Innovating innovation

I was flipping through the January edition of Computerworld Canada last night in between watching the US Superbowl commercials on YouTube (how many people changed their opinion that Groupon was smart to turn down Google’s offer after seeing their commercial — a show of hands, please?)  In Shane Schick’s piece, “Why IT departments must own innovation in 2011,” he referred to The New York Times Magazine’s article, In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm, about companies who are paying a lot of money ($200,000 for a one-day session) to (un)consulting firms like Jump Associates to help foster innovation and creativity.

Author David Segal gives a glimpse into the world of hired innovation:

Last month, in a small room on the fifth floor of a high-rise building in San Mateo, Calif., three men sat around a table, thinking. The place was wallpapered with Post-it notes, in a riot of colors, plus column after column of index cards pinned to foam boards. Some of the cards had phrases like “space maximizers” or “stuff trackers” written on them. Many had little three-dimensional ink drawings and titles, like “color-coded Tupperware horizontal stacker.” It looked as if these guys had been locked in and told they couldn’t leave until they dreamed up 1,000 of the wackiest home-storage items they could imagine.

The accompanying photo shows a “group stretch” on a rooftop of an office building. The people look a bit awkward — two of the guys appear to be doing “The Robot;” if you saw the Black Eye Peas’s Tron-inspired half-time show last night, you’ll have the right image in your mind.

The piece presents the whole thing as being a bit silly; as a rule of thumb, when profiled by the media, people who charge up to $500,000 per month for consulting services rarely go unscathed. Plus, we’ve all been to those corporate retreats where some enthusiastic functionary has determined that what we need to regain our profitability is a good game of whirlyball. The next day, of course, it’s back to business as usual. (The exception was years ago when one of the senior people had way too much to drink at an offsite and revealed during one of the “sharing moments” that she did not think her husband was the father of one of her kids. It was not business as usual after that one, but I digress.)

Jump hopes its methods are stickier. As the article points out, what Jump’s clients have recognized is that we are in an “innovate or die” world, where good leaders are no longer required to simply move the needle by trimming costs or growing sales but might have to totally reformulate the business model in order to survive. Often they find themselves surrounded by technically competent people who are either unable or unwilling to bring the necessary creative thinking skills to the table to make that leap.

Case in point: some time ago I was encouraged to apply for a job with a major financial institution. The role sounded pretty cool, involving lots of the “big picture” stuff. I suspected that they were interested in me because I have wholesale banking experience and therefore would have some internal credibility. I also thought they’d be interested in some of my recent experience doing more creative work: work that informed my business thinking every bit as much as my MBA had. So imagine my surprise when the interviewer started to ask me about things I’d done in 1996.

For those needing a refresher because it was so long ago, 1996 was when DVDs were launched, Fargo was the sleeper hit at the box office, Charles and Diana divorced, and people were doing the Macarena. Remember that? Me neither. I had to Google it.

In 1996 I had a job title that sounded a lot like the job title for which I was being interviewed. The jobs were totally different, the times were totally different, but the titles were the same. The answers I gave about the work I did back then aligned quite nicely with the questions they were asking. Of course, given that I was, you know, 12 years-old when I held that role, we got into the whole “are you senior enough for this role?” discussion. Ugh. It was frustrating for them and exhausting for me (try to think specifically about work you did when the Spice Girls were big…)

The problem is one that Roger Martin identified in his interview with IdeaConnection. He discusses the importance of framing your thinking based on which of the three stages your business is in: mystery (the “who knows what’s going on here” stage: I have a mental image of Shaggy and Scooby driving around in the Mystery Machine, open to a variety of ideas), heuristic (“we sort of know what’s going on and here are some general rules of thumb to help everybody out”: e.g. when profiled by the media, people who charge up to $500,000 per month for consulting services rarely go unscathed) and algorithmic (“we totally know what’s going on and have developed this elegant formula so we can be more efficient”.) If you think about what stage your business is in, you can apply the appropriate thinking. In the case of this financial institution, they were building a new group to drive change. The job description was ambiguous. Had they been doing something they’d done a million times before, like hiring a new Branch Manager, the interview style would have made sense. But they were clearly in mystery mode (hence their initial interest in my eclectic background) and needed a more flexible way of recruiting than following the standard tick box algorithm. Because nobody seemed to be thinking about the process, we ended up in 1996.

It wasn’t the interviewer’s fault. She was clearly overworked. She didn’t seem clear on her mandate. And chances are she wasn’t being paid to deviate from the script. Most people are fairly bright and start a job enthusiastic and engaged, but after time they get ground down. It takes bravery to put new ideas out there, to think creatively, and to declare “hey I’m trying to solve a mystery over here” while everyone else is busy filling out their tick-sheets. Organizations have traditionally rewarded the algorithms (x = easier better faster cheaper) and heuristics (“nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”) The guy driving the Mystery Machine often is overlooked: his work is too ambiguous, too hard to measure. If innovators, who tend to play a lot in this space, want to prosper, they tend to go work for themselves.

Firms like Jump have prospered as companies realize that they need to bring innovation and creativity in-house. As Segal points out, “in recent years, much of corporate America has gone meta — it has started thinking about thinking. And all that thinking has led many executives to the same conclusion: We need help thinking.”

Bringing in outside help can be an important signal to employees that things are changing*: that creative thinking and innovation are valued and rewarded and it will no longer be business as usual. Perhaps paying attention to how we think will prevent another Groupon ad…

Bring on the Post-it Notes and the robot arms.

*If it is, in fact, true that “you can hire Jump to think on your behalf, for somewhere between $200,000 to $500,000 a month,” then, obviously, that’s not as helpful. It has the opposite effect, signalling: “relax folks, you’re not paid to think.”

{ 1 comment }

Ani T February 8, 2011 at 6:29 pm

It is amazing how much companies will pay “experts” to brainstorm and design THE answer. I managed a project where executives across business lines were mandated to create a common corporate brand. But executives being who they are each had their firm opinion of what that should look like. Enter the highly-paid design gurus, leaving me with another layer to manage. Untold dollars later they imposed the solution. Had everyone cooperated they would have come up with a similar result without the consultants!

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