The value of the visiting consultative fireman

Keep calm I am the visiting firemanI was reflecting on the value and role of consultants and have written here, here and here on this. These thoughts have covered the topics of suggesting different consulting models, exploring the shifts taking place in consulting and where consulting can contribute. Then I offered a post late last year under the title of “client engagement- full of whipped cream and lumpy gravy?

So in this post I will reflect and look at the visiting fireman here, the ones I experienced in the corporate world. I still believe they are far from endangered species.

Consultants hold a specific fascination for me, they come in all shapes and sizes, offering a bewildering array of solutions for your business.

For many clients, consultants have become ‘totally essential’  yet for others a necessary evil. Today with far less resource within our business to call upon and coping with increasing pressure on time there is also this total reluctance to employ someone on the books, it is better to bring it in on an ‘as and when’ basis. Keep it lean and mean, charge it off against that years operating expenses, don’t bring it onto the longer-term books.

Mostly the consultants knowledge leaves when they do

What comes in and what leaves gives the value to you in you applying their knowledge not just the consultants solution. Often this knowledge understanding totally ‘fails’ to reside or be absorbed as ongoing learning. Partly it is not so easy to transfer, especially to those that are too busy to learn it!. We often miss this critical point of transference and we continually bring in consultants time and time again, actually for the majority of seemingly ongoing work, the repeating part we should be resourcing from inside but never seem to get around to recruiting or convincing others of the need.

We also never pick up the rhythm and real understanding how the external expert connected all the dots differently from you and we then fail to copy down the important notes to recreate the understanding. Many time I had to ‘catch myself’ on one particular slide, fascinated how that was put together, failing to hear the message behind it.

Have you also noticed how the outsiders always give us those ‘bells and whistles’ we fail to hear within our own immediate surrounding although it was there for us to see but we were too busy to find it, so we simply let others at potentially a higher end cost.

Experiencing the different visiting fireman

Experiencing the firemanIn this post I wanted to recall the visit of many visiting firemen when I was running various country operations in different parts of the world for a handful of global corporations. More than one organization called outside expertise “the visiting fireman”.

There to help fight the fires, hose down the areas of critical combustion, recommend the essential fire fighting equipment and escape drills you will need from their experience.

I had experienced three types of visiting fireman in corporate life.

Three types of firemanThere were three general types; the regional fireman, the corporate fireman and the outside consultant one. Can you relate to these and the mixed emotions they can give you?

Are visiting firemen important to your business?

Yes I expect they are, they can make the real difference between ‘dosing the fire early enough’ to bringing their expertise and resources to bear, helping in managing that crisis or difficult problem you would be unable to resolve without the outside perspective, contribution or support. Yet they all seem to leave one holy of holy messes. There is always some form of re-building to take place from these consultations.

Often I think we all need to ask questions on the value of consultants. Would ‘things’ fall apart without the required dose of consulting medicine? Do they come into the organization, create havoc and then move on? Or do you value them as essential, as you quiet simply do not have the time or resources and expertise ‘in-house’ and they help ensure the delivery alongside you on what is needed within your business?

There are three groups of ‘visiting fireman’ associated with large organizations.

Do these ring any bells with you? These were my experiences and maybe yours are somewhat different, managing in specific operating structures. I spent more of my corporate career tackling difficult operating conditions, often very thin on resources, battling volatile market conditions. Now that does seem like today’s operating world doesn’t it?

I tried to remember some of these ’emotions’ when I then became the visiting fireman myself, in all three different types I will mention here

The first firemen was coming from the regional support group

The first firefighter type 1These seemed to announce their pending arrival sometimes weeks in advanced to fit their crowded agenda of moving from one type of regional or global meeting to another. Or they were suddenly ‘dispatched’ to handle growing issues. That sudden crisis where they ‘must’ be seen to be on hand, Then we had the Sherpa type preparing future visits, fixing the lines and ropes for visitors from ‘on high’ trying to influence your agenda or shape your presentation.

Lastly arriving just a week or so before the key yearly strategic discussion meetings, so as they could be better prepared to fully participate in the discussions to catch up and ‘form’ their opinion. You had to watch the hose on this one, its power and potential disruptive force coming from multiple sources based on latest ‘Intel’ gleaned on these simple fact finding missions.

They came sweeping in offering detailed advice on their specialized area, be that marketing, finance or product development. These tended to be the most difficult discussions, as they were pushing often their personal agenda’s, holding back a critical element of the corporate agenda. They often were believing what you were doing was going against company policy, general direction or conflicting with branding issues. I found much ‘creative friction’ in these visits from the regional fireman.

Ultimately you may have the final decision, or you thought you did,being responsible for the P&L but these visiting firemen could wreak havoc in the ‘whispering game’ back at regional group, prompting numerous conversations with the regional president to clear these ‘conflicts’ up. Most were short on specifics or detailed understanding, grabbing at potential ‘straws’ to be floated in the corporate wind.

I found this group of visiting firemen far less supportive than expected; they had enough understanding to be dangerous but could potentially provide those value additional insights or access to resources you needed. These visits were the most difficult. These were closer inspections to see that the house was in good order and you were not a potential ‘fire hazard.’ It often was a fine balance between their contributing value and what they constrained. These visits often disturbed and confused the local teams.

The second group of visiting fireman, the corporate ‘big-wig’

The corporate firefighter typeThese were usually the corporate executive vice presidents, the chief operating officer, the corporate legal beaver or even the CEO himself. This was a visit where you polished your credentials, went through countless preparations and checks around the facilities. They always had one or two of the regional group in close attendance at least; to point out areas they felt helped the ‘broader agenda’ that “facilitated” the discussions or messed the visit up completely by going off script and you spent the rest of the visit in ‘personal crisis’ mode.

These were times of real pressure where you had two to three hours of getting the message across on what was happening, what needed to be resolved, what was missing, what was the value of appreciating making further investments within the country and why it (and you) was relevant in their bigger picture of things.

Then off on visiting the multiple manufacturing facilities, you praying continuously that the plants would not come to a grinding halt at that precise moment. A ‘lightning inspection’ by this big-wig where you always know the visitors will simply compare, suggest and sometimes to pick up on something that did not fit with their view but was totally out of your local context. Or how they would become (briefly) misty eyed and comment on “when I was running an operation like this”. These visits from the corporate fireman often were defining moments, often that career or future investment defining one rested on the ‘good visit’ deemed by all in the food chain that determined your career.

I always searched for the opportunities for one-on-ones with this corporate fireman where you got the deepest ‘transfer’ of their knowledge. Cutting out dedicated time from the encircling herd of ‘minders’ allowed for some terrific and intense conversations that become the real bond that cemented understanding. These exchanges allowed for my constant learning of the mind-set of the corporate visitor and the value it gave to what you could contribute into the bigger corporate ecosystem.

These visits gave real moments of identity for the team that often drove it on for weeks and months after. These were also times when you could separate personal agenda’s of the more frequent visitor with the corporate agenda, to ‘ground’ your contribution you could make to the corporate set of goals and tasks. These were hugely important visits by the corporate firemen and women.

Then we had the final group of visiting firemen, these were the outside consultant

Outside consultants were often brought in on behalf of someone else or because you needed some different perspectives or solutions. They break down into two types.

The outside consultant firefighter you paid forThe first type is the ones that arrive to make an assessment on behalf of others always had that ‘air’ of real detachment. That ease of knowing what you don’t know but you would love to find out. They listened, they seemed to always take many notes, made countless photocopies that clearly supported their investigation and only gave away what they wanted too.Then left.

These types of visiting fireman is what I regarded as always “short” on advice, even though they had such a potentially richer potential to offer me thoughts than I would benefit from. They were not there for that!

I had to work really hard to ‘draw them out’ by separating what they were there for and what issues they could offer me alternative thinking. It was in many of these conversations you gained some terrific insights on alternative practices, possible avenues of investigation to help you.

Then the ones you were paying for, well not you but it is coming out of your P&L

Your firefighterThen the other ones, where you needed their expertise and the funds for this were to come out of your P&L. I never really seemed to work out this group, or extracted the value I was expecting. I think my need and their agenda mostly with often prepared solutions beforehand often were incompatible. They never seemed to learn the full context before they were off fire fighting. In all honesty I would reckon I got better value from about 25% of those I engaged. They seemed to come well-equipped though

I was recently reading on that only 27% of clients say that the value added by consultants exceeds the amount paid to them in fees when they completed one survey in the Gulf region.

I wish I knew then what I know now.

It is this group, the ones your engage with as consultants, employed by you that I want to spend some time on, in a future post. This will relate more than likely to innovation consulting, although I think most of the comments and observation can be generally applied to most consulting that is for sure.

Where do you feel about the visiting fireman, the expert or consultant and how it works for you? Do you suffer from the many mixed emotions I felt?


There are no easy innovation answers.

Inspiration and InnovationIn response to a recent post of mine, Tobias Stapf on the Social Innovation Europe LinkedIn networking group, pointed me to a really good report “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail” and I really have appreciate it. I wanted to draw out some useful learning from this report and useful reminders here in this post that there is no easy answers in innovation, social or business related.

The report outlines the difficulties of enabling innovation in social sector organizations. In this review the authors undertook exploring what enables organization capacity for continuous innovation in established social sector organizations, that operate at an efficient scale, delivering products and services.

Three oversights that conflict in working in the social innovation area

First, innovation is often perceived as a development shortcut where pushing innovation is often at the expense of strengthening more routine activities, which this ‘push’ might actually destroy rather than create value.

Second, social sector innovation has little external impact to show when it is enacted in unpredictable environments. Proven innovation can often fail when transferred to a different context and there is equally an undervaluing of the positive internal learning impact that comes from these ‘failed’ innovations.

Third, the power of negative organizational factors, such as bad leadership, dysfunctional teams and overambitious production goals as examples, makes the innovation task extremely difficult to succeed in difficult social conditions

This report helped me rethink the value of incremental in social innovation

I have been constantly complaining about incremental innovation needs to become more radical, more disruptive, more breakthroughs and what this report provides is a totally different slant on incremental innovation.

Also I have talked often about the knowing of the context of innovation and this report offers a brilliant reminder of this.

Over-rating the Value of Innovation.

Value PropositionThe report offers this thought within social innovation: “Most of the value that established social sector organizations create comes from their core, routine activities perfected over time”. It is the efficiency being produced in providing standard products and services is the place that creates tremendous value, particularly in places of widespread poverty.

The organizations involved have found a working model in a particular context requires predictable, incremental improvements and lots of them to generate superior outcomes over time.

The authors cite the Aravind Eye Care Hospital for their focus on continuous improvement of practices and investing any profits in building additional capacity. It is the dedication to standardization that drives operational productivity. They spend their time eliminating variation to build constantly capacity to make an impact at an increasing scale.

The important point here is “constantly building capacity to make an impact at an increasing scale” and it is in finding the contextual linkages is where incremental has its greatest value potential.

Perhaps I push for different types of innovation within business far too hard and this observation might argue for a better viewpoint on the pursuit for incremental innovation. It brings my own pendulum into a better position perhaps of valuing incremental improvements?

A few ‘call out’ points here

  • “Unpredictable innovation activities always compete with predictable core routines for scarce resources.”
  • “Poverty-related or persistent problems may not need innovation solutions but rather committed long-term engagements that enable steady and less risky progress”.
  • “Innovation is not triggered by change but progress and impact may come from dedication and routine work” and that this can challenge the argument for more innovation.

Recognizing the value of productive innovation.

The report uses as their innovation type “productive social innovation” and argues the need to rely heavily on trial and error and constant organizational learning to make this truly productive. To yield improving results where scale is critical.

The value of learning from failed innovation.

Power of LearningIn the world of complex social issues the innovation actions are inherently unpredictable, often placed in hostile environments, where you need to understand local power structures and the many root causes of the situation you are attempting to solve through innovation.

The call out for me here are the emphasis for systematic learning and building the knowledge base provides the capacity to innovate or not. Also each situation needs significant evaluation before any adopting of practices from other places

The impatience with making fast progress

The report touches on “doing the right things” but it is within the unique dynamics and contextual factors that often innovation is prevented from happening. Innovation relies on a constellation of many enabling and contextual factors fueled by excessive optimism of the ones pushing for innovation solutions. There is so much that can stifle innovation or derail the process.

The recommendation is for greater critical diagnosis and evaluation of all the negative factors and hurdles that set about unearthing a large number of cognitive, normative and political factors. You simply can’t reply on “simple recipes” as a prevailing dogma or well-meaning recommendations, it boils down to exploring the factors, complexities, challenges and realistic time-scales involved in dealing not just with the poor but all complex social challenges.

My call out here: I find this such a timely reminder for all innovation, as business leaders constantly express their frustrations with innovation failing to deliver. The learning for me here is from the report is this increased emphasis on understanding all the negative factors that constantly block innovation and these are different from one situation to another. The environmental analysis becomes vital.

A summary within the report gave me these thoughts.

  1. It is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process—a transition that might be less glamorous but will be more productive
  2. These recommendations should enable social sector organizations, their stakeholders, and researchers to develop analytical models and tools to unearth negative factors that prevent productive innovation.
  3. Similarly, funders who carefully think through the implications outlined in the report may find ways to escape over-supporting fashionable innovation initiatives and under-supporting promising but difficult innovation efforts, particularly those in complex environments where formulas for social progress have not yet been found.
  4. Finally, the process approach they are recommending to social innovation is an attempt to swing the pendulum back from the supply side of social innovation to the demand side of social innovation.

The authors finish with “Our hope is that an increased emphasis on innovation as a process will help avoid bad social sector investments and thwart unproductive debates about quick fixes to entrenched social problems.

This report gives a useful reminder that there is a lot to keep constantly learning about the differences within innovation

Ideas for InnovationThis report gave me a shift in insight by explaining many of the enabling factors for organizations already established, that are searching to operate at scale within specific social contexts. Incremental innovation is where they might create more social value through focusing on continuous ongoing improvements to extract learning, reinvest this into scaling improvements to then build this into further capacity.

Also we can’t take anything for granted, the context, the environment, the application of different types of innovation all are unique and simply ‘applying’ general solutions just don’t work. I have argued this consistently but this report deals in understanding the specific conditions for a ‘given’ type of innovation as being essential to be really alert too.

Again, this report is “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail” and well worth your time to read.

Seeing innovation from a specific social perspective has some very useful learning from a business perspective. By understanding the value of incremental improvements can be more valuable in certain contextual situations than simply applying additional innovation without understanding all of the factors behind the challenges that are being tackled.

So why are we not facing up to the big challenges of today?

Societal ChallengesPerhaps why innovation feels somewhat flat (well for me) is our organizations and societies are utterly failing to allow us all to step up in innovation to tackle the massive, growing problems that are swirling all around us.

We need to shake out of our lethargy and really begin to attempt to solve the real issues of our time. Some organizations are clearly working on and trying to draw attention and gain greater engagement but we need a much greater concerted effort to focus on the big societal challenges.

Global warming, rising health issues, finally cracking cancer, malaria, dementia, finding different solutions to the ageing within society. How are we going to tackle the rapidly depleting natural resources, the future conflicts over water, food, or energy . These are big, hairy, audacious gaps to be resolved.

Many are avoiding the need too stare hard into the future as we are not re-equipping everyone with skills that combine inventiveness, innovation and creativity that contributes into their communities, we have got stuck in the “me”. A reality of depletion is racing towards us and it is not a pretty sight.

The growing radical innovation activity gap

We are facing the innovation gap as our problems keep growing linearly yet we must find ways to rapidly scale and deploy our knowledge in new, more dynamic ways. This requires society to learn how to apply effective innovation themselves, not just being whipped up, waiting for the latest gadget or incremental advancement to be put into their hands.

We need to build the desire of wanting to be part of rebuilding society; making our contribution to real advancement or feeling they were there, involved, part of the “times” when this shift to societal innovation was happening.

We need to be collectively moved by innovation and what it can offer.

Technology ideas and connectionsTechnology does hold a vital key, so does the emerging social media for reaching out to critical masses but let’s face it, today we are deploying the best resources (the best and the brightest) not in the area on solving big societal problems but in slavishly churning out the next technology or gadget. These actually mean nothing unless they become increasingly part of the solutions we really do need urgently, to tackle the big societal issues.

We certainly need communications, platforms, different media techniques and mobility as part of the initial global building blocks to putting in place the infrastructures to solve these societal problems. We need the tools, infrastructure, methods, and techniques to scale for solving societal problems not the latest incremental improvement for Apple, Facebook or Google. How about providing innovations that can deliver the parts that give us the power to tackle the problems of our time?

We need innovation tools, structures and methods that will allow us each of us to invent, to innovate, and to be creative in finding our contributions and solutions to societal problems. To go and apply these in practical solutions not just simply adopt them.

I liked what Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup recently said: “What’s going to make it more likely for someone to start a start-up in the first place?” “Open data is one such thing. If you give people access to the tools, the information about what’s happening in the world, you give them the opportunity to stumble on more novel solutions”

I’d add you give them the empowerment and skills, they will provide the desire and energy.

Then we have the hidden potential behind social media and big data

Can you imagine a world where we all can communicate and contribute into these global societal problems. Combine technology, the internet and social media and you have begun to connect up the parts or the whole planet. The exciting prospect is then ‘feeding’ all this data into finding patterns for solutions. Solutions that are relevant to you, your immediate community but also to the wider ones.

The ability to scale, glocalize, adapt and diffuse

Social innovation struggles today with scale and replicating success in one place and making it work in another. This replicating might be the barrier, perhaps we should not apply other solutions just extract the parts that can work for us. This extraction needs knowing what is valuable to you or applicable, what is not. The need is to educate everyone to ‘break down’ the context and we need to teach numerous different skills to allow this to work. Then you need to work on where are the synergies that can be tailored and applied to local needs. Diffusion and adoption comes into the picture here too.

Dealing with value creation and growth but in radically different ways

We seek value creation, most usually by creating demand, pushing for increasing consumption. Growth is measured by our productive gains. Is this the right way to measure ourselves and how we set about preserving our precious resources? No, we need to challenge this, a real paradigm shift that alters our lenses looking out on the world.

Changing our thinking for a new world of preserving our precious resources

Fresh ThinkingToday’s modern economic activity does need challenging and it is through rethinking much of our view of judging success. Success in preserving, in effectively trading precious resources needs a fresh set of thinking, a new economic understanding. This thinking is way beyond my preserve, there are far better qualified people to offer suggestions than me on this. All I know is that innovation, creativity and invention must all play their part.

Some of my emerging thoughts relating to where innovation can fit are:

1). Stepping back and putting innovation to its better use

We have a world were transparency is finding its place. We ‘witness’ unfolding events faster than ever, they are nearly instantaneous. Governments are really struggling on this new transparency. We can manage this in new ways, instead of trying to control the flow of ‘selective’ data through repression. We need to open up all the positive activities occurring every day that others can learn from. We need to focus on the positives, not dwell on the negatives.

2). We need to provide places for experimentation

There needs to be places, instruments, resources, knowledge platforms that help us all to discover. We need a dynamic flow to discover needs, expose variability, enable experimentation to happen and construct ways to measure improved performance

3). We need to granulate and customize activities

The world is far to big to manage as one, even our countries struggle in adapting policies. We constantly reduce down the positive impact by this ‘crazy’ compromise of adjusting great ideas to meet the broader position. We need to segment down, we need to allow what has the best impact for a given community to be allowed to happen.

4). We need to put to use the non human aspects to speed up decision-making

Computers, sophisticated analytics, automated algorithms all can play their part in any redesign of our activities to preserve our critical resources. Modelling decisions that have impact within the world need to be more freely distributed. Not only knowing our ‘footprint’ on the planet but bringing together communities footprints and redesigning the sharing of the burden. We can optimize so much to help us develop better decisions, knowing the broader impact placed upon communities and beyond.

5). Innovating the future needs new business models, products and services

The growing movement in a number of more enlightened businesses towards only using renewal resources is gathering momentum. It is changing business models, products and services. We need to change from being a ‘throw away’ society into ones that re-use, repair and don’t chase increasing consumption but work to reduce consumption to save energy, water, critical resources etc. We do need a far more radical innovating agenda.

Connecting into the already under way experiments and improving them

Slope of Enlightenment 2There are many different ways we can apply innovation into tackling today’s real societal problems, there are lots of experiments under-way, we somehow need to connect into them in global ways.

We need to make the real efforts of connecting all these dots – we need to design a world where surplus has to be rapidly replaced with managing dwindling stocks. It calls for a concerted, connected and comprehensive manner where technology, ingenuity and our innate ability to be creative, innovative and determined to discover real breakthroughs that can contribute to solving societal issues.

The place our innovation focus has to go is in global engagement

Connected WorldWe need to know far more of where to go, what to connect into, how we can contribute. We need to engage society across a broader agenda of our challenges. Today these are diverse, dispersed, dissipated and disparate set of activities.

We need to bring these together, perhaps to form a new ‘collective’ world organizational as a body that consolidates, connects and diffuses societal challenges. One that is not layered with bureaucracy and governmental nominees but one powered by a new social platform that allows each of us to connect and explore, to learn and engage.

This needs to be built more than likely by the millennial generation, who are clearly  seeing societal challenges as their global innovation task to tackle and resolve. They are more than likely better equipped to understand social engagement and learn to connect and deliver the tools to do the jobs into everyone’s hands. They understand the power of ‘connection’ through today’s application of technology, social platforms and application of the knowledge being learnt and adopted in practical use. We need them to engage and lead.

What do we need to do to lift innovation onto that slope of enlightenment?

Seeking SolutionsWe need to firstly acknowledge our growing global problems that need tackling through more radical  application and solutions. We need to learn to scale, learn, deploy, apply– we need to put our own intelligence into innovation. We need to move the innovation needle significantly, individually and collectively.

Relying on organizations providing their solutions in a radically different world of challenges where they are stuck in delivering their steady state of ‘ever consuming’ incremental thinking is not good enough. We need a new evolution and revolution, applying new innovation thinking by putting radical innovation solutions back on the global agenda that reduce our throw away consumption and focus on preserving what we have.

We need to regain a collective sense of momentum and a belief that we are truly working on something that changes our lives and helps save the resources we need to live in this world.

So are we in a trough of innovation disillusionment?

BoredomYou get this increasing sense that the ‘fizz’ has gone out of the innovation bubbly. The innovation party presently feels a little flat; the numerous delicious canapés to choose from are turning up at the edges as we are becoming disillusioned, just being fed on a present unexciting incremental innovation diet, lacking any real substance.

People are milling around with that bored look on their faces, some are also slumped down checking their watch or smart phones on when is the best time to cut out and find somewhere else to be, rather than be here. Has the fizz gone from innovation?

Are we being moved by innovation any more?

Is innovation becoming a boring place to be seen for hanging out and being involved in? Are we all feeling that there is less creative buzz going around? Perhaps, it depends for each of us yet collectively you might agree we do feel something is definitely missing. The excitement has left the room, innovation has become too predictable.

I could blame technology or perhaps just Apple- should I?

Innovations have become the next novelty, entertainment or the latest talking point. Apple has become predictable in their format, their focus on sustaining innovation when we all are craving the next big thing. Perhaps Apple will burst into the room and the innovation party suddenly springs back into life. We need something to lift our moods.

Instead we get innovation that is simply thinner than before, faster than the last model, processors that allow up to multi task with even more capacity, increased memory, we hear this has new architecture, even a new retina recognition device and then we all applaud. “Oh wow”, then some stifle a quick yawn.

Then we quickly check our phones for any message from someone else telling us to” get over here it’s all happening” Nothing, an awful lot of innovation has simply become hype. Nothing seems earth-moving; it’s all getting fairly predictable.

Working to the predictable script is not helping innovation

Yes, Apple and Steve Job are to blame, they set the bar high, yet today Tim Cook likes to run the same ‘event’ parties based on the ‘sustaining’ theme, just like the supply chain, delivering on expected and increasingly the predictable promise. Where has the excitement gone in innovation?

Everyone seems to be playing it safe. The truth is we are all to blame, we have over-hyped the word ‘innovation’ and are under delivering on its potential performance capacity for our real need for some radical redesigns of today’s real challenges – global challenges we must solve to survive, let alone thrive.

We are already in or heading for a trough of innovation disillusionment

Garner Hype Cycle for InnovationWhere is the excitement gone? It all seems down to getting the news first

We are fed rumours weeks before launches on what we might expect that when we get to the big event nothing is surprising us any more. We are witnessing even more incremental creep; we have lost the effect of serendipity, the “wow” factor, the moment something happened that changed our world.

All we get is that feeling, that peer pressure we must upgrade for fear of missing out or to be seen without the latest. We are on an incremental treadmill and we are the mouse turning the wheel.

When you have been weaned on the bottle of excitement, when you don’t get it you feel flat, bored and start to blame innovation as simply “innovation is dead.” No, it is simply not being allowed to really work any more. Much has become totally underwhelming.

Our business organizations are loving the ‘playing it safe’ routine

Over time our organizations are finding increasing reasons to put off the more radical innovation that is needed. Incremental innovation is safe, contains all the risks within acceptable levels, so as it allows the organization to keep its fixation on the short-term as its only line of site (and executive pay-off).

Let others make the investments and ‘we’ can pick them off……hopefully later and we play catch up!” It is funny how a good few are being caught out on this strategy though and are not learning often you never catch up, you just fall further behind. A fast follower strategy is really hard, think Apple actually.

So do we all having this growing feeling of a lack of real innovation?

The proliferation of advanced insights as news, the ability to spread the word in seconds, the ability to line up, pay on-line and receive your shot of instant update makes it all seem a little mundane, a little boring, where is the innovations of past generations that solved real society issues and problems? The instant gratification indulges us but leaves us stuck on wanting more of the same – like the craving for sugar.

We are losing the appetite for adventure, we equally are losing the ability to wait, to speculate, experiment and discover. Innovation is being delivered up on a plate; all we have to do is consume it as long as we can afford it!

This loss of sudden discovery undermines curiosity and excitement

SerendipityInnovation gets exciting when you stumble across something, totally unexpected. Researchers in a lab suddenly make a connection, that changes and often challenges their thinking, perceptions alter.

It becomes “game on”. It all becomes potentially exciting. We work for moments like this or should do. Perhaps we should have a course on serendipity, where we are required to seek discoveries by accident, by learning to listen more to others and their problems so we can make the connections to resolve their problems.

No, lets take out discovery, lets offer up predictability, it takes out fresh learning through experimentation and trial and error. Let curiosity die in wanting to fix something, to figure it out, lets just simply throw it away and buy the latest replacement.

The organizations working on innovation love sequential order.

Sequential order, hierarchies, linear processes all allow for predictability, the ability to see what is coming before you, you can do rational analysis. This type of thinking ensures innovation can be highly planned out, projects can be well constructed and everyone can fall in line and wait their part along the incremental innovation production line.

The mantra of it being “that much better than the last version” makes everyone feel part of the innovation road show and simply take the incentives being dangled like the carrot to deliver on this “exciting” development.

Innovation is simply missing the big picture, we are stuck in revolving doors.

It is all so marginal, we are back checking our clocks, looking to head out of the door, off to do something else. Again the excitement and buzz around innovation seem to be missing.

Why as we are utterly failing to tackle the real big problems of today and that is not “should we buy another smart phone” or what ever we are being fed as innovation, these are societal ones that are racing towards us, needing global solutions and that is one hell of a party to get stuck into.

Slope of EnlightenmentWe need to lift innovation out of this current trough and recognize we have some major problems of the day, that will impact everyone on the planet. Innovation can be one significant key to combine with others that unlocks all the creative and inventive forces this will require.

We all need some enlightenment not the latest gadget. Applying innovation that makes a substantial and radical contribution is the party we all should be wanting to join.


Gaining idea engagement can be a five step process.

Having conversations 3I have been recently revisiting Everett Rogers work on diffusion and adoptions recently, evaluating if it has the same relevance in my mind in our more connected world, where speed, knowledge and exchanges are measured in micro seconds.

This reminded me of a suggestion I made some time back and I thought I’d ‘air’ this again for engaging with others.

We constantly fall into the trap of not providing our listener enough of a reason to ‘buy into’ our thoughts. We forget to either pitch it to their mental framework or we do not provide a set of compelling arguments that allows our idea a mutual recognition of its value or structure, to take it forward and transform it into something tangible and valuable.

I think using Rogers rate of diffusion principles you can end up offering a fairly powerful positioning statement. You can also offer a simple framework in this five point plan the chance to break down differences you might both hold, to build on the ‘evidence’ from a mutual recognition in the discussion on what your idea holds as potential promise. It can be transformational as a way to approach engagement.


Having conversations 5The five steps in engagement to map your conversations.

To get anyone out of their own thinking trap we need to associate our thinking to what would be valued by them, we have to make the value connections .

We can offer an uniformed path based on Everett Rogers five steps principle:

  • What we must always offer in any conversation is a clear relative advantage to what is presently available, so we can gain their permission and identification. Then we can set about to explore these better alternatives, to clarify their progress and gain general ongoing acceptance or questioning. Either way it becomes a mutual engagement. Stressing the ideas advantage by making a comparison, does allow for the chance of engage in a worthwhile conversation. Timing, circumstances and its value to the other person always need considering here. “Relative” becomes the critical word here.
  • If we can offer compatibility with our own and other people’s existing values, and explore a migration path from their past experiences we might get more space to experiment. We need to draw others in and so we have to align ourselves to their experiences to frame it to their thinking bias. This becomes a job-to-be-done on unearthing unmet needs or the needs that can be improved upon. The job-to-be-done thinking is a great practice methodology to achieve adoption.
  • The new tools, methods and different techniques becoming increasingly available to us, can certainly help us to explain complexity to reduce the perceived difficulties of adopting new practices. The whole gambit of gaming, the canvas techniques, visual mapping, design thinking all help considerably here. Any argument, discussion or position needs to simplify complexity as the one listening quickly ‘tunes out’ if we load the conversation with “too much detail” or jargon.
  • We then can offer new ways for trialability to experiment in safe and limited risk ways. Lay out a clear path of experimentation and result milestones to manage expectancies and gain increasing support commitment. Steve Blank’s contention of “getting out of the building” and his customer development process offers one of many ways to learn, pivot and progress in bite-sized steps.
  • Finally, we can provide observability, so others can see the results we can make progress. By keeping this open, it can be clearly challenged and blocked in many ways but openness and transparency does eventually reduce resistance. If we can clarify change and our progress in learning we give others understanding. It is when we fail to communicate what they need to hear, we are more likely to be blocked or our project cancelled. We need to ‘demonstrate’ progress and show its value.

Everett Rogers five steps might offer up a possible pathway to unlock much within innovation and reduce our different personal biases that can trap our ideas to not allow them to be seen in their real value to move forward, and be supported by others, as they gain their essential engagement and buy-in.

What do you think? It’s worth a try to build your own engagement stories around the five principles suggested. Give it a trial the next time you want to bring others onto your side and look to construct a mutual engagement.

Learning favours the brave

Knowledge and learning 4The challenges we are facing today seem to be coming faster at us, more complex to decipher and then re-evaluate how we should respond. To achieve faster response we certainly need to educate the organization more than ever.

We need to absorb more, we need to encourage learning more especially to pursue innovation. We need to actively set up learning ways within our organizations to establish their abilities to recognize the value of new, external information (knowledge), to assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends.

Innovation within the organization needs not just greater recognition of its vital parts, but also of its status as a value enhancing and organizational life-changing event that we need to move towards increasingly in more organized ways. Innovation needs to be recognized as a clear discipline, a new expertise that is as powerful as Marketing became some decades ago.

Seeking out knowledge that feeds our innovations

Knowledge and learning 3The more we embrace change and recognize innovation demands more of our time, the more we seek out knowledge that ‘feeds’ innovation. And the more we ‘push’ for learning, the greater chance we have of thriving in a challenging world.

The expectation ‘bar’ needs to be raised from those practicing innovation, I feel the constant need is for those working within innovation they have this real need to raise their game significantly. Innovation needs organizing but it also needs a better understanding of its contributing parts.

Learning and Education should always start at home.

The earlier we learn, have open interactions and form linkages, the more we will be ready to advance innovation into what it must become: a discipline highly valued for what it contributes with in terms of wealth and growth potential.

We need to find the determination to underpin the capacity for innovation, lying within us all, and that comes from knowledge and education through collaborative learning. So what is your capacity for innovation really like within your organization? Is the learning required for innovation set up in structured ways or left to individual learning and experimentation?

Do either structured or informal ways feed back into the organizational learning system to benefit others? Or is the knowledge gained just left ‘resident’ in the person, not being put to that greater use?

Knowledge exchange is the way forward but we need to avoid the easy paths.

Knowledge and learning 2Organizations need to move well beyond their lazy reliance on best practice comparison and they need to find better ways to explore emerging practices. But that takes many into the realm of increasing uncertainties, and most people and organizations are not trained for this exploration and experimentation.

It is easy to copy but we often fail to recognize all the contextual factors that went into making it that one specific organizations good practice, and I guarantee these are not yours!

Best practice has their comparable uses but it is your focusing on the good and emerging practices within your own organization is the area to focus, for learning and wanting to improve into those that make your practices really work. Then applying, experimenting and learning from novel practices that provide growing confidence in creative thinking.

Also give some thought for next practice, those practices that prompt reinvention. They start such totally fresh thinking, they challenge existing paradigms and move you towards considering new business models.

Organizations constantly anticipate risk by reducing all the variables within risk and play safe with just being incremental. Is that wrong? No, as long as we have our reward systems geared to short-term performance, while we measure leadership success the way we presently do, and the shareholder just expects consistent dividends as their part of the equation and is quickly mobilized to force change if it does not meet this immediate aim, we head down the wrong path.

We are not sustaining our organization and we are not advancing ourselves either, we are destroying much in our current approaches. We do need to focus more on the competence-enhancing not competence-destroying aspects.

We need to re-balance the “risk and opportunity” to push our use of new knowledge into fresh innovation that ‘advances’ on the existing. To recognize the difference we need to encourage knowledge to be ‘freely’ exchanged, and then provide the environment to encourage a re-educating on ‘seeing and exploring’ new possibilities that allow us to grow.

Shifting the knowledge needle takes real commitment

Knowledge and learning 1Can we recognize that choosing the tougher pathway of building our own distinct capabilities, learning block by learning block, is the right one to follow. This allows us to build capacities that are ours, seeking out the knowledge to build the absorptive capacity that acquire, assimilate, transform and exploit, so as to give us greater chances of finding new innovation that is valued and allows us all to grow and gain from this dedicated learning.

I can’t change our prevailing system but I can point to alternatives and suggest we have other options, ones pursued by the few, which are more visionary and brave and often disrupting the accepted. These are building on novel and unique practices, extracted not from others best practices but from emerging practices learn by deliberate design and our own personal experiences, formed within our organizations unique view of the ‘take of and place in’ the world.

Finding our own way relies mostly on us to find the answers. We grow by seeking out knowledge as it feeds our minds to find our unique ways to contribute and share.