Friday, July 18, 2014

A Somnambulist's Guide to Innovation

Logical Vs Creative Thinking

To think innovatively, we need to strike a balance between logical thinking and creative thinking. Creative thinking, most often starts with an illogical thought. Einstein's thought experiments (Gedanken) started with a seemingly absurd question what will we see if we travel as fast as light. Crazy questions that typically start with "what if" lead to interesting and innovative thoughts. But we cannot make much progress with our crazy question if our logical mind is active. The logical mind will kill the creative thinking very quickly. The job of the logical mind is to ensure that we think logiocally and it actively distracts us from all illogical thinking. Now, how do we escape the constant vigil of our logical mind and start our journey of innovating ?

The Precious moment for Creative Thinking

There is a moment when we can do this most easily - when we are tired and sleepy. Kekule got his breakthrough idea of a cycling structure for Benzene when he "dreamt" of a snake trying to catch its tail by its mouth. He was tired doing his chemistry experiments and was taking a power nap in his lab. Similarly, Newton connected the two dots between an apple falling and planetary motion and attributed both to gravity. He made the connection when he was lazing under a tree on a summer noon. There is something special about this semi-sleeping state that makes it conducive for creative thinking. Sleep-walkers or Somnambulists have always triggered my curiosity. How does a sleeping person move around without hurtinh himself. I have also heard that some of these somnambulists can even do more complex talks like washing clothes, cleaning vessels etc. On Monday mornings, when I leave home at 3.30am to catch an early flight to work, I turn my thinking to what one can do while in a semi-sleep mode.

How Gowri found a new route in Melbourne

This phenomenon is not limited to great scinetists like Kekule and Newton. My friend Gowri shared a similar experience recently - she was driving back from Work in the suburbs of Melbourne last week. She was very tired, had a headache and could not concentrate on her driving. Though she had been regularly driving in this route for many weeks, she lost her way and found herself in an unfamiliar region. But she was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a much shorter route to her home. She seriously started doubting how much should one trust the logical mind with thinking for new ideas.

Edison's creativity technique

I had read or heard somewhere (sorry I dont remember the source) about how Edison used to meditate on complex problems. He was famous for his power naps. He had his favourite rocking chair for pondering on his tough-to-crack problems. He used to hold a metal ball in his hand and allow it to drop on a metal plate, kept by the side of his chair, when he dozes off. The loud bang wakes him up from his reverie. It is at this precise moment that he finds an innovative solution to his difficult problem. I am unable to find a reliable reference for this information - but it is interesting and worth giving a try.

Here is the Somnambulist's Recipe
  • Write the problem down on a post-it and carry it around with you.
  • Have an alarm pre-set for 10 minutes in your wrist watch or mobile phone.
  • Whenever you find yourself sleep & tired, take a quick look at the problem statement.
  • Activate your alarm and doze off.
  • When the alarm rings and abrupty wakes you up after ten minutes, you have given your creative mind to think uninterrupted by your logical mind.
  • Jot down the idea when it is still fresh in your mind.
  • If you delay noting it down, your logical mind may take control and reject the idea.
To wrap it up...

We need to start our innovation journey in a divergent way with many crazy ideas and then gradually synthesize them into one innovative idea. Crazy ideas pop up most easily when we are in a tired or semi-sleepy state (that is when our logical mind has minimum control on our thinking). Let us pamper ourselves with a few power naps during the day (without feeling guilty about it) and allow a few crazy ideas to incubate. It may be that we are more productive while asleep than while awake, when it comes to innovative thinking. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Innovation leadership - the Hamsa way

I have been in the game of leading innovation for nearly a decade now. I have been trying to understand how to choose the right innovation to pursue at the right time and take it to the right market. If I make a mistake on any one of the three, all my effort goes down the drain. To succeed in this complex role, I derive inspiration from the Hamsa bird. The unique traits of this bird is described in the most ancient Indian texts - the Vedas and the Upanishads. I will tell you more about Hamsa after we discuss the three challenges that I faced.
I am always on the look out for people with new ideas - I need to be good at identifying the most promising innovators (across functions and geographies). I avoid the classic mistake of trying to identify the most promising ideas. I find that all ideas are equally weak to begin with - the promise of the idea grows in strength only during the incubation Phase. I would not dare to judge an idea before it gets a chance to be incubated. What makes one idea succeed while many others get killed is determined by the quality of interaction that I have with the innovator during the incubation phase. I need to be good at identifying those few innovators with the right traits amongst many others who may be better at selling their ideas.
I also keep scouting for new technologies round the clock - i need to quickly assess the feasibility and the disruptive potential of these technologies when there is minimum data. I need to spot the most promising technologies amongst all the breakthroughs in additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), alternative fuels, energy storage materials, smart sensors - there is seemingly no end to this list. I need to know enough about each of these technologies to choose the right one amongst the many hypes (refer to Mastering The Hype Cycle by Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskino).
I constanly seek new business opportunities and my success depends on my ability to focus on those few things that create value versus multitude of other things that do not create value. I need to do a good job of separating the most promising value creation opportunities from the rest of the crowd. I was in an innovation workshop the other day where a voice of customer survey revealed that what we thought was #1 customer requirement was actually # 6 ! I need correct and unbiased customer and market insights to drive innovation.
My success in these three dimensions depends on my ability to separate the few promising persons or technologies or business opportunites amongst the million other distractions. I was truly flabbergasted by the complexity of this task and that's when I looked at the Hamsa bird. Legend has it that the Hamsa can even separate the milk from the water. I wondered how and then I gathered two revealing facts from the ancient texts
(a) Hamsa represents knowledge - true knowledge. You would see Hamsa depicted along with Saraswathi (the goddess of knowledge).
(b) Hamsa stays aloof - though it is in water it keeps itself dry.
The innovation leader should strive to seek true knowledge of the innovator, the technology and the business opportunity. He should understand the innovator - what he is good at, what he is passionate about, what motivates him and what derails him. He also needs to understand the technology - is it really novel, is it feasible, is it differentiable etc. He needs to understand the business opportunity - is it real, is it profitable, is it the right time and place.
The innovation leader should stay aloof - he should not be distracted by the smart idea sellers, the hype around new technologies and the crazy rush towards new opportunities. Superficial knowledge can bias the leader to certain persons, technologies or opportunities. It is very important that he is impartial and balanced in his approach.
If you want to be successfull in leading innovation, strive for true knowledge and stay unbiased (aloof) like the Hamsa bird.

Innovation is Yoga - a balancing act

Yoga is balance - Yoga is all about achieving a state of balance. Balance is commonly understood in the context of two opposing forces. A Yogi establishes himself in a state of balance both internally and externally. The complex world of opposing forces does not disturb his equilibrium. 

Yoga means union -- the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one's actions (B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga Guru).

Innovation is a balancing act
  • Idea Conceptialization - Innovation is all about balancing. Many innovators have the uncanny ability to balance two opposite views in their mind during idea conceptualization. The Wright brothers, when they were conceptualizing their design for an aeroplane, used to alternately argue for and against an idea (read The Wright Way - Seven problem solving skills from the Wright brothers). Sustaining two opposite ideas in the mind, without being biased to either one, is definitely a higher order cognitive skill. Thus an innovator's balancing act starts right from the conceptual stage (also read Roger Martin's Opposable Mind).
  • Idea Selection - When the Innovator gets into the idea selection phase, he has to balance possibility vesrsus profitability. If he is biased towards profitability, he will end up pursuing low-risk, incremental ideas. If he is biased towards possibility, he may passionately pursue a high-risk, breakthrough idea that has no business case. His success depends on his ability to balance possibility and profitability while selecting the idea.
  • Idea Funding - The Venture Capitalist, while hearing the Innovator's pitch, tries to balance the risks versus returns. Vinod Khosla, Valley's most famous Cleantech VC, has a unique skill of spotting seemingly risky ideas that yield good returns. The innovator, to convince the VC and get funded, has to balance the risks and returns around his idea.
  • Idea Protection - Next, the Innovator would like to patent protect her idea and create an antry barrier for competitors. While patenting her idea, she has to take a balanced approach - her claims should not be too broad (as it may infringe on somebody's IP) or too narrow (as it will allow others to design around her idea). Thus the innovator, to effectively protect her idea, must strike a balance between a narrow and a broad patent claim.
  • Idea Diffusion - Finally, when the idea reaches the market, the innovator has to take a balanced approach to gain market acceptance. He has to strike a balance between (a) the value that his idea offers to the customer and (b) the extent of disruption that his idea creates for the customer. The customer wants to get more value buy maynot like if the new idea brings too much change in his life.
The need for balance pervades through all the phases of innovation. The successful innovator, like a Yogi, balances himself against opposing forces, The innovator's unshakeable equilbrium state helps him to focus on the innovation act.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Innovation is child's play

Many innovators have a child like curiosity and perseverance. When we closely observe an innovator innovating and a child playing, we will see quite a few similarities.

When you start doing something just because it gives you happiness, you are happy and you become more receptive to new ideas. You right brain is fully triggered and new ideas flow spontaneously. When you start worrying about business alignment, market need etc your left analytical brain takes control. You struggle hard to get new ideas.

When you are playing, you do pursue and achieve goals. But you are not worried all the time about winning or losing. You enjoy the game. Winning still makes you happy. But when you lose, you remind yourself that it is only play and use the lessons learnt to play better the next time.

To be successful in innovation, we need to create a child play environment. The child is so engrossed in the play that the real world around no longer matters. The child is focused on the play rather than the outcome.

The child is continuously learning and growing through the process of playing. We stop growing when we stop playing. The child has no ego that gets a beating when he loses. He is ready to fail many times and finally learn. His curiosity to know, willingness to learn, eagerness to grow keeps driving him.

When we start worrying about losing, become very serious and stop having fun, we also stop innovating.

Coming back to playing, my favorite game is Calvin Ball. Calvin introduces this game to Hobbes. This game has rules but the players make the rule on the go. Both players can continuously keep introducing new rules. It is the most dynamic game you can ever imagine.

Innovation process is more like playing Calvin Ball ( Bill Waterson). There are rules but the innovator has the power to make new rules at any time.