Innovation: Beyond Buzzwords

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Out here in Silicon Valley, “innovation” is center square on buzzword bingo. Everybody talks about it. Everybody wants to be associated with it. Everybody claims to do it. But not all innovation is created equal. As we strive to become innovators in our industries, I’d like to offer a few practical tips for how to think about innovation in a way that breaks through the noise and delivers impact.

Necessity is the mother of invention
Step 1: Find a purpose.

Innovation is most useful when it’s in response to a clearly understood need. The more grounded we are in a precise, differentiated purpose, the more effective our ideas will be. Just last week, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner shared with a group of LinkedIn B2B Connect attendees that having a clear differentiated purpose is in fact the single most important determining factor in the success of any new LinkedIn feature or service.

For a professional services organization like Blanc & Otus, there are three primary needs to consider: helping our own people, helping our clients, and helping our profitability. And while all three are connected, helping our people is the most important. After all, we are our own product.

Whether we’re looking to improve our efficiency and automate tasks we’re already doing, or looking to improve our effectiveness with new services we’re not doing yet, or looking to improve our impact with data services that show the value of what we’re doing…helping unleash the full potential of our amazing tribe of consultants is, I believe, the best possible purpose behind any of our innovations.

Engage in a little creative destruction
Step 2: Blow some stuff up.

Not literally, of course, but conceptually. When imagining and engineering new ways to work, it’s extremely helpful to blow up old assumptions and outdated models to clear a path for fresh thinking. When Facebook first launched, it was a stated assumption of all Internet-driven businesses that it was bad to have “white space” on your web site. MySpace had set the standard, and it looked a teenager’s bedroom wall that had been over-run with fan posters. But Facebook challenged that assumption and believed that a social network was less about pushing media and more about pulling people together. And when it launched, it had the most minimalistic webpage anybody had ever seen. It defied convention. And it worked.

So, once you’re grounded in purpose, ask yourself what old assumptions you’re carrying around with you. Dump them. Create some conceptual white space in which to work. And have some fun while you’re doing it!

Innovation isn’t just about technology
Step 3: Be human.

Innovation is about way more than the latest shiny new gadget or app. Technology is but one of many forms of innovation. People, process and technology all have to work in tandem for a new idea to work. And of the three, people are usually the slowest moving component of any change. After all, a new technology doesn’t resist change when you upgrade it.

That’s why cultural innovation and changing the human operating system are as important, if not more important, than the technology operating systems we work with. Process innovation, and shifting the protocols by which we work together, is also a great way to reduce complexity and increase speed and scale. Even environmental innovation, and changing the space in which we work, can have a profound impact on our overall creativity and productivity. So, ask yourselves, how can we innovate the non-technical aspects of innovation and make a real impact?

Ingenuity is as valuable as innovation
Step 4: Use what you’ve got.

Innovation is the creation of something brand new, like a wheel. Ingenuity is the creative recombination of existing components to produce something useful, like when somebody took two wheels, ran a stick through the center of them, and put a box on top to make a cart. Ingenuity is particularly helpful in professional services firms where people are already resourceful and tenacious.

Looking again at Facebook as an example, ingenuity is what the company was all about. Mark Zuckerburg didn’t invent anything. He used existing technologies in a new and disruptive way. Same with LinkedIn. Same with Uber and Lyft. So, the question is, how can those of us in the professional services industry become models of ingenuity?

Co-Create Something Amazing
Step 5: Crowd-source your solution

Once you’ve found your purpose, blown up old assumptions, thought through the human implications of your innovation, and used your existing resources to full effect, now you’re ready to create something brand new. And in this final step, nothing is more important than tapping into the wisdom of the amazing tribe of people around you. And it’s important to reach beyond your immediate circle of employees and colleagues. Involve your customers and clients, partners, influencers and most especially your critics in your creative process. Collaborative co-creation yields so much more innovation because it brings together such a rich combination of complementary perspectives. And collaborative co-creation allows for more people to have a personal stake in the success of the innovation initiative you’re pursuing.

At B&O, we’re fortunate to have a tribe of digital natives who are in touch with the latest digital tools and techniques, and who are on the front lines of delivering value to our clients. Our Facebook, Instragram and LinkedIn programs were all started by our youngest employees. We recently aired one of our marketing summits on Periscope at the recommendation of our staff. By being open to experimentation and involving a broader group of people in the creative process, we’ve been able to embrace change in a way that brings us closer together as a team. 

What are your own pointers for embracing innovation? We’d love to co-create some professional service innovation with you, so join the conversation!

PR = Persuade Responsibly: The Science and Ethics of Innovation Storytelling

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“With great power comes great responsibility.” Not only was this Uncle Ben’s transformational advice to Spiderman, it remains a particularly applicable adage when it comes to technology PR.

The science of persuasion has been around since Cicero, and his influence on modern-day PR is palpable to those who appreciate that sort of thing. There have since been several modern articulations of the science of influence, including the six universal principles of persuasion outlined by Dr. Robert Cialdini of ASU.

In recent months, there’s been a tidal wave of attention given to the additional power that storytelling brings to persuasive communications. And when the story is picked up and repeated by a community of influential people—what B&O calls “viral storytelling”—we move from a mere marketing campaign to becoming a movement.

But sometimes, it’s tempting to get caught up in the power of the story we’re telling without stopping to think through where the story will take us. One recent example of this is the downfall of a well-intentioned electric vehicle infrastructure company, Better Place, as detailed in a recent Fast Company article. Not only did Better Place build up a compelling set of messages and multi-faceted narrative, but it also established an entire corporate mythology around one core mission statement: to end the world’s addiction to oil. Sadly, the story outpaced the reality, and ironically, while the broader vision for EV infrastructure is being realized today, the company itself wasn’t a necessary component of its own vision. Ultimately the story—and the company—collapsed.

This is another example of Dr. Cialdini’s counsel that the science of persuasion needs to be applied ethically and honestly. That’s why it’s important to embark on any technology storytelling exercise with a few important ground rules firmly in place:

  1. True—all claims must be defensible with evidence
  2. Compelling—the story needs to resonate emotionally and consider the human impact of the technology
  3. Intuitive—the story needs to be understandable by non-techies so they can appreciate its potential and participate meaningfully in the discussion
  4. Differentiating—the story needs to add something new to the existing discussion and avoid merely jumping on the latest bandwagon
  5. Validated—the story needs to include a discerning view from impartial, external experts
  6. Viral—the story needs to include compelling, open-ended questions that invite genuine discussion and examination

Stories have the power to shape behavior on an individual, corporate, industry and even global level. Storytellers—good ones—have an enormous impact on how technologies are perceived and used. Given the importance of using all our existing resources intelligently, it’s nice to know that technology PR professionals are in a position to help the world truly become a better place.

XTC—Examining the Change: Ingenuity over Innovation

At our 2014 Tech MarkScreen Shot 2014-09-11 at 12.02.01 PMeters Playbook event last week, we previewed a number of themes we see emerging in tech PR this year that we will be examining in more detail on this blog over the coming weeks. Namely, approaching customers as influencers; changing the relationship with risk; engineering for expectations; and the rise of small data over big data.

But one of the biggest trends we see emerging is the rise of Ingenuity over Innovation. And as “innovation” is now center square for buzzword bingo in tech PR, it’s worth a closer look.

Here I’m defining “innovation” as the creation of a brand new component that’s never been seen before, and “ingenuity” as the creative recombination of existing components into something more useful. The wheel was an innovation. New. Impressive. By itself, useless. Then some ingenious soul took two wheels, put a stick through them and set a box on top, thus creating a cart. Also impressive. And immediately useful.

The problem with innovation is that it usually happens in a time of surplus. The wheel only came along after we’d learned to farm and store food and discovered free time. But ingenuity happens in moments of great need, when a difficult task needs to be done right now and we simply have to make do with what we have.

That’s the reality we face today.  And that’s why we are entering an era of ingenuity.

The good news is that ingenuity is an inexhaustible human resource. You see it at work today in key verticals such as automotive, healthcare, manufacturing and financial services. These sectors have to be cautious around innovation, given the regulations and cultures that govern them. But they must adapt to disruption to survive. So they don’t default to spending time and money on innovation for its own sake. They find mind-blowing new ways to use things that have already proven to be useful—and trustworthy.

Perhaps the most liberating thing about ingenuity is that it allows us to challenge the myth of scarcity. Too often we as a PR community begin our pitches with cost, complexity and risk. Without realizing it, we perpetuate a zero-sum game that assumes we just don’t have enough to work with now.

But what if we in the tech PR community could flip the script on scarcity and pose the viral question, “What if we do have everything we need? What if we just need the ingenuity to make better use of what we have?” What impact would it have if together we started telling the ingenuity story? Imagine the dialogue across entrepreneurs, technologists, economists and influencers around the ingenious utilization of the plethora of proven innovations at our feet.

Now that’s a story worth telling.