I was recently invited to speak about the human-centered design and innovation thinking on Digital: Disrupted, a weekly podcast for people who would rather push boundaries than punch clocks when it comes to digital transformation.
Listen to the episode here or continue reading for a summary of the discussion…
Tell us a bit about your background:
I have always been fascinated by solving problems. Growing up in an economically diverse city, I was always interested in the problems I saw around me and asking how things could be better. People around me say that my superpower is relentless optimism because no matter what happens, I look on the bright side of things. Things could always be worse, and how do we make it better?
Having been in the Army and worked for a large company, I’ve seen a variety of management styles and encountered many different personalities. And it’s interesting to see how people think about the work that they do. My perspective is, if “work” is going to be a significant and ongoing part of my life, I want it to be meaningful and impactful. So now I’m focused on creating cultures of innovation so that it’s more fun and engaging to be at “work.” Specifically, Everblue focuses on leveraging technology to drive and create cultures of innovation and modernize companies and government agencies of all sizes.
Tell us about the Champion of Change award that you received:
Regardless of how you feel politically, I’d say that we as a country tend to care about the Middle East because of oil. After serving overseas with the military, my brother and I started Everblue with looking at how to make our energy economy more efficient. We looked at energy innovation. At the time, people looked as us and thought it was long-haired hippy stuff. But sustainability and renewable energy is important for national security and the environment. We were shifting mindset about solar and renewable energy back in 2008-2010. You have to win the people over. People think it’s all technology, but you have to get the people on board.
What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation is finding problems and conducting experiments. A person has to find a problem and conduct experiments to solve that problem. We work with companies on giving that a language, giving that containers, and making it acceptable to effectively conduct those experiments and research into problems.A lot of people think innovation is just ideas; innovation is really the research into a problem first before you have the ideas.
How do you define innovation?
Defining innovation is one of the first things we do. Executives preach the goal of being innovative, but they don’t define it. ElonMusk is innovative, trying to put a man on the moon, but that is very different from a manufacturing employee changing out the type of duct tape and saving $0.10a roll on a manufacturing line. They’re both innovative, but the scale is vastly different. Part of what we talk about when we talk about innovation and companies wanting to define it is, what are you trying to achieve? Are you going for the next cancer breakthrough that’s going to cure cancer in 5-10years, or are you looking at day-to-day innovation that’s going to save an employee 1 keystroke on a process at a specific time? They’re both legitimately valid, but you have to define what you’re shooting for.
And the scale of that also determines the scale of the investment, the time it gets. That’s a big part of creating a shared language of innovation. What are we talking about? Are you creating a new autonomous car, or are you improving the seatbelts of the car? Both are important, but both aredifferent when it comes to innovation.
Giving “innovation” a language that people can talk about isa great first step, so the CEO, CIO, or whoever happens to be leading the charge on innovation can talk about it in a way that people can understand what they’re trying to do.
Who is responsible for innovation in your company?
Innovation is not a job title. It’s not my responsibility to be innovative. My responsibility is to create a culture of innovation, to put in place the thought processes and the systems that enable or empower people on my team to be innovative or, in our case, to help other companies be innovative.
I’m the innovation language and process person. If innovation solely relied on me, we wouldn’t get very far. It’s really about empowering and enabling others. That’s how I encourage other companies to look at it.
If you have a company where someone has Innovation in their title, that person is not responsible for the ideas. They shouldn’t have just an inbox full of ideas that come in and then they decide which ones to go after.They should be enabling whoever sent in the idea, to empower them with the tools to pursue and understand their ideas and conduct experiments.
Where should companies that are looking to modernize their legacy processes begin?
You first have to ask, “What’s the problem? What’s really going to change your business?” You have processes, but what’s the problem that you’re hoping to solve?
How does this spur innovation?
Sensemaking. It’s the part that a lot of organizations want to skip. They want to go straight to the idea. Sensemaking is literally walking through the steps of the process and understanding the needs of the user. You have to look at the human side of, who is using this and why? Then we look at the technology side of it.
Start with understanding who are the people that are involved in this process. That’s the first step. You have to understand what drives people, not just what drives them from a work standpoint. You have to understand their needs as a person. The technology is only meant to support the people doing the job.
How do you anticipate, and what do you do about, people who are not receptive to change?
This is my favorite part of innovation. It’s getting to the mindset. We jokingly call it unleashing your inner 6-year-old. People are fine with the comfortable status quo, but you’ve got to give them something, like what’s in it for them? It involves a lot of emotions. People think that’s hokey, but why are you here? Why are you at work?
We’ll do innovation bootcamps, ideathons, design sprints…they’ll bring in a bunch of people into a room… and routinely we’ll ask, “Why are you here?” And invariably, somebody will say, “My boss made me be here.”But no, why are you here? Nobody made you get out of bed. Nobody made you drive to work. Nobody made you come to this job. Nobody made you walk in this room.Then they’ll get down into the deeper reasons, like, “Well, I want to take care of my kids and provide for my family.” There’s some deeper reason why somebody chose the job they’re in, and if we can appeal to that mindset, and then help them look at frustrations as opportunities for improvement, it’s amazing how we can flip that on them and get them excited.
The first steps of innovation are low risk because we’re not changing anything. When we get to the point of rapid prototyping, that’s when you have to do the gut check of “Are we ready to make this change?”
What do you do when teams want to throw the kitchen sink at an innovation project?
I recommend protecting that rapid prototype from that kitchen sink. Don’t expose it to all the good idea fairies that are out there. Let it get its own critical mass. There are a few core features that you’ve got to get working. Everything else is a “nice to have.” Whoever the user is, you have to get them to love it so much that it can overcome the organizational inertia.
The leader of the organization has to protect that process.They have to protect that experimentation from the rest of the organization.
I’ve been on calls before where there were 60 decision-makers on the call, and they didn’t want to move forward unless all 60 people were on board, which is a near impossibility. And things will just die on the vine when you get to that stage.
Usually we have more than one innovation project going atone time, so we processtize the innovation process, meaning that we cross-functionally look at cybersecurity, the cloud team, the infrastructure team, all the parts that enable this to be successful, and get their requirements upfront so any prototype goes through a screening process to make sure it’s aligned and visible by each department.
Executives have a hard time with what I call the messiness factor. Creativity and innovation are messy. Things are going to fail. They’re not going to work. But if you define it this way… put it in a box and say “We’re conducting an experiment for the next 6 weeks. And yes, the experiment inside there might be messy, but at least I can wrap my brain around this.” You go in for a very defined period, and “this is our outcome.” It’s not succeed or fail. We’re going to learn these factors. One of the measures, then, is what have we learned? What are the insights we’ve gained? What are we trying to validate?
Moderator Paul Muller echoed my comments about messiness, instead calling it wasteful. He shared my view that executives have to equate the innovation process to like making a movie. Recognize upfront that you’re not going to use every scene that was filmed for the movie. There’s going to be a lot on the cutting room floor.
We call it stage-gating, where you control the risks by how much resources you can give a project. If an employee is experimenting on their own time because they’re passionate, and it’s not consuming any company resources, the risk is minimal. It’s bigger as you go up the valuation ladder. If you’ve spent millions of dollars and have nothing to show for it, that’s where the risk starts to get bigger. You control that by, how much am I spending to learn something or get a certain outcome? You stage-gate it. We create an InnovationCouncil to oversee and monitor the investment.
After we go through the steps of innovation, how do we know if we’ve created a culture of innovation?
I don’t think it’s ever done. It’s a constant renewal of ideas and enthusiasm.
Innovation has to be bottom up. Someone has to have the energy to want to change something, and that is unpredictable. It could be the secretary. It could be the janitor. It doesn’t always come from a job title or person you expect. Somebody has to bring some energy and passion to it.
A lot of the “creating an innovation culture” is empowering your people to bring ideas forward, not just related to their job title but to the company and to their customers as a whole. I liken it to a snowball rolling down a hill: It takes a while to get that momentum going. To keep it there requires constant leadership and constant energy from the executives to cultivate that. That’s a longer term problem.
I think most companies struggle with maintaining it and empowering employees. I think that’s because we operate by routine; it’s just how humans are. We get so accustomed to our routines and the assumptions that go into our routine that it takes conscious effort to step back and question our assumptions and look for a different perspective. That goes back to unleashing our inner 6-year-olds. Six year olds are not afraid of asking dumb questions.They don’t know the concept of a dumb question. They’re just curious.Cultivating that curiosity and allowing that to thrive takes effort. It doesn’t just happen naturally. There’s a whole set of values that has to go around that.
Can you discuss human-centered design in regard to how people interact with technology and change?
Design thinking can be viewed as a flashy term, and some may say it’s a fad. The part of design thinking that I think is long term is the human-centered part of it. People are the center of the problems we solve. We’re the ones that interact with all the technologies and processes. It’s all human-driven.
There are some people who are religious about the dogma of a specific process; I don’t agree with that. One of the mantras we have is that everyone can innovate. It’s a process that each person has to own. It’s going to look slightly different in every organization because every organization is different. Every group of people getting together is different. I don’t think there’s one “right” way to innovate. I think companies, cultures, and people have to do what’s right for them. The idea is that we can expose them to ideas, and they can adopt what’s most natural to them.
I’m not as centered on the dogma, but I do think that people solve problems. Technology doesn’t solve problems. People solve problems. A lot of the problem-solving today involves technology, but it doesn’t always have to involve technology.
What do you do with an organization to help them become more human-centered in how it thinks about design?
We break innovation down. We follow the Stanford d.school’s approach. A lot of design-thinking methodologies have come out of Stanford University. We leverage that process, which is very human-focused. It’s not the idea, it’s the problem you’re solving. It’s the people interacting with that problem that you need to solve for.
How can companies balance efficiency and innovation to stay competitive in today’s constantly evolving landscape?
It’s the difference of exploring vs. project management. For innovation, we want to get to the top of a mountain, but we don’t know every step that we’re going to take to get there. Innovation is exploring our way to a different destination. Efficiency is much more planned. There are very specific ideas to drive to it. Instead of that far mountain top, it’s “I need to go 20steps from my front door to get to my mailbox.”
Organizations need to do both. I don’t think it’s a choice of efficiency OR innovation. But I also don’t think there’s such a thing as efficient innovation. I don’t think it exists.
Innovation is, by definition, a bit wasteful. By allowing that freedom to explore is what makes it so productive in the long run. Over the long run, statistically, you’re going to benefit from it, but in the short term, you’re going to meander quite a bit along the way.