Innovate or Die

The value of criticism

Who likes to be criticized?

We don’t like getting criticism and most people feel uncomfortable giving it. It takes us back to some usually negative memories from childhood.

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But Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were notorious for challenging their associates and criticizing their ideas relentlessly.

Professor and author Roberto Verganti described the value of criticism in driving innovation in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review.

There are two types of innovation. One is incremental innovation that most companies do on a daily basis, trying to improve the products and services they already offer their customer base.

The other kind of innovation is disruptive technology, represented by Apple’s new iPhones or the original Microsoft operating system.

Those create a blue ocean where competition does not exist because your company enters a space previously nonexistent. Pagan Kennedy, in his book, “How We Dream Up Things That Change the World,” argues that existing management is frequently bound by industrial group think. That means we get stuck in our discipline’s intellectual ruts. To break out of it, we need a new and different process.

The problem with disruptive technology is that it’s so unusual and so different from our normal thinking patterns. Verganti suggested using criticism to formally challenge these new ideas.

It does not start with asking customers what they would like. Henry Ford famously said that if he had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said, “A faster horse.”

Disruptive technology might be hiding below the surface of your workforce at your company. Your employees sometimes have a vision that occurs to them because they are so familiar with what the marketplace currently offers.

One example points to the evolution of a new version of the Alfa Romeo. The brand was legendary and featured as the car Dustin Hoffman drove in “The Graduate.” However, the company had suffered from decades of competition with German luxury models.

One member of the Alfa Romeo product team asked other members of the team to think of cars differently. They came to the conclusion that people buy premium cars not just to display their wealth, but for the ability to express their passion for driving.

That was the opposite of owning premium cars with super powerful engines and high maximum speeds.

The team eventually focused on developing a smaller, lightweight engine using carbon fiber and reducing the power to weight ratio. The result was a sports car that was highly responsive to the driver’s skill and the ability of the car to respond to him or her.

Within a few weeks of the car’s release, the entire first year of production had been booked by consumers.

So what’s the process that could be used to incorporate criticism in the development of new products that disrupt the marketplace?

Here are steps you can incorporate in your management practices when you seek disruptive technology:

Start with your staff, not your customers:
Customers cannot be expected to envision a different future as they are like all of us—used to their habits and what the market offers. However, your staff can see changes in the environment from a variety of sources, including the competition, and is developing both conscious and unconscious intuition about new directions or new visions. This drill should be an individual one so team members can’t influence each other. This encourages them to dig deeply into their own perceptions. Give them at least a month before the first meeting.

Sparring partners:
Michael Farrell in his book “Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work” points to the fact that many breakthroughs in art and society have come through pairs that trust each other but can constructively criticize each other. He points to legendary pairs who fed off each other: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; Google’s founding partners, Sergey Brin and Larry Page; Bill Gates and Paul Allen, just to name a few. The leader should facilitate the selection of the sparring partners.

Testing the hypothesis with an outside jury:
This is where the rubber meets the road and partners get to receive feedback about the proposed ideas. The outside jury should be composed of a variety of people with different backgrounds, perspectives and personalities. This requires you to bring in people from other industries. Frank Krejci, CEO of Strattec, does this drill with major new initiatives. These juries, or “advisory boards” as he calls them, are not bound by the habits of industrial group think because they’re from different disciplines.

Creating a new blue ocean to disruptive technology is a daunting challenge and it cannot be done the way normal decisions on incremental innovation are conducted.

Try this blueprint and you may find the new blue ocean for your company.

-Dan Steininger is the president of Biz Starts; a lecturer on innovation tools at the UWM School of Continuing Education; and president of Steininger & Associates LLC, which teaches how to drive revenues through creativity tools. He can be reached at Dan@BizStarts.com.

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Dan Steininger
Dan Steininger is the President and founder of BizStarts. He is also the President of Steininger & Associates. The firm focuses on teaching the tools of innovation to drive growth for companies in all sectors of the economy. Steininger is the former CEO of a major financial institution and a graduate of Boston University Law school. He has published in scholarly journals; appeared on Wall Street week; and been covered by the New York Times.