Innovation and ‘temporary’ high performance teams

I was recently engaged by a client to run a series of workshops that brought together a dozen or so of the brightest of minds at the sharp end of the nuclear decommissioning industry. The purpose of the series of workshops was to challenge the current design for a new waste processing plant and to generate new, innovative ways to carry out the making safe of a substantial amount of highly toxic waste.

The first workshop involved a tour of the proposed facility, followed by a session to set the scene for the challenge team. During this initial session, a guest proposed his concern that the size of the team and the nature of the challenge would make it difficult for the group to become a High Performing Team (HPT). Based upon previous experience I had immediate misgivings and have pondered upon this for some time since. I now believe it is undoubtedly possible to create ‘temporary’ High Performance Teams that can quickly be up and running and upon reflection this accounts for a vast majority of the work that I currently undertake.

In 1965 it was Bruce Tuckman who first proposed the popular ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ model. He maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results. All of which are required in the workshops that I run.

I actually wholly support Bruce Tuckman’s model and have worked with it with clients on numerous occasions. However, for the aforementioned challenge team, time constraints meant that there simply wasn’t time for the team to develop through the four stages. I would actually argue that for the purpose for which the team was created, it was not necessary for them to be a High Performance Team in the pure sense of the term. Their purpose was to come together on a number of occasions to think/work effectively and productively in order to develop some powerful ideas/concepts that would help solve some really tough challenges.

Albeit the challenge team would still have to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results.

The big question is how do you successfully manage to get an unfamiliar team to demonstrate the characteristics of a High Performance Team with ease and on demand? Broadly speaking there are three parts to the answer.

Firstly, the identification and buy in to the behavioral aspects that will enable this team to meet and think as efficiently and productively as possible is essential (most of these are common sense but often not common practice). By asking the team to identify the behaviors for themselves that will both help and hinder efficiency and productivity and making these explicit, buy in is typically easy to achieve and the adherence to these behaviors is easier to manage. The helping behaviors are acceptable and encouraged and the hindering behaviors are unacceptable and banned. Simple.

Secondly, the application of productive and efficient systematic approaches to thinking, idea generation and problem solving is equally essential.

Thirdly, the team needs to be well facilitated to keep thing on track and there is much to consider here. Amongst other things it is essential that the facilitator ensures:

  • There is a clear and inspirational vision for the team
  • Adherence to the behavioral aspects
  • A clear and understood focus at all times
  • The effective selection and application of systematic tools and processes to maximize idea/concept output and/or solutions to problems
  • Thinking is complimentary as opposed to adversarial
  • Everyone contributes
  • Decisions are by consensus
  • Roles and responsibilities are understood
  • The management of time
  • ALL output is captured
  • The effective selection and prioritisation of ideas/concepts and solutions

In my experience, by following the above guidelines it becomes easy for a team to display the characteristics of a High Performance Team, albeit on a temporary basis.

If you would like to find out more, please do get in touch.

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Innovation – more action, less of the word

Innovation is a term that has become so widely used. We hear it on the television, we read about it in newspapers and trade press, our MD or CEO are calling for more of it. In fact, the more you hear about it, the more you have to question the reason as to why it has become such a common term (other than it’s perceived as good for business and UK plc as a whole).

Other reasons might include:

  • It is seen as a critical asset in today’s competitive market
  • The value of innovation is being felt therefore, let’s have more of it
  • Senior management want it but aren’t getting it and therefore they have to keep asking for it
  • It’s become a buzz word whose meaning is being lost in the plethora of references to it
  • Maybe organisations are genuinely desperate for it but fail to understand how to enable innovation other than to hire greater expertise or make efforts to manage the innovation process (which of course makes sense)

I suspect all of the above have a part to play. Irrespective of the reasons, it is a term we frequently hear and are likely to do so for a very long time to come because of the obvious value of it.

If you were asked the question “what is innovation”, how would you answer?

Maybe you see it as the development of new products and services or perhaps using technologies in new ways. You may answer that innovation is something R&D come up with or even that it is about finding new ways to tackle problems.

Again, I suspect that all the above are relevant answers and there are bound to be more although I equally suspect that there will be differing views on this adding to the ‘fuzzy’ nature of the term.

Innovation to me is quite simple. It is developing new products, services, processes and systems that solve real problems and/or meet the requirements of customers and markets so that additional benefits are delivered over and above those that can already be realised. It is also applying new and existing technologies in new ways that similarly deliver additional benefits.

Another somewhat useful question to answer is rather than ‘what is innovation’ how about ‘how do we innovate’? This, to me, is a somewhat more interesting question which may lead us back to the beginning and provide some answers as to why we hear the term so frequently.

The ‘how do we innovate’ bit is a little trickier to deal with because one of the critical parts of innovation (creativity and idea generation) is often down to a wide range of factors that include chance, opportunity, inspiration, genius, dogged determination, coincidence, accident and more. It is because of these many and varied ingredients that it is difficult for many to see how this essential part of the innovation cycle can be ‘managed’ or significantly improved, adding further to the ‘fuzziness’.

Whilst there is a lot of emphasis these days on managing innovation processes, one would have to question the value of this unless the creativity and idea generation element is also harnessed in a way that will lead to higher volumes of higher quality ideas. After all, innovation relies entirely upon this for its quality. This suggests that whilst we can introduce efficiencies into our innovation processes through better management, the quality of innovation is unlikely to be greatly affected.

Perhaps then, this is the reason that we hear the frequent call for innovation. Maybe it is because whilst there are efforts being made towards fostering innovation through improved processes and the management of those processes, improvements in innovation are still not matching expectations or desired levels.

The good news is that there are established and proven systematic tools and processes that will significantly increase the volume and quality ideas. If we were to focus more on these, the quality of innovation would in turn significantly increase.

Perhaps we would then see more innovation and hear less of the word.

Do get in touch if you feel your organisation could benefit from significantly increased levels of great ideas.

Achieving perfect innovation

In my mind, perfect solutions or product/service improvements are ones that deliver additional benefits over and above those that can currently be realised from an existing solution or product/service. As I’ve previously explored, the greater the additional benefits, the greater the innovation. But is this enough and does it suggest great design?

In this day and age there is strong support for the notion that great design should not only deliver the greatest benefits possible but also do this whilst minimising any associated costs and eliminating any undesirable consequences (harms). In TRIZ terms, this equates to moving towards what is termed ‘ideality’. Something that is truly ideal delivers all the benefits without any costs or harms and whilst achieving ‘ideality’ might be unrealistic, it could easily be argued that great designs move towards it.

Often, how to reduce/eliminate costs or harms may be obvious and the solutions may immediately spring to mind but there are likely to be times when this task is somewhat more challenging.

Amongst many systematic approaches to reducing or eliminating costs and harms, there are a couple which stand out as being particular favourites with many of my clients, the first of which is trimming.

Trimming is all about eliminating parts of a system (a system being anything where two or more components interact with one another, this could be a physical system or a process) whilst retaining all the useful functions of that component. A recent example of trimming was the elimination of car tax discs where the function of the tax disc was transferred to another part of the system, in this case the license plate. By doing so, the function of the tax disc was no longer required, therefore it could be trimmed and in turn the car has become incrementally more ideal. This used the third of three basic rules for trimming: ‘a component can be trimmed if the useful function is transferred to another component in the system’.

The second favoured systematic approach is to make the best possible use of available resources (ideally those that are readily available at no or low cost).

A good illustration of this is that of the changes made to corrosion testing, when traditionally a sample (typically a cube) of the subject to be tested would be weighed and then placed in acid in a platinum lined vessel. After a given period of time the sampled would be removed and weighed again to determine the weight loss and therefore the rate of corrosion. The problem with this is that:

  • Platinum is very expensive, resulting in most laboratories only having one testing vessel
  • Testing has to be carried out sequentially
  • Therefore, it is time consuming and costly

By identifying all available resources, the list (simplified for illustrative purposes) might look like this:

  • Subject
  • Acid
  • Vessel
  • Platinum

Assuming that we have identified that to make an improvement to this system an alternative to the existing platinum lined vessel is required we could evaluate each of the available resources for their usefulness in providing a solution. This may enable us to conclude that the subject itself could become the vessel. Bore a hole in the subject, weigh it, fill it with acid for a pre-determined period of time, remove the acid and re-weigh the subject and make the necessary calculations.

This solution is not only considerably more cost effective but also means that testing can now take place simultaneously, radically speeding up the process.

In hindsight, you might say that the above two examples are blindingly obvious but then aren’t all good innovations?

What this does illustrate though, is that by applying systematic approaches to design and problem solving it is possible to develop great solutions that not only deliver additional benefits but also reduce costs and harms thus making incremental steps towards the ideal.

For more information on how we support our clients in all aspects of innovation, visit http://www.problem-engineering.com.

Access the world’s knowledge of inventive principles

It is estimated that 99.7% of all problems have been solved somewhere and at some point in time. The solution may have been found to solve a similar problem in an unrelated industry on the other side of the globe and the solution may have been discovered many years ago. Nonetheless, it is extremely rare to encounter a problem where a solution has not already been developed.

The problem with this though, is that the task of researching and collating all this information is a massive one and probably too daunting to be seriously considered by most of us but how useful would it be to have access to all this knowledge especially when faced with really tough technical problems?

Those of you that are familiar with TRIZ (Geinrich Altschuller’s approach to inventive problem solving) will probably be aware that an easily accessible database of this knowledge already exists.

Altschuller defines the really tough technical problems that we face as either physical or technical contradictions.

A physical contradiction creates a conflict with the same parameters. For example, a coffee cup should be hot to keep the coffee inside hot but it should also be cold so that it can be comfortably held by the user. Here the same parameter ‘heat’ needs to be high and low, therefore a physical contradiction exists. Physical contradictions are solved using one of four separation principles by separating in time, in space, between parts and the whole or upon condition.

Technical contradictions on the other hand occur when different parameters are in conflict with each other. For example, the motor should run faster but at the same time it should not generate more heat and therefore the parameters of speed and temperature are in conflict. Technical contradictions are typically solved through compromise but Altschuller claims that problems should be solved without compromise. But how?

Altschuller spent much of his time analysing patents from all over the world in a bid to identify if there were any repeatable patterns that could assist with problem solving. This analysis (initially based upon approximately 50,000 patents) led him to identify just 40 inventive principles that successfully solve technical contradictions. Subsequently millions of patents have been analysed and the original 40 inventive principles remain the same.

Altschuller also found that there are 39 standard parameters which might conflict with one another in a system (speed and temperature being two of them). These 39 parameters can create 1482 possible conflicts.

By placing these parameters on a 39 x 39 matrix these 1482 conflicts become clear and it is possible to immediately identify which of the 40 inventive principles have been used before to solve these conflicts, putting the world’s knowledge of inventive principles at your fingertips.

Systematically solving physical and technical contradictions is just one of the many proven tools and processes that greatly assist with problem solving and innovation. If you would like more information on TRIZ and our other systematic approaches or if you would like to receive a copy of the contradiction matrix, I would love to hear from you.

Innovation Pipeline – Managing Your Innovation Flow

Ensuring that you have a constant stream of innovation that brings new products and services to fruition at precisely the desired point in time (today and into the future) is hardly ever going to be a precise science. However, wouldn’t it be great to sleep at night knowing that your current portfolio of products and services are brimming with innovation and in great demand by your customers and that you are totally confident that your pipeline of your future products and services is similarly robust?

In my new book, Systematic Innovation, I introduce a framework for managing innovation ‘flow’, The Innovation Pipeline.

IP Diagram

The model is comprised of 7 segments from IP-1 to IP-7, each representing a different set of core activities that contribute towards managing innovation. It can also be populated by your products and services at their varying stages of development and lifecycle. Outside the model (IP-0) is the total market for all your potential products and services, the land of opportunity.

IP-1 (Seedlings) is populated by early ideas for potential products and services that have not as yet been researched or explored. They may or may not have future potential and the activities that take place in IP-1 are those that identify the possibility of potential for a new product or service in the market.

IP-2 (Research) is focussed on research to establish the potential and viability of a new product or service idea or concept.

IP-3 (Development) is focussed on the activities that contribute towards the development of products, services or solutions that get them to a state where they are as strong as they possibly can be prior to implementation.

IP-4 (Implementation) is about turning our new products, services or solution into reality.

IP-5 (New) contains our newly launched products, services and solutions.

IP-6 (Existing) contains your existing established products and services.

IP-7 (Dying) contains your products and services that are reaching the end of their life.

Assuming we are doing enough of the right activities in each segment and that each segment contains the right products and services, on the face of it things should be pretty straightforward. On the surface the model is really quite logical and easy to grasp.

It is beneath the surface that things begin to get a little more complicated.

The ‘Healthy’ Innovation Pipeline

The healthy Innovation Pipeline will be balanced in line with the needs of the business. It makes sense, therefore, to be clear from the outset what the business will look like in say two to three years hence. For example, what products and services will be in your portfolio, which (if any) products and services will have been dropped, how many new products and services will be launched, how many new products and services will be in the pipeline to enable you to sleep well at night?

Once we are clear about the above and more, the healthy Innovation Pipeline will be managed in a way that ensures you have the best possible chance of your ideal future position becoming a reality. It is the ‘engine’ that delivers a successful portfolio of existing and developing products and services.

The key is in understanding the meaningful activities required in each segment and in ensuring excellence in their execution.

Other Considerations

When managing your innovation pipeline it is important to consider the following key points:

  • Successful new products, services and solutions come about as the result of a culmination of the activities that create them. Therefore, we should focus on managing the right activities (inputs) so that we get a desirable flow of new products, services or solutions (outputs). This is not just about the quantity of the right activities but also the quality.
  • Be mindful of the time lag between the necessary development activities and the launch of new products, which in many instances will be years. To create a desirable flow of new products and product developments, activities will need to be balanced and required consistently in each segment of the innovation pipeline.
  • The desirability of new products and services will be dependent upon your understanding of customers and markets and the identification of problems or where there will be demand for the additional benefits that your new products and services will bring.

This is a huge subject and the above is only a quick introduction to what could make a significant difference to an organisation’s future success.

Systematic Innovation – The Book

Book Cover

Systematic Innovation, my new book, is now published and will be available from next week.

The purpose of the book is to bring together in one step-by-step guide a powerful suite of systematic tools and processes that make innovation happen.

Based upon years of development and refinement, the systematic approaches have been successfully applied and have helped clients develop new products and services, solve tough and complex problems (often those of a highly technical nature) and innovate.

Innovation is a process.  It can be learnt and easily applied and this book will show you how.

The chapters include:

Behavioural Science – an exploration of the suppressants that restrict our ability to generate ideas and concepts, solve problems and innovate. These include individual and group thinking issues.

Leadership and management of innovation – explores the significance that effective leadership and management has on innovation. It will either encourage innovation and allow it to flourish or create an environment where it will wither on the vine.

Systematic innovation (the process) – a look at the innovation process from start to finish that if followed, guarantees success.

The innovation pipeline – this is a great framework for helping to manage your innovation flow. It is comprised of seven segments from IP-1 to IP-7, each representing a different set of core activities and can be populated by products and services at various stages of their development and lifecycle.

Problem or design definition – defining problems correctly is essential if we are to develop truly effective solutions. Similarly, if we are designing something, we need to be clear about what that something is before we make a start. In both scenarios it is also important to understand peripheral information such as context, constraints, barriers etc. The book explores all the above and more.

Systematic thinking tools and processes – this provides a wide and varied collection of systematic thinking tools and processes that when applied enable the generation of high volumes of ideas, concepts and solutions.

Selection and prioritisation – this includes my favoured and most commonly applied approaches to selection and prioritisation of ideas and solutions.

Implementation – approaches to ensure that we successfully implement our chosen ideas and solutions.

Measure, monitor, review and feedback – it is essential that we know how we are doing and this chapter is all about what and how to effectively measure, monitor, review and feedback (MMRF).

Systematic approaches (quick guides) – these are a handy reference to remind you of the key steps to the systematic approaches.

Innovation is not just about developing new products and technologies, we can benefit from innovation in just about everything we do and the systematic approaches described in the book have been applied to many different focusses.

These powerful approaches will enable you to:

  • Generate high volumes of ideas and concepts on demand
  • Solve the toughest of problems
  • Innovate
  • Manage individual and group thinking
  • Make meetings more productive
  • Lead and manage ‘innovation’
  • Develop new products and services
  • Improve processes
  • Engineer value
  • Select and prioritise your best ideas and concepts

Systematic Innovation will soon be available through Amazon but if you are interested in receiving a copy straight away, please do contact me and I’ll make the necessary arrangements.

Innovations weakest link?

Our experience has been that for many organisations the weakest part of their product/service development and/or problem solving processes is the ability to generate sufficient volumes of quality ideas and concepts. This is potentially the result of the many individual, group and leadership behaviours that suppress our ability to generate ideas (see previous blogs).

This is supported by some research ‘Trends in Concept Design’ conducted by PTC (a leading provider of technology solutions) in which respondents were asked to quote the average number of design alternatives explored during the concept design stage when developing new products. The most frequent response was 3.

When asked to respond to the statement “We would benefit immensely by exploring more design alternatives during concept design”, 92% agreed.

This clearly highlights the need for more emphasis to be placed on the development of ideas and concepts earlier in the innovation process.

We also know from experience that the application of systematic thinking tools and processes deliver instant results in terms of increasing the number of quality ideas and concepts produced. To highlight this, a client recently found four workable solutions within three hours to a difficult technical problem that a team of eight engineers had been focussed on (and perplexed by) for six months by simply applying two of the numerous tools and processes that exist.

If successful systematic thinking tools and processes are easy to learn and apply, why are not more organisations focussed on their use?

As part of my on-going research into the critical success factors of innovation I would very much welcome any thoughts you may have on this.