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Wrestling with the hegemony of industrialism – Some thoughts on innovation

Earlier this year the British innovation company Fluxx contacted me for an interview about how we are working with innovation. The interview is now published on their excellent website! As usual my answers were rather long so they needed to be edited a bit, however both Fluxx and we thought it could be of interest to publish a more raw version here on our blog as a complement. Any feedback is of course more than appreciated: cristian.norlin@ericsson.com

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Tell us a bit about your background and role

I'm managing the Strategic Design (formerly UX Lab) at Ericsson. In short, we explore and influence current and future technologies through design driven research and innovation in the intersection between society, business, and technology. Our research activities are strongly influenced by a constant strive to understand changes in society and how these affect (and are affected by) technology. Our focus is mainly (yet not exclusive) on adjacent and disruptive innovation, meaning that we are looking quite a lot at defining relevant ideas and concepts that are a bit outside of the core of what Ericsson and our industry are currently targeting. Strategic Design is a truly multi talented group with a strong emphasis on competencies from the humanities and the creative disciplines. Personally I hold a MA in Computer Related Design from the Royal College of Art, and among my colleagues you'll find interaction designers, product designers, a game developer, to name but a few profiles.

How important is innovation to your brand?

It's hugely important, but to be honest I usually don't relate our innovation efforts to merely the brand. Our brand is of course one of the cornerstones in our relation to our customers and the world outside Ericsson and in that respect our innovation efforts contribute quite a bit. However, Ericsson operates in a very fast changing and dynamic world – the changes our industry has undergone during the past ten years have been truly remarkable – which makes the ability to innovate a prerequisite for survival. Sure, we have to conduct our daily operations as efficient as possible, but we also need to constantly work on the next things. I realise that this might sound like the usual big corporation mantra, but in our company it's very much the case.

How do you encourage people to think outside the box within your organisation?

First of all let me just reflect a bit over the box everyone seems to be talking about. To me this box is about boundaries and limitations that either are clearly stated ("This is not our core business") or unspoken (people simply refrain from pursuing some ideas or event chains of thoughts) or both. It's kind of interesting that a lot (if not all) organisations seem to acknowledge that this box exists and that they need to think outside it, yet very few are actually able to do so. I believe that this to a large degree has to do with things far beyond these organisations themselves, such as how our societies have organised themselves around how we are educated and what competencies our education systems shall promote and reward. Sir Ken Robinson has pointed out that we have set up our education systems in a way that they undermine creativity in favour of an 18th century industrialisation mindset, which mainly emphasises natural science, maths, logics, economics and so on. Creativity – which in my book includes a strong focus on areas such as holistic thinking, empathy, ethics and morality, art and aesthetics, to name but a few – has quite simply been downgraded according to some of the fundamental principles in an industrial society. This is reflected in many organisations – especially large ones – meaning that a lot of energy and effort are spent on establishing and maintaining control in various ways in order to run operations efficiently. This is not always wrong, but it is a very dominating mindset that is reflected in how organisations prioritise, plan, execute and reward. These are structures that are instrumental when it comes to defining the organisation culture which in turn makes it really tricky for individuals to act differently, which thinking outside the box often implies.

My team and I do three main things to help people overcome this. The first thing is that we constantly try to "educate" people about what thinking outside the box actually means and what it can lead to. A lot of this has to do with trying to change the mindset a bit for both employees and management. In a majority of cases people are really open minded when it comes to these ideas since they've often come to realise that they would need other, complimentary, ways of thinking in their projects or teams. Their problem is of course that they have never been taught any of this during their education or working life, so for them what we teach is really helping them to form their own vocabulary and language about this.

The second thing is that we actively seek out people and groups from various areas and competence domains in order to do hands on projects with them. We call these projects X-projects and they are truly exploratory and cross disciplinary. These project almost always lead to some kind of very concrete outcome, such as scenarios, narratives, designed artefacts/demos, or the like. Our team is usually the driver of these project, but the project setup is extremely dependant on all participants active engagement. This is not about my team picking people's brains or about us merely supporting these groups and individuals, but about ensuring that both they and we are exposed to a variety of ways of looking at an opportunity or a problem since we believe that this is a fundamental aspect of coming up with new ideas. The core idea behind this approach is of course that by doing actual hands on work in this way, people and groups get a much better understanding for what it takes to think outside the box.

The third thing we do is that we try to take some of the heat away from those interested in thinking outside the box. Our group is in a position in which we're expected to come up with the unexpected and sometimes even to come up with more questions than answers. This is a very good position to be in, but for many employees and groups this is not the case at all. By doing joint collaboration projects that we lead we can make it easier for them to broaden the conversation within their domains. The basic idea behind this approach is of course to empower people and teams so that they will be able to do this more independently in the future, something that we see happening more and more.

What challenges do you face and how can you overcome them?

The biggest challenge for me when it comes to contributing to an improved innovation culture within Ericsson is that of explaining the perquisites for innovation to even happen. Most big companies and organisations have various ways of dealing with ideas that pop up within the organisation, usually formalised in some kind of process. To be able to assess, drive, and commercialise ideas are of course very important aspects of innovation, but at the same time that's just one part of the equation. What most people and organisations seem to miss is to understand what is needed for ideas to emerge in the first place and to actively facilitate for this to happen. Sometimes it feels as if employees or teams are expected to just get flashes of ideas that somehow just emerge regardless of the circumstances of these peoples' roles, positions, mandates and so on. I strongly believe that this is something that my team and I need to describe and almost educate the rest of the organisation about. Partly this will be done by continue to do our X-projects, but also by pointing at successful examples from other organisations and learn from these. At the same time there are many great innovation initiatives already going on within our organisation which is a great opportunity for us to be inspired by and learn from. This is not about my team having all the answers but more of joint effort between us and many others, something I believe is key for this message to come across in a fruitful way.

Talking about prerequisites for innovation inevitably means that we need to address some more fundamental issues within our organisation, something that leads me into the next challenge. Innovation – incremental and disruptive the like – lead to change, it's just how it is. This is for most organisations who are run in a lean way usually a bit of a challenge, especially if the change in question is of the more radical kind. A company with a huge mature business is in a majority of cases really tightly operated. This means that goals are set, roadmaps defined, work and production processes developed, in a very fine tuned way, and if you want to change some of that (as in creating a better environment for innovation to happen) you have quite a bit of work cut out for you. This is something that I will look into together with other people in the near future. I strongly believe that the key for coming to terms with this is through collaboration on many levels, but exactly what this will result in is difficult to specify at this point in time.

What are you hoping to achieve this year?

Our group will first of all continue to work on identifying and developing new ideas and concepts, which is basically our main assignment. This is an ongoing process and we are currently working on several parallel ideas that potentially can be taken further. At the same time we're also taking a step back in order to get a bit of perspective on what we are doing and how we do it. This is something that we do pretty regularly since we find it healthy to do some self reflection as individuals and teams. We as a group is constantly changing and evolving and so are our surroundings, hence we have found this to be a very healthy thing to do.

What does successful innovation look like to you?

Some innovation is incremental, such as adding a bit of increased efficiency or tweaking an existing solution to the better. This is all well and fine but it's not what triggers me the most. I'm much more fascinated by the innovation that really changes things by introducing completely new ways of approaching an opportunity or a problem in a way that brings undeniable value. When talking about value I'm not only referring to monetary value but value on many levels, may it be for the society, the environment, the users of the artefact invented, to name but a few. Personally I believe that these might be sufficient in their own right for an invention to be successful, though in the context of commercial innovation I would argue that the proposed solution has to cover enough of these in a way that makes it possible to somehow make a profitable business on it.

What advice would you give to people who want to make positive changes within their organisation?

Wow, that's a really big question... First of all it really depends on one's position within the organisation. To a lot of people goals, activities and ways of working are rather hard to influence. In such circumstances it can feel as if it's impossible to initiate a more innovation oriented approach to things, but that's not entirely true. To start becoming more creative and innovative, begin by looking at way's of working rather than trying to change goal settings and other hard measured stuff (which people people in charge usually don't like to tamper with). Exactly what these new ways of working are really depends on each unique situation, but in my experience trying to foster an environment in which there is an ongoing conversation characterised by openness and trust between the people involved is really key. How to create this is of course not that straight forward and might take some social skills to come to terms with. However I believe that there are two particular aspects to keep in mind here: perseverance and diversity. If you intend to establish a creative discussion that relies on trust between people you need to give it time and be ready to nurture it in various ways. Equally important is to ensure that this discussion gets fresh "oxygen" on a continuous basis. The best ideas are rarely born in isolation but in the cross fertilisation between different perspectives, experiences, and expertise. Some like to formalise things with targeted activities such as idea generating workshops and brainstorming sessions and even though these are great initiatives, I'd argue that ongoing everyday flow of ideas and discussions are much more important in the long run.

If one's position holds a bit of mandate to change more things can of course be done. I still believe that the ways of working is a great starting point, but if one can start thinking about issues relating to goal setting and measuring, as well as ways to define scopes and assignments for activities, it would be even better. These are some of the most important parameters when it comes to defining the boundaries for individuals and groups and in that sense they do really set the tone for what people feel that they can do. Some people argue that clearly defined and measured goals are best if one is allowed to fail (by prioritising other ideas), but I simply don't agree. Most people don't like to fail and if one's goals are very strictly defined it's much easier to just play it safe and just do what's expected since that is what you'll be measured on anyway. My advice would be to open up the definition of goals, scopes, and assignments to be more exploratory in order to give a clear signal of the intentions you have, but also to express trust in the people and groups. In doing this I also believe that the way we structure these activities is very important. Don't underestimate the consequences of everyday details, try to find your own ways with the people in question and dare to deviate from how things usually have been done. Exactly how this can be manifested is of course very individual, but based on my own experience excessive and rigid activity and time reporting are true creativity killers... Oh yes – If you're allowed to hire people strive towards diversity in all ways, including diversity in competencies.

On a more general level it's also important to try to articulate what one is trying to achieve with all of this and get ones priorities right. To a lot of people innovation is about coming up with the "next big thing", such as the next iPhone or something similar. This is a great ambition but its much easier said than done – if there was a formula or process for this people and organisations would be doing it all the time. My take is that it's better to focus on becoming better at generating ideas and establishing a more creative culture in general and over time.

What's got you really excited recently in the world of innovation?

For the past few years, Elon Musk's ventures have really inspired me a lot with their fearless way of addressing such a variety of topics and domains. This is reinforced by their inspiring attitude towards the rest of the world manifested through the various open source and creative commons policies they seem to follow. It breathes confidence and curiosity and gives me hope about a better future.

I'm also excited by what I see as the broadening of innovation domain to include more groups than just the experts from the technical and creative domains (who I feel have dominated the field so far). IDEO's work that looks at design for social impact and their open source Design Kit: The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design are two great examples of this, and I really look forward to see what initiatives like these will lead to over time.

Another example of this is Changify which I think is a great example of how citizens and communities might become much more engaged (and innovative!) in an increasingly urbanised future. These people and communities obviously have a tremendous understanding of their own context with all its problems and opportunities and to be able to funnel or unleash this into concrete innovation is very interesting. It's almost a matter of redefining what it means to be a citizen or to be a part of a community/city/nation, which I believe Changify is spearheading very fruitfully.

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