Every organisation covets internal innovation, but very few usher creative sparks through to commercial success with any kind of reliable consistency. Amnon Levav, Managing Director of the groundbreaking Israeli company Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), has helped some of the world’s top brands to systematise innovation – from brainstorming to commercial execution. This month he travels to Australia for the Innofuture 2007 conference. So what’s his secret? Thinking ‘inside the box’.
Interview by Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan: Can you briefly describe your Systematic Inventive Thinking method? How did it germinate?
Amnon Levav: SIT was born about 11 years ago, as an offshoot of TRIZ, a method developed by the Russian engineer Genrich Altschuler. The basic premise, inherited from Altschuler by SIT, is that inventive ideas share common patterns. This is the first of a series of counter-intuitive aspects to SIT. In most cases, when people are shown an idea that they consider innovative, they tend to focus on those elements that make the idea different from other ideas. SIT, on the other hand, is interested in the opposite: on what innovative ideas have in common with other innovative ideas. The basic insight is, therefore, that innovations share common patterns. If we learn to identify these patterns we can understand the ideas better and, even more importantly, use the patterns to create other innovative ideas.
From this basis, we designed a set of thinking tools, which are translations of the aforementioned patterns into practical procedures. Then there are a number of principles that an innovator needs to follow when applying the tools, so as to overcome his or her blocks and fixedness. In addition, the method includes elements of facilitation and project management that are designed to ensure that applying the method leads to practical and actionable results.
What mistakes do entrepreneurs and knowledge-economy workers most commonly make when generating and implementing creative commercial ideas?
One of the most common assertions we hear is: “We have plenty of good ideas, our problem is only implementation.” An R&D manager in a biotech company made this argument, and gave as an example an “amazing idea” that she hadn’t managed to get funding for from top management because it required a higher investment than the company could afford. She was surprised to hear that, in my view, her idea was not “amazing”, since according to our approach the value of an idea is a function not only of the benefits it can bring, but also of the viability of its implementation.
The claim that companies “don’t need innovation” because they have too many ideas is mistaken also because it assumes that innovation is required only at the very first stage of development. But consider all the innovation required at later stages: building up the idea into a full-blown concept, coming up with an interesting promise and positioning for the product, overcoming numerous development challenges, launching the idea into the market, to name just a few. In actual fact, there is often way more innovation involved in all these stages than there is in coming up with the idea in the first place.
Innovation is difficult to define and measure. How can it be systematised?
I am not sure that there is a necessary correlation between how difficult it is to measure the results of an activity, and how difficult it is to systematise its execution. An example that comes to mind is music. Most people would agree that it is pretty hard to measure the effects of playing a work of music on an audience, but everyone accepts the fact that you can and should learn the art of making music, using experienced teachers and applying strict and systematic methods.
In the case of innovation, there are many aspects that can (and are) systematised. Ideas can be clustered according to common patterns. Certain behaviours can be identified as enhancing the ability of an individual to innovate or, on the contrary, inhibiting them from doing so. The dynamics of a group of people trying to co-operate in an innovation task can be studied, analysed and turned into prescriptive guidelines. There is nothing more mystical about innovation than in any other activity, as far as I can see, which means that there is no reason not to study it, organise your knowledge and train yourself to excel in it. There is, obviously, a limit to what you can systematise about innovation, and luckily so, since everything would be much duller without this element of uncertainty.
You’ve worked with some of the world’s biggest brands. How differently do employees in large corporations receive your ideas compared with small teams in fast-growth SMEs?
When it comes to innovation, the further you go into the process of implementation, the more people start to diverge in their practices, not because of inherent personal differences but due to the environment in which they find themselves. Getting an idea implemented in a large corporation is, as you would expect, way more difficult than in an SME. But my guess is that it is less due to the employees’ qualities and much more to the processes, procedures, politics and probably some other Ps.
Are customer expectations driven by great products, rather than, as is most often the case, products being driven by customer expectations?
My guess is as good as anyone’s. In fact, mine may be worth a bit less than some, since in SIT we focus on what we call the “voice of the product”, as opposed to the more commonly popular “voice of the customer”. We believe that listening to customers is crucial for any business, but that the role of customers as a source of ideas and innovations is highly overrated. In fact, customers are not typically a reliable source for new ideas, both for lack of ideas and since they don’t necessarily wish to share those they have. There is also a high probability that those ideas that your customers do have and are willing to share will reach your competitors at about the same time that you become aware of them. Definitely, listen to your customers, but don’t rely on them for new ideas.
How well does SIT’s view of innovation integrate with existing innovation infrastructure around the world?
We work with governments and the public sector, more often than not taking part in programs designed to encourage innovation. But in a sense SIT is neutral to the innovation infrastructure, since our specialty lies in leading people and teams to what we call “Inside the Box” innovation. It is our belief that the desire to think “Outside the Box” often leads to ideas that are impractical. Inventing inside the box means for us that one should first clarify the constraints of a situation, creating a clear picture of “the box”, and then proceed to innovate within these constraints. Our “Closed World” principle actually states, counter to common belief, that ideas tend to be more innovative when you make use only of those resources that already exist in your “closed world” (i.e. in the product or system’s current state). This usually leads to practical ideas that can be implemented, even when they are conceptual breakthroughs. I see this as an inherently optimistic outlook, since it leads one to find solutions and create innovations with one’s own “grass”, rather than searching for greener grass elsewhere.
Amnon Levav will be appearing at the InnoFuture 2007 conference being held at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt hotel, 28-29 August. www.innofuture.com.au