Innovation – A psychological barrier

This is the concluding part of the 3 part series on ‘How to stimulate innovation’.

When you talk to any of the engineers who don’t innovate and ask them for reasons, as per my experience, the only two responses that I could anticipate are ‘What is in it for me’ and ‘Innovation is not my cup of tea’. Regarding the former ‘What is in it for me’, I have already spoken about it in the 1st part of 3 part series (How to stimulate innovation). Regarding the latter ‘Innovation is not my cup of tea’, the response stems from the self limiting ability of the engineer(s) because most of them opine that Innovation is synonymous to being only complex and big. The self limiting tendency is what I call Psychological barrier to innovation. The thought that innovation is complex is the primary cause for self limiting tendency but the Innovation(s) can be as simple as listed in the blog post ‘Innovations – Keep it simple’ . The efficacy of the innovation is not measured by its complexity and scale but by the impact that it could create.

Self limiting ability prevents us from exploiting our full potential by drawing rigid boundaries around our comfort zone and providing an impression that our true capabilities are limited by those boundaries. But hardly do we realize that each of us have potential to innovate (at least incremental innovations, if not disruptive innovation). Just like hidden treasures in the world, there are definitely hidden talents within us (irrespective of the age). Few of us are fortunate enough to realize those talents by pushing our limits and expanding our comfort zone.

Though the DNA to innovate should have been inflicted in the minds of every individual in the college, nevertheless it is not too late for organization to do the job. Organization can pull engineers to take certain smaller steps that can eventually help them to expand their comfort zone. As a first step, Organizations should strive to break the myth that innovation is not always complex and big. To do so, organizations have to nominate existing Innovators as Influencer (remember Influencer in Tipping Point) to spread the message that Innovation is everyone’s capability and to provide motivational push to innovate.

Next in the sequence is to inculcate the ‘Solution Thinking’ among engineers as outlined in previous blog. Final step is to pull engineer to record their ideas through novel ways such as IDEA DAY or IDEA CONTEST where you coax a group of individual to share their ideas. Initially the focus should be on quantity of ideas and not on quality, later we can identify the patterns of those ideas to figure out what triggers each idea. Also institute mentors to help idea generators shape their idea. In this stage, the focus should be only on accumulating as many ideas as possible into the repository, never burden engineers to provide details such as the approximate $ value, target market etc. Those details should be provided jointly by Sales, Account team, PM after evaluating the applicability of idea to existing or new products.

Starting with above mentioned small little steps would instill stronger innovation culture into the Organization and one day lead the Organization to the cusp of major innovation.

 

Need for solution thinking to stimulate innovation

There are various types of innovations such as Product Innovation, Process Innovation and Service Innovation etc. Though I did not indicate explicitly, I was talking about stimulating “Product Innovation” in my earlier blog. One of the key drivers of product innovation is to derive new product ideas based on the deeper understanding of customers needs (both implicit and explicit). The new product idea can be based on application of new technology or any alternate product design that can enhance the usability or experience of the customers. The success of product innovation lies in our capability to understand both implicit and explicit needs of the customer. As I indicated in one of my earlier blog (The need for introspection of target market), the needs can change and it is the responsibility of Product Managers to keep well informed about the changing needs.

But focus of the blog is to facilitate engineers to gain broader understanding of the customer needs (at least explicit needs). Majority of the engineers keep themselves abreast with latest technology, the gap is only in the application of technology to generate new product ideas because of lack of awareness of customer needs. In other words, there is lack of solution thinking. Solution thinking is about the ability of engineers to successfully answer the following queries
Who is using our product?
Why are they using our product?
How are they using our product?

Solution thinking would facilitate engineers to identify product/solution gaps and it indirectly drives innovation to generate new product ideas to fill those gaps. We can make this very simple by having Product Managers communicate customer needs to engineers periodically through a forum or through streamlined process such as MRDs/PRDs. Later engineers can generate new product ideas based on those inputs. However customer needs are not something that is written on a wall, so by including engineers we are only expanding our capability to spot/understand more customer needs. Such inclusive focus will generate larger ownership among engineers and narrow the gap between product capabilities & customer needs.

We need to take a quick look at our history to figure out what is stopping our engineers from inculcating solution thinking. As a low cost deliver center, trtraditionally our focus has been on WHAT to develop and HOW to develop. Honestly our focus was never on WHY, please read my related blog post on the need to focus on WHY. Our emphasis on delivery excellence and engineering excellence etc has led to engineers working in silos with focus on specific modules of the entire product.

On the other hand, solution thinking requires a holistic view of how the product is used by the customers and how various components of the product inter operate to deliver a solution to the customer. By keeping our existing practices intact, I am only advocating for additional process (listed below) to inculcate solution thinking.

  • Product presentation delivered to all the new entrants to the product team. Product presentation would just have 3 steps
    • What is the product
    • Who are the users of the product
    • What are the specific business problems addressed by the product
  • Visual tools to explain how each element of the product interconnects with the rest of the elements
  • PRDs should not only list the features required but also highlight the needs that would be solved by those features.

The above 3 aspects might tell ‘Who is using our product’ and ‘Why are they using our product’. To understand ‘How are they using our product’, engineers have the distinct advantage of knowing it through support. While handling support issues, it is essentially that engineers’ not only focus on resolving the problem but to figure out how customer is using the product. We can do so through standard way of asking for the business implications of the problem for which support is sought. Customers define how the product is used and hence it is critical that we use customer support diligently to know how they are using our product.

 

 

How to stimulate innovation

If there is one thing that every organization on this earth wants to do irrespective of the size/market/geography is to INNOVATE.

As part of the innovation drive, all the organizations set innovation goals to file X number of patents in a financial year and increase the goal marginally YoY. Revenue realization targets are also set from those innovative ideas. Organization goals are further translated into BU goals and each BU will be entrusted with responsibility of filing a specific number of patents. Goals are good to have as it indirectly communicates the purpose of the organization and priority of the organization. By setting innovation goals, organization drives the message that innovation is critical for the growth. Therefore it brings-in necessary process to capture innovations and deliver those innovations in their products. But the hard truth is that less than 1% of the organization contributes to Innovation. So the first step in the Innovation drive should be to stimulate employees to innovate.

In order to stimulate innovation, we should not do the mistake of persuading individual to innovate. We have to make every individual in an organization to realize/understand what is in it for them to innovate. In my personal experience I have seen most of the engineers desire to learn/accomplish something different/unique. But those genuine aspirations get lost because of lack of thought process on how to trigger the journey to accomplish something different/unique. Everyone desires to move from point A to point B, but what we often do not do is to provide a moment of pause to ponder upon three critical aspects
WHY– Why to accomplish
WHAT – What to accomplish
HOW – How to accomplish

Taking a moment to work on the What/How/Why circle will help every employee understand the purpose of reaching point B and eventually trigger clarity on how to start the journey of reaching point B. Undoubtedly there might be varying purposes, however each of those purposes somewhere deep down would be either directly or indirectly tied to innovation. Further such a heterogeneity of purposes will lead to innovation in areas across product development, product design, business, processes etc.

Once we are done with the 1st of stimulating innovation, next step is to focus on eliminating the barriers of innovation. The two innovation barriers that I have indicated below need not be exhaustive.

  • Psychological barriers – Common misconception that Innovation is BIG and COMPLEX creates a mental barriers among many to innovate
  • Lack of solution thinking – Engineers work in silos and hence they lack the knowledge of how the product is used by end customers.

Let me talk in detail about each of the barriers of innovation in subsequent blogs. Stimulation and elimination are not the only requirements for successful innovation, there is another major ingredient called environment that is conducive to innovation. An environment that encourages employees to focus on innovation in addition to their regular day-to-day tasks and that eliminates fear of failure among employees. We can go ahead and talk about innovation environment in detail, for now let us put aside that topic for a future blog article.

Innovations – Keep it Simple

I was recently referring through an innovation link ‘Meet India’s most innovative young minds’. I am really in awe of all those young minds and their innovative thoughts. Out of all those innovations, the following 2 caught my attention.
Change of color in medicine pack to indicate expiry
Stapler that indicate pins are finishing

With due credit to rest of the innovations, those two innovations has been exceptionally simple that really impact wider audience in their day-to-day lives. Further those two innovations are quite obvious yet most of us would not have thought of it. So innovations need not essentially be about solving complex problems using complicated technology, it can be as simple and obvious as indicated above.

In line with our discussions, just wanted to quote Druker – “An innovation, to be effective, has to be simple and it has to be focused. It should do only one thing; otherwise, it confuses. If it is not simple, it won’t work. All effective innovations are breathtakingly simple.  Indeed, the greatest praise an innovation can receive is for people to say, this is obvious. Why didn’t I think of it?”

If innovations can be simple and obvious, what stops us (at least majority of us) from innovating? I can only state that we lack the discipline to question the status quo. We encounter lots of problems in our day-to-day life but we endure them as our tolerance level is so high or whine about them or neglect. Instead we need to have the discipline to consistently search for solutions rather than enduring or whining at our problems. Such quest should open gateways for lots of innovations.
Hmmm… undeniably inculcating such discipline is not as easy as writing a blog.

Customer Innovations

This is an era of open innovation and unarguably everyone understands the fact. But whether we all have answers on how to create innovation beyond the walls of an organization is not yet clear. I am not an expert on “Open Innovation”, just trying to drop my thoughts on specific aspect of innovation by customers. More importantly, I am trying to focus on the innovation in configuration of existing products and technologies. When we release any product we provide configurations and possible use cases / solutions of the product as part of the marketing and sales collateral. We often do not know how our product will be used and real use cases are really too huge to capture in the collateral documents. So our list of use cases might be limited to solving the critical or most important pain points of the customer.

There are classic examples of using the product quite contrary to its intended use. So there are few innovative customers who are always step ahead of us in implementing either new use cases independently through innovative changes in configuration or new solutions through successfully aligning our product with other products. In products such as DPI, we provide the required infrastructure to perform two basic functionalities: cost reduction and revenue generation. Some of these innovative customers whom I would comfortably refer to as Innovators or Visionaries as explained by Geoffrey Moore in his book “Crossing the Chasm” do dare to exploit the full functionality of the product to resolve the challenges faced by them. In the process, they constantly identify innovative changes in configuration to use the DPI technology in its fullest form. Such customers constantly poses technical challenges and helps us to build better products which eventually puts us ahead of the competition. Personally it is good to have such customers and my opinion is that they are worthy of a million dollar customer.

Now the primary focus is to locate such customers capture their innovations and later communicate those innovations. The customer innovations should serve as a sufficient fodder for the engineering team to develop either new functionality that can leverage those innovations or enhance the capabilities of the existing product as to supplement the innovation. For instance, one of our customers was using our product at an insertion point in the network that was traditionally not the targeted insertion point of our product. However the customer was able identify an opportunity which we missed out. Later engineering team collaborated with the customer to add new functionality that customer can further leverage to fully exploit the opportunity. For marketing, it opened gateways for new way of positioning the product thereby generating additional demand. Hmmm… we are touching upon one of earlier topics of discussion ‘Attacking white spaces – Demand generation’.

Let me bring back our focus on how to locate innovative customers. In this particular instance, we accidentally hit upon configuration(s)/ usage of our product by one of our customer. But we have to make some genuine attempts to constantly locate such innovative customers. Only teams that are in direct touch with customers can help us do the job, IMO account managers/BDMs might be the right choice. I also recently hit upon this link: “Citrix Innovation Awards”. May be instituting such awards will helps us to consciously capture the user innovation. On the other hand there is other argument that the product should be flexible enough (often suggested API route) to facilitate innovative customers create sufficient value. My biggest hurdle appears to be capturing the customer innovation because we were never dearth of innovative customers though we have to be conscious of not losing them. To communicate the customer innovation to other stake holders (such as Sales, Account team, BDMs) we can effectively use monthly/quarterly newsletter. Our new letter will be refined to aid those stake holders to successfully use the information to generate additional demand for the product both with existing and new customers.

To be honest, I have not provided more ways to capture customer innovation. Guess, I am running short of ideas. I will possibly try to revisit this topic with more ideas on how to capture customer innovation. Since we are touching upon ‘Open Innovation’ it would only be appropriate to gather thoughts from others as well, so please drop your ideas at murali.erraguntala@gmail.com

Slaves of predefined processes

I recently joined an IT company and because of procedural delays, access card was not given on the date of joining. So I had to take the services of security guard to seek entry into my work place. The door to my workplace is placed few feet away on the path way adjacent to security guards place of work. So the door will not be visible and hence on my exit I used to knock on the door to gain the attention of the security guard. In case of few unsuccessful attempts, I resort to disturbing the employee sitting nearby to gain access to the door. I resorted to knocking procedure from day one after I notice few employees doing so. Hardly did I ever thought about any other better means to seek attention of the security guard to gain access to the door until the security guard requested me to call on his extension. Calling his extension will make things easier for everyone. At least I can easily be aware of his presence, so don’t end up knocking the door several times and causing trouble to others sitting nearby.
I suddenly realized how foolish I was, I could not even think of such simple solution. All I did was blatantly follow the procedure set by other. Had I started questioned it, maybe I could have prescribed a better solution.
The analogy might be very trivial and it might sound silly too. However, undoubtedly we are slaves to certain process that define how our day-to-day activities will be performed and it perfectly extends to our work place activities too. We often fail to question the status quo and blindly follow certain way of doing things. As mentioned in earlier 2 blogs, I am only reiterating the importance of ‘WHY’. Before I proceed any further let me clarify that I am not inimical to process, in fact I always have great regard for processes as success of all the major IT companies in India can definitely be attributed to their well oiled processes. Without those processes, there would utter chaos in bigger organizations.
When business drivers change and the factors affecting the business change, the old process that catapulted the organization to the height of success will definitely let down unless the organization cautiously changes its processes.
However when all those processes are indispensable to any organization and what I am trying to advocate here is that the radical thinking among individuals that spur innovation in process, business models and product development according to the changing needs of the business will not be possible without the revival of the old processes.