Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Brainstorm vs. Systematic Innovations – Henry Ford Style


I’ll start by saying that lately, I find myself fascinated by famous people’s quotes. So, I’ve decided to integrate relevant quotes into this post. Most are coming from one Henry Ford, the father of modern mass production, and quite a fruitful inventor by himself.

Lots have been said in the praise of innovation, especially in these troubled times, with nearly 75% of executives consider it a top-strategic priority in 2010, so I’m not going to continue praising it more than just rephrasing Louis Armstrong on “If you have to ask why innovation is so important, you'll never know.”

While working at Samsung, we had several “innovative sessions” where you put 15-30 people inside a room, and don’t let them out till you have twice as much “innovative ideas” to start working with.

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

Even though sometimes good stuff surfaced from these sessions, most of the time I felt like it’s a waste of 15-30 x 2-4 working hours, and countless hours afterwards, trying to review all of those “interesting” ideas, and then explaining to each person why their ground-breaking feature didn’t make it to the final list.

I have couple of issues with this method:

1. The vast majority of these groups were engineers. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying engineers can’t be innovative – just ask the two Steve’s (Jobs and Woz) to see it’s clearly feasible – I’m just saying you got to have diversity in the audience, otherwise, it’s going to be more-of-the-same.

"I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done."

2. We were all working in the same place, knowing the “capabilities” / “constrains” and even confined to the “expected areas / buzzwords” of innovations that HQ in Seoul is currently keen on. I think we needed some sort of external guidance, preferably by a complete outsider, to make us forget all the stuff we thought we knew and start more open minded.

3. As an outcome of these – the ideas were based mostly on technical abilities, which tried to find real-world excuses problems to justify why they should become a product.

My bottom line out of these was – crowded brainstorming sessions doesn’t really work.

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it."
- Henry Ford

Apparently, brainstorming was introduced by Alex Osborn way back in 1948, when my mom, dad and country were born, and was proven in countless studies ever since to be the most overused and underperforming tool in business today.

So, the first question is – why do so many organizations still use it?
But, after the obvious answers, comes the more interesting one:
What are the alternatives?

"Don't find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain"
- Henry Ford

I found couple:

1. What I call “progressive brainstorming” - or basically, what most of us product managers forced to actually do, in the “real world”.
If you feel competent (which basically means there’s no-one else that would raise this precious glove) start with a list of ideas you like the most.

"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right."

After thinking it over, share it with a small group of trusted others, preferably including another product manager, marketing, R&D and even customer support experts. Then gradually bring-in more people and evolve the selected few ideas into something useful.

"Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice"
- Henry Ford

The logic behind this undoubtedly limited method is that, as product managers, we have very limited amount of free time to actually THINK, yet alone to promote and assist others to get to that “eureka” moment for us.

"An idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous."
- Henry Ford

And after all, we are the experts of our product, customers, competitors, market, technology and so on, so we should have a rough idea on what might work. But, way more important – we know on what we really want to work – which is a key element in actually making the “idea” become a good “product”.

"Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them."
- Henry Ford
2. Then comes TRIZ and SIT, with their “structured innovation” way of thinking:

TRIZ provides tools and methods for use in problem formulation, system analysis and patterns of system evolution. TRIZ, in contrast to brainstorming, aims to create an algorithmic approach to invention.

Or simply put – it guides you to ask the right questions, which almost guarantee you’ll end up with valuable answers.
Yep. I’ve seen it in action.

"There is no man living who isn't capable of doing more than he thinks he can do."
- Henry Ford

The basics for TRIZ were conceived back in 1946, when my mom, dad and country were not quite there yet, but it clearly evolved and adapted to our modern times better than pure brainstorming.

I came to learn about TRIZ by working with SIT, an interesting and quite inspiring small Israeli company, that takes TRIZ and simplify its over-complicated methodologies, making it quicker to learn and much easier to apply in the “real world”.

"There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something."
The folks from SIT gave a great lecture at one of ILPMA’s monthly meetings, about their systematic innovative way of thinking, which was a fresh breeze to me (even though I’ve heard about some of these methods – seeing it in action is a completely different story), and later on, they assisted us tremendously in figuring out the who/what/how parts of the first ILPMA conference – “Think Product 2010”, which they actually took part in, and gave a stirring lecture about focusing on values instead of properties, titled “How to successfully sell your ideas?.”

"My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me."
- Henry Ford

Among other benefits, this lecture was a proof for me that in order to initiate a change in mindset, and hopefully have some long-lasting influence out of it, a 45 minutes lecture is a good starting point. It’s a teaser, yes, which preferably should be part of a longer process of absorption, but just like a good quote can give you those small “hhmmm…” moments. Knowing there are alternatives, is a great place to be.

"Hidup adalah serangkaian pengalaman,
Setiap pengalaman membuat kita lebih besar, walau pun kita tidak menyadarinya."
- Henry Ford

Amen to that.

Henry Ford was also a well-known anti-Semitic and a pro-Nazi, and an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler. Furthermore, he initially refused to convert the Ford factories to assist in the war efforts during WW2, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The issue is, many other famous folks during the history were anti-Semitic and saw the Jews as the "source of all evil", including Thomas Alva Edison, Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and, of course, Mel Gibson. There were also several well-known brands that cooperated with the Nazis, including BMW, Benz (Mercedes), Siemens, Bayer, Krupp, Volkswagen and Porsche to name a few.

I'm Jewish, but that doesn't stop me from watching Disney movies, reading Wells' books, driving a Porsche (yes please!) or using light bulbs, because it was related to anti-Semitic people. These people were good at what they did – they've left some added-value to this world. And yet, this does not take away that huge stain in their personal beliefs and thoughts.

I would like to summarize this issue with a great quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." Indeed.


  1. I'm glad I subscribed.

    But I can't leave you at that.

    Engineers are as innovative as the next Product Manager. The reason? Both do belong to the same species.

    It's the problems with hats. Unless one stands in front of the mirror, he may forget the hat his wearing, but the person standing in front of him, will always see that hat, may always read the "E" that is written on it, instead of a "P".

    You see, sometimes, even innovation is a perception issue, and any man can be a mirror.

    "There is no man living who isn't capable of doing more than he thinks he can do" - Kecuali, tentu saja, anda boleh melihat topinya (that's me). Because, consider the possibility that Ford's "he" does not refer to Ford's "man".

    Having said that, your post is interesting, informative and, well - great.

  2. P.S. to your P.S. - That's ok. You're also vegetarian. That doesn't make you like "him".