Managing Innovation

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On the first of February, I accepted a new assignment managing an IBM innovation team – WebAhead. This new opportunity came as part of a reorganization where the Technology Adoption Program (TAP) and WebAhead came under the same manager. My previous work, conceiving and co-founding TAP, is still with me and has become invaluable in understanding the challenges of inventing and innovating and having those outcomes impact the company broadly. Managing technology adoption or as some like to refer to it as technology diffusion is a key part of the mix – both are part of managing innovation, but a smaller part. In my case, I am managing the software development side of an innovation team – a group of developers that sit alongside systems administrators on a raised floor lab with an impressive amount of infrastructure and connectivity. What we work on, how we work on it, which people we collaborate with and when & how we deliver a given technology all determines the gait of innovation and our ability to transform the company – not just through new technology, but through leadership and cultural change. The creative outlook for this team is critical in its evolutionary output and certainly fundamental to its ability to invent completely new systems. Both the managing and creation of innovation is art.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it - Alan KayAs part of my drink from the information fire hose, I reviewed an article by Lars Erik Holmquist, “Inventing the future.” He presents the notion of predicting the future by inventing it (Alan Kay) and that one way might be to use user-driven innovation, where unlikely (extreme) users are engaged with new technology. (e.g. Find a group of fire fighters and show them a miniature wireless video camera intended for bank ATM monitoring) It is an interesting idea, a brainstorming technique that focuses on a group of like minded people that might think differently about a given technology. The seductive part is that it is an outside perspective that is irrefutably valid, because while they are engaged around the technology they are users of their ideas. Now, of course, this gave me some interesting thoughts around how we might approach some of our resources as define what we work on and how we innovate.

One of the key aspects of the Technology Adoption Program is helping identify, understand and interact with early-adopters, the users of early work. They tend to be a engaged and vocal group, willing to contribute in exchange for access to the latest stuff. Early data analysis confirms our ability to herd cats (early-adopters) and I wonder, what we might find if we repeated Holmquist’s user-driven innovation technique with segments of our early adopter community? This raises the flags of all the usability professionals, “do you even really know what kind of people make up your community?” The answer is sort of, but yes, I agree, we would need to do a deep dive on this. The second thought was, could we build a process and set of measurements around this technique to help articulate the value this method brings? Could we end up being able to compare its relative value to other methods of focused invention and innovation and then correlate when which technique provides the best output?

On any given day the lab is buzzing with the team understanding what it is we are building and the architecture and development that paves the way to get there. I am a believer in the idea that managing innovation is largely an art and in that way excited by the notion that we might create, discover and integrate other “paintbrushes.” While the brush does not make the painter, it can inspire and participate the creation of the painting and the development of the painter.