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Beyond Digital Doom: Exploring the Future of Innovation (Part 1)

Roland Alston, Appian
February 28, 2019

Greg Satell, Author, Speaker, Innovation Adviser

(This is the first installment of a two-part series on innovation, featuring Greg Satell, author ofMapping Innovation, andCascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, which will be published by McGraw-Hill in April, 2019. You can learn more about Greg on his website,GregSatell.comand follow him on Twitter@DigitalTonto. Read part 2 here.)

Digital is doomed.

So says innovation adviser and best-selling author Greg Satell.

Satell says that we're entering anew technology revolution where it will be much harder to prototype and iterate innovation.In the past, our ability to cram more and more transistors onto a microchip what's called Moore's Law allowed us to make technology exponentially more powerful year after year.

But Satell argues that Moore's Law is showing signs of slowing down.

There's speculation that we're already bumping up against the limit on how many transistors we can cram onto a tiny silicon chip.And big tech companies like Amazon and Google are already designing custom chips, because they can't wait for the next generation of silicon chips to run their artificial intelligence algorithms.

So, is it time to ditch digital and prepare for a new era of neuromorphic processors?

Not in the short run.

Quantum computing: Getting ready for prime time

But in the long run, the amazing efficiency of neuromorphic chips (potentially thousands of times or even millions of times more efficient than conventional silicon chips) could revolutionize edge computing with adaptable AI processing.There's also excitement around the astonishing computational capabilities of quantum computing, which can solve complex problems unbelievably faster than traditional computing ever could.

Satell says that commercial applications for these technologies may be ten to 15 years away. But here's the bottom line. Today, the innovation spotlight is on speed and agility. But in the future, we won't be able to rapidly prototype innovation such as a quantum computer, a cure for cancer, or an undiscovered material.

And slowing down to take stock of the ethical considerations of emerging technologies will be more important than ever.

"We've spent the last few decades learning how to move fast," says Satell. "Over the next few decades we're going to have to relearn how to go slow again."

"The digital age has been about agility and disruption. But it's time to think less about hackathons and more about tackling grand challenges."

In this thought-provoking, two-part interview, Satell debunks popular innovation myths, breaks down life after digital, and offers:

    • Proven innovation strategies that can help you increase your chances for success

    • Insights into how the world's top innovators implement their innovation strategies

    • Tips that will help you run circles around your competitors and prepare for the post-digital age

Hope you enjoy the conversation.

Appian: What motivated you to write "Mapping Innovation"?

Satell: You know, it was really just my personal experience. Well, my personal frustration running businesses. Because there's so much pressure to innovate, and so many ideas on how to do it.

When you look for guidance, you see really good ideas from people with really strong track records. But they often contradict each other.

So, I wasn't finding a good answer to the basic strategic question every leader must answer. Which is "What should I do." You'd see something like Design Thinking, which is a good example. Obviously super successful. Steve Jobs swore by it. Stanford University created an entire school behind it. You start with the customer. You figure out their needs. You work your way back. Rapidly prototype, and it makes a lot of sense.

Appian: Yes, but some innovation experts, like Clayton Christensen, argue that that approach is the wrong way to go about innovation.

Satell: That's right. You read Clayton Christensen's book: "Innovator's Dilemma". And he says that that's how you go out of business by listening too much to your customers, when the basis of competition changes. So, which is it? It doesn't seem like both of those things can be true.

And then you have the concepts of "open innovation," and "Lean Startups" and on and on and on. It can be incredibly confusing. So, I set out on this 10-year journey to figure it (innovation) out. And that's why I wrote "Mapping Innovation".

Appian: So, what are the biggest takeaways from the book, as you think about the innovation challenges faced by today's C-Suite execs?


The biggest takeaway is that there's no one true path to innovation. Innovation is basically about solving problems. So, the first thing you have to do is figure out what kind of problem you're trying to solve. Because different strategies work well with different problems.

And the way a lot of organizations get stuck is that they say: "This is how we innovate. This is our innovation DNA or whatever." And they do that, because that's what Steve Jobs did, or that's what Elon Musk does. Or that's what worked for us the last time."

That approach can work well for a while until you hit a problem that doesn't fit. And then you can end up just spinning your wheels. So, you really have to focus on classifying the problem first. Then, you identify the solution, rather than the other way around.

Innovation is not about ideas. It's about solving problems

Appian: So, based on your years of research, what do the most successful companies get right about innovation that other companies get wrong?

Satell: That's one of the questions I had in my mind while I was writing my book: What do successful innovators (company leaders) do differently? I've been talking to and writing about great innovators for years. And I've studied hundreds of companies. And there never seemed to be a common denominator.

Some of them are very introverted. Some are extroverted. Some organizations are very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Others are very conservative. IBM is among the best innovators ever. They've been on the cutting edge of technology for over 100 years and they're a very conservative company too.

Nothing obvious stood out you know, that one thing that successful innovators do differently than anybody else? But, in the course of researching the book. I finally realized what it was. The one thing that they all do consistently and this is the thing that allows the best companies to innovate decade after decade, versus somebody who came up with one good idea, but couldn't follow up on it.

What makes the difference is that successful innovators focus on solving problems.

A willingness to explore is essential to innovation

Appian: So, it's not some special brainstorming strategy or unique organizational culture that defines an innovative organization?

Satell: It's about how they (successful innovators) search for problems.

So, what great innovators do, is that they're always looking for new problems to solve. And what innovative organizations do, is that they have a systematic and disciplined process for identifying new problems.

Experian with DataLabs. They have a unit that just goes to customers and finds out what problems they're trying to solve, or what's giving them heartburn.

When they find one (a problem that needs to be solved) that has potential, they take it back to DataLabs, and they have a team of world class data scientist there. And they can usually come back with a prototype solution in 90 days. If the customer likes what they see, the prototype goes back to an operational unit in Experian where it's scaled up as a real business.

Over the last five years, Experian has launched more than a dozen new businesses that way. Extremely successful. Then, you look at IBM and they have a very similar idea. They call it Grand Challenges. Deep Blue was one. Then Blue Gene, then Watson. They didn't have any idea about how they were going to make money with Watson.

But they knew that it would open up numerous possibilities. They're also doing the same thing now with Project Debater (the first AI system designed to debate humans on complex topics).

Appian: So, that's a different approach than Experian. It's taking a longer view of innovation, in terms of when it pays off.

Satell: IBM isn't looking for problems that they can solve in 90 days. They're looking for problems that may take them years and sometimes decades to solve. For example, they've been working on quantum computing for 30 years. And Google takes a similar approach to innovation.

Appian: Is that what you mean when you talk about systematic exploration in the innovation journey?

Satell: Yes.

The disruption of GE is the opposite of that (systematic exploration). I mean GE hasn't invented anything innovative since CT scanners in the 1970s. And you're talking about a very capable company that makes serious investments in R&D. But what they don't do is explore.

If you don't explore, you won't invent and then you eventually get disrupted

Appian: But how do you get a big, traditional, legacy type company to adopt that kind of mindset, a willingness to explore?


Look, it's a basic equation, right? If you don't explore you won't invent. And if you don't discover, you won't invent. And then you're eventually going to get disrupted.

Appian: What are some of the exploration strategies that get the best results?

Satell: Some companies get closer to groundbreaking innovation by sponsoring academic post-doctoral research at universities. One of the most successful innovation programs at Google is one that nobody ever talks about. In fact, I've never heard of this program outside of Google. I'm talking about their practice of bringing in top-flight academics to work at Google for a year.

That's how Google Brain started. They bring in about 50 people, including high-flyers like (top AI experts) Andrew Ng and Geoffrey Hinton. But the point is that Google brings in about 50 people a year working on all kinds of things. Think about that, a company the size of Google bringing in 50 extra salaries. That's not a significant investment.

So, it's not about spending lots of money on investment in innovation. It's about realizing that exploration is important and having the will to do it.

Debunking innovation myths

Appian: Which is a great segue to what I want to talk about next. Let's look at the flip side of what you were just talking about. Help us debunk some of the misconceptions about innovation. You've addressed the misconception that innovation takes lots of money. But what are some of the other myths about what it takes to be a successful innovator?

Satell: The biggest misconception, which is something that I've already touched on, is that innovation is about ideas. Innovation is not about ideas, it's about identifying problems. If you identify a meaningful problem, the ideas will come. So, that's the first thing. I've spoken to all kinds of innovative people and companies. And they were all focused on solving a problem, not on an idea. That's the first thing. The second misconception is that you need to have a leader like Steve Jobs.

Appian:So, what's the problem with the Steve Jobs approach?


You don't need someone who's spouting off ideas all the time, breaking all the china. That's actually the last person you want.

People like Steve Jobs are good at going off and starting their own companies. But you don't want them working in yours. When Steve Jobs worked for other people, he was a disaster.

Forget about the secretive, lone genius approach to innovation

Appian: So, what's a better alternative?

Satell: The alternative is an innovative culture that's a collaborative culture. So, you want people who are good listeners. People who can work effectively with other people. One of the most interesting things that I found through my research is that many of most innovative people that I've talked to, including world-class scientists, are among the nicest people I've ever met. But that's what great innovators are like.

Great innovators aren't necessarily smarter or more talented than anybody else. They don't know everything, but they know somebody who knows.

And because they build up these fantastic knowledge networks, they can be information brokers, which makes it possible for them to come across that random insight or piece of information they need to solve a difficult problem.

And the way you do that is by building a strong network of connections. And the way you do that is by being generous with your time and expertise. So generosity can be a competitive advantage.

Appian: Which gets at the myth of the lone genius or mad scientist working alone in the secret lab.

Satell: Most people think that great innovators are secretive and innovate over there in a corner by themselves. But that's not the case.

(Tune in next week for the final installment of our two-part series on the future of innovation.)