Thursday, February 28, 2019
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
How to Innovate Your Innovation
You can't just decide that your organization is going to create more breakthroughs. There's a methodology to creating magic.
Executive director, Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology
Looks to me like the curtain on the innovation theater is about to come down. At 1871, the Chicago incubator I ran, we called the constant parade of well-intentioned but largely clueless visitors and the accompanying startup charade the "entrepreneurial petting zoo". The visitors' vain hopes were that, in the course of viewing such a serious concentration of entrepreneurs, and, by some process akin to osmosis, a little innovation juice would rub off on them and maybe a radical idea or two would mystically emerge. Good luck with that. You're a lot more likely to be hit by lightning which, when you think about it, would certainly be more stimulating. There's got to be a better and smarter way to create a culture of innovation and help your people get headed in the right direction.
There's no magic or madness to successful innovation, but there is a lot of method, preparation and patience. The best people in the innovation business practice, iterate and improve their programs all the time. Effective innovation is a constant, company-wide, process, not a project or a department, which you must (a) authentically commit to, (b) aggressively organize around, (c) systemically implement, integrate, and enforce throughout your operations, and then (d) measure against real metrics on a continuing basis. It's not some piecemeal placebo or a quick fix panacea. And innovation is also not about trying to move the needle tomorrow. Small, sure, incremental steps and a celebration of early victories and results are the way to go. Good things still take time.
Smart innovation is based on an overall philosophy and a commitment to try to get a little bit better across the board, every day, and all the time - not a one-shot deal or a moonshot deal. Innovation is about what I call "successive approximation" as opposed to "postponed perfection, "which never happens anyway, is impossibly costly, and isn't worth waiting for -- even if it ever showed up.
As a general proposition, in radically-changing times like these, where the rate of change continues to accelerate, waiting almost never gets you to a better result. Elaborate planning, extensive documentation, and expensive research are all forms of denial, postponement and mental pollution. In the meantime, critical time passes and opportunities abate, necessary changes aren't made, key people and partners depart for brighter pastures, and pressing problems aren't addressed. Sadly, those problems won't lessen or disappear, they'll propagate and worsen.
So, the most important thing to do for any organization anxious to change for the better is to get the process started. But too many companies are doing the same old things and expecting different results and we all know that simply doesn't happen. Try as you might, you can't harangue your folks into changing their long-held habits especially those that worked pretty well in the past, but which are doomed to fail tomorrow. Saying doesn't make it so. However huge your hammer is, it's still impossible to nail Jell-O to a tree.
And if you don't have an overall plan to successfully launch your new initiatives, to assure that your people throughout the organization are invested in the process, and to make certain that the changes you need to make will last, everything else doesn't matter. That's regardless of how many highbrow courses your people must sit through, whatever attractive financial incentives you introduce, or how many inspirational notes and memos you send to the troops.
You've got to get things right at the beginning; speed doesn't matter unless you're headed in the right direction. Off by an inch, miss by a mile. So, it's critical to start straight and strong. The ultimate goal is to have the innovations you implement stick. You need to be all about gaining and growing traction and assuring long-term sustainability- otherwise you're just treading water, upsetting your people for no good reason, and wasting a lot of time and money. Finis origine pendet-- the end depends upon the beginning.
There's a simple problem with the traditional approach that most businesses are still pursuing--and not merely that the traditional approach doesn't last over time or produce real results. Much more insidious is the fact that it destroys your company's culture. False starts, repeated half-assed attempts, and continued failures send a message throughout your company that senior management doesn't really care about innovation and change - even though your best and brightest employees absolutely do. They all know that, if your business doesn't embrace change, it will eventually die and, quite frankly, they're not likely to stick around for the slow and painful funeral.
Great companies and cultures are built when the employees sincerely believe that their leaders are putting them first. You may have your own reservations and even some doubts, but you've got to have faith in the people you're leading. Your job is to get your people from where they are to where they've never been and to show them a vision and a path to get there. You don't do that by sending Sam and Mabel to San Francisco for a two-day strategy session. The sour dough bread may be great, but the substance is increasingly suspect.
You need a better and smarter plan than simply shipping a few of the folks to the latest and greatest seminar to drink the new Kool-Aid and hope they come back and inspire the team. They'll return only to find that they're trying to push a rope and convince a bunch of non-believers to change in ways that they're not even sure their management believes in. A couple of converts can't change a company's culture by themselves. Save your breath and your money - it doesn't work. I'm not certain that it ever did, but it's DOA today for sure.
The good news is that I've seen a better solution. Tom Kuczmarski, the founder of Kuczmarski Innovation, has taught innovation and executive education for more than 30 years at topflight universities to more than 7,500 leaders from a wide variety of industries. Over the last few years, he had consistently observed a recurring structural problem and he's figured out a better way to go. Companies weren't getting their innovation efforts off on the right foot because they didn't understand the four basic requirements for long-term sustainable success:
(1) Alignment- Senior leaders need to visibly commit to and participate in/attend initial innovation training sessions and final presentations because the depth and breadth of company-wide engagement is critical; step one is for the senior management participants to define and develop a clear strategy and some target opportunities;
(2) Instruction- Multiple junior team members attend training sessions where they learn to apply the best new practices and tools for identifying specific opportunities and implementing innovative solutions within their organizations for the precise problem areas identified by senior management; step two trains the innovation team and points them in the right direction as well as coaching them along the way;
(3) Application- Actual problem areas and potential solutions within the organization are identified in progress discussions between the senior management attendees and the innovation team members and specific innovation initiatives are authorized, described and developed; step three advances the process and makes the proposed solutions concrete and real rather than dealing in theoretical situations or wishful thinking;
(4) Activation and Implementation- Team members return to the organization with a plan, timetable, management endorsement and support, and the tools they need to be successful in addressing actual problems and issues and, more importantly, overcoming resistance, inertia and internal obstacles; step four delivers the expected and sustainable results.
Kuczmarski Innovation has developed a new two-phase course ("Managing and Activating Innovation") for training leaders throughout an organization to develop readily achievable and sustainable innovation solutions for their businesses, which incorporates all the foregoing objectives. It avoids many of the past cultural, sponsorship and implementation problems and delivers both results and a demonstrable ROI. It's a brief, practical, and hands-on program that combines traditional faculty and experienced industry professionals. Full disclosure: I've seen the materials and I'm hoping to be one of the lecturers in the program myself this summer.
But, in the final analysis, I think it works so well because it quickly connects and engages a critical mass of interested parties across various levels of the business and because it sends a most important and empowering message throughout the culture: the best leaders don't create followers; they create more leaders.
PUBLISHED ON: FEB 26, 2019
Monday, February 25, 2019
It seems we’re reaching the end of the Ping-Pong and pool table period.
It couldn’t come soon enough for me. Something just feels different these days, and maybe it’s a growing need to hunker down a bit and take the task of “taking care of business” a lot more seriously.
Let’s dial back leisure in the office, lower the volume on the whining and worrying about hurt feelings, and double down on sweat and toil.
We call it “work” for a reason and, while it can certainly be plenty stimulating and rewarding, work is not intended to be all fun, all the time. Never was.
There’s still no substitute for hard, purposeful work and no more likely path to eventual success. Talent and creativity are great, and should certainly be encouraged, but effort and execution are what really matter.
These aren’t the frothy, kombucha-and-beer times of yore any longer.
Global competition is rising, a recession is almost certainly on the horizon (it’s only a question of when), and when the market and the investors start seriously keeping score, all the touchy-feely awards for “the very best place in the whole wide world to work” aren’t gonna matter much if your team isn’t monetizing your business and putting some real numbers on the bottom line.
The thought of a bunch of clowns playing Pong (analog or throwback digital) in the middle of the day while other team members are busting their butts trying to get a new software release out the door no longer computes.
Camaraderie is crucial in any new business, but it’s important to make sure that it comes from the shared pride of completing what needs to get done, not solely from Thursday night shots, smelly cigars and card games.
That also includes the pinball machines, foosball tables and the pool table, which is just as passé today as the phony masse shot that Matthew McConaughey makes in the latest Lincoln Navigator TV ad.
Real company cultures are built on respect, recognition and well-earned rewards, not free food, laundry services and recreational resources.
Your customers don’t really care about the perks, the toys or the cereal selections in your break room. When their system’s not working, they want the best software engineer on the case, not the guy who racked up the highest score playing pinball.
And your best and most important employees don’t really care about all this nonsense, either. They’re the ones who are head-down and have no time to fool around.
Businesses rapidly become the behaviors that they tolerate, and it only takes a few slackers and snowflakes to suck the life, energy and momentum out of any startup. Part of the job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
When people are struggling to answer too many incoming customer calls or polishing a PowerPoint for an important funding pitch, or cold-calling piles of prospects, it seems foolish to show up at a meeting late because you were tapping the keg or sitting on a beanbag chair playing a video game.
You don’t really want to be the office’s social director and party person. The goal is to be the “go-to” guy — not the mope you’d probably have a drink with, but never count on for much of anything else.
Late night and after-hours bonding activities might be fine, but what authentic entrepreneur has ever had regular office hours to? In the real world, you work until you’re about to fall over and then you go home so you can pick yourself up in the morning and do it all over again.
If you want to build a serious business, that’s the behavior you want to model. That’s what people inside and outside the business pick up on. Passion and commitment make a difference.
You want to build a team that finds its satisfaction in achievements and accomplishments and not one that’s fixated on freebies and fresh fruit. If you have to bribe your people with goodies or otherwise convince them to work hard and do their best, you’ve got the wrong people and you’re sending the wrong message.
And if you think having a Ping-Pong table in the office makes you look cool, you’re wrong.
It’s all about revenues and results, not refreshments and recreation.
Sunday, February 24, 2019
Friday, February 22, 2019
Thursday, February 21, 2019
Wednesday, February 20, 2019
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
You Can Hear More If You Learn to Listen
The art of shutting your yap and opening your ears isn't an easy one to learn for entrepreneurs. But it is an essential skill and a potential competitive advantage.
Executive director, Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology
There's absolutely nothing harder or more important for any entrepreneur to learn than how to listen, carefully and effectively. To everyone in your life - family, friends, and peers. And to everyone in your business - customers, investors and directors. One of my favorite INC. pieces is called "What I Learned from My Waitress", which I wrote years ago and which I re-read every so often just to remind myself how important listening is. For young entrepreneurs, listening is a skill to master. For more seasoned entrepreneurs, it's a skill that's easy to forget because we figure we already know everything. Seems that as you get older, not only your hearing goes, but quite often so does your listening.
Aggressive listening is a professional practice that takes vigilance and constant exercise because the inbound messages are continually changing and only rarely do they present themselves on a silver platter. In fact, by the time they eventually become obvious, it's usually (and painfully) too late to do anything effectively about them. That's the exact inverse of good ideas. By the time everyone agrees that they make sense, it's too late to make anything valuable out of them.
The best businesses listen carefully, adapt quickly and respond immediately to the progressive and ever-expanding demands of their customers. And "customers" in this context means a cluster of constituencies far more populous than simply the actual consumers of their products and services. Vendors, partners, media, regulators, legislators and even competitors are all part of the essential mix. And, in some ways, keeping a careful eye on your competition might be the most important job of all.
Listening to competitors isn't something you do because you necessarily plan to react to or replicate everything they're doing. You do it because you might learn a lot from them about what not to do or even things - amazingly enough - that you could and/or should be doing. Good companies rarely lose to the competition; they lose because they've lost their way internally and they no longer understand what it takes to satisfy their customers. They take themselves out of the game through indifference, inattention, or simple ignorance. Today, it pays to pay attention and be willing to learn from everyone because someone else may have simply figured things out sooner than you. In fact, given the pace of change these days, the ability to learn faster than your competition might be the only remaining and sustainable competitive advantage. If you're not listening, you learn nothing.
Our daily lives are so cluttered and noisy, and the constant flow of information is so overwhelming, that we are, increasingly and of necessity, opting to filter out, simplify, and often just outright ignore potentially critical data and other inputs. Because we have no time to do otherwise. Think of this as attention triage. We take our best guess and our best shot, and we keep our fingers crossed that we didn't let any of the really good stuff slip by while we weren't looking.
FOMO is very much alive and well although it's more properly called information anxiety in this case. We're constantly jumping from place to place, source to source, and site to site and we're spending less and less time at each stop along the way. So, we're gathering and absorbing less and less. In this frantic and "phygital" world, we're all like dogs chasing squirrels.
And, of course, the easiest things to shut off (and shut out) are the things that we've already decided we disagree with. Why would anyone waste time listening to someone whose views are so clearly and demonstrably wrong-headed? Our technologies increasingly cater to and abet this studiously ignorant approach - they feed us what we want to see and hear so we'll stick around. The filter bubble makes it almost impossible to discover anything new or different. It's always the same old news. And the process spirals ever more inward where we seek out only those views and visions which reinforce and comfort our cozy little world views.
But there's a way to break this vicious cycle if you're willing to learn to listen in a new way. This isn't pretending to listen while you're actually just waiting to talk. And it's not tuning the talker out as you plan your next remarks. This is about listening in a way that makes it possible to learn. And there are several keys to learning how to listen effectively.
(1) Listen even if you don't like what you're hearing. Tune in, rather than tuning out.
(2) Listen with the specific intent to try to understand where the other person is coming from. To hear their side of the story and their perspective.
(3) Listen to understand the real differences between you and the other side because they might be a lot less substantial than you think.
(4) And finally, ask what the others really need to get to some agreement.
I learned this last lesson from the new Bohemian Rhapsody movie. Freddie Mercury and the guys have had their final falling out and now he's trying to get the band back together for one last performance. There's plenty of hard feelings and tough talk to go around and things don't seem to be going anywhere.
And then Freddie asks his mates a simple question: "What's it going to take for you all to forgive me?" This is an open-ended question, but it helps to move the conversation from feelings to facts and, while the demands may not be realistic or reasonable or achievable, at least they're out there on the table and up for discussion. Sometimes all those differences and disputes are far more manageable than anyone might have imagined.
All it often takes is taking the time to listen.
Friday, February 15, 2019
Thursday, February 14, 2019
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
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