Architecture & Process keynote: Tom Koulopoulos

The afternoon keynote was by Tom Koulopoulos, the well-known and well-respected consultant who founded Delphi Group and is currently also at Babson College’s think tank on business innovation. He’s worked extensively in the business process/knowledge management space, so I’ve tracked his excellent work and writings for years. He spoke to us today about innovation.

Innovation is change that creates value.

Innovation and invention are separate concepts. We’re surrounded by invention, and we have a hard time picking out innovation from the noise created by the relentless invention of (often useless) gadgets. Is this invention for the sake of invention, as Koulopoulos says, or is this the necessary process for eventually refining out a few good ideas?

Innovation is the collaboration between an idea and the marketplace. The market will not be able to predict the effect of true innovation, since there’s no context for understanding that: consider that the most extreme, ambitious prediction for the world market for mobile phones was 50 million handsets, a number that’s off by two orders of magnitude today.

Innovation really happens when behaviors start to change. It’s a process, it’s not about an invention. It’s an ecosystem where good ideas are captured, inventoried and reused to help them come to fruition. Today, many of the innovations are in business models, not the product or service.

Koulopoulos had seven lessons of innovation:

  1. It’s about the process, not the product.
  2. Build an innovation competency. You have to build a competency in innovation within your organization in order to encourage, support and reward it. Many organizations institutionalize the idea of being the incumbent rather than look for ways to find innovation, putting up both cultural and logistical barriers.
  3. Separate the seeds from the weeds. You need to allow some ideas to grow in order to see which they are and allow for disruption to occur, but at some point you need to be able to tell the difference.
  4. Fail fast. Some portion of your time needs to be spent on activities where there is no expectation of success, since it gives you the breathing room for serendipitous innovation.
  5. Build for the unknown. Sometimes an innovation intended for one application becomes a success for something completely different, but sometimes it’s just a complete leap of faith to build something for an environment that’s impossible to assess until you get there.
  6. Challenge the conventional. New companies, or those moving into a new field, are often more innovative than those who are existing experts in the field. Hoover couldn’t have invented the Roomba.
  7. Abandon success. If you’re in a position of strength, take a risk and do something completely different that hasn’t been done before.

He told how his son uses the interactive toy builder on, collaboratively creating toys online with other site visitors, and how there has been a fundamental shift from wanting to protect our ideas to wanting to share our ideas. Not just with today’s kids, either: science methodology, as indicated by trends in Nobel prize winners over the past century, is shifting from individual effort to team effort.

He closed with a quote from Morpheus in The Matrix: “I didn’t say it would be easy Neo. I just said it would be the truth.” So it is with innovation.

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