Corporate innovation is an often misunderstood process, largely because managing it successfully requires inherently contradictory aims, such as control and freedom. This article looks at a variety of approaches by leading authorities.
A number of recent books have examined the paradoxical tensions at the heart of the innovation process. The article assesses the guidance they offer practitioners on how to manage a process replete with conflict and contradictions.
Several authors suggest unconventional approaches to unleash the talents of individuals and groups in ways that are productive for the organization.
One of the main challenges in leading innovation is to cultivate both cohesion and dissent.
This masterclass is a useful primer for practitioners leading an innovation initiative.
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited
Strategy guru James Brian Quinn was one of the early authors to highlight the paradoxical challenges faced by leaders trying to manage innovation in the established organization. He famously characterized it as directing a process of “controlled chaos” in his 1985 Harvard Business Review classic.
The paradoxical tensions at the heart of the innovation process have been examined in a number of recent books that offer practitioners guidance on how to manage a process replete with contradictions and conflicts. This article assesses the guidance offered by several of these studies of the innovation process and includes a case showing Apple’s approach to navigating and leveraging these creative tensions. The case examines the development of the touchscreen keyboard, one of the signature innovations on the iPhone project.
Leading innovation – navigating and leveraging the paradoxical
In Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Harvard professor Linda Hill and her research team, posed the central challenge: The “unavoidable paradox at the heart of innovation is the need to unleash the talents of individuals and, in the end, to harness those talents in the form of collective innovation that is useful to the organization.”
Hill and her team identified six major paradoxical tensions facing any leader attempting to create an organization that is willing and able to innovate on a continuous basis:
The paradoxes of collaboration:
Affirming the individual and the group.
Support and confrontation.
The paradoxes of discovery-driven learning:
Foster experimentation, learning and performance.
Promote improvisation and structure.
The paradoxes of integrative decision-making:
Show patience and urgency.
Encourage bottom-up initiative and intervene top-down.
In a similar vein, in Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation, Harvard professor Gary Pisano highlights what he sees as the “hard truths” confronting any leader trying to build an innovation culture. In his experience, when executive audiences are asked what they “believe” characterize innovation cultures, they typically respond with: a tolerance for failure, a willingness to experiment, psychological safety, collaboration, and organizational flatness. Pisano wondered “how could a set of organizational practices that everyone seems to love be so hard to implement.” His research indicated that for innovation initiatives to deliver results, every one of these “easy-to-swallow” practices has its more difficult flipside. A more complete list should read:
Tolerance for failure but also no tolerance for incompetence;
Willingness to experiment but also highly disciplined;
Psychologically safe but also brutally candid;
Collaborative but also individually accountable; and
Flat culture but with strong leadership.
Ideation and critical evaluation
Famous chemist and Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, was often asked how he went about coming up with good ideas. His answer: “Have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones,” raises one of the most central conflicting tensions facing innovation leaders. The organizational principles and practices for encouraging idea generation are typically at odds with procedures best suited to their effective evaluation and successful realization.
Moreover, the literature on innovation often portrays the idea generation, evaluation and realization process as a linear one. Yet, for all but the simplest products or services, the process is more typically iterative, with idea generation and testing often co-mingled. In the case of more complex products, like filmmaking or smartphones, the innovation process is typically a social one of “collective creativity.” As co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull, argues:
“People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act, and they typically reduce products to a single idea […] However, in filmmaking and many other kinds of complex product development, creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working effectively together to solve a great many problems. The initial idea for a movie – what people in the movie business call “the high concept” – is merely one step in a long, arduous process that takes four to five years.”
Over the last two decades, in line with its growing strategic importance, the innovation toolkit has also greatly expanded, with new concepts like design thinking and open innovation offering new ways to help companies raise their innovation productivity. However, as design-driven innovation guru Roberto Verganti recently pointed out, while such powerful new “ideational approaches” have helped to make it “incredibly easy and relatively inexpensive for companies to obtain a vast number of novel concepts,” too many firms “still struggle to identify and capture big opportunities.”
As Verganti sees it, the “art of ideation” might be most helpful in refining established concepts of value, but when it comes to identifying “new directions” that come through” reinterpreting the problems worth addressing” and redefining “what customers value,” he advocates the use of a different approach, one with “the art of criticism” at its center. Two key elements in the “art of criticism” approach are the use of independent individual reflections, rather than group brainstorming, in the initial idea generation phase and the use of outsiders primarily for idea evaluation rather than generation. As Verganti notes:
“This is a significant departure from ideation processes of the past decade, which treat criticism as undesirable – something that stifles creativity. Whereas ideation suggests deferring judgement, the art of criticism innovates through judgement.”
For Wharton’s creativity guru, Adam Grant, one of the main paradoxical challenges in leading innovation is the need to cultivate “both cohesion and dissent” in the company culture. According to Grant, tech wizard Edwin Land and his company Polaroid were eventually brought down due to the leader’s failure to develop a culture that encouraged doubting executives to speak up:
“Polaroid fell due to a faulty assumption. Within the company, there was widespread agreement that customers would always want hard copies of pictures, and key decision makers failed to question this assumption. It was a classic case of groupthink – the tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent.”
Grant concluded: “Land knew how to ‘think different,’ yet he created a company that didn’t.”
While the tendency towards groupthink is one of the potential perils facing companies with strong corporate cultures, the antidote, according to Grant, is the ability to create strong cohesive cultures that explicitly embrace diversity and dissent as part of their articulated values, principles and practices. A good example is the financial services firm Bridgewater, where publicly articulated corporate principles include: “Don’t let loyalty stand in the way of truth and openness,” and “no one has a right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.”
The age-old mechanism of devil’s advocacy is another way to counter the dangers of groupthink, as Grant’s 2017 book Originals reminds practitioners. However, he stresses the importance of finding and using genuine sceptics: “While it can be appealing to assign a devil’s advocate, it’s much more powerful to unearth one.” Devil’s advocates, if they are to be at their most effective, “need to really believe in the position they’re representing – and the group needs to believe it too.” Executives that are simply assigned to the role are less likely to be taken seriously. Often the most effective devil’s advocates are peers with genuine reservations about a given idea but with a shared passion to find the best solution regardless of the source.
Three core innovation capabilities
So what are the indispensable capabilities that leaders need to develop in their organizations to navigate and leverage innovation’s paradoxical tensions productively? In Collective Genius, Linda Hill and her research team identify three: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution. All three need to be embedded in an organizational culture bonded by a strong collective “sense of community” and one also infused with a “compelling sense of purpose, shared values and common rules of engagement,” including the intellectual freedom and integrity to question everything.
Creative abrasion refers to the ability to create a “marketplace for ideas.” The “essential ingredients” are diversity of mindset, and the clash of ideas. Creative abrasion necessarily “involves some level of conflict – disagreement, contention, argument,” to be at its most effective, which is why a strong collective sense of community, based on the values of mutual trust, respect and commitment to collaboration and learning, is also so essential.
Creative agility refers to the ability and flexibility to “develop and test different options, learn from the outcomes and try again – and in many cases again and again,” and in this way “evolve even better options” in a timely fashion. Innovation, by its nature, is a discovery process where the ultimate solution “almost always emerges step-by-step.”
Creative resolution recognizes that the “best innovative solutions often combine ideas, including ideas once considered mutually exclusive.” So the primary challenge is to be able to harness the creative tension presented by opposites, to resist the urge for premature closure and to challenge the innovation team to come up with imaginative “third way” possibilities, embracing the kind of mindset championed by integrative thinking guru, Roger Martin, in The Opposable Mind.
Case: “Creative selection” at Apple - The iPhone touchscreen keyboard
Former Apple tech executive Ken Kocienda’s recent reflective memoir, Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, offers some valuable insight into how the kind of conflicting tensions identified by academic researchers were productively harnessed. Recounting Apple’s development of its touchscreen keyboard innovation on the original iPhone, Kocienda characterizes the innovation process as a Darwinian one of “creative selection.” [See box “Innovation at Apple: creative selection and the seven essential elements.]
Kocienda joined Apple in 2001, and his first major project was the development of the Safari web browser. Following this success, he was invited by Scott Forstall and Henri Lamiraux, both senior software engineering executives, to join a new project code-named Purple, later to be launched as the iPhone. Steve Jobs was known to all involved in the project to be “watching obsessively.” Rivalry at the highest level to be “at the center of what might be the next big thing,” had been intense, and Forstall had won this project in competition with fellow senior executive, Tony Fadell, by making a convincing case to Steve Jobs that his team “could squeeze the software essentials of the Mac onto a smartphone.”
Internal competition and collaboration
One of the defining features planned for the iPhone was a touchscreen keyboard. As the project progressed, Forstall typically “led a tour of the software hallway” once or twice a week to view the latest demos. Demo discussions were “an open forum for exchanging ideas,” and whether a given demo went well or poorly, there was “never any finger pointing,” just one essential overall expectation – “progress.” In the autumn of 2005 there was a particularly difficult keyboard demo session, where Scott repeatedly failed to type “anything intelligible.” The “keys were too small, and the software was hopelessly confused.”
All other software work for the iPhone was put on hold, and the entire team of fifteen was immediately reassigned to making prototype keyboards. This was an unusually dramatic step at Apple, but word had come down from the top: “Progress was too slow.” Apple was staking everything on a software touchscreen keyboard to provide the iPhone the biggest screen size on a pocket device:
“As a software team and as a company, we were all in. However, when it came to figuring out how to type on a flat display without tactile keys, we weren’t figuring it out fast enough.”
To accelerate progress, Forstall arranged a keyboard “demo derby,” setting everyone to work independently on their ideas and demos, but most of the initial ideas were rejected because the keys were too small. Bigger keys on such a small device seemed to require multiple letters per key, which would add its own complexities for users. In the derby’s final runoff, Kocienda’s entry won out.
Kocienda had previously trialled five different demos, all of them coming up short, but the learnings were instrumental in arriving at his derby-winning version. This featured big keys with multiple letters, using a QWERTY layout deemed to be more user-friendly. To allow a multi-letter key to type with a single tap, the novel element was the use of correction software, supported by a stored dictionary, to determine the intended word. So when his boss tried to type in his name, the multi-letter key sequence was as-zxc-op-rt-rt, which the dictionary-assisted software was able to convert to scott.
Buoyed by this success, Kocienda was invited to be the DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) for keyboards. For Kocienda, while the derby mechanism was unusual, the overall process was classic Apple:
“Exactly how we collaborated mattered, and for us on the Purple project, it reduced to a basic idea: we showed demos to each other. Every major feature on the iPhone started as a demo, and for a demo to be useful to us, it had to be concrete and specific […] We picked a point over the technological horizon and, together, we set out towards it, unsure if we were headed in the right direction. It was hard to orient ourselves - the touchscreen text entry landscape didn’t exist yet. Yet that’s what innovation opportunities look like.”
The role and practice of criticism
This emphasis on demos is central to Apple’s creative process. Kocienda and his teammates “rarely had brainstorming sessions,” trying to “rough out big plans at a whiteboard.” Rather, at Apple, the demo was the “basic fact” on which they built their creative output:
Demos were the catalyst for creative decisions […] Making demos is hard. It involves overcoming apprehensions about committing time and effort to an idea you aren’t sure is right. At Apple we then had to expose that idea and demo to the scrutiny of sharp-eyed colleagues who were never afraid to level pointed criticism […] We then tried each other’s demos, said what we liked and what we didn’t, and offered suggestions for improvements, which led to more demos and more feedback.”
Following the demo derby, there was still much further development to be done. The derby winner worked well with simple words and sentences, but was much less reliable typing longer words or people’s names. After many such frustrations, one of Kocienda’s colleagues, Greg Christie, finally burst out: “Aww [….] come on Ken! Can’t you just put one letter on every key?”
This broke the “logjam.” Kocienda went back to smaller single letter keys, but with smaller keys and normal fingertips, the problem of how to tap the right key with accuracy remained. The solution that Kocienda came up with was a single-letter on-screen keyboard with a second invisible multi-letter “virtual keyboard” under-laying it:
With the touchscreen keyboard, Kocienda and his team were aware that they were no longer tied technically to the traditional “form factor and tactile conventions” long associated with the QUERTY layout. They could have moved away from it. That they decided not to was reflective of another major element in the Apple approach to innovation:
“Empathy is a crucial part of making great products […]. This keyboard arrangement is part of our cultural inheritance […] Most important, the long-standing popularity of QUERTY means that people are familiar with it […] A properly judged mixture of taste and empathy is the secret formula for making products that are intuitive, easy to use, and easy to live with.”
The final phase of product development at Apple is termed “convergence,” after the major features have been finally “locked down.” In the case of the touchscreen keyboard, some further demo-driven refinements were needed on both the dictionary and the algorithm that would turn what the user actually typed into what was intended.
Bottom-up development and top down intervention
Following his success with the iPhone touchscreen keyboard, Kocienda was tasked with developing the software keyboard for the iPad. This time he was invited to demo to Steve and his senior team in person. On the tablet project, Kocienda’s demo featured two keyboards on the one device. One was “the more keys layout” with a conventional QUERTY laptop layout, and the other, “the bigger keys layout” featuring a QUERTY display but one where users would have to “hunt” further for numbers and punctuation.” Having had difficulty choosing between the two, Kocienda and his colleagues developed a prototype that offered the user both software keyboards, with a “zoom” key on each to switch seamlessly between the two.
After Jobs had examined the two keyboards very carefully, he said: “We only need one of these, right?” He then asked Kocienda which one he thought Apple should use. Ken replied:
“I’ve started to like the keyboard layout with the bigger keys. I think I could learn to touch type on it, and I think other people could too. Autocorrection has been a big help.”
Steve then gave his verdict: “OK. We’ll go with the bigger keys.” That was it, demo over.
Afterwards, reflecting back on the event, Kocienda came to see Steve Jobs’ asking his opinion directly as a “test.” He believed Jobs wanted “to find out, right there, if I could help make software better,” and Kocienda realized that:
“If I hadn’t given a satisfactory answer, he would have turned to the other people in the room. They had earned their places by repeatedly passing similar tests and making work much better, as on every software detail on the iPhone […] making substantive contributions to the discussions with him was the way to earn future invitations.”
Such demo-review meetings “served as the primary means to turn ideas into software,” Kocienda recalls, and the set-up of these reviews “reveals how we went about making our software great.” He notes that decisiveness was “crucial throughout.” So also was “the push for simplicity,” as in the Steve Jobs decision to press for one keyboard only:
“Even though he was a high-tech CEO, Steve could put himself in the shoes of the customer, people who cared nothing for the ins and outs of the software industry. He never wanted Apple software to overload people, especially when they might already be stretched by the bustle of their everyday lives.”
In his recent book, Creative Selection, Apple tech executive Ken Kocienda characterizes the relentless “demo → feedback → next demo” approach to software development at the company as a “Darwinian” process of “creative selection,” one which generated “a progression of variation and selection that shaped our products over time.”
The seven essential elements
As listed in Creative Selection, Kocienda’s seven essential elements of Apple innovation are:
Inspiration: “Thinking big ideas and imagining what might be possible.”
Collaboration: “Working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strength.”
Craft: “Applying skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better.”
Diligence: “Doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to short-cuts or half-measures.”
Decisiveness: “Making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate.”
Taste: “Developing a refined sense of judgement and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole.”
Empathy: “Trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs.”
According to Kocienda, “Creative selection and the seven essential elements were our most important product development ingredients, but it took committed people to breathe life into these concepts and transform them into a culture. The culture we created is inseparable from the products we created.
Quinn, J.B. (1985), “Managing innovation: controlled chaos”, Harvard Business Review, May-June, pp. 73-84.
Hill, L.A., Brandeau, G., Truelove, E. and Lineback, K. (2014), Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston. See also, Leavy, B. (2015), “Continuous innovation: unleashing and harnessing the creative energies of a willing and able community”, Interview with Linda Hill, Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 43 No. 3, pp. 24-31.
Pisano, G.P. (2019), Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation, Public Affairs, New York. See also, Pisano, G.P. (2019), “The hard truth about innovation cultures”, Harvard Business Review, January-February, pp. 63-71; and Leavy, B. (2019), “Gary Pisano: Keeping the larger firm vibrant and innovative”, Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 47 No. 3.
Catmull, E. (2008), “How Pixar fosters collective creativity”, Harvard Business Review, September, pp. 65-72.
Verganti, R. (2016), “The innovative power of criticism”, Harvard Business Review, January-February, pp. 89-95.
Grant, A. (2016), Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, W.H. Allen, London. See also Grant, A. (2016), “How to build a culture of originality”, Harvard Business Review, March, pp. 86-94.
The latter is reminiscent of the charge given by Dwight Eisenhower to his top officers in advance of the Normandy invasion, as recounted in Gary Pisano’s Creative Construction, citation No.3, where the General said: “I consider it the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in this plan not to hesitate to say so. I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best results.” Pisano takes the quote from Perret, G. (1999), Eisenhower, Random House, New York.
Grant, A. (2016), Originals, citation No. 6.
Hill et al. (2014), Collective Genius, citation No. 2.
Martin, R. (2009), The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, Harvard Business School Press, Boston.
Kocienda, K. (2018), Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, St. Martin’s Press, New York. Ken Kocienda is former Principal Engineer of iPhone Software at Apple, where he worked for 15 years.
About the author
Brian Leavy is an Emeritus Professor of Strategy at Dublin City University Business School (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a Strategy & Leadership Contributing Editor.