Visions, Gnomes and the innovation of Oz

Andy O’Kelly

Innovation News

Between the spark of an idea and the realisation of its potential sits a lot of hard work — and there’s no guarantee of success

“Vision without execution is hallucination”. There seems to be uncertainty over who the author of this quotation is – although it’s frequently attributed to Thomas Edison, he allegedly has a bit of form in this area, as fans of Nikola Tesla will tell you (favourite line “Edison was not a geek; he was a CEO”). Whoever came up with it, it’s a fine motto for anyone looking to establish the rules of engagement between people who see their primary value as ‘good ideas’, and the poor souls tasked to turn them into gold.

I confess to being a poor soul who is in the ‘good idea’ business. Good ideas are formed by considering wider market transitions and technology capability, but I like to spend a lot of my time in discussions with customers, and those discussions frequently prompt a way of doing something better. It happens at conferences, too, where the brain is stimulated into inspiration by too much coffee and forced inactivity in tedious presentation (the more tedious, the more vivid the idea). You scribble the idea down, on Evernote, a beermat, or whatever, and after a suitable round of sanity checking conversations with colleagues, you satisfy yourself that there is something to this, and it needs ‘proper consideration’.

My favourite synopsis of popular business thinking at this stage is from South Park, and it involves gnomes collecting underpants, and their three phase business plan.

Getting caught up in the excitement of the possible

As Edison (or whoever) will tell you, becoming caught up in the excitement of the possible, and as a result getting a lot of people very busy with Phase 1 – and getting the business excited about the promise of profit in Phase 3 too – only make sense with a Phase 2.

Getting into Phase 2 is the real work. For many organisations, eir Business included, this means a formal ideation process, which comes up with a solution assessment – what it would take to migrate the idea from the five nines availability and 100% customer satisfaction platform that is the PowerPoint slide, to the real world. This journey is frequently a difficult one, as naïve ‘Why don’t we put the show on right here?’ enthusiasm is replaced by sensible questions, raised eyebrows, and people queuing up to call your baby ugly. The Good Idea has moved from PowerPoint’s Wonderful Land of Oz to the prison drama Oz of Excel. Many a self-declared great idea never makes it past the shiv of the first calculation.

Innovation and Moore’s three principles

I re-read Geoffrey Moore’s book on innovation ‘Dealing with Darwin’ recently. Moore outlines three principles in this blog titled ‘Managing Innovation in the Trenches’.

1. According to Moore, the first principle is that there are three returns on innovation: ‘Unmatchable’ differentiation; ‘Speedy’ neutralisation of the competition and ‘Rigorous’ optimisation. If the innovation is not delivering in one of these areas, it is a distraction from where you should be focussed.

2. The next principle is that each return objective is mutually exclusive, and combining them is counter-productive.

3. And the final third principle is that most innovation effort is wasted. The blog describes why this is, and it’s all familiar to Phase 2 of the underpants gnome business plan.

Not all good ideas make the cut

In a similar vein, this Harvard Business Review blog on innovation points out the pitfall of “the undisciplined pursuit of more”, and suggests people and organisations can be more successful by being more ruthlessly focussed: considering the highest point of contribution you can make – the overlap of your talent, passion, and market interest; eliminating inessential activity; and being aware of the endowment effect, which is valuing what you own more simply because you own it.

Lifting the head up from what you have been doing for a long time and considering your activity through the lens of a business strategy informed by market reality and return on innovation criteria like these, is sobering but worthwhile. It’s natural to feel protective of something you have developed, and finding your Good Idea has not made the cut can be rough, but this is as it should be.

Far from curtailing innovation, I think a rigorous selection approach – where there is keen competition between solution candidates to deliver the most differentiation, the fastest equalling of the competition, the best re-allocation of scarce resource – encourages innovation. The ideas that make it through, and more importantly the delivered customer solutions, are the better for it.

Andy O’Kelly is Chief Architect at eir business and a speaker on ICT solutions and innovation. Connect with andy on twitter @aokchief or here