What we can learn from Denmark

Dear Innovation Enthusiast,

I’m writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, where I am teaching in Danish Technical University’s Certificate in Entrepreneurial Leadership” program.  This is the fourth class for this program. It’s designed for project team leaders who are trying to develop new businesses for their companies based on gamechanging sorts of innovation, where, as you know, ambiguity is high and the risk levels aren’t so pretty.

It’s rewarding to be here teaching, watching these companies adopt the concepts of an innovation management system and adopting approaches like the Learning Plan to drive organic growth through innovation. Denmark is a remarkable country due to its unrelenting focus on innovation. And they’re having their impact in certain industries such as enzymatic processes, oil recovery, biofuels, and cleantech in general.

But I have to ask myself…is the US keeping pace? While Danish companies appear to embrace the latest management practices and learning for developing an innovation competency, what are US companies doing? Trying, flailing about. Putting “innovation” VP’s in place. But how are they learning? Where are the networking communities they turn to for support? How are they gauging best practice, and, indeed, the latest news on how to develop a fully functional innovation capability?

If we ever needed strong innovation functions in our companies, the time is now. With financial markets falling apart, it’s only through strong fundamentals that companies will be able to grow. By fundamentals I mean offering wholly new to the world offerings that provide orders of magnitude differences in how we solve problems of today.

So, how are you progressing on your journey of building an innovation capability in your company? I mean one with staying power. One that delivers. Not the ‘program du jour’ sort of thing that we all greet with cynicism these days.

Held og lykke,

Consumer is Boss?

I have been thinking about A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan’s new book The Game-Changer: How You Can drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation (Crown Business, 2008). I agree that establishing a disciplined, repeatable, and scalable innovation process; creating organizational and funding mechanisms that support innovation; and demonstrating the kind of leadership necessary for profitable top-line growth as well as cost reduction is right on.

My problem is with the intriguing and strong statement that the “Consumer is the Boss”. Such statements need to be provocative – Martin Luther King captured attention by saying “I have a dream”, rather than saying “I have a few ideas!!”… but I think this statement is misleading as far as breakthrough innovation goes.

If the “Consumer is the Boss” is really a company’s mantra, breakthrough innovation wouldn’t happen. Customers are thinking about “now” …..the problems they are experiencing on a day to day basis. Indeed that is important for companies to think about, but I believe the “Change the World” opportunity of breakthrough innovation stems from idealizing customers and envisioning problems and better solutions. Yes you place the customer center stage but you stretch your imagination about making them stars.

Observations on TechCrunch50

One of my students, Parul Raj Lodha, just returned from the TechCrunch50 Conference in San Francisco. Its Parul’s first time in the US, and his passion for entrepreneurship resulted in his skipping a week of classes for this event. Knowing the culture of the Lally School, it didn’t surprise me to find Parul hopelessly sleep-deprived after attending 3-days of what he calls a pure adrenaline rush (accompanied by an equal number of nights of staying awake to get his assignments submitted on time).

Parul brought back a wealth of experience from the TechCrunch50(TC50) Event, but most enlightening were his observations on a demonstration by the folks from Swype Inc, a company that demonstrated their product at the event and was shortlisted to the final three for the coveted TechCrunch50 Best Presenting Company Award.

Swype is the brainchild of Cliff Kushler and Randy Marsden. Cliff co-invented predictive text-entry that got 2.4 billion users addicted to texting on mobile phones after Tegic Communications began licensing the technology in early 1997. Randy developed the onscreen keyboard included in Microsoft Windows (read Don’s post), which has an installed base of over a half a billion units.

Sharing his experiences from TC50, Parul observed that the predictive text solution developed by Cliff was perfect even when it came out over a decade ago. It did everything that the user wanted and basically had no competition for 11 straight years. It’s a no-brainer that Tegic, which was eventually acquired by Nuance, made a fortune off the licensing deals.

So, what made the inventor of such a great product, work even harder in the same space to create another revolutionary product, raising the bar even further? Watch the video on Swype to get a feel for what Cliff and Randy have created – its unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And as the Swype website mentions, “With one continuous finger or stylus motion across the screen keyboard, the patented technology enables users to input words faster and easier than other data input methods—at over 50 words per minute. The application is designed to work across a variety of devices such as phones, tablets, game consoles, kiosks, televisions, virtual screens and more.” Basically, it will change the way people enter information. The keyboard will be history.

Parul told me that he had the good fortune of interacting with Cliff and quizzing him on what drove him to create a better version of something that was already considered the best. An interesting story emerged. The predictive text technology originated out of an experiment to make it easy for quadriplegics to enter text, given their physical limitations. However, when Cliff and his co-inventors had a working prototype they realized that this technology could change the way humankind enters information.

What is even more amazing is that the idea behind Swype was not born overnight. It emerged out of years of research in developing superior assistive technology and alternative computer input. It’s interesting that Cliff and team aren’t the only people researching this space. But the fact of the matter is that he got it right the first time, and again, over a decade later, a second time. As Parul ecstatically narrated the rest of his amazing experience at TechCrunch, he rightly remarked that there are no shortcuts to cutting-edge state-of-the-art innovation.

BTW, here’s Parul’s list of top ten + 1 reasons why wannabe entrepreneurs should attend the TechCrunch Conference next year:
i) Three days at TC50 were the equivalent of Cliff’s notes on every entrepreneurship course you wish you’d taken.

ii) Your linkedin account gets populated by the who’s who of Silicon Valley. Great people attend that event to find other awesome people.

iii) In addition to the 50 Demopit companies that have been shortlisted after a rigorous selection procedure, there are a host of partners and exhibitors that are scouting for talent.

iv) Watch the Demopit presenters get grilled by the people who first invested in Google, Facebook, and the future of the web. If you’re an entrepreneur-in-waiting, attending this event will give you some perspective of what kind of problems you should have thought through before announcing your product to the world.

v) Talk to entrepreneurs like yourself, and discuss how they solved common problems that you will most likely also face.

vi) Accidentally learn about jobs like the Entrepreneur-in-residence: Get paid to be associated with a VC firm, getting ample time to work on your own business idea, and get immediate access to the very people who could potentially fund your big idea.

vii) Practice pitching your ideas to a group of crunched-for-time investors. Actually, practice the art of getting their attention first, like, in one sentence. And reflect on how you can improve it further.

viii) As Bill Kaiser of Greylock Venture Partners remarked “when I hear about a company once, I often ignore it, when I hear about it twice, I pay attention, when I hear about it for the third time, I take a meeting”. Make your presence felt. The VCs attending TC50 are a close-knit group. They bump into each other all the time (the camaraderie was evident at the event). It helps if you can bump into them enough times to get their attention (assuming ofcourse that you have a truly great idea).

ix) Meet folks like Martin Obert who showed up at Mike Arrington’s door uninvited, made a pitch, and got himself written about on Techcrunch.com, resulting in a million hits on his website. The people attending a TC Conference are a different group of individuals. Get inspired.

x) Get lucky in partnering with the companies at the event. Suggestion Box offered all the demopit companies one year’s subscription to their service for free. Entrepreneurs are good people. Be nice to them, and they will be nice to you. But first get connected.

xi) Wake up to a culture other than your own. I’m sure there was representation from a lot more countries other than the US; I met entrepreneurs from Israel, Japan, India, United Kingdom, Mexico, France, Switzerland, Turkey,and Germany. Ain’t it sweet that most of them have an office in the Bay Area now!

What tomorrow’s Managers need to learn

Two things happened to me last week that might give pause to those of us who really want innovation to become a fixture in organizations. One wasn’t so great. But the other was absolutely great.

First, an acquaintance of mine from the Industrial Research Institute stopped in. If you’re not familiar, the members of the IRI are R&D directors, managers and CTO’s of Fortune 1000ish companies. They’re concerned with understanding how to ensure that industrial R&D is managed wisely, and how government policy impacts their budgets. Among the many, many services they provide to their membership, they oversee research projects on managing innovation, and they’ve sponsored ours since 1995. So these guys understand the concept of breakthrough innovation, and live its challenges every single day. The friend who stopped in has worked for several years in a new business creation group within Central R&D of one of the best known firms in the communications industry worldwide. He’s been with the company pretty much his whole career. When he walked in, I could see things had changed.

“Fifty months,” he bluntly stated as he sat down. “What???” I asked. “We lasted 50 months…we beat the average of 4 years by a measly 2 months.” He proceeded to tell me that the New Business Creation group had been shuttered, the CTO had left, the CEO was gone, and all 25 people in his group had been laid off.

Sadly, this is still happening in companies, I guess. Why haven’t we learned? Why don’t companies take advantage of what we’re learning out there? The evidence is mounting, as my new friend Venkat can tell you even if he does think our book is “tedious”!!!!  Innovation needs to be institutionalized…made permanent in organizations. Not a 4 year junket. It’s too wasteful.

But then something positive happened. Got a note from a Prof at Syracuse University who’s planning to use Grabbing Lightning as a text for his MBA and MS in Engineering course on managing innovation. I’m sure he’s using others as well. That’s fine. In fact, it’s wonderful. If we teach people who are students all about an innovation function, when they are persons of influence in their companies someday…..maybe they’ll remember what they’ve read…if it wasn’t too tedious, that is!