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Innovate the Future: What Color Is Your Innovation Box?

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David Croslin, author of Innovate the Future: A Radical New Approach to IT Innovation, continues his series on innovation by scolding most of us for building the very boxes that we challenge our employees to 'think outside.'

See all of David Croslin's articles here.

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Having trouble creating new, innovative products? Does an impenetrable barrier seem to prevent your company from achieving (or regaining) a position of market dominance? Surprisingly, you're probably at fault. You've created a "box" that limits your company, and most of your attempts to start innovating only make this box stronger and more limiting. This article explains the most common "box" that most companies create: their best and brightest employees.

Black-and-Blue Thumb

Pain is one of the biggest inhibitors of new innovations. Pain comes in many forms.

I grew up working on construction crews, so I've likely driven a million nails of varying sizes, using hammers large and small. I can tell you that genuine skill is required to drive in a large nail—let's pick a 16-penny nail, about 3.5 inches long—with three swings of a hammer, especially if you don't want to "track" the wood with dents from the hammer blows. A properly driven nail just seems to shoot into the wood with those three strokes.

Believe it or not, I can clearly remember the first time I tried to drive nails like a professional carpenter. I watched the pros around me driving nails with easy, powerful, directed swings. The sheer power behind each swing was amazing to behold. I was terrified of hitting my thumb with that much power and watching my thumbnail fly off into the distance. (I have done this, and it's not fun to recall.)

Let's assume that you've never swung a hammer or driven a nail. You would very likely have the same terror as I did. Which tool would you rather use to drive that first nail?

  • Tool A. A large metal block with a curved strap that wraps around your swinging hand.
  • Tool B. A metal block with a small head attached on the end of a foot-long stick (a hammer).

At first, you probably would like using tool A. It would be much less likely to give you membership in the "black-and-blue thumb club." No way are you going to miss the nail on the first swing using tool A.

But, after a while, the laughter of the other carpenters and the screams of your boss about productivity would push you to try tool B, the infamous thumb-bashing hammer. And you would either get good at using the hammer, or retire from the carpentry field.

The likelihood of improving the proverbial hammer is very small. And if you were an inventor trying to improve it, every smashed thumb would push you further toward the current design. If you had a lot of experience as a carpenter, you probably wouldn't try to improve the hammer in the first place. There would just be too many (literally) painful memories.

The point is that invention and innovation can be very difficult. They can be made even harder if the box that defines how we invent and innovate is a box largely constructed from an attempt to avoid pain.

Black-and-Blue Box

So what color is your box? You know the box I mean—the one that seems to prevent your employees from finding a new, disruptive innovation. After all, you keep admonishing your employees to "think outside of" that box. I'll bet that your company's innovation box is just as black-and-blue as my memories of my carpentry thumb.

What's inside your box? Your employees. They're standing dead center inside the box, trying to stay as far away from the walls as possible. They know that the closer they get to the edges of the box, the closer they get to being a former asset of the company.

Even without knowing what box is limiting your employee's ability to innovate, you'll attempt to fix the problem though layoffs, new hires, acquisitions, management changes, policy changes, reward systems, and so on. You'll do everything to try to work around the box, rather than identify it and eliminate it once and for all. Why? Because the box isn't a physical thing that you can just terminate. So you're very likely to terminate everything/everyone inside and around the box instead.

You Built the Box

In reality, you can destroy the box. But first you have to recognize that you and your best-and-brightest employees created the box, and you continue to maintain it. Perhaps I should start a LinkedIn group called "Boxes Anonymous"?

"Where did the box come from?" you ask. The list could be long, but here are some likely causes:

  • You promoted your best employees for doing a great job.
  • You placed the most talented managers in positions of authority.
  • You created products that met your customers' needs.
  • You optimized your product delivery chain.
  • You lowered your costs and controlled growth.

I know, this probably sounds kind of silly: All your best decisions created your worst and most challenging problem! But let's look at it from a contrarian viewpoint:

  • You fired any employees who didn't meet the company's current needs.
  • You positioned managers who all think the same way.
  • You targeted your products to a specific niche (even if it's the most lucrative niche).
  • You eliminated the profit motive that drives your partners to help you innovate.
  • You lowered quality for your customers, to reduce costs and maintain earnings.

Over the past decade or so, you trained your employees to know that standing inside the box is the only way to survive in your company. Telling employees to "step outside the box" is like telling anyone who has suffered a major injury the equivalent of "Get back on the horse." Their response will largely be, "Yeah, right."

The Matryoshka Box

You should understand that the current box is a good box. It made your company the success that it is (was?). So stop trying to destroy it. Instead, maximize its benefit.

Recognize that the box is there, and understand why it's there. Every policy you have in place probably strengthens the current box. And what if someone does follow your request to invent something new? If the invention fails, then its inventor fails as well. Do you hear the hammer banging away, making the box thicker and stronger? Exactly.

How do you innovate when you have a black-and-blue box? There are two basic approaches:

  • Set up a completely new team/company that doesn't have any of the black-and-blue box you know so well. Microsoft used this approach with development of the Xbox.
  • Use the capabilities of all of your talented management and employees to create a new box inside the existing box, creating a Matryoshka box.

My personal preference is the second choice. It's a lot cheaper, and the team is already trained and in place.

You'll have to take steps to eliminate the fear of pain that created the existing black-and-blue box in the first place:

  1. When you define the corporate goals, make sure that none of those goals is simply "Be Innovative." Try one of these great goals instead: "Make Money," "Promote from Within," or "Expand Hiring."
  2. Define the market you want to penetrate.
  3. Define the types of customers you want.
  4. Define the challenges that your company is facing and will face.
  5. Give the people inside the box the time, money, resources, and power they need to find solutions to the challenges.
  6. Accept the fact that your employees' failure is really your failure to eliminate their fear of punishment for stepping outside the box.

Don't Get Risky On Me

I don't recommend that you increase risk—it's one of the dumbest ideas I've ever heard. Let's say it together: "To succeed, you must be willing to take more risk." Sorry, still sounds dumb. Kind of like experimenting with driving nails using a rock hammer (the one with the teeny head).

Failure should not be expected or accepted.

Every attempt to deliver to market a new invention/innovation should follow sound business practices that include a reasonably acceptable risk, balanced against opportunities and returns. Innovation isn't random, like winning the lottery, even though the innovation process often appears that way. Being successful at innovation requires that you understand who your customer is, what your goals are, how you expect to make money, and who your competitors are—before you invent/innovate.

Give your employees innovation targets defined by market, income expectations, and projected competition—and that battered black-and-blue box will start to vanish. Your employees will identify the next innovation for your company. Then you can start the innovation lifecycle all over again, by hammering away on building the new box.

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