Book Review: The Little Black Book of Innovation

Scott D. Anthony’s book, The Little Black Book of Innovation, is a quick and pleasant read.  For those of us that think we aren’t as innovative as we could or should be, this book provides a practical approach to developing your innovation capabilities.  Anthony draws on years of experience both practicing and teaching innovation, and presents his perspectives in a 4-week program made up of actions that will help you become more innovative.  The four weeks break down as shown below.  I’ve added one lesson from each week that particularly resonated with me.

Week 1 – Discovering Opportunities

The first week’s activities are designed to help you identify your target customer, identify a problem the customer is trying to solve today, and find signals suggesting customer dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Day 5, titled “Find Compensating Behaviors” is devoted to the central question, “How can I find nonobvious opportunities?”  I love this advice because it instantly changes my mindset from one of attempting to dream up “something big,” to one of examining what’s out there already and where it falls down.  We all use compensating behaviors all the time, often unconsciously.  A silly example that pops to my mind immediately involves my morning coffee.  I make myself coffee as soon as I wake up, and I drink it throughout the day.  I take my coffee with milk and sugar, and I would imagine that at least 7 of 10 times, when I pour milk from the big plastic gallon container into my cup, I spill just a little bit, no matter how careful I try to be.  I compensate for this by keeping a sponge nearby, and wiping up the drips of milk that have run down the edge of my cup.  This isn’t a particularly big deal, but I can’t imagine there isn’t a way to design a spill proof container for milk.  It’s been done for plenty of other liquids – why not the milk jug?

Week 2 – Blueprinting Ideas

The second weeks’ activities are designed to help you use multiple sources of inspiration to develop an idea, determine where your idea will be “good enough,” and develop a comprehensive blueprint for your idea.  I found the advice on day 11, “Avoid Overshooting,” to be well aligned with design and development processes that I already subscribe to, and something I know people struggle with all the time.  The central question in this section is, “Is there such a thing as too good?”  The answer depends on the context, but it is certainly possible to build something that is “too good.”  Take web design, for instance.  People that are part of a software team often think of, or come across, new feature ideas.  There is a cost to building a feature, though, and that cost varies with just how fancy you want to get.  When something simple will do the job and satisfy the customer, it may not warrant the extra investment to make it flashier than it needs to be.

Week 3 – Assessing and Testing Ideas

Week 3 is all about assessing the true potential of your ideas, and I think this is something that innovators naturally struggle with.  As the originator of what seems like a great idea, it’s very tempting to move full steam ahead without stopping to assess whether the idea is the right one.  On Day 18, Anthony presents the important step, “Test Critical Assumptions.”  This exercise first gets you to define your assumptions, and that in itself can be very illuminating.  Then, the exercise prompts you to get out and back those assumptions up with testing.  Going back to my milk carton example from Week 1, one of my assumptions is that I’m not the only one annoyed by dripping milk, but do I really know that’s true?  Even if it’s true to a degree, are people annoyed enough that they’d pay for what may end up to be a more expensive gallon of milk if the cost of producing packaging is higher?  If I really wanted to pursue my genius idea for a new milk carton, I’d be smart to test my assumptions before I go very far forward.

Week 4 – Moving Forward

Week 4 covers a lot of obstacles and pitfalls related to managing innovation within existing business environments, in order to position a company and its people to be successful innovators.  On Day 26, Anthony says, “Reward Behaviors, Not Outcomes.”  I don’t know about you, but practically every place I’ve worked at, outcomes are valued above behaviors.  I’ve seen this work negatively in a few ways.  First, a rotten coworker can get away with being rotten if he or she delivers.  Or, a really innovative thinker can be punished when a particular idea doesn’t work out in the long run.  It’s this case that Anthony is specifically targeting.  It can take many, many failures before a success is achieved, but if the behavior is rewarded, employees will keep trying, anyway.  On the other hand, punish people for ideas that don’t turn out, and they’ll quickly turn into automatons.

Anthony uses a few metaphors and examples here and there throughout the book that I didn’t particularly like, but they don’t harm his overall message, which is valuable, practical, and quite accessible to anyone interested in becoming more innovative.

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