The Innovation Petri Dish Hidden in Plain Sight

Image Credit: AllGeek

Image Credit: AllGeek

Online user comments have gained a lot of attention recently. And although it may seem like simple publisher experimentation across the web, it hints at a larger trend toward redefining consumers’ role in the innovation process of companies.

First, Quartz launched annotations. Being a huge fan of the publication, I’m pleased to see they have such a critical understanding of their audience. News media readers treat different facets of stories as springboards. Annotations allow them to comment on specific bits of the news, rather than wading into a universal stream of comments (I pray for the day a YouTube equivalent can eliminate the need to say “1:46 made me LOL.”).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the iconic PopSci.com has removed user commenting altogether. In its announcement, the publication cites research suggesting comments change a reader’s perception of a story. This is actually the same insight Quartz is reacting to but each has drawn the opposite conclusion. One platform– less than a year old– embraces a change brought about by its users, while the other– 141 years old– avoids it in an effort to preserve the original intent of the content. This has become a core debate of journalism in the digital age.

Meanwhile, Google has quietly altered its YouTube commenting by tying it to a user’s Google+ network. Now, top comments won’t be driven by popularity or recency, but rather viewer connections. Users can also create private comment threads around videos, which will likely help encourage social media flings. In effect, YouTube aims to increase engagement  by making conversations personally and socially relevant. Though it seems minor, this change from the internet’s video hub has the potential to significantly shift its product offering even more than the comment voting feature did.

Finally, and potentially most interesting, is Gawker’s Kinja announcement. Kinja is a completely personalized commenting system that moves news conversations into separate, personalized settings. In fact, the system lets users write their own headlines and introductions to the news, which is about as much product control a publisher can hand over to its audience. With Kinja, comments go from augmenting an experience to leading it. What I find most mind-blowing– and appealing– about Kinja’s ambition is its plans to extend this to non-Gawker properties. The company is planting seeds for industry-wide innovation. Only time will tell if they grow.

All of this comment innovation is especially interesting because of the role consumers are playing in it– both in relation to other consumers and the companies hosting them. Companies in all industries have only recently begun embracing the idea of open innovation and, even more recently, the role of collaboration in those efforts. Technology companies tend to be ahead of this trend because of their cultural bias toward earning value from customers, while journalism has been historically slow to innovate. Online commenting sits at the center of the tension between these two seemingly polar opposite industries. It’s for this reason I’m closely watching comments as a potential innovation model.

Is how people consume a company’s product part of the product experience? Most definitely (albeit, to the dismay of some misguided fashion labels). Is it something consumers hold the company accountable for? Well, there’s no clear answer… yet. Historically, commercial innovation has strived for outputs that improve how people use products. So it’s a fairly new wrinkle for the consumption process to be an active input of that innovation process. In the 1920s, Kleenex changed its intended use in response to how consumers were actually using the product. The shift from disposable face towel to disposable handkerchief resulted in a doubling of sales. This was revolutionary; yet the product didn’t change, just the positioning. Today, even traditional industries like journalism are changing product experiences based on how consumers are using them. I can’t wait to see what we learn by watching this experiment unfold across seemingly every web page.

Online commenting is the perfect petri dish for exploring usage-driven innovation. The environment is ideal: comments are inherent to the web experience, they live on the company’s “property” vs. the user’s, and they directly impact how people feel about the product experience.

Keeping an eye on how these experiments play out should provide insight into how consumers can drive product innovation. This is a big deal. After all– with apologies to Steve Jobs and Henry Ford– the people who know the most about what they want are consumers themselves.

Starting a Career in Innovation

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Image Credit: The Daily Muse via Daniel McDermott

Lately, I’ve had multiple junior people ask me for advice on how to embark on a career in innovation. I’ve consistently felt my answer was lacking (and can only imagine they did, too). Then again, I’m inclined to believe that traditional career paths are slowly dying, so I was never really sure it was a subject worth advising on. Just look at how dramatically careers have changed in the last 10 years: People move around more and have more professional “side projects,” all while “intraprenuers” have proven corporate ladders aren’t necessarily linear.

All this means that young professionals have access to unprecedented possibilities. So it’s understandable that they’re looking for guidance, especially in something as uncertain as innovation. Yet, as they enter the workforce, their questions are rarely about “which path” to take; rather, most of these new entrants are trying to identify what paths even exist before them.

(Over)Simplifying the Innovation Landscape

So, I’d like to first define innovation. My sense is that most of the people I’m speaking to aren’t even sure what “innovation” actually means. The definition I like to use is “the introduction of the relevant new.” New being what makes it innovative, and relevant being what makes it stick, but also difficult to achieve.

That still leaves room for a very broad list of innovations. It’s no wonder companies find it challenging to decide where to invest their innovation resources. What qualifies is something multiple stakeholders will have an opinion on, and every organization approaches differently as a result. In general, there are two types of innovation: lateral and vertical. Lateral innovation focuses on introducing radically new offerings to an industry, whereas vertical innovation focuses on improving upon the previous version.

The vast majority of innovation dollars actually goes into vertical innovation. Companies are quicker to justify investments in incremental improvements because they’re safer than betting on the unknown. For instance, reaching 50 MPG is a reasonable vertical innovation goal for the automotive industry. The challenge for employees is that vertical innovation benefits greatly from direct experience, which means a career in it is typically limited to a single vertical. After all, it would be difficult to parlay that deep automotive technical skill into helping financial services companies innovate new offerings. Thus from a talent standpoint, expertise in vertical innovation doesn’t scale across industries very well¹.

On the other hand, lateral innovation depends less on having specialized industry knowledge, and in fact, benefits from a fresh perspective. For this reason, it can be more appealing to new professionals seeking a career in the “industry” of innovation because it can offer the reinvention of many different companies or industries. Nike, for instance, entered the consumer electronics space with the launch of its Nike+ FuelBand and its success has since established the company as a leader in wearable technology.

Lateral innovation requires venturing into new territories with limited visibility into the returns (i.e., what makes it “relevant,” not just “new). As such, companies pursuing lateral innovation actively seek outside help. For employees, this is the professional conundrum: is it worth pursuing a career in a field that demands a small percentage of innovation dollars, but opens up many more possible employers and clients? I’m of the mindset that for junior talent, it’s definitely worth it. Not only will opportunities for lateral innovation continue to grow as industries blur, but the mindset of anyone looking for a career in innovation is likely one where having knowledge and experience across a breadth of subject matters is highly appealing.

Developing a Diverse Professional Experience

So what type of early work experience is most relevant for a career in lateral innovation? Bluntly, I think the answer is diversity. When companies are looking for help inventing–or reinventing–their future, they’re likely seeking people with different perspectives. Accumulating those perspectives requires having a career that spans industries and/or roles. That means spending these early career years–gulp–jumping around. The longer you wait, the harder such jumping will become, so why not use these years to learn as many different things as possible?

Of course, this is only possible for those with a skill companies find valuable. Every step of your professional journey should enhance that particular skill.  Many of the people seeking my advice drastically underestimate their need to hone a core expertise. Having many different jobs without developing a specific skill will actually make you less employable later. It’s the difference between hopping from stone to stone to cross a river, and going in circles on a merry-go-round. Designer? Researcher? Writer? All companies can benefit from these types of assets. Identify your core expertise, use it to deliver value to any company, and in exchange, gain varied industry experience. The more industries you work in, the more qualified you’ll be to help invent the radically new– to help companies laterally innovate.

Learn everything you can about an industry as you work in it. Use the exploratory part of your career to get better at your particular craft while adding as many light skills as possible. There’s no better way to make the leap into innovation than being T-shaped. The core of your expertise will be the lens through which you’ll concept and design innovation opportunities.

I guess this was a long way of saying that there’s no clear path into (and through) a career in innovation. But that’s just part of the fun. If that makes you uncomfortable, you probably wouldn’t like the job much anyway. Of course, if you’re taking advice from me, you may be doomed already.

So maybe just read our industry’s sacred text and drop me a line if I can work for you down the road.

¹Some of the best innovators have been able to do this under the guise of “design” but I’m both unqualified and too intimidated to guide someone down that particular path.

This post first appeared on Finch15′s G+ page August 8, 2013.

Taking Flight as Finch15

[originally posted here at BBH Labs]

When Ben and Mel set up BBH Labs long before I was ever given the keys here in NYC, one of its core ambitions was to birth new offerings. Well, I’m lucky to say this certainly panned out, which is exactly why I had to say goodbye.

One thing that became clear after years of conversations with clients about innovation was that many big, mature brands look upon startups with joy (and a touch of envy) as they see the culture of innovation with which they are imbued. At the same time, there are plenty of very big companies innovating at a speed and scale that no startup could ever comprehend (P&G and AmEx are two companies I find myself applauding all the time, even if the awe isn’t mutual). That’s because web innovation and product innovation are not the same thing – unless your core product is on the web. For companies that primarily create analog products, this innovation landscape can seem like a foreign land with a different language and odd customs.

At the same time, more and more of these big companies are talking about their marketing outputs as assets. Thus an idea was born. These assets could provide real commercial value if they were used to create a competitive advantage in the digital space. If a brand has strong brand equity, distribution, consumer data and other “brand assets” that can help create digital businesses, that’s a well-lit path to product innovation. We created Finch15 to identify this path and guide clients down it.

In a nutshell, Finch15 creates revenue-generating digital businesses for brands. We identify market opportunities, quantify their value and determine the best way a brand can stretch profitably into that space using those precious assets. It’s a form of lateral innovation. The client stays true to their business and brand, but we help move them into a new, digital category. We mitigate the risk of this effort by ensuring whatever we do is good for the brand. So, if things don’t pan out, they have a self-funded marketing effort. If they do, they have a completely new source of revenue in what is likely a fast-growth market.

We certainly aren’t the first to pursue this, and hope we aren’t the last. In our effort, we aspired to create a unique mix of marketing, investment banking and tech talent that gives us a chance to create innovative, successful businesses for our clients. Yes, we do have clients. And no, we aren’t telling yet (you’ll see them when the businesses launch).

It’s exciting to found a company birthed at BBH Labs and incubated at VivaKi. VivaKi’s network of tech, media and strategy talent is a huge resource for a small startup. We couldn’t be more excited. I’m especially honored they’re letting me serve the concurrent role of EVP, Product Innovation for them. I get to work with VivaKi clients across the globe and actually talk to those very innovative companies accomplishing things at a scale few others can imagine.

Wish us luck. Or just “ooo” and “ahhh” at the dynamic logo Tim, Victor, Lasse and other BBH Labs members created here.

Transform and Roll Out

[originally posted here at BBH Labs]

And so, it is with major regret that we see our very own Optimus Prime, @saneel, leave the Lab and BBH. Happily he’ll be staying in the extended family, launching a soon-to-be-announced innovation offering being incubated at VivaKi. So I guess he has a new world to call home.

Personally, I’m going to miss the magic mix of insanely high-speed processing, megawatt brain and heart, motor mouth and deeply droll, bone-dry sense of humour that is Mr Saneel Radia. There aren’t many people who give such volume, value and velocity, whilst staying ice cool under pressure. He’ll hate me for saying this, but his final post here shares some useful lessons that demonstrate all of the above.

We wish him all the best. Go well, friend. (Mel, 29.01.13)

Dear BBH,
Well that was a crazy ride, no? From my first day to my last, we’ve had one of the most unique relationships I can imagine. I should have known I was in for something special when someone I respect as much as Ben recruited me, and about 100 days later said “I have bad news and good news”  (‘I’m leaving’ and ‘you’re in charge’, respectively).

You let me be whoever I wanted to be, and for that I’m eternally grateful. You never questioned me as a strategy lead, an account lead, or a creative lead– even when I kinda questioned myself.What’s most awesome is that I was never forced into a particular bucket, but you made me better at all of them because I was surrounded by people (everyone?) who could do it at a whole different level. I mean, pitching creative ideas to people like John and Pelle? Talking brands with Emma and Sarah? Of course I got better at all of it. It’d be impossible not to.

And thanks for being committed to innovation the way you are. In an industry that should be under arrest for assault based on its treatment of that word, this place continues to be a beacon of hope for people with different ideas. Any company that has someone like Melaround is going to have misfits ringing the doorbell daily. I’m just happy someone answered even though I was dressed in bright colors.

Finally, thanks for all of the lessons I’m taking with me as I move on. It’s impossible to document them all in a post, but these ring most loudly in my ears as I head off:

Small ideas are kinda hot.
I originally came to BBH because I couldn’t think of a place with “bigger” ideas. It turns out my favorite things were the small ideas. Working with interns 10 weeks at a time forces small ideas into greatness. Working with a company like Google, that regularly reminds you how bloated all your shit is (they were right more often than I’d like to admit), forced ideas into their purest form. Or sometimes it’s just not having enough time for anything bigger. Regardless, I fell in love with small. Mainly because of how big it can be. (Special thanks to Tim Nolan for aiding me along in this particular journey.)

The volume of noise isn’t indicative of the sentiment.
Homeless Hotspots was a media frenzy. There was a full cycle of negativity, then acceptance, then full-blown defense on our behalf. Yet from the beginning to the end, nothing but a positive impact on homelessness ever mattered; for the vast majority of people who care about such a thing (and have spent time with the homeless), their support always outweighed the negativity, no matter how loud the noise got. In fact, there was some genuinely productive, well meaning criticism we adopted as our work with the homeless has continued to evolve. It’s easy to see the difference now, but when the volume dial is set quite high, it can be a lot tougher. That’s clarity I’ll always take forward with me.

The greatest disservice one can do to their team is accepting their shitty work.
I’ve seen some really good days, and some really bad days in my 3-or-so years here. Almost unilaterally the bad days were the result of people not speaking up (myself included). When they were just too damn polite, or agreeable. Sure, it’s awkward sometimes. It’s uncomfortable every now and again. And yeah, you have to be able to speak “British” on occasion. But everyone worth a salt would rather make better work than have a good meeting. This is a lesson so many people have learned, but it took being at a place with a culture of mutual, fiery respect for me to truly appreciate it. I’m just glad you would tell me when I was shoveling shit.

With the right carrot, even the weary can be motivated.
It was a weird feeling, helping lead a city-wide effort to recruit LeBron James within weeks of moving here. But there I was, living in corporate housing, bonding with New Yorkers of every socio-economic class to create a movement to bring the world’s greatest athlete to the world’s greatest city. In the end, the goal was to get notoriously jaded New Yorkers to talk about their beloved city, and by that measure, holy smokes it was successful… even if LeBron took his talents to South Beach. The lesson stayed up north though: for all the user participation nonsense from brands, it’s ultimately the right carrot that gets people involved. Keep it simple (and timely), stupid.

Alright, BBH. I won’t drag it on any longer. I certainly could. I’m leaving a better, smarter, more creative person than I arrived. That’s a transformation I’m really excited about.

And all it took were a thousand sleepless nights and my liver….

Gratefully,
@saneel

CES Expectations from a guy who should know better

[originally posted here on behalf of HuffingtonPost]

The annual Consumer Electronics Show kicks off in Las Vegas today. You can see last year’s recap on why marketers should be relieved based on what we saw.

I’ve been going to CES for a decade. As someone interested primarily in virtual (i.e., software-based) products and the role they can play for brand marketers, clearly I’m a glutton for punishment. After all, CES is a show about hardware, even if its lead brand has historically been the original software company, Microsoft. In fact, CES is not only a hardware show, but because of the copycat nature of consumer electronics, it’s a show about a particular type of hardware from year to year. Sometime between The Netbook Show, The E-reader Show and The TV show, I started losing faith in CES.

Yet I find myself headed back yet again, this time for The Tablet Hybrid show. Like a nerd voyeur, I’ll closely watch tablets breeding with phones in one booth, then breeding with laptops in another. And I have Samsung to thank for it.

You see, a year that proved tremendously successful for Samsung was a bittersweet one for other manufacturers. On the one hand, Samsung has proven that many users do want a device that fits somewhere between a smartphone and a tablet with its huge-for-a-phone (both in size and sales) Galaxy S3. This is on top of its successful Galaxy Note 2 sales. On the other hand, the industry buzzword of “convergence” is finally starting to rear its head. As devices have collided these last few years, manufacturers were pleasantly surprised to see new categories be created instead of just old categories be cannibalized. Just ask Apple. For years, Steve had people leaving Apple stores with iPhone, iPad and MacBook tucked under their arms. However, these new Tablet Hybrids from companies like Samsung fall into a gray area. These mixed breed devices are more clearly competing with their component parts, emerging from the lab as better alternatives to at least one of their parental units. Like some type of nature documentary, this is a case of offspring consuming parent.

I wonder if I’ll be able to sense the nervous anxiety this is creating amongst each of the manufacturers showing off their latest creatures on the carnival — oops, I mean “showroom” — floor.

While I am walking through this reminder of Darwinism, convincing myself yet again that this will be my last CES, I can only assume those people with the huge smiles on their faces are Google employees. You see, it’s Google’s Android Operating System that’s the real winner here. Android is running most of these mutant hybrids, which is incredible given Apple’s domination of the market as recently as 3 years ago. It’s especially intriguing this year, which marks the first show since Microsoft officially bowed out of the partnership with the organizers. That means Google is arguably the most important company in Vegas this CES (although Microsoft will certainly be making noise about Xbox, Surface and it’s shiny new Windows 8 Operating System).

So, it seems a software company will continue to reign supreme at this annual festival of hardware. I wonder what, if any, impact that will have on the show moving forward? After a decade of attendance, I can safely say that software is the lowlight of the event. There’s a sad monotony in playing with clunky interfaces while booth representatives explain why it’s great that whatever I’m tinkering with can’t possibly integrate with anything I already own. I guess working in a booth in which every device is made by your employer has a way of letting you see the bright side of one-stop shopping (with an employee discount).

But for the rest of us still dreaming of the walk-around-from-booth-to-booth-swiping-our-credit-cards-and-laughing-as-we-throw-the-latest-bit-of-not-yet-available-to-the-masses-technology-into-a-big-grab-bag-that-won’t-pose-any-TSA-issues-while-traveling-back-with-us-before-being-installed-instantly-and-without-reference-to-user-manuals-transforming-our-homes-into-scenes-from-sci-fi-movies-where-the-computers-eventually-turn-on-humans-who-for-some-reason-don’t-have-the-good-sense-to-welcome-our-new-electronic-overlords experience, I must say… it’s actually the lack of integration that’s most frustrating. It seems insane all my content and stuff can’t just go anywhere, anytime regardless of the logo on the back of the device. Microsoft never seemed to get it right, perhaps because they never truly embraced the cloud. I can only hope Google fares better.

If they do, I may just give up trying to give up on CES, and book next year’s ticket right from the showroom floor… on my new iPhone 5 of course.

CES 2013 Recap

Every year, I attend the Consumer Electronics Show. Upon my return, I create simple recaps of the trends I found noteworthy. This year’s 3 page PDF covers everything from reverse feedback loops to bring-your-own hardware experiences. Click the image above to download a copy and see why I left the show optimisitic, even though I was a bit skeptical heading in.