It was a nippy 8 a.m. in Ann Arbor, MI, as I waited outside a modest building on the campus of the University of Michigan (UM) to begin my day at the Innovatrium, a facility operated by Competing Values, a consulting and training firm founded by business school professors, consultants, and former executives; Haworth, an office and building workspace design and manufacturing company; and iscg, a workplace design distributor. Led by Executive Director Jeff DeGraff, a UM clinical professor of management and organizations, the Innovatrium serves as a laboratory to brainstorm new business process and strategy.
Waiting alongside me for the building to open were about a dozen up-and-coming engineers from Eaton Corporation, a power management company focused on the electrical, industrial, and transportation markets, who were there to spend their second day strategizing ways to tap emerging markets and set the company on an even stronger path to growth. Most could pass for college students themselves as, on average, they appeared to be just a few years (if that) out of college or graduate school.
If you thought a place with a name such as "Innovatrium" would feature strangely shaped furniture and odd intergalactic sculptures hanging from the ceiling, I can tell you you're way off base. Converted from an old photography studio, the entire second floor inhabited by the Innovatrium can best be described as a blank palette. Large picture windows frame four distinct work environments. There is no decoration in the rounded area devoted to collaboration where the workshop was held, and the only furniture consisted of two rectangular tables, two round tables, and office chairs, all with wheels, allowing for flexible arrangements. DeGraff told me research on innovation indicates it's best to offer open, unadorned spaces for brainstorming, rather than spaces cluttered with "interesting" objects. I thought the most innovative aspect of the Innovatrium's accommodations was every piece of it, from table to window to nearly empty glass cabinet, could be written on with easy-erase markers. The tables also are white boards, and the large windows lent themselves to use as scribbling boards. And, of course, the room also included several large, actual white boards along with a projector screen. The purpose is to promote the sharing of ideas and the development of ideas by putting them on display.
The previous day's exercises for Eaton's young up-and-coming engineers focused on establishing the challenges the company faces, including the development of new products and services, and new places to market those new offerings to. At the same time, the company was focused on further solidifying its status as a global organization. To help them address these challenges, the engineers were given a "values framework" of differing work approaches and innovation categories. According to the Competing Values framework, approaches of colleagues and innovations can be classified as collaborative, creative, controlling, or competitive. Those classifications are depicted on a color-coded wheel. Yellow for "collaborate"; green for "create"; red for "control"; and blue for "compete."
Understanding the innovations needed (which elements need to be incorporated), and the organizational cultures, needed to bring those innovations to fruition, is intended to make innovation success more likely.
The task in the day ahead for the engineers, divided into a few different groups, was to come up with solutions, or, as DeGraff put it, "winning ideas." Those ideas would have to not only be realistic enough to implement, but incorporate the "wow factor."
Along with solutions, the Innovatrium participants needed to come up with novel ways to find funding to bring the ideas to market, including getting their brainchildren through the company's approval process. "You're going to learn how to win a bar fight," DeGraff joked, referring to the learned ability to get ideas through corporate bureaucracy. Glancing at the white boards lining the perimeter of the Innovatrium, DeGraff said he expected to see each group boil their disparate ideas into cohesive, innovative business solutions. If two ideas emerged as equally strong in a group, he recommended seamlessly merging them. "Take the two ideas, and create one hybrid idea," he said. "No bolt-on ideas or 'marriages of convenience.'"
As the groups gathered around their respective white boards, and began to collaborate, DeGraff suggested they consider examples of powerful ideas or solutions in their own lives for inspiration. "Think about a place where you see blue, yellow, and green connect in your own life," he said, referring to the convergence of the collaborative, creative, controlling, and competitive elements necessary for effective innovation.
Mark Dickinson, human resources director for Eaton's corporate technology office, who accompanied the engineers to the Innovatrium, shared that they "see themselves as greens (creators), but according to the Competing Values Assessment results, they're mostly process thinkers, which is why we're here," yet as I looked around the room, they seemed pretty creative. It looked like a no-holds-barred process in which no idea was too outrageous to be considered as fodder for further boiling down and development. One group, for instance, with its record keeper standing on top of a chair, jotted down, high on a window, an idea to create a reality TV show about the product development process at Eaton. That plan, by the way, also might include the purchase of NBC (owned by GE, a company Eaton shares a key industry with). Of course, everyone realized Eaton wouldn't actually purchase NBC, and most likely would never launch a reality show, but the idea highlighted the need for more creative marketing channels to push along product development. "We can always peel ideas back," said DeGraff. "Thin the herd by talking about your ideas—which ideas are easy to implement and have small wins?"
Big wins are great, and ultimately necessary, but it's the quick, small wins that give innovation momentum, DeGraff explained. Another group noted on its white board the boost to the creative process taking naps at the workplace might provide (a particular favorite of mine). But I questioned to myself how easy that seemingly simple idea would be to get through corporate bureaucracy. To that end, DeGraff guided the groups through the separation of their ideas into categories of those that are easy to implement with small payoffs; easy to implement with big payoffs; tough to implement with small payoffs; and tough to implement with big payoffs.
As we neared the time of our boxed lunches, the ideas began to look easier to implement. A group scrawling on its white board across the room from my spot in the corner (wanted to stay out of the way so as not to stymie innovation) wondered about the possibility of hiring external marketing firms to help Eaton identify gaps in its marketing strategy. At this point in the innovation process, said DeGraff, the engineers should focus on thinking through all the "functions and attributes" of their ideas. Not the easiest task for engineers, who, DeGraff said, tend to be vertical rather than horizontal thinkers, meaning they too often address challenges from a solitary, top-down approach (like solving a mathematical equation) rather than reaching out to colleagues and business partners for novel solutions. "We're finding the center; we're not solving for X," said DeGraff.
To help them think about new solutions in a descriptive rather than mathematical way, DeGraff asked each group to come up with a metaphor that would describe the innovations they proposed. One group thought up the metaphor of a beehive, while another imagined an orchard. The business analogies were easy to see. For a thriving orchard, for instance, you need to plant the seedlings (plant novel, compelling ideas), which then need to be watered and plied with fertilizer (nurtured via a supportive business process), and protected from hazards such as adverse weather (idea sponsors powerful to provide protection). Then, to ensure a bountiful harvest, the orchard's fruit (new products or services) must be picked (brought to market) at just the right time; and made the most of by creating, say, offshoot products such as applesauce or apple cider.
Just as the use of metaphor, with its imagery, helps innovative problem-solvers bring new ideas to fruition, DeGraff said the old wisdom about convincing others by showing rather than telling is important to remember. "Seeing is believing," DeGraff pointed out. "You need to help people see. Put them in the movie." That means, for example, creating a prototype of a new product you can market to executives at your company to get buy-in and funding for a new marketing effort. While you want to create a vivid, compelling picture of the innovation you have in mind, be careful not to box yourself in by proposing just one approach to getting it done. "Diversify what you don't know," advised DeGraff. "Launch a diverse array of ships, send them on different routes, see what you discover." In other words, maybe instead of one prototype and one marketing strategy, you offer up a few different innovations to get to the place you want to go.
Hand-in-hand with diversity, the effective innovator understands he will need flexibility to accomplish his goal, including leaving room for changes and updates to the innovation late in the development process. "Create slack with non-optimized resources upfront, so you don't optimize your resources when you don't know where you're going," said DeGraff. Optimizing your resources upfront rather than saving them for later, he explained, "increases your chances of going someplace you don't want to fast."
Sometimes, rather than following your own vision and plans, you can take an innovative lead from customers. "Identify and watch your leading customers," DeGraff suggested. Using your customers as a source of innovation means "building and nurturing customer communities," he explained. That means also giving them the tools to share product idea creation with fellow customers.
Sadly, innovations such as creating customer communities equipped to contribute to a company's product and services development often are made impossible by a stifling business process. As DeGraff continued pointing out best practices to roll out innovation, he asked the Eaton engineers to consider whether the key to innovation in their organization is more about stopping something old than starting something new. One young engineer said that might be the case because she feels the company could deliver better products if it altered how it approaches project deadlines. She said too often her work group is forced to deliver projects before they are ready to meet deadlines that sometimes seem more arbitrary than essential. The result is a product that never achieved its full potential because it was not delivered fully developed. Another engineer pointed out the age-old problem of process slowed by crippling corporate bureaucracy. She said innovative plans would be sped up if the company created "self-service" for needs such as purchase orders. DeGraff suggested Eaton put its corporate processes to the following test: "Ask what the process is designed to create? Why do you have it?"
At the same time, he said, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis to whatever process you decide to do away with. When it comes to Six Sigma, for example, the benefits of quality control can be crippling to creativity. Yet, no credible business would recommend dispensing with processes that ensure consistency of product. "If Six Sigma is applied everywhere, you'll never have a breakthrough product," said DeGraff. "It isn't saying whether or not you want Six Sigma; it's deciding where you want to use it, and why."
Making innovation a reality would be hard enough if you needed to only consider the challenge, imagination, and business process. It becomes infinitely harder when you consider (from my introverted perspective) the human variable—all those you need to not offend, and all those you need to win over, to bring your innovation to market. DeGraff said to start with, ensure the work team you assemble to address your challenge is balanced according to the color-coded Competitive Values chart, meaning you need all personality types, including a collaborator (yellow), creator (green), controller (red), and competitor (blue) to give your idea its best chance. You also can't rule out adding those you're not crazy about to your team—if you think they can be of use to your project. "Who's required on the team, and who's not, to help you take a shot?" DeGraff said Eaton's engineers should ask themselves. "Keep sponsors close and critics closer."
Since innovation often involves getting rid of an old way of doing business, the innovator's project also may supplant colleagues or even him or herself. DeGraff had a tip to avoid the ultimate irony—innovating yourself right out of a job. He said to consider how to "kill a project without killing a person." The way to do that might, for instance, require establishing a mentoring program to transition workers from the old way of doing business to the new.
Innovation can be daunting, so sometimes though you preserve your job and that of your colleagues, you don't get to claim the glory yourself. DeGraff said to take a long-term perspective including figuring out, if necessary, what you can do to further the innovation process rather than accomplishing it all yourself. "Come up with three great shots that, if you did those three things, would give the next person in leadership a good chance of getting [the innovation] done," he recommended.
In the meantime, the innovator has to take ownership of the project, including serving as its lead champion, and perhaps more importantly, lining up sponsors with the power to legitimize the innovation. DeGraff calls the workhorses responsible for doing the innovation's grunt work "agents," and those who are able to cheerlead for the initiative, but unable to facilitate it, "advocates." Colleagues whose work lives will be disrupted (maybe those who will have to enroll in the aforementioned mentoring program) are referred to as "associates."
To ensure sponsors make good on their commitment to help you, choose ones who have something to gain or lose in the fate of your innovation. DeGraff says one approach is to connect your initiative to one of the sponsors. "You need somebody with skin in the game," he said. "They're not going to let the boat go down because they're in the boat." You can figure out early in the process whether the sponsor will be with you until the project's completion by how they act during the "warm-up" phase, when you first get them on board. DeGraff said not to waste time asking them for help. "Start asking for things now because if they won't give you the little things, they won't give you the big things later."
Then there is the opposition. The first step to making peace with resistors is asking what they stand to lose if your innovation wins. Could they be in danger of losing their jobs or seeing their work role diminished? How can you offset their potential losses, DeGraff said to ask yourself. If they prove unreasonable, how about a little manipulation? The struggling innovator can try hitting up the resistor's friends and colleagues to win them over. Can you coerce them into going along with the innovation? "Do you have the power to enforce a 'do it or else' posture?" DeGraff said to ask yourself. "But the danger is [resistors] can do it back to you."
Throughout the innovation process, DeGraff cautioned, remember the different work personalities outlined by the Competitive Values color-coded chart. "Don't talk to a blue [competitive person] like you're talking to a green [creative person]," he said. "We're all right or left-handed. Know which hand you're talking to."
It's about 3 p.m., Eaton's workshop is coming to a close, and Dickinson, the HR executive who brought the engineers to the Innovatrium, has an end-of-the-day (hopefully not end-of-days) surprise for his participants. "You didn't know this going into it, but I want you to run with this," Dickinson said. The engineers were charged—in real life—with making their proposed solutions a reality. Dickinson advised the Innovatrium participants to further refine, or "massage," their ideas, and get their proposals together. They will meet again in first quarter 2010 to go over implementation plans. He left them with a parting call to action: "Please let your bosses know what you learned here, what you did, and what you'll be working on going forward."
Taking the first steps toward creating a more innovative company isn't insurmountable. Here are some tips from University of Michigan Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations and Innovatrium leader Jeff DeGraff:
• Ask employees to consider examples of powerful ideas or solutions in their own lives for inspiration.
• "Thin the herd by talking about your ideas—which ideas are easy to implement and have small wins?" says DeGraff. "Big wins are great, and ultimately necessary, but it's the quick, small wins that give innovation momentum."
• Ask employees to think through all the "functions and attributes" of their ideas.
• Have employees come up with a metaphor that would describe the innovations they proposed.
• "Diversify what you don't know," advised DeGraff. In other words, maybe instead of one prototype and one marketing strategy, you could offer up a few different innovations to get to the place you want to go.
• "Create slack with non-optimized resources upfront," said DeGraff, "so you don't optimize your resources when you don't know where you're going."
• "Identify and watch your leading customers," DeGraff suggested. Using your customers as a source of innovation means "building and nurturing customer communities."
• Ask employees to consider whether the key to innovation in their organization is more about stopping something old than starting something new.
• Put corporate processes to the following test: "Ask what the process is designed to create? Why do you have it?"
• Ensure the work team you assemble to address your challenge is balanced according to the color-coded Competitive Values chart, meaning you need all personality types, including a collaborator, creator, controller, and competitor.
• Encourage the innovator to take ownership of the project, including serving as its lead champion, and perhaps more importantly, lining up sponsors with the power to legitimize the innovation.
• Guide employees to choose sponsors who have something to gain or lose in the fate of your innovation.
• Make peace with innovation resistors by asking what they stand to lose if your innovation wins. Could they be in danger of losing their jobs or seeing their work role diminished? How can you offset their potential losses?