Author and Impact Speaker, Alexander Manu Talks About Disruptive Business
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Contributed by Shaku Selvakumar
He teaches " Innovation, Foresight, and Business Design" at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and is a Professor at the OCAD University. He is a strategic innovation practitioner, lecturer, and author and since 2007 a Senior Partner and Chief Imaginator at InnoSpa International Partners, a consulting firm.
Author of “ToolToys: Tools with and Element of Play” (1995), The Big Idea of Design (1998) “The Imagination Challenge: Strategic Foresight and Innovation in the Global Economy (2006), “Everything 2.0” (2008). His latest book "Disruptive Business- Desire, Innovation and the Re-Design of Business", was published in 2010 by Gower Publishing.
The Forbes Business Leadership Forum brings renowned speakers and thought leaders who discuss the leadership strategies. I caught up with one of our speakers, Professor Alexander Manu, Chief Imaginator and Senior Partner at InnoSpa.
Professor Manu, please tell us more about Innospa International.
We are in
the business of helping organizations cope with change. The change dimension we
specialize in is emergent behaviour due to technology. We explore behaviour
based innovation and the new competitive spaces it creates. We also teach
organizations and individuals to discover the signals of emergence and guide
them into a renewed way of looking at
their business and their world. Aiming
to change an organization’s outlook from
reactive to the proactive exploration of new business possibilities, we unleash
and accelerate the competence of innovativeness into all core business
Your title Chief Imaginator is very compelling especially in today’s world. How do companies unleash the “imagination” potential in their employees to create innovative ways of delivering products and services.
Imagine an organization where everyone works as if at play for leisure. Call it a Place of Possibility, and empower a group of your most talented resources to form a Futures Group as an experiential activity. The rules are simple: each member of the group expands on the potential of their imagination, supports their colleagues to do the same, enhancing the competitiveness, innovativeness and business potential of the organization. This is a participatory play organization and the culmination of an enabled and empowered people; it is the prototype of a society that has cultivated the psychological tools to manifest their presence and express it, both individually and collectively. The Futures Group is a new platform for communication, collaboration and dialogue leading to a productive working relationship. The Futures Group activities attempt to anticipate. You will ask: What has already happened that has yet to make its full impact felt? What can we do with the events? This place of possibility does not concern itself too much with the all the things we cannot do. It always asks: What CAN WE DO –what shall we do – what do we want to do?”
The challenge : The Imagination. The required capability to detect and make sense out of emergent signals is a challenge for a number of reasons. We have learned and perfected a behavior range which is not conducive to imaginative pursuits, learning logic but imagination, and in this range we have discouraged and lost our ability to play. Without play, imagination dies. While there are plenty of schools that teach the limits of rational behavior, there are very few, if any, that teach the ways in which we can access and nurture our imagination.
We can meet this challenge through the recovery of our imagination. (hence, the title, Chief Imaginator).This recovery begins with unlearning, with addressing the constraints of the task environment and problem space as though through the eyes of someone seeing for the first time. It allows for the discovery and framing of powerful questions, exploring our imagination without expectation or inhibition. Powerful questions are at the core of the creation of the temporary play space, a shared operating platform on which ideas can be pushed beyond the limits of the possible. In the temporary play space time does not exist, technology can do anything and our goals are as free and as surprising as our imagination allows.
We have no excuse to fail here.
Which is precisely why this challenge is so hard; it exposes the truly imaginative mind from the creative imitator. But the payoff is worth it: the imaginative answers to powerful questions are strategic innovations. And strategic innovation creates pre-competitive advantages far surpassing the value of any tactical innovation.
In your book Disruptive Business, you mention that innovation is not a process but an outcome. Can you elaborate?
Innovation is a Noun: a result, a new way of doing things. I believe that understanding the meaning of innovation as a concept is the first step in creating an innovation producing enterprise. As I make the case many times in my book “ Disruptive Business”, innovation is an outcome, not a process. Organizations fancy the latter because processes can be managed, and this is what organizations are good at. This hides the lack of expertise – and mindset - in creating and managing a culture of innovativeness, and an organizational ecology populated by innovation “connoisseurs” rather than innovation managers. The management of the outcome is much different than the management of the process, and this is where definitions are important: innovation is an outcome achieved by a multiplicity of processes, some including imagination, creativity or simply repetitive tasks.
Innovation is not a process, but an outcome.
When you treat innovation as an outcome, the role of a business organization becomes to create the tools, objects and services through which people can manifest what they want, who they are and who they want to become. In this view, all innovation is aspirational. The role of business is to create media for you to become something else, a better self. If transformation is the key to growth, then the tools of transformation – or the media for transformation – are what a company creates. This applies to everything from soap to computers and iPhones. Any company that knows what its true job is, creates essentially products for transformation. And transformation takes us away from our life of habit, into a new ambiguous territory, with new measures and new expectations, or what might come next. Transformation takes us to a place of ambiguity, a place where the old measures do not apply. This is why ambiguity scares: our lives are very much about habits. Once we have a fixed paradigm of what tomorrow will be like, we are unlikely to change much. So if you want to participate in life, and be part of the perpetual transformation offered by innovation, you need to be able to absorb everything that is new. If you look at the world twice you will perpetually see what’s new, and how you need to continually transform yourself and your organization because of what is new today.
The redefinition of innovation as a human behaviour outcome, a dynamic in constant change, requires the shaping of new responses in business and the economy.
The past understanding of what innovation “is”, was generally connected with a breakthrough in technology – some new tool being employed in some new way. This understanding limits the potential of innovation as bound by the tools employed, instead of the imagination employing them. The latent imagination triggered by an innovation outcome is the true goal of innovation. It is not what “I can do with this now”? but “what can I become doing this in the future”? The tool is not a response, but a question. Every innovation is a question. The truly important innovations are a series of questions.
A few definitions: Innovation is an outcome, a new behavior, a new way of doing things. Disruption is a behavior – an outcome involving a media and a user - changed by invention. Invention is a moment of discovery or creation of something new. Disruptive Business means the sum of new behaviors and their support models. Innovation is a moment of use, a manifest behavior that engages an innovation object into new uses, and modifies the habitual conditions of the present.
This position challenges the current understanding of innovation, and some of the labels applied to innovation typologies, such as the label “disruptive innovation”. In general, the current discourse around innovation addresses competently the technology side of an invention, at the expense of the motivational side of the user, the human motivation which leads in the behavior of use.
Humans are the ultimate medium through which technology manifests itself.
Fire was not a disruptive innovation; it became so only when human motivation made it part of everyday life actions and allowed it to modify life in all aspects. In my view the disruption is the human being. Innovation outcomes are answers to goals residing in us, in human motivation, and our motivation starts in desire. We are bound to desire; to perpetually seek media for a better self. To perpetually seek innovation. And from desire we have changed, improved, and reshaped human life.
And here I propose another challenge to the current understanding of innovation : Innovation is rooted in Desire, not need. Desire is the motivation for behavior. Desire leads to goals, and goals lead to motivation, the internal condition that gives rise to what do we want to do, based on our goals, what can we do – based on the norms of behaviour – and what we will do – the actions that we voluntarily decide to undertake. Motivation is the ethos of goal orientated behavior, and a company's ability to understand motivation, directly contributes to the success of their products and services in the marketplace. As desire is constant, innovation is constant. In this dynamic, innovation is the constant state of being human, and business – the activity and the organizations that supply innovation outcomes - is the variable.
What are the current behavioral disruptions that are relevant to the continuity of business and what are the new business models that are emerging?
We live in a permanent dynamic in which the New Context is the Environment that provides the stimulus for innovation behavior. The development of this context is not necessarily of our choosing, but rather a convergence of multiple agents, referred to as “tactical agents”, in as much as they are integral to the evolution of this environment characterized as the result of multiple parties, sometimes unrelated, working toward the same goals, and in the same technology spaces. Four Strategic Questions framed in 1996 by Robert A. Burgelman and Andrew S. Growe (Strategic Dissonance, California Management Review, Winter 1996) frame the challenges and opportunities faced by an organization in this dynamic. The questions are formulated around the tension between two opposing sets of data; The New Context VS The Organization’s Distinctive Capabilities, and New Sources of Value VS Business Models.
To understand the New Context one needs to ask : How is the Landscape Changing? How are the Millennials different than the Baby Boomers? How will the social and physical infrastructures of Cyberspace help our organization reach and retain their customers, define new market segments, and create new revenue opportunities?
To understand the New Sources of Value one must as: What is the meaning of value in the mobile society? What do millennials consider essential and important? What desires do they need fulfilled? What are the characteristics of the market? What, therefore, are the characteristics of the organization that will best respond to this dynamic?
To understand the New Distinctive Competencies ask: What new capabilities are needed to succeed? What are the market issues, that when addressed, will create frictionless growth and hence superior margins?
To understand the New Business Models ask: How are we presently structured to capture value? What key value activities we need to be engaged in? What are the key business model issues that will determine our ability to develop an ubiquitous business model?
In my opinion understanding the new landscape allows organizations to have the right ambition for their possibility.
The new context in much of the industrialized world is what the UN’s International Telecommunications Union  has termed “The Internet of Things” – a place in which every person, object and space is both a link and a holder of information. These are spaces where digital data resides on embedded or on mobile devices, can be transmitted and received, and can be managed. With the proliferation of the tools, the infrastructure and the behaviors now made possible, it is fair to term the new context as a mobile society. The mobile society is the sum of the lifestyles of its participants, and the participants are in a constant state of searching for media to navigate it, for media to engage with from play to work, learning to knowledge, entertainment and leisure. Thus the challenge of the mobile society for organizations is not about technology, but about strategy.
At this point we must deal with a few labels: if we mislabel something then we place it on the wrong shelf, in the wrong folder, in the wrong category. There is no “Disruptive Innovation”. This label has misstated the nature of innovation. What is disruptive is the emergent behavior. When behavior engages technology in an innovation outcome, we have a disruptive business model.
That is very interesting, the focus on emergent behavior spurred by technology.
Our understanding is further impaired once we mislabel actions. This is what happened recently with Social Media. I do not know of any media that is not social. That is an important thing because if you frame opinions or questions in the wrong way, by using the wrong label (social media, new media…) then the whole discussion becomes irrelevant. All media is social; humans exist because of other people, so our condition is one of plurality. Everything I use - which is every medium I use – from my shirts, to my shoes, to my car, they are all social media.
For anyone involved in communications – be that brand communication, marketing, news, or other forms of consumable and time sensitive content – the strategic challenge includes the understanding of the nature of mobile digital media: this is not “just another channel”! Mediums are not channels: mediums are modes of individual action. Hence the principal themes of this new context: Empowerment, Participation and Engagement.
Empowerment refers to means available for the transformation, collaboration and sharing of content on an unprecedented scale made possible by the nature of digital data content which is re-mixable, easy to transform, mush, be acted upon. This empowerment invites Participation, as individuals capable of digital data transmission and reception – now a majority in the industrialized world – are enabled as participants in the creation and direction of the mobile society. Once this enablement becomes a behavior, the individual makes the voluntary choice to actively engage in its manifestation, by creating and consuming content which he or she finds meaningful. This engagement deepens their connection with the issues of meaning, making them a personal cause and a further behavior to be acted upon. This is the innovation behaviour cycle at work. For the actors empowered for participatory engagement – the Millennial generation born after 1980 – everything is possible. Freedom is not just a conceptual term, but an acted upon percept. They feel it, they crave it, they use it.
The empowerment and participatory behavior that are the essence of people’s engagement with YouTube, are not a technological innovation: They are manifestations of innovation as a behavior outcome and the trigger for a innovation behavior cycle that forms a new continuum reshaping value, creating new transactions and changing the meaning and metrics of the economic system. As we manifest these behaviors, new social interactions take place which lead as outputs in the engagement with new forms of exchange, which in turn, create new behaviors. This is the dynamic system ecology of behavior. This dynamic makes rethinking innovation an imperative.
These are hard and exciting times. Hard, because choices need to be made. Exciting, because of the same thing, choices to be made. Every company wants to know “where do we go from here?” Or in other words, “Where will revenue come from?”. The hard part is in unlearning what one’s core capability used to be and embracing a new path. For a while, most CEO’s try stalling. They pretend that if they improve the processes, they will maintain revenue. The trouble is that efficiency has nothing to do with flavour, taste, smell, feelings, memories, all the transformative moments people are looking for in their lives. People themselves – and families for that matter – are not about efficiency. They are about life, the rollercoaster of experiences that a day represents, and the emotions that result from it. We, the people that buy stuff, want that stuff to mean something, not just to “do something”. This is why we seek pleasure in our encounters with objects, spaces, foods, images, sounds and other human beings.
Analyzing the potential of a company is done by looking at the proprietary technology they hold, at their market share and its profit margins, all solid indicators if the company in question sells physical assets, where the exchange of value between user and the business is manifest in terms of money against a product or a service. This metric and method does not apply when valuating a phenomenon. Is Facebook a technology? Is it a traditional product or service? Can Facebook be understood in terms of future potential by traditional financial metrics and analysis?
No. Facebook is a Place. The real question should be “what is a place worth?”.
The creation of Places is the at the core of creating new business models
Think of places; they are the sum of people’s interactions between themselves as well as people’s interactions with the physical surroundings, the fixtures of places, buildings, parks, objects… A place is about identity, about groups that embrace time and space in the same way and at the same location. Some places create social phenomena which in turn strengthen the image they have in the mind of their inhabitants, and further imprint the identity of the individual with the identity of the place. A space is empty. Places are not just locations; places occupy dimensions in the mind, in the heart and in the gut. Places are about memory, a memory that can not be transplanted elsewhere. Places are about activity; an activity that can not be transplanted elsewhere. Places are about status, a status that can not be achieved by “other” places. Places are about Possibility.
And so, how much is a place worth? A place that has a population of 600 million and growing, with each one creating content, sharing it and then creating some more?
I have the strange feeling that, from the perspective of the past, and with the tools of the present, we are not equipped to valuate at this time places of possibility.
You talk about “rethinking innovation” and a new mindset and a cultural shift. Can you elaborate?
The ultimate capability of a business organization is the knowledge of initiating, managing, and monetizing the creation of culture. This knowledge includes the skills of pinpointing the source of successful innovation outcomes: they are answers to conscious or subconscious goals residing in human motivation, and motivation starts in desire. In a post-industrial, globally competitive economy, the role of the business organization is no longer in serving the market, but it is about making – or transforming – markets.
The challenge is no longer about adding value, but about creating value. When employing innovation as strategy, organizations need to be less concerned about what people are doing now, and more concerned about what people are about to do. The field of any true business opportunity is in the future. And any step taken toward a designed future requires agility as a measure of the organization’s ability. Measures of agility are the ability to act on intelligence received from the field, and from the periphery of the business, the ability to unlearn legacy processes, the ability to reshape legacy processes, legacy supply chains, legacy beliefs in one’s business and the dynamic ability to reframe and rethink tools and metrics. Reframing and rethinking the metrics has to be not only a dynamic, but also a synchronic capability, aligned with the constant human desire for a better experience of life.
I proposed earlier that innovation is behavior – as outcome – changed by technology. YouTube, the AppStore, the Kindle and iTunes, are some of the manifestations of this definition. The innovation of YouTube is not in technology, but in people’s engagement with it. The innovation of YouTube is behavior. When behavior engages technology in an innovation outcome, we have a disruptive business model. This is not about a product or a service, but about the creation of culture. It follows that the ultimate capability of a business, is the knowledge of initiating , managing and monetizing, the creation of culture. This is why rethinking the role innovation plays in culture, starts with rethinking innovation.
The popular concept of what constitutes an “innovation” usually encompasses technological breakthroughs and new products. This definition is limiting, and inhibits the imagination, for in truth, the scope of possibility for innovation can extend well beyond our established notions of the term itself. It falls to our capabilities as innovative individuals to define and re-define the term, through our organized explorations of what could be possible in any chosen domain. The latent innovation potential that lies in every individual, can be – and must be – mobilized and leveraged to produce new pre-competitive value for corporations, which in turn can influence the quality of life of humanity. Bringing forth the latent innovator in individuals towards this goal, requires not just effective management, but leadership qualities as well. The empathetic character, courage, and playful qualities of a leader, must accompany the systematic and diligent attention to process and systems inherent in effective management.
Successful innovation outcomes are answers to conscious or subconscious goals residing in human motivation, and motivation starts in desire. This position is consistent with the history of innovations that have changed, improved and reshaped human life, and also consistent with their roots and ethos. The ethos that pushes us to discovery is our continual search for media for becoming. This means that the drive to innovate – the actions taken toward innovation outcomes – is not primarily the result of our competitive spirit, but the result of our desire to be beyond competition, and pre-competitive as far as the other animals are concerned. Not a search for a new way of doing things, but a search for a better way. A qualitative life change that echoes with our motivating goals as individuals.
Most tools and methods currently used to manage innovation, are holdovers from the industrial-era economy, an economy in which efficiently satisfying an identified consumer need was an accurate predictor of sustainable success. The industrial economy’s primary values of efficiency are well-served by the “funnel” innovation process model, by which the scope of possibility begins as broad, and is gradually narrowed to an outcome with the highest likelihood of success, in an established market. But in a post-industrial, globally competitive economy, innovation is no longer about serving the market, but about making – or transforming – markets. It is no longer about adding value, but about creating value. As the rules of the global economy evolve, so too must our notion of what it means to be an “innovative company” in this changing context.
Innovation is no longer serving the markets but about making or transforming markets. Very true in today’s constantly morphing environment.
When rethinking innovation as behavior changed by technology, I propose a pre-competitive strategic mindset that aims at innovation outcomes that are beyond competition. Beyond competition as a mind set for innovation starts with questions rather than problems. How can a live in comfort? How can I feel pleasure? How can I keep warm? How can I cook my food? We want to create meaning in our life, and the lives of the ones we care about, meaning that goes beyond the tangible. Our sense of self, our spirit, is the force that gives humans the ethos to change continually our condition. It is this spirit that creates the ethos of innovation; a prerequisite for creating the conditions we want in life.
When designing innovation producing organizations, we must frame them around the only coordinate that maters : the constant human desire for a better experience of life.
Thank you for that insightful and fascinating interview about successful innovation that matters for today’s business!
Don’t miss these two thought provoking sessions featuring Alexander Manu at the Forbes Business Leadership Forum at Impact.
Track: Mastering the Art of Leadership: Skills to Get
Ahead, Monday Apr 11, 2 – 3:15 pm, Venetian – Delfino 4102
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