I’m on vacation this week at the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America’s National Specialty Show in Louisville, Kentucky. I have to admit to feeling a slight pang of guilt because the Front-end of Innovation conference is being held this week in Boston, my backyard. If you get a chance to go to Front-end, it is a good conference that I highly recommend.
While I will be gone to the dogs this week, innovation will still be on my mind. One can find lessons on innovation everywhere—even at a dog show. Here are some useful innovation lessons from the world of dogs.
You’ve got to put your hands on the dog to evaluate its structure
Dog handlers know how to groom and position their dogs to show off their assets and hide their defects. To get the real story, you need to feel the dog. Doing this allows your hands to show you what your eyes can’t see about the physical structure of the dog.
For innovation practitioners, the message is to get to know your technology space intimately. Companies can be quite clever about how they position their products and technologies using the latest enticing buzz words. I recently was talking with a self-described expert in semantics about my company’s technology (which among other things does deep semantic concept extraction). He recommended that I contact a specific company because they “do a lot with semantics.” From a previous conversation with the CTO of the company in question, I know that company does not actually work with semantic processing at all. Clearly, the expert had not looked beyond the marketing blurbs (which do use the term semantics). If I had not known this, it would have been easy to waste a lot of energy chasing after a chimera. Don’t take the marketing hype at face value; you need to go deeper to distinguish the fakers from the real deal.
Work with your dog’s instincts
A relatively new addition to the dog world is an activity called freestyle obedience. It is based on equestrian dressage and involves having your dog perform a choreographed routine to music. When training for freestyle, a good rule of thumb is to observe the things that your dog already does naturally and train to do those things on command so you can use them in the routine. This is much easier that trying to get the dog to do something entirely foreign.
There is a very important analogy here for innovators. There are predictable paths of evolution that products and services will naturally tend to follow. You need to understand these patterns of evolution. If you recognize the patterns which apply to your technology or service, you can more readily understand the next step for you to look at. Even more interesting is the notion that you can consider skipping over steps to really leapfrog the competition. Innovations that are not in keeping with these system modification patterns will usually fail to find traction.
Teach fetch early for non-retrieving breeds
Yes, it’s true. Not every dog has a natural retrieve instinct. There are those breeds whose natural response to your “fetch” command will be to look at you in a way that clearly communicates, “Hey, you threw it; you get it.” However if you play train these same dogs as puppies, they can develop a very good fetch.
Fix tomorrow’s predictable problems today is the lesson for us in the innovation game. There are many aspects to what shape the market perception of an innovation. One very important aspect is the delivered quality of the customer experience. You must take the time to consider how that experience can be optimized by designing out problems from the start. In the manufacturing world, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is a common and very useful tool to do this. This type of discipline should be a part of a well rounded innovation practice to ensure the highest quality of delivery customer experience.
Make it easy for people to do what you want them to do
Formal obedience training can be daunting, but it is important for dogs. To encourage more people to get involved with obedience training, a new, more appealing activity called Rally Obedience was developed. Rally is less demanding and has more variety that makes it more appealing to a broader audience. As a result, more people in the dog fancy are getting into obedience training.
The message for innovators is clear: build a better path to your customer. This can take form in many different ways: business model innovations, service innovations, or product innovations. The key is to make it easier for your customer to do business with you, lower the barriers to adoption of your product or service, and in so doing expand your market by reaching out to more customers than you have in the past.
Old dogs do learn new tricks
Contrary to the old saw, many veteran dogs earn titles in new areas. In the business of innovation too, we must not forget that we are always building on the past and often an old technology can find new life.