Towards a perfect combination

It seems that many companies are not being innovative enough when it comes to innovation
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The Independent Online

After years of being browbeaten by management gurus claiming that companies must "innovate or die", "escape their paradigms", or come up with "disruptive technologies", executives see innovation as a given. As Tom Kelley, author of the new book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, says, "Innovation is too easily accepted." Everybody is for it, but when it comes down to doing something about it they struggle.

This is partly because the concept is "too big, too amorphous", he says. His answer is to try to break it down into components. The idea is to get away from the notion of there being "some unified theory" of innovation. Rather, he is setting out some principles derived from watching various projects unfold at IDEO, the international design firm of which he is general manager.

At the heart of his approach is a concept made famous by IDEO, a firm that has worked with businesses ranging from the PDA maker Palm to Specialized Bicycles. This is the notion that innovation thrives by bringing together not just clever people, but different sorts of clever people. The firm claims that on some projects - such as designing easier-to-use controls for electronic devices - it makes as much progress through observing consumers going about their daily lives as by using the latest technology or brainstorming ideas.

"Observations can lead you to suddenly think of things," says Kelley, in praise of the role played at IDEO by anthropologists, or what the firm calls "human-factors" people.

It is a view shared by others. Jonathan Schwartz, chief executive of the computer company Sun Microsystems, wrote in the Financial Times earlier this month that recent analysis by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton had found that the amount a company spent on research and development had little effect on results. His conclusion was that it was "the process of managing the investment, not the expenditure alone," that made the difference. "You might have the most gifted technical minds on the planet," he added. "But it is the successful management of that talent that determines whether your innovation investments flow to the bottom line or go down the drain."

Innovation, stressed Schwartz, does not usually occur in isolation.

The principle is especially relevant to smaller companies, believes Kelley, who points out that, while IDEO's 500-odd people spread around the globe make it large in design terms, it is much smaller than most of its clients. Companies, particularly in the high-tech arena, like to say that they want to hire the smartest engineers. "But that is a hard game to win," he says, explaining that the largest companies often have close ties with the best universities to enable them to have the pick of the best students.

A different, more achievable, strategy might be for a company to say that it is going to have the best mix of people. "You can put a scientist with an anthropologist and a social scientist and stir the pot in a unique way. You can get to unique if you get the right mix," he says.

Part of the problem with innovation is that - partly possibly because of its association with science - it is too often seen as just a process. "Innovation is definitely not self-starting or self-perpetuating," he writes. "People make it happen through their imagination and perseverance."

Hence the title of his book - which attempts to add a human side to what is generally seen as scientific. Kelley does not suggest that the "ten faces" are comprehensive. Nor does he say that each one requires a different person; members of teams can adopt more than one persona and switch roles according to circumstance. They are a tool to be used to expand the repertory of businesses seeking to be innovative.

He divides the various faces, or personas, into three categories. First, there are the learning personas. This group comprises the Anthropologist, who brings new insights to the organisation through an understanding of how people "interact with products"; the Experimenter, who prototypes new ideas, learning by a process of "enlightened trial and error"; and the Cross-Pollinator, who explores other industries or cultures, then translates these findings to fit the needs of the enterprise.

The next group is the organising personas. These are the Hurdler, who knows that the path to innovation is strewn with obstacles and develops a knack for overcoming or outsmarting such problems; the Collaborator, who bring groups together and creates new combinations of people from different disciplines; and the Director, who "not only gathers together a talented crew, but also helps to launch their talents".

The final group is the building personas. The Experience Architect designs "compelling experiences that go beyond mere functionality to connect at a deeper level with customers' latent or expressed needs" - as when an ice-cream shop, say, makes a performance out of serving its desserts. The Set Designer creates a stage on which innovation team members can do their best work, "transforming physical environments into powerful tools to influence behaviour and attitude". The Caregiver delivers customer care "in a manner that goes beyond mere service".

Finally, the Storyteller "builds both internal morale and external awareness through compelling narratives that communicate a fundamental human value or reinforce a specific cultural trait". Starbucks, for instance, has corporate legends to support its brand.

Though some might be sceptical about some of these roles, Kelley insists that the approach works. He says that clients come to IDEO not just for help with a single innovation, but for a series and to tap into "the insights and energy of a talented team".

He is particularly keen that the personas help deal with the negativity that comes from those in just about every organisation who like to play Devil's Advocate. While not favouring a yes-man culture, he says that organisations that develop the personas have a chance to control the Devil's Advocate a little.

"So when somebody says, 'Let me play Devil's Advocate for a minute' and starts to smother a fragile new idea with negativity, somebody may play experimenter and suggest that the idea be quickly prototyped to see if it does nay good, or somebody else could act as a hurdler and pledge to get the funding needed to test the concept, and so on.

"The Devil's Advocate may never go away, but on a good day, the 10 personas can keep him in his place. Or tell him to go to Hell."