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A Nose for Innovation

Before leaving on my current world-wide innovation tour, I packed Robbie, my two year old Bernese Mountain Dog, into my car and drove to Top O’ The Hill Farm in Ayer, Massachusetts, to participate in a two day tracking workshop. It made for a fascinating weekend as Robbie and I learned the methods of tracking and observed our classmates in the process. Of course, I am always on the lookout for innovation lessons in everything, and this event provided many. Here are a few innovation lessons I took away from Robbie’s first foray into the world of tracking. Every dog can track, but some have a real nose for it There were many different dog breeds involved in the workshop, and by the end of the weekend all the dogs had learned the basics. But, it was clear there were differences in the abilities of each dog. Watching the bloodhounds in the workshop it was clear that tracking is in their blood. The miniature poodle on the other hand required lots of coaching and special attention before it caught on to the concept. We must keep our eyes open for those that exhibit the talent and hunger to drive innovation. These individuals should be cultivated as masters of innovation methods and used as leveraged human assets in the organization. By putting them in a role of being lead innovators and mentors to others, you both maximize their output, but also ensure that key resources are well engaged and help the team achieve maximum effectiveness in its mission of corporate value creation. However, everyone in the organization has a role to play in innovation and we must provide basic innovation skills training for all employees in the value creation cycle if we are going to achieve optimal capability. Break problems down The miniature poodle just didn’t get it. It figured its owner had simply brought it out to really big field to cavort on a very long lease. So, the workshop leader asked the handler to lay a very short (5 feet) track and practice on that. After a few times of doing this successfully, the tracked was lengthened, and the training exercise repeated. If the dog faltered, the training track was shortened. This technique was repeated until after a short while, the poodle was successfully following 100 yard tracks. Sometimes when one is presented with a big innovation goal, the scope of the problem can be overwhelming. The worker will say, "I’m not sure where to start." The answer lies in breaking the problem down. Analyze the situation and understand what is the real challenge you are trying to overcome. Are you looking at one problem, or a system of problems? Is the issue the real problem or merely a symptom? The most important part of innovation lies in defining the problems you need to address accurately and at the right level. Don’t short cut this step and rush to a solution. Don’t lead your dog When working with a tracking dog, a handler will sometimes believe they know where the track is laid. As a result, they will subtly signal the dog where to go. This can lead to problems if the handler was mistaken and leads the dog off track. In innovation practice, a similar phenomenon occurs. This happens when a strong member of the project team starts with a preconception of the solution to the innovation challenge. In this situation, there is a temptation to lead the team down a specific solution path. Settling on an obvious solution path too soon may prevent the discovery of a high-value, innovative solution. The early solution may not address the underlying core problem, or it may not be the optimal solution that will create marketplace differentiation. Remember, if the solution is obvious, it is unlikely to be innovative. There are times when the fast solution is the right solution; but it is important that this path is not confused with innovation. Practice under different conditions When you are ready to take you dog to a tracking trial, you never know what you have to deal with. Will the air be calm or will it be windy? Will it be dry and hot, or cold and wet? Will the grass be tall? Will a rabbit run across the track and confuse your dog? The only way to be sure you are prepared for anything is to train under all conditions. You can’t predict the nature of tomorrow’s innovation challenge. If you want to be able to efficiently and confidently address tomorrow’s challenge, you must prepare today. That preparation is accomplished by practicing innovation skills in everything you do. Using your every day "little i" innovation problems as a training ground, you can develop your facility with innovation best practices so that when the "big I" challenges arise, you will be able to tackle them reliably and with confidence. Trust your dog When you are following a track, you dog will sometimes circle behind you or range off to one side. Don’t worry that your dog is lost. The scent has been moved around by wind and other factors. Your dog is simply exploring the evidence as it works to solve the problem. When working on innovation problems, we often have to circle back and iterate on a problem. When this happens, we must not be discouraged. Rather, we must understand that the path of innovation is rarely a straight road. Each new solution brings with it new questions. As our knowledge of the solution space increases, so too does our understanding of the problem space. This naturally leads to shifts in our thinking and approach to the solution. This can feel very uncomfortable since at times we may not know if we are truly making progress. This is where innovation best practices are indispensable. Following these practices of innovation helps keep us on track and make objective assessments of where we are headed.