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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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I am speaking at TRIZCON tomorrow. The opening speaker today was Jeffrey Davis, MD, Director of Space Life Sciences at NASA Johnson Space Center. His excellent presentation focused primarily on the open innovation efforts of NASA.

Here are some of the key soundbites I heard…

  • They wanted to avoid the “serendipity” associated with many innovation efforts, and to create something more predictable.
  • Alliances are THE key to open innovation. Another one is to use the platforms as a way of “managing a network of networks.”
  • He quoted Karim Lakhani from Harvard who once said, “No matter who you are, the smartest people work for someone else.”
  • He said that “putting a call for solutions to the open innovation channels was easy.” But there was a psychological barrier to admitting they couldn’t find the answers themselves.
  • Part of the reason why their efforts were so successful is that they did their homework. They determined which open innovation venue was most appropriate for each challenge. He referred to an article written by Gary Pisano in HBR (you can read an excerpt here).
  • NASA is using three organizations for their open innovation efforts: InnoCentive, Yet2, and Topcoder.

InnoCentive Challenges

Davis spent a large part of his hour talking about InnoCentive. He described them as a “turnkey solution” because challenge writing, vetting and other activities are done by them, reducing the amount of work to be done by NASA. Their InnoCentive challenges yielded responses from people in 65 countries and had a solve rate of about 50%.  He described a few InnoCentive challenges that they ran. Here are three where he had some interesting commentary:

Solar activity cause problems for space travel. If an astronaut is doing a walk during a flare, it can be incredibly dangerous. Therefore they ran a challenge to predict such activity. But instead of posting it as a solar activity challenge, they posed it as a mathematical modeling issue. This broadened the possible sphere of solutions and solution providers. The success criteria for the solution was that the model would need to provide prediction within 24 hours of the solar activity, it needed to be 50% accurate, and within 2 sigma (a quality measure where the higher the number the better). The solution was provided by a retired engineer whose model predicted within 8 hours, was 70% accurate and within 3 sigma. This was a huge improvement over their initial expectations.

Because space travel can last for years, they have a problem with food spoilage. Therefore they ran a challenge to find a food packaging materials that could keep food fresh for 3 years. They found a solution from someone without food experience in Russia who developed a graphite-based material that appears to keep food fresher than regular materials.

Davis indicated that their “micro gravity laundry system” challenge was the least successful. There were two lessons from this. 1) Asking a “system” question was too complex and it should have been deconstructed into smaller challenges (e.g., a valve challenge). 2) Maybe a “higher level” question should be asked. For example, how do we eliminate the need for clothes laundering altogether?

His comments confirmed a few things for me:

  • The laundry challenge highlights two keep points: asking a question that is too abstract leads to fluffy solutions, and asking the wrong question leads to irrelevant solutions.
  • The food packaging and solar flare challenges show that solutions often come from disciplines than are different than where you would traditionally look.
  • There is no one size fits all solution for open innovation. Different challenges require different approaches.

If you want to see my presentation to NASA last year, you can watch it here.

Today, the good folks at ChangeThis.com published my Personality Poker manifesto.  It is a quick read that will provide you some of my thoughts on why organizations struggle to become innovative…and what can be done about it.

Read it/download it here

Here’s the excerpt that Change This included on their website…

Issue 75 – 01 | Personality Poker: How to Create High-Performing Innovation Teams
By Stephen M. Shapiro Published Oct. 6, 2010 12:00 a.m.

“The desire for equality permeates everything we do and always has, as can be seen in many of our age-old philosophies. For example, we see it in the Golden Rule, which is often interpreted as ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ However, who really cares what you want? After all, treating people as you want to be treated doesn’t address the needs and desires of others.

Buying into these doctrines, myths, and lies leads to pasteurizing, homogenizing, and sanitizing everyone in order to fit people into one mold and think the same way so they can then gather together in like-minded harmony. There’s a good reason why they call it a company culture, since organizations are, in actuality, mini-cults. Instead, we should consider living by the doctrine:

The person you like the least may be the person you need the most.”

No company is perfect.  Something will eventually go wrong, even if you have the greatest Six Sigma or quality program on the planet.

And it is how you handle these problems that can determine your relationship with your customers.

For example, I needed a taxi from my hotel in Paris to the airport.  According to the front desk, it was supposed to take only 7 minutes.  After 10 minutes, the woman apologized and walked outside to see what was going on.  The police had blocked the road and no cars could get down the street.  She walked with me to the corner to see if my taxi was waiting there.  It was not.  She had me wait at the corner while she ran back to the hotel to call for another taxi.  Given the road problems, they would not send another car.  Instead of giving up, she walked me several streets away to a taxi stand where she made sure I was off safely.

That is customer service!  That goes beyond what I suspect any manual told her to do.  And it left me with only positive thoughts of my experience with that hotel.

To me, this is the true essence of innovation.  It is about improvising in the moment to do what makes sense right then and there.

Or, after checking into my hotel in the suburbs of Chicago, I went up to my room to discover that the key did not work.  I went all the way back down to the front desk.  The gentleman there apologized, fixed the keys, and without hesitation handed me some chocolate chip cookies.  No, I wasn’t staying in a Doubletree where all guests get cookies.  I was in a Hampton Inn.  I doubt this was standard protocol.

That one small gesture removed any annoyance and made me happy…sort of.  Since I am trying to lose a few pounds, I did silently curse the front desk clerk as a devoured the delicious cookies.

But sometimes companies do the wrong things when things go wrong…

I have had service with a mobile phone company for a long time, spending $2,000 a year on service.  A year ago I decided to get their VoIP home phone service which was one third the cost of a traditional copper wire line.

From the beginning, I had problems with the VoIP phone with poor call quality and dropped calls.  I called the phone company’s technical support repeatedly to see if they could fix the problem, but they could not.  Finally, I called customer service to tell them about my problems and that I wanted to cancel my account.  The man I spoke with informed me that I was under contract and that I would be charged $200 for canceling.  I explained that I have had issues from the beginning and have spent nearly $10,000 dollars with them over the years.  Did he really want to risk losing my $2,000 a year mobile service by forcing to adhere to a contract for a substandard home product? After 20 minutes of pleading my case, he did not waver.

I hung up and decided to call customer service again.  I explained the situation to the new person on the line.  Within 2 minutes, he canceled my home contract without penalty.  Clearly it was not that difficult to do.  Why didn’t they do that in the first place?

You can  make or break a relationship with a customer through a single interaction.  And what is most telling is how you respond to a customer when something goes wrong.

I know someone who worked for Bose.  She once told me: “When a customer buys Bose speakers, they become a fan of the product.  But when they buy Bose speakers and something goes wrong, they become a fan of the company for life.”  Their customer service is second to none.

What do you do when things go wrong?  Do you follow the “instruction” manual?  Or do you color outside of the lines and do what is right?  One interaction can change your relationship with your customers.

Whatever you do, don’t do the wrong things when things go wrong.

The other day I gave a speech on open innovation at a conference primarily focused on open source software.

One of the presenters at the event suggested that instead of trying to create a cathedral by controlling software development, we should instead be comfortable with a mess.  The point of open source is to let creativity emerge from the mess.

I thought that was an interesting point and was curious if this is how open source really works.

Just then an audience member made a comment (paraphrased here) – “Nearly every major, successful open source software effort has been backed by (and loosely controlled) by a large group. For example,  Mozilla’s support of Firefox and Oracle’s support of Open Office.”  He listed a few others and concluded that the only one that was not organized this way was Apache.  He implied that maybe the “mess” is not best.

I’m not an open source software expert, but I don’t find that surprising.

When there is no structure, chaos ensues.  Structure, even simple structure, can help bring together people so that they can work together more efficiently AND creatively (we know that even creativity requires some structure; innovation more-so)

As the morning progressed, I realized that the conference itself was an example of what can happen when there are no controls. It quickly became apparent that there was no formal emcee, no one in charge of the running of the conference, and no well-defined agenda.

The morning plenary was scheduled to go from 9AM until 10:30AM followed by a 30 minute break.  After the break were concurrent breakouts, including the one where I was presenting.  Immediately after my speech, I would hop off the stage, hop into a taxi for the airport, and head to my next speech in Italy.

At 10:30, when the break was supposed to start, another speaker took the stage.  I assumed we were running a little late, but it was hard to tell how late since they did not list who was supposed to speak.  And then a parade of speakers continued.  It seemed like it would never end.  I think there were four or five speeches that went on after the scheduled end time.  And quite a few of the speeches were nothing more than long-winded commercials from sponsoring companies.  It was 11:30 – a 60 minute overrun on a 90 minute session – before the speeches were done.  And then, no one was given instructions.  Should they take a break?  Should they go to their breakout?  People were confused.  They did not know what to do.  I didn’t know what to do.  And I wasn’t 100% sure I would make my flight given the delay.

Although it would be an exaggeration to call this event “chaotic,” it certainly was not orderly or efficient. And it demonstrated what can happen when things are left on their own without any kind of process.

I realize that innovation requires a bit of flexibility and comfort with ambiguity.  Nothing is totally predictable in the world of innovation and you can’t schedule everything as neatly as you do in the world of operations or manufacturing.  I also agree that new ideas can emerge from chaos that might not otherwise come to the surface (reminds me of the infinite monkey theorem).  And when you have millions of people donating their time to the open source movement, the resulting inefficiency associated with the mess can be tolerated.

But can your business afford this level of inefficiency?  Probably not.  I have written frequently about the “signal-to-noise” ratio of your innovation efforts.  If you modeled your business after the “uncontrolled, mess model,” you will almost certainly end up with an extremely low signal-to-noise ratio.

The real objective of your innovation “process” is to put in just enough structure to help make it efficient, while not putting in so much that it stifles creativity.

I’ll close this post with something I wrote back in 2001 in my first book, and reused in a blog entry a year ago:

(As innovators,) we are architects of companies and industries.  An architect is not a ‘reengineer.’ To illustrate this point, I often ask clients what is the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, a reengineering consultant, and an architect. The optimist looks at a half filled glass of water and sees it as half-full. The pessimist looks at the same glass and sees it as half-empty.  The reengineering consultant sees too much glass. Cut off the top. Downsize. An architect looks at the same glass and asks questions such as “Who’s thirsty?” “Why water?” Or “Is there another way to satisfy the thirst?”

We need to architect our innovation efforts.  And in order to do that, we need to ask better questions.

In fact, one of the most critical skills for accelerating innovation is to – ask the right questions, the right way, of the right people.

With this approach, you get both the efficiency of the controlled cathedral building process and the emergent creativity associated with the messier forms of open source software.

P.S. It has been pointed out that some of my open source examples are not accurate.  I only wrote what I thought I heard, which clearly I didn’t get perfect. Even if I had the specific applications/companies wrong, the paraphrased concept came from an open source practitioner. Regardless, my focus in the article was not open source software specifically, but rather the implications for innovation in organizations. I still stand by my points of view. Even if the “mess” model works in open source, I don’t believe it can work inside of a company that wants to make money. Companies do not have unlimited access to unpaid resources.

P.P.S. The picture is one I took of St. Marks Basilica while in Venice, Italy.  Although your business might not want to create a cathedral, this one was pretty impressive!

Imagine you are heading to a REALLY important meeting that is being held out of town. You have your bags packed. You have your airplane tickets, hotel and car rental reservations, and GPS.

You hop on the plane and fly to your destination. After deplaning, you pull out your hotel reservation and type the address into the GPS.

And then, you realize…you have a problem. A BIG problem.

Although your destination airport was Buffalo, NY, the event is being held just over the border in Ontario Canada…and you don’t have your passport.

I am completely embarrassed to admit it, but this happened to me just last week.

My speech was in Niagara Falls. For some reason I believed that the event was on the United States Side. This was a BAD assumption.

A friend once described herself as a fire fighting arsonist. She was constantly putting out fires that she started. I was beginning to understand what she meant.

If you were in my situation, what would have gone through your mind?

During my 45 minute drive from Buffalo to the border crossing, I went through three distinct phases of thought.

Phase 1: “Oh $#*!” – Not a very useful phase, but I had to acknowledge the reality of the situation

Phase 2: What can I do to get into Canada? – I first considered swimming across Niagara Falls. If I were Michael Phelps, then that might be an option. But I am not. I then pondered begging and bribery as options. But I needed to consider more practical solutions. It is amazing what the mind can remember when it is pressed. I recalled the fact that I had once taken a picture of my passport and that the image was on my computer. I thought through all of my documents: contracts, hotel reservations, car rental agreements, and return airplane tickets.

Phase 3: What would I do if I couldn’t get into Canada? – Getting into the country was not guaranteed.  Therefore I needed to think through what I would do to best serve the customer in light of this situation.  I considered how I might deliver the speech via video Skype. Given that it was a Personality Poker session, I thought through ways of getting decks across the border.  I even thought through a list of innovation speakers I know in Canada, which admittedly, is not a very long list.

After I went through all of this in my mind, I finally arrived at the border crossing.

I tell this (very embarrassing) story to make a point.

Your ability to solve problems is your key to success. The bigger the “game” you are playing, the bigger your problems will be. You cannot be stuck in “phase 1” and be paralyzed by the situation.  Finding productive solutions is critical.

The same is true for organizations.

Some problems are obvious, like self-inflicted ones, pervasive quality issues, or those evident from an eroding market share.

But sometimes the most important challenges are in our blind-spots. These represent the biggest opportunities:

  • Strategic opportunities for developing new products, services, or business models
  • Marketing opportunities that would grow market share
  • Process improvement opportunities that would create time for innovation
  • “Cultural” issues that prevent innovation (e.g., not-invented-here syndrome, poor collaboration, etc)

Innovation is nothing more than identifying, prioritizing, solving and implementing your most important challenges in the most efficient way.

Mastering this one single skill will catapult your organization to higher levels. There are many articles on this blog discussing problem solving and challenge-driven innovation. And more articles will be written in the future.

You may be wondering how my personal story ends.

Fortunately I was able to get into Canada. It did not take too long and they were very friendly. They asked for most of the documents I had already catalogued in my mind.

Interestingly, I was told that if I were a Canadian trying to get into the US, it would be a lot more difficult and I would probably not have been allowed in.

The morning after my speech, I wanted to make sure I did not get stuck at the US border crossing, so I left my hotel 5 hours before my flight. Given it is a 45 minute trip, I figured that should give me enough time to deal with any kind of interrogation.

I get to the border crossing. The guard looks at my driver’s license. Asks me the city I was born in and lets me through. I got to the airport with almost 4.5 hours to spare.

My days of being a fire fighting arsonist are over. It is too much work and too much stress. I would rather focus on more productive challenges!

The Personality Poker book is available in 6 weeks and 2 days.

But starting today, you can buy the new and improved Personality Poker cards from the “Change This” site.  These are the guys who bring you the Change This manifestos.

For the past few years, we have been selling the cards for $200 for 6 decks with instructions.  But after printing 50,000 decks of cards, our production costs have dropped significantly.  Therefore we are pleased to offer the cards for:

Aside from the reduced price (over 50% less), the cards have 2 major improvements.

  1. The cards have new words: We partnered with a psychology professor from Columbia College who did some scientific analysis.
  2. The cards have a new design: When you hold them in your hand you can read the words along the side.  This makes playing the game even easier.

If you want to energize a meeting, supercharge your innovation team, or just have some fun, you’ll want to get your decks of Personality Poker now.

P.S. The 800 CEO READ guys, the owners of Change This, wrote a blog entry on Personality Poker

Look at any group of people who effortlessly work well together. Odds are the individuals share a lot in common with each other. They might have similar backgrounds, expertise, interests, or personalities. This is natural. Contrary to conventional wisdom, opposites do not attract. We find it easier to work with people who are like us. As a result, teams that lack diversity are the norm.

In fact, there is plenty of scientific research suggesting that homogeneous teams do indeed perform better than more heterogeneous ones for “low difficulty” tasks – those with lower levels of ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity.

However, research also shows that in situations involving “high difficulty” tasks, heterogeneous groups consistently perform the best. Innovation is, by its very nature, fraught with uncertainty and complexity. It is obviously a high-difficulty task. Although homogeneous teams are more efficient, it is the uniformity of thinking on these types of teams that limits breakthrough ideas and reduces innovation. Ensuring a range of innovation styles should be the goal in constructing such groups in order to maximize team performance.

Unfortunately, diverse teams, left to their own devices, are rarely efficient. Differences of opinion, creative tension, and infighting will naturally emerge. Individuals who think differently do not naturally communicate well with each other. Therefore, it is important that innovation teams be given the tools to “play well together.”

Putting this together, we end up with three simple principles. And these are the three key principles of Personality Poker:

  1. People in your organization must “play to their strong suit.” That is, make sure that everyone understands how they contribute to and detract from the innovation process. This includes ensuring that you have the right people with the right leadership styles in your organization.
  2. As an organization, you need to “play with a full deck.” Embrace a wide range of innovation styles. Instead of hiring on competency and chemistry, also hire for a diversity of innovation styles. Every step of the innovation process must be addressed with people with the right innovation styles.
  3. Deal out the work.” That is, you must divide and conquer. You can’t have everyone in your organization do everything. Instead, get them to divvy up the work based on which style is most effective at a given task. You can’t have everyone generating ideas, or focusing on planning.

Innovation is the life-blood of your organization. It is crucial for long-term growth. Without it, your business will almost certainly become irrelevant and commoditized. Unfortunately, although it is important, it is not always easy. However, applying these three simple principles can help you create high-performing innovation teams that consistently “beat the house.”

In my blog post, “How Can Goals Enhance Creativity” I said…

“…As long as everyone in the organization believes they are playing a game which is designed to get them energized today, and it is not specifically about hitting the target, I can assure you that people will be more motivated.”

Games can be a useful tool for enhancing creativity.  They make work more fun, they reduce stress, and they get people in action.


Not all games are created equally.  There are adult games and kid games.

With adult games, there tend to be rigid rules, the games have an ending, and there are winners and losers.

Think about nearly every game we play: Monopoly, poker, or basketball.

They typically have a complex set of rules that all of the players need to adhere to.  If you break the rules you “go to jail,” are disqualified, or get penalized.

Adult games end.  The game is over when all of the other players are out of money, when the “clock” says there is not more time, or when everyone has had their turn.

And nearly every adult game has a winner and one or more losers.  They are competitions.

Contrast this with kid games.

Kids play games with very loose rules, the game continues until they say it ends, and there is no concept of winner/loser.

If you watch kids play.  They tend to have very few rules in their games.  And if there are rules, they make them up as they go along. They improvise. Even universal rules don’t apply to kids.  They can don a cape and fly through the air, defying the laws of gravity.

Rarely is a stopwatch involved when kids play.  They play the game until they get tired of playing that game.  And then they invent a new game.  The only clocks involved with kid games are the watches on the wrists of their parents.  The adults end the game when it’s dinner time or bedtime.

And there are no winners or losers.  They don’t even have that concept. Yes, they might have battles with imaginary swords or super powers.  And there are victims who get hurt or die in the heat of battle.  But they come back reinvented as a new character.  The play does not end at death.

Kids play for the sake of play and no other reason.

Adult games can limit creativity. The rules, deadlines, and pressure prevent the flow of new ideas.  They create stress.

If you want to enhance creativity, passion, and productivity, I encourage you to play kid games. These timeless, unbounded, and rule-free games can create an environment of free-flowing-thinking.  As mentioned in previous blog entries, studies show that 98% of 5 year olds test as highly creative, yet only 2% of adults do. We don’t lose our creativity; we learn habits which stop it from emerging.

I contend that the types of games we play reflects our level of creativity.  When people are most creative, they play kid games.  When they are least creative, they play adult games.

Maybe it is time to recapture our creative youth and start playing more kid games.

In future blog entries, I will discuss HOW kid games can be used to enhance creativity, productivity, and success.

Bring Stephen’s innovation insights to your next event!