Can You Teach Innovation?

Can someone learn how to be innovative? Tom Kelley, the General Manager of IDEO, definitely thinks so. He freely admits that he was skeptical when his firm departed from its history of hiring only engineers and started looking for “soft” skills, like anthropology. Yesterday I attended his session, “Ten Faces of Innovation” as part of the Microsoft Convergence accounting customer conference. I too was skeptical. Too often, sessions like this are full of management metaphor, animal allegory and fluff. This one made me think.

Tom used the examples of Sony and Samsung to demonstrate what it looks like when a hungry competitor starts taking a little slice of your pie. But he quickly moved on to his main point: there is no substitute to directly obsesrving how your customers use your product. Focus groups and surveys, he says, are fine for small innovations, but the big innovations require more work.

Applying the Lesson

What I love about a conference is that you can hear a key note speech on a general topic like innovation and then move to a detailed presentation where you can apply what you just learned. This morning I attended a session on getting the most from your distribution software. Part way through the software demonstration, Philippe Jacobsen, a Program Manager with Microsoft in Copenhagen showed some pictures of an actual warehouse. The pictures were not the type of sanitized, you-could-eat-off-the-floor kind of warehouse you usually see in Microsoft promotional material. In fact the place looked a little cluttered (i.e. like a real warehouse). Philippe paused to say that he had visited this company as part of his research. The company had used the Dynamics NAV system for years, but had never implemented the Distribution features, despite having inventory valued at over $10 million. His question was why. The answer was simple: the distribution features were too complex. They just wanted a simple system.

Keeping It Simple

Designing simplicity into a system is tough. It requires a lot of observation and analysis about how people use your product. Tom used the example of a defibrillator IDEO designed. Here’s the picture. In an emergency situation, do you think it would be easy to use?

Microsoft’s approach to making replenishment easy to use is to have the documents and screens follow the “simple” route. If you want to use the advanced features, you can drill down at key points in the process and open a window.

The challenge is and always will be to design general purpose software that fits diverse situations. Warehousing and distribution are areas where there is a wide variety of best (and not so good, but firmly entrenched) practices.

What has been your experience?

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