Innovating in a World of Moving Targets

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” – (attributed to) Albert Einstein

April 2016. I had just accepted a role with a company in Houston, Texas, USA. I was to lead the development of a key piece of new technology, the critical piece that was missing from their then-existing portfolio. I had led and observed similar technology projects in the industry over the years, and I had seen them take anywhere between 4 and 8 years. This company had suggested that they wanted the project done in between 3 and 5 years. I understood the technology and the market, and from what I could tell I would be given a very strong team to work with. I was confident that I could meet, and most likely beat, the earlier side of their development window. I was looking forward to the challenge.

I was visiting Houston a few weeks before my start date and I received a call from the company. They had a new Chief Technology Officer, and would I like to meet him? I asked the obvious question. “Is this another interview?”. “Of course not!” came the reply. Of course, it was another interview. We chatted for about an hour and we got on very well. Conversation moved to families and homes. And then the punchline came. “Do you think you can deliver this project in a year?”. I hesitated. I hadn’t expected this. He continued. “You need to tell me if you can’t do it in a year. You seem like a really good guy and I’d hate to have to fire you.” Now I responded in the only way I knew. “You won’t fire me”, I replied. Shortly afterwards, riding back down the elevator, I began to wonder what I’d just agreed to. I spent the rest of the day reflecting on my experience of previous projects, what I had seen done correctly and incorrectly, all the lessons I had learned over thirty-something years in industry. I realized that it could be done, the project could be delivered in what had at first appeared an impossibly short timescale, if I just applied everything I had learned.

Things turned out well. I took the job. Under my leadership, my new team delivered the working prototype in 11 months, not 12, and it went on to a highly successful commercial launch.

I decided to start this blog because I wanted to tell you how that was achieved, to pass on the things I have learned. I’ve seen how too many companies approach innovation – which by the way is not inventing things but creating value for customers and capturing your share of that value. I’ve seen a few companies do innovation well, but I’ve seen many others struggle with how to best take the opportunities available to them to sustain or grow their businesses. There is no “one size fits all” process for successful innovation – in fact you need an innovation strategy, not a process, and that strategy has to be designed to suit your company, the market and nonmarket environments in which you operate, and your current and future opportunities.

In 2016, of course, I would have written a very different blog. I would have outlined the techniques I had learned, over the years, to deliver value quickly and effectively given a sound understanding of market needs and available technology and capabilities. But the world has changed beyond recognition since then. We have seen a crippling pandemic sweep the world, and we now face a perhaps more significant, albeit slower, threat in the form of climate change. And, of course, we are seeing the fourth industrial revolution (“4IR”) transform ways in which we can deploy technology and do business. As we move into the 2020’s, the pace of change is unprecedented, and the challenges to our way of life are manifest. This provides opportunity, as innovative solutions will be needed to respond to the challenges. These innovative solutions will themselves need to be created in an innovative way. A lot of business and strategic planning assumes that we are still playing a finite game: bounded; known rules; known players; and played for the purpose of winning. But the world now looks more like an infinite game: unbounded; unknown rules; unknown players; played simply for the purpose of continuing to play (Carse, 1986). Porter’s Five Forces (Porter, 1979) no longer completely describe the pressures on a company as other stakeholders including investors, employees, regulators and even communities take an ever-increasing interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and exert sometimes irresistible pressure on decision making. Strategic decisions on technology, and tactical decisions on new product or service offerings are driven by less tangible and more rapidly changing factors than ever before. This leads to a difficult paradox. In order to develop offerings quickly and effectively, we have been taught that they have to be well defined – and indeed they do. But in order to cope with a rapidly changing world, decisions have to be flexible. I will be blogging about how to resolve that paradox. How to retain flexibility in decision making, how to consistently take into account the changing and often qualitative requirements of stakeholders, and how to ensure that the products, services or ways of doing business that you create are still relevant when they get to market. As the world moves faster and less predictably, it will become increasingly important to be disruptive, and this blog will help you to be the disruptor.

I don’t plan to write anything that will be scary or complicated. Quite the opposite. There are no complex technical details and no overwhelming systems, in keeping with the spirit of how I believe all innovation activities should be managed. In order to succeed, especially when we need to be flexible, nimble and rapid, we need to do as little as possible – by making things simple we allow ourselves to focus on the relatively small number of things that really matter. The quote at the start of this piece is one of my favourites, because it sums up my philosophy. It’s technically attributed to Albert Einstein. “Attributed to” means that we don’t really know whether he said it or not, but sufficiently many people believe that he did to associate the quote with him anyway. It’s likely that what he actually said was a little more esoteric but the essence of the meaning is the same. It’s been suggested that he was just restating another excellent rule to live by: Occam’s razor, a problem-solving principle which assumes that simple explanations are more likely to be true than complex ones, something you’ll find more often than not to be extremely useful as you innovate.

I hope you will find the blog enlightening and informative, and most of all I hope you enjoy it. I’ll post regularly on topics I think might be of interest, but if there’s a particular problem you are trying to solve, or a particular topic you would like me to write about, let me know. You can comment in the form below or you can reach me through the contact form on this website. I’m here to help.

Thanks for reading!



References and Further Reading

Carse, J. (1986). Finite and Infinite Games – A Vison of Life as Play and Possibility. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Porter, M. (1979). The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy. Harvard Business Review.


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2 thoughts on “Innovating in a World of Moving Targets”

  1. Life in the liminal. A period of significant paradoxes! Thanks for your blog; sensible stuff and v interesting 😉

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