Standing on Shoulders

My father, who never wrote a line of code, taught me everything I ever needed to know about debugging when I was a teenager. It went something like this:

Me: Dad, my car won’t start.

Dad: Does the engine not crank, or not fire?

Me: It doesn’t crank at all. It’s probably the battery. I can go get a new one.

Dad: Before buying a battery, check the battery voltage.

I think, “I’ll do it because he says so, but I could just go buy a battery and be done with this.” But I don’t say that.

Me: The battery shows 12 volts. It’s probably the starter. The auto parts store has starters in stock.

Dad: Before buying a starter, connect jumper cables to the battery, connect the negative side of the cable to the negative post on the starter, and briefly touch the positive cable to the positive post on the starter to see if it cranks.

I think, “Oh, man. He’s making this take so long! I can just put a new starter in and finish up.” But I don’t say that.

Me: It cranks. I bet it’s the start solenoid.

Dad: Before buying a start solenoid, disconnect the battery, clean the corrosion from the posts and terminals, and reconnect the battery.

I think, “What a pain in the neck! I can replace the start solenoid in 10 minutes.” But I don’t say that.

I clean the battery terminals, as instructed, and the car starts. Dad just gives me a look.

I think, “Huh. That wasn’t so bad. I’m sure glad I didn’t waste my time and money replacing the battery, the starter, and the solenoid when I only needed to clean the battery terminals.” I should have said that.

Fast Forward

A few years later, in a college computer room, a classmate asked me to help him debug a misbehaving program he’d written. He began by telling me what wasn’t working. The rest went something like this:

Him: Maybe I should rewrite the calculation module.

Me: Before you rewrite the code, have you checked how you initialized the variables?

I suddenly realized I was using the seemingly slow, disciplined approach to troubleshooting my father had taught me … without ever acknowledging that he was teaching.

My father passed on April 6, 1993. I’m still learning how I benefit by unknowingly emulating him from time to time. I have a friend who acknowledges similar realizations. When it happens, he says we occasionally find ourselves wearing our parents’ clothes.

He’s right. And they’re such a perfect, comfortable fit.

Countdown to 1985

In 1985, I had a discussion with one of my professors about design projects. He suggested students are minimalists: They don’t want to work any harder than they need to. That professor didn’t know my father always encouraged me to go above and beyond and to challenge the status quo. I went to our department head, Professor Malhotra, and expressed my desire to design and build something. He supported me, somewhat hesitantly, offering me help with the design but not with the fabrication. He was kind enough to obtain a nitrocellulose-nitroglycerin cartridge and suggested I design a rocket engine around that. I got a couple of my friends excited about building a rocket-propelled model of a missile.

Our design was a foot-long steel body, with a 3.5 Mach exit gas velocity, which required a convergent-divergent supersonic nozzle. The cartridge would burn for less than a second and propel the model more than three miles. In the first design discussion with the faculty, they asked us to cut down the range to 100 meters so we could test it within our sports grounds and not have to worry about air space violations. That made the design much simpler, and weight was no longer a consideration. We could take a mild steel rod, drill an axial hole for the cartridge, and put in the nozzle at the other end. We discovered the cartridge was 1.1″ in diameter. But the biggest drill bit in the college workshop was 1.0″. We had no money to buy anything. The college refused to buy a new drill bit. We devised a crude workaround: We stuck a small piece of wire between the drill bit and the drill chuck to hold it eccentrically*. We chose not to discuss this hack with anyone in the workshop and went to the lathe machine. We got the hole we needed.

Once the rocket was assembled, we decided to test it by holding it in a vice on the workbench inside the workshop. The test failed because there wasn’t enough charge in the igniter to create a uniform starter burn. We redesigned the ignitor and ran the test a second time. This time, the exhaust blast was powerful enough to slam the door shut 10 feet away. We were happy and excited to go to the field.

The following day, it dawned on us how lucky we were not to have been in the exhaust’s wake. The concept of personal protective equipment was alien to us back then. The news quickly spread about a successful lab test. Younger students gravitated to the toy, and we had to start securing our assets at the end of every day. The professors were excited as well.

We built a small portable launch pad, redid the range/height calculation, and tested it in the field. This time we all stood far enough away. The first attempt was a vertical launch. The model rose to the estimated height, fell back, and broke the nose cone and the stabilizing fins. With a new set of parts, our next launch was at a 45o angle for maximum range. We hit the 10 x 10 meter target, 110 meters away.

We all learned a lot — creativity, agility, persistence, teamwork, limitations, and the power of clearly defined objectives. Our teammate, Dr. Jatinder Singh, now heads a division of National Aerospace Labs in India. Another team member, Group Captain Aurobindo Handa, heads the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board in India.

Update in 2021

Tejinder Jindal, a leading professor at the department, invited me to visit him in November of 2021. I accepted the invitation. To my surprise, the missile project was still in the department. We quickly pulled it out, cleaned it up, and played around with it a little. I remembered having taken a picture of me kissing it when we first built it. So, I did that again.

Did the university keep the project to inspire students? I hope so. Were they too lazy to throw it away? That doesn’t seem likely. But I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that I was thrilled to see it.

How often do you come across a school that’s preserved a student project — a piece of its work and intellectual history for 36 years and counting?

The moral of the story is this: Ideas are necessary, but not sufficient. Execution is what makes the difference. Every time I see SpaceX and Elon Musk, I think, “Now that’s the real deal. I was only making toys.”

* Please don’t try this at home or in your workplace.

Innovation Theater: Part Two

In the first post in this series, I wrote this:

If you wait until you realize you need to innovate, if you treat innovation like a once-in-a-while thing — if you wait until you need it to make sure innovation is systemic, systematic, and sustainable — it’s too late.

And I shared a half-dozen red flags signalling the reality (if not the finality) that too late is presenting a clear and present danger. As luck (or the lack thereof) would have it, Inc. published an article this past Saturday with this as its headline: “Peloton Proves You Can’t Keep Up by Cutting Corners”. The crux of the article is this:

Peloton just announced that it is halting the production of its bikes in [sic] treadmills due to the brand’s dying demand. And not surprisingly so. The indoor bike brand had put at-home indoor cycling on the map with its cult-like following of around 5.9 million members, generating a quarterly revenue of $937 million. It did an incredible job of building a market, but at some point, it stopped working to give consumers what they wanted … Instead of optimizing and improving upon its products, it rested on its laurels and sent potential customers into the arms of its competitors.

The brand’s dying demand. Ouch!

The Long Haul

In a brutally ironic twist, Peloton seems to have failed to do what it’s manically animated and overly caffeinated live-streaming instructors screamed over its mind-numbing, ear-drum-shattering music at its customers to do: Keep pedaling.

Flashes in pans stop pedaling. They engage in innovation theater. They talk the talk without ever walking the walk. And they certainly don’t pedal. Conversely, companies that know success is measured over the long haul, never stop pedaling. They never stop thinking, trying, anticipating, listening, experimenting, learning, and creating. They never stop innovating. They know if they stop, the end may not be in sight. But it’s just over the crest of the next climb.

Only time will tell if it’s too late for Peloton. Perhaps they can add the features their customers and prospects want. Perhaps they can pivot and sell their products as a new line of clothes-drying racks or resting places for dirty laundry that hasn’t yet found its way to the washing machine or the dry cleaner. Maybe they can sell off existing inventory for spare parts. I don’t know. If it’s not too late already, I hope they get it figured out before it is.

It they don’t, it’s a fast, painful way down from the top.

The Show’s Over. Let’s Get to Work.

Don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Do it. And let the market determine the value of what you’ve done.

Now that we have that out of the way …

Innovation isn’t a short-term act. It’s a long-term strategic commitment. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) started publishing a list of innovative companies in 2005. When looking at the 50 most innovative companies in 2021, BCG reported 18 of them as being new; that is, they weren’t in the top 50 last year. But 13 of them had been in the top 50 since 2005, most of them several times.

For perennial top innovators, innovation is not a theatrical exercise to convince employees, stockholders, or markets of their efforts. Rather, they’ve made deliberate strategic decisions to invest annually in innovation. And it paid off. As a result companies like Apple, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and Cisco are household names and recognized industry leaders.

Survey Says …

So, are you producing innovation theater, or are you committed to establishing a leadership position? To determine your readiness, answer the following questions candidly:

  • Strategy: Is leveraging innovation to develop value-producing products, services, or business models a part of your business strategy?
  • Leadership: Do you have a senior leader capable of and focused on innovation?
  • Funding: Are you investing a percentage of annual revenue in innovation?
  • Culture: Have you cultivated and encouraged an innovative mindset? Are new ideas captured and researched? Are failures recognized as necessary and instructive steps to success?
  • Framework: Do you have a consistent discipline and a documented methodology for innovation? Are ideas and projects regularly reviewed against appropriate metrics?
  • Results: What percentage of your revenue derive from the sale of products, services, or business models developed in the last three years?

If you don’t like your answers to those questions, or even if you do but you want an outside perspective, that’s why we’re here.

We help our customers achieve systemic, systematic, and sustainable innovation.

Good to Great to … What?

In 2001, Jim Collins published Good to Great, noting discipline in three areas —people, thought, and action — were the most significant factors in determining a company’s ability to achieve greatness. Collins argues companies need to define a narrowly focused objective, based on a core competency, and focus all their resources accordingly. He warns that straying too far from established strengths is inimical to attaining greatness.

That was then.

The 21st century is characterized by converging technologies and multi-generational workforces. Companies that didn’t exist in the 20th century have beaten market predictions and financial projections. What can we add to Collins’ wisdom to achieve success now?

Start With Leadership

Collins defines Level 5 leaders as combining personal humility with an indomitable will. But their ambition is directed toward fulfilling the organization’s purpose, not inflating their egos. In the 21st century, those kinds of leaders will recognize systemic, systematic, and sustainable innovation as a necessity. They’ll also recognize that inflating their egos will take their companies the way of Blockbuster, Kodak, and other companies that failed develop new products and services in response to changing technologies, flagging sales, and diminishing market share.

Given the realities of the 21st century, Good to Great still has relevance. But great will no longer cut it. The ever-increasing paces of technological change, consumer demand, communication devices and media, products, services, business models, and markets make reactiveness — adapting from behind — wholly inadequate. Leaders in the 21stcentury are creating the future, or they’re consigning themselves and their organizations to the past.

Follow With Discipline

In Good to Great, Collins asserts a culture of discipline shouldn’t be confused with a strict authoritarian environment. Rather, Collins suggests managers and staff members should driven by an unrelenting inner sense of determination. In this culture, each individual functions as an entrepreneur, with a deeply rooted personal investment in his own work and the company’s success. All team members are afforded the degree of personal empowerment and latitude necessary to ensure they’ll be able to go to unprecedented lengths to achieve the company’s objectives. And that discipline becomes a key to innovation in the 21st century.

In the 20th century, businesses depended on technology to increase efficiency, reduce overhead, and maximize competitive advantage. But Collins cautions that companies shouldn’t regard technology as a panacea for all that ails them, especially if they select technologies conducive strictly to their established offerings. In that sense, again, great won’t get it done. Instead, strategic innovation — supported by initiative, investment, development, management, and marketing — is a must.

Then Add Relentlessness

The most telling characteristic of Collins’ 20th century perspective is that he believed the implications of business decisions and activities accumulate incrementally. More pointedly, he couldn’t foresee the 21st century reality that success or failure often occur suddenly. Because they do, a pipeline of new products, services, business models, and markets must be kept full. And that pipeline can only be kept full by relentless innovation.

That means innovation has to be a matter of strategy, of mindset and culture, of policy, people, and processes. It must cascade from leadership through every level of the organization. It must embrace failure and learning. It must be characterized by responsibility with commensurate decision-making authority. Finally, innovation must be systemic, systematic, and sustainable.

In other words, companies in the 21st century must aspire to go from good to great to resilient.

Innovation Theater: Part One

burlesque (noun): any ludicrous parody or grotesque caricature

I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, Dude. Characterizing innovation theater as burlesque is a little over the top, no?” In truth, it depends what the stakes are. Consider:

Innovation theater is anything that signals something innovative is going on. It’s not. And the louder the fanfare, the greater the hoopla, and the more numerous the press releases, the less likely it is that anything at all is actually going on.

The term, innovation theater, was coined by Steve Blank in 2015. It can be fairly characterized as burlesque because it’s a ludicrous exercise with potentially grotesque consequences — like going out of business.

Thirsty?

When Sylvester Stallone was shooting Rambo III in Thailand, cast and crew members were reportedly dropping like flies from dehydration and heat exhaustion. Stallone said it was so hot that by the time you realized you were thirsty, it was too late. The same can be said of innovation: If you wait until you realize you need to innovate, if you treat innovation like a once-in-a-while thing — if you wait until you need it to make sure innovation is systemic, systematic, and sustainable — it’s too late.

How do you know if you’re thirsty? Here are some symptoms:

  • Revenues are down
  • Market share is shrinking
  • You’re selling nice-to-haves instead of need-to-haves
  • You don’t have a process by which all your employees can contribute ideas
  • You don’t have a framework in which those ideas can be vetted, qualified, capitalized, and brought to market
  • The lion’s share of your revenue isn’t being generated by products or services developed within the last three years.

A Rose by Any Other Name …

You might not think engaging in innovation theater is tantamount to burlesque. But it’s a safe bet your soon-to-be-former customers do. It’s a safe bet your shareholders, who are no longer getting returns on their investments do. And it’s an equally safe bet your frustrated employees — the ones who are brimming with unexpressed ideas and unrealized opportunities — are thinking there’s something grotesque about it, too.

If you’re engaged in innovation theater — if you’re going through the motions, spouting the jargon, and checking the virtue-signal boxes — it may not be the end. But it’s the beginning of the end.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Why Do It?

Granting the generality and universality of the question in the title, I have a very specific answer:

I participate in a weekly group ride with other cyclists. In the winter, we generally ride mountain bikes, equipped with lights, in the woods of New England if conditions allow for it. Winter mountain biking in the dark may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but with the wind chill one experiences on a road bike, the woods offer shelter. And the shorter days make lights necessary. Sometimes, the snow gets too deep to allow for a trail ride, but usually the trails get somewhat cleared by hikers and the occasional thaw.

On a recent ride, we rode dirt roads that had been plowed because the snow on the trails was too deep. It turned out the dirt roads were possibly as challenging as the woods, because — while they’d been plowed — there was a thin sheet of ice in various places where melted snow had refrozen.

I’ve done this weekly ride for a while now and though I can dread it, especially in the winter with the cold and the hazards of riding in the woods with lights, when I’m done, I’m always glad I went. It became clear to me after my most recent ride why.

Clarity

The day had been a regular workday. Like many, I now work from home. I conducted and/or participated in many videoconference calls. I sorted, wrote, and responded to numerous emails. I prepared and edited numerous documents, spreadsheets, etc. All that work stuff and its implications began to build up in my head. On top of that, since I was at home, I had limited in-person human interaction. The office walls began to close in, and I developed a good case of cabin fever.

The mindful challenge of keeping the bike upright, struggling to keep up with the group, avoiding the occasional car, navigating, adjusting the headlight, staying warm, but also shedding a layer to avoid sweating, etc., makes all the frustrations of the day go away. Of course, I don’t recognize this as it’s happening. Throughout the ride, I’m just focused on all that survival stuff. Although it feels like survival, it’s just trying not to fall with an audience.

At the end of the ride, without previous mention of it, we set up our folding chairs and share beverages and snacks. Last night we had hot chocolate and brownies. The conversation has no agenda. We generally talk about the ride, the conditions, the pace, any unusual challenges. The conversation can go anywhere, but unlike all the earlier videoconferences, nothing must be achieved. With the same lack of planning that went into starting the gathering, we all seem to know when it’s time to go. We all pack up and say goodbye until next week.

Purpose

The next morning, I was sitting at my desk with a full calendar of calls, lots of unread email, and several overdue tasks. But they all seemed less daunting. I was ready to attack it all with new energy. I’m not always the most self-aware person, but I put it together that this weekly refresh is helping me to maintain some form of mental health. I’ll probably still dread the ride occasionally, but at least now I’ve defined the purpose and have a better understanding of why I do it.

The point of my previous post on mountain biking was to link innovation to confidence developed through challenge, success, failure, and incremental gain. The point of this one is to understand your purpose.

Once you discover your purpose, you’ll be out of the woods.

Why Not Start with Why Not?

In 2009, Simon Sinek published a book: Start With Why. Given its practical rationale for establishing your purpose, it became a bestseller. But purpose is only one aspect of innovation. Since true innovators question things more than they comment on them, they typically start with this question: Why not?

Think about it: Tough research problems have been solved and challenging customer engagements have been resolved by trying new things and asking probing questions: “Have we ever tried that?” What if we try this?” “What would happen if we tried this other thing?” Determining your purpose will tell you why you’re doing something. But it’s not likely to help you determine how to get it done.

Along the Same Lines

A few other notable folks have thought the same way. Here are just a few:

The common question that gets asked in business is,  “Why?” That’s a good question, but an equally valid question is, “Why not?” (Jeff Bezos)

You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Others have seen what is and asked, “Why?” I have seen what could be and asked, “Why not?” (Pablo Picasso)

Why not invest your assets in the companies you really like? As Mae West said, ‘Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” (Warren Buffett)

Why pay a dollar for a bookmark? Why not use the dollar for a bookmark? (Steven Spielberg)

I remember my dad asking me one time, “Why not you, Russ?” You know, why not me? Why not me in the Super Bowl?” (Russell Wilson)

A Picture is Worth …

As a consumer, you buy products you believe provide the best value, don’t you? In contrast, you don’t wonder why the founders of the businesses that produce those products went into business in the first place, do you? Apple products sell because they perform the way their buyers expect them to and the value those buyers derive from them, not because of why Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs went into business. On the other side of the coin, however, business leaders with strong purposes (why) align their employees with those purposes and create products and services that create demand, resulting in market share, incremental revenue, and growth.

All of that creates a complement to Simon Sinek’s golden circle. In the golden circle, the purpose (why?) can be exploited. In the green circle, (why not), the purpose — its implications, its possibilities, and a mindset conducive to innovation — can be explored.

And really, when you come right down to it, why not start with why not?

I Wonder

Years ago, returning from a Sunday afternoon outing with some friends in their station wagon, I said, “I can’t believe the weekend’s ending. Tomorrow’s Monday already.”

The three-year-old daughter of my friends called to her father from the wayback, “Daddy, where do the days of the week live?”

That remains my all-time favorite question, as profound as it is full of the singular wonder of children.

Her dad replied softly, “I don’t know, Sweetheart.” Her mother and I pondered the joy and genius of the question.

It’s ironic: In business, we’re compelled to talk, to write, to read, and to hear about innovation, invention, and ingenuity. We’re bombarded with superlatives — biggest, fastest, greatest, best. But none of it contains the sense of wonder that make such expressions genuine, credible, persuasive, and contagious. Why do we settle so?

Why do we bind ourselves to futures of unconvincing rhetoric and going through motions? Is it really that difficult to find reasons to marvel — to find opportunities to refresh, re-invent, and re-invest in our joy and genius? The answer is no … but there needs to be purposeful deliberateness about the effort to retain perspectives of wonder.

In 2005, Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s, was the subject of a feature in Fortune Small Business. Orfalea said this, in part:

It’s pretty popular among chief executives to … get to the office at 7 a.m., eat lunch at their desks, and don’t leave until well into the evening … When do they ever have time to sit back and think? Or wander or wonder? … leaving headquarters got me away from the mundane, daily grind that left no space for insight, inspiration, or innovation. Instead of “chief executive,” I preferred the title of “chief wanderer.”

Wonder and wander. That’s what children do. It’s what their natures compel them to do — untainted; uninhibited; not yet self-conscious; not yet aware of being judged or conditioned to being criticized; not aware of limitations, imposed by the predispositions of others, that translate into self-limiting insecurity and lack of faith. The world is the playground of their curiosity. And their curiosity is boundless. What happened to ours?

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

When’s the last time we sought to marvel? When were we last mindful of finding at least one thing that struck us as full of wonder? What would it take to amaze us? If we don’t know, we have to find it. If we do know, and we can’t find it in what we’re doing now, we have to make a change.

Exceptions prove rules, and rules were made to be broken. Do something different. Do one thing — anything — differently. It might be your last chance. You can’t know till you try.

As an added bonus, you just might discover where the days of the week live.

Deliberate Innovation: Part Four

The previous posts in this series (here, here, and here) covered the concept of innovation as a single comprehensive system. We’ve now reached the point at which we can discuss the results your organization can generate from that system and from the ability to innovate consistently. In the context of that discussion, we can also identify particular types of organizations — depending on their innovative predilections and proficiencies — and map them out like this:

  • Happy Observer. For whatever reasons — and regardless of any success they might have achieved in the past — companies in this category lost their competitive mindsets. Some became observers, like Blackberry. Some of are gone, like Blockbuster.
  • Agile Follower. Companies in this category keep pace with market demand and successfully compete on price and time to market. They listen to their customers and benchmark themselves against their competition, working to just keep themselves afloat. They’re good at the how of what they do, and they listen to their customers for what to deliver. Most companies fall into this category; although, they might have, at one time, been market leaders with products, services, or delivery methods.
  • Smart Forecaster. This category comprises companies that anticipate market demand. They recognize their customers’ unarticulated needs, invest in competitive intelligence, and continually offer increasing value. They typically understand the what and the how but not the why.
  • Visionary Trendsetter. Companies in this category create demand. They start with why not and educate their customers on why, what, and how, thereby making competition irrelevant.
  • Resilient Presence. You can recognize companies in this category by the fact that they’re always there. They thrive and prosper, conditions and uncertainty notwithstanding. With nimble applications of innovation, talent, cash reserves, and investments, they create new products, services, business models, and market opportunities. They absorb disruption and are virtually immune to market forces.

A company’s presence in any of those categories is a choice. Not every company needs to be a Visionary Trendsetter. Not every company can become a Resilient Presence. There’s nothing wrong with being a Smart Forecaster. In fact, Smart Forecasters enjoy stability and growth with affordable risk. By the same token, placement in any of those five categories need not be static. Yes, complacency will erode your categorical characteristics. But focused effort will help to maintain or improve them.

The Future is Now

This series has presented the ways in which innovation can be deliberate — the product of systemically open minds and systematically linked processes. It’s explained that innovation embraces uncertainty by encouraging experimentation, by learning from failure, and by recognizing the associated risks and costs as the price of succeeding.

It’s suggested that a procedural framework is required in which to manage innovation from ideation to monetization — to identify opportunities, to develop markets, to evaluate talent, to determine talent gaps, to qualify ideas, to capitalize them, and to build the supporting infrastructure. And it’s pointed out that innovation is affordable and accelerated through a disciplined approach that conforms to (and exceeds) ISO 56000 innovation-management guidance. That approach answers the questions, “Why?” (the purpose), “What?” (the deliverable), and “How?” (the mindset and the corresponding processes).

Companies used to aspire to go from good to great. But the clock is ticking. Great will no longer cut it.