Sunday, December 23, 2012

Get Closer to Innovation With These 5 Questions

Project teams are formed within organizations for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s for new software, sometimes for process improvement, and sometimes the reasons are not obvious to anyone.
Once formed, there is often a management structure put into place. This usually involves higher level folks within the organization who form an ad hoc Board of Directors if you will, often called a “Steering Committee”.
One of the difficulties with this structure is that those performing the tasks on the project know more of what’s going on than the Steering Committee.
Unfortunately, this can lead to unintended consequences. There is opportunity for the project team to “steer” their governance structure towards the desired solutions by way of omitting financial cost or benefit information, restricting the scope of the project or defining it in one way or another.
The best way to overcome this potential is to make sure you are able to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter. With that in mind, if you answered “yes” to our last Treasury Café post, “Are You Sure You Want to Innovate?”, then arming yourself with the following questions can help ensure your project runs on the right track.

This blog post took over 10 hours to research and write. If you have enjoyed this post and are able, please consider a donation to the Salvation Army during this holoday season via my Online Red Kettle. Thank you!

1. How Does This Fit In With Our Other Projects and Initiatives?
Innovation is not a serial activity. While prioritization may occur, there are going to be multiple efforts going on simultaneously within your organization. The Tax area is developing a more efficient unitary calculation process, the Accounting folks are looking to enhance utilization of the ERP platform, and the Finance group is digging into forecasting.
Research reported in the May 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review ( “Managing Your Innovation Portfolio” ) suggests that your “innovation portfolio” encompass several different levels – core, incremental, and transformational – and that the percentages involved in each should be in a 70-20-10 ratio.
With awareness of other initiatives, it is possible to make sure the project is “slotted” correctly. If all you have going on are core projects, perhaps this one needs to move further afield into the incremental or transformational category.
Given that the research also indicated that the value of initiatives is inversely distributed (i.e. although only 10% of projects are transformational, they deliver 70% of the benefits), you certainly want to ensure there is something potentially transformational going on somewhere!
By viewing things from a portfolio vantage point, you might avoid the situation of the company that was in the process of outsourcing elements in one of its functions while simultaneously insourcing activities within another. Imagine how they looked to those on the outside looking in!
2. Has Anyone Experienced the Customer’s Side?
Every organizational process has a customer. It might be the company’s actual customer, or it might be an “internal customer”. Either way, much of the innovation process is to make things better for them. It might be something that is more useful to them or less costly due to efficiency improvements.
What usually seems to occur though is that people in the group talk about the customer and assume they know what they want. Others might ask customers what they want and duly note the things they say.
However, these tactics generally fail to deliver the desired outcome for two reasons.
First, customers are not always aware of the possibilities. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I asked my customers what they wanted they would say a faster horse”.
Second, human nature intervenes. Consider the following case from “The Art of Innovation” by IDEO’s Tom Kelley:
“This [Why it is not enough to ask people] is particularly true of new -to -the -world products or services. A user of a new type of remote control may not be able to recognize that it has too many buttons. Inexperienced computer users may not be able to explain that your website lacks navigational cues. And they shouldn't have to. We saw this firsthand when a software company asked us to find out how users would react to one of their new applications. We set up a few computers and observed people struggling with the program. More than a couple were having a terrible time, grimacing and sighing audibly as they fumbled with the keyboard and mouse. But in exit interviews, the software company was given a different story. Those same people swore that they had no trouble with the new application and couldn't imagine a single improvement.”
For these reasons, it is incumbent on the innovation team to observe customers, walk in their shoes, and as much as possible “get inside their skin”. If the team’s answer to your question is “short on experience and feeling” and “long on intellectual description”, an important step towards innovation might have been skipped.

This blog post took over 10 hours to research and write. If you have enjoyed this post and are able, please consider a donation to the Salvation Army during this holoday season via my Online Red Kettle. Thank you!

3. What alternatives did you consider?
The standard advice for someone who has a “pet solution” or “hidden agenda” they are seeking approval for is to provide 3 alternatives, with the favored item being in the middle between a more comprehensive item that costs a whole heckuva lot more and one that does not go far enough. We can call it the Goldilocks approach to change proposals, making the favored one appear neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right”.
However, the process of innovation is one of divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking. During the divergent phase, many options that run far afield may be examined for relevance or to generate ideas for the project from a completely different angle. Only once the many options have been generated does the process of narrowing down the field begin.
The divergent process utilizes what Dyer, Gergersen and Christensen term in their Harvard Working Knowledge article “Five Discovery Skills that Distinguish Great Innovators” as associational thinking:
“First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill that we call "associational thinking" or simply "associating." Associating happens as the brain tries to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs. It helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.”   
Thus, if our team were truly working towards an innovative solution, the list of alternatives should be long, and include items that are bizarre, tangential, or seemingly irrelevant - a strange brew of eclectic and diverse ingredients.
4. Who Was On The Team?
When considering something new, it is often useful from a morale and change management standpoint to get the involvement of those who are most affected. Folks who feel they “have a say” have a heightened sense of empowerment, which assists with engagement during the process and acceptance of the result.
However, given that there is an organizational tendency to maintain the status quo (discussed in our last post “Are You Sure You Want to Innovate” ), a project team composed solely of these individuals is somewhat akin to allowing the “inmates to run the asylum”.
Unfortunately, when this occurs, all the sacred cows remain sacred. The daring new possibilities, if they are ever even surfaced, are run under with “we tried that once” or “that won’t work here because…”. This should not be surprising. The current process was their creation, changing it implies a criticism that they were “wrong”, and truly dramatic improvements could lead to disastrous consequences, such as unemployment.
Therefore, in order to achieve a truly innovative solution, the project team must contain enough folks who feel free to run the gamut of possibilities, are unfettered by pride in the past, and will not lose out should change and innovation be implemented.
In addition, given that we need to exercise divergent, associated thinking that combines a wide variety of fields and perspective in our search for a solution, the project team should reflect an eclectic mix of folks. Someone from engineering or marketing might be just the one to bring in something from their disciplines that provides the key to closing the books faster.
5. How Did the Team Work Together?
Teams need to work together in order to achieve their objective, otherwise there would be no need to combine the efforts of individuals in the first place.
However, during the formation of a group there sometimes occurs the tendency to “get along”  and “avoid conflict” on the part of its members. If it cannot get past this “social nicety” stage, it is unlikely to be a truly productive unit.
High performing groups generally get that way by going through four stages identified by Tuckman as “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing”.  
While the “Storming” stage appears to be the exact opposite of what we want our group to be, it is a necessary prerequisite to achieving cohesiveness. It is during this stage that open communication occurs, and if the group is able to tolerate different points of view and unpleasant emotions, the “storm” can be worked through.
The result of this phase is that openness and trust are developed, and it is these traits that are critical to achieving innovation capacity. If one is not trusting, or if others are in fact untrustworthy, then the individual will withhold the more “dangerous” ideas and thoughts. However, these are exactly the ideas and thoughts that need to be contributed and put into the mix in order for something original to pop out.
In addition to this, the roles people play within the team need to be diverse. We need someone to be a Devil’s Advocate during parts of the process, or the recalcitrant idealist who is unwilling to compromise at times. These different roles need to be tolerated and appreciated and encouraged in order to achieve a robust solution.
If the team’s answer to our question is that everyone got along, and lacks vivid war-stories of crisis and conflict, then we can be fairly assured that the team did not do the work necessary to scrape away the veneer and become truly productive working together.
Key Takeaways
Leaders must be able to ask intelligent and probing questions to gain the required information that allows them to make sense of those doing work who know more than them. In the innovation context, questions about the portfolio, the customer experience, the alternatives that were generated, the team’s composition and how they worked together will generate useful insights as to whether innovation truly had a chance.
·         Which of the 5 questions is your favorite and why?
·         Do you have any stories related to these 5 questions that you can share?
·         If one more question were to be added, what would you ask?
Add to the discussion with your thoughts, comments, questions and feedback! Please share Treasury Café with others. Thank you!

This blog post took over 10 hours to research and write. If you have enjoyed this post and are able, please consider a donation to the Salvation Army during this holoday season via my Online Red Kettle. Thank you!


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