Innovation Audit and Visit @ Delta Faucet Company

Next week, I will visit with executives, project managers, platform leaders, and employees at the Delta Faucet Company (Indianapolis, Indiana). I will be conducting an innovation audit, learning about innovation strategies employed by Delta Faucet, and making strategic recommendations on how to bolster the innovation quotient of the organization. Having just completed a book titled Intrapreneurship: Leveraging Ideas within the Organization, I am looking forward to using the models described in the book to study how ideas are generated, mobilized, advocated and screened for, experimented with, commercialized, diffused and implemented by the Delta Faucet Company.

What is Network Resiliency?

I hope to use this post to begin a discussion on this question. Specifically, how do we define network resiliency when examining large-scale public sector networks. These networks span multiple-levels from individuals to organizations and may even involve consortiums. Consider the case of the US intelligence community (USIC). The USIC involves both public sector organizations (e.g. CIA, NSA, FBI, etc) but also collaborates with intelligence agencies in other countries (e.g. MI6, BND) and even private organizations (Xe Services LLC). The USIC must ensure that its network is resilient. Its resiliency is dependent not only how well it plans for, and executes, responses to changes in its internal and external, but also how well its network (which consists of many organizations it does not have formal control, or even influence, over) fairs in times of crises.

Today, I was examining the literature in telecommunication networks for concepts that we could draw on. The engineering literature has a myriad of concepts that we could draw on to build a framework for organizational network resiliency. For example, consider the concept of load-balancing. Load balancing is essential to the design of robust electronic networks. While its primary purpose is to allow us to plan for efficient usage of resources, load balancing also helps with managing against overload on devices. To describe the concept without getting too technical, one might conceptualize load balancing as follows: incoming information requests to a network are distributed to the appropriate device within the network by a load-balancer. The load-balancer is responsible for routing the request to the best available device (different algorithms might be used for this, and we can have different criteria for determining the best device to route a request to). Load balancing can help us design failsafe mechanisms (for e.g., if one node is down then traffic is routed to a backup node).

Should we have load-balancing mechanisms for organizational networks? Absolutely! I actually think that organizational networks do have implicit load-balancers. Some view these as gatekeepers? Gatekeepers play a vital role in determining how information moves within networks. Do you know of any organizations that manage their gatekeepers mindfully? If so, how do they do it? Also, are there other organizational concepts that are similar to load-balancing?

During my visit to the CIS @ LSE, I conducted an inquiry into how ecological models might help us understand robustness of networks, especially terrorist networks. One idea that I worked hard on is how do agents within a network adapt under conditions of duress. For example, assuming you took away a food source from an ecosystem, how might the various entities (species) adapt and create work-a-rounds? Would the nature of competition among the species change? Would the patterns that drive the reorganization of the ecosystem be predictable?

Towards Evidence-Driven Policy Design: Complex Adaptive Systems and Computational Modeling

Along with my doctoral student, Yuan Lin, I have co-authored an article that describes how we might move towards evidence-driven policy design. This article draws from the keynote that I have at the 2010 Computational Social Science Society Conference.

Efforts to design public policies for social systems tend to confront highly complex conditions which have a large number of potentially relevant factors to be considered and rapidly changing conditions where continuous adaptation delays or obscures the effect of policies. Given unresolvable uncertainty in policy outcomes, the optimal solution is difficult, if ever possible, to nail down. It is more reasonable to choose a solution that is robust to as many future scenarios that might ensue from the decision. Arriving at such a solution requires policy makers to actively explore and exploit rich information to support their decision making in a cost-efficient, yet rigorous manner. We name this new working style as evidence-driven policy design and outline the characteristics of favorable evidence. We then argue that computational modeling is a potential tool for implementing evidence-driven policy design. It helps the study and design of solutions by simulating various environments, interventions, and the processes in which certain outcomes emerge from the decisions of policy makers. It allows policy makers to observe both the intended and, equally important, unintended consequences of policy alternatives. It also facilitates communication and consensus-building among policy makers and diverse stakeholders.

Reflections from Slovenia: Designing Public-Private Innovation Partnerships

I returned from Slovenia about a week back. During my visit, I had the opportunity to give a keynote talk at the Center of Excellence for Biosensors, Instrumentation and Process Control as part of the Slovenska visokotehnološka MSP na prepihu inovativne in razvojno tehnološke prebojnosti: Slovenija x.0 ? conference. I met with several executives during the conference and enjoyed exchanging ideas on how to design collaborative innovation platforms that promote private-private and private-public innovation partnerships. A key issue that surfaced is how to design an appropriate governance structure so as to promote knowledge transfer and collaboration among industry players that have a lot to gain (and lose) from collaboration. Alignment of incentives, sharing of risks, and even design of prototype collaborative endeavors are all essential components to build collaborative innovation partnerships.

Innovation Reflections from Thailand

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Thailand. During my visit, I had an opportunity to give a talk at Bangkok University on Designing the Innovation Process. The talk was sponsored by the Institute for Knowledge and Innovation - South East Asia and Thailand's National Innovation Agency (NIA). During the event, I had a chance to dialogue with over 60 distinguished managers and executives who represented Thailand's leading private and public sector organizations. I had the opportunity to discuss research collaboration with the Thailand Productivity Institute, and Bangkok University, among other organizations. It was a real treat to meet University of Washington alumni in Thailand.

I was impressed by the breadth of knowledge management programs in various Thai organizations. In addition, I learnt how Thai organizations are tailoring standard knowledge management approaches to meet the cultural and economic realities of the country. Thailand is an up and coming Asian economy. While, still highly dependent on tourism, the Thai government, through agencies such as the NIA, are supporting the development of innovative and highly entrepreneurial organizations in areas such as green technologies, and biofuel, among others.

My host, Dr. Vincent M. Ribière, did a marvellous job organizing the event. I look forward to my return trip back to Thailand!

Keynote Presentation – Center of Excellence for Biosensors, Instrumentation and Process Control, Slovenia – Ten Rules of Leveraging Ideas for Innovation

On November 10th, I will give a keynote presentation for the annual conference hosted by the Center of Excellence for Biosensors, Instrumentation and Process Control (COBIK) at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. The conference is titled: Slovenska visokotehnološka MSP na prepihu inovativne in razvojno tehnološke prebojnosti: Slovenija x.0 ?

The Slovenian government has supported the development of Centers of Excellence. Each Center of Excellence focuses on creating efficient relationships between public and private research institutions, technology driven firms and their global market positioning. The Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana, is one of the partners in the Center of Excellence (COBIK) and is responsible for enabling the research and technology driven firms to gain business knowledge and helping them in the process to market their innovative products and solutions.

The program is available here [LINK]

Ten Rules of Leveraging Ideas for Innovation [LINK]

In this keynote address, I will discuss how leading organizations are building robust processes for leveraging ideas within their organization and across their networks. Ideas are critical ingredients for innovation. Designing robust innovation processes calls for great care in the handling of ideas. To this end, leading organizations are designing, and deploying, a portfolio of mechanisms to help their employees seek out, share, experiment with, commercialize, diffuse, and implement, ideas. I will highlight emerging technology solutions. In addition, I will outline how smart organizations are capturing knowledge about their innovation process and employing it for continuous refinement and renewal.

Overcommitted: Sam Houston gets a Nice Suggestion…The Story Continues

Thanks for all the comments and feedback on the story of Sam Houston. Taking a suggestion from a reader, I am extending the story…Let me know what you think

Sam returns from his meeting feeling frustrated. The company that he works for, PubIT, is being sued by a major competitor for intellectual property infractions and the product in question is one that was developed under Sam’s watch. Sam has just been assigned another ‘important’ task - do an internal audit to see where certain pieces of the code came from  (Damn, Open Source Gurus, he thinks to himself!)...he needs to figure out if there is any merit to the lawsuit. Sam summons his assistant to his office and asks, “Julie, do you need a caffeine fix?” From years of working together, Julie had learned to read Sam’s mood, no matter how well he tried to mask it.  She knew immediately that something was not right. “Sure, Boss. Do you want me to get you the usual?” Sam thinks for a minute, then gets up from his chair, “No, let’s walk down together.”

While standing in line waiting to order their drinks, Julie decides to break the silence. “Sam, I have worked with you for over five years, but I have never seen you so stressed. Maybe I can help? I know that I can take on more... just tell me what needs to be done!” Sam smiles and responds with a question, “How about a Venti, rather than your usual, Tall?”

With coffees in hand, they settle into the leather chairs of the coffee shop.  “That Venti is going to cost you Julie," Sam remarks in jest.  Then more seriously, he adds, “I need to know your secret. I keep giving you things to do but you remain calm and get all of them done as needed. How do you do this?” Julie pauses, looking down at the mug in her hands. It is her favorite secretary gift that Sam has given her over the years. It is a simple white cup decorated with the message ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Julie points to it, reminding Sam of what he had told her a few years before, “Sam, remember the long conversation we had at Finn MacCools (a neighborhood pub, or as everyone knew it - Sam’s Irish Office!), you gave me the history lesson about how the British Government’s Ministry of Information printed out posters with these words, Keep Calm and Carry On, to help its citizenry deal with the chaos of World War II.”

Sam nods his head. “I remember. A powerful message but much harder to put into practice!  What is your secret? How do you dodge all the bombs I send your way, so to speak?  I keep throwing so much your way!” Julie knows her boss is a ‘solutions guy' who likes to solve problems once he becomes aware of them. She suggests, “Sam, here is one technique that works well for me. I keep a list of the things you ask me to do. Next to each item, I answer the following three questions: 1) How important is it?  2) Who is the customer or ultimate stakeholder that I am going to impact with the task? and 3) What is the deadline for the task?  During our weekly meeting, I go over the items on the list, then listen to all the new things that you want done. Afterwards, I go back to my desk and reprioritize the list.  As needed, I get more information from you, including 1) I ask you what things I can drop from the list given the developments of the week, 2) If you need me to take on new tasks, I ask you to change the current deadlines for selected tasks so as to make time and energy available for me to work on the new assignments, and 3) Even though you do not like it, I keep reminding you of tasks that are vitally important (i.e. strategic) on my list that are my major priorities; when I do this, you feel reassured and actually begin to give me more items that can be cut out from my list.”

Processing this information, Sam remarks “So, you developed a system to keep your boss’s demands in check.” Julie giggles, “Sam, if I don't, who will?”  It's another good question.  Taking another sip of coffee, Sam makes a decision to try out Julie’s system. The two of them head back to Sam’s office. Sam proceeds to wipe off his whiteboard, then requests Julie to begin writing down his current tasks, noting for each 1) who the stakeholder he wants to impact is or who is responsible for the task, 2) what the deadline is and 3) the impact (strategic, tactical, or operational) to the organization and to Sam’s career. He pleads with Julie, “Remind me for the next few weeks-- before I take on another task, to reprioritize this list myself.  When people ask me to do something, remind me to walk them over to this whiteboard, just where we are now.  I need to ask them if they are willing to help me with one of the current tasks on my list while I take on something for them. Or, if the person has power to reprioritize my list, I need to ask him or her to grant me permission to drop a task or change a deadline.”

Sam's face looks far more relaxed as he gazes at the whiteboard and imagines how he will use it to manage his upcoming commitments and projects. Something about having the tasks organized boldly in black and white makes him feel mentally prepared to take on the challenges of the day. He gives Julie a thumbs-up and tells her, “Julie, the Venti upgrade was my best investment for the last month.  Thank you!”

P.S.  How successful do you think Sam will be in using this new system? Do you see any issues that Sam will face as he tries to make public his list of commitments? Will Sam be able to convince his stakeholders to reprioritize commitments as new developments and emergencies surface? 

Writing of a different style, fiction, or at least I hope so…Overcommitted

It is 8 AM and Sam Houston is on his way to his office in downtown Chicago. He drives from his house in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago, then catches a train into the city. During his roughly seventy-five minute train ride, he has learned to balance his laptop, notebook and pencil, his blackberry, and his triple shot frappuccino coffee. He begins his trip by reviewing his agenda for the day, thinking through his upcoming meetings, his to-do list, and the projects under his supervision.

For some reason, today Sam finally comes to the realization that he is overcommitted.  He thinks to himself, "I need to cut things off my lists!" (Good for you, Sam!) As Sam tries to think of solutions, he cannot resist the temptation of going through the mail that came in during the night. Alas, he sees that both Susan and Charlie have asked him for ‘small’ favors that would require him to be part of two different teams- one exploring strategic priorities for the organization, the other making a decision on which vendor the organization should choose for its new social media platform re-design. Sam knows that he cannot turn these opportunities down; they are both critical to his career, not to mention that he does owe both Susan and Charlie favors for their help on one of his past efforts. Sam tries to think how he might organize his tasks and prioritize his ‘big ticket’ items. As he works on his list, he hears the soundtrack of ‘We are Champions’ by Queen playing, and he rushes to silence his ringtone by answering his blackberry. His wife is calling to remind him that he has three social events on his calendar in the next two days. Reluctantly, Sam acknowledges that he had promised to attend two school events for his children and visit his in-laws for a birthday celebration. Becoming frustrated at his increasing commitments, Sam has now forgotten what he was doing before the phone call and he is also reminded that he is only two stops from Union Station. He begins to pack his stuff up, takes a moment to enjoy his now cold caffeine drink, and takes a quick glance at the headlines from the Chicago Tribune. The train makes its entry into Union Station and Sam walks briskly to the exit where he hails a cab to take him to his offices in the Merchandise Mart. As he takes the elevator up and heads into his office, he makes a mental promise to himself, "No more commitments today. No matter what, I have to say no!" Sitting in his comfy leather chair and taking a moment to enjoy the view of Lake Michigan from his office window, he is interrupted by his assistant who tells him about an emergency meeting that is being called by the CEO. Sam realizes that today may not be the right day to say no…

Can you connect with the above scenario! Unfortunately, (and yes, I do mean unfortunately) may of us can. As much as we try, we never seem to manage our ever increasing commitments. We over-commit and continuously extend ourselves. Many of us  can do this for seemingly good reasons. We want to seem helpful or we do not want to allow opportunities to slip us by.  Other times, we may have underestimated the resource and time investment that the various commitments would require of us. Commitments do come due, and troubles build as the timelines draw near. We get irritable and annoyed with ourselves and the tasks at hand. As a result, the quality of our work suffers, both in terms of the output that we deliver and the process that we employ to arrive at the output. In the final analysis, we, as individuals, suffer. Our quality of life is impacted.

If you have strategies, decision-tools, or process frameworks that you use to manage your commitments, both in terms of identifying how to decide what commitments to take on and how you manage your ongoing commitments, please share them with me... and with Sam!

P.S. My wonderful students of IMT 580 the last year brought me a fiction book. I enjoyed reading it. So, here is my first attempt at writing what I hope is fiction (based on reality, of course!)…Stay tuned for the entire book, if I ever manage to stay focused on my current commitments!

Optimizing Idea Generation for Innovation

I have spent the last few days meeting a number of executives from technology giants like Microsoft, to smaller, yet highly innovative firms, such as biomedical research institutes. During my meetings, I engaged in very interesting conversations, most of which centered around helping organizations design sustainable innovation programs. A key question that kept coming up is how organizations should get their employees to be more effective, and efficient, in generating ideas that can advance the business cause.

One challenge for organizations is directing their employees’ energy toward spaces that need ideas. Deciding whether the focus is domain-specific (perhaps limited to engineering, sales, or accounting), or cross-domain is a first step. Another option is identifying the future areas that an organization would like to enter. For example, if the organization is thinking of entering a foreign market, it should solicit ideas about entry strategies, clients to work with, and finding the markets that are ripe for investment. The ideal organization will update its focus areas on a regular basis as conditions in its internal and external environments change. Of A.G. Laughley’s leadership at Proctor & Gamble, Tim Brown comments “He seems to see his role as constantly reminding teams of what they should be focusing on, rather than telling them whether they've got the right idea or not.”[1]

In addition, the organization should appoint key personnel to govern the ideas being generated in each area. These individuals can serve the role of contact points for employees who would like to submit ideas. They can also champion the focus areas and develop specific guidelines on how to submit ideas, specify what kinds of ideas are needed, and determine how ideas will be evaluated when submitted. The contact personnel is also important in transferring ideas between domains.  An idea submitted to one focus area may be more suitable for another one. In addition, there might be opportunities that are submitted in one domain which should be pursued as cross-domain collaborations. For example, CEMEX, the highly innovative cement manufacturer, has an Innovation committee composed of three directors, three VP’s, and one outside consultant. The team is responsible for defining the broad themes for innovation and structure for the innovation process.  Often, the committee considers strategic areas that are outside of the core product; recent focus areas included “integrated construction solutions for affordable housing, ways to support regional development, and making it easier for customers to do business with CEMEX.”[2]

Once focus areas are defined, it is equally important to communicate them to employees and inform employees across the hierarchical levels and functional divisions that they may contribute to these focus areas. It should be clear to employees that the work they do on a daily basis is related to at least one of the focus areas. Some organizations erroneously think that their mission statements are the best guide to how employees should focus their idea-creating. But if you asked a sample of employees in your organization to repeat the mission statement, by my estimates, less than15% would be able to give you a half-baked recital. Most employees do not see the relevance of these glorified statements as they have not been translated into terms that matter to their daily work. One useful strategy that I have seen work is to build archetypes that resonate with employees of what an idea contribution might look like in each of the focus areas.

To learn more about how to design innovation programs at your organization, or to optimize your current innovation processes, please send me an email.


[1] Brown, T. (2009, October 24). Corner Office: He Prizes Questions More Than Answers. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from Interview by Adam Bryant of NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/business/25corner.html

[2] Sull, D. N., Ruelas-Gossi, A., & Escobari, M. (2004, January 26). What Developing-World Companies Teach Us About Innovation. Retrieved March 2010, 22, from HBS Working Knowledge: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3866.html