Sunday, July 22, 2012

Disruptive Innovations need / don't need Experts - You are right either way

My innovation education started many years back when I read that the three essential components of Innovation are Expertise, Creativity and Motivation (I guess it was in an HBR article by Teresa Amabile). This thought has been reiterated by other innovation experts over the years. However, while practising innovation, I had a major challenge in balancing expertise and creativity. In areas where i had significant expertise, I was unable to entertain creative ideas (my left brain rushed to filter out those early stage ideas). In areas where I had no expertise, I could boldly think and come up with many creative ideas - but i had limited success in taking the ideas forward as I had limited domain knowledge and expertise. 

If you ask, which is the most important among the three, then you get mixed response. This is primarily because the question is incomplete if you do not specify the context. For instance, between incremental and radical innovation, the role played by these three factors are significantly different. Today, i brought this up as an open ended question in the Innovation Management class that i teach at Symbiosis. I gave each student ten points and asked them to distribute between the three - i got cumulative scores of 70 for knowledge and 90 each for creativity and motivation. 

Leading Question

In the context of creating disruptive innovations, what role does expertise play ? Do we need Experts ? When do we need them ? How should we use them ?

I came across two apparently opposing views from the experts - Navin Jain (Founder, World Innovation Institute) and Max Marmer (Founder, Startup Genome). In a sense, they both are right. I have made an attempt to analyse and place these two views in the right perspective.

View # 1. Experts will play no role 

"while experts will have a part to play where incremental evolution is needed,  non-expert individuals will drive disruptive innovation" (Navin Jain).

Navin Jain believes that people who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems —  ecological devastation, global warming, the global debt crisis and distribution of dwindling natural resources, to name a few — will NOT be experts in their fields. The real disruptors will be those individuals who are not steeped in one industry of choice, with those coveted 10,000 hours of experience (Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell), but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities. And while experts will have a part to play in solving today’s looming crises where incremental evolution is needed,  he believes that non-expert individuals will drive disruptive innovation. 

I could see where Navin is coming from as I have helplessly watched experts disrupting the evolution of disruptive ideas in the growth ideation sessions that I facilitated. It took me a while to handle these disruptive forces in my ideation sessions. I knew that the experts' intentions were good and all that I had to do was to restructure my sessions and delay the participation of experts.

View # 2. Experts will play a key role

"Without a domain expert, attempts at disruption are unimaginative and incremental at best" (Max Marmer)

Excerpt from Max Mermer's recent HBR Blog post:

" There appear to be a declining number of entrepreneurs pursuing big ideas. Max analyzes who is to blame for the lack of big, transformational ideas. In the past, the magic formula for creating billion dollar companies was to bring two engineers or an engineer and a businessman. Combine a lone technical genius with a mesmerizing sales guy and you had the DNA for a billion dollar technology company. But times change. In the last seven years it became clear that a technical genius and a mesmerizing sales guy weren't enough. A new competency started to appear in the DNA of this generations successful founding teams: Design. Design at its best is more than just a beautiful interface, it synthesizes complex technology with a deep understanding of end users' motivations and abilities into a unified, intuitive product experience. 

The problem is that creativity works by taking what we know and applying it to something new; and what engineers understand is new enabling technology trends like cloud, mobile, social and big data. This worked great when the problems teams were trying to solve were fundamentally technology problems. But now much of the transformational potential of the "pure information technology" possibility space has been exhausted to the point of terminal differentiation. The only way out of this innovation gridlock is an expansion in founding team diversity. I believe the missing piece from the DNA in the founding teams of transformational companies is now the domain expert, who has deep insight into the industry they are trying to disrupt. Without a domain expert, attempts at disruption are unimaginative and incremental at best.

 The number of teams working on transformational ideas in Silicon Valley seems to be declining and homogeneity of founding teams is one of biggest reasons why. We started with the dynamic duo of the businessman and the engineer. Recently we added the designer. Now if want to continue to create products that scale into billion dollar companies, create thousands of jobs and transform society, we need to add domain experts to the founding DNA of Technology Companies. "

I tend to agree with Max too. There is this nagging feeling at the back of my mind that one cannot underplay the importance of domain knowledge. Even if I manage with a larger dose of creativity in the short-term, the need for domain knowledge will come back with a vengeance in the long-term. As i evolve the idea, there will come a stage where I can't make further progress without domain knowledge. I agree that Knowledge can be acquired quickly, but expertise - teh ability to apply that knowledge - will take lot more time and effort.

My Takeaway

Now, which view is correct - do we need experts or not ? - again this is an incomplete question. We are better of by asking when do we need the expert and when we don't need.

If we look at the three phases of innovation - idea generation, conversion and diffusion - we can do away with the experts during the early stages (divergent thinking stage) of idea generation. But we need to bring them back in order to converge on the most promising ideas. From then onwards, the experts play a significant role through idea conversion and diffusion phases. When an expert is present during the divergent thinking brainstorming phase, he cannot control himself from harshly criticising the ideas and as a result many ideas get killed mercilessly. The Expert is a pain only during the divergent thinking phase but after that his presence is indispensable.

A good idea is not only a creative thought, it should lead to an useful insight. The innovator should be able to articulate how to create value to the customer using the insight. Further, the innovator should be able to at least qualitatively prove that his idea works  (a quick and dirty proof of concept). We would definitely need the Expert's help to translate the creative thought into insight, articulate value and demonstrate proof.

Scott Belsky (Founder of Behance and Author of Making Ideas Happen) says that Idea is 1% effort while making the idea happen is 99% effort. The Expert will have a significant role to play in making the ideas happen (the 99% effort) even in the context of disruptive information. I am not an "Expert"  and I have no agenda in saying that Experts are important. I believe that success in innovation (even disruptive innovation) requires a balanced dosage of Creativity and Expertise at different stages of the idea's evolution.

1 comment:

  1. Very relevant views to the current state of Industry Consumer evolution

    Job Mathew