5 Keys to Unlocking Middle-Market Innovation at Middle Market Executive

MMExec-MediumRecently Primed Associates was featured over at Middle Market Executive. Here’s what we had to say about opportunities for innovation in this space:

When it seems that everyone is talking about innovation these days, you would think most firms are already riding the wave. However, most organizations have only begun to dip their toes into the water and are missing a full understanding of the broad range of ways in which they might innovate their enterprise. For most middle-market companies and even large enterprise firms, innovation is too often viewed only as a particular product suite, and that makes sense — when you consider the term “innovation” is closely tied to invention. Innovation has now come to be understood as offering so much more.

 Today, companies must break out of a product-only innovation mind-set. Furthermore, the focus for innovation need not be only physical. In fact, there are five key areas ripe for innovation in most organizations today.

For the full article go here.


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Recent Posts at Collaborative Innovation

The sponsors of the Collaborative Innovation site, Dassault Systèmes, held their Customer 3D Experience Forum in Orlando Florida recently and this year’s event offered a fantastic array of tools and solutions for the way in which 3D modeling can be used to prototype product and service experiences as well as the design and manufacture of those offerings. I was originally going to be spending some time at the event but another storm coming up the Eastern seaboard of the USA put a decided crimp in those plans and I decided to observe the activities from afar—ah, the wonders of modern technology. Needless-to-say, while it would have been better to be onsite, I managed to see some patterns and key ideas across the various presentations. Here are a couple of my posts in response:

The View from Afar – 3DS in FL viewed from NJ

Due to another unfortunate weather systemmaking a guest appearance on the East Coast of the USA this week I was unable to successfully get into and out of Orlando forDassault Systèmes3D Experience Forum. Which is a shame because it looks like the range of innovations shared that are using 3D visualization to drive their successful implementation would have been great to witness first-hand.

Already this morning Tesla has been sharing the “Oooo”-worthy falcon-wing doors of its newModel X cross over vehicle and how they neatly fit into the family garage, tested before production through the wonders of 3D visulaization. This continues Tesla’s run on transforming the auto industry by identifying and meeting a broad range of needs as well as producing beautiful vehicles, too. [See full post here.]

And here is another post from the same event…

Height. Light. And Movement – Improving the Retail Experience Virtually

Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away…My apologies; the recent purchase of Lucas Film by Disney has given me Star Wars nostalgia. I remember a time when stop motion photography and the destruction of meticulously crafted models were considered the pinnacle of movie special effects. It was also a time when I was working my may through university in retail. As I said, “many years ago”.

One of my fondest memories of working in retail was the folklore that was passed on from the store manager to the upcoming employees. The measures of performance were shared, such: Days of Supply, Turns, Stock to Sales Ratio, Sell Through Percentage and Gross Margin Return on Investment. Alongside these metrics we were also the recipients of instruction regarding sales and marketing addressing: Point of Sale Displays, End-caps, and Placement. But the phrase that stuck with me most in reference to merchandise presentation effectiveness was that it had to have, “height, light and movement”. [See full post here.]

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An idea stuck in your enterprise isn’t innovation—it’s useless

A good idea stuck in your enterprise is just a clever notion adding little value. As Shakespeare might have put it, it is “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” No matter how inventive it may seem, if it’s not directly addressing a specific need, and generating remarkable value, it is useless. The world doesn’t need more uselessness.

What good ideas need is social mobility. They need to be transferable, presentable, and accessible. Good ideas need to be backed up with subject-matter expertise. They need to directly address the questions that surround the ecosystem of an idea as it becomes an innovation. Good ideas need to be able to be clear about their gaps and deficiencies so that those people who might provide assistance can readily identify where and how they can provide effective support. Good ideas also need to be clear and cogent, so they can be better positioned by advocates across the organization; positioning the idea to those with the power and the networks to extend the impact of the innovation as it meets users’ needs.

Good ideas live and thrive when the people supporting them know how to navigate organizations: these people are flexible and resilient enough to build a collaborative coalition of partners, regardless of their own egos, who will help carry the idea forward as it grows into a true innovation and finds a useful place in the world. Most enterprises don’t know if they have these people because most don’t know that they need them. In the meantime, the output of the best and brightest might be shelved or trapped in a presentation on someone’s hard drive, never to see the light of day or have a chance of testing themselves in the only arena that matters, the marketplace.

Where have all the smarty-pants gone?
Sometimes it takes an expert to point out the obvious.
Scott Allen
Long the domain of subject-matter experts, invention has offered so much squandered promise. While invention is the end result of a spark of creativity, it’s innovation that takes that invention and brings it to the world in a way that generates value. Having the idea is a big deal, sure, but like parenting, it is not over and done with the moment a child is born. What follows are years of hard work. The inventor, long lauded as a mythic figure, is only valuable when they can get their idea into the hands of someone who can use it. Unless there is a way for an invention to be successfully tested and used to address a compelling need, its intrinsic value is negligible.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the folklore surrounding invention is that of the ivory tower syndrome— the notion that for greatest effect, an individual or a group of experts from a specific field of study should be closeted away to work in glorious isolation, only to be released upon the delivery of an earth-shaking innovation, is ludicrous. Why on earth we would think that an absence of collaboration would produce an optimal result is beyond me. Perhaps it is because some consider that collaboration denotes invention by committee? And we all know what they say about committees, especially when it comes to the value of their output. Consider the character Sir Humphrey Appleby, from the British TV show “Yes, Minister,” when asked what can be done about a particular situation.

…to that end, I recommend that we set up an interdepartmental committee with fairly broad terms of reference so that at the end of the day we’ll be in the position to think through the various implications and arrive at a decision based on long-term considerations rather than rush prematurely into precipitate and possibly ill-conceived action which might well have unforeseen repercussions.

In short, committees are where ideas (good or bad) go to die.

An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until eventually he knows everything about nothing.
Edwin Meese III

The challenge for subject-matter experts is how they can best “wire” themselves into the organization in which they exist. For a technology expert, connecting them to financing and accounting experts may help them see how they might afford prototyping at an earlier development stage, so that they might avoid late stage problems. A service-development expert might benefit from a connection to a marketing expert in order to understand how a client segment or market demographic is evolving over time, thereby increasing the chances of delivering on-target service innovation. The bottom line is that a subject-matter expert needs to supplement the depth of their experience through both access to other adjacent subject-matter expertise, and the generalists required to identify, and advocate for, those people who can best support of the designed solution.

Knowing where to turn is the next major hurdle in getting an idea through a company and out the door.

My kingdom for a broker!
A good friend is a connection to life—a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world.
Lois Wyse

Knowing where to turn for support and guidance is often an issue of great frustration for those who conceive of potential innovations. Often organizational life, with its politics and brinkmanship, offers little comfort for someone who knows they have a great idea in their hands but no clear path to get that idea through the organization and out the door for the best test of its value: customers. Instead, ideas lie abandoned after what may have been grueling and punishing campaigns for their novelty to be seen and heard. The person with the idea is left shell-shocked at the very least, and angry and hurt at best.

Why is it that good ideas die in organizations?

Quite often the good idea is never connected by its originator to the person or people with the resources to breathe life into it, or to those who might be able to assist in its genesis. The reasons are many, but a primary one is that inventors are often marginalized. Their behavior and passion for their subjects sometimes makes them seem out of touch with the rest of the organizational life and purpose around them. This results in isolation and their ideas being discounted.

To survive, ideas must be connected to the whole network of available resources across the enterprise. Rather than seeking to navigate the functional silos that exist in most organizations, valid structures designed to improve reliability and reduce waste in the systematic production of similar products and services, inventors seeking to turn their creations into innovations need different access. They can be better helped by being wired into the social network of the organization. The social network is the structure that supports the way cross-organization value is truly created. What they need are people to connect them to that social structure. Those people are brokers.

Communication–the human connection–is the key to personal and career success.
Paul J. Meyer

A broker in organizational life is someone who understands where the best people are to provide assistance and support, and who is willing to connect people across the organization. They often act as agents on behalf of people’s ideas. Some brokers end up in senior roles in organizations because of their willingness to help others. Many of them find their way into what are considered ancillary or supporting functions within organizations. Human resources, customer support, and marketing are some functional areas that are often home to brokers. The key attributes that make someone an effective broker are seen in the breadth of their organizational “connectedness” and their willingness to make new connections in assistance of others’ passions.

For most brokers in organizations, their motivators and drivers come in creating a robust web of relationships around themselves. They seek to validate their own credibility by building effective relationships between and among others across the enterprise. In seeking to link people who may provide assistance to each other or create value with each other, they see the fruits of their efforts creating a stronger organization.

But a smart idea connected to the correct additional resources may only get you so far. Another key trait is missing that would aid in freeing the idea and helping it become a reality. That role is filled by the advocate.

Salesperson? I’d be happy with a sales monkey
The weapon of the advocate is the sword of the soldier, not the dagger of the assassin.
Alexander Cockburn

Salespeople have a bad rap. When you think of a salesperson, what’s the first image that comes to mind? If it’s a polyester-clad, used-car salesman with a Cheshire Cat grin and an oily comb-over in your mind’s eye, I’m truly sorry. Let’s be perfectly clear: without effective salespeople, organizations die. No sales, no income, no business. Good night. Which doesn’t mean that all salespeople are good and right and useful, either. In fact, the general experience with salespeople out in the world tends to color our perspective on the whole pool. Yet salespeople provide an invaluable service, and not just between our enterprises and our customers. A critical team member in bringing our ideas to market faster is the salesperson, but in an organization, there is often little (save reputation) to accrue or squander. There is no actual transactional sale. Rather than terming them salespeople, let’s consider them advocates.

An advocate is one who believes in something and is willing to speak on its behalf. In the case of ideas stuck inside an organization, one of the few ways to gain support is for an advocate to take the message behind the idea to those people with the funds to support its further development and the power to promote it as an organization-owned initiative. Without an advocate, someone willing to address the perceived deficiencies of an idea in a way that doesn’t cripple its progress, an idea will continue to make little progress towards the marketplace.

The first duty of a wise advocate is to convince his opponents that he understands their arguments, and sympathizes with their just feelings.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The power of an advocate lies in their ability to draw others into the fold, to make them a part of a growing group of enthusiastic supporters if not raving fans. A true advocate knows how to present an idea in the best light possible. They understand that just as important as having a clear message to communicate is also knowing how to communicate that message in a manner tailored to fit the audience in front of them. They recognize that timing is critical and that sometimes receptivity also depends on tenacity, repetition, and resilience.

Where the subject matter expert may be the originator of an idea, it goes nowhere without the benefit and support of some “friends”: the broker who connects that idea to the social network in a manner that can unleash its potential, and the advocate capitalizes on that potential so that the idea can face the only tests that matter — the experiences of potential customers.

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Resource Re-Creation: think less is more and make more innovation from less

Recycling is not a new concept. As long as people have had “stuff,” they’ve been figuring out ways to re-use and re-purpose it. We visited that topic when we explored bricolage—and dipped into the idea of innovating with what you have. At the time we explored four concepts that help to support a “can-do” attitude when it comes to finding breakthrough uses for existing materials and concepts. This time we are going to dig a little deeper on the first concept—the power of having an intimate knowledge of resources. The reason for this exploration is that increasingly, the notion of “doing more with less” has been replaced with “make do with what you have.”

Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.
Teilhard de Chardin

As innovators I think we can reach beyond “making do,” can’t we? How might we push beyond our perceived limits? How might we use what we have to make things that are great?

Taking a different perspective
One of the simplest paths to take involves supporting your organization’s use of existing assets and leveraging them via technology. The application of technology to an existing product can transform it from functional tool to a necessary piece in a business model ecosystem. Consider the Velibe: the Velibe (a contraction of vélo libre or vélo liberté) is the bicycle-share program that was rolled out in Paris, France in 2007. It is a simple concept, offered at various places around the city: bicycles that might be shared among the people of the city, residents and visitors alike. These bicycles are available for rent by the hour or day.

Apart from the challenges involved with capacity management, and yes, the occasional “blue screen of death,” the Velibe program has created a service of value. At the intersection of a centuries-old transportation method and modern billing systems this bicycle share program enables a city to move. It helps reduce traffic for short distance errands, and it creates a ready and reasonable alternative to other forms of transportation. A simple innovation to an existing technology can transform a city.

Another bicycle company, Pi Mobility Systems, has begun to transform the way in which bicycles might serve a wider set of local and longer-distance transportation needs. Pi Mobility was struggling to realize prototypes of its electric bicycles, and the amount of time, effort, and money was exceeding the limits of their resources. It could not afford to build any more prototypes without having a product to sell to offset their costs. The whole enterprise was in a perilous state. Rather than seek additional funding they sought an alternative solution.

That solution was for Pi Mobility to strike a partnership with the AutoCAD software publisher Autodesk, through their sustainable design initiative. Where their previous six prototypes had been achieved at a very high cost due to their complex physical nature, Pi Mobility were now able to use $150,000 of Autodesk software for a nominal $50 fee. Using this, they were able to hold off a physical prototype until just before production, much in the same way that Boeing used the CATIA system (Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application) that it sourced from Dassault Systemes and IBM. In Pi Mobility’s case, they found that they could rapidly prototype their electric bicycle online in order to get it to market faster, minimizing the additional risk and cost of physical prototyping.

Using what you know and combining it with the technology or subject-matter expertise of others can help you take your resources further. The same resources, when combined with new thinking, might yield even greater returns. The challenge is to be flexible enough to recognize them.

Build on traditional knowledge—use measured destruction
Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.
Pablo Picasso
Another essential trait for better exploitation of available resources is to build on the knowledge we already possess. In manufacturing, it might mean taking an existing product but conceiving of its construction in different forms or using different materials. This might require us to destroy the way we currently perceive the value we create for customers. For example, a team of designers rethought the Coke range of cans by eliminating the need for overly printed surfaces. They killed the flash. The newer designs stripped colors down to two (at the most). Less ink meant lower cost and also a more readily recyclable container. Some enterprising design students, such as Harc Lee, have done away with inks altogether, which may be a step too far for Coca Cola, but it does point to the ways in which an existing product can be transformed via design and innovation. Other beverage firms have begun to follow suit in terms of re-conceiving what they already bring to market.

Consider plastic bottles: like plastic shopping bags, they have become an environmental scourge. Bottle-making practices for years were bound by the need to emulate the hard container styles of glass and metal bottles. With the recognition of a need to produce a product with a reduced environmental impact, Poland Spring developed the Eco-Shape bottle. The recyclable Poland Spring Half Liter Eco-Shape bottle is not only less impactful on the environment, it’s purposely designed to be easy to carry and hold. It is lighter, requiring less energy to make—resulting in a reduction of CO2 emissions—and also requires less energy to recycle. Additionally, the flexibility of the plastic, initially a concern when the bottle was empty, became a non-issue when the bottle was filled. The contents provided the necessary pressure to make the bottle feel substantial.

The microcosm of sub-cultures within the social network in your organization can also yield unique ways to transform your limited resources into something unique and new and, perhaps, game-changing. As well as building on the explicit and tacit knowledge resident in the people within your organization, it pays to pay attention to the communities of practice they represent, too.

The tribe knows: know your tribe
Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.
Jane Howard

One of the fastest ways to reveal and realize the hidden potential of resources you already have at hand is through the social networks that exist in your organization. The social relationships that comprise a present-day organization consist of a variety of subgroups, such as functional teams, project teams, new hires, managers, experts, or communities of practice. It is in the last subgroup that the most tribal aspects of organization life may be at work.

The cliques that form around communities of practice are created by a commonly held belief in a set of operational practices that create value in an organization. They usually comprise those subject matter experts (a core group) most interested in furthering their understanding of their knowledge, and who are often most interested in sharing that knowledge with newer members. Other members of a clique may be ad hoc or occasional members who engage when they have a specific need to address. The value of the tribe is their willingness to share information, knowledge, and collective wisdom that may be completely unrecognized by existing knowledge-management tools in the organization.

It is in their ability to serve as a knowledge-management repository that these tribes can provide significant value to the organization. Their experiences can improve decision-making about when and how to apply scarce resources for maximum value and minimal waste. They can connect needs expressed to potential solution-finders or problem-solvers faster and more effectively than most technology. Better yet, they may be a self-sustaining and self-governing source of ongoing innovation that requires very little in the way of “care and feeding.”

A wise innovator sees opportunities where others believe none exist. In times of severe economic constraint, it is a common practice to reduce the explorative and expansionist tendencies that innovation requires. Leaving little to chance or risk results in little innovation. By seeking to view existing resources with fresh eyes, taking the calculated risks to destroy existing products and services in the pursuit of breakthroughs, and leveraging the hidden knowledge residing in your people, you may find that making innovation with less is not as difficult as you first thought.

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Smart People Sharing – Part 2: Snapshot of BarCampPhilly on November 13, 2010

First and foremost, the people who volunteer to organize and host unconferences and barcamps are heroes. Their reasons for doing what they do, creating positive environments in which smart, interested people are willing to share what they know, may be legion but the end results are unique experiences that reward and enrich in surprising ways. BarCampPhilly held on a bright shiny autumnal day in the heart of Philadelphia was no exception. A huge debt of thanks to JP Toto, Roz Duffy, Kelani Nichole and Sarah Feidt the four core organizers who managed to pull off this event.

Here are the intrepid gang getting things started – lots of logistics and lots of people to thank, too. Please excuse the quality – the video was taken at the back of the very crowded room.

For those of your who haven’t been to a barcamp, the core concept is that all the content on the day is participant generated and led. Anyone with an idea can share it, they do that by listing their topic with a brief description and their contact information on a card which is then placed on a large board. Everyone else gets to vote on the ideas that seem the most interesting to them by placing stickers (dots usually), and the available presentation spaces are divided up and scheduled according to the relative popularity of each topic. In the case of BarCampPhilly and The University of the Arts facility, if you pitched an idea you were presenting.

The bottom line with barcamp: you throw yourself in – if you’re not learning or finding value in a session you employ the “rule of two feet” and use yours to move to something else. Simple stuff. Everyone owns the value they seek to get out of the experience; personal responsibility rules the day. If you don’t enjoy yourself, it really is your own fault. The great thing is, there was so much interesting stuff in play.

Topics ranged from the commonplace, “How to hire and intern” to the esoteric, “Riot URLs: Gender, Feminism and Tech,” to the whimsical, “Gimme Hugs – it’s my birthday”. All of which sounded very interesting. However, I was on the hunt for learning about innovation and becoming smarter with the support of the fundamentals of by technology infrastructure. So here are some of the presentations I explored with my lovely wife Jo…

Weaving a Regional Mesh For Open InnovationJoe Raimondo
The primary question driving this session was, “What are the structures that promote or create open innovation within a specific geographical region? In this case the exploration focused on the wider Philly region.”

Participants ranged from students, to technology entrepreneurs, to innovation specialists, to community activists and the quality of openness established was a standard for the kind of participation we experienced throughout the day. The group found that focus is an essential ingredient. What are you trying to accomplish? Without that kind of focus innovation efforts are short-lived and inherently unsatisfying.

Crowdsourcing was seen as an ingredient for open innovation. That said, social capacity was seen to be available but there were questions about how we tap into that. One participant talked about a lack of access to healthy local food in West Philly – the neighborhood responded with a healthy food coop which expanded into tool-sharing and five-six community gardens and community farm space. External ideas were introduced into a relatively stable community which ended raising concerns about the unintended consequences of gentrification.

Another key concern expressed, was that, “If open innovation is the answer what is the question?” Which left the group wrestling with ways to better define the problems we want to address. All in all this was a great way to start on the session front.

Service Design: Blueprint your biz ideaNathan Gasser
In this session Nathan Gasser was sharing some key learning he received as a result of his participation in World Usability Day and a presentation only two days earlier by Bob Cooper with Frontier Service Design. To get our brains firing Nathan dropped the simple question, “What is service design?” into our laps and we were off to the races!

Service design is
– 70-80% of GDP in the USA
– The necessary ability to create unique experience every time
– Primarily supported by European based thought leadership – it’s not well-considered elsewhere
– An holistic view of all the parts involved in delivering a service

He pointed us to a great site, Service Design Tools with which I was already familiar, but it was good to see someone else’s reason for liking what it has to offer. It offers simple, accessible ways of promoting structured thinking about service design. And it has a dead simple and fun UI, too.

The elements to define services include:
– Service processes
– Points of customer contact
– Evidence of the service from the customer’s POV

A good lesson: walk a mile in the customer’s shoes so that you can see and feel and hear and smell and…live their experience or you will surely die by their experiences.

Things to document when engaged in service design
– Time that a process can take
– Staff / expertise needed in an interaction or process
– Costs, revenues, ROI, waste, etc.
– Customer feedback, ratings, suggestions
– Employee feedback, ratings, suggestions
– 3rd Party feedback, ratings, suggestions
– Competitive analysis

Nathan then led the whole group through an exercise in service design around a brewery tour. No, lunch was not until after the next session, but yes, beer was on all our minds when we left this session.

Missioneering: from idea to missionScott Hackman @My_ohi
The last session of the day was with a trio of consultants led by Scott Hackman who focus on helping people unlock their ideas so that they can become a reality. They employed a tool called Theory U for their session and it underpins their collaborative and co-design consulting model. This was a user generated session to activate our ideas and we ended up working on one of the participants ideas to help unlock it’s potential.

The facilitators had been looking at how to get the message about a particular project, or company, or mission “out” and into the world. They saw people struggling to get an idea from their heads into the world. They are looking to build tribes about how to make early ideas into sustainable growing missions. Their approach was newly formed as a concept and sharing it at barcamp was their first public “outing.” Which is one of the other great things about these kinds of events. People can fearlessly test their ideas and receive feedback in a relatively safe manner.

In groups of 3 we each were asked to share an idea that we were passionate about. One of these was then selected by each trio and shared in full group which then dot voted on a whiteboard for the one that seemed most engaging. Ideas included:
• Opening a new office in London
• Social Orienteering using social networks to drive innovations to market faster
Cars.com for bicycles (the group picked this one)
• Creating a space for open innovation creation of medical devices
• Designing a platform to “kill Facebook”
• Connecting ideas via design translation
• Developing a business development tool for artists (artist entrepreneurs)

Then the facilitators shared the trigger question for the remainder of the session: “If there were no fears what would you be doing today?” Based on that we had a great time sharing stories and ideas, exploring the Car.com model for bicycles and the owner of the idea left with a catalog of things to try and resources to tap. A very cool model that warrants additional exploration.

WordPress WorksAryon Hose Hon and updatecontent.com
This was a great session for users of WordPress. Aryon was a wealth of knowledge regarding ways to improve site performance, including ways to improve ongoing maintenance, design, hosting and content management. I’ll be exploring many of his links in the coming days and weeks ahead.

Which brings into focus another great realization from barcamp; often people share with each other the very things that make them successful in the business world. They give away best practices, hard-earned shortcuts and tips and highlight personal missteps that they want others to avoid. This spirit of generosity is pervasive. And it is all done in the spirit of a complete absence of selling.

Traffic Stephen Gill, Leadnomics
The last session we attended had a highly technical focus on ways to manage and drive traffic on websites. Again it was filled with tips and trips. (Did you know that the image of a padlock on your website can improve click-through performance by as much as 50%? Neither did I!) Stephen shared widely and openly about ways to improve website performance. It was a mix of usability design, social psychology and technical expertise, and while the room in which he presented wasn’t very conducive to group discussion there were a lot of gems shared.

All in all, a great day. We can’t wait for the next one and look forward to being able to fully participate in the pre and post barcamp activities which, strangely enough, involved bars.

Finally, big thanks to the sponsors of the day: The University of the Arts, Independents Hall, Microsoft, CapTech, Yahoo Developmer Network, Sumo Heavy Industries, Comcast Interactive Media, Chariot Solutions, DuckDuck Go, Postmark, LessAccounting, CAOS – Technology at Wharton, Stickermule, PopChips, Chaikin Power Tools, A View From My Seat, MIssionStaff, Mashion, Wondergy, MonkoPhoto, Vacoro, PhillyMagic, BigRedTank, Old City Coffee, Food in Jars, South Street Philly Bagels, Inc., Monetate, Leadnomics, Rightaction,and National Mechanics. (Here are links to all the sponsors)

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Smart People Sharing – Part 1: Snapshot of ProductCampNYC on November 6, 2010

Early one November Saturday morning a group of 200+ people gathered at the Microsoft offices on Avenue of the Americas in mid-town Manhattan to participate in ProductCampNYC, a user-generated conference based on the barcamp model.

Here’s a great presentation providing an overview of ProductCampNYC.

For those of us who attended the inaugural one in 2009 we were excited to see another one come together and the prospects for a learning-and-networking-packed day were quite high. We had an exciting group of product, marketing and entrepreneurial professionals in attendance from various industries and diverse disciplines speaking at this year’s event. Jeff Stewart, serial entrepreneur, inventor and investor, kicked the day off as keynote speaker for the conference and he spoke to the need to manage a new enterprise like a new product.

The range of topics over the course of the day included:
• Making product development agile
• Pitfalls in trying to figure out what consumers really want
• Do you really have a product strategy?
• Beyond brainstorming
• Lean communications for product management

Several of the presentations are available for review here.

I presented on the topic, “Forget the organization chart, it’s the network that matters” and apart from the challenge of presenting without the projector and laptop being able to connect (thank goodness for the acres of whiteboards in the conference rooms of the Microsoft conference facility) it was actually a rewarding experience. One participant was kind enough to respond, “thanks for the PPT deck from #pcampnyc – great slides, but great job even without ’em!” So, I’m happy some benefit was gained. Here’s a brief overview:

Navigating an organization to bring a new product or service to market is no easy task. Often the very things designed to improve an organization’s operational performance are the things that serve as the greatest impediment to realizing an innovation’s potential. In this session we will explore the ways in which you can overcome tyranny of functional silos and navigate your ideas to success more effectively and efficiently.

Rather than give you a comprehensive overview of what I experienced at ProductCampNYC, I’ll do that in an upcoming post on BarCampPhilly during which I was able to take more comprehensive notes, I’d like to make a pitch for why I think this kind of learing is valuable for those focused on innovation. A barcamp learning program is easy to organize, you simply need spaces in which people can present and projectors (if you are going to have people give presentations). Food and drink should either be provided or you can more easily have people “brown bag it,” i.e., bring their own or go out for food and drinks. Another great aspect of this model, the content is user generated. People who are passionate about their subjects often make good presenters and if they don’t present well, their information usually serves as a solid catalyst for learning. Participants “own” the event and their personal experience.

Finally, the opportunity to be truly surprised and delighted is always a factor in the barcamp experience. If you don’t want to throw yourself in to the deep end and run one yourself I highly recommend you find someone in your community or in a nearby city who is already running one. When you go looking for them you’ll be surprised at how many you find.

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ProductCamp NYC – Saturday November 6, 2010

ProductCamp NYC is here! There are more than 300 people registered and more than 25 fantastic prospective speakers!

An exciting group of product, marketing and entrepreneurial professionals from various industries and diverse disciplines speaking at this year’s event. Jeff Stewart, serial entrepreneur, inventor and investor, will lead the day as keynote speaker for the conference. Potential session speakers will include former IBM VP Jon Prial, Healthcare Brand Manager Marty Coyne, and consumer expert, and former member of Nissan product development team, Joetta Gobell; for those in attendance, you get to vote and choose who you want to hear.

Look for live blogging and tweeting.

Brought to you by the good people at…

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Small Business Big Ambition: Why innovation is no surprise in the smaller enterprise

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.
Thomas Jefferson

In times of uncertainty we search high and low for answers to our overarching question, “How do we dig ourselves out of the deep pile of…stuff we’re in?” If there are qualifications for uncertain times, present economic indicators demonstrate that all criteria are not only met but exceeded. And our search for answers (and perhaps a shovel) continues in haste.

With very few macro-economic levers left for government officials and public policy experts to pull as they try to shift the economy into a growth pattern, our range of vision and influence narrows. We won’t find big fixes no matter how hard we look. Larger businesses have cut costs dramatically and now find themselves with large cash reserves, waiting for the economy to turn around. They patiently await orders for more products and services, before they place any orders or invest in anything themselves. Essentially, each large enterprise is waiting for the next firm to blink.

Instead of waiting for bail-outs or big business-driven economic up-ticks, we must turn to one of the greatest sources of scalable economic activity and innovation, the small to medium enterprise, for our answers. When highly functioning, these smaller enterprises know how to: make scarcity work for them (they live it every day); work closely with their customers to meet their most pressing needs; and make rapid learning the activity that gives them momentum in the marketplace.

More with less
No complaint … is more common than that of a scarcity of money.
Adam Smith

In the popular press (whatever that might be today!), it’s difficult to get a firm handle on what’s going on, or better yet, what could go on with small businesses. By their nature, small businesses are harder to classify and quantify than their big business brothers and sisters. If we consider the small enterprise to be a business of fewer than 200 people, it still leaves a bulk of the economic activity of most developed countries and nearly every developing country. These are the firms for whom bootstrapping is not something done only during times of economic distress, but all the time. They know how to stretch a dollar, or euro, or peso. But that’s not the only thing they know how to stretch.

Time, not just money, is a malleable resource, too. How you invest your time—and on what—drives a higher return on investment. For small businesses stretching time, doing more in a shorter period, gives them an economic leg up, especially when it comes to embracing and extending technology. Smaller firms have many advantages as innovation sources because they are quick to adopt new and high-risk initiatives; they facilitate structures that value ideas and originality; and they have a better capacity to reap substantial rewards from market share in small niche markets. This first-mover advantage was created by and for the small enterprise. It enabled them to get closer to customers other firms little-realized existed.

Closer to our customers
There’s a lot more business out there in small town America than I ever dreamed of.
Sam Walton

By decreasing their cycle time, small enterprises can do more for their customers than most large enterprises would commit to. The small enterprise, which usually carries with it a smaller customer base, can remain closer to their customers’ various needs—a distinct advantage over many larger businesses. This means smaller firms can pick and choose where and when to provide innovative products and services. By virtue of their size, the small business can choose to invest a larger proportion of time, energy, and expertise to discover the depth of their customers’ needs, and then pursue those needs by creating innovative solutions.

This closeness to the customer experience is also driven by the need to maximize their share of their customers’ expenditures. By remaining close to the customer, the small enterprise can seize newly arising opportunities to provide value and increase revenues simultaneously. Correspondingly, by seeking to win more business by remaining close to existing customers, the cost-of-sale is driven down, which has a positive benefit to the bottom line: a positive, deep relationship is usually a more profitable relationship. And when there a fewer customers, it’s usually easier to read which ones will be more profitable than not, and that means more effective targeting for higher risk efforts that may yield greater innovation benefits.

Faster mistakes
With any loss, you want to try to regroup and learn from mistakes.
Elena Leon

Which leads us to another reason why small enterprises are a better bet for long-term economic recovery—they are learning machines. For an employee to add to an innovative process, it may take time for them to understand the research agenda of, and challenges faced by, the firm in which they are employed; in other words, an employee may need to move up the learning curve before adding to the innovative activity of the firm. In a smaller enterprise, that learning curve may be much shorter. Existing processes and systems may be much more fluid. The amount of information to be learned and retained as working knowledge may be smaller. Better yet, the social network through which so much learning and experimentation takes place is smaller and easier to navigate, too.

For the smaller enterprise, the whole employee pool can be geared toward discovery. Each interaction, whether with an internal peer, or an external client or supplier, can be seen as an opportunity to explore possibilities. Within that exploration will be a series of hits and misses. This doesn’t mean that the inherent failures associated with trying something new within a smaller enterprise are less impactful—far from it, but it does mean that the recovery from those missteps may be easier and often shorter.

This is not to negate the impact of the larger enterprise on economic recovery, because without them there would be no recovery, as they provide a stable foundation for the broader economy. But it is to the smaller enterprise we should look for more rapid improvements. The smaller enterprise is thrifty by nature, eager to embrace its customers’ experiences, and willing to risk—through innovation—for greater reward. Unlocking the power resident within small enterprises is key to broader economic recovery. We’ll explore some of those methods in future posts.

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Cultural Leverage – A Path to Innovation Performance – OnInnovation

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.
Jimmy Dean

One of the greater challenges facing organizations that willingly seek to improve their innovation performance is “where to start?” Product development managers, research directors, marketing and brand specialists all face the similar, daunting prospect of wrestling their organizations into adopting new patterns and behaviors. For anyone who has been involved in change management, undertaking this kind of program is considered long and hard, because the duration of these efforts is counted not in days, weeks, or months, but in years.

In the present economic circumstances, we can’t wait that long to get our innovation engines firing. At a time like this, innovation cannot be relegated to an isolated part of the enterprise. How might we ready our organizations to embrace innovation as a practice in all areas?

For the complete post see the OnInnovation blog

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If we build it, will they come? Innovation & the Boom hangover

Exploring how R&D spending points toward a widespread desire for innovation in large companies but not necessarily an economic upturn any time soon.

I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

The way companies position their investments in research and development (R&D) or capital programs speaks volumes about the kind of innovation culture they possess. Increasingly, large companies stick to their innovation investment programs in the face of broader internal cuts in expenses. According to Booz & Co.’s special report “Profits Down, Spending Steady: The Global Innovation 1000,” by Barry Jaruzelski and Kevin Dehoff, some companies are even increasing their innovation spending in the hope of being better positioned for the longed-for economic upturn. Which would seem to be a sign that things will improve soon, right?

Not so fast.

Big Business does not represent the national economy
An article by Zachary Karabell in Time magazine recently described the divergence of large, market-capitalized companies’ performance from the respective economic performance of their headquarter nation-states, where previously they were linked quite closely:

Stocks are no longer mirrors of national economies; they are not — as is so commonly said — magical forecasting mechanisms. They are small slices of ownership in specific companies, and today, those companies have less connection to any one national economy than ever before.

The key message was that because of their ability to spread both their exposure and investment across multiple geographies, large companies had inoculated themselves against the impact of any single national economy. The ability of USA-based companies to straddle economies, in some cases by deriving more than 50 percent of their revenues overseas, has meant that they’re no longer profoundly impacted by the US economy, nor are they a true indicator of US economic status.

The economic upturn fake-out
While the US economy languishes with unemployment near 10 percent, faces housing foreclosures once again on the rise, and wrestles with a multi-trillion dollar plus-sized deficit, companies live in a different world (or possibly a parallel universe). The majority of publicly traded companies are beating analysts’ earnings estimates (250 beat estimates and 54 disappointed) and sales estimates. The gap between the US economy’s performance and US-based companies’ performance is also reflected to a lesser extent in the dire straits of the European economy and the reasonable success of EU-based companies. They, too, continue to thrive and spend on innovation.

At the heart of our success lies our commitment to innovation.
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Why are companies spending big on innovation when all indications say that we are in this economic mess for the long haul? The problem with a strategy that cuts back on all expenditures during an economic downturn is that you discover unpleasant consequences years later — when you’re lagging behind your competitors. By then it’s too late. It seems today’s companies have learned the lessons of the past. Immediately following the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, companies pulled back so far that their response to the economic upturn was delayed to the extent that competitors gained toeholds, or their enterprises folded, origami-like, in on themselves. They became small, misshapen relics of their former glorious selves.

Consider the examples of Nortel, Corning, and Cisco. Nortel died (its shares trading on their final day at $0.185, down from a high in 2000 when it comprised a third of the S&P/TSX composite index). Corning has taken the better part of a decade to recover (notwithstanding the emergence of its current breakthrough product—Gorilla Glass—discovered in, oh yes, 1962!). And Cisco, once the most valuable company in the world, finally figured out that having all one’s eggs in a single basket wasn’t a safe bet under any economic conditions, and is now built for survival.

Diversification via innovation is now seen as key. Hurray! Which is fine, but what happens if all this innovation takes place but there’s no one willing to buy it? Consumers without jobs don’t consume.

Is innovation really the answer to our economic woes?
Certainly the consumer space in the USA has tightened up remarkably, an indication that things won’t be turning upward any time soon. During this recession, the trend of consumers switching to store-brand labels and other cheaper alternatives has dug into the profits and dominant market shares of brands owned by P&G, the world’s biggest consumer-product maker and seller of many of the most premium-priced household products on store shelves. Of note was the recent news that for many of its core brand staples, P&G has reduced prices by as much as 10 percent. As for its premium-priced brands, the so called “nice-to-haves,” expect those prices to increase to offset the high volume product price drop.

The reality is that if you are doing well in this economy, either as a company or an individual, you will continue to do well regardless of a statistical double dip.
Zachary Karabell, “A Double Dip Recession? Who Cares?” Time Magazine

The challenge with the current economic situation, and its associated strong company performance, is that investment in innovation by large companies will do little to improve the lot of the many people still living in recession conditions. In a report released earlier this month, the US Congress Joint Economic Committee observed fragile and uneven growth for the US manufacturing industry. The report cites 136,000 new jobs that the manufacturing sector created in the first half of 2010, but notes that inventory restocking may be responsible for much of those gains. For the millions of jobs lost, adding a little more than a hundred thousand is but a drop in an ocean. The unemployment rate is just under 10 percent, but that doesn’t begin to cover the enormous chaos on the job front.

The “true” unemployment rate (combining figures for workers who have dropped out of looking for work, to the underemployed working multiple part-time jobs, and those actually counted in the unemployment roster), is figured at closer to 17 percent. Total hours worked and total compensation have both declined. And the easy consumer credit and housing-backed affluence have gone, never to return. Essentially the economy has bifurcated.

Are we cheered up yet? No? There is a way forward.

Each month 400,000 new small and micro-businesses start in the USA. At present, there are 5 million (yes, million) small businesses (100 employees or less) employing far more people than the Fortune 100. If we are going to look to innovation as a transformative tool for unleashing creativity and improving the economic outlook of the majority of the population, it is to small businesses that we must turn. If we help build them, more could come to the table to promote a stronger economic upturn. They could be active participants in energizing an economy that not only helps people survive, it could once again be an economy where many could thrive.

Big business innovation is not the answer. It simply can’t create the number of jobs fast enough to pull us out of this economic funk. What can we build together to unleash the innovation residing in small and mid-sized enterprises?

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