Learn From People Solving Problems

David Silverstein
David Silverstein

What does innovation mean to you?

Silverstein: The most concise description I have for innovation, or creativity, is that it is about ensuring that your whole brain is engaged in everything you do. For the most part, business people these days are focused on structured, mechanical, and methodical approaches to things that certainly have value, but they also tend to shut off the right side of the brain. So innovation is about engaging the right side of the brain, along with the left. Engaging the whole brain first means raising awareness about how the brain works. Second, it implies telling people that it is OK to use their experience and intuition.

There is an old saying, “We manage what we measure.” So I asked an audience at a conference a couple of weeks ago if they have any processes in their business that they cannot measure. Certainly the whole room laughed and said, “of course.” So I asked, “Don’t you manage those processes?” The point is that there is more to good decision-making than just using measurement and data. We need to combine data with valuable insights and experience in order to get the most out of it.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Can’t a tight IT budget drive innovation?

Silverstein: It can, but it can also stifle innovation because people become demoralized or because they don’t have the financial resources to follow through on good ideas. In today’s economy, we might read about high rates of unemployment in some regions, but for the well-educated, innovative person, there is no shortage of jobs. Try to force them to innovate by creating a crisis and they will just go somewhere else. A tight budget is akin to a stick. You can also motivate innovation with a carrot – for sure – because survival is a valuable, motivating instinct. While I would never make an individual feel threatened, there can certainly be a case, when, for example, a team, or a business unit, is made to know that if it do not solve its problems, or come up with some new ideas, the whole team might be out of work or the business unit might be sold. That is certainly a form of stick, but it requires targeting a group that will band together. Individual punishment is never very effective.

How can companies bring more creativity to daily work?

Silverstein: Once a company has a culture that supports creative thinking and smart risk-taking, then the employees can begin working on the cognitive drivers of creativity. Finally, the company can focus on methodology to make things a bit more controllable, predictable, and reliable. The point here is that the lesson of small business is often lost on big business. Small businesses know that they have to get a new product to market and see what happens. Take something like TiVo, the popular brand of digital video recorder (DVR) in the United States, founded 1997. It is a consumer video device that allows users to capture television programming to internal hard disk storage for later viewing. When it was first released, it was not perfect, but who even knows what perfect means until you get it into the hands of customers. So to focus too much on process control and reliability before even validating an idea is terribly costly.

Big businesses think they have to get everything perfect before selling a new product. They forget that they would not be in business in the first place if that was their thinking way back when they were a startup. Innovation will certainly happen more in smaller companies than in large ones, so large companies have to take lessons from small ones. Decentralization, more local empowerment, autonomous business units, and so on are all approaches to overcome the obstacles presented by big business. And the only way to overcome the hierarchy is through empowerment by localizing things, breaking the business down into smaller pieces, and, sometimes, it even means spinning off a part of a business so it can operate more freely.

What do you understand by a “climate of innovation,” and how can it be created in a company?

Silverstein: It has to start at the top. There is no such thing as a grass-roots innovation initiative. The leadership must create a safe environment by rewarding risk-takers, by educating people on the risks the company can and cannot afford to take, and by giving employees the resources – financial and human – or just the time to explore their ideas. Then the company must take steps to unleash the untapped cognitive powers of creativity. But the scarcest resource in any company is actually leadership, or what I often call leadership bandwidth. A good CEO has to be a master of prioritization. And if innovation is a priority, perhaps the CFO can take the lead on budget, for example.

The innovation process must begin and end at the top of the company. And there must be a system to ensure that good ideas flow up. If people are frustrated by a lack of interest in their innovations, then they will stop trying. The fundamental rule needs to be that there are no bad ideas. There are just ideas whose time has not come yet or that are not right for the world today; every idea warrants consideration.

Where do companies find motivation for IT innovations?

Silverstein: According to IT innovations, it is important to read things outside of your own discipline and I recommend the same to others. We need ideas, not just best practices within our own comfort zone. So employees should not just read trade magazines, they should read business magazines, international news, science magazines, fitness magazines, and even medical journals. It puts them in the right cognitive state to think. And what they read serves as triggers to new ideas.

Then there is talking to other people, often on planes and in airports, at ball games, and in book stores. Moreover, observation is important – for example watch how people solve problems. For instance, a few months ago when the U.S. government temporarily banned liquids on planes, I saw people converting contact lens cases into make-up cases – is this perhaps a new product idea? Or I saw them discover that they were never physically searched anymore, so they can put a tube of toothpaste in their pocket – another case for innovative problem-solving. It is fascinating to watch people. Humor is so important because it gets us thinking more freely and makes us comfortable throwing out seeming crazy ideas.

What do you understand by good innovation management?

Silverstein: It takes time to get there, and no company should worry about innovation management on day one. Once a safe environment has been created and the power of the right side of the brain has been unleashed, we can begin measuring our improved performance through metrics, attitudes, and, ultimately, results. Depending on the company, a number of good metrics can be used. Some will just track the number of ideas they generate. That is a start. After that they will move on to the number of new products they generate each year based on employee ideas. Next, of course, there is the percentage of revenue coming from new innovations compared with older, mature products or services. It depends on the priorities of the business.

Is it advantageous to direct innovation processes in and from the IT department?

Silverstein: No, because that suggests innovation is just about IT. There are many innovations that will draw upon technology, but let’s not put our heads in a box and assume IT is the key to every innovation.

One of your articles is titled Too Many Chiefs. Don’t too many cooks spoil the broth when it comes to innovation?

Silverstein: Too many minds – no. But too many chiefs – definitely. One of the things people need to realize is that while we are all capable of innovating, we are also all wired differently and some people simply have a better sense of what is a good idea and what customers will respond to and what they will not. The CEO should also be the chief innovator. If it is not his or her forte, then they should rely on someone else.

How can companies train their employees to be innovative? If so, what abilities must an innovative employee have?

Silverstein: One important element of training is teaching people to become more self-aware of their own obstacles and barriers to free thought. Old research taught us that children are more creative than adults. New research tells us that adults are just as capable as children; we are just hindered by our experiences. So by teaching people to be more self-aware, we teach them techniques to flush their biases.

Sometimes it is the way we establish the environment for brainstorming; sometimes it is methodical methods that force us down a path we would have otherwise avoided. I also find that creating significant emotional events that make people uncomfortable and that force them out of their comfort zones can be very effective. And then, of course, there are some very specific tool sets, such as TRIZ – the theory of inventive problem-solving – that can be taught, too. These methods can help systematize tasks to solve problems more quickly and more efficiently. They can be focused on objectives that are suited to their abilities. Innovative problem-solving, which can be focused on solving a particular service problem or meeting a specific, unmet need of a customer, can be taught. It is yet to be seen if we can actually teach people to come up with new ideas that no one was looking for in the first place.