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The two sides of…Creative Spaces

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Creative spaces are often cited as examples of how the most innovative companies take their creative processes seriously.  We have all heard of the efforts of Pixar to ensure maximum creativity from their staff through the design of their building to maximize unscripted interactions, from centralized bathrooms to freedom to decorate your workspace Pixar lives creativity and its employees wear it on their sleeves.  Should your company investigate creative spaces as a means of improving innovation?  The answer is not so simple.

Heads

The problem of how to organize a physical space to drive innovation is a well-known one, having spawned numerous books (see The Organization and Architecture of Innovation by Allen and Henn) and consultancies. Having spent decades maximizing the value captured from efficiency in the ‘organizational diagram’ leaders were bound to recognize that the layout of the actual physical space is equally important to drive productivity and, ultimately, innovation. The problem with implementing the biggest and boldest suggestions to boost innovation and productivity is that it necessitates huge expenditures of capital in order to refurbish old spaces to new layouts. Obviously, this isn’t always compatible with budget or other goals – thus the appearance of ‘Creativity Spaces’!

In order to meet the demand for a place within the office environment where workers can think freely and openly – trying to capture that eureka-in-the-shower moment – old meetings rooms get refurbished with TVs, games, bold colors, and comfy chairs. These places can be easily dismissed as places to waste time. However, for the relatively limited capital requirements they have to be considered as a positive first step. Just having one place in the office that doesn’t feel like the office can encourage teams and meeting groups to think more freely and creatively. Many articles on this blog advocate drastic steps to get free thinking and creativity into your team; the message that should be taken forward is that anything you can do to shake things up and break people out of their typical role is great for boosting innovative output. Doesn’t that align perfectly with having your lead chemist showing everyone their newest moves on Dance Dance Revolution? For the Osmotic Innovator making do with less is an art form – perhaps Creativity Spaces aren’t a Picasso but they’re at least an easel and a brush.

Tails

Creative spaces are really the result of creative cultures.  When people work in a creative culture they build their own creative spaces and in some instances these spaces may not even look (to the casual observer) very creative at all.  We are talking about the water cooler, the original “creative space”.  “If you build a creative culture the culture will build their creative space” is probably a better approach for most businesses to take.  Without the right culture the creative space discussion shouldn’t even be started.

Can you really define what a creative space should be for your business?  What works for Pixar might be useless for your company.  Can a laboratory or engineering shop be a “creative space”?  Sure it can, and in many companies these areas are far more likely to be creative than any artificially designed space of bright colours and soft furnishings.  Don’t fall for the idea that if it looks fun then it must be creative; many companies have demonstrated phenomenal creative endeavour simply by giving their employees access to the same old facilities but without corporate agenda.

Creative spaces must be built; your work environment is unlikely to have been designed with creativity in mind.  Creativity feeds off networking so is there a way of causing more cross functional interactions within your employees without going to the extremes of building redesign?  Maybe careful placement of coffee bars or mixed function open plan offices would work better than prescribed “creative spaces”.

Overall the design of creative spaces within corporations should be seen as a means of reinforcing a strong corporate innovation culture, not as a means of creating one.  There are many more cost effective ways of doing that.

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Here’s My Innovation, So Call Me, Maybe?

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Hey, I just met you, And this is crazy, But here’s my number, So call me, maybe?

The era of Open Innovation appears to require any successful company delivering goods or services, particularly to the consumer segment, to find a way to utilize external ideas in their product development process – or to at least make an effort to appear to do so. The successes supposedly generated through Open Innovation (OI) are touted to customers, suppliers, potential partners, and even investors on the Street. Many companies go so far as to brand their OI to have it stand out further. (see Connect & Develop as one prominent example of branded OI)

One particularly big out-growth of OI is programs that seek to involve the wisdom of the crowd or to open firms up to ideas from individuals, rather than companies, outside the firm. This component of OI (let’s just call it Crowd Sourcing) requires a high degree of trust on the part of the collaborating partners – often small companies or individual inventors hoping that the company will respect their invention, work with them, and pay for their effort. This translates to large amounts of time spent by the companies evaluating ideas, providing feedback, and chasing imperfect leads so that the contributor feels valued and receives the desired follow-up call and feedback.

Too often this part of the process of OI is white-washed by the press and enthusiastic consultants looking to help you build your own system. The promise that every company can have its own ‘Connect & Develop” (P&G’s prototypical model of how to run an OI system) seems irresistible. To the press it’s a great story that connects with the everyman – ‘you too could get rich off your ideas!’ – but should the Osmotic Innovator put time into Crowd Sourcing or are external sourcing efforts better focused in other ways?

The Problems with Crowd Sourcing

–         Technical Literacy: While it’s true, as Chesborough and many others argue, that the smartest people in the world don’t work inside your company that doesn’t mean that everyone is positioned to equally understand your business model, supply chain, and regulatory pressure. This means that a large volume of the ideas you’ll see from Crowd Sourcing ignore basic realities of the business you’re actually in or are obvious incremental developments with low value to the organization. Getting a real insight or connection you haven’t seen already if you’re running an efficient OI program is rare!

–         Information Overload: The next problem with Crowd Sourcing is that once the gates are open and you start advertizing your willingness to pay for ideas you’ll be sorting through significant volumes of requests – trying to give each contributor an answer or feedback can become a job of its own, one with little return on the investment besides from a PR standpoint.

–         Exposing Your Achilles Heel: Once you’ve created your Crowd Sourcing program in order to cut back on the noise and obvious ideas you can always put out specific technical challenges to properly direct those seeking to work with you. The balance that needs to be considered with this is that the more detail you provide on the real issues you are facing, the better the feedback, but the more your competitors can come to understand your weaknesses and potentially exploit them.

The Benefits of Crowd Sourcing

–         The Door is Open: There’s a well-known saying that begins, “when opportunity knocks . . .” that is very apt for a Crowd Sourcing program. Simply having the Crowd Sourcing program in place makes it easier for real opportunities to find you, perhaps before they find your competitor. A main point to having the Crowd Sourcing component of your OI program might well be argued to be as an advertising program for your R&D department.

–         Wisdom of the Crowd: If you’ve ever watched the hit game show ‘Millionaire’ you know that having the crowd on your side can be a huge help. A volume of research also exists to prove that crowds do have a particular ‘wisdom’ that can direct decision making appropriately. Interfacing with the outside world has the benefit of allowing your innovation program to leverage the crowd.

–         Perception: Its been mentioned briefly before, but it deserves its own mention – simply having a Crowd Sourcing as part of your OI program is visible proof to the market that you’re a modern company fully taking advantage of current thinking on innovation and R&D. As well, small and medium sized companies can see the Crowd Sourcing program as proof that your company is equipped to work with them.

It’s fairly obvious that there are downsides to running a Crowd Sourcing component of your innovation program, particularly the resource needed to fairly and appropriately respond to ideas. However, the author tends to find the arguments in favor of Crowd Sourcing to be compelling. In the modern R&D world, no company can expect to go it alone without extremely deep moats. Even with that kind of protection ignoring outside innovation and opportunity is a dangerous game. Having a Crowd Sourcing program, and advertizing its successes no matter how small, is invaluable in communicating with the outside world that you are truly open for business and innovation. The next time someone gives you their number be sure to pick up the phone, and call them, maybe.

The two sides of…Idea Management Software

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Heads

Every organization has its own way of generating ideas, but unless the system is totally broken there is always a plentiful supply of good, bad, and indifferent ideas floating in the minds of its employees. The main problem organizations have is in tapping into those ideas in a way that allows the best ones to rise to the top. In top down organizations leadership designates priority areas to ensure focus but can miss the boat on big wins from disruptive innovation. Organizations that allow everyone to work on their own pet idea are rewarding innovation, but allow its impact to be diluted through extensive resource waste on repetitive and irrelevant ideas.

How can an organization get the best of both? Rather than reinventing the wheel to come up with a new system the most efficient path forward can be the utilization of an off-the-shelf idea management software like Spigit, Imaginatik, or Brightidea that encourages idea submission from all parts of the organization and that then commences an organized process of idea ranking to find the big opportunity areas. This avoids the pitfall of having too few people making a decision and missing out on a big opportunity – the crowd sourcing or stock market approach allows contributors to collaborate to build ideas up and move good ones forward. It also allows management to designate winning ideas to go forward and to be allocated the necessary resources to succeed. Besides these two benefits – involving all employees in the innovation process and ensuring proper focus and allocation – idea management systems also become a de facto filing system for ideas, making sure that work your organization has done in the past doesn’t get lost. Ideas that have been vetted and collaboratively generated are at the ready anytime you need a new innovation.

Idea management software won’t generate winning ideas for you – but it will simplify the process of managing innovation and will allow you to master your innovation pipeline.

Tails

Idea management software is becoming more and more commonplace in corporate environments and the number of different vendors producing and selling their own management platforms seems to increase every day.  Like all productivity tools they have their place and when used well can add tremendous value to an organization’s efficiency. However, idea management tools must be chosen very carefully and before beginning down this path you should consider the following:

Are you sure that the problem your company has is too many great ideas?  If your staff isn’t sure what to work on because they aren’t sure what (if any) are the good ideas then maybe idea management isn’t as important to you as an improved idea generation process

Are you sure that an idea management platform can cope with the shear number of ideas in your innovation portfolio?  Many platforms promote their ability to cope with large numbers of entries, but does the interface allow for the user to cope?

For platforms that promote some sort of crowd wisdom approach to idea management, are you sure that the software will be engaging enough to get a large number of people involved?  Crowd wisdom only works if there is a crowd.

Many platforms include mechanisms for contacting internal experts or require experts or management to comment for ideas to progress.  This works when the idea base is well targeted and relevant, but when a system becomes a catch-all for every half baked idea in the company, the contact mechanisms can rapidly become inbox spam turning off the very people who can contribute most to the system.

Like all productivity tools the adoption of idea management software has to drive a benefit for the company in the form of improved output (do more stuff), improved efficiency (do the same stuff with less people) or improved quality (do better stuff).  Do you know how to measure or realize this benefit for your innovation program?

In short, better idea management is a challenge that all innovation groups face but the system you chose must match both the quality and quantity of the ideas in your portfolio.  Just because it doesn’t have a URL doesn’t mean it isn’t cutting edge.

Is IP Stopping Innovation

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Are we poised to enter the post-IP age? Has the concept of the patent or trademark as we know it today been so muddled by modern corporate strategy and greed that it no longer serves the purpose it was originally conceived to support? In reading about the upcoming Apple vs. Samsung patent trial one has to wonder how the consumer or public good is served as these two giants of the tablet and smart phone industry prepare to battle it out over the right to own the market. Rather than focusing on how to make their product substantially better than the competitors they prefer to fight over how to block them from competing. The question is – does this hurt innovation?

Patents have been used to support invention since at least 1474 when they were formalized by a Venetian Statute. Even prior to this they existed as ‘letters patent’ issued by the king or queen to inventors in England or even further back in ancient Greece where inventors of new ‘refinements’ were afforded 1 year of profits. In the US the Congress passed the first patent act in 1790 to ‘promote the progress of useful Arts.’ Over the two subsequent centuries patent law has been refined and altered to more appropriately suit the now global marketplace and economy but many aspects of these legal grants have stayed the same.

Do the same rules make sense in the new, constantly evolving digital economy? After all, the original intent of providing patents was to incentivize disclosure of invention for the public good. Is that still happening? Let’s break down some key characteristics of patent law today to review how this helps or hurts innovation.

 

–         Filing Process: the process of applying for a global patent is a byzantine one, involving multiple organizations and sets of laws. For any company hoping to commercialize and protect a new invention the process can be daunting. Not only does this add cost and time to commercialization (often lots of both) of a new innovation, the differences in the examination and discovery process mean that what is novel in one state could be found ‘not inventive’ in another. By the time the examiners and lawyers are finished amending and shifting the filings what is protected in one region might be unprotected or infringing in another! Additionally, this expensive and time consuming process tilts the scales against individuals and small firms, leaving them essentially out of the process. The very people meant to be protected by the patent system – individuals with great ideas – are excluded unless they can muster significant resources to go through the filing process. The patent system then becomes a game that is played by large firms with the resources to engage in de facto patent war with their competitors!

–         Lifetime: patents last for about 20 years – great news if you can get one, bad news if you come up with a substantial but infringing product improvement 5 years later (or even 15 years later!). In the world of telecom and digital this is several lifetimes but in pharmaceuticals this is just the start for a successful product. The differences in these industries mean that a one-size-fits-all approach is not necessarily the best one. As well, the speed of knowledge improvement has so substantially shifted in the digital era that one has to wonder why any law written to support innovation in the age of the horse and carriage is still being used in the age of the Dreamliner!

–         Infringement Liability: the substantial rewards that might be expected from winning a patent lawsuit have led to the rise of an entirely new industry, patent trolls. These companies or firms buy up patents and use them as leverage to extort payment from other companies. It also encourages opposing firms to face off in court rather than work together. All this time litigating drains firm resources and limits real innovation, while providing a disincentive to making new and innovative products without obtaining firm IP protection. Too often companies look at the ability to create a sustainable IP position as a major factor in developing a new product, rather than looking for the best products. We’ve progressed from twenty patents in a year to thousands – shouldn’t the legal system have changed to allow speedy resolution of these cases in a fair and equitable fashion as well?

It’s obvious the current system isn’t doing much to drive innovation in most industries. Perhaps its time that governments and innovators came together to reform the patent system in a way that lets both companies and consumers win. Imagine if Apple and Samsung were to focus the resources currently tied up in lawyers and patents with creating new products – the consumers and companies might never look back!

In the meantime what does this mean for you, the osmotic innovator? Avoid falling into the trap of worrying about maintaining a defendable position at the expense of the consumer experience of your product. Don’t infringe on others IP but wasting resources unnecessarily protecting short term innovations won’t pay off in the end! And if this post interests you take a look at some previous posts on this blog regarding Enlightened IP Strategy – hopefully you’ll start to see a light at the end of the dark IP tunnel.

Why is Desktop Manufacturing Important for the Osmotic Innovator?

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MakerBot 3D Printer (source: Hack N Mod)

In recent months there have been increasing mentions of the concept of “desktop manufacturing” in both technical and lay press. “Desktop manufacturing” refers to the use of 3D Printing technologies to generate products using designs developed on or delivered to a user’s computer. This revolution has been coming for some time; with Fast Company stating that “the end of the  current production- manufacturing economic model may be on the horizon” back in 2009. In a keynote at the FEI 2012 conference Chris Anderson of Wired magazine spoke on the new business models that these technologies are enabling –enthralling the audience with stories of successful application of the technology. Anderson went so far as to say we are only at the dot-matrix stage of this technology, with massive growth and development poised to occur.

Indeed, increasingly advanced 3D printers and the computer-aided design (CAD) programs that support them are being made available at lower and lower prices to small companies that rent time and capacity to other companies and to individual consumers with the interest.

But why should this topic be important to the Osmotic Innovator?

–         Rapid Prototyping: the ability to quickly turn-around prototype products should not be underestimated. Only 10 years ago prototypes were used sparingly due to cost and time to manufacture, limiting consumer interactions with test concept designs to 2D images and descriptions. Even today many large companies have their own 3D printing capacity to churn out test designs quickly. The 3D printers of tomorrow may be simple enough to allow product developers with no design experience to create and modify innovative new solutions early in the process. It appears inevitable that the 3D printers of tomorrow will be capable of handling multiple materials to create complex mechanical objects. Making efficient use of these systems has the potential to transform the product development process even further.

–         Do-It-Yourself Mentality: the students of today (as well as many of the tinkerers) are beginning to see this technology as a normal part of doing business. Whereas teams that want to have the capability to model and create products on the fly currently need to staff individuals with design competency and engineering backgrounds the skills needed to use these tools are increasingly part of a basic technical education. Workshops that allow creative people to access these tools in their free time are also democratizing the product development process, making it possible that competition (or opportunity) for your company is going to come from unanticipated sources in the future. Your best customers might become your worst competition as they are able to harness this technology to make their own product improvements. Having a strategy to harness this technology and those with the skills appropriately will part of doing business in the future.

–         Future Technologies / Business Models: just as desktop publishing transformed the creation and distribution of printed content innovators should be ready for desktop manufacturing to have a similar impact on the creation, manufacturing, and distribution of new products. How your company will respond to, or position itself within these changes will go far to determining its future.

Regardless of your experiences with desktop manufacturing in the past, it is clear it is a concept that is poised to transform a multitude of industries. As an Osmotic Innovator there are a number of opportunities that can be leveraged to boost your teams’ effectiveness. Are you ready to seize the chance before your competitors do?

Playing the Fool for Innovation

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the FoolWhen 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.