Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Nine

Faulkner said that the past isn't dead, it's not even past, or something along those lines. I suspect if he'd been interested in innovation, rather than examining the mores of southerners after reconstruction, he'd have had a similar pithy statement about the future. Perhaps something like "the future isn't unknowable, just uncertain". One of my favorite authors, William Gibson, has a line that reads "the future is already here, it's just not widely distributed." By which I think he means that we are the future, just becoming aware of it at different rates.

When you work with trends, and develop scenarios to try to ascertain the future, you and your team work in a nebulous, ambiguous void where everything is possible. By conjuring just the right insights you may be able to identify opportunities before anyone else. But turn the broth the wrong way and you've created a picture of the future that is unlikely to occur. Scenario planning is where we first start separating the true innovators from the administrators. There's simply too much ambiguity for some folks, and they demand clearly drawn "black and white" lines. Sorry, that's not going to happen. And if you thinking developing scenarios based on a five to seven year time horizon and five to ten key trends is tough, wait until you try to tease out wants and needs from an ethnographic study.

No, the reason Trend spotting and scenario planning is one of the first activities in our work on innovation, beyond the obvious need to understand the future, is to quickly ascertain what the team can, and can't, or won't do. I'd rather face up to it now that some of the team may just not be cut out for innovation work, and if they struggle to create a simple story about the near future, they'll be a boat anchor to the rest of the work. Scenario Planning never fails to identify one or two people who seemed promising on the surface but can't, or won't, extend their minds beyond what they "know" is true and factual. If innovation was based on knowable facts, then it wouldn't have any risk involved. Perhaps Altshuller addressed that in one of his paradoxes. I'll have to brush up on my Russian to know for sure.

About a week into the scenario planning it was clear that most of the team was on board and comfortable with the tools and techniques, but Ann Livingstone was really struggling. Of course Ann came from a pure engineering background, which meant she was either going to be perfectly suited for innovation (the discovery part of engineering) or it was going to be an obstacle for her (the rigidity and "finding the one right answer" part of engineering). With Ann, it was all about the black and white. She struggled mightily and hampered the team's progress because she simply couldn't accept an unknowable future, or was trying to juggle too many unknowns in her mind. Two equations, two unknowns, a solvable problem. Five questions, seven unknowns, not possible, therefore no reason to try.

Ann clearly didn't come from what I like to call the handgrenades and nuclear bomb sort of engineering (close enough for effect) but came from the bridge-builder school of thought. I'm thankful that many engineers are worried about making sure the bridge stays up, and stays put, and can endure the forces thrust upon it to eight standard deviations. However, that kind of thinking conflicts with innovation thinking, and it was clear Ann was hurting the team. Susan and I were going to have to adjust Ann's methodologies and thinking, or ask her to leave the team.

"Will it damage the morale of the team to have Ann leave so quickly? she asked.

"I frankly think Ann's participation is damaging and holding the team back, and the rest of the team resents it."

"How do we let her go gracefully?"

"I don't think it would be a surprise to Ann for us to ask her to play a different role. Her skills are going to be much better suited for evaluation and product development instead of innovation. We just recast it as a better fit downstream."

"OK. Do we backfill her role now?"

"I'd like to have another engineering representative, but perhaps we should interview the candidates rather than have them assigned."

"Thompson won't like that. His aerospace team is already stretched."

"well, we'll find out from Gregg if it is more important to mollify Thompson and have a gap in our team, or if it is more important to have a fully stocked team and a slightly steamed Thompson."

"I'll talk to Ann in the morning."

"Take it from me" I said "she'll be relieved."

She was, and the rest of the team was as well.

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