4 Ways to Build an Innovative Team

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Ben Birchall/PA Images/Getty Images

One of the most common questions I get asked by senior managers is “How can we find more innovative people?” I know the type they have in mind — someone energetic and dynamic, full of ideas and able to present them powerfully. It seems like everybody these days is looking for an early version of Steve Jobs.

Yet in researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I found that most great innovators were nothing like the mercurial stereotype. In fact, almost all of them were kind, generous, and interested in what I was doing. Many were soft-spoken and modest. You would notice very few of them in a crowded room.

So the simplest answer is that you need to start by empowering the people already in your organization. But to do that, you need to take responsibility for creating an environment in which your people can

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Why the Rewards for Ambitious Problem Solving Are About to Get Bigger

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John Devolle/Getty Images

A decade ago, Microsoft was considered a dinosaur. It had missed the shift to mobile, was out of step with consumer tastes, and seemed too big and slow to adapt to a digital world that was moving at hyperspeed. Yet today the company is thriving again, largely driven by its growing cloud business.

This is not a new effort. In fact, it began in the early 2000s, but was little noticed until recently. In much the same way, IBM’s Watson project, which is helping the venerable company overcome the disruption of its traditional business, began in 2005. Google has created its own moonshot factory, to pursue game-changing technologies that may take years to pay off.

In recent years, we’ve come to associate the practice of innovation with speed and agility, but accomplishments that truly move the needle can’t be achieved quickly or through mere iteration.

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The 4 Types of Innovation and the Problems They Solve

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One of the best innovation stories I’ve ever heard came to me from a senior executive at a leading tech firm. Apparently, his company had won a million-dollar contract to design a sensor that could detect pollutants at very small concentrations underwater. It was an unusually complex problem, so the firm set up a team of crack microchip designers, and they started putting their heads together. About 45 minutes into their first working session, the marine biologist assigned to their team walked in with a bag of clams and set them on the table. Seeing the confused looks of the chip designers, he explained that clams can detect pollutants at just a few parts per million, and when that happens, they open their shells. As it turned out, they didn’t really need a fancy chip to detect pollutants — just a simple one that could alert the system to clams opening
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How to Win with Automation (Hint: It’s Not Chasing Efficiency)

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In 1900, 30 million people in the United States were farmers. By 1990 that number had fallen to under 3 million even as the population more than tripled. So, in a matter of speaking, 90% of American agriculture workers lost their jobs, mostly due to automation. Yet somehow, the 20th century was still seen as an era of unprecedented prosperity.

In the decades to come, we are likely to see similar shifts. Today, just like then, many people’s jobs will be taken over by machines and many of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet. That inspires fear in some, excitement in others, but everybody will need to plan for a future that we can barely comprehend today.

This creates a dilemma for leaders. Clearly, any enterprise that doesn’t embrace automation won’t be able to survive any better than a farmer with a horse-drawn plow. At the same time,

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How Protests Become Successful Social Movements

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Throughout history, social movements — small groups that are loosely connected but united by a shared purpose — have created transformational change. Women’s suffrage and civil rights in the U.S., Indian independence, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring all hinged on the powerless banding together against the powerful. In these movements, protest has played an important role, highlighting the ability for ordinary citizens to make their disapproval heard. This type of activism is crucial for creating the groundwork for change. Consider the recent protests in Poland concerning an unpopular abortion law. They inspired millions to take further actions, including a women’s strike, that convinced lawmakers to back down. Still, protests like the massive global marches that took place on January 21, 2017, although crucially important for creating transformational change, are merely a first step. There are clear reasons why some movements languish and fade
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What Successful Movements Have in Common

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The declaration of surrender was touted as a triumph: “Microsoft Loves Linux,” the headline read, but just a decade earlier, the firm’s then CEO, Steve Ballmer, had called Linux a cancer. The all-powerful tech giant had lost and lost badly — to a ragtag band of revolutionaries, no less — but still seemed strangely upbeat. Overthrows like these are becoming increasingly common and not just in business. As Moisés Naím observed in his book, The End of Power, institutions of all types, from corporations and governments to traditional churches, charities, and militaries, are being disrupted. “Power has become easier to get, but harder to use or keep,” he writes. The truth is that it’s no longer enough to capture the trappings of power, because movements made up of small groups are able to synchronize their actions through networks. So if you want to effect lasting change today, it’s
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A Dedicated Team of Problem Solvers Can Help Big Companies Act Like Lean Startups

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Most companies try to avoid problems. Experian actually goes looking for them. In fact, it has set up a specific unit – Experian DataLabs — to actively seek out unresolved problems its customers are having and use them as a launchpad to seek out new opportunities and create new products. In doing so, it has been able to act more like a startup than a global data giant. Conventional wisdom says that you need to run a big company differently than a startup and there’s a lot of truth to that. But for large enterprises seeking to grow by exploring new lines of business, thinking more like a startup makes a lot of sense. Steve Blank, who pioneered the concept of the “lean startup,” has often written that “no business plan survives first contact with the customer.” That’s why he urges startups to “get out of the building” and
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Tronc vs. the Right Way for Publishers to Compete in the Digital Age

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Last week I wrote an article about Tribune Publishing’s reincarnation as Tronc and the poorly thought-out video that the company released, describing its efforts. As best I could tell, the article was well received and many people, even those employed at Tronc, seemed to think I got it right. My basic point was that the notion that you can transform a failing media company — or any company in any industry, for that matter — by infusing it with data and algorithms is terribly misguided. I stand by that analysis, but I realize that rather than tell publishers what they should do, I merely spelled out what won’t work. I also think my article gave Tronc’s management short shrift. They are trying to revive a storied icon of American journalism and should be given some credit. As a former publishing CEO who managed a number of digital and print brands,
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Tronc’s Data Delusion

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Tribune Publishing, a storied icon of American journalism, recently renamed itself Tronc and released a video to show off a new “content optimization platform,” that Malcolm CasSelle, Tronc’s chief technology officer, claims will be “the key to making our content really valuable to the broadest possible audience” through the use of machine learning. As a marketing ploy the move clearly failed. Instead of debuting a new, tech-savvy firm that would, in the words of chief digital officer Anne Vasquez, be like “having a tech startup culture meet a legacy corporate culture,” it came off as buzzword-laden and naive. The internet positively erupted with derision. Yet what I find even more disturbing than the style is the substance. The notion that you can transform a failing media company — or any company in any industry for that matter — by infusing it with data and algorithms is terribly misguided. While technology
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Technology Progresses When Business, Government, and Academia Work Together

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By the mid-1980’s, the American semiconductor industry seemed like it was doomed. Although US firms had pioneered and dominated the technology for two decades, they were now getting pummeled by cheaper Japanese imports. Much like cars and electronics, microchips seemed destined to become another symbol of American decline. The dire outlook had serious ramifications for both US competitiveness and national security. So in 1986, the American government created SEMATECH, a consortium of government agencies, research institutions and private industry. By the mid 1990’s, the US was once again dominating semiconductors. Today, SEMATECH is a wholly private enterprise, funded by its members, but its original model is being widely deployed by other consortia to solve new problems, such as creating next generation batteries, curing cancer, and reviving American manufacturing. The truth is that some of the problems we face today are simply too big and complex to be solved by
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Want to Do Corporate Innovation Right? Go Inside Google Brain

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Apple fuses technology with design. IBM invests in research that is often a decade ahead of its time. Facebook “moves fast and maintains a stable infrastructure” (but apparently doesn’t break things anymore). Each of these companies, in its own way, is a superior innovator. But what makes Google (now officially known as Alphabet) different is that it doesn’t rely on any one innovation strategy, but deploys a number of them to create an intricate — but powerful — innovation ecosystem that seems to roll out innovations by the dozens. The company is, of course, a massive enterprise, with $75 billion in revenues, over 60,000 employees, and a dizzying array of products, from the core search business to the android operating system to nascent businesses like autonomous cars. So to better understand how Google innovates, I took a close look at what it’s doing in one area: Deep Learning, a
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Content Marketers Need to Act Like Publishers

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One of the biggest cop-outs in corporate life is to say, “We had a great strategy, but we just couldn’t execute it.” Hogwash. Any strategy that doesn’t consider the ability to execute is a lousy strategy to begin with. The problem is particularly pervasive when it comes to content. For all of the talk about “brands becoming publishers,” most marketers are simply tacking on publishing functions to their existing operations without implementing any new processes or practices. That is a grave mistake. As I previously wrote for Harvard Business Review, marketers do need to think more like publishers, but they also need to act more like publishers if they are ever going to be able to hold an audience’s attention. If you can’t create a compelling experience, it doesn’t really matter what your content strategy is: it will fail. Great publishers operationalize their content strategy by doing the following four
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Optimizing Each Part of a Firm Doesn’t Optimize the Whole Firm

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Most people found the General Motors ignition switch scandal appalling. Not only did the defect result in over 100 deaths, but it turned out that fixing the problem would have cost less than $1 per car. For many, it was a horrible indictment of corporate greed. Profits, it seems, were valued more than human lives. Yet look a little closer and it becomes clear that the real problem wasn’t callousness, but mismanagement. The defect in the ignition system was, in fact, relatively minor. The real problem was that it caused airbags not to deploy. Each subsystem was performing to standard, but the interaction between them resulted in disaster. Unfortunately, most organizations today fall into the same trap: they look at isolated metrics, but fail to see the whole system. They optimize each part of the business separately, and fail to consider how they interact. When we see an operation as a
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Why No One Is Reading Your Marketing Content

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Marketing in a digital economy is more difficult now than it was in the days of mass media. Then, big budgets and strong messages were enough to get consumers to remember you. Today, not only have audiences fragmented, requiring a more targeted approach, but digital activity is tracked — so even if you succeed in building brand awareness, your rivals can retarget those consumers with competing offers. That’s why many brands have turned to content. Rather than paying to be sandwiched within ad breaks and between editorial pages, content marketing lets brands communicate directly with consumers. Unfortunately though, the result is all too often a longer-form version of the same old ads. Marketers need to change their approach. Here are four questions that will help you create a viable strategy: 1. Why do you need content? In an overview of the subject, the Content Marketing Institute explains that marketers need content because, “traditional
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Content Is Crap, and Other Rules for Marketers

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Until fairly recently, the options for marketers were relatively limited. Mass media — TV especially — offered the opportunity to reach millions, but only in the form of short ads sandwiched between lots of other stuff. Other tactics, such as trade shows, offered high engagement, but low reach. Digital technology and social media have offered the best of both worlds — the ability to reach, and engage, millions of people. Nike videos on YouTube routinely attract more than 10 million views. Coke has nearly 100 million followers on Facebook. Red Bull has its own TV channel. Yet despite these scattered successes, there is mounting evidence that most marketers’ content efforts are failing.  The Content Marketing Institute reports that although the majority of B2B and B2C marketers have some kind of content marketing program, less than 40% find those efforts effective.  Clearly, things need to improve.  Here are four places to start,
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