The values of innovation

They say groups make bad decisions. That’s why we need leadership.

The solution might be a team leader, who makes decisions on behalf of the group: Limit decision power, and decisions will become consistent, on target and effective.

This works great in a number of circumstances. In a restaurant kitchen, for instance, nobody wants chefs who disagree on how long to cook the aspargus. People are hungry – we need a ruler.

Conversely, a ruler is a disaster in innovation. To creative minds, pursuing “the next big thing” (whatever it may be), nothing pacifies more than a micromanaging split- and conquer regime.

Give them a clear objective, a business goal, you might say. “Increase market share by 20% over the next 18 months”. If the goal is realistic, they may reach it. But will it be innovation?

Quote Jon Stewart Values are to an innovator what music sheets are to a musician. Both need a lot of practice

Maybe they realize that their goal easily can be reached by improved presence on social media? Would a responsible team in this situation instead choose to pursue that other innovative idea, that could take them 100 times beyond their goal? Most likely not. (Comment: Choosing “the hard part” is what I like to call disobedient innovation. Teams who do this have one thing in common: They succeed in spite of the organzation, not because of the organization)

Does it matter that objectives are obstacles to long-term innovation? The answer depends on your area of business: If big market changes sooner or later will threat the very existence of your company, further optimization will not help you reach that ultimate long-term goal: To stay in business.

When focus on goals stop you from reaching goals, leadership has to become more than rules and objectives.

You need values.

Iterate is a software consultancy with a tradition: Each year we employ summer students as “entrepreneurs for hire”. This summer’s students are innovating on behalf of Telenor (the world’s seventh largest Telco company), and one thing is for certain: In the middle of the summer, a lot of people in Norway are on vacation, even in companies like Iterate and Telenor.

As we don’t have the capacity to rule our students, we need to build teams that are good at making decisions on their own. The additional bonus we hope for, is to release that creativity and vitality a controlling regime so easly would neutralize.

Team “Cloud Phone” iterates over younger people, an important customer segment for Telenor. In search for “pragmatists in pain”, we’ve identified foreign exchange students as a target group. Cloud Phone allows them to keep their Norwegian phone number active, while temporarily switching to a local mobile operator during their exchange year.

The idea will only work if we can capture our exhange students early on (even inferior solutions are hard to beat once they’ve become a habit). Cracking the riddle of customer activation, team “Cloud Phone” has the following objective:

After arriving abroad, the first call back home to mom will be made with Cloud Phone.

The team holds itself true to three values:

  1. We build on validated learning
  2. We document everything we learn in the simplest possible way
  3. We never wait for anything or anyone

The first value deals with speculation, lengthy discussions and group think: If you want to implement a feature, you first need to experiment and learn from customers whether they need it or not. The second value helps us with consistency, transparency and continuity. The third value enables the team to improvise at will. If nobody can find that customer insight report they asked for (the rest of us are one vacation), the summer team will have to get out on the building and gather insights of their own. (In Norway, Telenor customers are everywhere.)

Calvin and Hobbes comic When you’re an entrepreneur, everything you do is an experiement

We’ve asked the team to blog about how this value based leadership style plays out on an everyday basis: In which way does it help them make decisions, and what effect does it have on overall progress? (See link at bottom of this post)

This is not a matter of throwing a few values at the team and ask them to come back with an innovation after six weeks. They also need the right competence. So we hold workshops, we recommend reading materials, and we discuss over coffee (and beer brewing – another summer student tradition of ours).

For anyone with a desire to control, it’s tempting to over-intrepret competence building and disguise a controlling regime under superficial values and rigoruos “on the job” training. That’s a big topic out of scope for this post. Bottom line: Any line of thinking can be abused.

Our core value has always been to learn as fast as possible. To learn about customers, technology and innovative ideas, but also about organization, people and attitudes. The best learning opportunity is at the end of an iteration – after you’ve tried something and you’re ready to evaluate the results.

Iterate Lean Summer of 2015 is our next value iteration. We asked the team to write about how these values play out in real life: Here’s what they said.

“Management by values is concerned with attitudes, motivation and organizational culture; it is concerned with quality in all phases of a company’s activities. It is concerned with ethics in the broadest understanding of the term.” – Guttorm Fløistad (The art of getting along)

Whish you all a great summer!

Related posts from @hauge2:

Anders Haugeto (37) is software engineer, experiment designer and entrepreneur helping the customers of Iterate innovate faster. He shows intrapreneurs how lean thinking helps their mission in life – disrupt yourself from within.

1 Comment

  1. It’s interesting to follow the summer interns.

    As an aside something like Cloud Phone already exists in terms of Skype-In. But Norway is one of the few countries which disallows it. One suspects Telenor has a hand in the making of that ruling…

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