Is Innovation a Skill?

I’m a mountain biker. I like descending quickly on steep difficult trails. It’s exciting. When I’m doing it well, I’m making many quick decisions that can result in a mental flow in which I anticipate each obstacle, and I feel connected with the mountain and the universe in some mystical way. When I’m not doing it well, I’m still happy to be out riding with the opportunity to achieve that mental flow.

Full suspension mountain bikes, especially ones designed for downhill riding (yes, mountain bikes have use-specific design), have long-travel shocks and forks to help absorb energy while falling — no, descending — off big obstacles. Downhill bikes also have dropper seats that allow the rider to lower the seat so they can get their butt low and back over the back tire. Keeping your weight back while descending over large steep obstacles is the key to avoiding sticking your front tire on a landing and flipping over the handlebars. When I see videos of professional downhill mountain bikers going fast down steep rocky trails, I often think of the Toy Story movie in which Woody tells Buzz Lightyear he’s not flying: He’s just falling with style.

It turns out falling with style on a mountain bike takes a good bike and a lot of skill. The consequences can be significant. I always wear a full-face helmet, elbow and knee pads, and sometimes even a flak jacket. I’ve had some spectacular and many less impressive crashes. When learning to mountain bike, one of the first skills acquired, almost always the hard way, is how to crash and minimize injury. This isn’t a fancy skill. You won’t find much video of it on the Internet. It usually involves knowing you’re out of control and will crash but, at the last minute, forcing your weight left or right to crash in the dirt, rather on the rock or root. I’ve done a lot of this. Thankfully, as my other skills improve, I rely less on the how-to-crash-and-still-be-able-to-ride skill.

For me, the fun of mountain biking, especially downhill, is the skill progression and learning. At first, you’re just trying to get down the trail without injury. Over time as your skills improve, you find ways to get down the trail faster or to ride more difficult trails. If you ride the same trails often, you can experience objective skill improvement. The trail doesn’t change that much. (Within a category of use and quality, bikes are similar, too.) The big variable is rider skills. These skills are a mix of physical and mental abilities like line choice (going over or around particular obstacles, while considering the obstacle that follows), body position (left, right, front, back, high, low), speed (downhill speed is provided by seemingly unlimited gravity), how much to brake and when, on which or both wheels, and last but most significant, confidence. Confidence is a skill developed through challenge, success, and failure. The trick is to keep challenging yourself incrementally, so successes are understood, and failures aren’t catastrophic.

As we help our customers to innovate, I get to witness a similar skill progression. At first, our customers are just trying something new while not screwing things up too badly. With some incremental successes, failures, and learnings from each, confidence is developed. By continuing to challenge themselves, they begin to anticipate their obstacles and eventually use innovation to create competitive advantage and lead their industries.

Deliberate Innovation: Part Three

In our previous post, we covered the importance of identifying your purpose in any innovative endeavor. In this post, we’ll cover the reasons that the pursuit of a purpose in a competitive environment requires a process to convert ideas into value.

One of the most abused phrases in the English language is value chain. That’s because it means something different to everyone who uses it. And every undertaking can be said to have a value chain. Perhaps the most poignant example of a value chain — and of demonstrable market value — is Milton Friedman’s explanation of pencil-making. Since we discussed why? (purpose) as opposed to what? in our last post, we’ll discuss what? in this post in the context of creating a discernible value chain.

What’s Your What?

The pursuit of a purpose in a competitive environment requires a process to convert purposeful ideas into value. For that reason, what? — the processes by which ideas yield market value — can be said to constitute an innovation value chain. The chain is a series of connected steps, leading to innovative products, services, or business models that provide discernible, desirable value. These are the steps in that value chain:

  • Deep Market Insight. The first major step in structured innovation is to define a problem worth solving (market insight). The complementary step is to see what exists or is in the works to solve the problem you’ve identified (competitor insight). You may need to address regulatory hurdles as well.
  • Structured Ideation. This is the most creative and elusive step of innovation and the source of the fallacy that you can’t teach innovation, that, instead, innovators are born. But ideation isn’t science or magic. It’s an art. It requires sustained practice; permission to fail and, so, to learn; a deliberate mindset from which to continuously generate ideas, good and bad. Ideas aren’t random occurrences: They’re triggered intentionally by intellectual stimuli. We can create stimulating environments and exercises to deliberately generate ideas. In addition to serving pre-defined objectives, ideation sessions can lead to new products, services, business models, and markets.
  • Concept Qualification. After qualifying some ideas by various criteria, you’ll get to the stage of assessing their worth. Ask these four questions before investing any resources in them: (1) Do they add value to a customer, a user, a consumer, and/or society?  (2) Can you deliver them profitably? (3) Do they fit your purpose and your ethical standards? (4) Are they legally compliant?
  • Creative Execution. Most organizations have stable project management and gated processes to mitigate execution risk. The ability to learn and adapt is the key to successful innovation. A balanced portfolio approach can provide stability and growth. Successful outcomes require making assumptions at each step, validating them at next steps, going back if required, and building on new learnings to conclude each initiative.

As you create your processes in answering what?, you also define how? — that is, you create the mechanism by which you produce value through the innovation value chain.

What’s Next?

Having come this far — and by having combined why? what? and how? — we come to see innovation as a single comprehensive system. We also come to see we’ve developed the skills to innovate consistently.

In our next post, we’ll show the results your organization can generate from that system and from consistent innovation.

See you then.

The Business Lessons of Literature

For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath)

Like so many other inexplicable occurrences in my life, I somehow managed to get through an education in English Literature without reading The Grapes of Wrath. Is that more or less inexplicable than the fact that I also got through that same education without reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which is now my favorite novel? You decide.

Passages like the one above remind me, yet again, why some works endure in our literary canon, while others are relegated to remainder bins and the shelves of airport book stores. They teach us. Unfailingly, if we’re willing to learn, they teach us. Even as they remind us about courage, strength, self-faith, perseverance, and transcendence — what they teach is entirely up to us.

To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing. (Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death)

The business idea, like the literary idea, is an expression, a creative one. It must be. No one creates a business to be ordinary. No one creates a business to be lost in the herd. Every business is an extension of personality, of intent, of will, of hope. Businesses can’t be sustained by ego. But their creation is the product of ego, as well as of intellect, imagination, and emotion. And ego remains an aspect of differentiation. The sum of any business’s differentiators is its brand.

We do live in an age that forgives nothing — in a business and political climate that disdains individualism. We deny the reality of winners and losers. We think fairness, equality, and social justice are legislative products. They are not. We believe they can and should be mandated. They cannot. The history of our species teaches us that. But Utopian dreams die hard. Centralize, homogenize, patronize, organize — huddle the masses, redistribute the wealth, lower the denominators, and all will be right with the world. Such are the circumstances under which the act of creation becomes one of danger. And so it goes, until …

If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality. (Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer)

There it is — the miracle of personality — the single and singularly profound miracle that gives us literature and businesses.

In the light of that miracle, the only meaningful questions are these: How do I express this? How do I create that? Why must I? The only answer is this: personality. You’re driven to create or you’re not. Either way is an accident of personality.

Everyone needs to make a living. Most of us would rather be financially comfortable than not. But make no mistake: No one who creates a work of literature or founds a successful business to fulfill a dream does it for the money.

People who create literature do it to share — ideas, observations, truths. People who create businesses do it to share — ideas, opportunities, rewards. Like literature, good businesses create environments for learning, for interpreting, for growing, for giving people — who may not have the need to create — a chance to discover the miracles of their own personalities.

Great ideas come into the world as quietly as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, among the uproar of empires and nations, the faint fluttering of wings, the gentle stirrings of life and hope. Some will say this hope lies in a nation; others in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. Each and every one, on the foundations of their own suffering and joy builds for all. (Albert Camus)