Mike Walsh: The Secret Of Shuffle Innovation

There was a game I Mike Walshused tolike to play when I first started traveling. When I arrived in a new city, I’d set out with a map, a notebook and a coin. Rather than follow a plan, I’d delegate all choices to a coin toss. Heads, turn left. Tails, walk into that book store. Heads, walk three blocks and then take the first left. A flick of the wrist, sunlight catching shiny metal on a downward arc – a decision made. As I recorded my random adventures on my map – a new world would gradually render into being, like one of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I thought about those maps the other day when one of my clients asked me how they should embed innovation into their culture. Chance has always been a willing mistress to creativity – but could it also play midwife to innovation?

Sadly, companies often talk about innovation like it is a form of calisthenics. We have all read those over enthusiastic internal memos encouraging staff to be more innovative – as if, like sit ups or star jumps, it was just a matter of exercising a previously unused muscle in your brain. Some years ago, the Singaporean government was so worried that its citizens were hard working but not innovative, that they instituted a series of creative programs at schools. During the appointed creativity hour, kids were strongly encouraged to all be as innovative as possible, naturally in a quiet and diligent way. It was not, as you might expect, a stellar success. The problem is, whether you are a kid or a corporate VP – being innovative is not something you can just switch on. Inevitably we face a ‘white paper problem’.

One of my favorite artists is Max Ernst. Despite his prolific output of surrealist landscapes and images rich in personal mythology – he sometimes complained of the paralysing effect of a blank white sheet of paper. With an infinite number of possible things you can create, how do you simply get started? To get around this problem, he would begin some of his works by rubbing black lead over a piece of wood or a section of floorboard. From the randomness of the resulting images, he would be inspired to then create a masterpiece.

You will often hear people talk about Google’s 20% program – the policy that their engineers can spend a fifth of their time working on their own pet projects. Interestingly though, this is not the really smart part of how Google builds a culture of innovation. Simply telling people they can spend time working on their own stuff is to invite a ‘white paper problem’. When I recently interviewed Justin Baird, an ‘innovationist’ (yes, that is his real title) at Google he told me that they have an internal online forum that allowed people to list projects and ideas that interested them. When you were looking for a project to innovate around, you didn’t have to just stare at the ceiling and think up something entirely new – you could browse a database of ideas, people and initiatives to look for areas where you could contribute and collaborate. Sure – its great to stand on the shoulders of giants, but sometimes lots of very small people stacked on top of each other is just as useful.

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I think we can learn an interesting lesson from Google’s innovation forum. Despite the persistent hype about the information revolution, we are still at the very early days of how we leverage the information, ideas and intellectual capital that is hidden in the substratum of businesses. Knowledge management was the hot buzzword in the nineties – but most projects, which required people to create masses of useless documentation – failed to engender either participation or inspiration. But what if we could introduce a little more randomness into the process.

A colleague of mine, who visited the CEO of Best Buy told me that he saw three screens in his office – that constantly updated with what consumers were saying on Twitter, blogs and other social networks. This is just the beginning of a new way of visualising innovation triggers in real time. In coming years, the business analytics space will need to be overhauled with a bit more creative flair. Rather than relying on just formal reporting and planning processes, we should be presented with attractive infographics that randomly display customer comments, unusual transactional patterns, cross referenced data, and even random images and videos sourced from the Web. The true starting point of innovation is pattern recognition – seeing possibilities in changing consumer behavior or deeper truths in everyday business processes.

So, if you could put your business on shuffle what might that look like? Are there opportunities you are missing because you are not exposing yourself to a wide enough set of new possibilities? If you look closely you will probably discover that the best ideas are not waiting for a brillant demiurge to invent – but are already lurking in the minds of your staff and customers, just waiting for an opportunity to materialise into being.

Flip a coin and find out.

Article from Mike Walsh’s Blog

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