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Elevator Speech: Part 3 of 9: That Are Innovative…

November 24, 2011

In my first post I started out by sharing what I call my “elevator speech”.  It is short, sweet, to the point, and the gestalt of what makes me and the organizations that I have gone on to lead tick:

Deliver high quality solutions on time that are innovative, delight customers, win reviews, and disrupt competitors; all while having fun, being ethical and transforming the business.

It dissected the first part of this: “deliver high quality solutions…  It covered deliver, high quality, and solutionsMy second post went on about a topic that many development managers and teams hate to talk about and that is “on time”…  Today I’d like to talk about “…that are innovative”…

I worked at a company once where the internal company motto was “The view only changes for the lead dog” and it had a picture of a pack of huskies pulling a sled in the snow.  At first I was taken aback by the imagery that some twisted person in marketing was trying to convey to us all, but it worked.  It wasn’t a hard point to get, but the simple saying and the imagery pretty much drove the point home:  You can chose to follow and have the same view of the fellow you are chasing (and quite an unpleasant view at that) or you can be innovative, blaze your own path, and see the view that nobody else sees as everybody chases you from behind.

Innovation, according to Wikipedia of all places (well as of 2:45PM PST 11/23/2011 until the next contributor changes it) is “…the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society.  Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea of method itself.”

And that’s where we come in as technologists.  It isn’t enough to automate a broken manual process or invent a new way of solving a problem.  We have to create more effective products and solutions that are accepted by our customers as a new, refreshing, easier ways of solving the problems they have.

How many times has there been a better mousetrap or mobile phone created?  How many of those new devices have been accepted by customers as the best way to solve the problem and thus proclaimed as innovations?

As technologists we are often like doctors, sitting in a clinic, listening to our patients go on and on about the symptoms they are having, all the while sneezing on us and trying their best to infect us with their ailments.  We can simply sit there and prescribe solutions that cure each of the symptoms as they bring them up or we can truly listen to the symptoms, take a step back, diagnose the disease, and prescribe a cure to the overall disease that alleviates all the symptoms (shared and not shared) in a much simpler and more graceful stroke of our keyboards.

At the Peter Norton Group (purchased by Symantec) we were known for innovation back in the late 80s and early 90s:  unerase, speed disk, disk doctor, desktop for windows, anti-virus.  Being innovative was a religion, a cult following for those employed there.  It wasn’t enough to simply solve a customer’s problem, you had to do it in a way that just made sense…in a way that was far better, from the customer’s point of view and not simply our own.  You had to do so better than anybody else.  Let me share an example.

We had a product called Disk Doctor, which believe it or not had originally been created by one person back in the days when that was actually possible.  For years we’d go to trade shows and customer demos and do the following with 2 identical PCs with 2 identical disk images that had the same disk errors.  We’d start Disk Doctor on one PC and our top leading competitor’s solution on the second PC. About a minute in to the repairs being made by the products we’d rip the power cords out of the wall for both PCs.  Once we let a few seconds go by we’d plug in the PCs and have them start up again.  100% of the time the PC running Norton Disk Doctor resumed where it left off, finishing the task of repairing the error.  The PC running the competitor’s solution?  It wouldn’t even boot.  Not only would it not boot, but the competitor’s emergency Rescue disk wouldn’t work.  To add insult to injury we’d proceed to insert our own Rescue Disk in to the second PC, recover the machine, then run Disk Doctor in it to finish the original task.

The lesson here?  Both solutions could have been considered or called inventive or innovative by their respective creators.  Which one was truly innovative?  The one where somebody had paid the additional level of detail to addressing the customer’s expressed, assumed, and unspoken needs while alleviating their concerns.  Customer’s naturally accepted our solution as being truly innovative whereas the competitor’s company was not considered so.  They eventually faded away just a couple of years later.

Innovation is often held up as being inventive or as doing something that nobody else does.  In reality being innovative is often taking that extra step to truly solve the holistic problem while earning your customer’s acceptance that it was indeed the best solution to their problem.

Stay tuned for one of my favorite areas next time:  delight customers…

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