PM Clinic: Week 6 Summary

Topic: Innovation vs. Execution

Compiled: 11/8/2004

The Situation:

Dear pm-clinic:

Development teams get narrow windows to propose something different and innovative from their organizational or industry norms. Otherwise, it's back to the digital chain-gang, working on a roadmap derived from bugs, customer feature requests, VP whim or competitor's existing features. How does a team best prepare for and then manage those brief opportunities to do something different than the norm? How does one balance investment in innovation against other concerns, such as execution?

- To innovate, or not to Innovate (TIONTI)


Almost everyone that contributed to the conversation pushed that innovation happens all the time. Any time there is a problem to be solved, there is a chance to find smart or innovative ways to solve it. However the larger the scale of innovation (e.g. a new line of product, or a new architecture for the entire system) the more important timing is.On all projects someone somewhere is responsible for deciding what comes next. If that person is smart, the planning effort is visible to most of the team, and there are many points in time for people to suggest ideas, or take on responsibility.

If that person is isolated or not so bright, there may only be small windows of opportunity to present innovative ideas. Either way, the goal should be to look for those windows of opportunity, and take the initiative. If no windows exist, make some: talk to your manager, talk to people with more experience or seniority than you. Find whatever support exists for new ideas and use it to develop them.

Steven Levy had a great post that included discussion of the cycles of innovation: highly competitive projects often fall into feature wars, where the competition for market share is based on innovation and value. Often these projects invest heavily in the search for new ideas. When competition
stabilizes, mature products have different cycles of innovation (The history of the modern web browser makes for an interesting case study).

Smart orgs invest in innovation

Tim Misner mentioned that GE and other large corporations invest a set percentage of their budget in R&D (often around 20%). This isn't for fun: it's to keep their market advantage, and find new opportunities to exploit. Some technological companies allocate more than this, or dedicate non- financial resources. Google is known to give all employees 20% of their time to work on any projects they want within the company: matching the management speak of "find good ideas" to actual commitment of real resources.

If you find innovation is a continual uphill climb, it's worth examining who benefits from keeping the status-quo, or who is most afraid of things changing. Innovation is defined by change, and some people have reasons to fear change.

To innovate better, fail faster

Quite a few people mentioned that innovation requires more than a sketchy idea. Typically you need a pile of ideas, time to filter through them, experiment with them, and only then do you end up with a handful of ideas worth heavily investing in. Finding the time for all of this can be difficult, especially if you're doing it on your own (see initiative above) - but keep in mind that a pile of exploration typically comes before a spoonful of innovation. One of the IBM founders once said something like "to innovate, fail faster" - meaning that to develop good ideas, you need to get better at fleshing out and then abandoning the bad ones.

Situations to watch out for

  1. Blind innovation: don't confuse different with better. Crappy ideas that are wildly different can sometimes be pitched as innovation. Change isn't necessarily desirable: progress is.
  2. Incremental vs. big bang: Robin mentioned that a team with more time can take on a pile of requests that have been postponed before: but without someone overseeing the effort, it can become a patchwork (ugly, clunky, hard to use and/or maintain).
  3. Under the hood (hidden) Innovation. Sometimes big changes are needed in the architecture, typically without any short term benefits. This can be an act of faith: the bet is that the improved architecture will pay off in new capabilities or efficiencies in v2 or v3. Several people had stories of major architectural overhauls resulting in new long term problems. Sometimes this is because the changes desired were more "this is sooo coool" than "this will improve the product in ways meaningful to customers or our bottom line". Someone has to push hard to make sure these investments have tangible benefits - engineering benefits are great (e.g. making it easier to write new features/fix bugs), provided they're clearly identified as the goals of the investment.
  4. Prophetic innovation. Business or Marketing folks may make it a strategic imperative to "innovate". This shifts the center of gravity away from rationality and towards new ideas, regardless of their value (see blind innovation above). Someone has to surround the strategy of innovation with real business and customer needs: "Yes, we need to innovate, but only if it improves on the customer scenarios" (Or only if we're sure that at worst, it won't negatively impact them).

Making the pitch

The simplest way to convince management of an idea is this: "If we invest in idea Y, we have a good chance of finding new/better ways to satisfy organizational goal Z." What exactly 'good chance' means is of course debatable, and part of making a good argument involves defining it, or making a risk/cost/benefit proposal around the pursuit of idea Y. It may also be necessary to say "To invest in idea Y, I suggest we do not invest in idea A". However a more politically savvy way to do this is to reference the project/product vision and goals, and use that to frame the relative value of Y against A.


The Innovators Dilemma, Christensen, An analysis of several major technology companies that were market leaders, but failed after a second wave of innovation came. Was a popular book at Microsoft and the tech-sector in the mid-90s.

The art of innovation, by Tom Kelly. One of the founders of the design firm IDEO offers a philosophy of innovation. A light easy good read. More philosophy/IDEO history, than practice.

IDEO interview - covers some of the design process the IDEO folks use.

How to pitch an idea: a short essay on the basics of pitching ideas.

This week's contributor

Steven Levy, Brian Hagins, Tim Misner, Neil Enns, Gavin McMurdo, Robin Jeffries, Neil Enns, John Wilger, Scott Berkun (editor dude) - thanks all!


All content copyright 2005. Scott Berkun. RSS Feed