Category Archives: innovation

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.

Are the management style of Indian CEO’s stifling innovation?

At least, that’s the premise of this article published in the Harvard Business School press.

While I agree that management culture can certainly stifle the growth of innovation from the bottom up, i disagree with his conclusion about the solution being the use of technology, namely social networking tools.

Forrester (disclaimer – I used to work at AMR Research, a competitor) is primarily a technology advisory company and as such, the recommendations are from a technology biased perspective.  That’s why Navi’s recommendation to

To facilitate innovation in this new fluid and dynamic organizational context, Indian CEOs must invest in Web 2.0-enabled employee motivation technologies like prediction marketplaces, idea management apps, and employee blogs.

falls a bit flat and sounds more like an attempt to drum up business for their advisory service. Any serious talk about innovation cannot happen through the perspective of technology alone. During my internship at Target’s Innovation Group, I was lucky to see their efforts at bringing the idea of innovation throughout the organization. They used none of the technology Navi is talking about, but they were extremely focused on making sure that their employees recognized that innovation was not just the responsibility of the single group, but rather that the group would act as facilitators in making sure all ideas were heard.

The idea is not to lead with technology when change can happen with people instead. If employees don’t feel the desire to innovate, no amount of Web 2.0 apps could help.

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.

In case you are curious

In case you are curious as to why I wrote three posts (4 counting this one) when I haven’t written anything for the past month, it’s because I’m officially on my summer vacation.

I’m going to be in Chicago this summer, working on a passion project of mine, trying to develop a better wireless presentation remote with my friend Ash, working on some interesting strategy and research work for the Michigan school district with Jeremy Alexis, a professor at the Institute of Design and taking three business school classes on International Marketing, Strategic Marketing and Operations Management. Oh, and of course, having a great time in Chicago which is amazing city, especially in the summer. I missed out last summer since I spent it at Minneapolis interning at the Innovation group at Target but not this time.

Cross cultural vs culturally specific

I saw this headline this morning and first scratched my head.

Spice Phone

MWC 2008: Spice Movie Phone has a built-in optical disc drive

The question that everyone seemed to ask was why UMD? My guess, probably cause it was cheaper and easier than to license Sony’s proprietary UMD format, not to mention that UMD’s (and therefore this phone’s) future would be held hostage to Sony’s whim. What was more interesting than the question of why UMD was the question that none of the commentary picked up on.

It’s really unlikely that this Movie Phone from the Indian cellphone maker Spice would make it anywhere besides India, but it’s an amazing phone because of what it’s got on the back: an optical drive

I’m currently in the cultural human factors class taught by Judith Gregory at the Institute of design. This class provides tools and frameworks to allow designers to develop culturally aware products. A comment like the one above shrieks of cultural bias and technological adoration, assuming that since the west has moved on to SD, microSD and nanoSD (just kidding), that somehow a phone such as this would never work.

Rather than worry about the UMD aspect of this phone, my question would be how well this phone would sell in markets that might share similar characteristics to India (a large domestic film industry, manufacturing infrastructure. a large upcoming middle class and deep mobile penetration).

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?

Curiosity and innovation

As I listened to Hod Lipson, Vilayanur Ramachandran and Matthieu Ricard presentations at Ted Talk present on the topics of robotics, neurology and brain plasticity, I realized there was a common theme that all of them mentioned. Each of them referred to a concept where repeated action reinforced the brain and led to specific consequences. In the case of Hod, it was a behavior learned by his robots on how to move through emergent actions, trying to learn about themselves through repeated actions and refining their internal state before emerging with specific behaviors – movement towards a reward in the robot’s case. Vilayanur discussed his theory of learned paralysis and postulated that perhaps, there are methods that can help us unlearn paralysis, thereby allowing us to function normally. Matthieu Ricard in his elegant speech gave an example of how the brain changes after 10,000 hours of violin practice and how we can use this to alter our mind state.

How does this tie back to innovation? Well, when we talk about innovation, we often talk about the result of the process, the object, the service etc. More and more at schools like Institute of Design, we are now talking about the recipe of successful innovation, the methods and frameworks. However, we rarely talk about the ingredients, the aspects of the individual that help them become successful innovators. Larry Keeley in a recent lecture constantly stressed the importance of creativity in the innovation process and after listening to Hod, Matthieu and Vilaynur’s speech, I believe that we need to train our brain in curiosity. It is not enough that we on occasion find interest in random topics. We must treat curiosity as we would an athletic ability, constantly exercising it and helping reinforce our abilities to find and identify opportunities, ideas and theories across multiple disciplines, helping us become better innovators.