David Rowan was the founding editor-in-chief of WIRED Magazine's UK edition and technology columnist of The Times, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and Sunday Times. David travels the globe to meet crazy-driven startup entrepreneurs who are reinventing industries through unconventional means. Fortune 100 companies regularly hire David to explain how these startups plan to kill their businesses. [book jacket]
At Autodesk, we know a thing or two about reinventing industries through unconventional means, i.e., innovation. For us, an innovation is something new or different that has an impact. Without impact, something new or different is just an invention. Years ago, working with the Hult International Business School, we developed the Autodesk Innovation Genome. We studied the greatest innovations over the past 2.6 million years and looked for the essence behind them — the DNA of innovation. We boiled it down to 7 questions, that when asked and answered, can help foster innovation:
When working with Autodesk customers to help them address some of their challenges, we have found that answering these questions around an innovation target often leads to innovative solutions.
So it's no surprise that David mentioned Autodesk in his book, Non-Bullshit Innovation. I assisted him as his fact verifier regarding Autodesk. I jokingly suggested that if he had teamed up with George R. R. Martin for the book, the title could have been Rowan and Martin's Non-Bullshit Innovation. Although that really socked it to me, everyone agreed that such humor would have been lost on today's generation. I guess I am just destined to laugh in silence by myself.*
I am a fan of Jessica Hagy's This is Indexed blog. Jessica's innovation is that she takes humorous and insightful thoughts and expresses them, very simply, on an index card. For my own amusement, when I review books, I try to take something from each chapter and express it in Jessica Hagy style. I consider it an homage to her work and have created my own collection of these homage blog posts.
Using a manilla envelope approach for illustrations, here are some interesting tidbits from each chapter of Non-Bullshit Innovation:
"The lifespan of large corporations ... is shortening. Richard N. Foster, a former McKinsey director who described a theory of 'creative destruction,' calculated that the average tenure of an S&P 500 company in the US fell from sixty-one years in 1958 to eighteen years by 2012." [page 9]
Embrace Unmet Needs
"Group businesses such as Interbank, the department store Oechsle, and Innova Schools have sent teams to the lab, where they have learned to embrace rituals such as 'tequila moments' — where teams collectively drink tequila shots if someone screws up, in order to make failure seem less daunting." [page 25]
Empower Your Team
"We're taking technologies from a completely different industry to apply here [construction]... Our competitors use innovation to mean they'll do a design up to a certain point and the detail becomes someone else's problem. But for a project like this [adding a basement to a hotel that still serves guests], you have to collaborate as a team. Even if it ends up involving a mining technique, with everything having to come through a small hole in the wall." [page 49]
"How crazy that a bunch of nerds can show up and do in months what nobody had been able to do in years. Just out of sheer will." [page 63]
Turn Products into Services
"There's a saying in India — a hungry physician is more dangerous than a hungry tiger... In Finland, we don't see [innovative medical care not based on profit] as a bank performing surgery. It's an insurance company that's own by a bank that's performing surgery, It's healthcare." [page 85]
"I don't believe top-down management is a recipe for innovation or anything close to it." — Astro Teller [page 108]
"She's also focused on boosting staff diversity... 'I have a woman on my team who's an engineer but has in her past been a concert pianist, a wildland firefighter, a first-aid responder in a national park, and an artist who interned at Autodesk; and she also happens to be a woman and a lesbian.'" — Obi Felten [page 114]
"...incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time." [page 116]
Incubate Tomorrow's Business
"It's generally a terrible idea to use an accelerator as the starting point for an innovation strategy." — Dinesh Moorjani [pages 132-133]
Prototype and Measure
"Ideas are great... but we focus on execution." — Khalfan Juma Belhoul, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation [page 157]
"V * D * C * S > R = Change" [page 155]
- V - vision for the future
- D - dissatisfaction wit the current situation
- C - capacity for change
- S - knowledge of first steps to take
- R - perceived cost of change or resistance to change
Become a Platform
"Ask for forgiveness rather than permission. [Estonian civil servant] Kaspar Korjus knew that his estcoin [cryptocurrency] proposal was going to be controversial. If he'd run it past the central bank and senior ministers before going public, he would have hit a wall. Better, he decided, to set the idea free and then pragmatically alter his position in light of the subsequent debate." [page 186]
"Constant small improvements eventually create magic." [page 185]
Find Your Blind Spots
"To save your business, you gotta break your business. Stand up, tell a story about how you're eating your own young. Otherwise, you won't make it. People have this idea of 'I'll leave the core business alone and just acquire a new business that will over time eat the core business.' Sorry, but the world is moving too fast. You've got to eat your own business, and you've got to do it now. Because if you don't have the courage, someone else will do it for you." Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk CEO [pages 203-204]
Mine the Data
"Another option is to charge clients based on outcome. In the cement sector, where energy consumption is a substantial part of the costs, ABB [pioneering technology leader] is now charging for projects based on the energy or efficiency savings delivered by its monitoring systems. Working with a cement producer in India, for instance, ABB claims that its monitoring processes boosted productivity by 5%, cut operating costs by more than 3%, and delivered a 15% boost in cement quality. Suddenly ABB isn't simply selling machines, which a customer will buy just once; instead, it's now selling a regular service, which a customer will pay for repeatedly. Let's call it a new cement-production-as-a-service business." [page 218]
"From his research, which he wrote about in the book, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, [Greg] Brandeau, [VP of technology at Pixar,] discovered some patterns [on how an innovative culture fosters innovation]." [page 230]
- creative abrasion - an internal expectation of no-holds-barred discussions to generate new ideas
- creative agility - protocols to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment
- creative resolution - the ability to take integrative decisions
"I think Burning Man is to the contemporary tech world what the Protestant Church was to industrial manufacturers." — Professor Fred Turner, Stanford University [page 234]
Reframe Your Value
"In my quest for examples of bold digital transformation, I've struggled to find an incumbent business achieving faster economic returns from a strategy of what's often called 'adjacent growth' — building new business lines outside the core income stream... What I learned from my meetings ... is that it's a multidisciplinary process, requiring consistent leadership that recognizes the urgency of change, an authentic basis in the company's distinct culture, a diverse and motivated internal team that feels empowered, occasional external adult supervision in formulating processes, and an agile startup mindset that tolerates (even encourages) experimentation that may just fail." [page 252]
Build an Ecosystem
"The desks are busily occupied at eight p.m. this Wednesday evening in October 2015; Xiaomi is... a nine-nine-six company meaning that staff are expected to work from at least nine a.m. to nine p.m. six days a week." [page 266]
"Xiaomi's team also helped Ninebot in its acquisition of Segway in l2015. The purchase brought Ninebot not only the original maker of self-balancing two wheeled personal transporters, but also a treasure trove of intellectual property. Segway didn't manage to sustain its early hype... The challenge in China... is meeting demand once the fickle market has become excited. There's a saying in China that with hardware, slow is actually fast. If you take your time to iterate, when [your product] finally explodes on the market, you can meet that demand and scale much faster — unlike the Kickstarter model, where delays cause hype to die." [pages 270-271]
Leverage Emerging Tech
"Yara International's board of directors had agreed to invest $40 million to build the world's first autonomous battery-powered cargo ship." [page 292]
"The Yara Birkeland is a key symbol of a culture shift. The 79.5-meter-long ship, named after Kristian Birkeland, is under construction in a Romanian yard belonging to the Norwegian shipbuilder Vard." [page 294]
"It's expensive to pack a cargo ship with batteries, proximity sensors, lidar, radar, infrared cameras, and other advanced technologies — around three times the cost of a standard ship." [page 295]
Stretch the Business Model
"...Naspers [a centuries-old South African newspaper publisher] decided to bet $32 million to acquire 46.5% of a loss-making Chinese messaging startup that, when it sold a tiny stake in March 2018, had become an investment valued at $164 billion. The startup was Tencent, creator of the hugely successful WeChat and QQ messaging services, and that single 512,000% return enthroned Naspers as one of the world's greatest technology investors, and placed it among Africa's biggest companies." [page 310]
Exploit a Crisis
"[Welspun's corporate meeting room features] special displays of Welspun's patented fabric technologies:" [pages 334-335]
- HygroCotton - hollow-core yarn boosts towels' absorbency and helps cool sheets in summer and warm them in winter
- Nanocore - inhibits dust mites and other allergens
- Drylon - can be bleached and resists creases
"Innovation isn't about labs or acquisition funds or job titles or conference keynotes. It's about embedding a culture within an organization that enables internal teams to think and execute quickly and iteratively like the most effective startups." [page 348]
Hopefully, the quotes I selected gave you a sense of the book, and my Hagy-imitation illustrations made you smile.
In the spirit of full disclosure:
I could not have told these stories without the thoughtfulness, generosity, smart thinking, and kindness of so many people who offered suggestions, introductions, feedback, and insights.... I offer particular thanks to:... [long list of companies that includes] At Autodesk: Andrew Anagnost, Jeff Kowalski, Erin Bradner, Mickey McManus, Tom Wujec, Maurice Conti, Andrew Hessel, Jon Pittman, Scott Sheppard, Callan Carpenter, Lining Yao, Jana Hildebrand. [pages 355-358]
Our acknowledgment aside, I enjoyed and recommend the book because it relays its learnings via stories. The stories include well-known companies as well as lesser-known. Each success story is unique. There is no precise methodology for innovation. In most innovation-related books, I have to tease out the lessons or steps to innovation from the material. In the case of Non-Bullshit Innovation, the end of each chapter includes Action Points that make the prescription very clear. There is no need to read between the lines. To innovate in your own company, just read the lines.
At Autodesk, we believe innovation comes from:
- Toolset - the specific tools required for the organization to create the products, services, and experiences it delivers to its customers.
- Skillset - the collection of meta-skills that all professionals need to innovate, regardless of their specific industry or role.
- Mindset - the various mental models, cultural attitudes, and ambient beliefs (often subtle or even invisible) that exist within the organization.
All three of these "sets" are necessary for innovation, and they mutually reinforcing; without all three of these in place, working in concert, a failure to innovate is the likely outcome.
The study of innovation is alive in the lab.