Month: May 2012
When most companies build their staff they focus on identifying the best talent in their industry, proudly trumpeting this as both a reason to join their company and for stockholders to take heart in their capacity to stay ahead of the competition. As discussed previously in this blog this can lead to a very narrow focus within a team, limiting diversity of thought. Can an organization work around this by finding someone that can force teams to stretch outside their comfort zones while still being a productive and regular member of the team?
In fact, the skills required for this role have been recognized for millennia. In mythology, stories are full of trickster gods that challenged the status quo, whose role seemed on the surface to be spreading discord. Take Loki from Norse mythology. In the stories, he appears to fill many roles and is even able to take many forms as a shape shifter. His role is not to govern but rather to disrupt and to agitate. Alternately the other gods love and hate him. The role of Loki is as an antagonist – his appearance in a story drives it forward and forces the other gods to take action. Even today scholars debate his intent in the stories – his presence still causing discord, discussion, and ultimately ideation. The trickster figure is complicated in myth – they are often seen as rule breakers, sometimes malicious and sometimes not, but often to positive effect. They are problem solvers and deliver solutions – often times being the source of the innovation of fire.
Even the stolid courts of the medieval period recognized this skill: the “fool” was expected to not only be funny, but to also deliver insightful and truthful commentary that would allow the leaders to more thoroughly see the world. This was the living embodiment of the trickster, an antagonist that creates change through disruption.
But what type of person can serve as the trickster or fool on your team? How can a person like this fit without being a disruption to the team and group dynamic. I would propose that this role can be filled by what we’d know as a generalist. The generalist is an individual with broad knowledge. Much like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin they can fill multiple roles and careers in their life, having interests as broad as writing a new bible, creating a university, and governing the nation in the former case and writing and publishing (including the everything-you-ever-needed-to-know Poor Richard’s Almanack), amateur science, and diplomacy in the later case. The generalist has knowledge on a variety of topics, being conversant in them while having the ability to learn and acquire subject matter expertise quickly in order to leverage their broad base of knowledge.
The generalist must also have the confidence to speak up. This is because the generalist also benefits through naivety – unencumbered by the certain knowledge of the status quo they are able to call it as they see it. When an idea has no clothes, but those close to the industry or technology are unable to recognize it, the generalist can demonstrate true sight, asking questions and revealing truth that will allow others to recognize something that can (with hindsight) seem rather obvious.
Retaining this skill is difficult though. The generalist is at a disadvantage to peers with expertise and experience in a field and needs to have the confidence and personality to speak their mind in the face of a well-organized and entrenched opposition. Further, the complex nature of the Fools role requires them to be a very special individual, curious enough to question every detail, competent enough to understand a vast array of topics, skilled in communication to deliver their true message, and social enough to be welcomed into a team without being a threat. Ignoring this critical role can ensure that your team smoothly rockets toward mediocre innovation. Having a powerful voice in this role can boost the productivity and quality of output exponentially. The successful Osmotic Innovator knows how much resource a fool can save through practical knowledge, common sense, and deep insight. The question isn’t how to get rid of the fool on their team, but how to get more of them.
Innovation within corporate environments is a bit like a Roman Galley, everyone has an oar but only a few are pulling really hard. The size of corporations means that it is very difficult to know whether everyone is giving their all in terms of creativity. Many corporations don’t even try to evaluate the creative effort of the majority of their employees, preferring instead to measure a select few “innovators” and to hope that the rest are doing their part. If, when looking at your corporation, you accept that you cannot tell if everyone is pulling to their creative limit, then you have to ask yourself “why wouldn’t they?”
Anyone who has been in a role where they are responsible for product innovation is probably aware of the change that happens over time to your relationship with the ideas that you generate. This change fundamentally exists in the level of attachment your ego and your ideas have to each other. Early in your career you may remember how important each idea was to you and how personal each failed idea felt. Your ideas were a reflection of you and your worth. However, over time this attachment breaks down and you realize that of all the millions of reasons for an idea to be rejected none have anything to do with your personal value. You also begin to realize how deep the well of ideas available to you really is and how little importance any individual idea has. If we can recognize this in ourselves how can we use this knowledge to create stronger innovation cultures within our corporations? One approach is to learn from a master, in this case Mr Miyagi.
The year is 1984, a young Daniel LaRusso, recently relocated from Newark asks a kindly karate master “Mr Miyagi” to train him in the martial art. Miyagi agrees and immediately puts him to work painting his house, sanding his floors and waxing his car – “Daniel san, wax on, wax off”. We then learn that Miyagi is teaching Daniel defence; the action of waxing defends Daniel from a punch and is the most important thing for him to learn early in his Karate training. Would Daniel have returned to Miyagi day after day if his tutor repeatedly punched him in the face hoping that he would eventually figure out how to defend himself? Unlikely.
Why would we expect nascent innovators to return to the process of innovating after receiving the personal attack of idea rejection? Innovation requires practice and the best practice early on is defence. Build up the capacity of your innovators to take rejection and learn from mistakes by sharing your own historical blunders. Nurture your creative groups and protect them from feeling personally rejected when their ideas fail to progress by making them aware of just how rare a ready-to-launch idea really is. As they develop they will become naturally thick-skinned and better contributors, eventually idea rejection will have no effect at all on their energy and enthusiasm for the challenge. When you nurture innovation like this you are removing one reason for disengagement in your innovation program and perhaps ensuring that at least a few are pulling as hard as they can on the corporate oar.
I would like to take a moment and discuss a topic that is probably not a favourite among the majority of the population: Mathematics. I will now give you a moment to compose yourself and allow the nauseous feelings to subside. You may now be wondering why in a blog about corporate innovation and promoting an innovative environment I choose to talk about such a dreadful topic. My reasoning is rather simple: in reading about innovation and how to get people to be creative, the benefits of Mathematics are never mentioned and yet it is in everything from Art to Music. We focus so much on allowing free thinking and encouraging others to look beyond and outside the box. What about Math?
Unfortunately, many assume that thinking about Math will place a person in an analytical rather than creative frame of mind and may inhibit innovation. Is this true? If you’ve struggled with Math in the past you’re probably hoping that it is! Sorry…I am going to prove otherwise and hopefully convert you to a Math lover. No, I am not intending to turn you into the next famous Mathematician, but rather to develop in you an appreciation of this complex subject and show you how something perceived as “structured” can actually promote abstract and boundless thinking. Weird, huh?
When we think of Math in a general term, it includes complex subtopics like Calculus, Multi-variable Calculus, Geometry, Algebra, Differential Equations, and so on. Yes, these are very complicated in application, but one need only look at a picture or painting or listen to a symphony or rock song to appreciate them in real life. In addition, there are more advanced topics like Logic, Abstract Algebra, and Linear Algebra but these are for enhancing logic, reasoning, and visualization and their benefits will be addressed in another post.
To see the complex but paradoxically simple beauty of Math, you can look at almost any masterpiece of painting or sculpture. What is the best part about this? Knowing how to solve complex differential equations and triple integrals is not even necessary. In fact, most of the beauty we see is more from applying simple geometric patterns over and over in some sequence. When done this way, it gives rise to what Mathematicians term Fractals – a detailed repeating pattern that makes itself obvious when zooming in on the picture. One person in particular, Benoit Mandelbrot, has become known as the father of fractal geometry. As stated in a Wikipedia article about him, Mandelbrot “emphasized the use of fractals as realistic and useful models of many “rough” phenomena in the real world. Natural fractals include the shape of mountains, coastlines and river basins, the structures of plants, blood vessels and lungs, the clustering of galaxies; and Brownian motion. Fractals are found in human pursuits, such as music, painting, architecture, and stock market prices.” I encourage the reader to type into a search engine the term ‘fractal’ and enjoy all the interesting pictures that result.
Besides fractals, another interesting common mathematical wonder (for lack of a better term) is the Fibonacci sequence – a sequence of numbers defined by the linear recurrence equation Fn = Fn+1 + Fn-2. Although it looks really complex, it basically means you get specific numbers: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21…(to infinity). So why is this interesting? Well, if you are a fan of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code or the TV show NUMB3RS, then you may already have some familiarity with this. Fibonacci numbers are found in the structure of crystals, the spiral of galaxies, and in the design of a nautilus shell. A rather new innovative application is found in the song “Lateralus” performed by the progressive metal band Tool. Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of the band, not only sings of spirals but the syllables of the lyrics follows the first few Fibonacci numbers. It is worth sharing, as it is rather cool to see:
(2) white are
(3) all I see
(5) in my in-fan-cy
(8) red and yel-low then came to be
(5) reach-ing out to me
(3) lets me see
(2) there is
This is just part of the song, but you can already see him following the Fibonacci sequence 1,1,2,3,5,8..and then reversing back…5,3,2,1,1 etc. Watch the video below to hear mathematics in action:
So what does all this mean to the osmotic innovator? Many times we are faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge. We attack it head on and think that with enough critical thinking and brainstorming we can somehow solve it. We may even go so far as to call in specialists and technical experts for their point of view. Does this really help us approach the problem differently, or are we just getting lost in the proverbial complex landscape? Instead; take a problem, break it down into its constituent parts and handle each one of those separately. Mathematics teaches us to take a step back – don’t get lost in the extreme complexity, for even in something as complex as the nautilus shell there is a simple structure to be found. We don’t all need to be a mathematical genius to solve something that seems rather complicated. Remember, the lead singer of Tool, James Maynard Keenan, used the Fibonacci sequence in a song. He took something difficult, simplified it, and turned it into music. Now think of the possibilities available to you as osmotic innovators…they’re infinite!
Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.
This week Kellogg’s Cornflakes comes under our microscope:
Innovative – Kellogg’s Corn Flakes have been around for literally over a century, and may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of an innovative product. However, the brand produced both manufacturing techniques and advertising that revolutionized the industry.
Like many inventions, the story of Corn Flakes began with an accident. The Kellogg brothers, working at a sanitarium, left cooked wheat to cool for too long. Though the wheat went stale, they attempted to salvage it by pressing it through rollers to make dough. Instead, the wheat formed flakes, which were then toasted. Realizing the novelty of this method, the brothers patented it. Corn was later substituted for wheat.
Corn Flakes required no new technology to produce nor were they the first breakfast cereal available. In spite of this, they were able to disrupt the market with the new “format” of the ready-to-eat flake at a time when most cereals were hard biscuits that required preparation. Their unique product spawned countless imitators, and more importantly drove further innovation at both Kellogg’s and their competitors.
But the cereal itself was not the only innovative thing about Corn Flakes. Shortly after the cereal hit mass market, Kellogg’s started offering a premium “prize” to anyone who purchased two boxes. The prize was given in the store, but eventually became a mail-in offer. This not only helped spur growth at Kellogg’s, but also created a new way of incentivizing purchases that became one of the mainstays of the breakfast cereal business.
Not – Though highly successful, Will Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were not innovative. He simply attached them to the bandwagon of breakfast cereals that started with Granula in 1863. The first cereals were innovative, proving so popular that they’re now a staple in many countries, but Corn Flakes didn’t arrive until 1906, 43 years later.
In the intervening years, other innovations paved the way. Following Granula, a ‘ready-to-eat’ breakfast cereal was introduced by Quaker oats in 1877, improving on the need to soak Granula overnight. Then, a major disruptive innovation arrived in 1879 when George Hoyt designed an attractive box for his Wheatena cereal, avoiding the less sanitary practice of selling breakfast cereal from barrels. This was the birth of modern breakfast cereals.
Around the same time, Kellogg’s brother, John, developed a biscuit of ground cereals. He was working on this product when he accidentally let soaked wheat go stale and found, to his surprise, that it could be rolled into wheat flakes. John called it Granose, serving it and a corn version to patients at his sanatorium, but it would be another 20 years before Will would mass market Corn Flakes in an already burgeoning industry of breakfast cereal.
There is no doubt that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was and is a strong, successful product, but this resulted from good marketing that stood on the existing innovations of ready-to-eat, convenient, sanitary, processed breakfast cereals. Corn flakes and Android may be great products, but Granula, Quaker Oats, Wheatena, and iOS were innovative.
Verdict – Not Innovative! The history of cereal is in itself a story of great inventions and Kellogg’s Cornflakes stands proudly amongst the best in this field. Inventions are easy to spot but when trying to identify a great innovation within the history of a great business things can get a bit tricky. How much success is attributed to the invention and how much to the strong business model? For me the key here is in the time that Will took to mass market the invention. There is not doubt that the brothers had stumbled upon a great invention but by the time the product was marketed to the public the cereal category was rife with competitors and substitutes. What’s more, so much time had elapsed since the invention that no significant legal protection was left for the nascent business. If Will had moved to produce his Cornflakes immediately upon discovery would I reverse my decision? Probably, but all we really know for certain is that by the time the Corn presses started rolling the company was relying on its marketing message to out compete its rivals as the value in the invention, and thus its status as an innovation, had been diluted.