Innovation & The Importance of Crashing Into Walls

Every project has that looming obstacle in the distance (if not several), you know it’s there but you’re never sure when, where or how it’s going to appear. Even worse, you keep crashing into the same obstacles because that’s what the process tells you to do.

In the latter case people often don’t realize they’re hitting the wall because it’s always been that way, or they’re so removed from the people actually doing the work they never know what is happening. It’s as if you send your car off with someone you don’t know and they return it back to you sometime later, smashed up but just barely recognizable. At that point you’re so glad to see it again that you simply take it and say “Thank You”.

For innovators in a big organization I think it’s a critical part of our job to seek out those obstacles and deliberately go crashing headfirst into them. Let me explain…


The Field and The Jungle

My biggest learning in the past few months since joining a huge organization has been just how many obstacles there are and how hard it can be to identify who’s responsible and how to resolve the issue. There are endless rabbit holes of anonymous forms, group email addresses and blackbox processes where you slip in your idea and wait to see what comes out.

Having previously worked in nothing but small organizations & start-ups (<20 people, usually 3-5) in the past I always knew who was responsible for a specific task or process and where I could go if I was having problems. If it couldn’t be solved there was always a way around the problem. I’d equate it to standing on a path through an open field with some small pebbles and rocks blocking your path – Sure you’d hit the odd big, immovable rock (i.e. “Money”) but generally getting over, around or just plain removing an obstacle always seemed possible.

The path

Compare that to a big enterprise where it’s more like walking down a narrow, sometimes barely discernible, path in a heavy jungle that turns black with darkness a few feet off the path. Sure you encounter the odd pebble and rock but quite often you find yourself face to face with a giant boulder obstructing the way. It could probably be moved, and you know the person responsible for it is somewhere out there in the jungle, but stepping off the path is fraught with danger and you’re not even sure who you’re looking for. It’s full of risk and many people are taught “stay on the path”. As a result, many simply stand at the boulder waiting for someone or something to come along and roll it out of the way for them, resenting the process while they watch their project backup on the trail behind them.

Innovation in a Big Organization

In the team we refer to the three types of innovation work we address “New to ‘us'”, “New to the Industry”, and “New to the World” – of course everyone would rather play in that final category but the reality is very few organizations have the stomach for, or capability to play in, that realm.  Instead there’s a lot of time spent bringing new to us, or new to the industry, ideas that have traction in the ‘outside’ world into the organization.

Increasingly though, I’m seeing the role of our team evolve to become jungle guides – it’s become less about “what” we bring into the organization but more about the “how” we bring things in. There are actually plenty of innovative people in the organization, everyday we learn of initiatives or ideas that are being hatched and worked on. Too often though we hear about them because the people championing them are coming to us looking for help navigating the trail.

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Our team has a huge advantage in the enterprise jungle – Our cross-functional make-up of our team (we all report to different areas of the organization) and interaction with a diverse group of people across the organization gives us a unique view of the landscape. Our complementary skills (Strategist, Business Analyst, Facilitator and a Developer) serve as a giant machete, it’s not hard for us to blaze new trails occasionally and when we get on open trails we can move quickly. Lastly, our executive support means we’ve got air support that when necessary, can be used to help get obstacles out of our way.

Put the Stick Away

Here’s the thing though – putting all those tools to use helps in the short term, but in the long run it doesn’t actually help the organization. It all comes down to whether you want innovative ‘things’ or an innovative culture. Sure we can push a new technology or application through a little quicker or find loopholes and openings to get us around the obstacles but that isn’t something the average employee has the benefit of. To really benefit the organization we need to go running headfirst into some of these obstacles. This will necessarily mean it takes longer to get to our destination but there’s no point in blazing new trails that other people can’t follow.

Crash Test Dummies

The IIHS doesn’t crash cars into things because it’s fun (though I’m sure it doesn’t hurt) – they smash them into the walls, see what happens and then learn from their findings. As innovators we need to crash a few cars. Our advantage is we’re equipped for the crash. We know we can withstand it, and largely, we’re in control of it – we can see the obstacle ahead and we can choose when, where and even how fast we’re going to crash into it.

Scout

Now I’m not advocating rushing recklessly into walls to see what happens, to be effective you need to control the experiment as much as possible – in our case we first Scout out what’s ahead on the road. We learn what’s ahead while trying to balance not over familiarizing ourselves with the process, just enough to have a pretty good hunch where something is going to break. It’s important to scout on both sides, with the drivers and the obstacle owners. Find out what’s failed for people and learn what is expected at each stage – then you can put your car on the track.

There will often be multiple obstacles, take on one at a time.

Look What Happened To My Car

We need to crash into these walls not just so we can make better cars (better prepare our projects/ideas) but also so we can go visit the owner of the obstacle and say “Look what happened to my car” and hear their version of what happened. It’s not about blame, but rather understanding. One there’s common understanding we can begin to determine if the obstacle is the right size and how we better let the drivers know where it is so they can anticipate it.

I’ve been consistently amazed when I talk to the groups on either side and find how similar their stories are. Each feels the other doesn’t understand them, has unreasonable requests and ridiculous time lines. “There’s not enough information” “They can’t tell me what information they need” – the list goes on. The reality is, neither side is to blame, often there’s multiple middlemen between the people with the request and the people whose job it is to fufil it.

Communicate & Facilitate Change

At the end of the day this is all an exercise in communication. You need to crash a car or two so you can demonstrate that you’ve followed the path and something isn’t working long it and it builds credibility with all involved. The most important thing is to avoid blame, note the wording of “look what happened to my car” versus “look what your boulder did to my car” . The obstacle owners aren’t mischievous punks who put a big rock out to see what happens – they may not even be aware it’s there or that something they’re doing makes it bigger than it needs to be. Everyone is trying to do their own job to the best of the ability but they may have goals or expectations that challenge the others. This process is about helping create awareness about what each participant needs and helping create an environment where those needs are fulfilled.

Sometimes awareness is all that’s needed, other times the solution is more complex but if we don’t follow the path we’ll never gain those insights.


Photos: Car Wreck – OpenSkyMedia | Jungle Path – chrissuderman

Twitter Changed – Everybody Panic!…

Im good. You? (ffg on Flickr)
I'm good. You? (ffg on Flickr)

… or don’t.

Ugh. The sky is not falling people – take a deep breath, stop and actually READ (& think about) what twitter announced yesterday. Based on what I’m seeing online most people haven’t actually stopped and thought about it.

It’s amazing to see people toss around “the death of discovery”, “the end of twitter”, etc. etc. just chill folks. They haven’t changed how your @replies page works as some people (this post for example) have assumed.

What they’ve done is made it so you can’t choose to see every tweet that every one of the people you follow makes. Are some people going to be unhappy, probably, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest for the majority of twitter users don’t even use this feature. I know I don’t. In fact, if you follow any number of people it was pretty much impossible to use twitter with it on.

Put simply: Going forward you won’t see tweets from people you follow if it STARTS with an @ and you don’t follow the person.

For example, if I tweeted “@panic everybody!”, only my followers who follow @panic would see it.

If I tweeted “Everybody @panic!” then all my followers will see the tweet.

Got it? That’s all, this isn’t the end of the world. What it does is eliminate a whole bunch of noise and will evolve how twitter is used. The reality is, I’ve (and I suspect many others too) written my tweets assuming this was the case for ages now. I’ve deliberately moved @’s into the middle  of the tweet if I know the person I’m @’ing doesn’t have a big following.

When it comes down to it, this change will have no effect on most users (and I suspect most of the people complaining won’t actually notice a difference because they already had that option turned off) – by taking this feature away though it saves twitter an extra step in drawing your twitter stream which hopefully reduces the fail whale sightings…

Chillax folks. It’s all good.

Which way do you your roll your content?

This topic probably amounts to being as unsolvable as the toilet paper roll orientation or mac vs. PC debates but as I play more with Twitter, and more recently tumblr it keeps coming to mind for me.

A lot of us produce a lot of content on a lot of different sites or applications these days and what I’ve found interesting is seeing how people aggregate their content up and down the chain. The most “confused” area I find right now is Tumblr – I see a healthy mix of new content, regurgitated tweets and blog post references cascading in every direction on that system.

I think it’s actually quite important , as you start to mess with more and more websites where you can produce content, that you have a deliberate plan or “flow” for the content. Unfortunately, it seems, most people don’t. At this stage I wouldn’t be surprised if the thing that borks the whole Internet entirely first will be some nasty multiplying loop that someone inadvertently creates while making their various social networks update each other. I can just picture the servers going wild passing the same update around in a never ending loop until everything grinds to a halt.

Questions you have to ask yourself

  • Where are you creating original content?
  • What content are you syndicating?
  • Which sites do you republish them on?
  • Where are people EXPECTING to find this content?
  • Are people already seeing this content somewhere else?

The last couple of questions seems to be the most overlooked, but they’re actually the most important.

My Flow

The approach I’ve taken considers the volume of updates (What I had for lunch vs. thought out body of content), the scale of the updates (micro-messaging vs. blog posts etc.) and the existing audience (followers vs. subscribers) and also whether or not I want to automatically syndicate everything that comes from a specific content source (i.e. Youtube, Flickr, Slideshare).

Personal Content Flow

Personally I use twitter as my aggregation point. I decided on this for a few reasons:

1) It’s got consistently the largest, unique audience based on all of the various places I publish content

2) It’s becoming an aggregation and discovery vehicle for many people. It’s where I think users expect to see this content.

3) I think of it in terms of scale too, I firmly believe that every click someone makes to go deeper on something you’ve republished should reward the user with more information.

#3 is one I’m especially careful about. One thing I find generally irritating is aggreated tweets in blog posts/tumblr posts. There’s no value in having them there as they completely break the twitter conversation and often you’re likely sending them to an entirely duplicate base of people.

The logical flow for me is:

BLOG > TUMBLR > TWITTER

or put more simply:

LARGE > MEDIUM > SMALL

You’re aggregation termination point should really be the platform with the smallest message size. Twitter is a summary platform. You’ve only got room for summarized thoughts and content – When I click through a link from twitter I expect more detail. I believe quite strongly that the content should only be republished lower on the funnel than where it sits. i.e. Blog can go to Tumblr or Twitter but Tumblr can only go to Twitter.

I don’t currently resyndicate my blogs into Tumblr as it has a very tiny follower base and many of them I know follow me onTwitter which means they’d just be getting duplicate content (or more likely triplicate content if they also subscribe to my blogs). I personally like this flow because people can self select how much of my content they want to see/subscribe to and it gets sectioned out quite logically. People who want the “firehose” or are just generally interested can choose my Twitter feed and then focus from there. People who like my piuctures can subscribe to my photoblog, like odd things I encounter online? Tumblr is probably the right feed. etc.

Add Value, Reduce Duplication, Allow for Focus

If asked that would be my short response to how people should structure their content flows. Ask yourself Is this adding value when I show it here? Are they already seeing it somewhere else? Can they easily understand what they’ll get at each deifferent feed/site?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas – add them in the comments below or @ me on twitter when the post shows up there :)

Google Reader "AUTO" sort – good but missing something…

Google’s newsreader continues to be my favourite way to consume the stupid amount of feeds that I continue to find myself subscribing for. I try to purge from time to time but inevitably I end up finding something new to read. My general rule of thumb now is if I can’t remember anything I’ve read on a given blog in the past week or two I generally remove it – but this post isn’t about that…

Between the week of intermittent access in Berlin and then the Canada Day long weekend I’ve had a few occasions recently where my blog reading has gotten backlogged by a fair margin. Not a huge deal though as Google Reader comes with this handy dandy sort feature called “AUTO” – this sort feature floats the less frequently updated blogs to the top and the noisier blogs to the bottom.

This is generally good but there’s one annoying thing I find the reader doing – because of the sort order it tends to mean that each blog tends to end up with it’s own posts clumped together as you work your way through the unread list. I didn’t realize until recently (when I’ve done a few marathon reading sessions to catch up) how much I actually like the randomness of reading posts from all kinds of people rather than one person’s posts all in a string.

Attaching lead balloons to noisier blogs is a great idea but it’d be nice if they found a way to also randomize it up a bit even if it’s as simple as coding it so no two posts from the same author appear one after another (unless it’s completely unavoidable).

Just my 2 cents…