On the Promise of Developing an Innovator’s Skill [Chapter 1]
On the Invention Myth [Chapter 1]
On Sharpening the Definition of Information [Chapter 1]
On Paradigms for Innovation [Chapter 3]
On What Innovators Observe in the World [Chapter 4]
On the Skill of Grounding Assessments [Chapter 4]
On Sensing [Chapter 5]
On Envisioning [Chapter 6]
On Offering [Chapter 7]
On Adopting [Chapter 8]
On Sustaining [Chapter 9]
On Executing [Chapter 10]
On Leading [Chapter 11]
On Embodying [Chapter 12]
On The Culture of Innovation [Chapter 13]
On Messes and Innovation [Chapter 14]
On Social Networks and Innovation [Chapter 15]
On Mastery of Innovation [Chapter 16]

On the Promise of Developing an Innovator’s Skill

Here, in this book, we explore a new category in the understanding of innovation — personal skills — and we find promising new answers.  Our fundamental claim is that by developing their skills in eight practices, individuals and groups can become competent innovators with success rates much higher than 4%.  We identified the eight practices after extensively studying the actions of many innovators. [Chapter 1]

On the Invention Myth

There is a common, deeply held, and revered belief that inventions are the main cause of innovations.  We call this belief the Invention Myth.

Those who hold this belief seek innovation by looking for ways to stimulate creativity.  This is done by exercises in everything from conceptual blockbusting to design of workplaces that enhance conceptual stimulation.  They believe that if they are not cooking up ideas, they cannot innovate.  They must constantly stir things up to keep the ideas flowing.  They believe that this is the only way to overcome the high failure rate of innovation initiatives.

This belief pervades many government policies.  Major reports call for more government spending on university research and for tax incentives for companies to do research.

There is an attractive and compelling logic behind this belief.   If you look backwards in time from when an innovation is in place, you can usually locate the key idea on which it is based and the first person to propose the idea.  That person becomes the hero of the story about how the idea changed the world.  However, the person who first proposed the idea did not necessarily cause the chains of events leading to the adoption of the idea.   Creating new ideas is fundamentally different from getting people to adopt them.

How strong is the evidence supporting the invention belief?

It is not all that strong.  Peter Drucker (1985) reported that only about 1 in 500 patented inventions returns more than its investment; he believed that new knowledge is the least likely source of innovation.  In a study for the National Research Council of the connection between basic research and innovation, Stephen Kline and Nathan Rosenberg (1986, p. 288) concluded, “the notion that innovation is initiated by research is wrong most of the time.”  In his history of American innovation, Harold Evans (2004) analyzed 75 innovations and concluded that the innovators were almost always not the inventors.  [Chapter 1]

On Sharpening the Definition of Information

Innovation is not simply invention; it is inventiveness put to use. Invention without innovation is a pastime.

— Harold Evans

If we pose different question, “When does an innovation succeed?” we can get to a clear, uncontroversial definition for innovation.  Innovation succeeds when an idea is put into practice.  The process of accomplishing this is likely to include inventions, ideas, changes, and struggles … but there is no innovation until a community of people adopts a new practice.  Adoption is the key to success.  That leads to the definition on which this book is based:

Innovation is adoption of new practice in a community.

Having a clear definition of the outcome of innovation — adoption of new practice in a community — is essential to our goal of formulating the practices behind skillful, successful innovation.  In the next four sections, we will sharpen our definition by digging deeper into these aspects:

  1. Community: the people who change their practices.  How large are they?  What do they value?  What do they sacrifice to get the innovation?
  2. Practices: the ways of doing things.  We will distinguish the practices being changed inside the community from the innovator’s practices that bring about the change.
  3. Adoption: the commitment to new practices and their incorporation into the prior practices of the community.
  4. Success: the goal of adoption is achieved.  Three environmental factors support success — content expertise, social interaction, and moving into opportunities.  How do we cope with failure?  Learn and come back for later success?  Abandon when the practice is obsolete or low value? [Chapter 1]

On Paradigms for Innovation

Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), showed us that we are all members of communities of practice.  A community has a shared belief system — its way of interpreting the world and associated practices — which he called its paradigm.  Sooner or later, he said, we encounter events or phenomena that our accepted paradigm cannot explain or respond to.  He called such events anomalies.  As long as the anomalies are not too common or troublesome, we tolerate them.  But when faced with an accumulation of anomalies too big to ignore, we open to the possibility that we need a new paradigm.  The change to a new paradigm is a revolution.

In our review of innovation literature, we found four paradigms for thinking about innovation: mystical, process, leadership, and generative.  The anomaly of low success despite high effort arises in the mystical, process, and leadership paradigm.  That anomaly motivates our interest in the generative paradigm, which is a new approach to innovation.

Within the four paradigms, we found seven major models of innovation: inspirational stories, pipeline, diffusion, sources, traits and virtues, learning networks, and history-making.  The first five models dominate most thinking about innovation.  They sustain the invention and process myths discussed earlier.  We will discuss these models in this chapter to see how each shows the world differently to the innovator, and what possibilities each opens and closes.  [Chapter 3]

On What Innovators Observe in the World

Innovators are observers who can sense disharmonies, articulate them, and take action to resolve them.  The Prime Innovation Pattern discussed in Chapter 1 summarizes the essence of the innovation observer.  The eight practices build one’s capacity to be an innovation observer and actor.  To be that observer, the skilled innovator continually observes these seven areas:

  • The cares and concerns of people.
  • The practices people have for taking care of those concerns.
  • The value and level of satisfaction people place in their practices, current and future.
  • The breakdowns and struggles people are experiencing.
  • The disharmonies revealed by the breakdowns and struggles.
  • New practices that, if adopted, would resolve the breakdowns and bring harmony.
  • Resistance from people who see a net loss of value in the change.  [Chapter 4]

On the Skill of Grounding Assessments

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 39 seconds into its flight, killing all seven astronauts aboard.  President Reagan quickly convened the Rogers Commission to determine the cause of the accident and to recommend changes that might prevent similar accidents in the future.  The Commission moved rapidly and issued its report in June 1986.

The investigators heard many theories about the cause and who would be to blame.  The most credible theory was that an O-ring, which sealed adjacent stages of the booster rocket, failed because it lost its resilience on that exceptionally cold, frosty Florida morning.  There was much argument and finger pointing between NASA managers and engineers of the Morton-Thiokol company about whether engineers had properly warned of the possibility of O-ring failure and, if they had, whether NASA managers ignored the warning in their rush to launch the shuttle.  In one of the televised public hearings, physicist Richard Feynman quizzed the others about their claims that O-rings remained resilient at 32 degrees.  As they maintained their claims of resilience, he casually dropped a sample of O-ring material clamped in a small vise into a glass of ice water.  A few minutes later he removed it and showed it did not regain its shape after the clamp was removed.  That demonstration demolished the claims and clinched the O-ring theory.  The Commission handed NASA a stinging rebuke for its failure to heed engineers’ warnings about O-ring failure in cold weather.

Feynman’s demonstration was a brilliant, well-grounded assessment.  The brilliance was not in his genius as a physicist, which everyone accepted, but in his mastery of communication.  He sensed that everyone was confused by the complexity of all the arguments.  He chose a high-school experiment that would crumble all that complexity and place a stark, simple truth before his audience. His timing was perfect.  He created suspense and tension in his preamble and heightened the “aha!” moment many people experienced when he suddenly created a new observer for them.  Like Pasteur, he was a “master of experimental theater.” (Latour 1988).

If you were one of those engineers and you were convinced that O-ring failure was the cause, how would you communicate your conclusion in a way that NASA managers could not ignore?  Would you have thought of Feynman’s experiment?  Or would you have done what actually happened, to offer models showing failure probabilities at various temperatures?  Feynman’s approach was direct, clear, and compelling.  The risk analysis approach did not require the engineers to take a stand; it left the NASA managers to decide what failure probabilities they might accept.  Might the outcome have been different (launch aborted) if the engineers had offered different grounding for their assessments?

You do not have to imagine yourself as an engineer supporting NASA.  Think of a situation in which your manager or a member of your team turned to you at a key moment and asked for your evaluation of the situation.  Your ability to provide a well-grounded assessment of the facts and the risks at that moment can easily make the difference between whether your opinions guide your group’s actions and whether you will be taken seriously by the others.  [Chapter 4]

On Sensing

Every innovation begins with a new possibility.  Who cannot find possibilities, cannot innovate.  Finding worthy possibilities turns out to be a challenge for many people.

How often, instead of “Eureka!” have we said, “I wish I thought of that!”  Or, “How come I can’t think of new things?”

Is finding new possibilities the result of brainpower?  Serendipity?  Creativity?  Luck?  Circumstance?  Working environment?  While these things are important, they are not essential.  Growing good ideas into possibilities is a practice.  It is a practice of listening and observing for disharmonies and asking what is possible if the disharmony could be resolved.  We call this practice sensing.

In our earlier discussion of the Prime Innovation Pattern, we summarized the work of Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus (1997) by saying that “Innovators find in their lives and work something disharmonious that common sense overlooks or denies.  They hold on to the disharmony, allowing it to bother them; they engage with it as a puzzle.  Eventually they discover how the commonsense way of acting leads to the disharmonious conflict or failure.”  The sensing practice guides innovators as they grapple with their conundrums.

Mental practices like puzzle solving, brainteasers, or conceptual blockbusting keep the brain sharp but play a small role in innovation.  Most successful innovators do not focus on the mind at all.  The heart of their skill is their ability to hear what people deeply care about and bring forward ways to take care of those concerns.  Their skill is rooted in the subtleties of listening.  [Chapter 5]

On Envisioning

Envisioning is about crystallizing the possibility that arose in sensing into a story about how the possibility will appear and be valuable in the future of the adopting audience.  In other words, envisioning practice is all about good storytelling.  A compelling story captures hearts and imaginations.  It diagnoses a problem or missing opportunity and shows a path to resolution.  It provokes new thought and new action.   It conveys a vivid, concrete, engaging, relevant, and touching depiction of a future that matters to your listeners.  Your success depends on being able to generate such stories.

While this may sound relatively straightforward, many people find storytelling fiendishly difficult.  For many, it is a struggle to design and tell good stories.  But we cannot let this difficulty stop us: storytelling generates innovations.  When creating the stories, we become generators of new actions and leaders of others who want to be players in our new worlds.  [Chapter 6]

On Offering

The act of making an offer seems simple enough.  We make offers by the dozens from simple to sublime: we hold a door open for someone, extend a hand to someone in need, discuss our skills during interviews, present our projects, propose business plans, put up web pages about our services, or market our products worldwide.  So it should be as easy to offer up our innovation.

Not necessarily.  Many of our listeners will not accept our offers.  Experienced sales people expect that 90% of their cold calls will lead nowhere.  They focus on their successes and look for ways to orient their offers for higher success rates.  Many innovators, however, are not trained salespeople and are not used to failure.  Common reactions are to become defensive about the current offer, or to refrain from future offers out of fear of disappointment or rejection.  These reactions will lead to failure of the innovation.  [Chapter 7]

On Adopting

Adoption occurs three times in every innovation: in the mind, in the hand, and in the body.  The first adoption occurs when people in a community commit to considering the idea of a new practice.  The second adoption occurs when they commit to trying their hand at it for the first time.  The third adoption occurs when they commit to sustain it over time.  The first adoption is the outcome of the offering practice, the second the outcome of the adopting practice, and the third the outcome of the sustaining practice.  We will examine now the work of the adopting practice.

It is quite common that our first innovation proposals do not sell.  Tim Berners-Lee’s first conception of the Web did not sell.  But he did not give up.  Instead, he became a student of why people at CERN (his employer) used the Internet and what value it offered them.  He wanted to learn not only why his idea did not sell, but what would sell.  [Chapter 8]

On Sustaining

Sustaining is about keeping the innovation relevant and useful after adoption — integrating and fitting the new practice into the environment of the community so that it can be continued easily.  The environment is likely to be a complex social system with many practices and technologies.  We want the new practice to compete well for time and attention in the environment: to continue to offer more value than other options for its purpose.

Many factors figure into sustainability — for example, learnability, support, supply, maintenance, alignment, comfort, and commitment.  These factors have slightly different interpretations inside the organization and outside.  When an organization offers a new product, it is offering to help external customers reconfigure themselves around the new practice of using the product.  And it is also reconfiguring itself internally so that it can supply, teach, support, and maintain the new product.  Therefore, when we examine the sustainability factors in detail, we will interpret them for both inside and outside the organization.

We approach sustainability from a systems perspective.  The environment (social system) accommodates the new practice by changing structure, conceptual model, and technology.  And the supplying organization accommodates the new environment by changing its internal structure, conceptual model, and technology.  The interactions among these aspects are likely to be complex.

There is a big difference between adopting and sustaining.  Adopting concentrates on getting people to commit to the practice for the first time; it succeeds if the adopters reckon startup costs to be less than the initial value received.  Sustaining concentrates on helping people maintain their commitment after the initial phase; it succeeds if adopters reckon ongoing costs to be less than the ongoing value received.  People will abandon an innovation if the costs of sustaining it are too high.  [Chapter 9]

On Executing

Much as been written on project management, planning, marketing, and executing.  We will not repeat that here.  Our focus here is on the conversational practices of execution that enable the innovator to turn offers into effective, trustworthy, delivered promises.

Three kinds of conversation needed for successful execution:

  • Conversation for context: clarify the environment and what we care about in it.
  • Conversation for possibilities: generate possible future actions and outcomes without committing to any one.
  • Conversation for actions: generate specific commitments to produce specific outcomes.

[Chapter 10]

On Leading

Leading is the skill of initiating possibility and action with others through conversations that evoke their commitment to a new future.  It infuses all the other innovation practices, providing the actions to generate followers for the innovation.

There are many leadership styles.  One is especially well suited for innovation.  It is the style in which the leader initiates the movement and then gets out of the way of the followers so deftly they think they did it themselves.  Other styles do not produce a deep individual commitment to stick with the new practice.  Lao Tzu, a philosopher from three thousand years ago, advocated this leadership style.

We call this style generative leadership.  Generative leaders get their power from authority granted by others.  They generate followers and build more power by using their power to help others take care of what those others care about.  Generative leaders regard power as the capacity to persuade and influence people to commit to a new practice.  Their leadership is based on care, the point for which they use their power.  Care is the most important leadership quality.

In the common sense of our culture, leaders exercise power, often based on coercion or the threat of withdrawal of some perk, to mold the futures of others.  A leadership style based on coercion produces compliance and submission, but leaves no foundation of commitment to sustain an innovation.  Coercive leaders can sustain their power only by resorting to greater force as people withdraw their support.

The masterful leader of innovation is committed to a positive future for all affected by the new practice.  This leader is committed to working through the tradeoffs and challenges that designing and producing such a future requires.

Our focus here is on the conversational practices that enable the innovator to develop generative leadership skills and to generate followers who make their own commitments to support the innovation.  [Chapter 11]

On Embodying

The innovator’s challenge is to get the members of a community to embody a new practice.  When that is accomplished, they will speak differently, act differently, feel differently, and even see the world differently.  To meet that challenge, the innovator has to manage and maintain coherence among the three dimensions of every practice: language, body, and moods-emotions.  This chapter is about how to achieve coherence, not only for the community, but in the innovator’s own practice.

It should be obvious that the dimensions of language, body, and moods-emotions are interconnected and mutually interacting.  We just need to recall times when we said we would do something, but did not because we did could not get our body moving or we were not in the right mood.  Or times when we learned a new technique and experienced elation at our success and began speaking differently about what we can do.

It is easy to separate the three dimensions and forget their coherence.  For all three, we have distinctive vocabularies and professions — notably linguists, physical trainers, and psychologists.  If we are too good at the separation, we might get caught up in the language patterns behind the seven practices studied so far and be blindsided by breakdowns in body or emotional reactions.  For example, we could become fixated on “offering” as a language act and forget that our offers will be listened as valuable only if they makes sense to our listeners in the context of their moods, emotions, and body reactions.

Our purpose in this chapter is to focus on the coherence of language, body, and moods-emotions.  We will show not only how to be observers of these dimensions, but how to manage them.  We will discuss a core practice called blending that helps us embody the sense of coherence and successfully manage change in a community. [Chapter 12]

On The Culture of Innovation

The main difference at the organizational level is that the eight practices are no longer restricted to individuals.  They are spread among many individuals and teams.  Dividing them among the many has the potential of increasing the skill level of each practice, mobilizing more help and resources to make the practices successful, and bringing more observers to listening to customers.  Dividing them also increases the cost of coordination, which must be well designed lest it become an energy sump in the organization.

The job of the organization is to provide an efficient framework of strategic direction, support, and coordination to make a division of labor worthwhile.  The framework is the way the organization selects customers, differentiates offers, configures and manages resources, coordinates, goes to market, and creates value.  We call that framework the “organization design”, an extension of Adrian Slywotsky’s (1996) term “business design” to include innovation in government, military, and consortia as well as businesses.

Innovative organizations have learned to embody the eight practices within their organizational designs.  When they pass their embodiment of the eight practices from generation to generation, the organization has achieved the much-sought “culture of innovation”.  Our secondary purpose in this chapter is to show how organizations can constitute their organization designs for this to happen.

Innovation is hard to achieve if the organizational practices and individual skills are out of balance.  Organizational policies that encourage and reward new product ideas will founder if the members lack the basic skills of innovation.  Similarly, highly innovative individuals can be stifled by organizational bureaucracy or by a rampant culture of idea-killing.  We will discuss what makes for a synergy of individual skills and organization design.

The eight practices need not be explicit in the organization design.  It matters only that their essential conversations are happening.  In Google and the World Wide Web we will see two radically different organizations that have integrated the eight practices successfully.  We have included in Appendix 2 an assessment tool to assist you in examining the organization to see which of the eight practices are strong, weak, or missing.  [Chapter 13]

On Messes and Innovation

Messes are intransigent social situations that people want to exit but feel stuck in.  While some messes may be irresolvable, we can often find ways out of messes through seven basic strategies augmenting the eight practices: declare, learn, question the paradigm, blend, develop a “we”, lead collaboration, and develop shared promises.  Collaboration is at their core.

Collaboration is a practice of creating new observers and new possible actions together, in a mood of commitment to take care of the concerns of all parties as best possible.  Through collaboration, a community creates a solution to a messy problem that takes care of all their concerns at the same time.  Collaboration does not mean that community members give up or comprise their dearest concerns.  It means they design a solution that recognizes their concerns.  The process often leads to a reconfiguration of everyone’s concerns.  The hallmark of successful collaboration is the experience of solidarity and new energy: a “we”.

History tells us that resolutions of messes are likely to be disruptive innovations.  The reason is that the paradigm (belief system) hosting the mess does not allow the new thinking needed to resolve the mess.  Only a belief-changing innovation driven by an entrepreneurial mindset will succeed.  This is why many in the mess feel threatened about the prospect of a solution.  The solution may challenge everything connected with the mess, including social power structures and deep beliefs.  [Chapter 14]

On Social Networks and Innovation

Remarkable innovations are coming from unmanaged social networks of people who use the Internet to communicate and coordinate.  In doing so, they defy the conventional wisdom that innovation must be managed.

We use the term “social networking” to mean participating voluntarily in communities of people in order to pursue shared interests.  Social scientists have used this term for years to refer to the ways people develop connections in social systems and use them to build “social capital”, the accumulated trust that opens action.  A social network is a space of conversations, offers, adoptions, and integration of new practices.  Clay Shirky argues that the Internet has expanded our awareness of social networking by providing tools to observe, measure, and track linkages, connections, and conversations.  The better-known tools and services include social network mappers, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube.

The dynamics of social networks affect leadership and management, the speed of adoption of innovations, and resistance to change.  Internet tools and technology have intensified these dynamics in five main ways: (1) increasing the number of people who can participate in the network conversations, (2) increasing the likelihood that anomalies will be seen, (3) increasing speed at which conversations come to completion, (4) making the results of conversations widely available immediately, and (5) enabling small groups to form rapidly to complete specific actions.

Social networks have proved remarkably effective at generating innovations.  Ilkka Tuomi discusses how two transformative innovations — the Internet and the Web — developed and grew exponentially in social networks.  We will discuss many other examples.  It is doubtful that any of these innovations could have happened without social networks.

Because participation is voluntary, centralized management processes do not work in social networks.  Members of the community can choose whether to participate in an action or not.  Innovation leaders are forced to become good listeners for concerns and values.  The network draws them naturally toward the eight practices because there is no other way they can get results.

Perhaps the most fundamental challenge in large social networks is gathering a following for a proposed innovation.  We call this the attention challenge.  The network offers a community of potential listeners for many conversations and proposals, but it does not compel anyone to listen.  Why will people choose to listen to your voice from among the many seeking to be heard?  Innovators who cannot get people to pay attention will encounter major breakdowns in all eight innovation practices.

Social networking deserves careful attention because of its strong record of success with innovation.   It is an active area of research and new practice, and is likely to remain so for some time. [Chapter 15]

On Mastery of Innovation

The masters of a field are its most powerful performers.  They make the difficult seem easy, the sweaty seem pleasurable, the complex seem simple.  They bring understanding where once was confusion.  Their innovations are game-changing, not just game-improving.  They transform the discourse and practices of their field. They inspire others to their own new heights.

When we look at mastery, we are often struck by the apparent scarcity of masters.  Why are there so few?   Their individual uniqueness does not seem to bode well for us when we admire the masters and wish we could be more like them.

Our answer to these questions is that mastery is a journey, not a goal.  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Candy Lightner, and Paul McCartney were once beginners.  Their path to mastery was a path of learning and development that elevated them to each next level of innovation skill, from the beginner, to the competent, to the expert, and beyond.  This is a path any of us can follow.

The great danger of viewing mastery as a goal is that those who achieve it seem to have something unique.  Their abilities are so intuitive that they are opaque, even to the masters themselves.  How can we make it a goal to achieve what only one person can have?  How can we learn what a master knows, if the master cannot even describe it?  Michael Polyani, who called this limitation tacit knowledge, said, “We know more than we can say.”

While we cannot say much about what the masters of innovation have learned, we can say a lot about how they learned it.   That is what we mean by the journey.  [Chapter 16]