Smart Business Innovation Processes
Marisa Boevers: Hi everyone, welcome to formulations, I’m your host, Marisa Boevers and I’m here at ThoughtForm, a communication design consultancy located in Pittsburgh. I’m joined here today by my colleague Norm Goldberg. Norm is a principal owner and design strategist here at ThoughtForm. He and I are going to talk a little bit about innovation today.
Norm Goldberg: Yes!
M: It’s a good topic.
N: It’s a great topic.
Why do you think it is that communication is so important for innovation processes?
M: I feel like there’s nothing left to be said, but we’re going to try. So Norm, we’re a communications firm, we focus a lot on visual communication, written communication, and it seems like we do a lot of work that touches on innovation. So there’s some relationship between communication and innovation. Why do you think it is that communication is so important for innovation?
N: Yeah, I think there are a couple reasons, Marisa. One is that innovation is inherently fuzzy. It’s just the nature of it. You can’t rest on the assumptions that you’ve always had. I mean that’s kind of the point, right? You are trying to do something new. You can’t rest on assumptions about what your colleagues are thinking, what Marisa is thinking, what Norm is thinking. So communication becomes really important. Those differences are really valuable, because nobody has a monopoly on the truth at that point. By working through those different perspectives, we’re doing important work that helps us innovate better.
innovation is inherently fuzzy.
M: I think about the juxtapositioning of ideas, right? You tell me something, I say something, it all bounces together.
N: Yes, that’s absolutely key to it. Another thing that I think is very important about communication innovation is that communication can really be a catalyst for innovation. The questions that we ask, and oftentimes when we’re working with clients—and you’ve seen this a million times in our Vision Catching sessions—We’ll ask “Have you ever thought about how this would work?” or “We see a gap over here, we’d like to challenge that a little bit.” The conversations that come out of that, really help make whatever has been created, better. I like to think of those conversations as the rough draft of the product you are making. I find that, if you can’t explain what you are doing that clearly, maybe you’re not thinking about it quite clearly enough.
M: There’s definitely a correlation between how I think about it, how I communicate it, and how those things interact.
N: And it’s very cheap to work through it that way. You can eliminate a lot of problems. The idea of communication as a catalyst is important.
Why do you think an innovation process matters? Why should organizations have an innovation process?
M: We’ve helped a lot of clients with innovation processes. How does an enourmous organization take an idea all the way through evaluating it, and piloting it? Why do you think an innovation process matters? Why should organizations have an innovation process?
N: That’s a good question. Just think our expectations these days. As a consumer, I can think back to when the first diet cola came out. When was that, 1960s? It was an earthquake. It was a revolution. How could there be such a thing? And then, you know, a couple months ago, Coke came out with five new flavors of Diet Coke, and they were adventurous flavors! It was like “Yeah, okay—“ It was an item in my news feed. And these days, just about everyone knows somebody who launched a cool thing at Kickstarter. You and I know someone like that. So innovation is really the new normal. Just make it part of your process.
M: Be disciplined about it.
You have to have a plan. You have to do it very intentionally I think, and I’ve found that you have to socialize it.
N: Yeah. Be disciplined about it. Just sort of take it as a given. But it’s challenging because in a lot of ways, innovation is sort of antithetical to the way business was traditionally done. How do you make money in business? You figure out something people really want, and you come up with an algorithm for delivering it, then you keep taking costs out of the equation. That’s kind of counter to the way innovation really works. Innovation is about sometimes fixing things that don’t seem like they are broken, going down blind alleys and starting over. It doesn’t always play well with the traditional chain of command. How do you sell up the chain on something no one can really see yet, or feel? It can be challenging to innovate.
M: It’s almost like you have to have an innovation plan because it’s going to be counter to your nature. So, if you don’t plan for it, you won’t do it.
N: Yes. That’s exactly right, you have to have a plan. You have to do it very intentionally I think, and I’ve found that you have to socialize it. It makes me think of a conversation I’ve had with a product manager who told me “You know, I want to innovate, I have this idea, the first thing I’m going to have to do is tell how much it’s going to cost. I went to engineering, I said, ‘How much is this going to cost?’ and they said, ‘Well, give me the spreadsheet and you need to have this cost and that cost and…’” And she said, “’I can’t innovate that way, It’s too much.’” So a lot of our organizations struggle with bootstrapping their way into that mindset, so it has to be conscious. So once you get there, once you get over that hurdle, you can really start creating a lot of value.
What do you see as the biggest barrier to teams?
M: Yes, absolutely. So during an innovation process… we’ve talked about why communication is key for innovation we’ve talked about why you need an innovation process… But it seems like even people who have an innovation process have some barriers to communicating during that process. What do you see as the biggest barrier to teams?
N: There are a couple I might want to mention. One is that as business people, we feel like we need to be the experts. I have expertise in certain areas, so we feel almost silently judged on how well we can answer those questions that come up. But the truth is, in innovation processes there are a lot of unknowns. No one is that much of an expert. What you really have to do is cultivate an ability to be an expert questioner, and an expert explorer, and an expert collaborator. If you think that you’re going to be the one that has all the answers, you’re kind of setting yourself up.
No one is that much of an expert. What you really have to do is cultivate an ability to be an expert questioner, and an expert explorer, and an expert collaborator.
That’s one barrier. I think another one that we see a lot is siloes. You know, when we have people here for a workshop, we have a cross-functional team from an organization. What’s the first thing they do? They huddle together in little pods, for like 15 minutes because they haven’t seen each other in weeks and they don’t know what each other is doing, and it’s so fascinating to compare notes. They’re under a lot of pressure, truthfully. They’ve been heads down in their cubes for two weeks so we see a lot of siloing. People talk about how when Steve Jobs was designing the headquarters for Pixar, he made it so there could be only one set of bathrooms. Because he knew that people need those reasons to cross paths, and cross-pollinate.
M: I get a lot of work done in the bathroom, so it works, I agree… One thing that I see a lot is—within an innovation process—there seems to be a big pain point for a lot of teams, on selling a new idea to leadership—
N: This is the moment of truth.
What’s the secret sauce for getting leaders to buy in?
M:—I know my idea is good. I’ve worked it out with my team, we’ve fleshed it out. Now I have to get the boss man to sign off on it. We help a lot of teams with that. Do you have any tips on how to get approval? What’s the secret sauce for getting leaders to buy in?
N: Well I have a couple thoughts on that. You know, this is a very challenging area. I was talking to an entrepreneur, a very successful guy, teaches here at Carnegie Mellon University. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of pitch decks. They really do their homework. They’ve got all the charts, all the graphs, they’ve done their research. But there’s one critical thing that they haven’t quite nailed down: How do you know for sure that people really, really want this thing? It seems obvious but it’s actually really easy to spin this beautiful web of innovation ideas and not have that certainty. So I would say, it’s great to have the quantitative research, but you really need some qualitative research, you need to have that sort of granular feel for how people will respond to the idea and you have to have some evidence that you’ve done that. It’s an obvious step, but some people miss it.
How do you know for sure that people really really want this thing?
M: Yeah that’s a great idea. What does the market really think about this idea?
N: Yeah, and it takes a little time to get a real feel for that. The other thing that I would say is innovation is a little different in terms of how far out you can look. If anyone says they have a five year innovation plan, they’re probably blowing smoke. I’d say, if you could tell a really good story about how you’ve arrived at the stage gate you are at, and what you need, what insights and knowledge you need to get to the next stage gate and how you’re going to do that, then that’s what to focus on. If you can get a green light on that, that’s a victory in innovation.
M: there’s no better way to look foolish than to have a five or ten year projection plan, right?
N: Yeah, because in innovation, each step tells you what the next step should be.
A few tips from Norm
M: Sure. So here at ThoughtForm we help lots of teams develop innovation processes, and guide them through ideation sessions, and then to get that approval from leadership. If there’s someone out there who is really struggling with innovation in their organization—they’re just not getting off the ground or getting the results they are expecting—what would you tell them to focus on, what would they look at, to kind of help move that forward?
N: Well if I could only give one tip, it would be to realize how easy it is to model the thing you are creating. You’ve probably seen presentations, I know I have, where it’s a very thorough presentation about a project, but after it’s over, you ask yourself, “Why can’t I see it? Why can’t I envision the thing they are talking about?” It’s so easy today whether you are doing renderings or 3D models. A lot of times, with the clients that we’re working with, it’s somewhat of an intangible thing.
realize how easy it is to model the thing you are creating.
M: Right, a process or service.
N: Yeah, something you can’t necessarily reach out and touch, but we have found ways to model through techniques such as Vision Catching, Foglifters and others so that you can really see it before it is built. It’s sort of the advice you get in your 20s about investing, start early and then you’ll take care of your future. Start early because insights compound upon insights. Make it visible, make is so that everyone is able to see it, make it central to your process, share it a lot, share it with colleagues and customers, and tell them: “This isn’t right, this isn’t it, but this is something we can react to, and it will get us there.” Because if you just go through a very rigorous process and you expect the right answer to pop out at the back, it’s just not going to happen. Not in innovation.
M: Yeah that’s a great tip. Well thank you Norm for joining me today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in, if you would like to hear a little more about ThoughtForm’s perspective on innovation, check out our recent white paper about how to filter new ideas to find your best ones, or our blog post about designing an innovation process, and please join us again next month, when we’re going to talk about communicating for sustained change management: Those long term changes within your organization. Thanks everyone!