A few days at NASA hanging with some of the world’s brightest reinvigorated my innovation passion. The collaborative discussions and debate affirmed a few powerful beliefs, principally those centered upon great ideas emerge and how one can institutionalize that in one’s life. The real key is not simply addressing problems and opportunities as they arise but rather to understand as best as one can the world around you and its trends, emerging or descending, their intersection with each other and the skills you yourself and or your company or institution possess. Opportunities are then found, evaluated and developed in context, as a story, not simply a bunch of numbers. Such activities are simple in theory but not in their execution. Life is uncertain. Indeed, infecting yourself with innovation uncertainty can be a liberating thing. A dedication to truth and fact, likelihoods versus certainty and an awareness of complexity truly allow adaption and thus breakthrough innovation more often by stacking the deck, by nudging towards truth versus instead pushing for a false sense of certainty.
A Contexted, Global Education
Dedication to a global, multidisciplinary education, a passion for a better life and community and a persistent, consistent, omnipresent pursuit of the former allow one to reach epiphanies more often than not. Facts are useless in and of themselves, and a lot of facts, a lot of data are nothing other than either an indication of true complexity or a backwards revealed simplicity found all to late all to often. The talk, commentary and a then short discussion with the wonderful Dave Snowden, knowledge management expert extraordinaire, affirmed that I’ve not been nuts the last 30 years nor have my close colleague Steve Levin and my father Bernie Malofsky, an innovator way before his time doing things at Loctite in the 70’s and 80’s that today have names like “lean startup”. Dave lamented our factless society, a lack of real political and societal will to truly do good based upon a contexted, fact based reality that is never certain.
We Don’t Tell Stories Anymore
As I understood it Dave pointed out that rather than be certain, we can instead look at complexity theory and look for likelihoods and nudge our way towards increasing the odds of desired outcomes or at least understanding what was influencing outcomes in general. To do so one needs that holistic view of things and a sense of of if not a literal storybook approach to those tendencies. Dave talked not only about our factless, cloud based world where truth is scarce and influence fast and loose, but a denigrating education globally. We’ve lost that sense of culture, of stories. Even reading a book versus a kindle has seen studies prove that storied memory retention is declining not increasing, that societies overall ability to pass on and communicate ideas through stories is devolving not improving. For us, it’s even worse – false stories delivered through overt lies and sound bites is blossoming and denigrating innovation. Finally, we don’t learn through truthful stories but rather we live in a society averse to the very concept of failure.
The Fundamental Change? A Tolerance for Failure
To improve the odds of finding breakthrough, step function innovations? As Zhen Goh wrote on Snowden’s approach:
“Where systems and the environments in which they exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain – (and thus) introducing and increasing organisational tolerance for failure is more crucial than ever. This tolerance for failure is essential in ensuring the resilience of organisations.”
While seemingly obvious, what we see here centers upon a focus not on a supposedly repetitive, sold as certain systems to innovate, to adapt, but rather upon simply learning more effectively and in context. Failure is a chosen word with a highly specific connotation. Yes, there are failures, but not in the pervasive way we are taught at school and at work. As I’ve written before, Lean Startup seeks to make certain by over iteration what can never be certain. Instead, an application nudge to what we call Lean Learning recognizes the imperfections and that there is not a funnel.
First, about the traditional product development approaches. I’ve written that…
“they don’t work well for breakthroughs or for startups. In fact, they are in my opinion stunningly slow, destructive and resource devouring. Stage Gate and other processes are not seemingly iterative, do not involve learning so much and instead appear to most as a funnel of no return where these process become the goal versus delivering great products to customers effectively, efficiently and profitably.”
In fact, the very act of saying “devote 10% or 20% of your time to innovating” is indeed a pathetic statement. So you are innovative the rest of the time? Can a mind even be so divinely pragmatic? I’ll argue that these processes seek an unrealistic nirvana of eliminating risk and assuring success. It’s about fear. It’s about managing fear. It’s bad.
Our insights go deeper toward a simple recognition of complexity, a recognition of nuance and the unexpected and seemingly random (we just were not aware):
“If so, while we agree it’s great to launch and learn, as many used to put it, and find pivots, it’s not always a very smart idea at all to launch a product at all to gain insight. It’s also not always about a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) – it could be the minimum viable idea (MVI?) or concept or the elements of a concept. P&G excels at testing concepts early and often and deeply. They wrote the book if you will. Steve Jobs and Apple excelled to a new level. This stuff is not new. Effectively “infecting” the entire firm with this attitude seemingly is.”
To infect your firm, start with understanding what role your firm plays in this world and what you are really about for your customers, your followers. Do this, and insight, innovation and commercial invention will become statistically much more likely.
Coming full circle…
Accordingly, it’s that global education, that holistic understanding of our world through stories and the communication of our direction and our ideas through stories using contexted fact and logic that allow one to create an environment where better ideas can be developed by anyone in the group and it’s engaged followers. Such companies and groups – like a company, a church, a movement, a government organization like NASA – will then have a higher likelihood of traction, realized development and commercial or societal success. The engaged followers – that’s the rest of the world, that’s your customer, your influencers, your stakeholders – and even the physical world around you.
Engage your world – hear its stories and live them…
A talk yesterday by Tom Kubillius of Bally Design focused on this tactically regarding product. Tom’s stories of imaging equipment for firefighters and watching them literally not simply tell stories but to act them out with the products were powerfully revealing about what the job required versus what need improvement, revealing new opportunities not previously recognized. The alternative to simple competitive response was competitive destruction by leap frogging alternative products through improving a firefighter’s likely success and survival.
Interestingly and confirmed by Snowden and others – people lie, distort the truth or are often simply unaware of their intent or how they really do things. They don’t always tell you the real story. Get multiple viewpoints, from the observed and multiple observers under many varied circumstances. Investigate. Ask questions. Ask for step by step explanations. Video tape everything. Learn. Then pull way way back – to understand these discrepancies, these true stories, look for context. That’s where that global education kicks in. People don’t do not do things in a vacuum and its not just hyperlocal circumstance influencing them. Now the real learning happens and the bigger context emerges, the big insights seen and the big innovation happen.
How to apply this to yourself and your organization? Everyone in an organization should not only effectively rotate through an entire organization regularly but even further they should be in the field – with customers, with suppliers, with the customer’s customers. No lines, no walls, no excuses. In todays’ faster paced world, there is no alternative to this. The practice goes further. Engage the world beyond your customers to the world your customer’s live in. Don’t just hear their stories – live their lives, be a firefighter, a chef, an athlete, a builder, a pilot to the best extent that you can. Don’t just here the stories – try your best to live those stories. Learn about what you don’t know you don’t know you don’t know!
The lesson on a strategic level? Realizing what your firm really does well and what you really do for improving people’s lives – what you do for their time on this earth. Such a realization by deeply engaging all of your stakeholders, not just customers, allows for the best likely learning and direction to yourself and those who you lead. That’s the final key – strong corporate leadership must excel here.
In closing, to be persistently and consistently successful then is a poor target – the nudge, the change is subtle – we want to be MORE persistently and consistently successful. The simple word “more” removes the idea of certainty, realizes the idea that we will not always succeed or succeed as we envisioned and that we will learn along life’s journey. All we need to do to survive and hopefully thrive is to do this more of this more effectively than our competitors. Engage your world. Embrace uncertainty. Tell stories. Hear truly other’s stories. Live their stories. You’ll surprise yourself. The innovation will come. Indeed, real innovation will become quite simply a part of your daily life.