Tag Archives: innovation process

Preserving Ecosystems as an Innovation Superpower

Lessons from Picasso and David Attenborough

Preserving Ecosystems as an Innovation Superpower

GUEST POST from Pete Foley

We probably all agree that the conservation of our natural world is important. Sharing the planet with other species is not only ethically and emotionally the right thing to do to, but it’s also enlightened self-interest. A healthy ecosystem helps equilibrate and stabilize our climate, while the potential of the largely untapped biochemical reservoir of the natural world has enormous potential for pharmaceuticals, medicine and hence long-term human survival.

Today I’m going to propose yet another reason why conservation is in our best interest. And not just the preservation of individual species, but also the maintenance of the complex, interactive ecosystems in which individual species exist.

Biomimicry: Nature is not only a resource for pharmaceuticals, but also an almost infinite resource for innovation that transcends virtually every field we can, or will imagine. This is not a new idea. Biomimicry, the concept of mimicking natures’ solutions to a broad range of problems, was first coined by Janine Benyus in 1997. But humans have intuitively looked to nature to help solve problems throughout history. Silk production in ancient bio-technology that co-opts the silk worm, while much of early human habitations were based on caves, a natural phenomenon. More recently, Velcro, wind turbines, and elements of bullet train design have all been attributed to innovation inspired by nature.

And Biomimicry, together with related areas such as biomechanics and bio-utilization taps into the fundamental core of what the front end of innovation is all about. Dig deep into virtually any innovation, and we’ll find it has been stolen from another source. For example, early computers reapplied punch cards from tapestry looms. The Beatles stole and blended liberally from the blues, skiffle, music hall, reggae and numerous other sources. ‘Uberization’ has created a multitude of new business from AirBNB to nanny, housecleaning or food prep services. Medical suturing was directly ‘stolen’ from embroidery, the Dyson vacuum from a sawmill, oral care calcium deposition technology was reapplied from laundry detergents, etc., etc..

Picasso – Great Artists Steal! This is also the creative process espoused by Pablo Picasso when he said ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. He ‘stole’ elements of African sculpture and blended them with ideas from contemporaries such as Cézanne to create analytical cubism. In so doing he combined existing knowledge in new ways that created a revolutionary and emergent form of art – one that asked the viewer to engage with a painting in a whole new way. Innovation incarnate!

Ecosystems as an Innovation Resource: The biological world is the biggest potential source of potential innovative ideas we have at our disposal anywhere.  Hence it is an intuitive place to go looking for ideas to solve our biggest innovation challenges. But despite many people trying to leverage this potential goldmine, including myself, it’s never really achieved its full potential. For sure, there are a few great examples, such as Velcro, bullet train flow dynamics or sharkskin surfaces. But given how long we’ve been playing in this sandbox, there are far too few successes. And of those, far too many are based on hindsight, as opposed to using nature to solve a specific challenge. Just look at virtually any article on biomimicry, and the same few success stories show up year after year.

The Resource/Source Paradox. One issue that helps explain this is that the natural world is an almost infinite repository of information. That potential creates a challenging signal to noise’ search problem. The result is enormous potential, but coupled with almost inevitably high failure rates, as we struggle to find the most useful insights

Innovation is More than Ideation: Another challenge is that innovation is not just about ideas or invention; it’s about turning those ideas into practice. In the case of biomimicry, that is particularly hard, as the technical challenge of converting natural technology into viable commercial technologies is hampered because nature works on fundamentally different design principles, and uses very different materials to us. Evolution builds at a nano scale, is highly context dependent, and is result rather than theory led. Materials are usually organic; often water based, and are grown rather than manufactured.  Very different to most conventional human engineering.

Tipping Point: But the good news is that materials science, technology, 3D printing and computational and data processing power, together with nascent AI are evolving at such a fast rate that I’m optimistic that we will soon reach a tipping point that will make search and translation of natural innovations considerably easier than today. Self-learning systems should be able to more easily replicate natural information processing, and 3D printing and nano structures should be able to better mimic the physical constructs of natural systems. AI, or at least massively increased computing power should make it easier for us to both ask the right questions and search large, complex databases.

Conservation as an Innovation Superpower: And that brings me back to conservation as an innovation superpower. If we don’t protect our natural environment, we’ll have a lot less to search, and a lot less to mimic. And that applies to ecosystems as well as individual species. Take the animal or plant out of its natural environment, and it becomes far more difficult to untangle how or why it has evolved in a certain way.

Evolution is the ultimate exploiter of serendipity. It does not have to understand why something works, it simply runs experiments until it stumbles on solutions that do, and natural selection picks the winner(s). That leads to some surprisingly sophisticated innovation. For example, we are only just starting to understand the quantum effects used in avian navigation and photosynthesis. Migratory birds don’t have deep knowledge of quantum mechanics; the beauty of evolution is that they don’t need to. The benefit to us is that we can potentially tap into sophisticated innovation at the leading edge of our theoretical knowledge, provided we know how to define problems, where to look and have sufficient knowledge to decipher it and reduce it to practice. The bad news is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Evolution tapped into quantum mechanics millennia before we knew what it was, so who knows what other innovations lie waiting to be discovered as our knowledge catches up with the nature – the ultimate experimenter.

Ecosystems Matter: But a species without the context of its ecosystem is at best half the story. Nature has solved flight, deep-water exploration, carbon sequestration, renewable energy, high and low temperature resilience and so many more challenges. And it has also done so with 100% utilization and recycling on a systems basis. But most of the underlying innovations solve very specific problems, and so require deep understanding of context.

The Zebra Conundrum: Take the zebra as an example. I was recently watching a David Attenborough documentary about zebras. As a tasty prey animal surrounded by highly efficient predators such as lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas, the zebra is an evolutionary puzzle. Why has it evolved a high contrast coat that grabs attention and makes it visible from miles away? High contrast is a fundamental visual cue that means even if a predator is not particularly hungry; it is pretty much compelled to take notice of the hapless zebra. But despite this, the zebra has done pretty well, and the planes of Africa are scattered with this very successful animal. The explanation for this has understandably been the topic of much conjecture and research, and to this day remains somewhat controversial. But more and more, the explanation is narrowing onto a surprisingly obvious culprit; the tsetse fly. When we think of the dangers to a large mammal, we automatically think of large predators. But while zebras undoubtedly prefer to avoid being eaten by lions, diseases associated with tsetse fly bites kill more of them. That means that avoiding tsetse flies likely creates stronger evolutionary pressure than avoiding lions, and that is proving to be a promising explanation for the zebras coat. Far less flies land on or bite animals with stripes.  Exactly why that is remains debatable, and theories range from disrupting the flies vision when landing, to creating mini weather fronts due to differential heating or cooling from the stripes. But whatever the mechanism ultimately turns out to be, stripes stop flies. It appears that the obvious big predators were not the answer after all.

Context Matters: But without deep understanding of the context in which the zebra evolved, this would have been very difficult to unravel. Even if we’d conserved zebras in zoos, finding the tsetse fly connection without the context of the complex African savannah would be quite challenging. It’s all too easy to enthusiastically chase an obvious cause of a problem, and so miss the real one, and our confirmation bias routinely amplifies this.

We often talk about protecting species, but if, as our technology evolves to more effectively ‘steal’ ideas from natural systems, from an innovation perspective alone, preserving context, in the form of complex ecosystems may likely turn out to be at least as important as preserving individual species. We don’t know what we don’t know, and often the surprisingly obvious and critical answer to a puzzle can only be determined by exploring a puzzle in its natural environment.

Enlightened Self-Interest. Could we use an analogy to the zebra to help control malaria? Could we steal avian navigation for gps? I have no idea, but I believe this makes pursuing conservation enlightened self-interest of the highest order. We want to save the environment for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most interesting is that one-day, some part of it could save us.

Image credit: Pixabay

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How can I create continuous innovation in my organization? – EPISODE TWO – Ask the Consultant

Live from the Innovation Studio comes EPISODE TWO of a new ‘Ask the Consultant’ series of short form videos. EPISODE TWO tackles the second most commonly asked question of me:

“How can I create continuous innovation in my organization?”

Hint: It starts with getting a copy of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire because I detail in the book how to overcome the key barriers to innovation.

Together in this episode we’ll explore how to create continuous innovation in your organization, why I wrote Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire, and how it can make a great course book for innovation courses at universities, executive education, and corporate training programs.

“Innovation is never easy — and not always welcome. This book is dedicated to the men and women who dedicate their lives to pushing our organizations to make more efficient use of our human capital and natural resources and to make the world a better place.”

Grab a great deal on Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire on Amazon while they last!

What question should I tackle in the next video episode of “Ask the Consultant” live from my innovation studio?

Contact me with your question

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Below are the previous episodes of ‘Ask the Consultant’:

  1. EPISODE ONE – What is innovation?
  2. All other episodes of Ask the Consultant

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Building an Innovation and Insights Group from Scratch

Building an Innovation and Insights Group from Scratch

Many of you reading this have created or operated innovation or insights programs for organizations of a variety of sizes, or are curious about how to go about it.

Operating an innovation program or leading an insights group is definitely much different than creating one. In some ways it is easier, because things are already in place, but inheriting processes and expectations different than your preferences can also make things more difficult.

The folks at Aperio Insights are conducting research for a large utility company doing business in several states in the United States with a focus on electricity, natural gas, renewables, and ancillary services. Their research project is looking for a variety of perspectives from practitioners with experience in setting up a more formal and centralized innovation program or insights program (or ideally both), from scratch, where ad hoc and informal efforts occurred previously.

They’re looking for people who have been there and done that, tripped over the unseen obstacles in the dark, stubbed their toes, and are willing to share their perspectives on what they wished they had never done in setting up an innovation and insights program and what they would definitely do again.

OR, if you’ve inherited leadership of an existing innovation and insights program and were magically given the opportunity to start over and set it up from scratch, how would you go about it?

To jump start the thinking of those who get paid for your advice, let’s look at what a hand-picked group of guest experts have to say on the subject:

The Tony Ulwick Perspective:

Tony UlwickWe have worked with Fortune 500 companies and other organizations over the past 26 years deploying Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI), a proven innovation process with an 86 percent success rate. From my perspective, there are 5 major barriers companies must overcome before replacing luck with predictable innovation.

Across an organization, key managers and stakeholders must:

  1. Recognize that innovation is a process.
  2. Stop executing the innovation process backwards.
  3. Stop cobbling together incompatible innovation tools and methods.
  4. Budget the time and money needed to execute the process correctly.
  5. Recognize that new market research methods are required.

— Tony Ulwick, Strategyn founder and creator of the Jobs to be Done methodology (free pdf)

The Stephen Shapiro Perspective:

Stephen ShapiroIn setting up an innovation and insights group from scratch, first want to define how you define success. What does this group hope to achieve? What issues is it addressing? What are the barriers to success?

This should drive all of the other decisions you make. Next, I would look at the process you use. The goal of any innovation group is to move from an ad hoc approach to one that is repeatable and predictable. Although most companies start with an idea-driven approach (which is ad hoc by its very nature), I encourage something I call “Challenge-Centered Innovation(TM)” Instead of asking for suggestions, ask for solutions to well-framed, important, and differentiating challenges. This fits in nicely with an insights-driven approach which looks for wants and needs in the marketplace and looks to develop solutions to address those. Beyond measures and process, one item you need to quickly address the organization model.

In general, you want a very small, centralized innovation team that helps defines the standards (e.g., measures, process, technology, etc). But the real work is pushed into the various businesses with only support from this team. Innovation should never be the domain of one group; rather it should be done where the money resides in the business. Although some capabilities can be centralized (e.g., market research), the ultimate decisions on how to use that information needs to be determined by the business. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for this and it needs to be tailored to your specific culture and needs.

— Stephen Shapiro, Speaker Hall of Fame Member and Author of Best Practices Are Stupid

The Geoff Tuff Perspective:

Geoff TuffMany corporate innovation leaders don’t have the luxury of starting an innovation and insights function “from scratch” as they’re often saddled with the inspiring (?) vision of a senior leader, a mandate to make use of resources who don’t fit in elsewhere, or the herculean task of filling a gap in a company’s growth plan which has few degrees of freedom to actually go and try something new. So on the rare occasions when this is the starting place, here are the top five things I consider strong precursors of success:

  1. Have a crystal-clear sense for your level of ambition for the group: do you exist to advance to core business, to stretch it into adjacent spaces, to disrupt its business model, so some combination of all three? And if some combination, what proportion of your time and efforts will you spend on each?
  2. Develop clear operating procedures, rights and responsibilities relative to the rest of the company, especially regarding funding and what happens to innovation initiatives when they get to various stages of development.
  3. Start with a clean playing field and, as I write about in my forthcoming book Detonate, ignore the playbooks that have made the rest of the company successful.
  4. Focus on building complementary and nontraditional sources of insight such as ethnography that will supplement but not replace the insight machine of the rest of the company.
  5. Focus on driving economic value as quickly as possible and trumpeting it when you achieve it; a few quick, high-profile wins can help broaden your playing field and deepen your funding.

— Geoff Tuff, Deloitte principal and senior leader of the Doblin practice. Author of Detonate coming May 8 (pdf)

The Braden Kelley Perspective:

Braden KelleyIt doesn’t matter whether your organization is B2B, B2C, a charity, a government entity, or all four. Every innovation and insights organization must begin with their customers in mind, and make sure that they have the buy-in of key internal organizations (their customers in this context) to pick up their outputs and turn them into new or renewed product and/or service offerings. Unless the rest of the organization converts your ideas into new sources of value for the organization or utilizes them to increase existing sources of value, then eventually your group will become the victim of budget cuts.

Equally important is the creation of a common language of innovation. This includes the creation of a definition of “innovation” for the organization, along with an innovation vision, strategy, and goals. But for it to be sustainable you must also address funding, staffing, metrics, communications, training, portfolio management, and have a clearly defined and visualized innovation process. My Infinite Innovation Infrastructure integrates all of this together:

Infinite Innovation Infrastructure

You will notice I’ve integrated my Nine Innovation Roles methodology from Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire into the Infinite Innovation Infrastructure because it is not whether any particular individual is innovative or not, but instead, everyone has a role to play in innovation.

Finally, innovation and insights in this context are very different, but yet complementary. Insights professionals typically focus on the uncovering new understandings at the intersection between customers and existing products and services, where innovation professionals are focused on uncovering new understandings about customers (and non-customers) that usually DO NOT link to existing products and services. Blending an optimization mindset with a creation mindset in the same organization can be a great challenge, and identifying where to keep things separate and where to create intentional overlap will be a balancing act as well.

— Braden Kelley, Keynote Speaker and Author of Charting Change and Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire

The Scott Anthony Perspective:

Scott AnthonyThe most critical thing the leader of a new insight and innovation group needs to consider in order to be successful is stakeholder expectations. Are stakeholders seeking insights and innovations that improve today’s business? Are they hoping to go build exciting new disruptive ventures? Or are they trying to create a more enabling culture of innovation? Those are distinctly different mandates, and a lack of clarity can lead a new leader to move in the wrong direction.

Embedded in this area is my second key success factor: understanding how leaders define innovation. At some companies innovation is broad, covering everything from day-to-day advancements to more disruptive approaches; other companies mean it to only mean the bigger, bolder stuff. Of course, we have both a broad general definition of innovation (“something different that creates value”) and specific categories of innovation. But without common definitions, it is easy for an insights and innovation leader to miss the mark.

That leads then to the third and final point: knowing the specific problems that innovation should solve. One of the mistakes people make is they think innovation should be unbounded, and that a good leader lets hundreds of flowers bloom. I’ve never seen that work; letting hundreds of flowers bloom leads to a lot of undernourished flowers. Focus is the innovator’s friend. Identifying the specific problems to solve, such as improved employee engagement, higher customer retention, experimenting with a new technology, or winning in a particular customer segment, improves the ability to innovate for impact.

— Scott Anthony, Innosight Managing Director and author of Dual Transformation (mini pdf)

Now It’s Your Turn to Share

So innovation and insight practitioners, now that you’ve heard some inspiration from five carefully selected thought leaders, it’s your turn to jump into the tactical details and share your thoughts with researchers about HOW you would build a successful innovation and insights program from a blank canvas.

But wait!

It gets better, not only will you be able to help fellow innovation and insights practitioners get their program started on the right foot, but people accepted into the research program will be PAID $250 for an hour of their brainpower.

Aperio Insights are interviewing experienced client-side innovation and research leaders to help gather ideas on how to setup an effective consumers insights and innovation team, including tactical things like how to inform the rest of the organization that this function is now in place and how to prioritize the objectives of diverse departments.

They’re looking for a mix of B2B and B2C client-side innovation and marketing research leaders for 60-minute one-on-one webcam interviews.

  • Each study participant will receive a generous honorarium $250 (Amazon e-gift card or PayPal) as a token of our appreciation
  • Not looking for your corporate secrets, just your advice and opinion
  • Evening and weekend times are available for your convenience
  • Study participants will be kept anonymous

Click here to sign up (link expired)

Insights and Innovation Study

Image credit: spanishdict.com

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