Lit energy saving lightbulb amongst unlit incandescent bulbs

Lit energy saving lightbulb amongst unlit incandescent bulbsWhat’s going to happen to the Euro in the coming year? What’s the next game-changing political development in the Middle East? What’s the fate of healthcare reform? The answer to all of these big, complicated questions is simple: we don’t know. We have no data on the future where innovation happens. This is what distinguishes innovation from all other forms of value.

For this reason, innovation is about experimenting, trying many things at once and seeing what works. Forget what people tell you about coming up with a plan and sticking with it. When you innovate, you need to change your mind. You need to make things up as you go along.

Excessive data-gathering is a form of resistance. We’ve all had to sit through the meeting before the meeting, read the e-mail about the e-mail. Don’t get stuck in the planning cycle. Run experiments now.

You can’t predict the future but you can look around and discover trends and patterns–drivers–that will help you reach your targets. Here are four places to look as you design your experiments:

Push: These are new technologies and new methods inside and outside your industry, like the development of non-invasive surgeries in the medical world.

Pull: These are emerging consumer demands, like the widespread desire for environmental-friendliness in the green movement.

Clash: These are the rising and existing competitors in your field. For example, think about the startups that we haven’t yet seen or companies that seem dead but then often surprise us like revitalization of local hardware stores in the 1990s.

Coordinate: These are ways of synching things up–technologies and devices that pull things together, like BaseCamp, the web service that facilitates communication among the diverse people working on the same project.

Consider all of these external factors–technologies, consumer demands, competitors–and ask yourself these questions: what is the probability that each of these things will actually happen? And, if they do happen, what kind of impact will they have on the success of your target?

Now that you’ve designed your experiments, it’s time to put them to the real test. In the early twentieth century, William McKnight came up with the now-famous 3M strategy test–a set of three questions to ask about an idea initiative. Now, almost a century later, they are still the best questions: Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?

Part of innovating is stopping things now so can you make the room to do new things. Stop planning and start acting. Don’t let the uncertainty of the future slow you down. Be prepared to adapt as things happen. Expect the unexpected: leave room for the stuff you don’t know now.

Tug of War

Two talented people who have nothing in common are more likely to create something exciting than two talented people who think the same way. Harmony is overrated. Innovation is about bringing together individuals with diverse strengths who can push against each other and build something collaboratively that they never would’ve come up with on their own. Innovation happens when there is constructive conflict, or positive tension, within an organization–not total agreement.

The Innovation Genome is a creative map of organizational dynamics that tells us how competing talents and seemingly opposing worldviews can come together to promote growth. The building blocks of the Innovation Genome are four competencies–four types of value that your organization can pursue: COMPETE,COLLABORATE, CREATE, andCONTROL. On the surface, these values are at odds with each other. But once you understand the way they work, you can use them strategically to jumpstart innovation.

The COMPETE, or blue, kind of value represents a Darwinist approach that focuses on competition where the strong prevail at the expense of the weak. This approach represents the drive toward goals and the endgame of power, money, fame, and other tangible forms of success.

The COLLABORATE, or yellow, kind of value is the opposite of COMPETE. Where the COMPETE approach celebrates an aggressive, often cutthroat spirit, the COLLABORATE approach strives for connection, harmony, and togetherness. This approach represents human relationships, the identification with family and clan, and the greater good of Man.

The CREATE, or green, kind of value pursues radical innovation through wild experimentation and extreme dislocation of conventions. This means maintaining a visionary focus on the future, with great adaptability in new environments.

The CONTROL, or red, kind of value is the opposite of CREATE. Where the CREATE approach takes risks and thrives in uncertainty, the CONTROL approach works to eliminate risk. This is about being consistent, using reliable systems and procedures that promote stability.

Every approach has its downside. Red projects face the danger of becoming too bureaucratic. Green projects run the risk of creating too much chaos. Blue projects are sometimes shortsighted. Yellow projects may be overtaken by irrational enthusiasm. This is why you need to combine these approaches to make up for their respective weaknesses. For example, bringing together the stability of a red approach and the experimentation of a green approach encourages creativity while also keeping it within the bounds of procedure.

What happens when pragmatic thinkers work with big-picture thinkers? What happens when the goal-oriented thinkers meet the patient thinkers? This is the kind of variation that sparks innovation. Take a chance and surround yourself with people who don’t think the same way you do as you feel your way to the future. They just might surprise you.


Jason Hartman sits down and talks with Jeff DeGraff, professor for the University of Michigan’s Ross Business school and an expert in innovation. He has a new book coming out called, Making Stone Soup: How to Jumpstart Innovation Teams and has helped grow world leading corporations such as American Airlines, General Electric, and Coca Cola by using his Competing Values Framework system.

Listen to the full interview here.

Jeff’s Books