Last week, all 41 members of our company gathered in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse for a “Day of Business”. The purpose was to review and adjust our Mission and our Guiding Principles , and to engage in a strategic planning exercise to envision the next five years for our company. As partial preparation for this and the department-level visioning that proceeded it, Deirdre asked me to share some perspective on Innovation. The following is an edited version of a memo I wrote to the company.
I don’t think of innovation as being in any way separate from daily work, meaning it’s not some special kind of work – it’s just what we do. Incremental innovation (small improvement to existing services) is happening every day at South Mountain. Every time we improve a system, an approach, a design, a use of technology – we’re innovating.
There are three other types of innovation often recognized by innovation thinkers. These past few years at SMCo have been chock full of each, big and small. The types, and just one example from recent times:
Sustaining innovation (significant improvement to existing services)
Example: The recent overhaul of our Management and Governance System . This will significantly expand internal participation, transparency, and engagement across the company.
Radical innovation (creating new markets)
Example: Establishing and building our Energy Technology business, which took solar from something we employed on our own projects to something we offered to residential, institutional, and commercial customers island-wide, including working people who we do not often serve with our design/build services.
Disruptive innovation (creating new products)
Example: Expanding our services to creating high performance buildings and campuses for island non-profits like Camp Jabberwocky, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and Island Grown Farm – a whole new kind of work for us with significant learning and community engagement rewards.
Innovation is harder than maintaining the status quo and is often accompanied by a healthy feeling of discomfort. Luckily, the drive to push through is baked into SMCo DNA. It’s a constant gravitational pull – a non-innovative SMCo would be unrecognizable to each of us.
It began that way. When I say (probably too often) that “we never know what we’re doing, never have,” it’s because innovation was the foundation of this company, and it still is. We’re always in the process of learning how to do what we’re doing.
We are also constantly building incrementally on the innovations of others, adding our innovations to theirs. We are forever prospecting our various networks and colleagues for innovative practices that we can employ and enhance.
My two favorite books about innovation are Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, by Carmine Gallo (a deeper, more comprehensive treatment of the same subject is Walter Isaakson’s book Steve Jobs) and Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard.
Jobs’ “Seven Secrets of Innovation” are:
1. Do What You Love. Think differently about your career.
2. Put a Dent in the Universe. Think differently about your vision.
3. Kick Start Your Brain. Think differently about how you think.
4. Sell Dreams, Not Products. Think differently about your customers.
5. Say No to 1,000 Things. Think differently about design.
6. Create Insanely Good Experiences. Think differently about your brand experience.
7. Master The Message. Think differently about your story.
Chouinard’s book does not position itself as a book about Innovation, but it emphatically is. A quote:
“While values should never change, every organization, business, government, or religion must be adaptive and resilient and constantly embrace new ideas and methods of operation.”
In the case of both Apple and Patagonia, Jobs’ first two “secrets” – Do What You Love and Put a Dent in the Universe – tower above the rest: be sure to work where your passion lies and be sure your work makes a difference. If you do just those two, you are bound to innovate. (How could you not if you’re in a position to make a difference about that which you love and care about?)
But what does innovation have to do with the strategic planning exercise we are about to engage in? The primary points of intersection, I think, are in visioning the future and setting goals to reach that future. Identifying the innovations that might make a difference. Creating goals that look ahead and that, if they manifest, will allow us to look back from an entirely new place.
Making an overall vision from which the goals derive may be more about another “I” word: Imagination. We must imagine a different future to create a platform on which to innovate. Visioning helps us to arrive at the place we imagined. John Lennon’s song “Imagine” is one of the most treasured and visionary songs ever. If we can imagine what we want, we can get there. Little things but big things too. Climb the 14ers out west (get to the top). Hike the Appalachian Trail (get to the end). Transition to SMCo Next Generation (get to the new beginning).
Our job is to imagine and define the visions that are the stage-set for our innovation goals.
Innovation is a survival mechanism too. Someone once said, “Either we become good at planting in the spring, or we learn how to beg in the fall.” Planting in the spring must be a hallmark of our practice.
Simon Sinek, in the book Start With Why, says that there are three parts to attracting people to your product or service and to inspiring team members to innovate: the What (what you do), the How (how you do it) and the Why (why you do it). The most successful companies, he maintains, are those that lead with – and consistently emphasize – the Why.
From its humble garage workshop beginnings to its extraordinary position in commerce today, Apple has always led with the Why:
“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.” Front and center, always, is their purpose. Only after that comes How: “The way we challenge the status quo is making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly.”The What is really just an afterthought: “By the way, we happen to make great computers.”
Most companies and organizations start with What, then get to How, and only later (if at all) get to Why. This is a fundamental oversight.
The best possible way for us to inspire innovation throughout our company is to focus our primary attention on Why. Why are we doing these things? When we nail the Why, we can begin to create pathways through which new capacities and new value can flow.
Innovation comes in all forms. Once we were beginning a new house on the site of a decrepit old one that the clients wanted torn down. We decided that one part, the oldest, was in fine condition and convinced our clients to let us move it and make it into a garage with a studio above. We built a slab-on-grade foundation to move it to. Now, when you move a house, you generally place steel beams under it, lift it, set it over a foundation, cut holes in the foundation for the beams, set it down, pull the beams, and patch the holes. In this case, with a slab on grade, was no place for the beams to go, no slots for them to lower into. The building could be placed over the foundation, but how would it be lowered in a way that would allow the beams to be pulled?
Our crew asked the mover, Mike Reid. He said, “come back Thursday morning and I’ll show you.” Our crew arrived, Mike and his helpers pulled in, and they started to unload blocks of ice from the back of the truck. They set the blocks of ice, which were taller than the steel beams, on the foundation, lowered the building onto the ice, pulled out the steel beams, said “You guys are all set here” and drove off. Twelve hours later the ice had melted and the building was sitting, fair and square, on the foundation.
Innovation, pure and simple. . .on ice!
Note: I first saw Jon Foreman’s extraordinary land art, used as illustration here, on Mitch Anthony’s amazing blog Love and Work, which is one of the few blogs that I read, religiously, top to bottom, week after week on Friday afternoons. Highly recommend!
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