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Go Out and Find a Problem Worth Solving


by Braden Kelley

Interview with Greg Satell

I had the opportunity recently to interview fellow Innovation author Greg Satell to talk with him about his new book Mapping Innovation, which is his first book. Congratulations Greg!

1. In your book you use the term “A New Era of Innovation” – What do you mean by that?

What I mean is that for the past 20 or 30 years technology has followed a pretty predictable path because we were innovating along well understood paradigms, the best know of which is Moore’s law. So innovation really centered around applications and the best innovators were good iterators. Trial and error was actually a very good strategy because most of the effort was targeted at the end user, not the technology itself.

But that is coming to an end. Today those paradigms, like Moore’s law and others, such as lithium ion battery technology, are nearing their theoretical limits. So we’re going to have to come up with completely new architectures. At the same time, new technologies, such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics (including AI) are just beginning to hit their stride.

So we really are entering a new era that will look a lot more like the 50s and 60s than the 90s or the aughts. The challenges will be on a much more basic level than what we’ve become used to.

2. What is the role of insights in innovation?

I think an insight is just a starting point. Go to any great discovery or invention in history and you can find plenty of people who had the same idea (or at least say they did). One thing I found in my research is that in pretty much every case, to achieve something substantial, somebody had to overcome a difficult obstacle and push through it.

So I would say an insight is necessary, but not sufficient. You have to be able to see it through.

3. Why are combinations so important to innovation?

That’s an interesting question. I guess because combinations are so rarely obvious. There are always an infinite amount of possible permutations that it really takes some exploration to find a useful combination and, of course, because they are so hard to find, they tend to be quite valuable.

4. We see a lot of 2×2’s like the Innovation Matrix, what’s your unique insight behind the Innovation Matrix?

The basic idea behind the matrix was that, as a manager, I was really frustrated by how innovation strategies were presented. Usually, somebody is pushing an idea, whether it’s disruptive innovation, open innovation, design thinking or whatever and saying “this is how you innovate.” Yet clearly they can’t all be right because those ideas are very different and, in some ways, contradictory. 

Clayton Christenen, for example, says that obsessing about your customers can kill your business, but that’s exactly what design thinking says you should do, start by understanding the end users needs and go from there. Now, clearly they are talking about very different situations, but that doesn’t make it any less confusing, because both are saying, essentially, “this is how you should innovate” not “this is how you should innovate when…”

So the matrix helps clear that up, by matching strategies to the type of problems they’re best suited for. So it’s not so much an idea in itself, but a framework to integrate all the good ideas that have been developed in the last few decades.

5. Why are the minimum viable product (MVP) and pivot concepts so important to successful innovation?

Again, it depends on context. If you are trying to iterate and identify a customer, an MVP can be invaluable because it helps you test assumptions. On the other hand, if you are trying to cure cancer, I think a full featured prototype would probably be better.

6. We see a lot of different three horizon models, three box models, what’s your unique insight behind three horizon approaches to innovation?

I don’t think I really have any unique insight about the three horizon model. It’s a pretty clear and sensible framework. I included it in the book not because I had any unique insight, but because I think it should be a part of every organization’s toolbox.

You know it’s funny. A lot of people who read the book had never seen it before and think I came up with it (I wish I did!). So clearly, it’s something that’s worth spreading.

7. IBM seems to be running into another wall. What do you think the next transformation will be for IBM and do you think they will be successful?

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that IBM as an organization has hit a wall. In some ways, I think IBM is set up well to enter this new era of innovation because it is so strong with developing fundamental technologies, but less focused on the end user than, say, Apple is. So the past 20 or 30 years have not been a favorable environment for IBM.

The situation the company find itself in today is that it was a dominant company in a market, installed solutions, that is being absolutely disrupted by the cloud. So it needs to replace those revenues with new businesses and that’s actually happening. Watson is certainly a unique offering and they are on the bleeding edge of other nascent technologies, such as quantum computing and neuromorphic chips. So from that standpoint IBM is fairly well positioned for the future.

You know people were saying the same things about Microsoft a few years ago. It missed on mobile, so a lot of people were like “it’s over for Redmond.” But Microsoft was building a cloud business long before anybody knew what one was. So now it’s doing very, very well. It’s a similar situation with IBM right now. When you survive long enough to transcend technology cycles, you end up having a transition period. It’s kind of like reverse survivorship bias. Because most of their competitors have long become irrelevant or gone out of business entirely, people forget how impressive it is that companies like IBM and Microsoft are still so competitive and innovative.

8. Does Porter’s Five Forces model still hold up today? And if not, why not?

Well, I think it is still relevant for what it was designed for, to optimize value chains to become more efficient, but that’s not as important as it once was. Today, it’s much more important to widen and deepen connections than it is to maximize bargaining power. That’s how you innovate and grow markets. 

In some industries, which are consolidating, Porter’s 5 forces can still be useful, but I think as a dominant strategic framework it has become somewhat outdated. 

9. What’s changing in the world of work, and where do you see the opportunities?

I think the main thing is how important it is to collaborate today. The problems we need to solve are so much more complex, requiring tight integration of multiple and diverse skill sets and at the same time digital technology has made it so much easier to connect. So if you are not making those connections productive, you are going to be at a competitive disadvantage.

10. What should people do to build out their innovation playbook?

First, read the book! That’s what it explains how to do. However, if I was going to boil it down to one thing I would say that you have to constantly be identifying new problems to solve. In my research, that’s the one thing I found that every great innovator I looked at did differently than most organizations. They all solved problems differently, but it was their ability to identify new problems to solve that really made the difference.

So if I have one piece of advice it’s that. Don’t try and come up with a great idea. Go out and find a good problem that needs solving. If you can do that, the ideas will come.

Thanks for all that Greg! I hope everyone has enjoyed this peek into the mind of the man behind the new book Mapping Innovation!

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