Intangible Loss of Outsourced Innovation

Today’s New York Times front page features “How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” about the loss of American jobs overseas and the implications for our middle class.  I’ve been thinking about the 2nd, 3rd order effects of outsourcing, especially now that some companies are either doing or seriously considering insourcing. 

In November, I spoke with Bernard Charlès, CEO of Dassault Systèmes, (DS), creator of 3D simulation products for manufacturing to life sciences. Insourcing is a key component of Dassault and Bernard’s personal values: a company’s role includes contributing to society and the economy through the business itself.

I’ve wondered about the cost-benefit equation of in vs. outsourcing for a while.  Most cost-benefit analysis focuses on tangibles: lower labor rates, higher freight, etc.  Are 2nd and 3rd order effects accounted for in the equation: benefits of training and professional/career development, adjacent businesses in manufacturing or services, other opportunities?  I don’t know.  And what about innovation?

I agree with many who believe we learn by doing.   Many innovations arise by trying to do something one way and figuring out a better way or an entirely different way to do it.  If we’ve outsourced the ‘doing’ doesn’t it follow that we’ve outsourced the ‘learning’?   I wonderful how many opportunities for innovation we’ve lost because we weren’t ‘doing’.   In the NYT article, Apple’s executives said the reason for outsourcing went beyond cheap labor; overseas factories could scale faster and workers were more flexible and skilled than in the USA.  Perhaps because they learned to?

While ‘learning from doing’ is not easy to quantify and add into the equation, it needs to be.   Isn’t that an important part of the ‘business case’ for insourcing?  Perhaps it wasn’t viewed as important in the last century, but it sure is for this one. As we rapidly move from knowledge stacks to knowledge flows, per John Hagel, the ability to capture and apply learning becomes one of customer, and competitive, advantage, if not survival – of companies, economies, societies.

So, have you tried to quantify your ‘learning by doing’? Have you made it part of any business case for out/insourcing?  Please share – these are important and valuable lessons.

Your Greatest Asset? ROF: Return on Failure

Innovation and failure go hand in hand.  So, what is failure? When things don’t go according to plan or expectations, ending up with unexpected and/or undesired outcomes.  The key is ‘undesired’ – because if they were desired and not planned or expected, that would be great!  But, as we will see, failure is a terrific way to learn.  Maybe we could measure learning as Return on Failure: ROF.  And many of these learnings are intangible, but as the 21st Century is proving, it’s the intangibles that matter.

We’ve heard the phrase “fail often, fail cheap, fail fast” or “it’s ok to make mistakes, just make different ones.” So, can we do a better job of learning from failure?  We’re not built to do this easily, either by learning from others’ failures or our own.  There are many ways to learn from failure, so what I’m suggesting is just one way.

One way we could start learning from failure is through a simple 3-step process (bear in mind, simple ≠ easy!):

  1. Identification of the Failure(s)
  2. Analysis of the Failure(s)
  3. Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping based on the learnings from the failures

So, and check my ‘math’, ROF = Failure Identification + Failure Analysis applied over (and over…) Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping.  That’s the framework (for now).

Failure Identification is proactively identifying what went wrong, what failed.  Systems and processes can help capture this information for sharing with those who need to know now and in the future.  Feedback loops with employees, customers, and suppliers are also important (and who else?).  Most companies are complex entities which make getting and sharing information difficult.  Also, most cultures don’t tolerate failure too well so we learn to play the blame game.  And of course, there are a lot of other reasons we’ll get into in further posts.

Failure Analysis is not playing the blame game but discovering the Why.  When a plane crashes, the NTSB goes over every inch of the site.  They don’t blame; they use a formal, objective process to discuss, analyze and learn.  Try a model like this.  Be objective, don’t personalize or blame (not as easy as it sounds).  Organizations also succumb to confirmational bias; we become inured, not realizing we’ve fallen into that trap.  The “blame game” makes doing the necessary forensic work challenging because it can be hard to trust our colleagues.

Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping involves creating a well designed experiment so we can limit and test the variable (ideas) and prototype.  Test where we think we could fail, try what does and doesn’t work.  The more we experiment, the more we learn, the greater the chances of success.  Do small, inexpensive experiments and prototypes (they don’t have to be grand).  Do virtual and thought experiments.  There are many ways to experiment and prototype today that are not expensive or lengthy so try it.  Why don’t we? How many organizations are structured for experimentation? Not many (remember the scientific method? Bet not).  And culturally, we don’t incent, reward, recognize our people to experiment – we incent being right, not trying to be right!

What do you think? Does this make sense? Are you trying to learn from failure in your organization?  What have you learned that you’ve been able to apply?

Innovation's Enemy? Success!

The saga of Congress, the White House and the budget is horrendous.  If they can’t agree on 1% of the budget for six months, can they really create a budget to cut the deficit and debt for a year?

Everyone took last year’s election as a mandate for one party over the other, but it really was a mandate for an economic revolution. Is the government capable of re-inventing itself? Of innovating?

We can look at other examples, like big companies. There has been a lot discussion of whether or not big companies can innovate. I've seen some do it, but not many. Does that answer the question? Kind of.

What is the biggest inhibitor to innovation? Success! So many of my clients have been both blessed--and cursed--with success, even in this recession, that it’s skewing their perspective of the future.

They are sitting on a lot of cash that they are hoarding...for lots of reasons (like fear of a double dip, etc.). But now is the time to really innovate - to disruptively innovate.

For most of them, the amount of money it would take to experiment, to prototype, to try some things is insignificant compared to what they have in the bank. This may be, for some, the least financially risky time to innovate - financially, not culturally. Culturally, the risk is huge!

They say to themselves, look at how we're doing despite the economy, we must be doing something right! And they were/are...but not for that long. For many their R&D and innovation pipelines are two or three years out max.

Let's look at some who didn't innovate. Remember Wang? DEC (Digital)? The original AT&T (bought out by the kids it spun off)? Hey, Smith Corona? Yahoo!? Blockbuster? In fact, ‘netflixed' is a now a verb! And Blockbuster even says they saw it coming but didn't really heed the warning signs.

Then there are those that were able to reinvent themselves. P&G, IBM, Ford, Apple. What was the difference? People. Management. New leadership (in the case of Apple, original leadership returning) brought in new insights, were not entrenched in the groupthink and were able to see and start the turn-around.

But this isn't easy nor is it typical.  I've had the privilege to work with a few companies that have been able to do this, but again, it's due to very special people. Check out one that still amazes me - Menasha Packaging .

Yes, Compare Apples & Oranges!!!

One of my favorite authors is the Albanian,  Ismail Kadare, and there's been a lot of discussion of the Mideast in my home. Trust me, these are related.

The media keeps comparing Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia’s futures to either Iran or what? Pakistan? Indonesia? Turkey? Always to other Mid-East, Asia, or Asia Minor countries (yes, Turkey straddles both continents, in so many ways).

No one compared these countries futures to any European country. I kept thinking about Albania. Now see the link?

Having read Kadare’s books and learning a bit of Albanian history and ‘freedom’ post-1989, it seemed Albania could be just as likely a model for Egypt as any of the others. Kind of wondered if I wasn’t a bit nuts with this analogy until Monday 2/14’s WSJ article by Matthew Kaminski.

So what in the world does this have to do with strategy and innovation? Everything! When we start creating our organization’s strategic direction (which should be a living, ongoing, adapting process) and look at how and where we can innovate, we tend to look at others ‘like us’.

This is natural, but not helpful.  Blockbuster did this, was offered the opportunity to buy another ‘near’ it, but not ‘like it’ and got Netflixed*.  What if Blockbuster had looked at those not “like us” or even combined what it did with what others did…the power of “AND”?  Apple and Best Buy have built success on not looking at those ‘like us’ AND combining what’s out there (e.g., iTunes, iPod). Who else can you think of?

So, try these two things to grow your business:

  1. Stop looking at those ‘like us’… look at those very “not like us”;
  2. Start combining…instead of asking do you want this or that, put them together!

Sometimes it’s worth comparing apples and oranges! As Capt. Renault said in Casablanca, [don’t] “Round up the usual suspects.” Go look for unusual suspects.  My friend, Saul Kaplan, puts it so eloquently: innovation is found in “random collisions of unusual suspects” – in RCUS (ruckus!) – go make a RCUS! You’ll be amazed at what you discover and learn to grow your business, your people and yourself.