30 Sep Dissecting Innovation
Post written by Ron Amodeo, Director, Office of Business Development - Mayo Clinic
Dissect your company’s old innovations to create the right culture for new ones
Of the many ways your organization might try to become competent at innovation, dissecting an internal innovation project (whether it failed or succeeded) is a relatively risk free and cost-effective approach to building innovation know-how.
By studying how a past innovation evolved, your organization can develop a shared model useful for undertaking innovation projects in the future. Factors that contributed to the innovation will be revealed, from persistence to luck, from concept to execution, from individual creativity to teamwork, and from bootstrapped to fully funded.
The concept of an innovation dissection was inspired by Andreas Vesalius, a sixteenth century Italian physician who, in order to advance the study human anatomy, quietly unearthed and dissected the bodies of recently executed criminals. Vesalius’ efforts, fairly radical for their time, provided new information for emerging scientists to understand human biology, especially regarding how we look and function internally.
Something similar is possible by dissecting dead innovations inside a company. They will teach you many things about how innovation looks and functions inside your organization.
But isn't an innovation dissection simply a “post-mortem” of a project, something already common in many companies? On the contrary. Companies use post-mortem analysis to learn from mistakes or improve on an operation. They are designed to analyze the past with the aim of explicitly guiding strategy (or project management competence) moving forward. Innovation dissections differ in that theyrecreate the past with the aim of guiding staff through the experience of taming the unknown.
A comprehensive dissection uses storytelling, dialogue, and visual mapping to drive staff learning. The focus on learning is key because innovation is primarily an exercise of exploring the unknown, and knowing how to learn is critical to generating new ideas.
Given that graves of dead innovations litter the landscape of most companies, conducting an innovation dissection will not only rediscover past learnings (that could provide wisdom to current activities), but will also uncover internally proven methods of innovation. Such methods already harmonize with your organization’s language and culture, unlike those developed by external consultants, which must stick around a long time to adapt to the internal culture.
Techniques for a Good Dissection
A good innovation dissection is metaphorically similar to a biological dissection. In ten to fifteen minutes, a storyteller recounts to the best of their ability how the innovation was born, grew and flourished (if so), then passed on. Common biology-class tools such as the scalpel, probe, forceps, scissors, and pins have their equivalents in the storytelling-to-discussion-to-visual mapping exercise recommended here.
The primary goal is to explore one layer at a time. Probing is the most useful technique, with participants directed to ask questions of the storyteller that gently uncover hidden meanings. Other questions should cut (scalpel) right to the heart of something confusing, or tease apart (forceps) a relevant distinction. And as one digs into an innovation, keeping the layers apart (pins) helps clarify what is being discussed. Like with organisms, dissecting different innovations sheds light on our own organization and culture.
The Value of Dissecting an Internal Innovation
Dissecting past innovations represents fairly low-hanging fruit in the spectrum of building internal competencies in innovation. All that’s required is a compelling story, a good storyteller patient enough to let the adventure unfold, and participants guided to ask questions that dig deeper than key facts and outcomes (e.g. fears, hopes, missed opportunities, dead ends, informal networks, engagements with leadership, highs and lows, etc.). Having time between the story’s end and its dissection allows for greater perspective, which is why it's often better to dig up dead innovations rather than use ones just recently abandoned.
Dissecting a successful innovation is not required, as factors that thwart innovation are good lessons for participants. It doesn’t matter if the innovation was large or small or occurred during a matter of months or years. Of greater importance are the intangibles captured through the storyteller’s experience, from how the team worked together to rediscovering the triggers that launched new thinking. Capturing the story’s progression in visual form adds great value as well (if you have access to a designer), for the visual provides a common reference point and an easy comparative learning tool for individuals when they begin an innovation experience with a new team.
If dissecting a dead project seems backward looking, the overall concept provides incredible lessons for those participating. For new hires, it can establish innovation expectations, knowledge of a process, and a sense of the past. For established staff, the method rekindles a curiosity for the unknown, the spirit of experimentation, and the unintended benefits of pursuing a passion or intuition. For leadership, the method sheds light on a variety of key principles that keep innovation alive in an organization: the need for trial and error, sensitivity to serendipity, distributed control, making decisions only when they need to be made, comfort with uncertainty, tolerance for outside-the-box thinking, and the positive compounding effect of innovation investments.
At worst, dissecting an innovation allows the organization to retain institutional memories that restrict opportunities before they can prove themselves. At best, it strengthens an internal commitment to innovation already tailored to the culture.