Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Pre-Mortem, Systems, Uncategorized

7 Mechanics of Innovation

A game is a series of interesting choices. – Sid Meier

A common game design framework is called MDA, or Mechanics – Dynamics – Aesthetics. Players experience it back to front; from feelings (Aesthetics) through how they interact with the game (Dynamics) due to the rules (Mechanics). Game designers, however, create the game by starting with the basic moves that build how the player interacts and leaves them with feelings.

It’s said that good mechanics are instinctual and invisible to the player. And yet they are still designed first. As an innovative leader, you are the game designer. So I’ve compiled 7 of the top mechanics you’ll need.

Process

Having structure and templates for innovation feels oxymoronic, but a well-defined process means people don’t have to waste mental muscle figuring out HOW to innovate. Constraints often spur on change and growth, similar to pressure on a tube of toothpaste. Your clearly communicated innovation process will have people pushing more ideas forward and allows others to jump on the idea because they’re all familiar with the process that it graduated from.

Metrics

As a business analyst, this one is true to my heart! You wouldn’t think that something as amorphous as “innovation” would have measurable KPI’s, but that makes them even more important in your culture. Some sample metrics would be “process efficiencies”, “prototypes developed”, and “hypotheses validated”. It is important to not lose sight that the key byproduct of innovation is knowledge gained.

Problem-sourcing

Many places picture their innovation process as a funnel, with disruptive products exiting out the narrow end of the funnel. Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee that. But what we can control is having enough raw material coming into the wide end of the funnel to work with. There are multiple channels for sourcing problems. Check your social media channels to see what your users are saying online. Set-up focus groups at regular intervals. Go to where your users are and experience it through their eyes. Open it up to internal communication channels. The more sources you can use, the clearer your understanding of the problems becomes.

Rituals

Don’t confuse rituals with routines. Rituals involve mindful participation towards the desired end state. Routines are practiced behaviors that you can tune out and still accomplish (like making that pot of coffee Monday morning without thinking about it.) Rituals are designed by the leader and are focused events. Maybe it’s a Friday meeting to share team victories from the week, or maybe it’s a weekly challenge using work skills on a non-work challenge. Whatever your rituals are, keep the end in mind.

Showcase

Knowledge doesn’t do well locked up. It needs to spread, grow, and spin-off into new questions and that means you need to connect brains together. Provide a forum and method for the sharing of all knowledge; from failed prototypes to focus group responses. These showcases must include the problem, the audience, the solution, the test plan, and (of course) the metrics. Not only do you need to create mechanics around the creation and sharing of showcases, but you also have to create the mechanic of others reviewing the showcases.

Reflection

As fun as it is to look 3, 5, 10 years ahead, it’s as important to look backward as well. Not through a lens of nostalgic status quo, but through a lens of “what could we do better?” Continuous improvement is needed with your processes, rituals, and all of your mechanics, just like it’s needed for your products. This will become more beneficial as the candor in your innovation culture grows stronger.

Absent-mindedness

Have you ever walked into a room and forgot why you walked in and only remembered once you started doing something else? Creative ideas can strike like that. Sometimes putting focused effort on solving a problem is like being stuck in the mud. You’re just spinning your wheels. What you need is to shift gears. Allowing some time for distracted focus or absent-mindedness gives the brain time to make unique connections. This can be accomplished through challenges or cross-departmental conversations to name a few. The important aspect is to give people time to think of other topics.

By now you’ve noticed that I haven’t given you step-by-step instructions on how to apply these mechanics to your organization. It’s up to you to tailor them to your team, your product, and your problems. You are the game designer. I’ve just given you some mechanics for you to now craft the dynamics and aesthetics around.

What interesting choices will you make?

 


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Authenticity, Culture, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Uncategorized

Growing a Culture of Innovation

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust. -Gertrude Jekyll

My dad was a football coach and told me that what you see your team do in the game is either a product of your coaching, or bad habits you let go uncorrected in practice. It’s just as true in gardening. What you see in your flower bed, you either planted or you let it grow.

A company or team culture is just like a football team and a garden. If what you see in your team’s culture is not what you want it to be, then you either have mechanics that reinforce it, or it has taken root and you haven’t weeded it out. It takes a growing a culture of innovation. You must nurture mindsets that are confident in creativity, not afraid to fail, and realize that disruptive innovation is a team sport (not a solo one).

Weeding

I think the trickiest part to understand about creating a culture of innovation is that what you weed out is just as important as what you plant and water. Don’t just decide what to be, also decide what you won’t be. Weeds make an astounding amount of seeds once the start flowering. For example, crabgrass produces around 50,000 seeds per plant. You have to weed your culture early, often, and consistently. Great cultures don’t happen with negligence. It takes effort and intention.

Planting

Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade. -Rudyard Kipling

While each garden can be personalized based on what you want to harvest, they all have some systems in common. In a culture of innovation, how you accomplish these systems should be tailored to make them authentic to your needs, pain points, and products.

A freedom to fail

Innovation and gardening both require you to get your hands dirty. But it needs to go deeper than saying your team has the freedom to fail. This one requires you to go deeper and create a micro-culture within your culture.

  • Candor
    • Innovation demands that people are able to call problems out as they see them. There is no room for false pretense here. Everyone has ideas and everyone needs to have a voice. Friends don’t let friends ship mediocre products.
  • Performance not tied to success
    • Everyone needs goals for the year. But what goals are set as key performance indicators, that’s the type of work they will do. If the KPI’s are around sales and profit, then you won’t get innovation. You get sales optimization. Think about setting a required number of prototypes or a base number of user interviews. Start with the end goal in mind and then set metrics that help people focus on and achieve those goals.
    • Keep in mind that the key by-product of an innovative culture is learning. Learning new things that work, and learning new ways it won’t work. Both can be equally valuable.
  • Little bets
    • Innovative staff have to be able to take those wild chances and chase those crazy ideas. Set up a structure that allows people to pursue those passionate projects, but doesn’t create a big draw on resources. If a prototype is deemed “cheap” to produce, then it minimizes the bottom line impact when it fails. People will be willing to take more chances if they don’t feel like they will negatively impact the organization.
  • Reflection time / resources
    • If you want to grow watermelons, then you have to plant watermelons. If you want to grow innovation, then you have to give your team time and resources to do it. Like… officially. If your team’s week is already packed full with normal tasks, they won’t get to the innovation. Set an organizational expectation that X hours are devoted to passion projects and Y resources are set aside to build them.

A flat conversation hierarchy

  • Anyone can talk to anyone. In an innovative culture, there isn’t time for a corporate version of the telephone game. The more people ideas have to pass through, the more diluted they become.
  • Work to reduce barriers to the sharing of ideas, to the building of camaraderie across job functions. You don’t hire cheers players and then use them as chess pieces. Let them play the game together.

No products or processes are sacred

  • Everything is up for disruption and if it’s good enough for your products, it’s good enough for your internal process.
  • It is possible to create a list of “untouchables”, but for every item on that list, you are leaving the door open in the market for someone to upend you.

Plenty of conversations with clients

  • Everyone should be involved in empathy field trips. Experience the product with clients. Understand what they say and think.
  • The longer your team’s boots are off the ground, you exponentially lose the vision of the user. It’s similar to how strong a light is. The further from the source you are, the more diffused the brightness of the light becomes.

As you build your culture of innovation, remember that is is a combination of two activities: planting what you want to grow and weeding out what you don’t want. And it’s not a passive process. It takes effort and intention. It’s also ok to not get it right the first time because you’re innovating too. You’re innovating with culture. Just keep an eye on where you want to be, establish mechanics that allow that to happen, and keep tweaking the formula. Because when it comes down to a culture of innovation, it’s weed ’em and reap.


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Being Awesome, Bias towards action, Going Forth, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Pre-Mortem, Systems, Uncategorized

Thinking like a Producer vs Producing like a Thinker – And Three Things You Can Do About It

bigproducinglikeathinker

A bias towards action.

It’s one of the most sought-after characteristics in a lean, mean innovation team. However, can too much of a good thing be hazardous to the quality of your work?

Creating movement and getting stuff in the hands of the user is great, but just quickly delivering what was asked for only perpetuates mediocrity. We need a strategic bias towards action.

“Work smarter… not harder.” – Allan Mogensen

I have succumbed to blind efficiency in the past. And to be honest, I’m not cured of it… but I am getting better!

I wanted to be a rapid responder. I was delivering what was asked for at lightspeed. Yet after completing task after task, I was able to look at my products and realize… I wasn’t solving the job to be done. I was merely doing what was asked for.

I was thinking like a producer when I should’ve been producing like a thinker.

All of my thoughts and energies were around producing a large bounty of checked-off to-do items. I wasn’t making an impact. I was delivering the “fast food” version of my craft; speedy and filling, but it wasn’t a noteworthy meal.

My bias towards action was misplaced.

“You can not dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.” – Edward de Bono

“Thinking like a producer” and “Producing like a thinker” is not a dichotomy. Instead of seeing one as bad and the other as good, view it as more like a sliding scale. There are times when one mindset will serve us better than the other. Unfortunately, we can get stuck in ruts.

So let’s get unstuck!

One of the original goals of Go Forth and Be Awesome was to not be another voice providing abstract discussion on theoretical ideas. Oh, I will get theoretical and abstract, but I will also provide tools, process, and things you can use today. I want to be more “activity book” and less “newsletter”.

So let’s dig into how I got myself unstuck, in hopes that it can help you do the same.

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.” – C. R. Jaccard

Before we start chopping away at jobs and projects, these tips will help you sharpen your axe, before you strike your first blow.

Identify Triggers

If you’re like me, there are enough projects in your past that you can analyze. Look for the key phrases or situations that shift your mindset into thinking like a producer. Is it a rapidly approaching deadline? A small project window? An easily completable request? Find your triggers.

Add a Process

With your triggers identified, you can now build a gameplan. Do this before your triggers are triggered; outside of the heat of battle. When you’re in the thick of it, you become blinded by the pursuit of progress. You need a calm heart and clear eyes to devise this process. When the triggers strike, what will you do? How might we stay in the “Producing like a thinker” mindset when our reactions argue differently?

My “response to triggers” process  is to go through a quick succession of questions, including:

  • What are they really trying to do?
  • What are alternate ways to accomplish this?
  • What fits with their story?
  • What would I do if time was not a constraint?

Reflect

Developing a process for triggers is like a pre-mortem, so it makes sense to have a post-mortem as well. However, we often don’t make this kind of time for ourselves. It is very crucial to check the direction we’re sailing often, or we will run aground on the shore while trying to sail out to open waters. Make time for this. Schedule it.

“If you create a vision for yourself, and stick with it, you can make amazing things happen in your life.” – Pete Carroll

Get out of the ruts and be free to steer where you need to. Don’t serve up the “fast food” version of your skills. Give them your five-star finest! Make time to identify your triggers, design a process, and reflect on your work. It’ll feel like some projects are too short and too quick to work in a “thinker’s” process. But I say the shortest projects with the tightest timelines are the ones most in need of a strategic bias towards action.

______________________

I am a big process junkie. I believe even the most amorphous and intangible concepts can have their own patterns and processes.

Let me know what your process for producing like a thinker is!

Empathy, Innovation, User Experience

The Monopoly Hotline

51% of Monopoly games result in an argument, according to a Hasbro survey of roughly 2,000 players. You have the same odds of having an argument with a friend of family member over Boardwalk and thimbles, as you do at calling a coin flip. In order to help smooth things over during the holidays, Hasbro UK and Ireland has launched a Monopoly help-line, which you can read about here.

While a noble gesture, my question is “why?” Does it address the problem at the root of the heated arguments? Does it add unique value that the players can’t achieve on their own? Their survey also collected the top ten reasons for Monopoly-related madness. I’ve added a column to their results to sort responses into categories.

Stated Problem Category
1. People making up rules Rules and mechanics
2. Unsportsmanlike conduct of winners The unspoken code
3. People buying un-needed property you want The unspoken code
4. People taking too long on their turn The unspoken code
5. Bank heists Cheating
6. Deliberate miscounting when moving Cheating
7. Who plays banker Rules and mechanics
8. Property auction process Rules and mechanics
9. Choice over tokens Rules and mechanics
10. Rules of “Free Parking” Rules and mechanics

Now some of these categories, Hasbro would have a hard time fixing. Cheating is already against the rules and has more to do with inter-player trust and false accusations from sore losers. The unspoken code feels like baseball, where you have to tip your hat when a pitch plunks a batter, not get too excited about a home run, or slide too hard.

But Rules and mechanics, this should be in a board game’s wheelhouse. Let’s examine Hasbro’s solution. You are having an argument and you call the hotline to say you are having a problem. On the other end of the phone is a person with the same rule book you have, and they will read the rules back to you. Tell me this doesn’t sound maddening. If it can be solved with someone reading the rulebook, a player already has the tools in hand to solve it.

This feels like a case where player empathy has only hit the shallow end of the solution pool. With 50% of the top ten resulting from Rules and mechanics (or lack thereof), we can dig a little deeper and create unique solutions beyond the rulebook.

PROBLEM: Rules of “Free Parking”

This results from generations of House Rules that disagree with the rulebook. One idea would be to write out the House Rules as amendments to the existing rules. Also, this would be one main point of a “Quick Play Rule Blitz”. After years of playing the same game, we all play the game on our memories of the rules. Let’s have a fast and furious refresher that hits the three to five most contentious points.

PROBLEM: Choice over tokens

Look, we all have our favorite. And sometimes, many people share the same favorite. This can be quickly solved with any number of minigames: draw straws, guess a number, draw a card. How about a token draft? Start with the youngest and draft up. Or the person who played the game the most recent. Lots of options here if we step beyond the “free-for-all” lack of structure.

PROBLEM: Property auction process

See “Rules for Free Parking” solutions above. There are rules, people use their own rules, agreements need to be made.

PROBLEM: Who plays banker

The Oregon Trail Card Game has a great solution for this. The youngest player is the shopkeep until someone dies, then they are the shopkeep. Monopoly could institute a similar selection process. However, the bank seems to be a constant point of cheating accusations as well. So let’s not have one person be the banker. Let the banker responsibility move. The player with the least amount of properties could be the banker. You catch up, then the responsibility shifts. If you’re cheating, you can only cheat so much before someone else gets a chance.

PROBLEM: People making up rules

This also feels like years of House Rules from different houses combined with faulty memories. Again, I think the “Quick Play Rule Blitz” at the beginning of a game gets everyone on the same page. There is also a chance for people to submit a House Rule, an alternate rule, that the rest of the players can vote on. Perhaps an extended part of the game token draft.

The next step is to try some of these solutions. They could smooth out the pain points, they could make them all worse. We won’t know until we try. The best part is they’re all actionable with only minimal planning. In fact, we’ll try these on our next playthrough of Monopoly.

Go forth and be awesome, and if you pass Go, collect 200 imaginary dollars.

Empathy, Innovation, Understanding the Customer

Listening for Hidden Solutions

positivedevianceEvery cloud has its silver lining. At least that’s what were told, usually when things go bad. There has to be a nugget of hope somewhere. I can only imagine that thought ran through Jerry Sternin’s mind when he visited Vietnam in 1990. As part of Save the Children, Sternin was there to help the malnourished.

You see, at the time in Vietnam, nearly 65% of children under the age of 5 were malnourished. Water quality and poverty were known problems, but not something Sternin could fix. And he only had limited time before his visa expired. Not exactly fertile grounds for silver linings.

Picture a stream in the woods; twisting, turning and babbling. Until a stray boulder blocks the flow. In innovation, we commonly see user experience flows that abruptly halt due to pain points. As humans on Earth, we experience them first hand. As innovators, we are quick to seek empathy and design new solutions.

But focusing on only the pain points causes two problems.

The first is that you miss the hidden problems. During World War II, The Army Air Force asked Abraham Wald to figure out where to put more armor on their bombers, in order to survive more flights. They showed Wald, part of the Statistical Research Group, where bullet holes grouped on various parts of planes that returned home. Wald instructed them to place more armor where the bullet holes weren’t. You see, planes with holes in those areas, don’t make it back to be analyzed. This was the hidden problem.

The second is that you miss hidden solutions. The woodland stream, without your interference, may find its own solution to the rocky intruder. It may divert its flow, pool around, or erode away until it can burrow through. This is where Jerry Sternin comes back in.

positivedeviance

He didn’t impact nutrition for the children in Vietnam by instituting changes. He looked for positive deviance. He was searching for outliers who had access to the same resources as the 65%, but somehow their children were healthy. And sure enough, he found them. They were making small adjustments to the diet, very simple adjustments. We’d call them lifehacks and they’d get on all kinds of top ten lists on social media. But Sternin did not have the power of Buzzfeed or Facebook. Instead he had the families with the positive deviance hold cooking classes with the other families. Doers impacting doers.

Next time you are digging in to gain empathy as part of your Design Thinking framework, or examining pain points and jobs to be done as part of your Value Proposition Design, be on the lookout for that positive deviance. Include questions into your user interviews in search of outliers of outrageous fortune. Your designed solution has much to learn by the handcrafted workaround by the user. If they solved it without you, you need to give them a reason to solve it with you.

Empathy, Innovation

CAN versus SHOULD

lawnmowerCAN you make coleslaw with a gasoline-powered lawnmower? Of course you CAN. But SHOULD you?

This post is not about being afraid to do risky things or to break expectations. It’s about understanding who you are innovating for; your target audience.

lawnmowerIf I am inventing a new way to make coleslaw, I’m not going to sell you a lawnmower… because it doesn’t mesh with your jobs to be done. The “coleslaw crowd” most likely wants something that shreds cabbage in a snap, requiring minimal storage space, and clean up should be a breeze. The mower ticks one of the boxes, but it fails on the other two. It also introduces new pain points, such as monitoring gas levels and the eventual spray-back of finely shredded cabbage on your kitchen walls.

While it CAN do the job, it SHOULD not do the job.

We see this too often when a tool or solution exists, typically crafted for a different problem or audience. “Wow! This thing is neat. CAN I also use it for this?”

“Wow! This mower cuts through yard foliage fast. CAN I also use it in the kitchen?”

CAN should be an innovator’s stop word. When a customer says “CAN it also do this?”, you should dive deep into why they even want to solve that problem this way. Think to yourself “How SHOULD we design a solution to this problem?” Sample questions to respond (out loud) to a CAN include:

  1. What is it about Solution X, that interests you in solving Problem Y?
  2. Why is Problem Y a problem?
    1. How does it make you feel?
    2. Where are you when you encounter Problem Y?
  3. How do you currently solve Problem Y?
    1. What don’t you like about your solution?
    2. What do you like about your solution?
    3. What do you wish your solution also had?

We should be designing solutions that customers SHOULD be enjoying, not simply delivering solutions that CAN kind-of work. CANs are tempting because the customer is happy that a solution is at hand. But it is an imperfect fit and will ultimately fail. SHOULDs take longer because they require customer empathy, build-measure-learn loops, and hypothesis testing. But SHOULDs perform better than CANs in user experience and long term feasibility.

Be brave and courageous enough to steer your customer away from the siren call of the CAN.

Design the SHOULD.

Being Awesome, Brainstorming, Ideation, Innovation, Systems

Divergence, Convergence, and Roses

I’m going to show you an image and tell you a story, and you will believe it. You’ll believe not because I told you to believe it, but because you want to believe it is true.

The Story

plant cementThis is a place where mankind has sanitized, homogenized, and developed using a rigid and typically unforgiving material; concrete. A downfall of concrete’s hard-line take on the world is that sometimes cracks form. Cracks that let the organic spurt through. Dirt and rain make their way down, plants make their way up, and we’re left with this analogy. Creative ideas can grow in restrictive environments.

And it is true. I’ve even written about it here. But there is caution to the tale.

The Balancing Act

Just because creativity can grow like a plant in concrete doesn’t mean we don’t have to nurture it. You can’t go laying concrete everywhere in your innovation and expect the good stuff to always break through.

There is a time to let things diverge and a time to let things converge.

rosebush
Your brainroses can growses, you knowses.

Imagine creat be thought is like a rosebush. You nurture it and let it grow; branches twisting and turning in their own way. Some are full of thorns, while others yield the most beautiful and fragrant blossoms. You, as the gardner, have your choice of the best idea roses for your bouquet.

Now imagine that when the rosebush was very small, you had placed a funnel on top. Everything that the rosebush wants to do, must be forced up and out a narrow opening. It’s like the Highlander but for plants; in the end there can be only one blossom. The funnel converges too soon. The only divergence happens just above the root, but it’s not enough to allow a variety of blossoms because they’re all now competing to get out of the funnel. When you go to trim, you don’t get a choice. You get the one idea-bloom that managed to make it out of the funnel, and you’ll never know if it was the best you could have produced.

The Summary

Constraints and restrictions are still valid. We put up fences because we don’t want ourroses rosebush growing into the neighbor’s yard. These restrictions come from your users (it needs to be mobile, it has to do [task] faster, etc). However if we don’t let solutions diverge from the root of the problem, we wont have a chance to converge them into the best bouquet of products possible.

Wouldn’t you rather have your choice and trim some back than stake it all in one bloom?

The Challenge

How might you encourage the timing of divergence and convergence in your life?