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How do you do innovation?

There is a lot of hot air spoken about innovation. Indeed, there is probably more talk about innovation than there is actual innovation itself.

I started to get all excited about innovation on Friday, when one of my managers said:

“Allan, do you know anything we can do to improve innovation?”

Of course there is one obvious answer: 20% personal projects, its the 3M example – and now Google. Just about everyone seems to have heard this example so I’ll be brief in my comments: at 3M engineers are encouraged to spend about 20% (figure varies depending on who you read and which company it is) on “personal projects.” Some of these projects eventually make it to full products, like Post-it pads and Google News.

But are there other things you can do?

I was excited so I went home and started looking through some of my textbooks and journal archives, my question: just what do you do to produce innovation?

On the one hand innovation is just an extension of problem-solving, which is itself an example of learning. So doing innovation is firmly within the knowledge and learning agenda I keep banging on about. But on the other hand, innovation is so specific it is a subject in its own right.

Regular readers of this Blog will know I don’t have much time for “big brains”: I don’t believe that the CEO, CTO and a few managers can sit in the boardroom for six hours and come out with a new product. Most innovation is bottom-up.

Nor do I believe you can schedule innovation: Ever seen a project plan with a date pencilled in for innovation? No, you can’t timetable it.

So, how do you do it?

Looking at my books I find advice like: improve you ability to learn, trust your employees, organize your business structures to promote innovation, value innovation, align your HR policies (reward innovation and risk taking), don’t punish failure, and so on. These are all big, macro solutions, they may be necessary but they are not sufficient, you need something else.

You can set your business environment up to encourage innovation with these ideas, you can show people it is valued, but what do you do?

This is where the 20% personal project comes in. It is something you could do today. It is easy to see how you could get a new idea out of it – whether that is a product or process innovation.

A few months ago I was able to speak to someone who works at Google and they described how this works.

Engineers need to spend 20% of their time on a personal project. But many of them don’t know what to do, so most of them are open to suggestions. Meanwhile, the product managers have the opposite problem. They are identifying things the company could do, but without a prototype or proof of concept they can’t get any official resources.

So the product managers look around and find engineers who need projects. They then have to interest the engineers in working on their idea. If the project goes well they can then go official and ask for full project status.

(By the way, read my lips: No project managers!)

The trouble with this example, the 20% example, is the one everybody cites. It seems. When asked: “how do you do innovation?” People reply with a 20% example. What is actually happening is that this example is getting in the way of other ideas and examples of how you do innovation!

So, dear readers, the challenge for you:

what does your company do to encourage innovation?

I need your ideas and experiences.

Why work?

In my last entry I wrote about The Living Company, there’s a lot I could say about this book that you’re better off going to it read yourself. It isn’t my intention to give you a review or abstract in this book buyer would like to share a few thoughts.

While these thoughts concern the role of the individual in the corporation at its most basic level it poses the question: Why do we work?

At one level it is an easy question to answer: we need to pay for our food, clothes, housing, etc. But there is a deeper level to this question and one that concerns the relationship between the individual and the company. We could rephrase this question as, what do I hope to get out of this job? With the emphasis on, I.

For de Geus and his Living Company profits are only a means to an end. Similarly, wages are only a means to an end. In working for a company, and in employing an individual, the two enter into a pact. The corporation promises to give the individual opportunities to further themselves and to grow as a human being, and the individual undertakes to help the company continue in his quest for survival.

De Geus explores this argument in depth. While he accepts that one size does not fit all and that in different firms things need to be done differently he is an advocate of the recruit early, retained the life human resource philosophy. Of course, this has its problems and he does discuss some, but these are discussed from the corporate side

I was left wondering what of the individual who does not get hired by such an enlightened company, is such a person condemned to work for “inferior” companies from the rest of their working life? I suppose I’m thinking of myself when I ask this question, when I graduated from university jobs were thin on the ground and I considered myself lucky to get a job with a 12 month fixed term.

And what of the individual who is unfortunately laid off from the corporation? And particularly when this occurs, halfway through one’s careers, how are they to return to an enlightened employment?

De Geus does consider the need for companies to periodically let people go. For him this occurs, not when a company needs to downsize, but when an individual can no longer grow. Of course, sometimes in a downsizing company there may no longer be the opportunities for individuals to grow. At this point de Geus actually starts to sound like Jack Welch.

Welch (Headline Book Publishing, 2001) also advocates a human resource policy based on individual development, of course, being Welch, he is a lot more hard-nosed about it and relates the policy directly to the bottom line of the company. He also advocates a pro-active policy of dismissing people who are considered to be in the bottom 10%.

This is all tough stuff, and maybe, just maybe, the idea that the company can no longer offer an individual opportunities grow and it is therefore best they leave the company, well maybe, this is just the sugar coating that managers can tell themselves so they can sleep at night, when the newly ex-employee is wondering where his next wage comes from.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these authors are making a good point, and I am very attracted to the idea that it is through work that we grow and improve as individuals, but I also see a potential for self-deception.

Interestingly, these ideas of growth and, shall we say, weeding out, sitting well with my blog entry of 12 October 2005 – Productivity & IT – US trumps Europe. Maybe this is just a simple case of statistics, if the company is to be above average. In needs to remove those below average and encourage those above-average.

And what of me on a personal level? As I’ve written here before, I am now a Product Manager, a recent change, and one that is giving me room for. Looking back on it and not sure many of the companies I have worked for have really offered growth opportunities.

There is a chapter in book one of Douglas Adam’s is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where he describes the evolution of Vogons. I can’t recall the exact words, but he says something like

“evolution took one look at the Vogons and decided they weren’t worth bothering with, so the Vogon’s decided evolution was worth bothering with just on with it.”

I sometimes feel like that about my career! Some of those large, enlightened companies, took one look at me and decided they didn’t have a career for me, so I just got on with it myself.

Actually, I don’t think I’m alone in this scenario, I think many of those who entered the labour force during the late 1980s and 90s encountered the same situation. I like to think things have changed now but I don’t know.

Still for me, the wage is important, but so is the growth. And as I get older, the relative importance of growth increases.

Another month, another book -The Living Company

Sitting on planes is boring, one of few advantages is that gives you a chance to read, and so it is that idea to read yet another book. This time the book is “The Living Company” by Arie de Geus – 1997, Nicholas Bealey Publishing.

This is a very good book, as one might expect from the title its thesis is that companies resemble living organisms. As a living thing the primary objective of the company is not to make profit but to survive. Profit therefore is not an end in itself but merely a means to an end, for without profit there firm cannot survive.

Arie de Geus is the author of a well-known Harvard business review article entitled “Planning As Learning” – if you have not read this it is well worth the $6.

As one might expect this book expands on this theme, the important point about planning is not produce a schedule that allow individuals to consider possible scenarios so that their thinking goes beyond a mere projection of the past.

Continuing on from this he argues that everyone affected by a decision should be involved in the making of the decision. On the face of this might appear to slow down decision-making process that is not the case. Because making a decision is only half the story, what is the key is made in the acting upon by involving more people in the decision-making process we ensure that action happens sooner.

It was only as I came towards the end of this book of the obvious occur to me. As regular readers of this blog will know I write Patterns, the originator of patterns, Christopher Alexander, calls on us to create patterns that live, in the same way Arie de Geus callers are those to create companies that live. To my mind there are obvious parallels here and further validate the use of patent theory when considering the business domain. Hopefully I’ll explore these parallels further in future patterns that are.

Productivity & IT – US trumps Europe

I’m in the USA this week – part business part pleasure – so its a good time to think about some of the differences between the US and Europe and the UK specifically. On this occasion I’m given food for though by a study from the London School of Economics Centre for Economic performance on growth in the USA and Europe.

The full report is available from the Office of National Statistics for free, and it has been reported in the FT (10 October 2005) – I’m sure it has been reported elsewhere too. I’ve only had time to read the FT story but I’ll try and read the full report in the next few days.

The report is interesting because it looked at the difference in productivity growth between Europe and the USA in the last ten years. It appears that the USA is increasing productivity faster than Europe. But the really interesting thing is: US companies in Europe are increasing productivity inline with the US rather than Europe. This implies it is management practices not local culture that is having an effect.

It goes on to attribute this to two reasons. First US companies make better use of IT. This might come as a shock, after all, US and European companies have access to the same IT resources – we can all buy the same Sun servers and SAP software – so it can’t be the IT itself it must be the way you use it.

(Actually, there is another shock here, there has been some doubt in the past that IT has actually delivered increased productivity at all but we’ll leave that for another day – take a look at material by Erik Brynjolfsson and others if this interests you.)

The second reason is something quite different: HR practises. Seems US companies promote their best workers faster than European companies and get rid of under-performers faster too. In effect they are rewarding the performers and filtering out the also-rans.

I can relate these ideas to what I’ve seen in US and European companies. So, where does this leave us?

Well the good news is there is gold in IT. The bad news is you can’t just “add IT” and make your problems go away, you need active management too.

If this comes as a surprise to you then good. Think about it. If this doesn’t come as a surprise to you then good, you now have the evidence.

Either way we have to ask: what are we going to do about it?

Going to speak

Since I know a thing or two about computers I often get asked by friends and family “what computer should I buy?”

My answer is simple, “how much money have you to spend? Buy a computer that much money and plan to replace it in three years time.”

My logic here is, just about any computer on the market today is good enough for your needs, most people are word processing, spread sheeting, surfing the net, and e-mailing. If you doing anything more complicated, e.g. gaming or software development, you probably know more about what computer you should have than I do.

The second half my advice is based in fact that machines date and explore the best to place on at regular intervals.

So then, if I follow my own advice I should buy a new machine now, my laptop is just over three years old, but when I look at the market things haven’t really moved far forward, my laptop still does what I wanted to do.

One thing might change this though. When I got this laptop I got a free copy of DragonDictate, voice recognition software, I recently playing with this I quite like it. So I have decided to order an updated version in trying using more frequently.

The reason for telling this is simple, DragonDictate makes mistakes, I don’t always spot them, so as I have started dictating my Blog entries you might start to see some mistakes. Now maybe I’ll find the need for a new computer.

On project management

I finished my last entry by taking a swipe at project management and even project managers. That was probably unfair but the fact is I am not a fan of project management

It could be a career limiting move to speak against project management but I feel I should say something to explain my sideswipe, I should explain my thoughts.

Of course I’m not naive enough heretical think projects “just happen” – there needs be some kind of project management but it is the form project management usually takes that I have a problem with. I am not alone in my views, but they are somewhat heretical.

In their book “Lean Software Development” Mary and Tom Poppendieck explain why much project management practice is contrary to the principles of lean. Henry Mintzberg wrote an entire book in criticism of strategic planning – although “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning” (1994, 2000) is largely concerned with the differences between strategy and strategic planning much of what he says can be applied equally to project management.

More specifically the authors Lauri Koskela and Greg Howell have written papers claiming the whole theory of project management is obsolete, e.g. “The theory of project management is obsolete” (2002) and the “Theory of project management explanation of novel methods” (2002). (Actually, one of their criticism is that project management lacks a theory and academic underpinning.)

I’ve even discussed this subject myself before – see “An alternative view of planning”. Of course my view of planning it comes from the software/IT perspective and it may be dangerous to extrapolate to all project management, but this is the feel I know.

So, as I see it, the problems with current project management on multiple:

  • Planners are divorced from those doing the work
  • Planning is not used as a learning tool, it is used as a control tool, this can lead to planning being used to apportion blame
  • Responsibility is removed from those doing work, after all the plan says can be done so is merely an exercise in executing against the plan
  • Accuracy: planning is based on estimates which definition in wrong
  • Extrapolation from the past: planners so often assume that the future will be like the past
  • Planning limits our expectation, because extrapolate from the past, and because the use estimates, and because they ignore the learning we are limited to what we expect to happen
  • Plans become defensive barrier behind which people hide: manages no longer talk to those doing the work they talked of project manager, who in turn talks the people doing the work, nobody has to answer for this, we just compare ourselves to the plan – which of course nobody really believes

Finally planning is demoralising, what we have a plan or users execute. A good project manager execute the plan – the workers are minor fact, and all too often they know this.

So that, in a nutshell is why not fan of project management and planning.

Yes it sounds like I have moved from talking about project management to talking about planning – and I know they are different but is the emphasis put on plans is what I don’t like about project management. (Some of the points made above (e.g. responsibility, learning, accuracy) still hold even if you don’t have a plan, you just have a project manager who create a barrier.) The subsequent “execution against plan” and “exception tracking” are all part of what we define as “project management” today.

So, what I put in its place?

The answer is quite long. I give you some ideas in the last, and earlier, blog entries. In a sense, the “alternative” is what this blog is all about. Or, put it another way: the alternative is a work in progress.

Stay tuned.

Knowledge based product development

Today is my birthday, I always like where possible to take the day of work and do something enjoyable. This time I’m at home taking it easy, catching upon reading and writing. One of things is allowing to his finish reading my latest book. I normally have two or three books go at once, usually a novel, something serious and perhaps another book which I wish I had time to read.

I’ve commented here before that I have recently become a Product Manager – when I say recently it was almost six months ago now. Of course I want to be a good product manager so I’ve been looking around material to tell me how to be a good product manager, much to my surprise I find that there are very few books written on the subject of product management.

Indeed depending on your industry the role of Product Manager differs. In some industries the role of Product Manager is concerned with brand management and marketing, in other industries, like the software industry that I work in, Product Manager means somebody who determines what features the product needs, what work should be done on the product and who talks customers about what they want from the product.

So even when you find literature on product management you have to check to see which of the two types of product manager it is referring to. There is more literature on product management as a branding and marketing role then there is on product management as a development role.

In my search for product management books I came across “Product Development For The Lean Enterprise” by Michael N. Kennedy, 2003. This book describes what lean product development is, or rather what knowledge based product development is – as a book itself says knowledge based is a better description than the lean but lean is a better known term. The book is good in that it discusses not just product development but also the change process required to move from an existing product development setup to a lean, knowledge based, setup. What is unusual is that the book is written in the form of a story.

The story form makes it easy to read the book but makes it more difficult to understand what is speculation in what is hard evidence. This is compounded by the fact that the book does not give a great number of references. Indeed I was disappointed that the book fails to reference one or two books already in this field, for example “Thinking Beyond Lean” by Cusumano and Nobeoka, 1998 – another book I would recommend.

That aside, the book is worth reading and I recommended to anybody interested in the subject of lean production or product development.

So what does the book say? I won’t give a full precise but here is something to wet your appitite.

It points out that Toyota have a radically different product development strategy to just about any other organization. For example Toyota use setup-based engineering, so rather than design, say, one new gearbox for a car they may develop several new gearboxes and select the best one, or combine the best features of those developed into a new gearbox.

This may seem shocking to many project managers who see wasted resource but there is more to come. Toyota does not use traditional project planning scheduling techniques – no GNATT charts here. Instead they rely on hard deadlines, a fully engaged workforce and personal responsibility to meet meaningful dates.

The idea is that developing a new product is not just a one-off project it is part of a bigger learning exercise within the organization. The exercise generates new knowledge, this knowledge is itself an asset to the company, so the company is seeking to increase its stock of knowledge and experience. In effect developing a product is simply a learning exercise.

There is an interesting theory here the book does not discussed but I will. I don’t know of top my head who suggested this theory but I do know that I heard both Alistair Cockburn and Jim Coplien discuss the theory.

According to this theory there are two types of game, there are finite games, e.g. tennis, Cluedo, football, these are games which have a fixed stars and a fixed end, typically they are played to win at the end of the game there is a winner and there is a loser.

And then there are infinite games, these are games that never end, e.g. your career, life itself, in these games the objective is not to win but to survive, the games may be played in rounds and survival in one round allows you to play again.

In business, and specifically a product development organizations, you want to create a new product, you want to bring that product market and you want to be successful, in this way you’re playing a finite game and you’re playing to win. But at the same time you are playing in infinite game because there will be another product after this one and another round to the game. So in each round you play you have two objectives, the first is to win this round and the second is positioning yourself for the start of the next round.

So often when we develop new product, and specifically when we developed new software, we are concerned with the current project. We want to meet the current deadline so we do everything we can to meet the deadline but sometimes in doing that you are lessening your chances of winning the next round.

Software shows this perfectly, when you wish to meet the deadline is very easy to cut corners, to leave bugs unfixed, not to refactored code (so it becomes a mess) or too misuse the architecture in a way it should not be used.

The insight Kennedy, Toyota, Cockburn and Coplien offer is that is wrong to treat each round of the game in isolation, knowledge accumulated during one round is useful for the next round, indeed it is essential as the key to future competivity because in a knowledge industry, like IT and software development, knowledge is the greatest asset.

Unfortunately, many “best practice” project management techniques (or is it project managers themesleves?) fail to appreciate this.

Learning and change again

I’m still in the back of the Airbus but I want to write about a different subject now so its time to start a new entry, Back in April I ran a session at the ACCU conference about learning in software development. If you know me you know that I’m passionate about both these subjects. Indeed, I wrote my MBA dissertation on exactly this subject – Software Development as Organizational Learning.

Well my conference life is quote different from my work life and I don’t tend to present this material in work. However I did last Friday.

I founded and run my company TechTalk programme. This is an hour slot on a Friday afternoon where somebody – usually from inside the company but sometimes a guest – talks about something relevant to what we do. Usually it has a technical focus but I’m also keen to include marketing, strategy, customers, etc.

I prefer not to schedule myself as a speaker because I don’t want it to be seen as “Allan’s TechTalks” – I organize it for and of the company, I want the rest of the company to be involved. But after a little reluctance I was persuaded I should do something.

The talk itself was slight abridged from ACCU but took the same form. 20 minutes of slides and ideas on learning then open it to the floor and see get the audience to contribute ideas.

I could have talked for longer but I believe that learning is best when it comes from within. Rather than me lecture the audience with my ideas I wanted them to make suggestions themselves. That way I hope more of them will take root.

I haven’t had a chance to compare Friday’s results with those from the ACCU conference but it felt there where more specific ideas about how we learn in the company and how we can improve it.

The killer question for me came after the talk when someone asked “What next? What do we do with this?” I wish I had a good answer to this but again, I don’t own this. The people in the room own it. I can’t force them to do any of the things we suggested I can only hope that some of them will try.

In that way it was a bit of “throwing mud at the wall” – we suggest some ideas and see which stick. Where someone shows an interest in taking up an idea I’ll help if I can but I can’t force anyone – its change you see.

One thing that came out more clearly this time that didn’t last was the barriers to learning. I think we can do a lot to improve our learning by just removing barriers.

And the biggest barrier? Well, I’m sorry to say it is ourselves. Too often we start with the assumption: “I can change this” – “I need a manager to change this” so we don’t change and we don’t learn.

Now, I’ve spent some time reading management literature, and I’ve talked a lot to actual managers. The biggest problem they seem to see – at least in my office – is: getting people try new things, invent new ideas, take ownership of something.

So, I think, to change the world we change ourselves, we try and do something new.

VikingPLoP

Once again I’m sitting in the back of an Airbus writing. One of the nice things about flying – well travelling generally – is the long periods of just sitting around. Provided you can use them usefully they are great for reading, thinking and writing. But so often its difficult to use them usefully, on a long flight you just get fed up sitting there. And maybe I’m just trying to make a virtue out of an inconvenience.

I’ve been busy at work and home recently so I’ve had less time to blog. Now I have an hour to spare I’ll probably write a couple of entries – sorry dear reader, I don’t mean to overwhelm you. One of my own rules about blogging is to try and keep each entry to one idea – apart from small digressions – so I think the ideas in my mind just now mean two entries.

This week is VikingPLoP – the Scandinavian patterns conference. This one is novel in that it moves, the first VikingPLoP was in Denmark, then Norway, last year (my first) was Sweden and this year its Finland. Next year? Well, the obvious thing is to begin another circuit starting from Denmark but I’ve heard two other suggestions.
Suggestion one is to go to Russia, St Petersburg may not be famous for its Vikings but it is close by. I like this idea but I wonder how many participants we would get.

The second suggestion is to return to Denmark and stay there, I like this idea too. I think VikingPLoP would benefit from the continuity in location and organizers – different countries means different people organizers.

But the decision is not mine – and I’m glad its not. I am now on the organizing committee for EuroPLoP 2006 and ACCU 2006, two conference is enough for me!

For me there are two notable things about this PLoP and the patterns we’re reviewing. First VikingPLoP has a dedicated “Business patterns” stream. Business patterns have been around for a long time but they’ve been a real niche. Part of my personal objective has been to change this. In the past business patterns have usually been very IT related, I’ve tried to tackle this head on by going for the big issues in business – strategy, marketing, and operations.

The business patterns at VikingPLoP cover business theory (my Business strategy patterns for selling knowledge with products and services), business domains (Cecilia Haskins patterns for conference organizing), patterns for consumers (Susanne Hørby Christensen) and others. It feels like business patterns are coming of age.

And the second great thing about VikingPLoP this year is quality, the quality of the papers is very high and some of them have been a joy to read.

Pattern quality is important. The objective of a pattern conference is to improve quality, through shepherding, workshop review and authors own work. However, there is a feeling among some in the pattern community that quality has been slipping. This is one of the concerns of the EuroPLoP 2006 committee and we are looking at how we can improve this.

Change one dimension in the extreme

This is a thought that goes around and around my head, I see it again and again, Amazon is a great example, so is Google, but its not only in the web world, it applies to TV (CNN), Zara/Inditex in retailing and elsewhere – the potato peeler was the last example I spotted.

(Although I should admit, I gave up peeling potatoes some years ago: it takes a lot of effort, you are removing a layer with a lot of flavour and vitamins and your going to boil the things anyway so there can hardly be any germs there – but I digress!)

Sometime when you change something – even just in one dimension – you turn it into something else. Take Amazon for example: was it something new in shopping?

(I’m taking Amazon because its an example everyone knows and they do their job pretty well, similar points could be made about most online retailers.)

Or, was Amazon simply the catalogue-shopping model transferred to the Internet?

Remember those big old catalogues? My Mum used to borrow them from my aunts, Littlewoods and GUS – I’m sure other countries have their own equivalents. Really, Amazon didn’t go anything these companies weren’t doing already but by putting it online it enhanced one aspect of the system – items stocked:

  • the range of stock increased massively – first in books then in other things
  • stock was changed more frequently, a new item can be added to the system and available for people to see in a day or two; the catalogue printing and distribution system meant stock items had to be decided months in advance

Everything else Amazon did was secondary to this change – things like wish lists came later – while things like the associate programme where just electronic versions of the old system – I recommend books as an Amazon associate the same way my aunt would lend my Mum the catalogue. And in doing all this Amazon made the whole system so much easier.

At some point Amazon ceased to be an online version of Littlewoods and become something of its own.

The same is true of CNN – news was always on TV, now its on constantly, after a while it becomes something itself, part of the fabric of life.

And the potato peeler? – Well its just a knife that has been specialised.

This happens inside companies too. I once worked on software to model the electricity supply in England. At first the model took about 24 hours to run, the Analysts thought carefully about each run and each one was an event. We speeded the application up, by the time I left it was down to 3-4 hours. The analysts changed the way they worked, they could try out more “what if scenarios”, if a run didn’t look good then junk it and move on, and you saved time in preparing for the run too because you could afford to do another one if you made a mistake.

The trick with all of this is to push hard on one dimension, when you change that one dimension everything else changes. The difficult bit is knowing where to push.