Thursday, May 29, 2014

3 tools I find useful as an innovation catalyst

Over the last seven years, I have been doing my bit in helping my clients innovate more effectively. Their business domains varied from apparel design to aircraft design and from software product development to educational services in social sector. During this journey I ended up using a number of tools – perhaps over fifty. However, I have developed special friendship with some of the tools – primarily due to their usefulness under varied contexts. Here I would like to present 3 such tools which I find very useful in almost any context.

Weighing scale: I am a big fan of weighing scale as a metaphor. It is simple, easily accessible and provides emotion-proof feedback. You weigh the same no matter how angry you are. In contrast, a report based on an annual survey is typically neither simple, nor that easy to re-create and incorporates emotional biases. I suggest innovation dashboards and also get my clients into a dialogue on 5-levels of innovation maturity which are more like weighing scales. Not everybody in the room may agree on whether they are at level 2 or 3 on innovation maturity. However, it creates a useful discussion on what they can do next. For example, if the key challenge is that the average response time for an idea is more than a month, a discussion happens around what can be done to reduce it.

Bright-spot torch: A torch is useful in focusing the attention to a specific area. I use a special type of torch which helps me focus on bright-spots in the organization. Bright spots are things that are already working well in some corner (e.g. see how bright spot led Steve Jobs to iPod). A few weeks back I facilitated a session on writing technical white papers in a client organization. As part of the preparation I tried to gather the technical papers written by the employees in the organization in recent past. None was identified. However, when I asked the same question during the session, one hand got raised. In fact, he told us the story of how he went about preparing for the paper which everybody found useful.

Bright spots are useful because they can tell us a lot about how things work in the same cultural context. They inspire and also give direction. Bright spots are not easy to find because they typically don’t bubble up through status reports. Whether it is interesting prototypes or big bets related to specific technology trends (like cloud or humanoids), chances are high somebody in some corner is working on it or at least thinking about it. Can we zoom in there and find more about it? Perhaps the situation is scalable.

Checklist: Intuition works great when we are doing things we are familiar with. However, when we are trying to change mindset, intuition is not very helpful. Sometimes people are not used to submitting ideas, managers are not used to listening to ideas with an open mind, and senior managers are not used to participating in innovation reviews. In such situations I find checklists very helpful. I propose a checklist whether it is a challenge campaign or an innovation review or even a white paper to be written. For example, here is a sample checklist for running a challenge campaign and here is an author’s checklist for writing a white paper. My customers find it useful. In fact, I have earned some brownie points by creating a checklist for groceries which we use at home. A checklist is more helpful when intent to improve things exists. You need different set of tools to generate intent (e.g. a challenge book). It is not surprising that each chapter in our book “8 steps to innovation” has a checklist at the end.

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