Brad Barbera on keeping innovation simple
Brad Barbera, Chief Innovation Strategist and Idea Storyboarder at Pi Innovation LLC, discusses how organizations can keep innovation simple by employing some basic tools and strategies.


Why do R&D organizations have so much trouble keeping things simple?

Primarily, it’s because “simple” is not the same thing as “easy.” It may seem paradoxical, but “complicated” is often a lot easier than coming up with a simple solution. You put on band-aids and you take pain-killers to address something rather than fixing the disease. Fixing the disease, curing it – that’s simple – but the process to get there is difficult and a lot of organizations don’t want to put that effort in. I don’t blame them. They’re trying to do things quickly, they’re trying to be responsive, but they end up with a lot of localized solutions that make the whole complicated and cumbersome. And so what I would like them to do instead is to address things as a system, and address their innovation system and make it more rigorous.

What attitude should organizations adopt to keep innovation simple?

Any time you’re innovating, the number one attitude I would suggest is “lighten up!" We tend to take things way too seriously. We tend to take anything that could be exciting and exhilarating and turn it into cumbersome and painful. We are human beings. We’re fallible, we’re going to do things that might seem a little crazy, and sometimes they work! They might seem a little crazy, and sometimes they don’t work. And that’s okay. That’s how we learn, that’s how we grow, and that’s what innovation is all about. It’s about trying things, it’s about taking some risks, occasionally failing, but learning from it so that you can succeed the second time around.

The other thing I would suggest is “trust.” You have to trust others and you have to be trustworthy yourself. And if you can do that in an organization, it can take out layers and layers of bureaucracy and double-checking and all sorts of command and control systems because you trust people. And that just makes the innovation process work better.

What is an example of an organization that keeps innovation simple?

I like Zappos. The thing that I like about them is they’re focused on one thing – and that’s great service. And the whole experience about working with them is that it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s friendly. You feel like you’re dealing with a neighbor and not with a major organization. So that’s an organization that I would highlight as keeping it simple, keeping it focused on a mission that they want to accomplish, and finding creative solutions to problems that inevitably arise.

Which tools can help companies keep innovation simple?

I like visual tools. Any tool that allows you to see a complicated picture, but brings it together in a holistic sort of way so you can see how things connect, see how things interact with each other – that’s going to be very powerful, and it’s going to help people understand what’s going on. And remember – simplicity is about clarity and focus. And so the visual tools are the kind of things that can help you do that.

Bubble charts – I think – are fantastic because they capture so much information so quickly and easily in a way that provides instant insights. And I like scorecards as well because they tend to bring together a lot of different sorts of ways of thinking into one set of data that is actually very usable and very communicate-able to other people in the organization.

How can organizations keep metrics key for performance than a source of complexity?

They can definitely help guide good decision-making, but what goes along with that is that metrics impact behavior and as soon as you tie rewards or punishments, even worse, to the metrics, people are going to start behaving in ways that you may not necessarily want when you first thought of establishing the metric. So my advice is to – surprisingly – keep them very simple. You want to have an automobile dashboard, not an airplane cockpit; not something that has so many different measures going on that you don’t even know where to look next.

The other thing is you want to have some metrics that maybe conflict, so that there’s some trade-offs there and what that helps you do is find overall optimization, rather than individual maximization of specific metrics. And that helps the organization know what’s really important, and make trade-off decisions along the way.

What's wrong with most so-called "best practices?"

What I find with a lot of so-called “best practices” is that they are based on – they see somebody winning and so we’re going to go imitate what they do. And if that was the case, all I’d have to do is lace up a certain pair of shoes and I could shoot three-pointers like Steph Curry. It’s not going to happen. It doesn’t work that way. What happens with a lot of best practices is they might be best for one organization with one kind of culture, in one kind of industry. But they don’t translate well to the general public.

So what I like to do is look for rigorous, objective, academic, peer-reviewed research that says we’ve examined all these different companies and all these different industries, and we see this trend – and if you do this, this fundamental guiding principle, it will make you better than organizations that don’t follow that principle. So, you have to know what separates the good from the bad. And then you have to understand those as principles that you then apply your specific situation, your specific culture, your industry, your capabilities to that principle and then leverage that to make yourself better.

What I see is what people call best-practices aren’t necessarily well-researched. They are the opinions of maybe a specific group of people who want to say, well, this is what we’re going to teach, and that’s what we’re going to call a best practice and that’s going to make people think it’s a best practice. It reminds me of Fast Company Magazine, every year has a “How We Did It” issue and it will talk about these entrepreneurs – "Oh, I put in 18 hours a day for nine months and I worked really hard, and I lived off of Wheaties for a month" – and that doesn’t mean that everybody who does that is going to become a successful entrepreneur. I guarantee there’s people who worked 19 hours a [day] and ate nothing but breadcrumbs, and they didn’t succeed.

So you have to have the research separate out the winners and the losers and what they do differently not just what the winners do which tends to be what best practices falls into.

The other challenge with best practices is what’s best for you may not necessarily be what’s best for me, and vice versa. We have to be able to take principles that have this evidence behind them, and apply them to our specifics, so that we can do what is best for us.

What is your take on the debate between "portfolio-first" vs. "project-first" management?

I will rarely say things are universal, but I think this one is a universal and I’ve heard arguments that occasionally project-first decisions are the way to go. I think you always have to have at least the context of your portfolio in mind as you’re making decisions. You have to think of the overall system. It’s the old cliché about “you can win the battle but lose the war.” We’re all about winning the war here and we have to think in those kinds of terms, and sometimes that may mean sacrificing something that is really good – you have a great little project here, but it’s just not the right thing to do for the overall organization, and that’s a hard decision to make.

Easy decisions are between good and bad. Hard decisions are when you have a lot of goods to choose from but you can’t do them all. So I think you always have to look at that holistic context – that system that you’re trying to establish and make decisions with that system in mind.

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