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.”

YouTube Play rocks the Guggenheim

The other night I went to the Guggenheim for what can only be described as an Only In New York Night. It was the opening of the Play Biennial, a new initiative from YouTube and the Guggenheim to celebrate creativity and innovation in film. Of 23,300 entrants, 125 films made it onto the shortlist, while 25 finalists are now on show as part of a weekend-long exhibit. To kick things off, there was a big old party, with snippets of film projected onto a screen in the rotunda of the Guggenheim, as well as onto both interior and exterior walls of the museum. The projections (my footage of the outside of the building shown, above and a still, below left) were put together by Obscura Digital, which mapped the imagery seamlessly, transforming Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic museum into an epic dreamscape. The LXD performed a jawdroppingly athletic dance piece while YouTube folk heroes OK Go performed two songs while standing up ladders (below, right). The whole thing was truly magical. As my friend June involuntarily shouted at one point, “Look at that!” We all did, and it was good. See all the films that made the shortlist here.

The Artist is Present. Ish.

Seems like this summer is the age of the artist deigning to grace their public with their presence for more than just the private view. Ish. Continuing a theme I touched upon last year after seeing Antony Gormley’s “One and Other” exhibit, in which the artist handed over the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in London to successive members of the British public to do with it what they liked, a couple of shows in New York this summer are similarly inclusive.

Marina Abramovic, for example, was heroic at MOMA, turning up from open to close every day from March 14 through May 31 to stare off a motley crew of assailants who included the moved, the confused, the uber-fans and, of course, the slew of celebs you might expect in Manhattan. Those attendees were the attention-grabbing but easily the least interesting thing about the piece, which culminated in a reunion between Marina and her former partner-in-life-art-love-hate-crime, Ulay. I was in France for the finale (for my brother’s wedding, which was a lovely and happy time so I can’t regret not being there, though I’d have loved to have beamed in for this moment) and so missed the former couple’s reunion, but I imagine it was impossibly moving. You couldn’t look at their work in the galleries upstairs and fail to be affected  by their fanatical sincerity and commitment to pushing any boundary they could imagine. It’s not a question of loving every moment of their work–I fair ’nuff ran through the gallery that showed video of Marina screaming herself hoarse, which I couldn’t handle at all. But the fact that she was sitting just a few floors below added to the pathos and impact of the whole.

Arguably less (self-) obsessive, but no less thought-provoking, is the current exhibit of Christian Marclay’s work at the Whitney. I’ve been familiar with Marclay’s work for some time, ever since my friend Jane excitedly dragged me to see a showing of his amazing sound/video piece, Video Quartet, which sadly isn’t on show here. But there’s much to admire. Marclay is a so-called turntablist who relishes in shattering expectations and  boundaries.

I settled down to watch a presentation of some of his older video work, including a piece called “Record Players”. The first shots show someone eagerly ripping open a new LP from its cellophane wrapper. He or she gingerly holds the vinyl in his/her hands… and then immediately scratches it violently. I literally gasped. It totally played with my expectations (I grew up believing in the sacrosanct nature of vinyl, and this was an unexpected, violent, totally shocking act.) The rest of the film shows a group of merrymakers defiling vinyl any way they can, music and rhythm coming from their actions. Towards the end, they take turns in breaking their discs and then stamping on them. Again, the noise is the soundtrack. It might sound a bit unlikely, but it’s intriguing and quite amazing.

Marclay is also interested in his audience. At the show here, one wall has been converted into a huge chalkboard, complete with musical staves. Attendees are encouraged to daub thoughts and notes (music and text). Another installation (image shown, top) is Marclay’s piece, Graffiti Composition, a seven year project in which the artist stuck up blank sheet music around Berlin, collecting it after it had been added to by locals. Now these images are used as scores for musicians to interpret, in performances that will take place throughout the duration of the show.

Honestly, I’m not sure what all this means apart from that remembering to be mindful that other people can have good, useful ideas too is a critical skillset we’d all do well to remember and develop more. For successful innovation to happen, alternative points of view have to be heard. That might happen by giving power to the public (Gormley) or it might occur by throwing yourself on your community (Abramovic). Alternatively, you might prefer to curate your audience (Marclay). All tactics have their merits. All are brave, deserve our applause–and have wider applications outside of the museum and in the world at large.

Image: Christian Marclay, Graffiti Composition, 1996–2002. Portfolio of 150 digital prints. Printed by Muse X Editions, Los Angeles, published by Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery. © Christian Marclay