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UI13: Scott Berkun’s “The Myths of Innovation: How to Lead Breakthrough Projects”

On Day 3 of UI13, I attended a full-day session by Scott Berkun on “The Myths of Innovation: How to Lead Breakthrough Projects.”

Innovation is a word that gets thrown around the tech world haphazardly, so I was particularly interested to hear how Scott would legitimize the topic and discuss the ultimate value of forward-thinking. I had also heard from colleagues that Scott is a really engaging speaker so I was excited to see him go. I was definitely not disappointed.

My Twitter notes on the session are below:

  • @briandigital is introducing Scott Berkun.
  • “How many of you are morning people?” A few ppl raise their hands. “Kill them, please!”
  • Scott giving a disclaimer that teaching large groups is hard so he may not get to all q’s. Send any question to [email protected]
  • “I wander around a lot…so if you’re playing solitaire in the back I’ll probably see it.”
  • Scott was program manager @ Microsoft working on Internet Explorer from 94-03. Had to figure out how to innovate on unpopular product
  • We’re talking about what “innovative” means. Something that didn’t exist before it was created? Something that satisfies a need?
  • Is Google innovative? It is in its simplicity. It solved a problem better that previous solutions. The algorithm was new.
  • Is a Big Mac an innovation? Someone from audience said, “Special sauce”
  • McDonalds was the first to think about food as a mechanical process. 12-piece item assembled in a uniform way across restaurants
  • Is Coca-Cola Classic an innovation? Marketing innovation for soda. Pointing out the old as mktg advantage
  • The failure of New Coke propelled Coca-Cola to go back and promote something old, an innovation
  • The word innovation is used to mean something new that’s better. If you go back in history, everything was an innovation at some point
  • “Chronocentrism” – the tendency for people to focus on the present.
  • “Every successful innovation will be taken for granted…if you do a good job, no one will even notice it anymore” — Scott Berkun
  • Definition of innovation: “The introduction of an idea that radically improves the results”

  • All the greatest creators didn’t use the word innovation all that much.
  • Doing research for Scott’s book on innovation, surveyed 150-200 “innovators” on what innovation means. 60% wrote in their own answer
  • Asked same people who they thought the greatest innovator in history is. Steve Jobs? da Vinci? Thomas Edison? 53% wrote in their own
  • Being good vs. being innovative. Innovation often a side-effect. Focus on solving a problem for customer, profiting from the solution
  • Pick a very hard problem, innovation will be a by-product of solving it. McDonald’s, Google PageRank, Flickr didn’t aim to innovate
  • What’s the process to get from idea to innovation? Idea > Pitch > Proof of Concept > Prototypes > Plans > Acceptance of Risk > …
  • … Commitment > Execution > Innovation > Commodification
  • Execution gets one bullet in this list, but it’s huge. Actually making stuff well is key
  • Use this list as a diagnostic. Where do good new ideas die on your team?
  • Scott has everyone in the room standing up and as he reads through the list ppl sit down where the process ended for their idea
  • W the idea I chose to think about, I sat down at Execution. Got thru lots of steps, but even after everyone committed, wasn’t executed
  • To innovate successfully requires: ability to generate ideas, ability to develop into solutions, comfort w risk/failure/uncertainty
  • …willingness to be unpopular, political acumen, mrkt awareness, talent for persuasion, sensitivity to social/organizational dynamics
  • …resources and patience
  • Someone asked what the difference is between proof of concept & prototype. Scott says PoC can be a napkin sketch while prototype works

  • Frederick Winslow Taylor was the first to assert that fast, better work rests on good management.
  • “If the process you’re using prohibits the possibility of spurring innovation, you have a conflict” — Scott Berkun
  • “There’s a natural tension between management and creation, invention and risk” — Scott Berkun
  • Management born from conservation. Developed for factories/banks/railroads. Designs/makers require a different philosophy
  • Creative lifecycle of a corporation: Entrepreneur (high risk) -> Corporation (low risk)
  • Scott showing photo of Thomas Edison. He knew he was being photographed, he created the unhappy “Edison brand”
  • He created the illusion that he was the manager and that all invention was created through him. It was actually the Menlo Park lab
  • Story of the copy machine: guy who invented it couldn’t find anyone to fund it. Read more here
  • You think your team dynamic is what’s stopping you from innovating? Go watch any documentary on a rockband.
  • Innovation is about exploration. Mistakes are necessary. History biased towards a successful outcome. You must seek out better sources
  • Management is a conservative discipline. Innovation is a relative priority
  • Myths about creative thinking. The biggest myth is about epiphany, that it’s a singular moment of insight that just happens.
  • Newton got hit with an apple in a split second, but then it took him 15 years to write the book that he is actually famous for
  • And in any case, the apple story isn’t true. It’s apocryphal.
  • We like the epiphany stories so much that the media tends to focus on them. But look @ Dyson’s story: took him thousands of prototypes

  • To increase innovation: make team smaller, give it more authority, increase trust & cover fire, choose ppl who thrive in uncertainty..
  • Choose ppl who perform well when their ideas are challenged, resist authority & the status quo
  • Problem is not about creativity, it’s about lack of power. Need to be able to make all decisions that your skillset has purview over
  • “The real value that managers have is not about their ability to come up w ideas. Their value is to provide protection” –Scott Berkun
  • Ideal team size is 3-5 ppl. There’s something magical about that number for being able to manage a single conversation — Scott Berkun
  • Audience Q: “How do I get my manager to leave the room?” Explain that your team needs more independence, room to grow, like a teenager
  • Audience comment: work into the plan when the manager will leave the room and relinquish control to the team
  • The manager has to believe in and trust the team, and set clear expectations with executives, and ultimately protect the team
  • “The future looks weird in the present — you don’t know how this will have value now” — Scott Berkun
  • Scott telling the story of Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse
  • How innov happens: all the clichés are true but most happens through committed work by experts, unexpected discovery followed by work
  • …outsiders w ideas. Hard work, risk and luck required. Stories: Newton’s Apple, Teflon, Aspartame, Velcro
  • Scott telling story of QUERTY keyboard, designed not to be most efficient for human, but instead for typewriter
  • Scott recommends reading Founders at Work for more innovation stories from top companies
  • Creative thinking is easy if you’re willing to be embarrassed. Creativity demands intimacy more than intellect or genius

  • Rules from Improv comedy: Yes, and…; no half-assing; no apologies; make the other guy look good
  • Take an improv comedy course to learn how to build on ideas and work as a team instead of discount ideas and prove your own genius :-P
  • Don’t preface your idea by saying, “This is probably a really stupid idea, but…” You have to OWN it
  • We’re having a blast and cracking up in this room doing 3 exercises. 1st, describe attributes of the perfect cell phone. Next…
  • Describe the attributes of $10 cell phone. Then last, describe the attributes of the worst possible cell phone. We’re all calling out
  • I called out “Every call is from my mom.” Sorry @loiswhitman :) I love you :)
  • Scott says that doing the inverted question 1st (worst cell phone) is easier for people to feel comfortable doing cuz it’s kinda silly
  • The worst ideas will spur your thinking about possible solutions to create the best ideas
  • Challenge: best cell phone. Constraint: $10 cell phone. Inversion: worst cell phone. Hybrid: combining exercises t generate more ideas
  • Growing a team is a slow process of accretion, “it’s more of a female process of nurturing” — Scott Berkun
  • Defining roes. Hypothesis: any two people who work together will eventually disagree on who is responsible for what
  • Explicitly defining roles in a creative situation is crucial. List what each person does, and then what they both do
  • “Creative stuff is messier, sloppier, more ambiguous.” Definition is even more important
  • Life of team: prestage, stage 1 forming, stage 2 storming, stage 3 norming, stage 4 performing, stage 5 performing, stage 6 adjourning
  • This model created by Bruce Tuckman

  • This is another way to diagnose the state of the team. Can help you identify and fix breakdowns that are preventing innovation
  • Risks/fears: if my idea fails, I’m a failure; I’ll look like an idiot; uncertainty makes me uncomfortable; don’t want to reveal myself
  • …I’m not sure that I’m right; they may laugh at me; my reputation may be ruined
  • “In the tech sector, Luddite is an insult.” But they were actually ppl who worked on looms
  • The Luddites were angry about change. Any pitch you make, there will always be someone in your organization who doesn’t want change
  • Some ppl are afraid of new ideas. Identify who that is and figure out how to work around them
  • Scott Berkun showing us this video
  • Idea killers: we’ve tried that before; we’ve never done that before; that’s not how we do things here; how can you justify the costs?
  • … How will this become profitable? Our existing customers will not like this. More on Scott’s blog
  • Half the game is preparing for those idea killers. Certain flavors of these are throw around all the time, justified and defended
  • Scott showing a clip from the Making of The Incredibles DVD bonus feature
  • The team’s work room is a safe place. Ppl on the team have open disagreements, but there’s an air of humor in it. Always communicating
  • Inspiration, incubation, execution. Leader’s job to identify where ideas are being killed.
  • Inspiration (ideas & passions) -> Incubator (place to experiment with ideas) -> Execution (ideas manifested in plan for release)

  • Which link is weakest? Not generating ideas, or not exploring them, or not committing to work out the details?
  • 4 ways to do Incubation. Sequestered: R&D, special project, prototype. Staged: planned experimentation in schedule…
  • … Ad-hoc: opportunity raised and supported. Stolen: people fudge estimates to make time.
  • Google/3M’s 20% Time. Yahoo’s Hack Day. R&D budgets for experiments
  • Scott Berkun showing photo of original Macintosh team. Steve Jobs sequestered them from the rest of Apple
  • Space program is the simplest example of Staged Incubation
  • Google’s 20% time is Ad-hoc Incubation. Doesn’t need special space or time
  • So which type of incubation is best? Sequestered: no culture change required, risks isolated, “tech transfer” problem, Us vs. Them
  • Staged: visible, part of the system, hard to protect. Ad-hoc: manager’s discretion, people must find time, easy to ignore
  • Tech transfer = if you sequester a team, it’s problematic to get the creative goodness out of the team & into the greater organization
  • Innovation is the same thing as problem solving — Scott Berkun
  • Mistakes managers make… listen up folks!
  • Egocentricity: the boss as creative star. Wearing blinders, only see their vision & feel design team is there to fulfill their vision
  • There are people who have a history of regular innovation, but have a tendency to destroy teams & do a lot of damage along the way
  • Mistakes managers make: micromanaging instead of providing cover. Lack confidence and get defensive. Don’t advocate team to the boss

  • Take credit for success, delegate failure. Motivated by their political ambition. Don’t provide enough resources for experimentation
  • The meta-decision: How much innovation? In how much time? What can you sacrifice? Quality, cost, schedule, expected features?
  • Managers shouldn’t set their team up to fail by not providing enough time/resources/guidance/support/room to breathe
  • All projects have three rough phases: design, implement, test. As a manager, introduce more time by adding 1st phase called Explore
  • Expore> Design> Implement> Test. Experiments at the beginning which teach you stuff that’ll likely accelerate the rest of the process
  • Experimental goals: “The goal of this experiment is to see if this design model can work, and to learn from how it fails”
  • It’s the manager’s job to clarify goals for everyone who will judge results, or to sequester the experiment
  • A manager’s failure to manage expectations ensures few experiments, lack of innovation
  • Big explorations should be done first. The first day is when the bluest sky is still available
  • Scott showing the <> problem space diagram that @ugleah also uses. Diverge then converge. Start with project vision, then…
  • Checkpoints in the divergence/convergence method: brainstorm/affinity, three alternatives, two alternatives, one design, plan.
  • “Who feels they have enough power in their job to be successful?” Only 20% of ppl raised their hands. I do because I’m independent!
  • Tradeoffs: the first person to acknowledge role-based disagreements can lead their resolution
  • Person at intersection of engineering, creatives and business will lead innovation
  • Ego & rewards. Ppl w large egos want control over their work, visibility of results, respect from peers, proof of their worth

  • Often ego = sensitivity, not arrogance. They may feel that their work is a personal reflection of them.
  • Big egos tend to be driven by fear, anxiety. If they feel safe, their ego normalizes. Manager can provide safety without sacrifice.
  • Creative safety. You know you’re in a safe environment when: criteria for approving ideas is clear, feedback honest & direct, …
  • …playing field is politically transparent, crazier ideas than yours in motion, exchange ideas openly, opinions not taken personally
  • Failure is encouraged, team has clear sense of parameters, constructive criticism, even playing field, clear but egoless leader
  • Managing people with big egos: if their motivations satisfy the team goals, then just make sure to guide them in the right direction
  • Scott Berkun plotting the members of U2 on graph of Ego vs. Talent.
  • “Anyone who has a big ego and little talent is either a psychopath or has never had a manager who was honest with them”– Scott Berkun
  • “If you manage someone who is not aware of their talent to ego ratio, you have no one to blame but yourself”
  • Someone in the audience asked, “What if you’re co-managing a team?” “Well that’s bad from the get-go” — Scott Berkun
  • Western cultures respond to hierarchical structures. Co-managing can send mixed messages
  • Innovation has been a top buzzword for 10+ years. Now there’s waves of backlash against the word. But as a concept it’s sound
  • Things that never happen: overnight success, entirely new biz model, innovation as predictable system, successful predictive models…
  • …instant technological revolution. Ask innovators, not VPs or journalists
  • Is innovation always good for business? Can a short-term positive response create long-term damage?

  • Our culture is obsessed with growth. But if you don’t want to grow, you may never have to change a thing.
  • BUT if you have an obligation to grow, you MUST innovate your product or process
  • Not all innovation is visible. Process innovation: how are products made? Production/manufacturing, product support. Efficiency &costs
  • Six Sigma (be afraid, says Scott). Largely a manufacturing analysis process, 36 defects out of a million. Not for design process
  • Profit & loss simplified: take risks to obtain advantage, leverage advantage to create profits, enjoy profits, protect profits, repeat
  • Repeat, maybe. But you have to decide when to take the next big risk.
  • Innovation is expensive: high risk (off the map), abandon security by design, high personal stress, costs of making necessary mistakes
  • The bigger the company, the higher the costs: # of dependencies increases, depth of customers to consider, larger stockholder impact
  • 7 gates of innov: find idea, develop prototype, production, find cust’s, prove benefit>change, outwit competitors, launch at good time
  • Entrepreneurs & Innovation: many startups began inside co’s, proposed ideas that were rejected. HP->Apple; Western Union->Bell
  • Yahoo->Google; Fairchild SemiConductor-> Intel
  • Many innovators preferred to stay, but when their ideas were rejected, they decided to do it themselves
  • Frustrated innovators: van Gogh, Pollock, Farnsworth (TV), Carson (copy machine), Chesterburough (Vaseline), Holland (Submarine)
  • “Thomas Edison deserves more credit for his business strategy than for being an inventor” — Scott Berkun. Balance b/w risk & reward
  • Scott Berkun highly recommends “Innovators Dilemma,” written by Clayton Christensen

  • When innovation is successful, profits follow. Co’s build structure to maximize profits. Managers are motivated to maximize returns
  • When profits slow or competitors improve, co must abandon its profit centers, return to risk taking, reward initiative over efficiency
  • Innoculative crash course in business innovation literature: diffusion theory, S-curve, adoption curve, crossing the chasm
  • Diffusion theory by Everett Rogers: awareness>interest>evaluation>trial>adoption. Applies to products & ideas
  • “The diffusion of innovation is a social process, based more on psychology and sociology than technology.”
  • S-Curve (sigmoid): early adopters>majority>late adopters. More market share over time
  • “Most products do not take off on these s-curve patterns; super successful products do” — Scott Berkun
  • G-mail isn’t a failure because it doesn’t follow an S-curve, even if it isn’t market-dominant
  • Cell phones, Windows much longer adoption curve than the s-curve
  • Scott showing the bottom graphic here: http://nytimes.com/imagepages/2008/02/10/opinion/10op.graphic.ready.html Tech adoption curves
  • Crossing chasm: target mkt, define complete product concept, position product, define mkt strat, choose best distrib channel, pricing
  • Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers
  • Scott asks: are you sure you wanna do this? It’s high risk and many legends have failed. Do you want the lack of stability and stress?
  • “Good work is rare” — Scott Berkun
  • “You can become a market leader without ever coming up with a radically new idea, just by doing good stuff” — Scott Berkun

  • What projects make you happy? Conventional: predictable, moderate return, dependence, incremental, love security
  • Breakthrough: uncertain, possibly no return, independent, transformative, love beating the odds
  • Innovation as a side effect: focus on solving imp probs for pl, profiting from solution, cust may need quality more than change
  • Every culture has a max capacity for change. Too radical: fail regardless of creativity. Too conservative: never discover the limit
  • Who are the other risk takers? What political capital do they use? How do they position their project? Who creates, who persuades?
  • Attackers vs. responders: who has the advantage? The first to succeed with an idea? The first to follow a successful idea?
  • [Alan Cooper says best-to-market beats first-to-market every time ]
  • It’s like a chessboard, there’s no single answer. It’s a strategic choice
  • Attackers (offense): small, smart, risk-prone, resilient. Must win to survive. No alternative. Aggressive philosophy
  • Responders (defense): established & high-resourced. Prefer strategic advantage of 2nd move. Believes it can survive in 2nd place
  • Know what makes you and your team happy, successful, creative. Goodness is more useful than innovation.
  • Scott just revealed that @jmspool uses the session feedback forms to determine how much each speaker gets paid. I LOVE THAT!
  • Scott Berkun’s session is over. Incredible day. Sooo much great info here. Can’t wait to read over and synthesize my notes

[Other UI13 sessions I attended: Peter Merholz and Andrew Crow; Dana Chisnell; Kim Goodwin]

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  • http://iatelevision.blogspot.com/ Jan

    thanx for the updates :)

  • jhampton

    Great coverage, and a fantastic look at a topic that should seem obvious: innovation is not acting like a 'rock star'. Being a 'rock star' is a product of your passion, your work, and your need to create in a truly effective way – your innovation.