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From my earliest memories as a child I can remember playing with Legos. When I was very small it was the large Legos where I built tall towers out of the brightly colored blocks until they fell down. As I got older, the Legos got smaller and I can remember building more complicated structures for my Star Wars action figures to have epic battles of good versus evil.


I’m currently reading the book InsightOut by Tina Seelig and she points out that in the 1970s legos came without instructions for specific objects but were designed for children to be led by their imagination. In fact in 1974, the following letter was shipped in each box of Legos:


To Parents:


The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship. A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.


Now Lego offers pre-packaged boxes of specific designs developed by Lego engineers. This is great for kids to learn how to follow instructions and build a fantastic version of the Death Star or a Volkswagen T1 Camper Van, but it also inhibits kids from exploring the possibilities and using their imagination.


Having specific goals and searching for the “right answer” leads to a fixed mindset with limited possibilities. As Tina states in her book, “With a limited imagination, we’re doomed to incremental thinking, doing the same thing as everyone else, with limited variation. I have told my college students for years now, “If you want the same results as everyone else, do what everyone else does, if you want different results you have to do things differently.”


In recent years, I have heard Legos used as an analogy for developing flexible frameworks in software development. Many enterprise companies have the desire to develop innovative products. Often, they have established risk adverse cultures and rigid guidelines. Because of this, companies ultimately wind up with products that have a backlog of client requested features that provide only incremental value to users and the market place.


To truly be innovative, companies should allow teams to throw the Legos in a big bin and have fun coming up with cool stuff. Sure most of the stuff might not work out, but you never know when one of the products might just be the next billion dollar idea.


Assumptions of Innovation

Posted by Schuhbox Mar 26, 2017


                                                        © Walt Disney Studios



Innovation is Magic…Right?


In the short animated film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey Mouse assumed the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice. The introduction to the film told the story of an apprentice who, being ambitious and bright, decided he would start practicing the Sorcerer’s best magic formulas before learning how to control them.


One day the sorcerer asked his apprentice to carry water to fill a cauldron. The apprentice had a brilliant idea to use the sorcerer’s magic to bring a broom to life to carry the water for him. At first, everything worked out great, however the apprentice forgot the spell that would stop the broom from carrying the water. He soon discovered that he had started something he couldn’t predict and things quickly got out of control.


It seems many companies today think that innovation is magic. To be honest when companies use emerging technologies correctly in their product development, the results can seem magical. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, some companies believe that if they just use the magic of innovation to create the next generation of products it will solve all of their problems. However, as the apprentice discovered if you don’t have a good understanding of innovation things can quickly get out of control. Before a company jumps feet first into innovation, the organization should be aware of the assumptions about innovation and drawbacks.  For example, according to Doblin, research shows that less than 4 percent of innovation projects succeed. Why are the failure rates so high?


96 % of Innovation Projects Fail


With a failure rate of 96 percent it should be apparent that very few organizations know how to make the process of innovation a reliable and repeatable practice. “More often than not, companies that stumble in their conquest of innovation have failed to adopt practices that encourage collaborative ideation and development,” according to an article by Deloitte University Press entitled “How to Innovate the Silicon Valley Way”  I believe one of the key reasons companies fail has to do with their assumptions of innovation.


The 4 Assumptions of Innovation


There are a lot of assumptions that people have surrounding innovation but for this article I would like to discuss four basic assumptions put forth by Vijay Kumar in his book 101 Design Methods:


  1. Innovation as it is currently practiced is good enough.
  2. Innovation is for executives.
  3. Innovation is for practitioners.
  4. “Innovation Planning” is an oxymoron.


Innovation as It is Currently Practiced is Good Enough


Kumar suggests that, innovation as it is currently practiced is good enough, is a common assumption and the reality of the situation is that, “current innovation practices don’t reliably deliver breakthroughs.” I believe this has to do with the way companies approach the product development process. More often than not our current processes are designed to provide incremental features to existing products. Those processes break down when companies attempt to explore innovative solutions to undefined needs in rapidly changing marketplaces. Due to the ambiguous nature of opportunities in emerging marketplaces; existing tools need to be evaluated based on the need that is trying to be fulfilled. In short, if the only tool you have in your tool belt is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


Innovation is for Executives


Another assumption is that innovation is for executives. This assumption relates to the commonly held belief that executives are primarily responsible for the strategy and direction a company takes therefore they must own innovation initiatives as well. In truth, I have found it is the people doing the day-to-day work that often develop innovative ideas with the products they are developing. However, as Kumar states, “they need structures and processes to help them plan and define innovation.” When a team has made the decision to move forward on an innovative initiative, it must be defined with a well thought out plan on how to bring the product to the market place.


Innovation is for Practitioners


While the seed of innovative ideas often resides with the marketers, designers, researchers and engineers that develop the products for a company; to be successful practitioners must work with executives. According to Kumar, “The designers and technologist developing new offerings must not only know how to innovate on a tactical level, they must also comprehend the strategic objectives and wider implications of their work.” For a product to be truly innovative in an emerging marketplace, practitioners and executives must both have an understanding of the strategic and tactical business decisions. They must work together to develop a plan.


“Innovation Planning” is an Oxymoron


Product development often involves documents detailing the business requirements, specifications and objectives outlining the scope, measures and criteria of success. The commonly held belief that innovative products are produced purely out of “out-of-box thinking” which leads to the final assumption of “innovation planning” is an oxymoron. Very few companies can afford to invest large amounts of time and money without a measure of control. For companies to be innovative, they must develop new and structured approaches.


Innovation isn’t magic, it’s a discipline. Asking a product team to be innovative without having the proper tools and processes in place will more than likely result in failure. In the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey Mouse was able to get the broom started to carry water but didn’t have a plan in place for the broom to stop. When the broom filled the cauldron to capacity and it began to overflow, the apprentice thought he could stop the broom by chopping the broom into pieces. His effort failed and he only created more instances of the broom which then proceeded to fill the cauldron further escalating the problem.


The apprentice was saved only through the intervention of the Sorcerer. The lesson learned is that before you move forward on an innovative initiative have a plan or you may find yourself in the position of having to hire an expensive expert to clean up the mess. As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” 




My wife went to visit a friend this past weekend and took the kids so I could work all weekend. Yesterday evening after a day of adventures the kids decided to play a game called Bean Boozled. I haven’t played the game myself, but my understanding is that part of the game involves testing fate and your taste buds by eating mystery jelly beans of various colors.


Each color jelly bean can have a good flavor or can have a very foul tasting flavor. Pick a blue jelly bean and you may get Toothpaste or Berry Blue. Pick a green jelly bean and you might get Lawn Clippings or Lime. The other foul tasting options include Stinky Socks, Rotten Egg, Barf, Canned Dog Food, Booger, Mold Cheese, Baby Wipes and Skunk Spray.


At the end of the game my son decided he was going put a handful of the mystery jelly beans in his mouth at one time. My wife’s friend recorded the event. At first he chewed and was okay, until suddenly he lurched violently forward and covered his mouth. He tried to recover but then lurched forward again and was on his knees then was lying on the rug. My wife asked if he was okay. He got up on his knees, grabbed a shallow green bowl and with a quick reflexive lurch forward spit the contents of his mouth out into the bowl.


After watching the video later that evening I asked my son on the phone, “Why on earth did you do that?”


He replied, “I wanted to be brave.”


Many companies today are stating that they want to be more innovative and creative. But to do so companies must realize that they are going to have to change the way they have to been doing things. To change the culture of a company is not an easy or quick process and to attempt to do so you have to be brave.

The desire for companies to be more innovative and creative is a response to the rapidly changing economic and technological world we live in. Most people would agree that change is inevitable, yet many companies today are resistant to risk and avoid changing their process or culture. There is a definition of insanity that states, “Insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.”


The culture of the company and it’s willingness to experiment and accept risk and failure as a part of the process will determine how innovative or creative the products they produce are. Culture is also a huge factor in the number of ideas that are presented.


Carol Dweck in her book Mindset talks about the difference of Fixed versus Growth mindsets. Fixed mindsets are ones in which individuals have very focused and rigid attitudes while holding the belief that qualities like intelligence or talent are fixed. These subject matter experts see a defined set of accepted and “approved” best practices.  People with fixed mindsets often reject ideas or opinions of others that do not fall within the set of “approved” knowledge and methods. This perfectionist mindset establishes behaviors that are limited to their area of expertise. These individuals will often not try skills or practice techniques in which they do not get immediate positive results.


Growth mindset individuals are open to new ideas and willing to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone to try new things. This mindset in trying new things, takes into account that it takes practice and time to get good at a skill. The growth mindset allows for failure.


It has been said that many successful people view failure merely as results and feedback to get them back on track towards success. Mastery they understand comes from practice, practice, practice. In Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers he states that it takes 10,000 hours of disciplined practice to master a skill.  Although this idea has been accepted by a number of industry leaders as a valid benchmark many corporate cultures do not allow for failure or the time necessary to achieve truly innovative outcomes.


Failure is often a necessary part of the process for truly innovative and creative products. There are a number of case studies that show that the many of the products that have changed the world were only produced after a series of failures and setbacks.


Thomas Edison was an inventor that had 1093 U.S. patents and is widely known for the invention of the first commercial light bulb in 1879. The development of the light bulb had thousands of failed attempts before he developed the prototype that used a carbonized bamboo filament and was the basis for the light bulb that we know today.


“Innovation is not a light bulb moment of genius,” according to the Luma Institute in their book Innovating for People. “It calls for deep understanding and rigorous discernment. It requires critical thinking and problem framing. You need to identify patterns, determine priorities, and translate your research into actionable insights.” In other words, you need to understand the problem you are trying to solve, develop a plan, learn from your mistakes, and then take action on what you have learned until you succeed.


The Wright brothers had a dream of flight and risked their lives in the development of the first powered airplane. They had many failed attempts before their first successful flight on December 17, 1903 in which they travelled 852 feet in 59 seconds. The Wright brothers continued to make revisions to their airplanes. It was not until 1909 that they were able to develop an airplane that met the military’s standards of a two-seater airplane that could fly for an hour at an average speed of 40 miles per hour and land safely.


The Wright brothers continued to work hard and improve on their ideas after their first successful flight. Innovation “requires a commitment to successive improvement through frequent iteration,” according to the good folks at Luma Institute. Failure is part of the iterative process of design. It was true in the development of the airplane and it will be true in the development of the products of the future.


Apple is known to be a leader in the development of the products of tomorrow. As one of the most successful innovative and creative companies of today; it’s products have literally changed the way people communicate and do business. The iPhone opened up entire industries and provided an opportunity for countless entrepreneurs to make money with games and apps. Apple has a long track record of success, yet it’s latest release of the iPhone 7 has some consumers scratching their head.


The new iPhone 7 does not have the standard audio jack. It still does allow users to plug in wired headphones that come with the phone though the Lighting connector port or use an adapter if you have your headphones. It’s new wireless AirPods look strange, need to be charged and at a $159.00 price tag are pretty expensive for an accessory that could be lost easily. Time will tell if these changes to the iPhone will be a hit or a miss. What do you think?


I had a conversation with one of my fellow adjunct professors Karen Gogerty about what my son did after the game of Bean Boozled and discussed his reason of wanting to be brave. She said, “Well there is a very thin line between brave and stupid.” I think in most company cultures if you take a risk and are successful you may be perceived as brave and even a genius. However if you fail, you may be seen as stupid or crazy. Was Edison stupid to continue the development of the light bulb after thousands of failures? Where the Wright brothers crazy to risk their lives? How different would the world be today without these inventions?


Steve Jobs quoted Rob Siltanen when he said, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”


Innovation, just like in the game of Bean Boozled requires that you pick and taste the jelly bean of your choice. Sometimes the outcome is the sweet taste of success. More often than not, you may be left with the foul taste of failure. This can prevent you from even wanting to try again. Yet there are numerous examples that show us success only occurs after a series of failures. It is only the craziest and/or bravest of people or companies that would be willing to be innovative enough to try a handful of mystery jelly beans at the same time.