The Wizards Stool.
I’m in the middle of doing a series of research interviews at the moment -looking into how SMEs perform open innovation – how they partner with other firms to come up with new solutions that will drive the business forward.
The interviews typically take 45 min but every now and again I get a chance to speak to somebody really amazing who comes up with so many insights that the conversation moves on to be closer to an hour and a half. This is no problem to me – I’m really grateful when people are prepared to give up their time and share their insights. As well as answering my research questions I glean so much wisdom from these people. In Oxfordshire there really are some incredible companies who are doing some great innovation.
A couple weeks ago I got to meet with one such guy who’s been involved with the R&D function of local firm for just over 30 years. As you can imagine, during that time he has built up lots of experience and insights – he’s a real Innovation Wizard. During the interview he told many anecdotes all helping frame the challenges of being innovative in small companies – the art of storytelling is strong with him.
One of the gems he shared with me was how he viewed innovation as a 3 legged stool.
One of the legs he views as the scientific basis of his firm. The roots of this company are in applying chemical processes – mostly in printing. The company has been going for over 150 years and has a strong culture of scientific discovery within the organisation that has driven the innovation that constantly reinvents that firms model.
The second leg of the stool he views as the process and how to they take that core intellectual property to be used and scaled for a commercial offering. And the 3rd leg of the stool he views as the market offering – the deep customer insights that we tap into when we position our solution on the market.
The trick with the stool analogy is in the choices for how you move each of these legs whilst you’re innovating.
This all placed a mental picture in my mind of my 5-year-old son sitting on that stool and how he drives us nuts by swinging back on the legs – rocking back and to. We know one of these day he will “come a cropper’ – but at the same time the image helped me understand what this Wizard was telling me. Its about risk and organisational stability.
Through his eyes he sees that you should only move one or two legs of that stool at any one time. If you move just one leg – innovation changes either the science, the process or the addressable market that you are intending to serve.
If you are comfortable with a little less stability, you can move two legs of the stool at one time – maybe you take a new process that can take you into a new market. Maybe you take on board some new IP and at the same time enter into a nascent market. But the deal is you can’t move all 3 legs at any one time.
It’s a good analogy because we’ve got enough common sense to know you can’t make a stool levitate – we know that we need a least some stability and some point of permanence else you struggle to keep your orientation and to justify how we are still strategically aligned with what the organisation can do today (skills, linkages, reputation and brands).
Pirates and Innovation
Near the start of the year Frank and the guys in Oxford Business First – the networking group – put on a series of events called ‘Practical innovation’.
The idea was to connect a group of people in local business community to think about being innovative and drive growth. On the first event Stuart Miller from Bybox gave his energetic talk about how innovation is at the core of his own company.
Stuart tells a great story and at the heart of it is a discussion on how at Bybox they recruit ‘Pirates’ -people who challenge the status quo and are comfortable exploring new options – stepping outside of existing structures and driving the company forward. Stuart makes people laugh when he tells them how he has the Jolly Roger flag flying outside the front of their offices in Wantage. It’s a great story very engaging and his metaphor is backed up by a recent article capturing Steve jobs walking along the same lines:
“if you’re bright, but you prefer the size and structure and traditions of the navy, go join IBM. If you’re bright and think different and are willing to go for it as part of a special, unified, and unconventional team, become a pirate.”
On the first Practical Innovation event Stuart was accompanied by one of his colleagues Indy, when the room asked how is it working in such a tense and highly provocative environment Indy did let slip that sometimes too many pirates can be too much and that you do need some sensibility and calm and a degree of consensus at the midst of all this exploration.
This kind of tension keeps organisations moving and keep the thinking innovative was called Creative Abrasion by Dorothy Leonard-Barton, in an article she wrote back in 1996.’ – and whilst it can be gritty to start with the resulting creativity and innovation justifies any pains.So whilst it great to have pirates on board – it’s fun and explosive – there’s also a degree of discomfort in change and moving forwards and exploring unknown territory.
I think everybody in the room really enjoyed Stuart’s story its great if you frame a journey as an adventure – but one guy in the room that evening asked the question:
“When does innovation go a step too far?”
This is a really good question and I certainly didn’t have a clear answer for this at the time. People talked about it but I don’t think there’s any simple answer.
If you’re working in a large firm maybe it’s just takes a while to get things moving. You could be an ‘Oil Tanker’ and pretty sluggish, and from the inside you know that it’s not worth pushing too much – if there are too many waves of innovation one after the other maybe none of them will stick. Maybe you’ve got to pick fights – after all innovation isn’t just about technology or ideas or new markets it’s actually about embedding change inside the organisation. Change can be hard and so maybe it’s reasonable that innovation can go too far if it is too disorienting in some organisational cultures.
In high-growth SMEs innovation is a very different kettle of fish. Firms are known to be flexible and agile – directly promoting this as their key strength. One of the people I’ve interviewed recently made a big point of this and he emphasises with his team that, whilst they have a clear strategy and a clear purpose and they never take their eye off the customer’s requirements; they can also turn on a dime and they are permitted to explore new avenues. After all why be an SME if you can’t be flexible and aggressive.
But again in this environment innovation could go to far. Too much ambition and to much drive can lead to burnout. It’s definitely the case that people in small businesses have a different ‘gene pool’ to those people that fit comfortably in larger firms – but everybody at some point will get low on energy and feel disoriented from an innovation too far
When I heard about the stool story from my Innovation Wizard in Oxfordshire I got thinking how it offered 3 dimensions that might help us view when innovation is too far. Clearly the Wizard didn’t want to move all 3 legs. Change in any of these ‘legs’ brings a degree of risk that needs to be assessed – trying to get all 3 to move at the same time is just one innovation step too far.
I also think the analogy of the stool can be stretched one step further. May be the height of the stool correlates of just how ambitious you’re being. Is the stool too high for people to get on? Have you reached too high and can people still believe in what you’re trying to achieve?
Also stools can be pretty uncomfortable things. You need to take people with you on an innovation journey.Is the change too much? Do you still have the backing of everybody in the company? Are other stakeholders still on board your stool?
Either way – I like the stool – a clear mental picture in our minds and it helps us do some quick sense-making of what is planned and how it fits in with our strategic assets and resources inside the company.
What do you think? Can you make stools levitate? Have you got a neat trick that allows you to climb greater heights? And what’s the secret to making a stool comfortable enough that everybody wants to get on board – and not just smile when you inspire them – but makes them cling on during the full journey of change?
Whats your favourite Innovation and Change metaphor?