaster).

And teaching others to do it is a third entirely different thing.  Because by the time you have the skills and expertise to teach others, you’ve forgotten what it was like to start from the beginning.

It’s easy to forget that before you can read a sentence, you must know how to read a word.  Before you can read a word, you must recognize a letter.

So let’s go back to basics.  Back before the methodologies.  Before the frameworks.  Before the theories.  Let’s go back to the letters and words that are Innovation’s essence.

Let’s go back to the Innovation Alphabet.

Assumptions, every innovation has them, and every innovator tests them to reduce risk

Brainstorming, a great way to get lots of ideas and maybe even some new ones

Customers, the people we innovate for

Disruptive Innovation, cheaper, lower quality products that appeal to non-consumers

Experiments, how you test assumptions and reduce risk

Fun, what innovation should be

G

Hope, it springs eternal in the heart of every innovator

Ideas, where most innovations start

Jobs to be Done, the problems people have/the progress they want to make (and the hill I will die on)

K

Leadership, the most crucial element in innovation (and often the biggest barrier)

Mistakes, how we learn, grow, and make progress

No, the start of a conversation, not the end

Opportunities, a nice term for “problem”

Problems, where all innovations should start

Quiet, what we sometimes need to think big and create something new

R

S

Team, how innovation gets done

Uncomfortable, what innovation should make you (especially if you’re a senior executive)

V

W

X

whY, the one question you can never ask enough

Zzzz, what you finally get to do when you’ve changed the world

As you can see, some letters still need words.  What should they be?

Are there better words for some letters?

Let me know in the comments!

Image credit: Unsplash

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3 Steps to a Truly Terrific Innovation Team

3 Steps to a Truly Terrific Innovation Team

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

“What had a bigger impact on the project? The process you introduced or the people on the team?”

As much as I wanted to give all the credit to my brilliant process, I had to tell the truth.

“People. It’s always people.”

The right people doing the right work in the right way at the right time can do incredible, even impossible, things. But replace any “right” in the previous sentence, and even the smallest things can feel impossible. A process can increase the odds of doing the right work in the right way, but it’s no guarantee. It’s powerless in the hands of the wrong people.

But how do you assemble the right group of people?  Start with the 3 Ts.

Type of Innovation

We’re all guilty of using ‘innovation’ to describe anything that is even a little bit new and different. And we’ve probably all been punished for it.

Finding the right people for innovation start with defining what type of innovation they will work on:

  • Incremental: updating/modifying existing offerings that serve existing customers
  • Adjacent: creating new offerings for existing customers OR re-positioning existing offerings to serve new customers
  • Radical: new offerings or business models for new customers

Different innovation types require teams to grapple with different levels of ambiguity and uncertainty.  Teams working on incremental innovations face low levels of ambiguity because they are modifying something that already exists, and they have relative certainty around cause and effect.  However, teams working on radical innovations spend months grappling with ambiguity, certain only that they don’t know what they don’t know.

Time to launch

Regardless of the type of innovation, each innovation goes through roughly the same four steps:

  1. Discover a problem to be solved
  2. Design solutions
  3. Develop and test prototypes
  4. Launch and measure

The time allotted to work through all four steps determines the pace of the team’s work and, more importantly, how stakeholders make decisions. For example, the more time you have between the project start and the expected launch, the more time you have to explore, play, create, experiment, and gather robust data to inform decisions.  But if you’re expected to go from project start to project launch in a year or less, you need to work quickly and make decisions based on available (rather than ideal) data.

Tasks to accomplish

Within each step of the innovation process are different tasks, and different people have different abilities and comfort levels with each.  This is why there is growing evidence that experience in the phase of work is more important than industry or functional expertise for startups.

There are similar data for corporate innovators. In a study of over 100,000 people, researchers identified the type and prevalence of four types of innovators every organization needs:

  1. Generators (17% of the sample): Find new problems and ideate based on their own experience.
  2. Conceptualizers (19%): Define the problem and understand it through abstract analysis, most comfortable in early phases of innovation (e.g., Discover and Design)
  3. Implementers (41%): Put solutions to work through experiments and adjustments, most comfortable in later stages of innovation (Develop and Launch)
  4. Optimizers (23%):  Systematically examine all alternatives to implement the best possible solution

Generators and Conceptualizers are most comfortable in the early stages of innovation (i.e., Discover and Design).  Implementers and Optimizers are most comfortable in the later stages (e.g., Develop and Launch).  The challenge for companies is that only 36% of employees fall into one of those two categories, and most tend to be senior managers and executives.

Taking Action

Putting high performers on innovation teams is tempting, and top talent often perceives such assignments as essential to promotion.  But no one enjoys or benefits when the work they’re doing isn’t the work they’re good at.  Instead, take time to work through the 3Ts, and you’ll assemble a truly terrific innovation team.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Forbidden Truth About Innovation

Forbidden Truth About Innovation

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

If you heard it once, you heard it a thousand times:

  • Big companies can’t innovate
  • We need to innovate before we get too big and slow
  • Startups are innovative. Big companies are dinosaurs. They can’t innovate.

And yet you persevere because you know the truth:

Big companies CAN innovate.

They CHOOSE not to.

Using Innovation to drive growth is a choice.

Just like choosing to grow through acquisition or expansion into new markets is a choice.

All those choices are complex, uncertain, and risky. In fact:

Hold on. The odds of failure are the same!

All three growth drivers have similar failure rates, but no one says, “Big companies can’t acquire things” or “Big companies can’t expand into new markets.”

We expect big companies to engage in acquisitions and market expansion.

Failed acquisitions and market expansions prove us (or at least our expectations) wrong. Because we don’t like being wrong, we study our failures so that we can change, improve, and increase our odds of success next time.

We expect big companies to fail at innovation.

In this case, failure proves us right. We love being right, so we shrug and say, “Big companies can’t innovate.”

We let big companies off the hook.

Why are our expectations so different?

Since the dawn of commerce, businesses engaged in innovation, acquisitions, and market expansion. But innovation is different from M&A and market expansion in three fundamental ways:

  1. Innovation is “new” – Even though businesses have engaged in innovation, acquisitions, and market expansion since the very earliest days of commerce, innovation only recently became a topic worthy of discussion, study, and investment. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Innovation was recognized as worthy of research and deliberate investment.
  2. Innovation starts small – Unlike acquisitions and new markets that can be easily sized and forecasted, in the early days of an innovation, it’s hard to know how big it could be.
  3. Innovation takes time – Innovation doesn’t come with a predictable launch date. Even its possible launch date is usually 3 to 5 years away, unlike acquisition closing dates that are often within a year.

What can we do about this?

We can’t change what innovation is (new, small, and slow at the start), but we can change our expectations.

  • Finish the sentence – “Big companies can’t innovate” absolves companies of the responsibility to make a good-faith effort to try to innovate by making their struggles an unavoidable consequence of their size. But it’s not inevitable, and continuing the sentence proves it. Saying “Big companies can’t innovate because…”  forces people to acknowledge the root causes of companies’ innovation struggles. In many ways, this was the great A-HA! of The Innovator’s Dilemma: Big companies can’t innovate because their focus on providing better (and more expensive) solutions to their best customers results in them ceding the low-end of the market and non-consumers to other companies.
  • Be honest – Once you’ve identified the root cause, you can choose to do something different (and get different results) or do everything the same (and get the same results). If you choose to keep doing the same things in the same ways, that’s fine. Own the decision.
  • Change your choice. Change your expectations – If you do choose to do things differently, address the root causes, and resolve the barriers, then walk the talk. Stop expecting innovation to fail and start expecting it to be as successful as your acquisition and market expansion efforts. Stop investing two people and $10 in innovation and start investing the same quantity and quality of resources as you invest and other growth efforts.
  • The first step in change is admitting that change is needed. When we accept that “big companies can’t innovate” simply because they’re big, we absolve them of their responsibility to follow through on proclamations and strategies about the importance of innovation as a strategic driver of growth.

It’s time to acknowledge that innovation (or lack thereof) is a choice and expect companies to own that choice and act and invest accordingly.

After all, would it be great to stop persevering and start innovating?

Image credit: Pixabay

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3 Steps to Find the Horse’s A** In Your Company (and Create Space for Innovation)

3 Steps to Find the Horse's A** In Your Company (and Create Space for Innovation)

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Innovation thrives within constraints.

Constraints create the need for questions, creative thinking, and experiments.

But as real as constraints are and as helpful as they can be, don’t simply accept them. Instead, question them, push on them, and explore around them.

But first, find the horse’s a**

How Ancient Rome influenced the design of the Space Shuttle

In 1974, Thiokol, an aerospace and chemical manufacturing company, won the contract to build the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the Space Shuttle. The SRBs were to be built in a factory in Utah and transported to the launch site via train.

The train route ran through a mountain tunnel that was just barely wider than the tracks.

The standard width of railroad tracks (distance between the rails or the railroad gauge) in the US is 4 feet, 8.5 inches which means that Thiokol’s engineers needed to design SRBs that could fit through a tunnel that was slightly wider than 4 feet 8.5 inches.

4 feet 8.5 inches wide is a constraint. But where did such an oddly specific constraint come from?

The designers and builders of America’s first railroads were the same people and companies that built England’s tramways. Using the existing tramways tools and equipment to build railroads was more efficient and cost-effective, so railroads ended up with the same gauge as tramways – 4 feet 8.5 inches.

The designers and builders of England’s tramways were the same businesses that, for centuries, built wagons. Wanting to use their existing tools and equipment (it was more efficient and cost-effective, after all), the wagon builders built tramways with the exact distance between the rails as wagons had between wheels – 4 feet 8.5 inches.

Wagon wheels were 4 feet 8.5 inches apart to fit into the well-worn grooves in most old European roads. The Romans built those roads, and Roman chariots made those grooves, and a horses pulled those chariots, and the width of a horses was, you guessed it, 4 feet 8.5 inches.

To recap – the width of a horses’ a** (approximately 4 feet 8.5 inches) determined the distance between wheels on the Roman chariots that wore grooves into ancient roads. Those grooves ultimately dictated the width of wagon wheels, tramways, railroad ties, a mountain tunnel, and the Space Shuttle’s SRBs.

How to find the horse’s a**

When you understand the origin of a constraint, aka find the horse’s a**, it’s easier to find ways around it or to accept and work with it. You can also suddenly understand and even anticipate people’s reactions when you challenge the constraints.

Here’s how you do it – when someone offers a constraint:

  1. Thank them for being honest with you and for helping you work more efficiently
  2. Find the horse’s a** by asking questions to understand the constraint – why it exists, what it protects, the risk of ignoring it, who enforces it, and what happened to the last person who challenged it.
  3. Find your degrees of freedom by paying attention to their answers and how they give them. Do they roll their eyes in knowing exasperation? Shrug their shoulders in resignation? Become animated and dogmatic, agitated that someone would question something so obvious?

How to use the horse’s a** to innovate

You must do all three steps because stopping short of step 3 stops creativity in its tracks.

If you stop after Step 1 (which most people do), you only know the constraint, and you’ll probably be tempted to take it as fixed. But maybe it’s not. Perhaps it’s just a habit or heuristic waiting to be challenged.

If you do all three steps, however, you learn tons of information about the constraint, how people feel about it, and the data and evidence that could nudge or even eliminate it.

At the very least, you’ll understand the horse’s a** driving your company’s decisions.

Image credit: Pixabay

Endnotes:

  1. To be very clear, the origin of the constraint is the horse’s a**. The person telling you about the constraint is NOT the horse’s a**.
  2. The truth is never as simple as the story and railroads used to come in different gauges. For a deeper dive into this “more true than not” story (and an alternative theory that it was the North’s triumph in the Civil War that influenced the design of the SRBs, click here

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Shark Tanks are the Pumpkin Spice of Innovation

Shark Tanks are the Pumpkin Spice of Innovation

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

On August 27, Pumpkin Spice season began. It was the earliest ever launch of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte and it kicked off a season in which everything from Cheerios to protein powder to dog shampoo promises the nostalgia of Grandma’s pumpkin pie.

Since its introduction in 2003, the Pumpkin Spice Latte has attracted its share of lovers and haters but, because it’s a seasonal offering, the hype fades almost as soon as it appears.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for its counterpart in corporate innovation — The Shark Tank/Hackathon/Lab Week.

It may seem unfair to declare Shark Tanks the Pumpkin Spice of corporate innovation, but consider the following:

  • They are events. There’s nothing wrong with seasonal flavors and events. After all, they create a sense of scarcity that spurs people to action and drives companies’ revenues. However, there IS a great deal wrong with believing that innovation is an event. Real innovation is not an event. It is a way of thinking and problem-solving, a habit of asking questions and seeking to do things better, and of doing the hard and unglamorous work of creating, learning, iterating, and testing required to bring innovation — something different that creates value — to life.
  • They appeal to our sense of nostalgia and connection. The smell and taste of Pumpkin Spice bring us back to simpler times, holidays with family, pie fresh and hot from the oven. Shark Tanks do the same. They remind us of the days when we believed that we could change the world (or at least fix our employers) and when we collaborated instead of competed. We feel warm fuzzies as we consume (or participate in) them, but the feelings are fleeting, and we return quickly to the real world.
  • They pretend to be something they’re not. Starbucks’ original Pumpkin Spice Latte was flavored by cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. There was no pumpkin in the Pumpkin Spice. Similarly, Shark Tanks are innovation theater — events that give people an outlet for their ideas and an opportunity to feel innovation-y for a period of time before returning to their day-to-day work. The value that is created is a temporary blip, not lasting change that delivers real business value.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If you’re serious about walking the innovation talk, Shark Tanks can be a great way to initiate and accelerate building a culture and practice of innovation. But they must be developed and deployed in a thoughtful way that is consistent with your organization’s strategy and priorities.

  • Make Shark Tanks the START of an innovation effort, not a standalone event. Clearly establish the problems or organizational priorities you want participants to solve and the on-going investment (including dedicated time) that the company will make in the winners. Allocate an Executive Sponsor who meets with the team monthly and distribute quarterly updates to the company to share winners’ progress and learnings
  • Act with courage and commitment. Go beyond the innovation warm fuzzies and encourage people to push the boundaries of “what we usually do.” Reward and highlight participants that make courageous (i.e. risky) recommendations. Pursue ideas that feel a little uncomfortable because the best way to do something new that creates value (i.e. innovate) is to actually DO something NEW.
  • Develop a portfolio of innovation structures: Just as most companies use a portfolio of tools to grow their core businesses, they need a portfolio of tools to create new businesses. Use Shark Tanks to the surface and develop core or adjacent innovation AND establish incubators and accelerators to create and test radical innovations and business models AND fund a corporate VC to scout for new technologies and start-ups that can provide instant access to new markets.

Conclusion

Whether you love or hate Pumpkin Spice Lattes you can’t deny their impact. They are, after all, Starbucks’ highest-selling seasonal offering. But it’s hard to deny that they are increasingly the subject of mocking memes and eye rolls, a sign that their days, and value, maybe limited.

(Most) innovation events, like Pumpkin Spice, have a temporary effect. But not on the bottom-line. During these events, morale, and team energy spike. But, as the excitement fades and people realize that nothing happened once the event was over, innovation becomes a meaningless buzzword, evoking eye rolls and Dilbert cartoons.

Avoid this fate by making Shark Tanks a lasting part of your innovation menu — a portfolio of tools and structures that build and sustain a culture and practice of innovation, one that creates real financial and organizational value.

Image credit: Unsplash

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Lobsters and the Wisdom of Ignoring Your Customers

Lobsters and the Wisdom of Ignoring Your Customers

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Being the smart innovator (and businessperson) you are, you know it’s important to talk to customers. You also know it’s important to listen to them.

It’s also important to ignore your customers.

(Sometimes)

Customers will tell you what the problem is. If you stay curious and ask follow-up questions (Why? and Tell me more), they’ll tell you why it’s a problem and the root cause. You should definitely listen to this information.

Customers will also tell you how to fix the problem. You should definitely ignore this information.

To understand why, let me tell you a story.

Eye Contact is a Problem

Years ago, two friends and I took a day trip to Maine. It was late in Fall, and many lobster shacks dotting the coast were closed for the season. We found one still open and settled in for lunch.

Now, I’m a reasonably adventurous eater. I’ll try almost anything once (but not try fried tarantulas). However, I have one rule – I do not want to make eye contact with my food.

Knowing that lobsters are traditionally served with their heads still attached, I braced for the inevitable. As the waitress turned to me, I placed the same order as my friends but with a tiny special request. “I’ll have the lobster, but please remove its head.”

You know that scene in movies when the record scratches, the room falls silent, and everyone stops everything they’re doing to stare at the person who made an offending comment? Yeah, that’s precisely what happened when I asked for the head to be removed.

The waitress was horrified, “Why? That’s where all the best stuff is!”

“I don’t like making eye contact with my food,” I replied.

She pursed her lips, jotted down my request, and walked away.

A short time later, our lunch was served. My friends received their lobsters as God (or the chef) intended, head still attached. Then, with great fanfare, my lobster arrived.

Its head was still attached.

But we did not make eye contact.

Placed over the lobster’s eyes were two olives, connected by a broken toothpick and attached to the lobster’s “ears” by two more toothpicks.

The chef was offended by my request to remove the lobster’s head. But, because he understood why I wanted the head removed, he created a solution that would work for both of us – lobster-sized olive sunglasses.

Are you removing the head or making sunglasses?

Customers, like me, are experts in problems. We know what the problems are, why they’re problems, and what solutions work and what don’t. So, if you ask us what we want, we’ll give you the solution we know – remove the head.

Innovators, like you and the chef, are experts in solutions. You know what’s possible, see the trade-offs, and anticipate the consequences of various choices. You also take great pride in your work and expertise, so you’re not going to give someone a sub-par solution simply because they asked for it. You’re going to provide them with olive sunglasses.

Next time you talk to customers, stay curious, ask open-ended questions, ask follow-up questions, and build a deep understanding of their problems. Then ignore their ideas and suggestions. They’ll only stand in the way of your olive sunglasses.

Image credit: Pixabay

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3 Mind-Blowing Things I Learned in Nebraska

3 Mind-Blowing Things I Learned in Nebraska

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

In the Before Times, we attended conferences to learn, make connections, and promote ourselves and our businesses. Then COVID hit, and conferences became virtual.   Although that made them easier to attend, it also made them easier to skip. Because, if we’re honest, most conferences were more about connecting and promoting than learning.

Last week, I went to one of those rare, almost mythical, conferences more focused on learning and connecting than promoting. It was fantastic! It was also in Nebraska (which is a pretty interesting place, btw).

Here are my three biggest mind-blowing takeaways from Inside Outside’s IO2022 Summit:

“Strategy is the direction you take to win in the future”

Kareen Proudian, Managing Partner at Faculty of Change

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but if you asked me to define “Strategy,” I’d respond with a long and rambling answer. Which means I can’t define “strategy.”  This admission is especially embarrassing because I have a resume littered with places where I developed, drafted, and implemented strategies, so I should have learned what the word means. But nope, I didn’t.

I suspect I’m not alone.

Asking for the definition of strategy is like asking if you must wear clothes to the office. You should know the answer. But unlike whether or not clothing is mandatory, most of us don’t know the answer, AND it’s easy to get away with never knowing the answer.

The elegant simplicity of Kareen’s definition of strategy blew my mind. It’s short, memorable, and something that most people can understand. Maybe I should share the definition with my alma maters and past employers.

“When we feel threatened, our IQ drops 50 to 70 points”

Alla Weinberg, CEO at Spoke & Wheel

When I first heard talk about Psychological Safety and Safe Spaces in today’s business world, I rolled my eyes. Hard. As a Gen X-er, I grumbled about how we didn’t need “safe spaces” when I grew up because we were tough and self-reliant, and I lamented the inevitable downfall of society caused by weak and coddled Millennials.

I was wrong.

Psychological Safety is absolutely and unquestionably essential for individuals to grow, teams to work, companies to operate and innovate, and societies to function and evolve. I’ve seen teams and businesses transform and achieve unbelievable success by discussing and living the elements they require for Psychological Safety. I’ve also seen teams and businesses fail in its absence.

These results aren’t surprising when you realize that you feel threatened when you are in a complex situation in which you cannot accurately predict the outcomes. And when you feel threatened, you are half as intelligent, effective, and creative as you are when you’re calm.

So, if you’re a manager and you’re upset that your people aren’t as intelligent, effective, or creative as they should be, it may not be their fault. It may be yours.

“Stage expertise, not industry expertise, is key to innovation success”

Sean Sheppard, Managing Partner at U+

There is deep comfort in the known. It’s why we gravitate to people like us. It’s also why companies ask job candidates and consultants about their experience in the industry and choose those with deep experience and impressive expertise. Often, there’s nothing with this question or the resulting decision.

Sometimes, it’s precisely the wrong question.

Sometimes, functional expertise is significantly more important than industry experience. After all, if you’re the hiring manager at a healthcare company looking for a Director of Finance, who would you hire – a Marketing Director from a competitor or a Finance Director from a CPG company?

That’s the case with innovation.

Decades of real-world experience (not to mention the successful launch of 100+ startups) show that successful corporate startup teams had expertise (mindsets, skillsets, executional drive) in the startup’s phase and a working knowledge of the industry rather extensive industry expertise and little to no innovation experience.

Questions are good. The right questions are better. So, the next time you’re staffing up an innovation team (or hiring a consultant), choose based on their innovation experience and willingness to learn about your industry.

Innovation happens everywhere

That’s why people from San Francisco, Austin, Washington DC, NYC, Toronto, Boston, and dozens of other places converged on Lincoln, Nebraska.

We went to see innovation in action and learn about the thriving startup community in the middle of the country. We also went to learn and connect with others committed to creating new things that create value.

Getting our minds blown was a bonus.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Three HOW MIGHT WE Alternatives That Actually Spark Creative Ideas

Three How Might We Alternatives That Actually Spark Creative Ideas

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

Q: How might we brainstorm new ideas to serve our customers better?

A: Have a brainstorming session that starts with “How Might We help customers [Job to be Done/problem]?”

If only it were that simple.

How Might We (HMW) is an incredible tool (not BS, as some would assert), but we misuse it. We focus too much on the “we” and not enough on the “might.”

Might > We

HMW was first used to prompt people to be “wildly creative while simultaneously leveraging [company’s] innate strengths.”

IDEO popularized the prompt as a way to solve “wicked problems” – problems so complex that there is no right or wrong answer.

In both of these cases, the assumption was that the word “might” would free people from the shackles of today’s thinking and constraints and give people permission to dream without fear of judgment and reality.

“We” kept ideas tethered to the reality of the company’s “innate strengths,” providing a modicum of comfort to executives worried that the session wouldn’t result in anything useful and would, therefore, be a waste of time.

We > Might

Alas, as time went on and HMW became more popular, we lost sight of its intent (prompt wildly creative thinking about wicked problems) and twisted it to our purposes.

  • We end the HMW sentence with our problems (e.g., HMW cut costs by getting more customers to use self-service tools?).
  • We use it to brainstorm solutions to things that aren’t even problems (e.g., HMW eliminate all customer service options that aren’t self-serve?)
  • We mentally replace “might” with “will” so we can emerge from brainstorming sessions with a tactical implementation plan.

How Might Can YOU Fix HMW?

If you’re not getting creative, radical, or unexpected ideas from your brainstorming sessions, you have an HMW problem.< As a result, continuing to use HMW as a tool to prompt creative, radical, or unexpected ideas is the definition of insanity. And you are not insane. Instead, mix it up. Use different words to articulate the original intent of HMW.

How would we solve this problem if the answer to every request is YES?

Innovation thrives within constraints. Brainstorming doesn’t.

Even when you tell people not to constrain themselves, even implore them to value “quantity over quality,” you still get more “safe” ideas rather than more “crazy” ideas.

Do more than tell. Make a world without constraints real. Explicitly remove all the constraints people throw at ideas by creating a world of infinite money, people, capabilities, willingness, appetite for risk, and executive support. Doing this removes the dreaded “but” because there is no “but we don’t have the money/people/capabilities” or “but management will never go for it” and creates space for “and.”

What would we ask for if we were guaranteed a YES to only ONE request?

This question is often asked at the end of a brainstorm to prioritize ideas. But it’s equally helpful to ask it at the beginning.

This question shifts our mindset from “the bosses will never say yes, so I won’t even mention it” to “the bosses will say yes to only one thing, so it better be great!”  It pulls people off the sidelines and reveals what people believe to be the most critical element of a solution.   It drives passionate engagement amongst the whole team and acts as a springboard to the next brainstorm – How Might We use (what they said yes to) to solve (customers’ Jobs to be Done/problem)?

How would we solve the problem if the answer to every request is NO?

This one is a bit risky.

Some people will throw their hands in the air, declare the exercise a waste of time and effort, and collapse into a demotivated blob of resignation.

Some people will feel free. As Seth Godin wrote about a journal that promises to reject every single person who submits an article, “The absurdity of it is the point. Submitting to them feels effortless and without a lot of drama, because you know you’re going to get rejected. So instead of becoming attached to the outcome, you can simply focus on the work.”

For others, this will summon their inner rebel, the part of themselves that wants to stick it to the man, prove the doubters wrong, and unleash a great “I told you so” upon the world. To them, “No” is the start of the conversation, not the end. It fires them up to do their best work.

Don’t invite the first group of people to the brainstorm.

Definitely invite the other two groups.

How Might Will/Do YOU Fix HMW?

If you want something different, you need to do something different.

Start your next brainstorm with a new variation on the old HMW prompt.

How do people react? Does it lead to more creative or more “safe” ideas?

How might we adjust to do even better next time?

Image credit: Pexels

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