The ban on home-working at Yahoo! by its CEO, Marissa Meyer last month, resulted in a twitterstorm of indignation. Hot on her heels, Best Buy has also stopped a programme which had been introduced back in 2005 allowing employees to work when and where they chose. Both companies are in need of a pick-me-up and both cite the need for human beings to collaborate and collide as drivers of prosperity.
But simply banning home-working is a blunt instrument that risks missing the point altogether. I've seen some terrific working practices that promote innovation, efficiency and engagement amongst co-workers - whether you work from home or not.....
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Monday, 14 January 2013
Inherent in a challenge is the risk of failure. You spoke previously about risk being one of the impediments that a large organization tends to weed out of people’s daily lives. In the book, you say making ideas “real” is a practical way to help “tolerate risk.” What do you mean by making ideas real?
How many times has someone described something to you, and you formed a picture in your mind’s eye, and when they eventually produced this great, new idea you were disappointed?
Most of the time.
Our brains are complex, self-organizing systems that rely on precedence. That’s how human beings work. We build up precedence throughout our lives, and innovation is the opposite of precedence. It’s about things we could not possibly conceive of. So the less we can use the spoken word to describe something we want somebody to respond to, the better. Our ability to make it real in a scrappy, low-cost way enables someone to give us a reaction to what we just produced that’s close to how a customer might react. And from that, you can learn a lot. If you’ve still got time or money left in the budget, you can make another prototype—and then another and then another. This cycle of making things real is the cornerstone of innovation. We want to stretch out beyond the concept of prototyping. When someone says, Can you make that real for me? that might mean, Can you make it real in terms of the revenue it might generate? or Can you make it real in terms of what’s the customer experience like? Can you make it real for me? is a terrific question. And if you put “now” on the end—Can you make it real now?—you give it real urgency and supercharge the innovation process. People can’t hide behind 100-page PowerPoint presentations. They have to roll their sleeves up and mimic or create or prototype something, which inevitably drives the kind of dialogue that’s of value during the innovation process.
It’s as much an invitation as a question, isn’t it? And it leads to iterative thinking, the build on the idea.
To ask someone to help you make something real now—everyone understands what that means. If you said to somebody, Let’s make the prototype now, it’s a far more complex procedure. We’re trying to make the innovation process as simple, as enjoyable, and as human as possible.
Matt, you also write about going to the “margins of your market.” What do you mean by that? Is that the place to look for ideas or solutions?
Most of our clients talk to their customers a lot. But so do their competitors and sometimes they even use the same researchers. So they’re all eating the same food, and that is not a recipe for innovation. What’s more interesting is going to the margins, the edges, the earlier adopters. Or the rejecters, the people who are angry with you. Or the people who use your products or services in entirely unexpected and eccentric ways. These people will have something out of the ordinary to tell you. And there’s real gold in what they have to say, coupled with the fact that you’re far more likely to discover something that your competitors aren’t discovering. At ?What If!, we believe in talking to customers, but that’s only half the story. You can also find real insight from the people who are producing the products, delivering the products—it’s why the whole value chain has insight, not just the consumer.
You also make the point that the physical space around us has a big impact on the way we think and interact with each other. The space in your newly renovated Manhattan office is wide open, as one example. How did you reach these conclusions?
We’ve opened offices all around the world over the last 20 years, and we’ve experimented with how to configure desks, walls, and sofas—you name it. We’ve experimented with food. We’ve even experimented with the location of the washrooms. What we’re trying to do is not create something that’s aesthetically pleasing—that’s not the point. What we’re trying to do is create collisions between people. We think people are more productive if they can move around an environment that enables them to meet different people and use different spaces for different purposes. So if you take the tour of ouroffice today, you’ll find that, functionally, it’s well thought through. There are many different spaces with different purposes. We set a lot of store bypeople eating together, for instance, because eating is a real mood changer. You can sit down with clients or with a colleague, stop talking about work, eat a nice meal together. Suddenly, you find yourself talking about the most important thing that you didn’t talk about in the meeting. You’ve created a sidebar conversation—and as we all know, that’s where most of the great innovative discussions happen. They happen in the shower, on the way to work, on the way into the meeting, in the elevator, in the car with a colleague on the way to work. They don’t always happen at the traditional boardroom table, when you’re facing each other with an agenda, under time pressure, with a lot of people in the room.
Matt, have you always been an innovator? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do? How did you get started?
Oddly enough, my degree at university was a law degree. Which amuses my colleagues because they’re right in assuming I’d be one of the world’s worst lawyers. Then I went to work for a very large multinational for eight or nine years in various marketing and sales jobs. It was there that I developed an empathy for all these hardworking people in big organizations.They’re good souls who work so hard and want to make a difference, but they sometimes feel that window is gone from their lives. I’ve always beeninterested in working with the real heroes of innovation, the people who can make innovation happen in large corporations. It’s a far harder task than being an entrepreneur where you have nothing to lose. Innovating when you’ve got everything to lose is a noble pursuit. And I think the market we’re in is a young market. It must be how David Ogilvy felt on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. This feels like a pioneering time for innovation. The rules aren’t really written. Despite that tsunami of books you referred to at the top of our conversation, there are few real authorities. And being able to helphardworking people become heroes of innovation feels like a good thing to do with one’s career. So it’s an exciting job with a great purpose. And I genuinely enjoy Monday mornings.
Posted by Innovation at Work at 02:53
Friday, 11 January 2013
In the second chapter, you say, Why is that so important?
It’s why they choose what they choose, why they reject what they reject, why they engage in a commentary or dialogue about a brand or product. It’s important because, like it or not, many people are a bit disconnected from why they do particular things. They’ve never thought about it deeply. When you ask them, Why do you buy this brand or product? they either don’t know or they may just tell you what they think you want to hear. So one of the core skills of an innovator is to get under the skin of why people do what they do and understand some of those locked-in feelings and desires. One of the big differences between doing this kind of activity as an innovator rather than a researcher is, as an innovator, you’re constantly thinking about the outcome. You’re outcome-obsessed because innovation is entirely defined by outcomes, by something happening. Innovators are interested in insights, but only insofar as they can stimulate an idea or activity that can be brought to market and deliver value. The search for insights, why people do what they do, is particularly exciting as an innovator. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s a practical exercise.
You go on to say these insights are created by the serendipitous collision of provocative observations. I’d like you to speak to that, but I want to touch on the definition of serendipity in the book.
It’s such a nice word to say; it’s so very mellifluous. But that’s obviously not the reason I chose it. I decided to investigate what serendipity meant, and it took me on quite a journey. There’s a lot of controversy around what it means. There are two accounts. One says serendipity is about happy accidents. The other says it’s about the discovery of things by chance—but not totally by chance, because you’ve tried so many things, you’ve kissed so many frogs, that you were bound to discover something in the end. There’s an element of hard work behind this seemingly lucky concept, and it seems to me that this fits the reality of the innovator’s journey perfectly. I’ve never worked on an innovation project in 20 years that ended up exactly where anyone predicted it would.What always seems to happen is that, if we can fill ourselves with useful stimulus, pursue a clear direction, and have the kind of open, accepting behaviors within a group of people that invite a collision of ideas and insights, we’ll always end up in a place that is 10 times more exciting than where we thought we might.
Powered by, I would suggest, an acute sense of observation.
Innovators are good listeners, and they’re good observers. I don’t think they’re necessarily creative people—and certainly, in our company, we’ve never used creativity as recruitment criteria. We hire smart people who can connect the dots and have enough emotional intelligence to drive anidea through an organization. And as we know in our daily lives, there are people who are like magnets to ideas, people you want to tell things to because you feel they’re interested in you. Innovators are good at that, and they’re good at creating this magnetic field around themselves that attracts ideas and insights.
The creativity that a good innovator brings is driven, to a degree, by a comfort with ambiguity that traditional creative people have. But you’re combining two things. I never can keep it straight, right brain and left brain, but there’s the observational necessity that’s, one might argue, the science of serendipity. And then there’s the creative aspect of not worrying about what these observations mean, but having the emotional confidence to pull it all together even though you don’t know where it’s headed.
One of the things that we talk a lot about at ?What If! is the importance of being f you’re in your comfort zone, if you feel you’re exploring things that have been explored before, then, by definition, you’re not going to be innovative. It takes a certain maturity to handle working on assignments like this. We work under a lot of pressure. We have clients who are keen for an outcome, and yet we have to work at a certain pace. We have to have time to explore. We have to lookunder stones where we haven’t looked before, and we can’t guarantee we’re going to find anything under each stone. So you have to be a confident, mature person to go on a voyage of discovery, and you also have to know when to switch from an expansive way of thinking to a reductive way of thinking. Picking up on your theme about the kind of left-right brain types, we don’t call it that at ?What If! We call it expansive thinking and reductive thinking. The typical innovation process is shaped like a Christmas tree. If you can imagine, at the bottom, it has a wider space for more expansive thinking.
And it narrows in, and it goes out a bit, it narrows in, and it goes out a bit, and it narrows in, and it goes out a bit—all up to a point at the top. This is the shape of the process of innovation. We’re expanding the opportunity, and then we’re contracting it. Then we’re expanding it a bit more, then we’re contracting it a bit more—and each time we go through a cycle, we’re narrowing the options. And it takes a team of people, because I’ve never met the perfect person with this left- and right-side brain that is equally powered. It takes a team with different skill sets to navigate through an expansive and reductive process.
Matt, you’ve mentioned the pressures of time, of client demands. What are the largest impediments to success for ?What If! or any innovation consultancy? Is it time, money, and the client? Or put another way, when it doesn’t work, what typically gets in the way?
What gets in the way of our company growing or in the way of us being able to innovate brilliantly for our clients?
The latter, which might drive the former.
It may well. The biggest issue in our space is not the quality of the new ideas. It’s the ability to drive them through the client organization so they see the light of the day in all the original beauty with which they were conceived. Making things happen at work is tough, and the bigger the organization the tougher it gets. A lot of this comes down to risk. When organizations are small or when people are early in their careers, they’re more willing to take risks. As we get more senior, we develop more obligations in our lives, our careers become more important, and risk starts to taste different. And like it or not, this dynamic has a creeping impact that can affect people at a large organization in a way they don’t even realize. The presence of self-limiting beliefs in an organization are tough. When we think about how we might achieve something at work, it’s generally possible to do, but it’s equally easy to let your shoulders droop, sit back, and say, “I’ll never be able to do that here” or “That’s just not going to happen here.”
Simple resignation. Hence the need, as you put it, to battle the corporate machine. How does one do that? Is it a cultural issue, an organizational issue, a spiritual issue?
Every organization’s different, but there’s an element of each at play. The one undeniable, organic truth about any organization is that the bigger and more complex it gets, the harder it is to make something happen. There are so many moving parts. The importance of having real alignment around what you’re going for, defining that goal in a way that’s exciting and uplifting, so people feel it affects their mojo, is critical. So that people can come into work feeling excited about the challenge they’re working on. This is important in a large organization. It’s a source of motivation to power yourself through the naysayers and cynics. Being excited about the purpose of the innovation, the good it can ultimately deliver, and the battle that you’re fighting, is important.
Check back next week for the last installment from this interview.
Posted by Innovation at Work at 07:58
Thursday, 10 January 2013
Recently, I spoke with Lou Killeffer writing for innovationexcellence.com about The Science of Serendipity.
He wrote: “Matt’s passionate about innovation, growth, and the serendipitous outcomes from the collision of observations and insights he sees as fundamental to success. And he’s outspoken about the very human dynamics he sees driving both the people and the process. Matt believes virtually all innovation is powered by ‘anger, paranoia, or ambition’; powered across a rather rugged journey that begins, in large corporations at least, when someone stands up and simply says something must change; .”
Here’s an edited excerpt of the first part of our conversation; I’ll post a few more bits in the coming days.
Matt, I believe I hold in my hands the only copy in North America of your new book, The Science of Serendipity:
Don’t get mugged on the way out. That’s a valuable copy.
Well, let’s start there. Why write a book about innovation today? As you know, there’s a tsunami of words and whitepapers, articles and videos on innovation.
This book is different. It’s a very practical book. Based on 20 years of experience in growing a business of over 250 people now. There are a lot of books out there, but when you take a look at them, a lot are quite theoretical. I wanted to write something very practical, very useful. I wanted to write something that was easier to read than the average businessbook, which as you well know, rarely gets read completely. I wanted to write a business book from the heart about what I know really works.
The book begins for me with my very favorite quote of all time, Pasteur saying chance favors the prepared mind. Why did you select that quote?
The full quote is actually, .” He was saying that the more homework we do, the more we’ll see, the luckier we’ll get. It’s a bit like that quote attributed to Gary Player mainly: hat’s a wonderful, hopeful, optimistic way of looking at how folks in large organizations can get things done, and almost do the impossible. That is, if they keep themselves open to an external perspective, if they keep debating in a really honest, open way with their colleagues, experimenting, and if theykeep putting themselves through that kind of homework and outreach, they’ll almost inevitably find themselves to be luckier or more serendipitously successful.
You’ve got another quote, new to me, that’s now my second favorite: “
Isn’t that perfect?
In chapter one, “,” you say, What a provocative place to begin. What exactly do you mean?
People would like to think that all innovation is powered by strategy, clear thinking, and high principles, but it’s a much more rugged, human activity than that. The people who really make things happen in large organizations are the people driven by some sense of injustice in the world—it may be a customer group that isn’t being served properly, it may be that your brand isn’t getting the share it deserves, it may be that your career could be going further and faster. It’s the kind of thing that eats away at people, some of whom make a decision to do something about it. There’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way the world is in all real innovation, and we shouldn’t shy away from that or be embarrassed about it. I’m not suggesting that people who innovate are necessarily grumpy, but they do have a degree of irreverence for the organization that they’re in and a degree of dissatisfaction with the way the world is.
Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted?
Yeah, something like that.
You’re speaking about fundamentally human and quite emotional drivers. You’re saying innovation’s not simply an intellectual exercise, right?
I’m not saying innovation is unthinking, and I’m not saying innovation doesn’t benefit from good analysis. But I am saying that innovation can be damaged by too many people spending too much time talking. Or that an organization with too much money and too many resources may do too much research. When you dig underneath the skin of something was innovative, what people will generally tell you was there was a certain critical moment when they made the decision to work harder, to reach out to a different set of colleagues, to push something harder with their colleagues, and these moments are normally a combination of a certain kind of courageous or collaborative behavior. And you’ll find that the heart of so much innovation is a human story, which is uplifting. It says that can innovate. It’s just a question of making things simple, having the right attitude, and having the right behaviors with the group of people you work with. That’s the core message of the book.
As you discuss behavior with the people you’re interacting with, you say, What is the distinction between a team worker and a collaborator?
Imagine a sports team. Let’s say a soccer team. And they’ve won a match, and they’re congratulating each other, slapping each other on the back. You know, they may say it was great that helped them win, but it’s unlikely they’ll say it was great That would sound kind of weird. The nature of teamwork is fundamentally different from collaboration, and this is a very, very important point for innovators to get a hold of. A team plays a game where there are clear boundaries. There are the confines of the pitch. The referee or the umpire who sets the rules. It’s clear how you win. There are certain positions to play, and you come and play to your best ability within that position. So teams play with . That’s what defines team sports. But when it comes to collaboration, which is a better model for innovation, certainly more disruptive innovation, collaborators work differently. They don’t know who they’re going to be working with. They’re not entirely sure of their position. They’re trying it out. There’s no umpire or referee. And what’s victory? No one’s quite sure. Collaboration has outreach, it has iteration, it has experimentation, it has a degree of self-awareness, and a degree of humility attached to it, which is not necessarily the same as teamwork.
I take your point. Your analogy of the football pitch—the forwards and the backs have individual responsibilities and, if they succeed, the team will succeed. But in a corporate environment, one could say the forwards and the backs are in silos. In collaboration you invade the other person’s silo, isn’t that right?
Many people work in siloed organizations. It’s a matter of choice whether you decide to restrict your point of view to within your silo or you’re prepared to get out of the office, meet new colleagues, meet some customers, and develop a shared obsession with what your customers want. Having a real customer obsession means getting interested in something other than just your company or your brand. And that means working with some colleagues from the finance team or the research-and-development team or the sales team, someone who you’ve bonded with around a singular goal rather than just working in your silos.
More from this interview to come next week...
Posted by Innovation at Work at 08:23
Tuesday, 30 October 2012
I’m in Texas on a road trip. Day One: fly ten hours from London to Houston and then drive three to Austin. But I’m happy because I had asked the car rental agency for the biggest baddest car they had and they didn’t let me down.
I can’t see that many practical advantages driving this beast. It’s actually not that fast and or well equipped. But it’s a truck and I’m five feet off the ground and the 5.5L V8 makes a gorgeous gurgle. That’s the thing here – I’m driving a tank, it’s all about me, king of the effing road and the rest of the planet doesn’t count.
Day Two: we check into Hotel Aloft. It’s a 70 odd chain owned by Starwood. It’s a big box with 140 rooms, a trendy reception and I count three staff. There’s no eating apart from a self-service snack bar (pay receptionist), a self-service gym and a pool table. Our rooms got cleaned at 5.30pm. But we like this cool feature free box. There’s a good shower, free wifi and low prices.
That’s the thing here – without being barren it’s a no frills approach to overnighting. We leave feeling smug about our discovery, and now I’m telling all my friends – why pay for amenities you never use?
Two days, two different things. A gross, two fingers up at the world of auto and a stripped down, stylistic but simple place to sleep - each equally confident in their ‘thing’. Makes me think how compromises ruin great ideas. Many would hate my auto or choice of hotel. But accepting and even enjoying rejection – isn’t this how we really define what’s brilliant about what we’ve got – our ‘thing’?
Posted by Innovation at Work at 15:59
Wednesday, 24 October 2012
OK – this is driving me nuts! Go to my local coffee shop and you’ll get asked if you want your coffee ‘rich or smooth’. Maybe I’m just too stupid early in the morning to answer this question but what the heck does it mean? I want coffee rich and smooth. Is rich coffee unsmooth? Is smooth coffee weak? I don’t get it. I’m awarding this coffee shop first prize in the ‘Over-Enthusiastic but Ultimately Dopey Product Innovation Awards’.
It reminds me of a story a banker colleague told me about queues. She went into the local branch of the bank she works for and the teller apologised for the queue – despite the fact no queue existed. Perplexed she called the branch manager later in the day to enquire what sort of drugs the staff were taking only to be told that it was ‘Queue Week’ – mystery shoppers were said to be crawling all over the retail estate checking on queues and colleagues ability to smile and apologise for them.
But it’s ok the world hasn’t gone totally crazy for unthinking innovation. In the most unlikely of places I discover an example of great insight and am very grateful for it. Let me take you to the men’s urinals in Heathrow Terminal 3. Instead of placing your bag on the wet floor (use your imagination here) while you stand and do your business – instead, the clever insightful folks have created bag stashes – secure, dry and very welcome. Bravo to the loo designers at Heathrow for acting on their insight. I wish they worked in my coffee shop.
Posted by Innovation at Work at 02:28
Monday, 17 September 2012
What if I told you there was an office-based communication system that had the following features:
· extremely fast operating speed
· instant updates
· unlimited RAM
· specialises in exposing hypocrisy
· completely free!
What if I told you that?
It’s called ‘The Grapevine’ – the informal transmission of fact or fiction from person to person at work. This gossip-fuelled system is one of the most powerful elements of the corporate apparatus. Just because it’s underground and unregulated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously.
The currency of the grapevine is what people actually do at work – not what they say they are going to do. I used to work in Thailand – my boss lived in Australia. He would fly into Bangkok but unlike many of his colleagues he never came directly into the office. Instead he’d go out into what we called the ‘field’ (normal life) where he’d observe how our customers were using our products – in their own homes. This meant when he eventually showed up in the office he was able to make decisions informed by a first hand and intimate type of intelligence.
The Grapevine across most of the region had his activities monitored and his reputation was quickly and accurately formed – he was a guy who took customers seriously. This was in contrast to desk bound email-wafflers who extolled the virtues of customer proximity but remained cocooned at work.
Whether we like it or not the Grapevine is a 24-hour news service that’s moulding our reputation – right now. We invest so much into our lives at work we have to take the grapevine seriously – it’s our most powerful personal brand broadcast system. We can choose to feed it with ‘activity’ or sit back and let it write the script.
I’m exploring this and other innovation concepts in my new book: The Science Of Serendipity – How Large Organisations Unlock The Promise Of Innovation. To be published by John Wiley and Sons in early November.
Posted by Innovation at Work at 10:35