Category Archives: creativity

The innovation discipline

I am reposting a comment I left on Scott Berkun’s Harvard blog post which he titled “Why Innovation is overrated”


As a couple of others have pointed out, you seem to be differentiating innovation based on semantics and you definitely are confusing it with invention in parts of your blog post.

“These are all companies that figured out how to make really good, high quality, affordable things. None of these companies were the first in their field: Apple did not invent the cell-phone, nor the touchscreen. Google did not invent the search engine nor pay per click advertising. Pixar did not make the first motion picture. And even if they were the first, the world would not care. We care because they made things we love. Making good things people love is the true spine of these companies successes, and it’s a stronger framework for managers to use when trying to learn from their examples.”

Innovation is not invention
Innovation does not require you to be first to market
Innovation is not just about products
But you could say..Innovation is a disciplined approach to creating great products/services.

Another point you made was ..

“The truth is making really good things is difficult — it requires a commitment to craft, an attention to detail, and a love for work that has always been rare. And while we’d never call these three attributes innovations, it’s the success of creating an organization that rewards these things that leads to the products we often herald, after they’re done, as innovations. “

You are correct in that it doesn’t matter what you call it while your are doing it. But with the definition above, you’ve really not describing anything specific or prescriptive. I would argue that just as management frameworks are the collection and systemization of practices already in the industry, innovation is the development of principles and frameworks of approaches to “making really good products/services” which are already in the industry.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the innovation approach is popular now. Industries who have already adopted management practices, TQM, Lean, Six Sigma and numerous others which have come out of the many business schools are now looking for the next discipline which will allow them to compete successfully in a global economy by making great products/services.

If you really want to get a better sense of the emergence of the innovation discipline from what used to be a diffused and fragmented process, I would recommend talking to companies like GravityTank, IDEO, Ziba, Jump or go visit the Institute of Design.

Wrap up from the Institute of Design’s Strategy Conference


I have some time this morning to write a quick summary of the Institute of Design’s Strategy conference which happened last week at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. This was one of the best conferences I’ve attended. Most of the speakers were excellent, the crowds were packed and there was definitely a sense of optimism in the air, quite unlike the prevailing sentiments you can find gracing any of our newspapers today.

Having an amazing seat at the third row didn’t hurt either – changes it from watching to engaging.

Some quick summaries of the presentations I thought were most interesting with my key takeaways.

Bill Buxton – Bill is a principle researcher at Microsoft. One of his points was that the success of design rests on where it’s situated within a company. When design is hidden under layers of management, it rarely has a chance to shine. As a case in point, Bill highlighted the timeline of Apple’s success, noting that Jonathan Ive was employed by Apple several years before it’s first big product hit, the iMac. It took Steve Jobs taking over the company to bring design up to a level where it could affect change. Oh, one more point which Bill made – never call the people who buy your products a consumer. When companies look at people through the lens of “consumption”, they will rarely be able to partner with them to create the kind of innovations which drive company growth, even during recessions.

Scott Cook – Interesting story on the founding and continued success of Intuit. I liked his quote ” Seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else thought”. I had a chance to speak with Scott at the reception and there were a lot of details missing from the story, it was nevertheless interesting to speak to him. There was a point made by Scott that I never quite got an answer for – he mentioned that executives in companies are layers away from what customers are saying and thus can rarely spot the breakthrough innovations. He gave an anecdotal story that even at HP, Dave Packard turned away many of the ideas that later came to be successful. Not sure how to validate a comment like that but it that’s true, what can executives do to be closer to the needs of their customers. Does the modern day executive need to pull a Henry Vth, disguising themselves to be closer to their guest.

Matt Mason – Co-Founder of Wedia and author of the The Pirate’s Dilemma, gave one of the conference’s best presentations about youth culture, piracy and what companies can do to combat it. He had many points to make but the ones that I thought were particularly interesting were companies use openness to combat obscurity such as Nike selling tricked out versions of Air Force One after Bathing Ape released pirated copies of Air Force One with their own crazy artwork. The next point he made was to sell what can’t be be pirated, either convenience or experience. As an example, he cited the popularity of iTunes which has sold billions of dollars of music when the music is available for free on the net, albeit for a lot more work.

These were just some of the highlights from the conference and speakers who I thought were particularly interesting. On a side note, I ended up taking these notes on my trusty but aging Blackberry Pearl and emailing them to myself and buying more than 3 books while listening to the speakers (damn you Amazon 1-click purchasing).

A friend and I are working on a next-gen product for the wireless presentation space and I found this behavior striking whereby interactions with the audience happen not just through verbal feedback but through the blogging of speeches, visits to the speaker’s websites and purchases of books etc, all while still listening to them speak. We’ll need to see how we can incorporate some of these capabilities within our product.

Heading to the Institute of Design’s Strategy Conference

I’m finishing my breakfast as I write, heading over to catch my school, the Institute of Design’s annual Strategy Conference. We have a great line up this year and I’m especially interested to hear what Bill Buxton has to say about Sketching User Experience. There’s a short interview with him which you can read here.

Other speakers who seem promising are Claudia Kotchka, EX-VP of Design and Innovation at P&G who has attended our conference in prior years as well. I say ex vp of design since Bruce Nussbaum reported this morning that Claudia is leaving P&G. I’m as surprised as Bruce is but more curious as to where she’s headed next. Talent like that usually can spot trends and opportunities ahead of others.
Speaking of Bruce Nussbaum, he doesn’t know it but he’s one of the reasons why I’m at the Institute of Design. It was his articles on Innovation and the Institute of Design that led me to explore further after which I decided to leave my job in Boston and move to Chicago for school. Thanks Bruce and if I get to see you in person at this conference, I’ll thank you in person.

Well, it’s about that time so I must head off. Thankfully, the MCA is 4 blocks away and I’ll keep you all posted on the conference.

Maxims are true, until they are not

I was reading Business Week article analyzing the potential Microsoft+Yahoo merger and the article was talking about how common wisdom regarding the mega-mergers between TimeWarner+AOL was proven wrong with none of the billions in efficiencies and synergies materializing. It got me thinking about the maxims’ of business. The ones you often hear being bandied about by folks that are supposed to embody common wisdom. It’s also used when someone tries to sound smart but knows very little.

Here’s a common example.

“It’s best to be first to market”

Now think about how many times that doesn’t hold true. Examples from the iPod, VHS to the US Space program all disprove the maxim.

Which is why I’m glad that I across this great article today in Core77 where a similar designer maxim “Designers must draw” was challenged.

“The applicability of the statement, “Designers must draw,” becomes a little problematic in this light. Must they? The answer depends a lot on what comes to mind when you imagine a designer doing her job. Someone sitting at a table with a pile of markers and pencils, making marks on paper, constitutes an important but small fraction of the design process. The rest of it involves research, reviewing prototypes, writing briefs, driving CAD, talking to clients, and a hundred other things. There are plenty of designers–good ones–who haven’t picked up a marker in years.”

So while maxims might be convenient, don’t accept one at face value or risk misunderstanding what’s happening around you.

Here are links to other interesting articles on the subject

Top 5 business maxims that need to go

The problem with truisms

Team work over time

I had written a note to myself to write about the idea of decision making over time – specifically jotting down “What happens when the team that seemed functional till now, suddenly devolves into a morass?”. This little note marinated for over a month till I discovered it, neatly tucked away in the drafts section of wordpress.

This thought was triggered during a class on decision making taught by Jeremy Alexis. At the Institute of Design, there’s a lot of emphasis on teamwork and rightly so. Working together in three to four teams during a semester represents a challenge all in itself and while it can be frustrating at times, I consider it practice for the future. One aspect of team work that I found interesting was the idea of having guiding rules and key words which would allow the group to forge ahead, even when all members might not agree on a specific point.

These rules are usually agreed upon at the start and hopefully relied upon throughout the course of group work. This might be true in some cases but in my experience, when team members are acquaintances, these guidelines are rarely stated and agreed upon. Instead, the group members assumed implicitly that everyone is on the same page and respects the same rules. This assumption can lead to surprising conflict much later in the project when you realize that the members have very different expectations from the project than you do, and behave therefore very differently.

So what do you do when you find that an otherwise functioning group is suddenly breaking down? My experience has been varied. With groups where there’s mutual trust and friendship, it’s been immensely helpful to “clear the air” – that is to sit down and state explicitly, each member’s expectations which makes it far easier to isolate a point of contention. In other groups, it has worked less effectively,

So how do you all cope when groups you are in, suddenly don’t work well anymore?

Another example of permanence of objects (or lack thereof)

A adhoc pointer when needed, breaks apart and forms the all too familiar dry-erase marker – or is it the other way around?


Permanence of objects

I was faced with a small challenge today. I had just walked back from the gym, listening on the way to a Ted Talk by Vilayanur Ramachandran on my Ipod. I got back to my apartment and realized I needed to jump into the shower. I was faced with two options – one, I could finish the talk and jump in or I could stop it, jump into the shower and continue the talk later but I was absolutely loving his presentation and didn’t like either of those options. So i tried to figure out how I could have my cake and eat it too.

There had to be a way for me to listen to my favorite podcasts in the shower.

I initially thought of a waterproof dock and spent 3-5 minutes looking it up on amazon but besides the fact that I had to wait three days to get them delivered, they were way too expensive. Then I hit upon a different idea. I decided to use a zip lock bag and rubber bands to create a waterproof casing for my Ipod. It worked wonderfully and I was able to listen to the brilliant presenters at Ted while in the shower.

Waterproof Ipod case

After I got out, I realized that there was something even more important that had happened. Instead of buying an expensive dock that would have a single function and purpose, I had come up with a product that was not permanent. As soon as the function of the ziplock bag and rubber band as a waterproof Ipod case was no longer needed, I could take it apart and reuse the components for other purposes.

The implications of this idea in a larger scale go beyond the idea of reuse and recyclability of products. Instead, it makes us ask the question about how we as innovators can use this principle to develop products that can be broken down and reassembled for various other purposes.