How To Manage Innovation In Your Organization

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Monday, 7.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let’s all go exploring. – Edith Widder

I’ve been looking for definitions of innovation on the basis that you need to know what it is before you can figure out if you’re doing it but it’s rather hard to find a general definition. The thing is that innovation happens in many places – you can be innovative in the way you bring up your kids, innovative in the way you manage your team and innovative in the way you model crystalline structure.

While looking for information on innovation I stumbled on Hemphill’s 2003 paper on innovation governance that sets out a useful framework to think about managing innovation. It’s within the context of national policy but I think it could well apply at the level of an organization or even a family.

Innovation is the most important driver of modern industrial economies – you’re constantly being marketed the newest and the best, and the only reason you will buy something is because it’s better than what you have now. A huge amount of time and investment goes into creating the products and services that you use.

But you can’t allow the creation and sale of any old product so there are rules in place. And the oldest of these rules is the “precautionary principle”, which essentially comes down to do no harm. You have to show that your product or service is safe, that it doesn’t harm people. That means your car’s brakes need to work and your medicines need to have acceptable side effects. If you’re not sure that there’s a problem then you have to take action to minimise the risk.

This principle works and keeps us safe but it also acts as a deterrent to innovation, increasing the costs of bringing something new to the market. So another approach to innovation governance is “responsible innovation”, which is about encouraging the development of products that are good for society. The most visible aspect of this approach is the grants governments provide for socially beneficial product development. These incentivise everything from the deployment of digital infrastructure and skills to clean energy technology.

An alternative approach to innovation is to get the blockers out of the way – to encourage “permissionless innovation”. This means letting people get on with developing new products and services and only stepping in when you can see that harm is being caused. There are benefits to this approach because it reduces the cost of innovation but it also creates a risk that the innovators go too far. An example of this might be the financial sector which creates complex products that are supposed to make it easier for people to access funding but that also introduce unpredictable systemic risks that regularly threaten to destroy the fabric of society. It hasn’t happened yet, though, so it must be ok.

The last method of innovation governance is to require that you think about the impact any new policy is going to have on innovation. An argument against work from home, for example, is that people can’t innovate unless they’re together in one place. If that assumption is not true – if your best people can innovate from anywhere – then they’ll move to companies that let them work the way that’s best for them. You have to be certain that your policy is really about encouraging innovation and not a disguised way of getting people back into the office where you can keep an eye on them. Another example in business is giving people time to work on the business rather than just in the business – they can’t make things better if they’re busy firefighting every working minute.

Hemphill’s argument is that the precautionary principle is restrictive. It gets in the way and can stop ideas from getting traction. And it’s possible that powerful interests can use it to keep things the way they want, in the way that best suits them.

A good way to balance innovation and public safety is by combining permissionless innovation with responsible innovation. This removes barriers to innovation but makes it clear that innovation should be for the good of all. Encourage innovation that helps people.

In a nutshell, get out of the way and let innovative people get on with doing what is good for society.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Hemphill, T.A., 2020, “The innovation governance dilemma: Alternatives to the precautionary principle”, Technology in society.

What Does A Consultant Do?

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It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed. – Napoleon Hill

Edgar Schein made a number of contributions in the organizational development field, looking at career models, organizational culture and consultancy. In his paper on process consultation (Schein, 1990) he introduces the idea of “helping” and how you can think about this in your own context.

Helping others is a fundamental part of being human, whether it’s as a parent or a friend, a teacher or a manager – in addition to professional helping roles such as being a consultant or a therapist. The link between consultancy and therapy is interesting because there are many common features of the literature in both camps. For example, the idea that reality is a social construction, something that is created by an individual or group in a bid to make sense of what they perceive, is common to both. This means that the biggest thing we can do to make things better in our lives or organisations is to learn how to think more clearly about the problematic situations that we find ourselves in.

Schein talks about three types of helping – expert, doctor and process – and each of these ask you to do different things.

Most of us are familiar with the expert mode of helping. If you have a problem, say with a CRM system, you know who the expert is and can get in touch with them to help solve your problem. An expert knows what to do in their area of expertise and can come in and sort things out.

The doctor mode of helping is a little different – here you have someone who knows quite a lot and can come in, ask some questions, look at what’s happening, run some tests and come up with a diagnosis of the problem and suggest a cure. For example, you might call in a technical expert if you’ve got glitches in your network with random outages. That’s something that needs to be diagnosed.

The last kind of helping is process mode helping your client understand what’s going on in their situation and what they could do about it. This is a process of enquiry, a curiosity led process where asking questions and exploring is the way you understand what’s going on. The main difference is that client still owns the problem and they decide what to do next.

Schein argues that none of these helping processes are better than any other – instead what’s important is knowing which mode you should shift into and when.

When you first enter a problematic situation you should always start with a process mindset. Don’t make assumptions about what’s going on. Ask questions, understand why the client is looking at this situation now, is there really a problem, do you see why they are asking for help?

As you understand more about the situation the client is in then you can move into the other modes. That’s when you can play doctor, asking for symptoms, running tests and coming up with a diagnosis – and making possible suggestions for a cure.

If you end up talking about an area where you have relevant expertise and know what’s the right thing to do then you can say so. This is your expert opinion at work and you should speak up.

Why should you start with process consulting rather than diving straight into providing your expertise or diagnosing the problem? That’s because there are a number of assumptions that underpin the two other approaches. With an expert approach you assume that the client knows what the problem is and knows the kind of expertise needed to sort it out. With the doctor approach you assume that the client knows they have a problem, that they can recognize the symptoms and know what kind of doctor is needed.

It’s fair to expect that clarity in a number of situations, but in many cases we don’t have a deep understanding of what’s going on. We have to start by understanding what the problem really is before we can get on with the job of solving it. What we need to do is work with the client to make sure that they see what the problem is, they recognize that they own the problem and they’re committed to making things better.

Only then can we expect things to change for the better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Schein, E.H, 1990. “A general philosophy of helping: Process consultation”, Sloan Management Review, pp 57-64

How To Be More Creative And Come Up With Better Ideas

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No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world. – Robin Williams

An academic said to me recently that we are in the business of ideas, we exchange ideas. And that’s an interesting thought. which leads to a question – how good are we at coming up with ideas and, once we have them how good are we at sharing them with others?

In the literature, people have theorized that there are four elements to idea generation: fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration (Guildford, 1957).

Fluency is a raw number – the volume and quantity of ideas you come up with. The more you have, the more fluent you are. This is the idea that no idea is a bad idea – somewhere in that mess of ideas you’ll find a good one.

This reminds me of copywriting advice on writing good headlines for a project. Before you start writing any content come up with 50 or so headlines – the act of working on this will help you come up with ideas that you perhaps might not have considered if you had stopped with the first one or two ideas that came into mind.

But it’s not enough to simply have a big number of ideas. You also need flexibility – the ideas need to be different from each other. If you come up with the equivalent of a hundred knock-knock jokes that doesn’t mean you can tell a story or move people’s emotions. You need variety in your ideas and need to try and come up with different types of ideas.

The next thing that matters is originality – how different are your ideas from other ones out there, or ones that other people working on the same problem have come up with. Originality is very important – it’s what gives you a competitive advantage. If you can show that you’ve done something different, something that hasn’t been done before – then you can lay a claim to that idea. You own it.

The last element that’s important is elaboration. Anyone can come up with an idea for the next YouTube – but it takes more than that to really get the idea across to someone else. A business plan is really an elaboration of an idea – showing how you’ve thought it through and that it’s something realistic and valuable. If you cannot elaborate on your idea then you won’t get people to buy into it.

Four questions – four guides when you’re coming up with your next idea.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Guilford, J. P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review, 64(2), 110–118.

Why Bad News Rarely Makes It To The Top Before It’s Too Late

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Friday, 8.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age. – Colin Powell

Argyris (1977) explores the question of why bad news doesn’t make it to the top of organizations – and comes to the conclusion that the problem is that it’s minimized at each stage. What starts off at the front line as a scary monster is restated as a mild problem by middle management and becomes a small issue by the time it’s presented to senior management.

The issue is that no one wants to be the bearer of bad news (remember the shoot the messenger principle) and so you’re asked for more information, more justification, to explain what’s going on. As a result by the time you know what’s really going on it’s too late to do anything about it.

This is something I hadn’t really realized about the news until recently. By the time something gets on the news it’s all gone horribly wrong. You don’t get a news item talking about how a government department comfortably avoided disaster. That’s not news. You get the failures, the shambles, the disasters. And you get a side order of blame, shame and excuses.

Now, you might argue that this is not the way things should be. Argyris argues instead that we should consider this as normal behaviour. These are human games that we play in societies and it’s as natural as anything else. And that’s why top leaders don’t trust anything their subordinates say because they know the truth is being hidden from them. Good leaders go and see for themselves rather than relying on reports and briefings. If you run a hospital, for example, you need to walk the wards to see what’s going on and what people really experience. Both staff and patients.

And this is where double loop learning comes in. If you have a heating system that comes on and turns off when the heating reaches a certain point you have a single loop learning process. If the heating had the ability to question whether its setting was the right one then you have double loop learning. In an organisation this means that you are doing single loop learning if you do your job. If you ask yourself what job you should be doing then you’re doing double loop learning.

Much of the time in organisations it’s not that people don’t want to hear bad news – it’s that they are worried about what pointing it out will do to their careers and relationships. That’s why it’s easier for an external consultant to come in and talk about what they see. It’s their job to be honest, in theory, and tell it like it is.

Argyris’s paper has a number of other ideas and I should really pull out a few more of them in the next post. So I’ll do that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Argyris C, 1977, “Double loop learning in organizations”, Harvard Business Review.

How To Structure A Teaching Session

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Thursday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. – John Steinbeck

As part of my research studies I’m doing an introductory module on teaching. And, like most things that I do for the first time, I’m blown away by just how hard it is to think through and prepare for a lesson. You really have to put aside everything you know and start from the perspective of the learner and rebuild your content so that it makes sense to someone else rather than just yourself.

So how do you go about doing this?

The starting point is understanding the concept of learning outcomes – what you want your student to do after they have experienced the session. Getting the learning outcome down on paper has a focusing effect on your content structure – you keep in the stuff that helps to move your student towards the outcome and get rid of the material that doesn’t.

A useful way to structure your teaching content is to use the pyramid principle described by Barbara Minto in her book of the same name.

At the top of the pyramid is a statement that sets out what you want to get across to the audience or, in the case of a student audience, what you want them to achieve.

For example, if I were to teach you how to build a spreadsheet model the learning outcome or statement might be “In this session you will learn how to model, create and use a spreadsheet model to explore and illuminate a situation of interest.” That might be a bit wordy but it would be a start.

When you have an end result laid out in such a way the main bits almost write themselves. It’s a good idea to limit the first division of your core concept to three to five main points. I like three so with my spreadsheet example the three key steps are drawing an influence model of parameters and results, designing a spreadsheet model and then using the model to explore the situation and gain insights. Model, Build, Use.

The next step down is to create the material you need to explain each of those three concepts – gathering the talking points, examples and activities your student needs to understand the process.

And then it’s time to try it out and see how it works.

The pandemic has probably given all of us a new sense of respect for the work teachers have to do. There’s nothing quite as hard as trying to keep the attention of a six to seven-year old.

I have a number of questions about teaching that I might need to follow up and experiment with over the coming days and months. For example we’re often told not to put too much text into presentations. At the same time if you’re talking about something that the audience finds relevant and interesting then they’ll stay with you for the detail. It’s boring stuff that turns people off.

Another question I have is the difference between teaching a skill and teaching conceptual thinking. It’s the difference between learning calligraphy and learning how to write.

And then there is the question about what you teach – what’s the canon or collection of ideas that make up the body of knowledge that you’re trying to get across?

Even with a very short introduction to teaching I’m starting to realize that there’s much more to it than you might think at first.

And that’s a good thing. It’s hard to teach, and that’s why it’s worth learning how to do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Route To Becoming Good At Something

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As a general rule, when your child, or anyone in the work force, doesn’t know what he/she wants to do, they should instead always be developing skills and competencies that will qualify them for the jobs that companies are most looking to fill and increase their hireability. – Mark Goulston

I came across Martin Broadwell’s (1969) i consciousness-competence framework again recently while reading about teaching. The image above is based on this four stage model and is a good one to keep in mind.

It’s hard to appreciate a state of mind where you don’t know that you don’t know something. It’s more obvious to others than it is to you. For example, if you listen to someone reminiscing about the good old days when everyone had a job and things worked and how everything has gone wrong now – you can pretty much guarantee that the problem is not that things have gone wrong but that the world has changed and the person complaining has not kept up – the world they knew has been replaced and no one told them that was happening.

This is a trap we fall into all the time. Most of us have an area of competence – but for some of us we start to think that because we are competent in one area we must also be good at other things. And that’s not the case. It’s very easy to step outside your circle of competence and not realize that you’ve got it all wrong.

The only solution is to recognise that you’re a novice at this and start to learn. At that point you know that you don’t know something and you start to look for resources, for opportunities to learn and develop your skills. This is when you become a student – someone who is seeking knowledge to get better at something.

After a period of learning and practice you know that you can do something well – you’re consciously competent. I’ve called this stage being professional, because that’s really the point at which people hire you. They don’t hire you to learn on their time, they hire you to get the job done – which is what a professional does.

Then there’s a stage beyond that, one that some people call mastery. It’s talked about as unconscious competence – where you do something without really being able to tell how you do it. How do you read that room, see the way in which minds are flowing, how do you ask the right question, carry out the right analysis, look for the right clue? You can’t explain why you feel something is right or wrong but you know it is.

This is perhaps most obvious in physical skills – the unconscious competence that comes with playing an instrument or shooting the perfect 3-pointer – but it’s visible in trades and business as well. But I prefer the term artistry to mastery, because in many cases it’s not about being good without being able to tell how – but being so good that you can break all the rules the professionals live by. That’s what great artists do – they know the form and go beyond it.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Starting Something Again After A While

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Tuesday, 8.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better and your better is best. – St. Jerome

I haven’t written for nine days and that’s quite a long stretch to go without putting out a post. When I do that – stop for a while – I’m never quite sure what it’s going to take to get started again. What will it look like, will I still be able to write, have the ideas gone away, never to reappear?

The good news is that you can always get started even if you question everything you do. I still wonder what this blog is for, why do I spend time on it? I don’t write long pieces that are designed for a search engine and the short pieces I do write are streams of consciousness that follow trails of thought. Today, for example, I looked at other people’s work and wondered about mine – what made it different, how could I do it better, and was there value in it?

The reason I’m asking such questions is because I’m designing a programme of research that looks at the “art of thinking” – the way in which we use tools to help us make sense of things, solve problems, learn new things and innovate. In a world where machines seem to do everything where is the space for human thinking and creativity?

One of the things that I do, as you can see from the blog, is draw simple pictures to explore ideas. We can all draw but we’re afraid to draw bad stuff, make the kinds of lines we made as children. That’s not “serious” work and we don’t do that kind of stuff any more.

Can you learn to draw again? Yes, you can, but you have to put in the time to practice. And that starts with simple things like doing drills. When you use a drawing tablet, for example, it takes some time to train your brain to connect what your hands are doing with what your eyes are seeing. With a pencil on paper feedback is immediate – you apply pressure and see a mark appear under the point. With digital tools you move your hand in one place and a mark is made on the screen. Your brain needs to be trained to connect the two events – the pressure of your fingers on the page and the sight of the pixels being stained on the screen. It can take a few months to get comfortable doing this, doing drills like in the picture above.

Is it reasonable to expect that people should try and gain such a skill? No. What people need are keyboard skills, the ability to create spreadsheets and documents. The ability to work in an office. That’s what’s needed. Except – if you can draw your ideas then you will create better spreadsheets and better documents. You don’t need to do that digitally but if you’re able to create an influence diagram that identifies what you’re trying to understand and then models all the factors that influence the outcome you’ll create a better spreadsheet model. Being able to draw an idea is going to help you structure a better document. John McPhee, the New Yorker writer, always starts his writing with a diagram in mind. Developing the skills to show your thinking visually makes the products of your thinking better.

Or that’s my theory anyway.

The challenge is that it’s hard to prove. Any kind of structured thinking is better than random decision making, isn’t it? Does it matter that you draw things down or is it enough just to make a list. Is there a “right” way to do things or is what matters “your way?” The answer should be that you need to do what works for you. So should we worry about testing effectiveness or should we collect ways of doing things and let people decide for themselves?

I don’t know the answer – hence the research programme.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is The Reason Someone Should Invest In Your Business?

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Sunday, 7.19pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it. – Edmund Hillary

I was talking to a friend the other day about being able to describe a business model in a single sentence, perhaps a single word, and started throwing out suggestions. I came up with money, momentum and mission. He suggested missing. And this is a good start.

A good reason to start something is because there is a clear route to payback. If you provide a product or service that has strong market demand, if you sell something people want at a profit then you’re going to bring in money and that makes sense. Many good, profitable businesses are ones that you don’t hear about in the papers – they’re the trench diggers, the utility businesses, the construction companies that get on and do the day-to-day work that keeps economies running and people fed and watered. These are the kinds of businesses that Warren Buffett dreams of buying – ones that have a competitive advantage and a long-term market.

The second reason to do something is because you’re on a roll, because you’ve got the timing right, because you have momentum. If you’re in a particular space and the stars are aligned then you can get on and build your business because you have the wind at your back. I wrote about a TED talk in my last post where the speaker decided to teach children how to draw during the pandemic and ended up with 10,000 children joining her first lesson. If you’ve spotted an opportunity and have luck on your side then you should go for it.

The third reason to do something is because you have a mission – a story that drives you and a desire to make things better. We all know people like this – some of them start social enterprises, others cooperatives or non-profits while others create purpose-driven for-profit firms. What matters is your story and how it resonates with others.

The fourth reason is to because you’ve found a gap in the market – because something is missing and you think you can fill that need. You can often only see the gap because you’ve spent a long time in that space and know what the problems are that people face and the kind of solutions that they need.

Those four Ms seem to cover quite a large number of cases.

Can you think of any more?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Going Deep Or Going Quick – How To Decide?

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Saturday, 8.51pm

Sheffield, U.K.

What is art but a way of seeing? – Saul Bellow

I watched Wendy MacNaughton’s TED talk about paying attention and it reminded me of a challenge we face all the time in situations. Should we go deep into something or should we quickly sort things out? How do we tell which one to do?

MacNaughton writes a visual column for the New Yorker and she started her talk with an exercise that I’ve seen in Betty Edward’s Drawing on the right side of the brain. Pick something to draw and then draw it, never lifting your pen from the paper or taking your eyes off the subject. If you’re drawing a leaf, for example, slowly follow every curve of the outline of the leaf and let your fingers follow your eye. You’ll end up with something that is rubbish – like my picture above where I drew an eye – but you also end up with something real because, perhaps for the first time, you’ve drawn what you’ve seen.

Let me explain.

Most of the time we view the world and see not what’s out there but what we expect to see. We are pattern recognizing machines, we have patterns for houses, patterns for trees, patterns for people. Our brains recognize patterns – that’s why a simple line drawing of a few essential features can tell us whether the drawing is of a person or a thing. We’re particularly wired to notice other people and expressions because it’s a vital survival skill to know if that person coming towards you is friendly or not.

That’s why when we try and draw the world we tend to revert to icons, to a visual shorthand representation of the things around us. We may think that’s because we’re bad at drawing – but that isn’t the case. It’s simply quicker to have a library of icons that can be expressed as simple drawings because we can get them done quickly. If you want to show the state of mind of someone else you can do that with a circle, two eyes, eyebrows and a mouth. That’s quite enough to convey quite a large range of emotions.

But although you can draw a general emotional state that doesn’t mean you understand what’s going on. You don’t see the other lines that tell you the history of the person, the unwrinkled lines of a young person or the leathery skin of a weatherbeaten outdoorsperson. To see that you have to take your time and draw the detail, to see what’s really there rather than the pattern you’ve imposed on the world in front of your eyes.

The same thing happens when you try and understand a situation. You can see people in organizations as roles engaging with each other or you can talk to a specific person and understand their point of view. It doesn’t take long to draw an office hierarchy. It takes much longer to understand any one of the individuals in that diagram and what their daily experience looks like.

Much of the time the efficient thing to do is ignore the detail – to just use pattern recognition to notice the general working of things. Being oblivious to most things is the way to go.

But when you are involved in a situation and you care about getting an outcome that improves what’s going on you have to be prepared to take the time to get into the detail of what’s going on – to see what’s really there.

What matters is deciding whether you’re an onlooker or a participant – and then doing the work that’s necessary to get things done.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh