Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Science of Serendipity - Innovation Excellence interview

Recently, I spoke with Lou Killeffer writing for about The Science of Serendipity.

He wrote: “Matt’s passionate about innovation, growth, and the serendipitous outcomes from the collision of observations and insights he sees as fundamental to success. And he’s outspoken about the very human dynamics he sees driving both the people and the process. Matt believes virtually all innovation is powered by ‘anger, paranoia, or ambition’; powered across a rather rugged journey that begins, in large corporations at least, when someone stands up and simply says something must change; something must be done.”

Here’s an edited excerpt of the first part of our conversation; I’ll post a few more bits in the coming days.

Lou Killeffer: Matt, I believe I hold in my hands the only copy in North America of your new book, The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organizations.

Matt Kingdon: Don’t get mugged on the way out. That’s a valuable copy.

LK: Well, let’s start there. Why write a book about innovation today? As you know, there’s a tsunami of words and whitepapers, articles and videos on innovation.

MK: This book is different. It’s a very practical book. Based on 20 years of experience in growing a business of over 250 people now. There are a lot of books out there, but when you take a look at them, a lot are quite theoretical. I wanted to write something very practical, very useful. I wanted to write something that was easier to read than the average businessbook, which as you well know, rarely gets read completely. I wanted to write a business book from the heart about what I know really works.

LK: The book begins for me with my very favorite quote of all time, Pasteur saying chance favors the prepared mind. Why did you select that quote?

MK: The full quote is actually, “In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.” He was saying that the more homework we do, the more we’ll see, the luckier we’ll get. It’s a bit like that quote attributed to Gary Player mainly: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” That’s a wonderful, hopeful, optimistic way of looking at how folks in large organizations can get things done, and almost do the impossible. That is, if they keep themselves open to an external perspective, if they keep debating in a really honest, open way with their colleagues, experimenting, and if theykeep putting themselves through that kind of homework and outreach, they’ll almost inevitably find themselves to be luckier or more serendipitously successful.

LK: You’ve got another quote, new to me, that’s now my second favorite: “Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.

MK: Isn’t that perfect?

LK: In chapter one, “The Protagonist,” you say, “All innovation is powered by anger, paranoia or ambition.” What a provocative place to begin. What exactly do you mean?

MK: People would like to think that all innovation is powered by strategy, clear thinking, and high principles, but it’s a much more rugged, human activity than that. The people who really make things happen in large organizations are the people driven by some sense of injustice in the world—it may be a customer group that isn’t being served properly, it may be that your brand isn’t getting the share it deserves, it may be that your career could be going further and faster. It’s the kind of thing that eats away at people, some of whom make a decision to do something about it. There’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way the world is in all real innovation, and we shouldn’t shy away from that or be embarrassed about it. I’m not suggesting that people who innovate are necessarily grumpy, but they do have a degree of irreverence for the organization that they’re in and a degree of dissatisfaction with the way the world is.

LK: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted?

MK: Yeah, something like that.

LK: You’re speaking about fundamentally human and quite emotional drivers. You’re saying innovation’s not simply an intellectual exercise, right?

MK: I’m not saying innovation is unthinking, and I’m not saying innovation doesn’t benefit from good analysis. But I am saying that innovation can be damaged by too many people spending too much time talking. Or that an organization with too much money and too many resources may do too much research. When you dig underneath the skin of why something was innovative, what people will generally tell you was there was a certain critical moment when they made the decision to work harder, to reach out to a different set of colleagues, to push something harder with their colleagues, and these moments are normally a combination of a certain kind of courageous or collaborative behavior. And you’ll find that the heart of so much innovation is a human story, which is uplifting. It says that everybody can innovate. It’s just a question of making things simple, having the right attitude, and having the right behaviors with the group of people you work with. That’s the core message of the book.

LK: As you discuss behavior with the people you’re interacting with, you say, “Innovators are team workers, but more than that, they are collaborators.” What is the distinction between a team worker and a collaborator?

MK: Imagine a sports team. Let’s say a soccer team. And they’ve won a match, and they’re congratulating each other, slapping each other on the back. You know, they may say it was great teamwork that helped them win, but it’s unlikely they’ll say it was great collaboration. That would sound kind of weird. The nature of teamwork is fundamentally different from collaboration, and this is a very, very important point for innovators to get a hold of. A team plays a game where there are clear boundaries. There are the confines of the pitch. The referee or the umpire who sets the rules. It’s clear how you win. There are certain positions to play, and you come and play to your best ability within that position. So teams play with roles and rules. That’s what defines team sports. But when it comes to collaboration, which is a better model for innovation, certainly more disruptive innovation, collaborators work differently. They don’t know who they’re going to be working with. They’re not entirely sure of their position. They’re trying it out. There’s no umpire or referee. And what’s victory? No one’s quite sure. Collaboration has outreach, it has iteration, it has experimentation, it has a degree of self-awareness, and a degree of humility attached to it, which is not necessarily the same as teamwork.

LK: I take your point. Your analogy of the football pitch—the forwards and the backs have individual responsibilities and, if they succeed, the team will succeed. But in a corporate environment, one could say the forwards and the backs are in silos. In collaboration you invade the other person’s silo, isn’t that right?

MK: Many people work in siloed organizations. It’s a matter of choice whether you decide to restrict your point of view to within your silo or you’re prepared to get out of the office, meet new colleagues, meet some customers, and develop a shared obsession with what your customers want. Having a real customer obsession means getting interested in something other than just your company or your brand. And that means working with some colleagues from the finance team or the research-and-development team or the sales team, someone who you’ve bonded with around a singular goal rather than just working in your silos.

More from this interview to come next week...