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Tell me a Story: the Fuzzy Front End of Innovation
October 4, 2006

Positive Turbulence is a paradox. It asks organizations to invite energizing, disparate, invigorating, unpredictable forces in the form of new and dissimilar information into their awareness in order to utilize and integrate its chaotic energy to stimulate new thinking linked to problem solving and strategic innovation.

The AMI (Association for Managers of Innovation) is an affinity group for organizational practitioners of the innovation process and a source of positive turbulence for the membership. The membership identified a major problem in the innovation process known as the fuzzy front end — the sorting of the multitude of new ideas for products and processes into those most likely to transit successfully through the stages along the process of innovation implementation into the market place. The early identification of potentially successful ideas reduces time and costs and can lead to the redirection of appropriate resources to these early-identified and high potential winners.

The AMI membership asked the conveinnor (yours truly) to determine organizations that handle the early identification of potentially successful ideas well and then invite their representatives to address the AMI membership about their processes and what they believe they do that matters that makes a difference, in this process. To be direct, what organizational activities matter when translating novel ideas into viable alternative solutions?

Of course, the one company known for doing this well has been 3M. Their culture for innovation was instituted at the time of the founding of the company and W. L. McKnight (Chairman, 1948) called it his 1st Principle — Freedom in the Work Place.

"As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage people to exercise their initiative. Those people, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way."

McKnight's principle translated into the 15% Rule one where all researchers are allowed to put aside 15% of their time to work on problems they find important, intrinsically motivating, and in need of an solution. This freedom is not over and above the traditional research week (in other words not 115% of their time) but the work week is 100% less 15% personally directed time where researchers are encouraged to explore new thinking, network with other 3M researchers, and experiment in the lab with half baked ideas. All this takes place outside the parameters of the research agenda set by the laboratory director and is believed to be consistent with the creativity needed to achieve the stretch goals set by the company which are that at least 30% of sales revenue each year come from products four years old or less.

Stretch goals of this caliber require a full pipeline of new and useful ideas. The existence of a full pipeline suggests as a research and development process with some sound translation mechanisms for moving these high quality ideas from the fuzzy front end, through the pipeline and into the market place quickly and efficiently. The translation of these new ideas seems to be the first sieve that makes this particular system successful.

A More Generic Approach to Innovation from Positive Turbulence.

The verb used consistently by the AMI membership to describe this pipeline process attached to a full fuzzy front end was to translate, the process of translation. And in keeping with the principles of positive turbulence, I decided to bring in a world-class translator to address the membership on the principles of translation. I was given the name of Yvonne Seng, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Yvonne had worked with an AMI member from the International YMCA. Seng is a cultural historian specializing in civilizations in Islamic history in the Middle East and Turkey. She spent more than 10 years translating Near Eastern languages having learned old Arabic from the time of the early Ottoman Empire. She had taught Near East studies at Princeton, Georgetown and American University. I had found someone who knew about translating but also someone who was probably the furthest removed from new product research and development pipelines than anyone I could find. Yvonne Seng was the perfect source for positive turbulence.

Within the first half of her presentation Seng declared that a good translation is one that is always accompanied by a "good story". She provided us with some examples from her own work translating historical documents from the early days of the Ottoman Empire. As she continued, I began to note the knowing shaking of heads of our membership in agreement with her statement. The AMI members in fact knew this truism from their own experience but had not thought of it as a consistent requisite tool in the management of the fuzzy front end of innovation until having that possibility confirmed by a community outsider.

Find a story to accompany or encapsulate the new idea and in so doing the idea takes on meaning beyond the initial blanch of the words. Meaning making requires context and a story provides that context along with some memory markers for decision makers who impact the process stages of the innovation process. The idea becomes singled out from all the rest. The story offers some life to the idea from the fuzzy front end and in turn enhances the probability that a place exists for this new idea in the organizations innovation process.

Once more, the positive turbulence process suggests that the answer may be found by looking around you and not just to the immediate known expert. Also, when looking into another field for the answer, you must work harder at applying the learning to your own setting. Just copying what others do from the same industry is most likely not to succeed since the new organization is not the same as the one the idea was taken from. Straight process copying does not easily work because organizational differences are too great.

Organizational leadership that fosters innovation creates a culture that values and seeks novelty. Organizations that look for these new forces for change while managing for innovation create novel and useful ideas and processes that solve the complex problems often associated with change. In this way creative leaders make meaning, set the tone for the culture of renewal along with the climate compatible for change. This reality has always been present but now that we operate in a global context and in a wired world change come faster and from more exotic sources than ever before and therefore the need for the novelty provided by the seeking of positive turbulence.

Perhaps this story will help you remember an important tool in improving the innovation process today — the ancient art of story telling.

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