Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Digging for innovation diamonds

This morning on NPR, I heard a story about Einstein’s brain. Bear with me, this is relevant to innovation…

Apparently,Einstein’s brain was fairly normal, except that it had an overabundance of a type of cell called a Glial cell. When I was taught neuroanatomy in college, I was taught that a Glial cell was a cell that glued the brain together and, perhaps, provided some nutrients to support neurons (the cells involved in processing information). When scientists discovered that Einstein had loads of Glial cells, they were perplexed. Why would this brilliant genius have more Glial cells? They didn’t DO anything… or so they thought. So, the scientists started taking a much closer look at Glial cells. They discovered that Glial cells did, in fact, communicate information. They just communicated in a different way than neurons: with biochemistry. This discovery radically changed neuroscientists understanding of the brain and how it works… it changed everything. And, it stemmed from digging into an observation that didn’t make sense.

When I heard this story, I was struck by how familiar it was. One of the stories we hear about all the time at Intuit is the story of how QuickBooks came about. The product Quicken, which is intended to help individuals balance their checkbooks and manage their personal finances, was being used by people for their business. That didn’t really make sense to the team. The product was for personal finances, not for business accounting… but, they finally dug into the finding and discovered that small business people, without a background in accounting, were using Quicken because it was easy to understand, and a more effective way of managing their finances than manual methods. These people wouldn’t use the existing accounting software tools because they were too complex and required an understanding of accounting principles. This insight changed everything. We built a product specifically for these non-accounting small businesses to manage their finances (QuickBooks), and were immediately dominating the market. The innovation stemmed from digging into an observation that didn’t make sense.

We don’t do this enough. We don’t pay attention to the sparkly observation that doesn’t make sense. We miss the diamonds. Why? Well, we aren’t looking for them. They don’t fit into the context of our current understanding, so we skip over them to the observations that do make sense. We’re looking for “problems” with the current state. However, looking for problems usually only leads to incremental design improvements. For RADICAL disruptions, those things that change everything, you have to look for the diamonds.

Here’s a challenge for today. Kind of a warm-up. As you go through your day, take a look for things that aren’t expected or don’t make sense.

It’s easier than you might think. In 10 minutes walking around my office filled with standard cubicles this morning, I found:
  • A crystal vase, filled with markers and a USB cord
  • A box of brownie mix
  • A bottle of clear nail polish
  • An open eyeglass case with glasses
  • A thermal carafe (the kind you get at diners, filled with coffee)
  • A dead plant (in a pot wrapped in purple tissue paper)

Each of these is unexpected. Each provokes my curiosity. Each suggest a purpose… although I would need to actually talk with the owners to verify. And, importantly, each were things that were easily overlooked as I glanced in people’s cubes.

Why do this warm-up? It gets you looking for the unexpected. You might find gold, you might find a rock, or you might, just might, stumble on a diamond.

No comments: