Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

asking powerful questions

asking powerful questions

Everything we know in the world has emerged through people’s curiosity. In a world where any answer seems to be a Google search away, we are losing the capacity to be curious and ask questions. In the realm of big analytics, where virtually any cause and effect can be identified, the biggest constraint is the ability to pose the right question. In life generally, and in the work place particularly, we seem to pay more attention to problem solving and analysis. We tend to have a short term focus – and the pace of life tends to stifle reflective conversations.

Going a step further, if we can lift from just asking questions to asking powerful questions, we invite curiosity and possibility, which can generate energy and forward momentum. To achieve this, the settings are as important as the questions. Vogt, Brown and Isaacs, in their important paper, “the art of powerful questions” make the observation that “authentic conversation is less likely to occur in a climate of fear, mistrust and hierarchical control”.

For many leaders, it can be a stretch to encourage diverse views, explore assumptions, suspend judgement and look for connections of ideas. If they can climb this mountain and be prepared to embrace the possibilities that may flow from the conversations, amazing transformation can take place.

Mark Strom, a colleague of mine in the 20I20 exchange leadership group, presented a brilliant TED talk on asking grounded questions. If you’re genuinely interested in this topic, I suggest you allocate 16 minutes of your life to watching the You Tube clip. Mark contends that while grounded questions generate stories and conversations from which change can occur and people can shine, many things work against this happening……such as preoccupation with spreadsheets, procedures and  strategy documents. Mark shares some powerful examples of the difference between abstract and grounded questions in his talk. He explains that a grounded question often comes from the side rather than front on.

Mark makes the point that logic works well on what cannot change, grounded questions work well on what can change. Questions like “what’s wrong?” and “how do we fix it?” tend to lead to focus on problems, whereas questions like, “why did you become a teacher?” take the shackles off, liberating people to generate stories that often lead to special insights.

Vogt and Strom both give guidance about how to ask grounded questions – there are certain rules about construction, scope and assumptions (such as the power of “why” above “which” and “who”), but both come back to the most important success factor – “stand back and look at the people who you are questioning and admire them”. Grounded and powerful questions are natural and not contrived. They come from empathy and a genuine desire to want to learn the answer. In a trusting environment, the art of powerful questioning can uncover, for people and organisations, a world of possibility and deep change.

Leaders with the courage and mindsets to undertake innovation at the enterprise level, are likely to also have the capacity to incorporate a culture of grounded questioning. These will be the leaders who give as much attention to developing powerful questions as they do to problem solving – and who steer strategy evolution that engages multiple voices and perspectives in networks of conversations. Such leaders are creating the conditions that will help to future proof their organisations.

innovation at the enterprise level

innovation at the enterprise level

An innovation is something original, new, and important that breaks into a market or society. Innovation is generally considered a process that brings together better outcomes from novel ideas to make an impact on. It is not invention, which is about the idea itself; nor is it improvement, which is doing the same thing better.

Innovation is essentially a learning process. Within organisations, it demands an understanding of why we do what we do, as a starting point to looking at things differently.

Why innovate?

Novel ideas from innovation have been the hallmark of the progress of mankind for centuries. Today, in a world characterised by a collapse in timeframes and rapid reconfigurations of business models, enterprises face a harsh ultimatum – innovate or die. The factors which cause business death are almost certainly not the ones that are being currently focused on, but they can be identified by a systematic innovation process.

Companies employing effective innovation practice drive six times more revenue from new products than companies which don’t. Apart from the differentiation benefits, competitive advantage and profits from new products, innovation reinforces brand, fosters continuous improvement and future proofs an enterprise. Innovative companies also typically attract and retain better people.

How to innovate?

Effective innovation requires leaders to create the right climate and for innovation processes to become embedded in every aspect of the organisation. It requires an innovation mindset within a culture that nurtures, guides and supports innovative thinking and practices. In fact innovation potential can only be sustained if the culture of the organisation allows it.

 While an innovation mindset fosters innovation throughout an enterprise, the best case studies of systematic innovation seem to involve fully involved and endorsed innovation teams from all levels of an organisation, incorporating inputs from customers, suppliers and external experts. Success comes from the ability to deal with the uncertainty of the future and not from an orientation through pre-established objectives or organised plans.

There are no silver bullets here, but success is most likely from a process which inspires vision, creates the right environment, stimulates ideas and then tests the ideas before implementation. Success is when we take those ideas from possibility to probability.

Handbrakes on innovation

Most of the constraints come from leaders who don’t understand innovation processes or who just pay lip service to it. Not only can leaders squash innovation but they can be overconfident in their ability to nurture it. Development Dimensions International measured, in 500 companies, how successful leaders fare at promoting innovation in four major areas: inspiring curiosity, challenging current perspectives, creating freedom and driving discipline;  and found a gap of 35% between leaders and employees perceptions of what was happening. So despite what managers think, many of their employees don’t believe that their leaders actually want to challenge the status quo or hear new ideas, less still champion these ideas to senior management. Sound familiar?

Nilofer Merchant compares many innovation efforts to an “air sandwich” – that is, the top tells the bottom what to do and all the stuff in the middle – the debates, trade-offs and necessary discussions – is missing. This air sandwich is the source of most strategic failure.  The change from a closed exclusive concept of who can participate, to an open and inclusive approach is essential for effective innovation.

Traditional methods of assessing financial viability are also one of the biggest barriers to innovation. It is only by having different KPIs that organizations can understand the different elements of risk and reward in innovation and how they relate to investment levels and financial viability. There needs to be a commitment to the long term view, which is mostly not the focus of standard metrics.

Further material

If you want to dig deeper, Scott Berkun suggests five great books on the subject. There is also a good EY report and a link to an overview of disruptive innovation below:

  • “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” by Peter Drucker
  • “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko
  • “Dear Theo” by Vincent van Gogh
  • “They all Laughed” by Ira Flatow
  • “Brain Rules” by John Medina
  • Innovating for Growth” EY report
  • The explainer on disruptive innovation HBR

                                                     “the power of imagination makes us infinite” John Muir

pain or gain from structural change?

pain or gain from structural change?

Fanned by the hurricane that is the digital world, creeping globalisation and undeniable climate change, mature economies are undergoing huge structural change. Christopher Rollyson argues that the major driver of change is actually people placing greater value on consumer experience.  They demand better choice, access, convenience and quality at a time when consumer power has never been stronger.

The pace of change is certainly accelerating, as is the noise from many affected by job losses in industries like manufacturing, retail and traditional media. There are plenty of ostriches playing the blame game – “It’s the carbon tax!” (even before its introduction) or, “it’s Fair Work Australia” or “it’s the exchange rate”. Conditioned by a legacy of handouts and bailouts, the complaints are also generally accompanied by calls for the government “to do something”.

Fortunately, there are also business leaders who see the change towards a knowledge economy as an opportunity rather than a problem. Peter Roberts’ recent piece in The Australian Financial Review highlights how enlightened companies are finding the way to adapt and benefit. He cites companies like GE, which has identified $30 billion of near term opportunities in Australia in areas like LNG and wind power. We don’t all have the deep pockets of GE, but there are other impressive examples of adaption to a changing world, such as the gradual transition of LJ Hooker from property developer to sustainability manager. My own experience suggests organisations that embrace environmental and sustainability challenges, tend to drive costs down and foster innovation more rapidly than those that choose to treat them as an imposition.

The knowledge economy isn’t the exclusive domain of high tech and big companies. In reality, the biggest changes will come from the application of innovation and knowledge in the low to medium technology sectors, which form the bulk of the economy. These sectors include food processing, transport, the hospitality industry, and service industries in general. They provide the possibility for intelligent customer-focused business solutions that will attract consumers like magnets.

Julian Cribb has written a compelling opinion piece called Australia in 2050. He paints a picture of the biggest economic driver being knowledge (including technology and advice) and thebiggest export sector climate adaptation, where we use our own natural climate volatility experience as an intellectual springboard for creating new industries. Opportunities will span food production, water management, construction of homes and workplaces, urban design and tropical medicine.

What can governments do? The most relevant policy responses are likely to be around supporting financial pressures borne by innovative firms, and re-focusing the role of Australia’s knowledge infrastructure, particularly universities and scientific institutions. There will also need to be a much greater commitment to R&D, in the way that China has committed to spend an incredible 2.2% of GDP annually ($320 billion) on R&D in the latest five year plan. Such responses are required to diminish the debilitating brain drain from Australia to places like Silicon Valley. We need to see the level of debate about our rapidly changing economy, migrate from whingeing and blame, to insight and possibility.

image by jason hoover