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How Problem Solvers Can Cultivate Innovation

Even if you can't teach innovation, per se, you can teach the practices and methods that creative, problem-solving people can employ to cultivate it.

Can you commoditize innovation, or is what we mean by innovation fundamentally unteachable and unproductizable? Industry veterans Donald Farmer and Shawn Rogers tackled this question during a session at the 14th annual Pacific Northwest BI Summit, held (as always) in Grant's Pass, Ore.

They concluded that even if you can't teach innovation per se, you can teach the practices and methods that creative, problem-solving people might employ to cultivate it.

The speakers claim you can promote the conditions in which innovation might happen.

One way to do this, according to Farmer, vice president of innovation and design with Qlik Inc., is by practicing -- by teaching smart, creative people to do the equivalent of innovation exercises.

"What does it take to create not just a radical new idea, but to turn that idea into a product or service? One of the things you do, first of all, is that you have to walk them through the process of innovation, have them understand what it actually means," explained Farmer, in a separate interview with BI This Week.

"It really comes down to breaking down your understanding of the basic facts of your business -- what is your understanding of your customer, what is your understanding of your product, what is your understanding of your market -- and seeing what you can change radically. The idea [of the exercise] is to imagine radical change. What if we went for a radically different customer, a radically different market, a radically different price, a radically different product?"

Farmer outlines a thought experiment. You're a furniture manufacturer. You sell most of your products for $1,000 or less. What would it take for you to sell one of your products -- a desk, for argument's sake -- at a radically inflated price point: e.g., $100,000? How would you go about designing and building such a product? What materials would you use to build it, and, moreover, how would its construction -- from assembly to final fit-and-finish -- differ from the way you design and build desks today? What would you (have to) change about this process, about how you source your materials, and so on? Who would actually buy such a desk? How big would such a market be? How big would it have to be?

What (if anything) does such an exercise teach you about your existing products, prices, or customers, to say nothing of sourcing, manufacturing, marketing, and other processes? "The important thing here isn't the answer you come up with," stressed Farmer, during a lively Q&A at the Pacific Northwest BI Summit, "it's the new understanding of the question."

In a follow-up discussion with BI This Week, Farmer offered an even more radical example.

"If you're making a car, for example, what would it be like if you sold it for $1 million? What if it were free? How would we then make a living from it, and how could we then monetize it?"

The idea, he explains, is to try to break a business problem down into its core components and then to re-imagine it (and its constitutive components) in new ways, or simply to look at it from as many different perspectives as possible. This is a big part of Farmer's new position at Qlik: a long-time vice president of product marketing, he was appointed vice president of innovation and design just last month, in tandem with the formal announcement of Qlik's new Innovation and Design Team, which also includes former Gartner analyst James Richardson.

Farmer says he's conducted several such innovation workshops with Qlik clients. He was adamant, however, that Qlik's new unit isn't conceived primarily as a vehicle for selling -- nor, even, for demonstrating the value of -- its BI software. He even downplayed the suggestion that a tool such as QlikView is an essential part of such an exercise, or that QlikView itself is better suited for answering the kinds of questions that might occur during an innovation exercise than are other tools. The latter might be true, Farmer said, but -- in this case -- it isn't important: if you start worrying about numbers, he suggested, you could easily get distracted. The important thing is to shift your perspective.

"Do you look at numbers as part of this process? The short answer is no, you're going to run into big problems if you look at numbers at the beginning of the process. You can look at numbers at the end of the process, but you shouldn't let numbers get in the way [of the exercise]," he argued. "If you start number-crunching, you can get distracted. The point is that maybe the numbers never work out, but what comes out of the discussion is the germ of an idea. In other words, you might start having a discussion about how you price your cars and end up with quite a good conversation about something else. The end result maybe isn't a new price but a new design, a new way of specifying it or a new way of thinking about how you build the car."

Farmer and Rogers' presentation precipitated a lively discussion. Attendees seemed intrigued by their description of "innovation exercises," but skeptical, too: in too many cases, several observed, the mass and inertia of a large, entrenched company can simply be too great to overcome. In such cases, innovation is effectively snuffed out by the strictures of legacy baggage (investments, commitments, responsibilities), culture, and other impediments.

Industry luminary Colin White, a principal with BI Research, invoked precisely this problem -- citing Microsoft Corp. as an exemplar -- to illustrate one potential pratfall. "The problem isn't that big companies don't [try to] innovate, it's that they have all of the baggage [to deal with]," he pointed out.

Jill Dyché, vice president of SAS best practices with SAS Institute Inc., noted that some large organizations will try to control for baggage, culture, and other effects by creating or designating dedicated innovation units or centers and then isolating them. Still others have drawn lessons from the venture capital (VC) model, Dyché notes.

"Big pharma[ceutical] companies have their own internal VC organizations where they're funding and partnering with other companies in order to innovate," she observed. "It's a good news/bad news thing, because a lot of them in order to innovate need to isolate the ... baggage."

The upshot, Dyché said, is that some organizations "will isolate an internal VC organization to fund partnerships with external organizations outside the internal [corporate structure]."

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