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Innovation Architectures

6 Jul

Just finished reading “Innovation as Usual”, Miller and Wedell-Wedellsborg, so I thought I’d try something different and actually get round to writing up a few notes.  Firstly, they’ve got a website: so go and grab the book from there.

This book is slim. It’s got some really good ideas, and it says them concisely. You’ll not need to force people to keep reading it for weeks and weeks. I like that, already.

What’s the core idea? Getting a stream of new, good, effective ideas into a business is not as simple as asking for them. Sturgeon’s law (90% of anything is crap) applies. Most ideas are bad ideas. If you’re going to get a stream of good ideas, you’ll need to make sure that you have prepared the ground.

The book opens by defining innovation, and the Innovation Architect:

a person that makes other people innovate by changing the environment they work in.

(I’m already getting the warm and fuzzies.)

Innovation Architects, it seems, are most likely to be leaders in their businesses as well. Not necessarily the being at the top, but people taking a leadership role, setting a direction, trying to achieve things in a bigger picture. Leaders, of course, achieve their results by enabling other people to achieve great things, rather than necessarily doing them themselves. So if we’re going to have innovation in an organisation, it’s going to be organic (in the military sense: to the people delivering the work. Which means we’re going to need to make it easy for the potential of innovation to become real, useful innovation.

And to do this we have to make it easy to do the right kind of innovation – we have to put systems and support in place to make it normal, to make our people behave like innovators so that they are innovators.

At this point M&W bring in a framework: “the 5+1 keystone behaviours of innovation to promote in others”. Shameless quote:

  1. Focus on ideas that matter to the business
  2. Connect to the outside to find original ideas
  3. Tweak and challenge their initial ideas
  4. Select the best ideas and discard the rest
  5. Stealthstorm past the politics of innovation

+1: Persist in the pursuit of innovation as usual.

Let’s run through them in a little more detail.


Sonnets and haikus are a horribly restrictive way to write, but they produce brilliant gems of ideas. Constraining the domain of thought produces better thoughts. Odd. Interesting.

It’s easy to set up an “ideas funnel” and fill it with ideas you can’t do anything with. So set specific goals – “how do we decrease production cost by 40%?”.  Tell people what to focus on: “We don’t want new products this year. We’re focussing on delivering and improving the current ones”. Have some clear objectives, and provide some guidance. And, from time to time, change the focus to a different area/approach/activity – look at processes instead of products, say.


You won’t think of a brilliant way to make use of an idea from a different field if you never talk to anyone in a different field.  Make a space in the business where ideas from elsewhere can be found.

(There’s a great footnote in this section on the importance of implementing ideas, not having them.)

The key to getting lots of useful ideas is, apparently, recombinant innovation: seeing things in other areas and mixing them up. You need to be exposed to the actual problems, as well. Watch your customers, visit them, meet with them to analyze their problems. Really. Go sit in their offices. Listen to them. (There’s a maxim from sales about this: shut up and listen and people will tell you their problems.) Spend time with people you don’t normally meet with.

And, of course, you need to create some systems to share those ideas. Have people talk about things they’ve done and seen. Before any meeting, assign someone to bring something interesting.


No-one comes up with brilliant ideas at the beginning. So you’re going to have to change the ideas – to tweak them into ideas that can practically be applied! Test the idea, analyse it, throw up an MVP, get other people from the organisation to both challenge them and help improve them.

As you work on the idea, you’ll improve your understanding of the problem as well. That’s a vital part of the process. “Reframe the problem, and test the solution”. Check your assumptions about the problem space all the time. Write down the problem, run the Five Whys, work out what the person would describe the results they would pay for as. Then go and test the solutions. Quickly. Find a simple way to do so.

When doing this, you need to enable useful criticism. M+W give an example from Pixar, where directors show daily their work, and comments are made – but it is up to the directors what to do about the comments. You need strong critical thought to improve ideas, but it needs to be managed to get the improvement, not to score points or assert authority.


Sturgeon’s law again. But also cognitive biases – how do you support gatekeepers to effectively select the ideas without discarding really good ones? Probably, you need a fast filtering process to run on “normal” ideas, looking for quick wins, and a slow contemplative one to run on more subtle – or more disruptive – ideas. But you have to build a system here too.

You should be careful about who is a gatekeeper, you should have and review evaluation criteria, and you need to calibrate the gatekeeping process.

One technique is to “blind” the review process; another is to bring in people outside the “idea” to make these decisions. Having a mix of people involved in gatekeeping helps, as does reviewing the idea in context, rather than from slides.

An important part of the gatekeeping process is killing bad ideas fast – someone who knows their idea isn’t going to work and kills it for you is a wonder! It’s worth putting in place tangible deadlines and end-stops for projects, to prevent them proliferating endlessly – make them specific time-limited experiments, so they don’t become “the way we do things” – but make the deadlines generous. Get people to vote for keeping projects, not for killing them.


It’s an organisation. You have politics. You need to manage the development of the innovation  to avoid offending your culture or politics. Someone somewhere high up will need to be air cover. If you get this right, it becomes easier to do what you’re trying to do.

Help people establish networks within (and outside!) the company, so they can get support when trying new things. Ask for advice, not political capital. Make sure your innovation has a narrative – a story – because people will remember those. Show the value of the innovation as early as possible, and make the showing memorable and personal.

And the +1, Persist?

You need to set up the reward structures and culture around the organisation so people keep innovating, so people actually (as Kennedy said) “choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard”. But if you give people the opportunity and the support to work on the innovations they want to, they will.

So make sure people are doing things they want to be doing. Connect people with areas they are interested in – and get them to find ideas that only they could find. (But remind them to find ideas of potential value to the business!)

Autonomy is a big help in generating persistence: let people tackle problems they think  are more important and they care about, and let them do it in the way they think is most appropriate, and persistence will follow.

Make sure that there aren’t un-necessary barriers to the process, and look at external motivations – rewards – for innovation. The “fun” part of innovation is the first 1% – the rest of the process is hard work, and external motivation can help keep the focus then.

Innovators shouldn’t suffer for trying to innovate – either if their idea fails, or during the development of the idea. Innovation needs to be seen as a desirable part of the career path, not a risk or a trap.


So, that’s the framework reviewed. What do we do next? The Epilogue provides a quick kick up the behind, and sets some immediate actions:

  • Get started.
  • Make a simple, specific plan for immediate actions.
  • Get a supporter to work with you on this – even just as a sounding-board and reminder.
  • Run them through these ideas.
  • Find them now.

(Which is why I’ve just summarised the entire book for internal distribution to my colleagues)


Speed and the product lifecycle

23 Feb

If you’ve looked at any of the material on technology products, you’ll have seen this curve:

Innovation adoption lifecycle

To a first approximation, this tells us how fast a product will sell over time, and knowing about the types of people in each of the segments will tell us how to tailor the messages we put out about the product.

I did a spreadsheet to see what happens.


Wonderful. Look at all that lovely profit.

But before we can sell something, we need to develop it.

Let’s add some development time into the project. And let’s remember that we have to borrow the money from somewhere to do it.


Not only do we need to borrow to do 6 months of development, but also we make less profit.

And, of course, everyone wants to make sure that the product is as good as possible before releasing it onto the market.

Bad idea.

So they make the product better – and it sells 50% more than it would have done. But they take 50% longer to do that.


Ok, we made slightly more profit. But it happened later, and we got more in debt to do so.

And what happens if they were wrong about the value of the features? What if we didn’t sell any more?


Ouch. We don’t break even until right at the end of the product’s life.

Now, to be fair, there’s a fair collection of assumptions in those graphs, and I don’t pretend they are anything like precise. But that does look to me like a really strong argument for getting the minimum viable product out as quickly as possible. Now I get to try and explain it to the engineering team…


First, knock a hole all the way through.

20 Jan

I’m in the middle of getting a wood-burning stove put in. There’s a small argument about whether wood will be cheaper than gas to heat the house, but that’s not the reason.

When the survey was done, the installer asked if I would mind removing the sheet of what’s probably asbestos from the chimney.

Sure, I said, I’ve got gloves, mask, goggles, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime exposure.

Two hours work with the cold chisel, lump hammer and vacuum cleaner got 90% of it out, leaving only a metal plate across the top of the opening with the remaining sheeting stuck above it. I got the metal plate a little bit loosened, but then decided I didn’t want to take out any more in case the result was the chimney coming down. (Well, it would be embarrassing). I changed my clothes and washed my hair, before pondering what to do about the remaining bit.

Friday morning the fitters turned up. Since it was blizzarding, I didn’t really expect them to, but once they were here and we’d done the obligatory standing in the garden staring at the snow, I offered them a cuppa, which gave me the chance to show them and ask about it. Don’t worry too much, they said, we’re used to this kind of thing. But if you did keep on chipping away, you’d be able to get the metal plate out.

This afternoon I set to again with mask, goggles, gloves, vacuum cleaner – and a plant mister to keep the dust down.

After ten minutes, it was clear that I wasn’t ever going to get the metal plate out. So I started removing the cement above the sheeting, in the hope I would get somewhere. Half an hour later, after small amounts of material removed all along, I knocked a hole through to the back, which changed the game completely. Now I could chisel along, knocking out material without problems, and ten minutes later I hauled out the sheeting and was done.

So, the lesson I think I learned:  If I had started by knocking a hole all the way through the whole job would have been far faster and quicker.

Can I apply this elsewhere? Well, it seems strangely similar to a “spike solution” in software development – if you’re tackling a large problem, get a tiny bit of everything done so you can get it running. Put a window up on the screen and make a button on it turn the giant laser off and on – that sort of thing. With a spike solution, you show that you can do the basic part of everything, and then you can throw it away and do the job properly, or (if you’re cheating) widen it into something more capable. There’s probably something about the “minimum viable product” that should be said here, but I’ll leave that for another time.

What am I going to do next time? (Apart from use the mister from the beginning.) Well, when I’m looking at something that seems like a really big task, I’ll try and get just enough done that I’ve touched on everything, and then see how long it takes to do the rest. Might be a whole load easier.




“Move fast and make things” – up?

28 Dec

There’s a great picture on Fast Company of Facebook’s “Minister of Propaganda”:

Note the poster in the background. And the one on the floor to —-> that side.

One of the challenges about being in the “building complicated things” business is that nothing happens quickly. Making a brand new complicated thing takes months. Or years. (Even if you’re putting a man on the moon for the first time.) And it needs a whole host of people all pointed in the same direction for all of that time. Which means someone’s got to feed and clothe them, and that normally implies someone somewhere is going to be paying people. Before you know it, you’ve got a burn rate like a cliff and you’re headed straight into the ground. (Which is why some of the best hard SF has a project manager as the lead)

Software, in some sense, gets it easy. Entire schools of endeavour are devoted to ways to make people believe they experienced software. Then they just buy apps or OS X and eternal upgrades promising what they thought they bought. Damn their slick marketing promises and the joy their customers feel for that.

Persuading engineers that they can buy something that they have never seen before, and your own engineers don’t know they can make – that’s a sales role. J.R.Bob Dobbs is my key text on this – he is apparently responsible for a large part of the US and USSR space programmes after being off-loaded with ten billion tons of  fuming nitric from a dodgy mil-surp deal from Peenemunde.

I’m looking forward to the future promise of 3d printing as changing engineering. CNC machining had the same sales pitch, and if we’re lucky we’ll see the next generation of engineering promise in another 50 years.

Now, back to trying to make atoms and bits cooperate en masse.

[Unless this was all the difference between generating something new, real, complicated that acted in the world – and just making pixels dance on peoples screens …]