Flipping Orthodoxies: Overcoming Insidious Obstacles to Innovation

Latest word works, for Rotman Magazine. You can see the whole piece (PDF) on Monitor’s site. The abstract is here:

When it comes to innovation, sometimes organizations need to get out of their own way. Orthodoxies, or tightly held beliefs that guide a company’s decisions, can seem as innocent as going along with “the way we do things around here,” or simply following the industry standard regarding the business model and customer experience. However, orthodoxies can be insidious and dangerous to a company’s success, write Monitor’s Bansi Nagji and Helen Walters in the Fall 2011 issue of Rotman Magazine, published by the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

There are two types of orthodoxies, internal and external. In discussing internal orthodoxies, Nagji and Walters present the case of Ford, whose tight-lipped managerial culture was losing the company billions of dollars a year. This internal orthodoxy was successfully conquered by Alan Mulally, who became Ford’s president and CEO in 2006 and urged managers to give honest reports of the status of their projects. When discussing external orthodoxies, the authors cite companies like Southwest Airlines, which flipped the airline industry model on its head, using one type of jet to cut maintenance costs and flying point to point instead of through major airport hubs.

Nagji and Walters also present five steps to flipping orthodoxies: Be ruthless about finding them; ask “why not?” to challenge preconceived ideas on a regular basis; widen your field of vision by looking in unfamiliar settings to see where orthodoxies have been flipped to learn new ideas; be a credible heretic by acknowledging the orthodoxy’s origins and recognizing the potential ramifications for change; and recognize those who dare to flip orthodoxies.

Finding and overturning orthodoxies is no easy task, however. “There is a fine line between a winning formula and hardwired assumptions that constrain a business,” the authors write. “But through careful assessment and conscious choices, you can discern between self-imposed limitations and the true cornerstones of your enterprise.”

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.”