Innovative Culture and Innovative Techniques

So I have had a few questions based on my last post and I want to make some clarifications with this post. In my last post I talked about how Omniture had gone from a highly innovative culture to a more organized culture. I’m hesitant to make this post for a couple of reasons: First, because I have used Omniture as an example for what I have learned on innovation, and I don’t mean to keep pointing fingers, but I learned a lot about how corporations work through observation of their organization while I was pursuing an MBA. Second, because I feel I’m getting a little off task of the original use of my blog site, namely looking at how storing incredible amounts of data is changing the world around us.

But, since I have already digressed in my last couple of posts, I’ll continue the digression and see if I can get back on task in the future. It’s turning more into a blog on organizational behavior and innovation. And I’ll just see where that goes.

So, some of the questions I received:

1. So are you saying that a company can only be innovative if there are no processes in place?

I wasn’t saying that at all. You definitely need processes no matter what the organization. The teachings of my professors and my personal observations of the workplace point out the more you concentrate on organization or “processes” the more you are really inhibiting innovation and locking the company into stagnation. The less you focus on organization and processes the more room you have to innovate but it also creates creating chaos. Going down the dark side of organization you are frozen by the processes around you. It is extremely efficient, but only in so far as the processes allow for efficiencies. Going the other way, down the dark side of innovation, there is utter chaos. No processes are in place to manage what is done or take advantage of what is done. Of course, we don’t want to go down the dark side of either side, so normally there is a line that needs to be smartly managed. It takes a REALLY good manager to understand where the line should be placed and that normally is done by way of where the market is and any opportunities that may present themselves. If a market is just emerging, in flux or uncertain then erring towards the side of innovation and less processes is the way to go. If the market is mature with little opportunities or disruptions then erring towards the side of organization and more processes is the way to go. But erring towards organization can be very dangerous because it is a hard hole to dig out of. If disruptors were to come along, and the organization was unable to move back into innovation, then you may find yourself out of business.

Now some may debate where the market is for online analytics and digital marketing. I think we are still in the beginning stages of the market and there are MANY potential disruptors on the horizon. I happen to think that the future of digital marketing is still up in the air and the prize will go to the most innovative company of the bunch. I wasn’t saying that Omniture is not innovative; I’m saying they are less innovative because processes have been given priority (in many cases) to innovation. That doesn’t mean they can’t change. I indeed hope Adobe learns from past mistakes, finds the innovators, and treats them well. I’ll talk more about how to find the real innovators later on.

Now, I’ll talk a little about Utah culture. I hate to say it, but it’s very true and people need to realize the dangers. You see, for those of you who don’t know, Utah is a very religious state. Take a look at the LDS church and look at it as an organization. It is extremely organized with many processes! The church members love the organization and everything runs like clockwork, as it should, the market is pretty much set for religious practitioners (if you want to see it that way). The Mormons aren’t going to change or modify any of their practices and beliefs to gain market share, at least not much. Anyway, the point here is that a lot of the managers in Utah companies come from an LDS background, and they believe it is not good to question authority. Many people don’t question because it is perceived as being disloyal. One of the main tenants of innovation is to question everything, especially your boss. Also, a lot of Utah companies are successful because they employ a top-down innovation technique i.e. founder innovates and has workers carry out the vision. I think that is why we see a lot of successful start ups in Utah. People are very smart here and willing to work hard. But I also think it is a reason why we don’t have many really big companies here. Because the technique of employing bottom-up innovation is not used once the organization finds success. I honestly think that is one of the reasons Eric Schmidt sees the importance of innovation because he had to struggle through the culture at Novell. He understands that only bottom-up innovation is scalable. Top-down innovation works well at first, but once the top has success; some can be less mentally invested because they have found their millions. It’s the bottom who is mentally invested at that point to innovate, and the top has difficulty giving up that kind of control. So, yea, it’s great that the Utah culture is on the organized side, but don’t forget to nurture innovation in the workplace. I think that is an area where Utah has some issues, but like is said in the Mormon religion, work at it and weak things can become strong (weaknesses become strengths).

Another question that was asked is the following:

2. So what techniques can be used to innovate in the workplace?

This is where it gets fun. There are several things that can be done to be innovative, but all should be used together to find innovative methods.

a. Questioning

In the classes I took with Jeff Dyer the one thing that really stuck out is questioning. Relentlessly questioning the status-quo (which Utah has a tough time doing). Challenging the status quo can put things into perspective and tees up the organization for innovation. My favorite story is the one of Edwin Land. He was taking a picture of his niece with a camera, and she asked to see the picture. He explained that she couldn’t see the picture now, only later. She innocently asked “Why not?” Edwin thought to himself, “Indeed, why not?” and invented the Polaroid camera. It was an outrageous question that challenged the status quo. Without that one question we may not have had the Polaroid camera as an invention. It’s not the question itself that is innovation, it merely spurs the process. But, in most cases, questioning is the beginning of innovation.

b. Observation

Observation is an important skill for innovation and I think this is where Steve Jobs excels. He can understand the details of what the consumer wants by simply observing their behavior. I think he is extremely adept at taking mental notes of how users respond to different interfaces for their products. Rather than looking at data and requests, he understands the details of what a user is experiencing and can hone in to that experience to create some great products. Taking mental notes of how a customer reacts to a product or problem is very important to innovation. IDEO takes this to the extreme by having their designers literally “be” the product and observer the world around them to understand how the world interacts with it. Although not the only technique to innovation it is an important one.

c. Experimentation

Experimentation is not what you would expect. It is not trying experiments on your present problem; it is crossing borders to try something new. This can complicate your life and your field of work, but provides valuable insights that you can’t get in other ways. Experiment by reading up on other techniques used in other industries. Attend conferences that are different from your field of work. Keep interests up outside of your normal day-to-day routine. Explore new worlds!

d. Networking

This one kind of surprised me, but makes total sense. Find smart people in other departments and other industries and meet with them (e.g. for lunch) and discuss their present projects, ideas and problems. Explain your projects, ideas and problems and you may be surprised by some of the insight that comes from others outside your department and field of work. It is one of the reasons IDEO looks for different backgrounds for their designers. It is a way to mesh different ideas and create something innovative that has not been thought of.

e. Associations

Creating associations is extremely important in innovation and it is more of a natural ability. This is a cognitive skill that allows someone to make connections across seemingly unrelated objects. By experimenting and networking one can have a bigger store of ideas, questions and problems to create connections with. The skill of association is VERY important to innovation and is the prime reason why one should experiment and network. The associations between seemingly disparate ideas are often the core of innovation.

That bring up another question that I’ve had, and I’m sure some managers have:

3. So how do I find the innovators in my organization?

This one is actually pretty easy, but can be a little counter-intuitive. There are individuals in an organization who are mainly concerned with the company as a whole. They are interested in the technology and the customer. But these people can often be perceived as a “pain in the ass”. I’m sure you have met the worker that questioned everything around him. He questions the bosses work and where the execs were taking the company. In short he was perceived as a “pain in the ass” and is often perceived as disloyal. This is where a good manager who knows how to nurture innovation comes in. They need to determine if the worker is a “pain in the ass” or a “pain in the asset”. If they are merely a “pain in the ass” get rid of them, but if it turns out they are a “pain in the asset”, empower them and let their ideas take shape and form. Questioning is a big point to innovation. You will be surprised by what they can do because they simply question the status quo. If they also do a good job at observing, experimenting and networking be ready for some great insights. If they also excel at associations, get ready to be rich. 🙂

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