IMI: Based on your current work – what six words of advice would you give to business?
Uncover the Contradiction, Resolve the Contradiction
IMI: What does that really mean?
DM: Creativity is not the issue. In my travels around the world I've seen no variation in the basic capacity to come up with good ideas. In general, if you give people the opportunity to be creative then they'll do a very good job of it. But as Thomas Edison said: "Genius (or in this case innovation) is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration". The creativity part is just the 1%. The real challenge for turning good ideas into successful innovations is twofold:
1. The creativity often gets applied to the wrong problem.
2. Those creative people who are good at starting new ideas are often not very good at executing them.
So the message for business is that we must get better at identifying what the problem is that we are trying to solve and once we have the solution we must be persistent in building the capacity to execute and make real that solution in the form of an innovation. In other words, we need to build our capacity to find the contradictions and then use our knowledge to develop innovations that resolve the contradiction.
The challenge for managers and leaders is that the education system conditions us to ask the wrong questions. The MBA mindset in particular, since the Japanese quality revolutions of the 1970s has largely looked at improvement as being about optimization. So managers tend to assume that when looking for a solution to a problem there must be a trade-off that has to be made. The real innovators don't accept the trade-offs!
In fact, there is evidence that the powerful innovations come about when we can seek out and allow for contradictions. So to innovate we need to relearn the ability to hold potentially contradicting ideas in our minds. Yet when I have taught these concepts in universities I have often been told they were "dangerous". Ireland is probably ahead of the game in this regard… there is a comfort with ambiguity here that you can see.
Business innovation still has to catch up with the world of technical innovation. I find myself having a lot of conversations with CEOs who say they want new ideas and new thinking but they don't want to change anything.
Design thinking is becoming a popular tool in business because designers naturally have that ability to hold conflicting ideas and not converge on a solution. There is a big queue of executives going to Stanford and Berkeley in the states trying to reeducate themselves to become innovators. But when they come back to the office their KPIs are short-term and about optimisation. I work a lot with companies to help them to build dashboards that include innovation metrics as well as those other measures. The capability journey is quite a slow one; so companies need to deliver some innovation success stories in the short term – people are more likely to be on board if they can see demonstrated progress that is due to innovation.
So to teach an organisation how to become better at innovation it's key that:
a) you work on real problems: gone are the days of the academic abstract theoretical questions and
b) you use those problems to learn not to accept the trade-offs.
The pressure to innovate is as great as it ever was. Asia is where where the competitive pressure is largely going to come from. I work a lot in China, and there's a lot more hunger over there. Also, India is graduating as many engineers a year as exist in the UK – that's a rather worrying fact. We need to make sure it's not a case of the boiling frog, where we don't notice the heat until it's too late…
I think the next 10 years are going to be very interesting. These are tough economic times and there has been and will continue to be a big surge in innovation to meet that. Those companies that can ride out the storm will be here for the longer term. In the end it is the Creator that will come out top.
IMI: Where should we go to learn more?