Gentry Underwood Keynote:Innovation Through E2.0

Gentry Underwood, Head of Knowledge Sharing, IDEO


[These are my quick notes, complete with  (what I hope is no more than) the occasional typo and grammatical error.  Please excuse those. Thanks!

From time to time, I’ll insert my own editorial comments – exercising the prerogatives of the blogger.  I’ll show those in brackets. ]


  • They focus on “design thinking” = human-centered design.
  • Three key principles of Design:
    • Empower people, not ideas – ideas are cheap
    • Create platforms for coalescence – give people a place to be together and work together.
      • They have a wiki system organized around groups, they have a blog effort that is a rich source of new ideas, etc.
    • Facilitate and Reward Participation.  Every little bit of friction in the system impedes participation.
      • They are maniacal about eliminating friction in the system.
      • Bring information to people. Don’t make them go find it. (They use a feed system for this.)
      • They display their activity stream on the wall of the office – it encourages people update their stream. This provides built-in rewards
  • Good design coupled with good technology will change the culture, which will in turn change they way an org works and what it produces.
  • They used a platform from existing software with a custom interface. They are moving to a mGenera platform.

Lem Lasher Keynote: The C Perspective

Lem Lasher is CSC’s Chief Innovation Officer. CSC is a global tech and business services company.


[These are my quick notes, complete with  (what I hope is no more than) the occasional typo and grammatical error.  Please excuse those. Thanks!

From time to time, I’ll insert my own editorial comments – exercising the prerogatives of the blogger.  I’ll show those in brackets. ]


  • They have a corporate-wide office of innovation.
  • They learned early that it is hard to get a good focus on innovation because there are many competing/diffuse definitions of innovation.
  • Can’t just focus on idea creation.  You also need the intellectual rigor and discipline to translate great ideas into practical business solutions and then deliver them.
  • Four themes of their innovation strategy: leadership, process, governance, enablement.
  • Paradox: really good management will kill innovation because good managers are trained to eliminate risk.
  • Good managers shouldn’t focus on individual innovators; instead focus on creating a good environment for innovation.
  • Look at innovation as part of an entire system — need to attend to innovators, customers, external partners
  • They enable and facilitate — rather managing in a command-and-control way
  • They focus on NEXT Practices rather than BEST practices
    • He says that if you implement best practices you just as good as the next guy.  BUT you need to be better.
  • E2.0 has taken off in CSC, based on a Jive platform. Nearly 50% of the employees are active on it.
  • Lem Lasher ended by announcing Clare Flanagan’s promotion. Nice!

Innovation Requires Time

Some things cannot be rushed. I was reminded of this truth when reading the description of Joseph Priestly in Jack Vinson’s book review of The Invention of Air:

The book is engagingly written, describing Priestly in both his positive and negative qualities and how his work fits into the greater context of what was happening in England and on the larger global stage.  One theme that was repeated throughout the story has to do with his deep interest in many areas: natural philosophy, religion, and politics being the primary areas.  He was deeply curious in all these areas with the best evidence being his prodigious talent for writing in all these areas.  The fact that he was interested in all these things was not enough to make him an important figure.  He had the opportunity to interact with many of the leading thinkers of his time from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to Antoine Lavoisier to the members of the Royal Society.  Along with this wonderful social network, Priestly’s vast interests also gave him an intellectual and idea network that was perfect for the age of amazing discoveries and thinking in this age.  And on top of these fantastic networks of people and ideas, Priestly (and many others of this age) had another key quality: he had the leisure to explore these things.

This snippet points to several important preconditions for innovation or paradigm shift:  (i) mastery of more than one subject, (ii) a social/professional network that allows the innovator to discuss and test ideas, and (iii) time.  Of these three, time is sometimes the most challenging.  In our world of hiring freezes where fewer are doing more, time is the rarest of commodities.  Yet, our minds need time to map one area of mastery on another and to elicit insights.  And, it takes time to find and engage the right people in your network to discuss  and test those ideas.  Finally, it takes time to bring an innovation to market and measure its impact.*

But leisure implies more than just time.  It also implies having the freedom to choose how to spend one’s time.  It isn’t enough for an employer to say “take a  day and innovate.”  What’s really needed is protected time in which you are free to follow your interests.  In doing so, you engage not only your intellect but your passion, which is another critical ingredient for innovation.  Passion leads you to the insight that others who are less engaged in the subject miss.

While necessity may be the mother of invention, time is the father of innovation.  And, in the case of innovation, perhaps lots of time is necessary.  So, how do you make the time for innovation?


*Updated:  Thomas Vander Wal pointed me to a post of his that discusses a failure by Boeing to give innovation an opportunity to take root and show results:  Acceptance of Innovation Takes Time.  It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

[Photo Credit:  Micky]



Back flips, somersaults, handstands. These acrobats did it all. Standard fare for an acrobat, you say? Perhaps. But these guys were doing it in a New York City subway train. Have you ever tried doing a rapid series of back flips in the narrow aisle of a moving train? Me neither. Perhaps it’s not such standard fare after all.

Knowledge managers have their own skills and tricks. And some of us are extremely good at what we do in normal office settings. But have you considered what might happen if you changed venue or context? What skills would be portable? What new tricks would you have to learn?  What new audiences or clients could you reach?

I’m not suggesting that you become an acrobat on a subway train. Rather, I’ve told the story to help you initiate a thought experiment. It’s in experiments like this that we discover new opportunities for innovation and growth — and, perhaps, a chance to brush-up some old tumbling skills.

[Photo Credit:  Florriebassingbourn]


After the Social Media Bubble

I had nearly finished drafting the legal documents for a hot new online start-up when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.  With the sudden end to the stratospheric stock prices for these new media companies, everyone felt free to criticize.  Do you remember how the bricks-and-mortar supporters derided the notion of doing business virtually?  Do you remember the anxiety about how to regulate and evaluate online business activities?  Ten years later, some of those concerns seem unwarranted.  And, more importantly, online business activity has become a significant part of the way we all live our lives.

If you look around, you’ll see some of the same issues with respect to Enterprise 2.0 and social media generally.  There’s lots of concern about how to evaluate its efficacy.  And even more concern about how to regulate it.  Some companies have clamped down on their employees, while others have taken a more moderate approach, presumably emboldened by the potential they see in these new communications channels.  Whatever mode your company’s in, take heart from the fact that we’ve seen this pattern of behavior before.  If you doubt it, watch the  5 1/2 minute video below entitled “Card-Carrying Capitalist Supports Nationalization” provided courtesy of The Wall Street Journal Online.  In this video, author Matthew Bishop explains why he thinks bank nationalization can be a good thing.  While I’m not in any way endorsing or criticizing his point of view, I was interested in his suggestion (about 2.5 minutes into the video) that bubbles follow innovation.  And, because it’s hard to understand properly what’s really going on in a period of great innovation, it’s easy for abuse to occur during that bubble.  However, companies that can find some sound operating principles that take advantage of the innovation will be able to ride out the bubble and emerge in a stronger position.  The role of social media evangelists is to help companies find that oasis of calm and sanity amid the hype and frenetic activity surrounding web 2.0 tools so they are well-positioned to thrive after the bubble bursts.

So when you hear people deriding social media and Enterprise 2.0, remember that they are viewing these new communications channels through their old bricks-and-mortar lens.  They will catch up with the rest of us once their vision has been corrected.

[Photo Credit:  h. koppdelaney]


How Failure Leads to Epiphany

Jonah Lehrer has written a thought-provoking piece on why we too often miss the great opportunities presented by failure. In Accept Defeat:  The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, he explains how our brains purport to “help” us by screening out information that doesn’t fit with what we believe we know.  Here’s how he describes it:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Ignoring failure can occasionally be a sanity-preserving, efficiency-enhancing approach to life.  However, when we ignore repeated failure, we may in fact be ignoring the only feasible explanation on the horizon.  Realizing this and acting on it requires strength of mind, openness, and a certain measure of humility.  It requires a true empiricist’s approach to life.

So how do we turn perceived failure around?  How do we find an epiphany amongst the rubble of unwanted test results?  Jonah Lehrer has the the following advice:

Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

When it comes to implementing Enterprise 2.0 tools, there’s no substitute for constant experimentation.  And, there’s no way to avoid disappointments as you struggle to find what works best in your organization.  That said, don’t be too quick to discard your apparent failures.  When viewed with an open mind, they may point the way to success.  By following Jonah Lehrer’s advice, you may be able to find a breakthrough — an Epiphany.


Here is some additional reading on Failure:

[Hat tip to Dan Pink for pointing out this article.]

[Photo Credit: wenzday01]


Social Media’s Role in Innovation (ILTA09)

What’s the biggest barrier to innovation?  According to Tom Koulopoulos, founder of Delphi Group,  your past success is the biggest barrier to your ability to innovate.

His theory is interesting.  When you have a success under your belt, you have something to protect: your reputation, your confidence, your sense of well-being.  Once you’re in protection mode, you’ll find that you’re unwilling to do anything that might upset your equilibrium.  You are reluctant to consider change or take new action.   You subsist in complacency.

In Tom Koulopoulos’ view, one of the great benefits of social media is that it is disruptive.   It brings new ideas to you, it asks new things of you, and it is beyond your control.  Despite the threat social media can present to the successful and complacent, if they are able to get over their defensive posture, they’ll find that social media provides a very effective spur to innovation and action.

[Photo Credit: papalar]


For additional information on Tom Koulopoulos’ ILTA09 keynote speech, see Sean Brady’s blog:  This Year At ILTA.


Host a Failure Party

In New York City’s glittering social scene, I’ve never heard of a failure party. Apparently, you have to be on the A-list in Indianapolis to be invited to one.

In 2004, The Wall Street Journal published an article on Eli Lilly’s failure parties. These parties were started in the early 1990s by W. Leigh Thompson, who used them “to commemorate excellent scientific work, done efficiently, that nevertheless resulted in failure.” According to the WSJ,

Lilly has long had a culture that looks at failure as an inevitable part of discovery and encourages scientists to take risks. If a new drug doesn’t work out for its intended use, Lilly scientists are taught to look for new uses for a drug.

As part of this effort, Lilly developed “a formalized and thoughtful process in which it reviewed failures more honestly, more deeply and started the process sooner than anyone else.”  This is a very sensible response to what is reported to be the 90% failure rate for most experimental drugs.

By taking a creative second look at what was originally considered a failure, companies have salvaged their investments and been able to bring profitable innovations to market:

  • Viagra was originally developed to treat angina (severe chest pain).
  • Evista, now a $1 billion- a-year drug for osteoporosis, was a failed contraceptive.
  • Strattera, a drug for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, was first conceived as an antidepressant.
  • Post-It Notes were intended to be an improvement on adhesive tape and ended up creating an entirely new product line.
  • Scotchgard was created for airplane fuel lines, but was re-purposed as a stain repellent.

Have you gone back to see where a well-conceived project went off the rails?  Can it be re-imagined for another useful purpose?  Innovation isn’t just about that initial brilliant idea.  Sometimes, it’s about a brilliant comeback plan.

[Hat tip to Matthew Cornell for forwarding an article on learning that mentioned Failure Parties.]

[Photo Credit:  frippy]


Try One Frightening Thing

In an interview with National Public Radio, Nigella Lawson provided the following secret for creating new recipes: try one new frightening thing every day.  The examples she gave might not appeal to every palate (e.g., lemon risotto morphing into lemon with linguine, and  Ham in Cider moving through Ham in Coca-Cola to become Ham in Cherry Coke), but they do provide insight into a useful approach to innovation.  She started with the insight that the best way to find out what works is by experimenting.  The changes she tried were not out of left field.  They were within the realm of possibility, provided you looked beyond the immediate and well-known.  For the excessively timid who live life in a recipe-bound, rules-bound, precedent-bound fashion, Nigella Lawson provided the following comforting reminder:

The worst that can happen is that you don’t have the best supper of your life. And the best that can happen is that you feel thrilled and excited and gratified by the fact that it’s worked.

This is a great example of the value of setting perspective in order to enable innovation.  By pointing out that all that was at stake was the quality of the supper, she creates a “safe-fail” environment, which is key to innovation.  In this instance, the downside is not dire, so what do you really have to lose by trying something new?  And, if your experiment doesn’t work, what real harm is done?

What are some equivalent opportunities in your organization?  Are there areas where you’ve been been recipe-bound for lack of willingness to take the comparatively small risk that supper might only be edible rather than delicious tonight?

[Photo Credit:  Rosie Greenway]


Running on Empty

Do you know what kind of fuel you need for inspiration and innovation?  I discovered the answer to that question the hard way this past weekend.

Last weekend several members of my family achieved important milestones. As a result, the entire weekend was taken up with large family events. And, with all that celebrating, I didn’t have my usual weekend time for reading and thinking. Not surprisingly, when I woke up Monday morning I didn’t have a blog post ready to publish.  Thankfully it didn’t take too long for me to prime the pump, but it was a good reminder that it’s hard to generate outputs without the requisite inputs and processing time.

The same rule applies to organizations that are trying to innovate.  It’s hard to produce new ideas if you have not ingested and digested a wide variety of stimuli.  Organizations (like brains) need something to chew on.  This suggests that a manager who is responsible for innovation better be sure that every member of the team has time to read, think and discuss.  Better still, they should have the opportunity to read outside their immediate area of responsibility and to discuss their findings with people outside their discipline.  It’s precisely this cross-pollination of ideas that leads to breakthroughs.

So, do you know what kind of fuel you and your team need in order to innovate?  Are you getting it in adequate supply or are you running on empty?

[Photo Credit:  mag3737]