Entries in innovation (9)


BIF10: Why the heart of innovation is personal.

Innovation is personal. 

It is, by nature and nurture, an inevitable human enterprise that begins with a terrible itch to scratch.  That itch may begin as simply as a mere annoyance or as profound as confronting cancer.

All of this was the heart of the BIF10 (Business Innovation Factory) annual summit.

After 10 years and three hundred and twenty innovator/storytellers, BIF continues to amaze, enthrall, and inspire the audience of 300 who make the pilgrimage to Providence, Rhode Island each year.

Let’s begin with the amaze and enthrall. 

One of the innovators is Camille Beatty.  She is 14-years-old and just started her first week in high school. 

The amazing part?  

She just started her own Robotics Company with her 12-year-old sister Genevieve.  This summer, Camille and her sister were invited to the White House by President Obama to demonstrate their robots at the White House.

Her quest began with an itch -- an unquenchable desire to understand how things work and how to turn ideas into machines.

Another innovator is Dr. Rupal Patel – a speech scientist at Northeastern University.  Her itch was to help give a voice to people without one.  Patel is working on creating individualized synthetic voices that match a person’s gender, age, and even emotions, rather than the one-size-fits-all computer generated voices that seem to dehumanize the articulated sounds of the person.

Then there’s David Moinina Sengeh, a Ph.D., candidate at the MIT Media Lab, President and co-founder, Global Minimum Inc. Sengeh, a native of Sierra Leone grew up during that country’s brutal, 11-year civil ware that has left 50,000 dead and 4,000 who had limbs crudely amputated as a form of political terror.

His itch was to understand how to mitigate the suffering and pain of prosthetic devices by combining medical imaging, 3-D printing, and individualized insights to create the next generation of prosthetics.

And there’s Arlene Samen.  Her itch was to help at-risk mothers and children.

She is the Founder, President and Executive Director of One Heart World-Wide.  She was among the first nurse practitioners in the field of high-risk obstetrics.  She was profoundly moved in 1997 by a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama who told her “she must go to Tibet and help women safely give birth there.”

Samen moved from Utah to Nepal and started an organization that has helped save hundreds of lives and will continue to have an impact on the lives of thousands in Nepal and beyond.

Ultimately, these singular itches, desires, and challenges are elevated to innovative ideas that move from the personal to the collective. The collective can be a small as single supporter or a network of hundreds that rally to the potential.

Let’s end with the inspire part. 

All the innovators at BIF tell their unique story.  But that story fills our minds and hearts with a renewed sense of purpose and drive.  Some resonate more than others. 

But ultimately, the singular becomes plural and we all share in the truly remarkable results.

Thank you BIF.





Hacking Innovation Part 4: Reframing or the Peter Sellers Problem.

If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #3.   But you will miss the story of Dr. Tina Seelig and her approach to creativity and innovation at Stanford.

When I tell people how closely related humor is to innovation, I will usually get a slightly bemused but unbelieving reaction.

The art of the joke is generally about disrupting expectations or the making an illegal U-turn at the familiar. 

But let me bring in a heavy hitter.  Dr. Tina Seelig is Professor of the Practice in the Dept. of Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) at Stanford University.  I will add a few more bone fides: Selig is also the Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), the entrepreneurship center at Stanford University's School of Engineering. She teaches courses on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the dept. of MS&E and Stanford’s (d.school).

In a TEDx talk called a “Crash Course in Creativity,” she talks about the importance of framing questions. “The question you ask is the frame into which the answers will fall.”

As she does so simply in her book, Ingenious, she asks, “What is 5 +5?”  10, right?  It is the one right answer we have been taught.  But what if the question were framed differently?  What two numbers add up to 10?  The way we framed the second question opens the mental door to infinite answers including negative numbers and fractions.

In her talk, she makes the connection between reframing and jokes.  “Consider this,” she says, “The Pink Panther – (Peter Sellers) walks into a hotel and there is a little dog on the carpet.  He asks the hotel manager, ‘does your dog bite?’ and the manager says, ‘no my dog doesn’t bite.’  He reaches down and the dog practically attacks him and he says, ‘what happened?’ He says, ‘well, that is not my dog.’”

The frame has been switched and that switch is what makes us laugh.  And, this particular joke is a staple of vaudeville.

 So, what does this have to do with innovation? 

 Simply, that if you start with a mediocre question, problem or challenge, you are probably going to get mediocre answers.  In other words, “garbage in, garbage out.” (GIGO).

Recently I have been reviewing Thinking Models and Complexity through Professor Scott Page at the University of Michigan and he gave a great example of how two brokers had different frameworks in considering Amazon as a worthwhile investment.

One framework was that Amazon was simply a “delivery” company like Fed X or UPS whose model could be copies.  The other framework was that Amazon was an “information” company – one that provided information to consumers and one that collected “information” from consumers.

Look at how Amazon’s mission statement has evolved: “We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators.”

Nothing about books or shoes or groceries, but very big on “consumer-centric.”  The insight:  And Consumer centric is not possible without information.

Hack #3

One of the smartest ways to reframe a problem or challenge is to create a lot of reframed problems and challenges. 

In many cases you might not have control – it may be a question or problem that has come down from top management prepackaged and ready to address.

But consider relating the challenge or problem to strategy – the wrong strategy with a great execution is not as effective than the right strategy with a mediocre execution.

So, consider a reframing session and see if you can’t improve on the problem or challenge.  At the very least, you can make it more specific and measureable.

A good formula is to begin with “how might" or "in what ways might we?"

So, if the request is “increase revenue by X.”  It is a good idea to begin with the problem as given and add the phrase “how might?”  “How might we increase revenue by X?

Following that question with a “Why” can act as a powerful catalyst for exploring deeper ideas.

Why do we want to increase revenue by X?  The question could be “how might we reduce costs?” 

The question might be “why are we selling an product that is already obsolete? The question might be, “why are millennials more attracted to our competitor’s product?”  Which could transform into “How might we make our product more attractive to millennials?” 

Here is a link to Dr. Seelig’s TEDx talk:







Hacking Innovation Part 3


If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #2.   But you will miss the story of Jigar Shah and how he helped unlock the climate economy through innovation.

If the name Jigar Shah isn’t familiar to you, I hope it will be as you learn more about how his entrepreneurial spirit helped him drive a new way of looking at financing and alternative energy.

I met him in September of 2010 at the annual Business Innovation Factory Summit. 4  years later, his story still resonates with me.  7 years earlier, he founded SunEdison, a solar power and renewable energy company with an $ 113,000— a $ 93,000 line of credit on my home and $ 20,000 in personal savings.

As Shah writes in his new book, Creating Climate Wealth,  “In case after case, when we worked on the deals with prospective clients who were mostly farmers, they balked when they came to understand what the upfront cost would be. They were interested in having the energy but did not want to part with the $ 80,000 to $ 100,000 the installation would cost. Return on investment (ROI) did not matter. And they really did not want to be in the energy business. A different model was needed that would cover the cost of the equipment over time.

So, his innovation had less to do with solar power and more to do with a financing solution -- the Power Purchase Model (PPA).  Basically, they provided companies with the option of getting power at 10% lower than their current provider without investing in capital expense of a grid.  The lynchpin was developing a long-term (20 year) contract that included service and repair. 

Ultimately Shah’s insight is summed up in his new book, “While many philosophize about the perfect solution or technology for clean energy solutions and climate change, this book focuses on the practical deployment of the best technologies that exist.

His lesson is one that Larry Keeley and Doblin have been teaching for years – that innovation isn’t simply about a focus on new product or performance innovation but is a fuller spectrum of value-creating areas.

Innovation Hack #2

Think of Innovation as a Periodic Table.  It is not a single element, but a series that often combine to create more complex elements.  

As Larry Keeley and his colleagues at Doblin say in Ten Types of Innovation, “Part of the innovation revolution is rooted in superior tradecraft.”

The idea is not to have a myopic view of innovation as new product development, but to view it through the lens as multiple types of innovation that work singularly or in concert to create more powerful innovations.

According to Doblin, there are three categories innovation in their framework and 10 types of innovation.  See photo above.

Configurations are focused on the innermost workings of an organization and its business systems. Offerings are focused on an organization’s core product(s) or service(s) And Experiences are focused on more customer-facing elements.

The hack here is to see innovation in a more holistic and complementary way – so that you are able to see more opportunities and to combine innovation types to create even more valuable and sustainable innovations.

Jigar Shaw could have been focused on improving solar energy systems.  But he focused on a business model that made solar power more affordable to consumers. Today, he is still working on innovative financing solutions to help solve even a wider range of global challenges.

Recommended Books:

Ten Types of Innovation  http://amzn.to/TYYgsj

Creating Climate Economy  http://amzn.to/1lCMVIN

Also, check the wonderful BIF10 Summit coming in September:





Hacking Innovation. Part 2


If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #1.   But you will miss the story of the translucent worm and how it might save your life one day.

Lewis Carroll famously wrote, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

This is one of many paradoxes of innovation.  While many innovations are developed through rigorous methodology (Watson and Crick’s DNA model, Page and Brin’s Google, and Englebart’s computer mouse) others follow a more serpentine path with some element of serendipity (Penicillin, Post It Notes, and Velcro.)

Here’s an example that is relatively unknown beyond scientific circles.  It is the story of Martin Chalfie, a professor in the Biological Sciences Department at Columbia University, conducting research on the nervous system.

According to Gary Klein, author of Seeing What Other’s Don’t: The Remarkable Way We Gain Insights, “Twenty-five years ago, Chalfie walked into a casual lunchtime seminar in his department at Columbia to hear a lecture outside his field of research. An hour later, he walked out with what turned out to be a million-dollar idea for a natural flashlight that would let him look inside living organisms to watch their biological processes in action. Chalfie’s insight was akin to the invention of the microscope, enabling researchers to see what had previously been invisible. In 2008, he received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work."

What happened was a happy coincidence. Chalfie was studying the nervous system of worms. The type of worms he investigated just happened to have translucent skin, (an incidental feature that had played no part in his project).  

 “In the middle of the talk, the speaker described how jellyfish can produce visible light and are capable of bioluminescence. In 1962, a Japanese scientist discovered the protein that fluoresces to produce a green light in the jellyfish. When ultraviolet light is shined on the protein, it reacts by emitting green light.

That was Chalfie’s eureka moment. Suddenly, he understood that if he inserted the green fluorescent protein (GFP) into his transparent worms, he could shine ultraviolet light on it and see where the protein was spreading. He could track the cells into which he placed the GFP.

These biological flashlights are now a catalyst for innovations in molecular biology and a multimillion-dollar industry.

“Cancer researchers have inserted the GFP into viruses that grow inside prostate cancer cells, making the physiology of these cells visible. The GFP can be added to a molecule that binds to nerve cells so that surgeons can illuminate nerve fibers that they might otherwise have cut by mistake."

Louis Pasteur wrote, "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés" -- "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”

All of which brings us to the observation that innovation is both methodology and moments of happy accidents that allow the prepared mind to evolve the ideas into an innovation.

Innovation Hack #1

Associative ability.

I cannot emphasize how critical this ability is in helping you develop an innovation mindset.

A simple definition: The talent for taking two unrelated concepts and finding connections between them.  If I have a singular strength as an innovator/facilitator is my ability to associate disparate concepts.

Every morning, I give myself an associative challenge and give myself a minute or less for an answer. I pull the two items out of the ether without thinking of how they relate and look for connections.  

For example, yesterday I asked, “What connects Beethoven and a rock.”  I immediately went to a different definition of rock and said, “Chuck Berry’s song Roll Over Beethoven. 

I could have easily gone to other areas – I am familiar with Beethoven’s life to know that he suffered and died from liver disease and that his liver was as hard as rock when he died.  

Thinking like an innovator means honing many skills – one of which is developing associative thinking skills.  

One easy way to accomplish this is to play the infamous Kevin Bacon game where movie buffs challenge each other to find the shortest path between an arbitrary actor and Kevin Bacon.

Here’s an example.  Elvis Presley and Kevin Bacon. Elvis Presley and Cesare Danova appeared in Viva Las Vegas. Cesare Danova and Kevin Bacon appeared in National Lampoon's Animal House.  That’s a remarkable two-degree connection.

Check out this short article by The Garage Group on how to amp up your associative thinking skills.







Hacking Innovation: A Starter Kit.

I’ve been fortunate to know and work with many successful innovators and innovation facilitators. I make this distinction not because they are mutually exclusive, but because each focus plays a critical role in understanding, codifying and teaching innovation.

Over the years, I collaborated with one of many creators of the SIM card, helped bring to market the first free trial of web service in the U.S. for Citibank, and worked on projects evolving the semantic and synaptic web.

I have also collaborated with leading innovation facilitators including Gerald Haman of Solution People, Larry Keeley of Doblin, Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory, Tom Monahan of Before & After, and Dana Montenegro of Red Bull and Seriously Creative.

Collectively, these thought leaders have had to grapple with conveying a definition of innovation – a word that is so overused as to be rendered meaningless.

In his provocative book, The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun writes “I need to say one last thing about innovation. It is not a word I am fond of.  It’s used too often today, and it has lost any significance. More useful to you, perhaps, is that of its many meanings you’ll find in the dictionary, the potent is significant positive change.”

Contrast this with Larry Keeley’s (with Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn, and Helen Walters) definition in the seminal Ten Types of Innovation, “ Innovation is the creation of viable new offering.”  The subtitle is equally instructive, “the discipline of building breakthroughs.”

There is always a challenge in the commercialization of innovation thought leadership and practice because of the varying sophistication of the audience. 

For example, experienced product innovators are very familiar with methodologies like TRIZ – a Russian acronym for the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving developed by G.S. Altshuller and his colleagues. (It was the result of an analysis of three million patents looking for patterns that predict breakthrough solutions.)

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are asked to participate in ideation without any prior experience or exposure to any of the hundreds of techniques in the innovator's toolbox.

Can you really hack innovation and distill it into bite-sized gems of knowledge?


 One of my favorite business writers, Mike Myatt, has offered up a great definition of what I call ethical hacking.  “Hacking – the present participle of hack (verb) to discover an alternate path, clever and skillful tricks, shortcuts and workarounds, breaking the code, deciphering complexity, influencing outcomes, acquiring access, creating innovative customizations to existing or outdated methodologies.

So in the next few weeks I will offer some hacks that will help you gain perspective on innovation and ways to integrate innovative thinking into your life and business.



If you want to get a head start, get your hands and your mind on:

Ten Types of Innovation

The Myths of Innovation      

The Art of Innovation



A modest proposal: A new definition of innovation.

Innovation is a one the great Rorschach words.  Nearly everyone defines it a bit differently.  It has been overused, (293,000,000 results on a single Google Search) over-hyped, and often misunderstood.

At Solution People in Chicago, leading innovation coach Gerald Haman defined it as simply as “ideas that create value.”  Behind that verbal tip of the iceberg was a lifetime of teaching the creation and implementation of ideas and an even deeper understanding of what value means the consumer and social marketplace.

Why is defining the word "innovation" so important to innovation teachers and purveyors of the gospel of innovation?

There are a handful of Fortune 500 companies who have elevated innovation to an art form (Apple) and other Fortune 500 companies who have been seriously burned by failed innovation efforts.  So imagine standing up in front of both groups and saying the word “innovation” and you’ve already divided your audience. 

It’s the Rorschach effect.

So innovation teachers try to define it precisely to get buy in to talk about process.

For example, Larry Keeley and his co-authors (Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn, and Helen Walters) have written an excellent book Ten Types of Innovation.  Their definition: “Innovation is the creation of a viable new offering.”  This seemingly simple definition has an additional four call outs to further explain what they mean behind each of these words.

It’s simple and if you do even a modest deep dive in the book, it’s an excellent working definition. In fact, it shineswhen discussing the first six of the innovations which are focused on the innermost workings of a business. (i.e. profit model, network, structure, process, product performance and product system.)  

Do we really need to add yet another definition to the lexicon?

In my seminars, I have used a definition of innovation that I have evolved over the years.   In 2007, I was inspired by Jim Kilts’ book, Doing What Matters:  How to Get Results That Make A Difference.

It’s easy to describe Kilts’ book (as articulated by Wally Bock) “what goes on in an experienced CEO's head when he takes over a company that needs to turn around."

Jim Kilts was a successful CEO at Kraft and led turnarounds at Nabisco and Gillette.

My innovation definition:  Creating what matters.

Like Keeley et al, it needs a deeper dive or context.  The difference?  “Innovation as a viable new offering” and “creating what matters.”

Keeley would argue that viability means “returning value to you or your enterprise.”  The definition is based on two criteria:  “the innovation must be able to sustain itself and return its weighted cost of capital.”

As good a definition as it is, I see it as company or entrepreneur centric.  My definition is customer centric.

The innovation must matter to the customer – somewhere along its evolution from idea to product or service. 

Take Pixar for instance.  They pioneered many advances in CGI animation. But would they be considered an innovation in 1979 when the original company was founded? Or when they released Toy Story in 1995?  In a span of over a decade it neither returned a value or cost of capital. Keeley, et al, did not put a time limit on when an innovation is sufficiently anointed, but it is easy to see how limiting that definition can be.

Creating what matters (audience centric) is also limiting, but I feel it offers a slightly more flexible approach to thinking about innovation. 

In the Keeley definition, Pixar would not technically be an innovation until Toy Story.  In my definition, the audience of advertisers (through commercials) and the audience of one (Investor Steve Jobs) was technically an innovation earlier in its evolution.

Another compelling case.  Eienstein's Theory's.  Most of his theories were published in 1905.  They did not meet any of the criteria of Keeley's definition. So these ideas were not innovations until nuclear power was advanced in the 1940s.  But I do believe that these innovations of thought were accepted much earlier by an audience of physicists.  

Both definitions are worthy of discussion and improvement. And Ten Types of Innovation is one of the best books on innovation you'll find today.

I welcome your feedback at inotivity@gmail.com

Happy innovating.




Creativity, Associative Barriers and Sea Urchin Lollypops  

A few years ago, I met Frans Johansson at the Business Innovation Factory Summit in Providence.

He’s the kind of person you don’t forget easily.  Raised in Sweden by his African-American and Cherokee mother and Swedish father, he earned a BS in environmental science at Brown University and his MBA at Harvard Business School.

His book, The Medici Effect (What Elephants and Epidemics can teach us about Innovation) was selected as one of the top ten business books by Amazon.

One of the powerful stories in The Medici Effect is about a chef named Marcus Samuelsson. Marcus was born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia but after the death of his mother he was adopted by Anne Marie and Lennart Samuelsson and moved to Sweden.

Samuelsson studied at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, where he grew up, apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria, and came to the United States in 1991 as an apprentice chef Restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan.

In January of 1995, Jan Sandel, the executive chef at Aquavit died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  The owner, Hakan Swahn needed someone to manage the kitchen and placed the newly hired Samuelsson in charge while he searched for a permanent replacement.

Swahn was hesitant because Samuelsson was only 24-years-old and Aquavit had become a well-respected restaurant with a one-star rating from the New York Times. 

But something remarkable happened only weeks after Marcus headed up the kitchen.  “New dishes based on a unique combination of food from all over the world began showing up on the menu.”

Items like Caramelized Lobster with Seaweed Pasta, and Sea Urchin Sausage and Cauliflower Sauce and Chocolate Ganache with Bell Pepper and Raspberry Sorbet and Lemon Grass Yogurt.

Just three months later Ruth Reichl of the New York Times gave the restaurant a rare three-star review because of its innovative and tasty food.

The story illustrates what Johansson calls high and low associative barriers. “By simply hearing a word or seeing an image, the mind unlocks a whole string of associated ideas -- each one connecting to another.”

Johansson provides a great example.  “When a chef sees fresh cod in a market, she may think of a particular recipe  -- which in turn makes her think of certain menu items for the upcoming evening. But a writer for a sport-fishing magazine might see something completely different.  He may think of his latest fishing trip, instantly recalling the tackle he used and a story he should write about it.”

These chains of associations are efficient; they allow us to move quickly from analysis to action. 

But here is the bigger insight.

“Although chains of associations  have huge benefits, they also have costs. They inhibit our ability to think broadly.  We don’t question assumptions as readily; we jump to conclusions faster, and create barriers to alternative thinking.”

What Marcus Samuelson has is a low barrier to associative thinking.  He makes unusual associations outside the field of Swedish cuisine.

 “Samuelsson looks for related concepts in distant places and unexpected areas of cooking and then tries to reconcile these far-flung ideas into recipes.”

This is the core idea that Edward De Bono (Lateral Thinking, Six Thinking Hats) has been talking and writing about for years -- the move away from patterned (simple associative thinking).

In fact,  you couldn’t find a clearer blueprint for the Business Innovation Factory’s annual Collaborative Summit. It’s about providing a space for talented people from various fields and disciplines to intersect and to watch the spontaneous cerebral combustion. 

What innovation consultants ultimately do is find the level of your associative barriers.  We try to get clients to reverse assumptions, look a problem from multiple perspectives, combine the unexpected, and help you make new connections.

What I have discovered is that some companies have a high and low threshold for how they manage ideas.  Some organizations are threatened by ideas, some do not encourage the flow of new ideas and surprisingly, some spend too much time on creating new ideas and not enough time (or brainpower) evaluating or managing those ideas.

My suggestion is to give a copy of The Medici Effect to people in your organization. Or make it a traveling book.  Give it to a new business team.  Give it to a part of your organization that you absolutely think would have no use for it.  (They will probably surprise you.)

If a sea urchin and a little innovation can earn 3-stars, just imagine what you could accomplish with a dash of creativity and the resources of your company.

Here is Frans talk from BIF-2