Innovation is a discovery process

I also enjoyed this Wall Street Journal article about innovation and Thinking Inside the Box.

Yep:

How could business leaders rate innovation as so important yet feel so dissatisfied with their own organizations’ performance? Because what they really want to know is how: How do you actually generate novel ideas and do so consistently, on demand?

The article goes on to provide five suggestions for taking a different approach to innovation by taking an existing idea and doing things like removing essential elements, combining unrelated tasks, and so on. Less ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thinking.

They provide good real world examples of each. One such, under the combining unrelated tasks, was the online security measure where you have to type in the letters of a fuzzy image to prove you’re not a computer.

The unrelated task is that those images are old texts that haven’t been converted to digital format yet. So, as we all verify that we’re not computers trying to buy tickets to our favorite sporting events, we’re also helping someone digitize an old book.

Even though I found their examples interesting, I’m still skeptical that their recommendations would improve effectiveness in producing innovation on-demand.

I think there’s 20/20 hindsight bias in their observations. They key in on the innovations that work, but don’ts consider the innovations that used the same approaches and didn’t work.

What “works” isn’t obvious. Even the people who eventually get the most out of an innovation would never had guessed that they would find that value prop useful prior to its existence. The Sony Walkman is a good example:

Even Akio Morita, Sony’s chairman and the inventor of the Walkman, was surprised by the market’s enthusiastic response.

Here are the suggestions for innovation that I’d add to the authors’:

Try stuff in the real market, even on a small-scale. It doesn’t have to be perfect or refined to the level of your other products to find out if you have something. The things that I’ve worked on that have worked were not pretty in their initial stages, but they still ‘moved some numbers’ and refining them didn’t seem to improve the effectiveness.

Don’t let your biases get in the way of trying something. Let the market test it.

I’ve seen too many things that are actually working get canned because someone with political clout didn’t like it. They didn’t like it because it wasn’t their idea. Or, they didn’t feel it ‘fit with the brand’, though customers did. Or, they simply relied on poor business analysis that focused on a negative trade-off and ignored the positives.

When people have ideas, encourage them to put their money where there mouths are to try to prove it out. Reward them handsomely if it works. Encourage them to try again if it doesn’t. Understand, failure is likely and not a sign of incompetence. Good baseball players strike out much more often than they hit home runs.

Alos, read Nassim Taleb’s trilogy: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan and Antifragility.  Then read F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit. And, finally, read Russ Roberts’, The Price of Everything.

After reading these, you may see the world differently. Innovation is not a planning process, it’s a discovery process.

Good assignment

Here’s a nice assignment (via Instapundit):

If you want to introduce someone to libertarian thinking, encourage them to try this experiment. Spend a few days reading nothing but technology news. Then spend a few days reading nothing but political news. For the first few days they’ll see an exciting world of innovation and creativity where everything is getting better all the time. In the second period they’ll see a miserable world of cynicism and treachery where everything is falling apart. Then ask them to explain the difference.

– Andrew Zalotocky

If you accept this challenge, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

“Innovationism”

In a post about styrofoam, Don Boudreaux points out Diedre McCloskey’s better name for capitalism, innovationism. I couldn’t agree more. The word capitalism sterilizes what’s really happening. Innovationism captures it much better.

Steve Jobs wasn’t even Steve Jobs

I’ve been noodling on a post for a while about the effects Steve Jobs has on the business world. He’s seen as a hero and other leaders want to also be heroes. They love hearing about this guy who was so difficult, meticulous and sort-of command-and-control. It makes them think they can do it too.

But, they usually turn out to be envious goats who take the batta-batta-batta-“iPad”-swing, miss, then get fired.

The leaders of Intuit don’t want to be Steve Jobs. This is from an excellent piece in Forbes about innovation at that company.

Plenty of companies are a religion, where people take their cues from the top. Intuit is a science lab, where anything can be tested and proven incorrect. “When you have only one test, you don’t have entrepreneurs; you have politicians. When you have lots of ideas you have entrepreneurs,” says Cook.

He’s found a kindred spirit in Smith, who became CEO in 2008. “Genius and a thousand helpers are not going to solve the problems of today or tomorrow,” says Smith, 48… “There are very few Steve Jobses out there. We run small teams and lots of rapid experiments. No politics. No PowerPoints.”

I agree. I’ve seen innovation choked by politics in organizations that take their cues from the top. I’ve seen those same organizations languish and go through multiple leaders who all had the same general idea — their idea, whatever that was.

Other ideas could not get the resources even for a small test because those would take resources away from the leader’s idea. Too bad the hit rate for new ideas is so small. That’s the key insight that the leaders either don’t realize or think they can outsmart it. Or they don’t care because they’ll make a decent sum whether they produce or not.

But, I even think the Steve Jobs story as command-and-control genius is overplayed. No doubt the guy was hard-charging genius. But his greatest genius of all was opening his products to benefit from lots of small tests that would come through the iTunes and app communities.

If iPods and iPhones were just music boxes and phones, I would probably have neither. But, along with these devices, Jobs created a wide community to create stuff for them to make them more useful with minimal political drag on which apps and podcasts could be made available.

This resulted in lots of small bets placed by the thousands of developers and podcast creators and that resulted in tons of content and functions that more and more people found useful, even if it was just a handy way to kill time while standing in line at the grocery store or as a pacifier to keep me from saying truthful, but career-limiting, things in business meetings.

I bought my first iPod when I got tired of listening to the few podcasts that I followed on my computer and discovered that listening to those podcasts while exercising and traveling was something I valued. That was a start.

So, now I have both. And since then, I have found many other ways to make them useful — most of which are not produced by Apple. I have three music boxes: my library, Pandora and another app that lets me tune in radio stations. I play Words/Chess with Friends, but with Family. I ask Siri stupid questions and occasionally, it gives me a useful answer. I don’t get lost. And so on.

The key point: It was those many other things that made iPod, iPhones and iPads the success. I don’t believe any of Apple products would have been nearly the success if they only stored music and surfed the web. iPods probably would have been slightly more successful than the Nomad MP3 players if all they did was store and play music.

So, congrats Steve Jobs. You figured out how to make money off Wikipedia’s operation model and Wikipedia itself (another tool I often refer to through my Apple devices) (I wonder if there is a Wikipedia article on that?) and fool most folks into thinking it was all you.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Yeesh! Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

FitDeck is a unique deck of 56 playing cards containing illustrations and instructions describing over 50 different exercises, stretches, and movements.

These ‘no-equipment’ FitDecks contain exercises that require only your bodyweight to perform. ‘FitDeck Bodyweight’ is our flagship product in this popular series of ‘no-equipment’ FitDecks.

This idea emerged from an accident. Here’s more about that from a Shine on Yahoo! article:

It [FitDeck] is the brainchild of Phil Black, who got the idea when a card game in college turned into a push-up contest.

Based on the Shine on Yahoo! article, the FitDeck seems to be selling well. I’m a big believer in ‘boot camp’ style exercises. You can get a full body workout in a short time and they help strengthen muscles that reduce injury and aches and pains.

The biggest problem with a boot camp routine is deciding which exercises to do. If you are deciding that for yourself it’s easy to get distracted and lose focus and you end up not getting as good a workout.

That’s why classes and DVD’s are popular, because the instructor keeps you on a set, goal-oriented path. The FitDeck is another way to solve that problem.

Another product featured in the Shine article is the Knork (fork/knife combination). It’s not really a knife (wouldn’t want to slice the inside of your cheek). It’s just a fork with a beveled edge, rather than a sharp edge, to make it easier to cut through food.

I believe my brother had this same idea years ago, which is proof to the phrase that the difference between a good idea and a good business is hard work.

Coop Education

Commenter lornephi asked for my comments about these three blog posts on a cooperative education program on a piping blog.

1. Helping to Build the Next Generation

2. Cooperative Education from a Student’s Perspective

3. Cooperative Education from a Teacher’s Perspective

I think these posts deserve a read.

When we fret over test scores, we forget that nobody takes tests for a living and when we come across something we don’t know, we look it up.

It’s good to see an education program that is getting kids ready to be productive in the real world, rather than filling them with useless knowledge that they can pick up on Wikipedia whenever it strikes their fancy.

When we think about ‘fixing’ education, these types of programs are the solutions I expect to see, not more test performance nonsense. I know plenty of productive people who didn’t do so well on those tests.

When I think about the skills I use to put food on the table, I learned as many or perhaps even more useful things mowing lawns, assembling bikes for a bike shop, waiting tables and dipping ice cream than I did past a certain point in school.

Exit is more powerful than voice

In this post, I wrote about how competition and choice is important for encouraging bottom-up innovation. When we say things like “roads are socialized” we gloss over something very important. There isn’t a single road department. There are many. We have Federal highways, state highways, county roads and city roads.

Each department operates somewhat independently and tries different things to solve the problems they face. Every now and then, one happens across an improvement that works well and other road departments can choose to adopt it. That type of innovation would not happen as often if there was a single road department that pushed one set of standards.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution makes this point well in this post about how education was rebuilt in New Orleans after Katrina, when describing the source of innovation in education:

What really drives innovation, however, is not a simple substitution of private for public but a system substitution of competition for monopoly.

I agree. In the comments of his post, I suggested re-framing this in terms of the benefit to the user (edited slightly here):

It is not a simple substitution of a choice between free-to-the user public and cost-to-the-user private, but a system substitution of more choice by the user.’

We often get hung up on the public/private distinction. That doesn’t matter as much as how free the users — the direct beneficiaries — are to make a choice.

The freer the users are to choose to exit their current option if it isn’t working for them, the better.

This dynamic drives innovation. Why, you might ask? Because the freer your users are to leave you, the harder competitors will try to give your users what they want to encourage them to leave and the more honest soul-searching you may do to figure out why your users are leaving you. If you can’t figure it out, you end up going away.

My parents decided to move to exit a school district that wasn’t giving them what they wanted. That choice was much more powerful than their voice would have been had they decided to stay and try to change the direction of the school district.

So, whenever we think about why one system works and another doesn’t, maybe we should think in terms of how free users are to choose.