Ryan Jacoby: The Seven Deadly Sins of Innovation

Ryan Jacoby heads up IDEO’s New York practice, and gave a talk at NYU/Poly this evening with an intriguing title: Leading Innovation: Process Is No Substitute. It points to the tension found in companies between right-brainers (for lack of a better term) espousing design, design thinking and user-centered approaches to innovation and the left-brained, more spreadsheet-minded among us. Now, bear in mind that most C-suites are dominated by the latter, all of whom are big fans of nice neat processes and who pay good money to get them implemented rigorously throughout their organizations. Jacoby’s point: processes are all well and good, but they don’t guarantee innovation, and in some cases they might even provide a false sense of security.

Ryan outlined what he described as the Seven Deadly Sins of innovation, which I’m sure will ring true for most people who’ve worked on such projects. They are:

1: Thinking the answer is in here, rather than out there
“We all get chained to our desks and caught up in email,” he said. “But the last time I looked, no innovation answers were coming over my Blackberry.” You have to get outside of the office, outside of the conference room and be open to innovation answers from unexpected places. Ryan makes himself take a photograph every day on the way to work, as a challenge to remember to look around him. (My homage to this idea above, a random image from last weekend’s jaunt to an icy upstate NY.)

2: Talking about it rather than building it
This one related to the last. At least here in the U.S., we live in a land of meetings and memos and lots and lots of discussion. Sometimes it’s more than possible that all this talk might prevent us from, well, actually doing anything. He gave a great example of an idea to bring “fun into finance”, and showed a mocked up scenario of a guy buying a pair of sneakers, at which point a virtual avatar danced on his credit card. Practical? Not the point. The unpolished prototype motivated the team and got them thinking differently.

3: Executing when we should be exploring
“This is huge for management types,” he said, going on to warn of the problem of trying to nail down a project way too early in the timeframe. “Who’s exploring? Who’s executing? Where is everyone in process?”

4: Being smart
“If you’re scared to be wrong, you won’t be able to lead innovation or lead the innovation process,” he said. This is huge. Innovation is all about discussing new ideas that currently have no place in the real world. If you’re only comfortable talking about things that *don’t* strike you as alien, chances are you’re not talking about real innovation.

5: Being impatient for the wrong things
Innovation takes time, but too often executives expect unrealistic results at an unrealistic clip. Be explicit about the impact that you expect.

6: Confusing cross-functionality with diverse perspectives
IDEO is an inter-disciplinary firm, mixing up employees with a whole host of backgrounds. That’s different from teams that simply mix up functions–and critical to ensuring a better chance at innovation. “Diversity is key for innovation,” said Mr J.

7: Believing process will save you
Here, Ryan showed a great image of vendors touting their wares at the Front End of Innovation conference in Boston. His point: you can’t simply buy your way to a soaring innovation strategy. Some of these products might be useful, sure, but they’re no substitute for real thought leadership. Or, as he put it, “learn the process, execute the process, and then lead within it.”


9 thoughts on “Ryan Jacoby: The Seven Deadly Sins of Innovation

  1. Great notes – thanks for sharing! Numbers 3, 4 and 5 got me thinking about how important it is as a facilitator or manager to align their team with the type of breakthroughs being sought out in the first place. Problem-solving benefits from homogenous teams, problem-finding benefits from a diversity of professional perspectives. Of course, outside experience as an influence can be a powerful catalyst, but this speaks to the difference between venturing deeper into a domain vs. scaffolding further out into the unknown.

    Successful Design-minded leaders cultivate a balance between the two hemispheres, and moderate as brokers between the conflicting values of two very different (and horribly biased) schools of thought. The challenge is to get Designers –who claim to be so empathetic– to empathize with the left-brainers’ appreciation for certainty, and to get those damned left-brainers to appreciate –and maybe one day thrive in– ambiguity, so that the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. But this is just about getting good stuff out of a team… developing those groundbreaking inventions into innovations? Another art+science altogether..

  2. Great capture, Helen, and a solid set of foundations from Ryan that all of us in the innovation business would enthusiastically agree with. To build on Ryan’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ and Dustin’s point on ‘hemispheric balance’, there are three more sins worth a point of the flashlight.

    Where the first seven are typical of the companies late to embrace the need for expansive creative thinking at innovation’s front end, the three I’d add are popping up with increasing frequency among those who have made the philosophical leap (toward Design Thinking, applied creativity or whatever one calls it), but aren’t yet seeing the traction they’ve hoped for.

    Sin #8 – The failure to remember that Design Thinking, as wonderful and powerful as it can be, is itself is a process, and as capable of providing false comfort as any other process. It is a springboard to jump toward answers, rather than an answer in its own right. Too many people are mistaking it for the latter, which is unhelpful to creativity’s advance toward a permanent role at the front of the innovation food chain.

    Sin #9 – Staying stuck in this ‘us vs. them’ thing. As the carriers of the power of creativity to the front of the food chain, we’re in a privileged position that we need to use, not abuse. While we’re asking companies to become comfortable with the ambiguities that a creative orientation thrives on in uncovering and tackling consumer problems, those of us of creative bent need to broaden our own playbook. We need to get as turned on by solving the hard-assed realities of the business as we are by solving for the human needs of people. Markets are saturated. Old business models are going slack. The only answer that can really blow open transformational innovation hit rates is one that brings these two orientations together (in our practice, we call this approach Money + Magic). It’s not about battling brain lobes. It’s about aiming creative inventiveness at two sets of problems, not one – the problems of the consumer and the problems of the business – with equal amounts of intensity and lateral thinking.

    Sin #10 – Forgetting that what ultimately counts is the outcome. We need to all remember that the companies racing to embrace the power of the creativity we unleash at the front end aren’t doing it because they want to make innovation more creative. They want to make it more impactful. Too many companies and innovation practitioners fall into the trap of thinking they’re in the wow business, measured in exciting meetings. That provocative trip to the mountaintop has to land on a tangible outcome that excites consumers and shareholders alike, or else it was merely interesting.

  3. Thanks for such wonderful comments. It’s been wild to see people’s response to this post (Fast Company picked up, published and off we went.) These comments add so much to what was really just a super quick recap of one part of Ryan’s presentation, so thank you all.

    @Dustin Larimer, assessing what type of breakthrough you’re after is *so* important. And I love your pointed reminder to designers that the empathy they love to point at customers/users would also serve them well when faced internally, too.

    @Mark Payne, thanks for the extra three sins! I certainly agree that it’s important for Design Thinking to be presented as a process, not a panacea. I think we’re still seeing the evolution of DT in general, and it’s interesting to see the evolution of discussion around the topic. And you’re quite right, “merely interesting” shouldn’t be the goal of anyone, would-be innovator or not.

    @rmarg, @andrew skeehan and @steve grice, thanks for reading! And Steve, good luck with your boss :)

  4. Your speech, which illustrated 7sins of innovation with a lean way, is impressive and interesting for me; meanwhile, another idea in your speech-“what impact inventions will cause?”- induce me to spark many things happened.

    While I was an entry-level employee in the very beginning of my career , I believe invention is the metaphor of time-shorten, meeting customer needs, or downsizing costs. Nevertheless, after working for a number of software projects and joining product presaling, I commented that a special ability, observing the whole project from the future, can facility a project team creativity and productivity .

    Your pint-pointed impacts of innovation; to some extent, I take the “impacts” as future/visions.

    First, in mental perspectives, removing uncertainty is a key factor to encourage a project team to hold hope. Image a glass floor set beyond grand canyon. While accepting a new job, team members can be regarded as a nervous child standing on the glass floor. If they just look down, they won’t dare to step forward because their minds are filled with fears and complains. Basically, a great PM must utilize visions that will contribute to encourage team members.

    Moreover, in physical steps about innovation, visions can easily identify final milestones, predict possible barriers, and avoid the appearance of voids. Furthermore, PM can go back the project’s start point, planing possible path to those milestones.

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