A Rubik Cube Approach to Innovation

I’m sure we have all come across the Rubik Cube, a 3-D mechanical puzzle, invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik as one of the world’s best-selling toys.

The classic cube has six faces covered by nine stickers each offering a solid colour (white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow). The cube has a pivot mechanism enabling each face to turn independently, thus mixing up the colours. For the puzzle to be solved you must achieve that each face is to be made up of one consistent colour.

It was suggested the cube was originally built to aid students to understand 3D objects but actually Rubik’s actual purpose was solving the structural problems of the parts moving independently without the entire mechanism falling apart.

Innovation is equally a puzzle with moveable parts

We need to see Innovation as an entire structure where we constantly need to move the parts. We always want to seek alignment, perfect alignment. That dream of achieving all, within that specific aspect of innovation we are attempting, is fully lined up and then we are content. Impossible!

What we fail to realize the total structure within innovation is always turning; it is always altering its ‘face’ to adapt to the changes we need to adapt too. We can never achieve perfect alignment, the makeup of innovation is constantly changing, so what we must do is keep moving the different ‘faces’ around to meet at best, a temporary alignment. That is the best we can really do.

Permutations are infinitesimal within innovation

Unlike Rubik’s cube where you have 239,500,800 ways to arrange the edges, it does seem like innovation! In the Cube you have eight corners and twelve edges and eight ways to arrange the corner cubes. Seven can be orientated independently and the orientation of the eighth depends on the preceding seven giving 2,187 possibilities. You can even flip eleven edges independently with the flip of the twelfth depending on the preceding one, giving 2,048 possibilities here.  They suggest there are forty-three quintillion positions and perhaps even more but you are getting the ‘permutation’ picture of the Cube and perhaps of innovation!

The Move Notation

Attempting to align anything needs movement, a sequence of moves. Well if you think about it to achieve a certain innovation ‘state’ you need to bring a number of aspects or faces to closer alignment but these do need a planned sequence of moves in most cases. Relying alone on serendipity just may not work.

There are solutions to the Rubic cube that need less than 100 moves and in July 2010, a team of researchers including Rokicki, working with Google proved the so-called “God’s number” to be 20. I think you will agree there are many consultants offering the equivalent “God number” of ways to solve innovation, their “omniscience” moment.

I sometimes kid myself I’ve crack innovation only to recognize minutes later I had forgotten something or not fully accounted for it in my concept -it just keeps me going even more.

We need to take care we are not tilting at windmills

There is an episode in the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. In the novel, Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines to be giants. Quixote sees the windmill blades as the giant’s arms, for instance. A relevant part of the novel that I sometimes feels relates to me and innovation states:

Yet Innovation is a consistent challenge, sometimes another millstone seemingly around our necks!

Yes the Rubik Cube feels often like innovation, you change one part and it has its consequences on another.  When you reflect on all the permutations required in innovation you recognise it is a constant, evolving, ever-changing puzzle. For me the enjoyment of the Rubik Cube is to keep thinking and moving around the different parts. I’ve never been able or patient enough to solve it but like innovation it still fascinates me. The difference is unlike the cube which can be solved, innovation as such, cannot. We can only arrive at a given point, and then it changes again. What keeps me motivated is moving the different parts so we do arrive at an improving situation but never a complete one. We need to keep moving the innovation parts constantly.

The best we can do is work consistently to attempting to align as much within the innovation puzzle (processes, culture, people, functions, concepts, technology etc) and get it as close as we think we can and push through the idea, constantly pivoting as we go, to achieve a better solution than before.

The quest is never-ending.

We can’t stop searching, we also can’t achieve perfect alignment for innovation but we can alway be constantly moving towards a certain harmony, that allows us to make sure we are making progress on where we were that time before.

Innovation is a puzzle, even if we felt we had got to that ‘aligned’ point I just bet you something will come along and mix it up again. A change in the market, a merger of two different organizations and their cultures, a new technology breakthrough that will all keep us constantly turning the different faces of the Innovation Cube to try to get back to that (illusive) ‘steady state.’

All we can do is keep turning those different faces of innovation and get closer to ‘alignment points’ but never, it seems, achieving the perfect alignment, that ultimate moment unlike the (simple) Rubik Cube. Perhaps the answer does live within the wind that drives the windmills.

References taken from Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia

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Re-ordering the organization’s genetic code for innovation.

As we enter 2012, what really disappoints me is that we still have not cracked the innovation DNA code sufficiently to embed this within the organizations genetic principles, structures or systems for completing an everyday innovating business. Why is that?

I see no reason why innovation cannot be a clear (integrated) management discipline, shared, taught and fully aligned with an organization’s strategic intent and execution. It needs to have a set of molecules that carry the ‘genetic’ innovation information in logical and a comprehensive arrangement, of its separate elements. These need to be strung together like all living cells by a set of clear rules. The code order defines the sequence, the “alphabet” of the organizations ability to innovate. Well that is how it should look if we want to allow innovation to enter the present DNA of an organization. Innovation cannot sit outside or be run in parallel but it needs to form part of the essential organizational code.

I am convinced innovation can be implicitly understood but I still feel there is an awful lot of conflicting advice being offered that must leave many confused. Let me add to the confusion!

We really do need to break down the existing code of organizations DNA to ‘implant’ innovation within the building blocks. I feel we have four intervention points to reorder the thinking.


1.Decision Makers & Our Rights

An organization rises or falls by its decisions. The people placed in the decision making roles determine what should be going on and what, who and why this (set of) decisions are right for the direction and health of the organization. This is where the vision, the mission, the strategic intent ‘kick-in’ and innovation needs to align to this to achieve the aspirations needed and hopeful growth. Innovation needs to be deeply embedded in this, it needs to be seen, understood on its part it must play. It needs the other part here, the transferring of the rights- the right to think, get involved and where and how they participate in creating something. People need to be invited in.

2. The Motivating Factors

Knowing the objectives, knowing the limits, boundaries and having clarity on the incentives to innovate are crucial. Knowing the underlying values, the beliefs and the encouragements for adding to the climate to innovate can motivate or destroy. Innovation needs not just objectives but a clear understanding of the degrees of freedom and encouragement being made available. This becomes the point of understanding a common language, knowing the policies and key principles to stimulate and further strengthen innovations role it plays. Motivation forms the decision- making body within the alphabet on our abilities to innovate.

3. Knowledge & Information

The intensity of knowledge, the flow of information ‘fuel’ the opportunities that need working upon. I’ve written previously on absorptive capacities (http://bit.ly/mV7zjP ) about learning to absorb new innovation knowledge and describe this part of the DNA need in some detail there. Also I wrote earlier on the need to move towards a more distributed innovation model (http://bit.ly/b38ixv ) describing the flows for gaining more engagement and deeper involvement. It is the consistent, open flow of knowledge and information in stronger collaborative platform ways that will be the spearhead and stimulation points for innovation to be valued and seen for its worth. The coordination and collaborative nature of innovation really needs to be engrained in any DNA and everything that looks like a silo, you need to have some form of ‘bunker busting’ way to neutralise this really harmful effect on any innovation organism.

4. Structure & Scope

Innovation is often very uncomfortable to embrace. It chips away at well established processes and structures. The power of established processes are the bedrock of organizational memory and the skill to ‘unpick’ those that hold back innovation (for growth) from those that unite the often difficult task of managing across an organization is really challenging. There are ‘points of conscious choice’ in what to abandon, what to loosen up and what to adopt. Having people who are skilful at recognizing the implications becomes vital. They need depth of understanding across the business, they need to seek a ‘power’ balance and they can’t afford to upset (too much) the regular operating rhythm unless it is seen to be a better way forward. Often innovation is incompatible with ongoing operations but usually needs just targeted organizational change.

What is critical in my mind though is that innovation cannot be isolated from ongoing operations; there must be a continued engagement and ‘creative tension’ between the two. What is clear you do need a formal, intentional resource commitment to innovation and its ongoing integration, it is most unlikely to be organic.

We need to identify all the innovation impediments.

To make any transition, to embed any different DNA you do need a management makeover. Often today’s approaches to managing can conflict. Innovation can be strangled if you try to simply embed it into existing parameters. There are inbuilt inhibitors that are deep and systemic. Bringing to the surface the current political and ideological factors is no easy task. Spotting what is more innovation friendly becomes necessary and this is why having innovation visible from the top, integrated in all decisions draws out the impediments. The antibodies need to be recognized to successfully overcome them and then put in place a DNA sequence that works that has innovation as more of the core.

“Relentless Innovation” by Jeffrey Phillips certainly helps.

Jeffrey has written a timely book, released in December 2011.  His basic argument is that today’s typical business model impedes innovation as the emphasis is still on efficiency (at any cost), alongside the cost-cutting for supposedly short-term gain. He terms this as “business as usual” (BAU) and it actively rejects the innovation effort, so much called for by CEO’s and needed for regaining growth.  He also points his finger at a problem that has perhaps been ‘hidden in plain sight’ that the middle manager is plainly not equipped to manage innovation, alongside all of their other activities; something has to give or be put into a new balance.

He believes he can achieve a ‘dual capability’ of achieving efficiency and innovation into a consistent set of capabilities that can become a core everyday discipline.  I would recommend buying a copy and I feel you will appreciate and identify with many of the arguments laid out by him, for challenging the way we are still running our organizations.

Making a shift needs a new innovation DNA alphabet.  

Innovation is a shift from those known, consistent, honed sometimes comfortable processes to unknown, unexpected and unusual ones. This makes anyone uncomfortable but if you demand really path breaking innovation you need to recognize your organization needs some significant changes to ‘allow’ innovation to be integrated into your existing processes.

To initiate this shift and integrate innovation, it does needs a new rebalancing to take place. A new DNA sequence where innovation reorders the genetic code of the organization between what Jeffrey talks about of balancing the investments made in efficiency with the new needs of placing innovation within the sequencing required for any organization today, to deliver a healthier model for sustaining growth in the world 0f 2012 and beyond.

Understanding the makeup up of the innovation DNA codes and where the parts fits within, and alongside, many of your existing practices is essential. We need to finally crack this code in 2012. Just remember to ‘invite’ people in who understand the consequences and impact points and can ‘graft’ the right gene into the right order for the synthesizing process this needs (for you) to be successful.