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  • John Chambers, PhD

Classes of Impossible

For those that celebrate Chanukah, the miracle of the lights is a reflection, one of tradition, survival and hope. It is a remembrance of Maccabean Jews and civil war, a rededication of the temple, and an astounding lasting of candlelight. The time is reflection of history -- teaching and embracing, holding together a faith and way of life.

I like to imagine the Jewish elders of two millennia ago, keepers of the temple, seeing the scant amount of pure oil, then making the calculation, troubled that the menorah’s light would last only a day. Yet miraculously, the fuel lasted eight days.

Tradition represents our current state.

Innovation is our magic.

Tradition is how we do things, with resilience and predictability -- operational excellence.

Innovation is our evolution for betterment and change.

When we look around us, the connections to each other’s voices, thousands of miles away are incredible, considered impossible to a time traveler from ancient Jerusalem. Yet to us, our virtual connections are ripe for even more improvement. Hurrah for 5G ! Regularly fighting off disease is commonplace, unheard of in a millennia past. Viewing the terrain of other planets was considered voodoo imagery. We have become makers of miracles; more specifically, we have changed the definition of miraculous.

We’ve invented and engineered, through the knowledge of the centuries; miracles arose by the gifts of knowledge sharing.

Innovation is humanity’s DNA. It is our reflex against the present situation, an eschewing of limits. The companies we now lead will not survive without the commitment to innovation. I see the many miracles as the serendipitous side effect -- the market’s mosaic where innovation begets innovation, much like James Burke’s famous Connections television series.

And we hope those innovations are used for good.

The limits and constraints in our daily lives can be as mundane as a PC's limited battery life as we sit on a plane with no power outlet. Or as grand as reaching the stars.

But is innovation the sole accountability of your company’s innovation lab?

If innovation is a corporate value, then it is the responsibility of all employees. If you are leading a company, a division or department, then how have you collated and categorized your innovation?

Have you coached your teams? If we are not instilling an innovative mindset then our intellectual muscle atrophies.

So quantify your innovation, measure it, and collate it, using taxonomy and multi-dimensional compartments.

About a decade ago, famed physicist Michio Kaku published Physics of the Impossible, an entertaining walk through sci-fi imaginings and imagery, with his own attestation of feasibility or viability. Could these magical, seemingly ridiculous capabilities be achieved? He spoke about force fields and phasers, time travel and precognition, along with other distant “inventions.” Even among “impossibilities” of sci-fi magic, there is taxonomy.

Kaku offered three categories (Class I to Class III) of "impossibility":

The first set were discoveries or inventions that we might have in perhaps a hundred years.

Class II impossibilities were those capabilities that might be accomplished in a millennia.

And Class III were things that are nigh impossible without some cataclysmic shifts in understanding. Those were things that are pipe dreams beyond pipe dreams, only possible under a comprehensive shift in our scientific perspectives and understanding of basic physical laws.

Kaku’s miracles were categorized, and so should your innovations. But instead of centuries, let’s consider the next months and years.

Your pathway forward depends on your clustering of the feasible and the possible, according to a roadmap. It applies to the company, not one division or product development space. It is everyone. Clayton Christenson’s innovation taxonomy (three types) is a perfect way to plan. In deference to Kaku’s physical impossibilities, I’m going to rename Christenson's types as "classes" – the incremental , which is feasible and immediately possible; the breakout, which will require a formidable investment of time and collective energy; and the transformative, which will mark a completely new way of delivering value to customers.

(And for the umpteenth time, your customers are internal as well as external. Your customers include your process neighbors and their dependence on you.)

As your teams lead and build, operate and evaluate, are they inserting innovation possibilities into everything they do?

Is innovation a way of life?

Can they compartmentalize their innovation into the three classes?

Is innovation embedded in their psyche?

I recall an executive who touted the importance of quality in a highly regulated environment; yet when speaking of his commitment to quality he only emphasized that he had a “Quality Meeting” every month. But corporate values and missions are not about a meeting. It’s about a way of life and whether quality, in that case, was embedded in the lexicon, the daily thought processes and the commitment of the firm’s managers. Whether it was in validation processes or defect analysis, customer engagement and feedback, quality was a mandate in that executive's company -- a mandate in the corporate values.

It should have been steeped in everything the company did.

So too with the value of innovation.

If we say we innovate just because we have an innovation lab, we are failing the value. Are we living and breathing options for improvement daily?

Are we formally categorizing new possibilities into a taxonomy of “incremental,” “breakthrough,” and “transformative”?

Are we discussing that in our staff meetings, one-on-one’s, and internal newsletters?

As a leader of a division, over morning coffee with a reporting manager, are you asking him about innovation initiatives?

Innovation is not an idea box.

It is an expectation of creativity and change.

It is a dynamic that fuels your corporate future and your company’s future. Competitive pressures are like the waning oil in ancient Judea. Something’s got to change, and it’s unlikely that a miracle is going to save your firm.

So think of the realm of possibilities in each aspect of your value chain and in each department.

As leaders and managers, capture and roadmap your three classes of innovation. I’m not discussing time travel or flying cars; not yet anyway. It’s not necessarily just product gains, or even process adjustments. Innovation can occur in partnerships and relationships, alliances and sourcing.

How are we cultivating partners and how are we enticing the best employees?

Further, how are these innovative approaches changing tomorrow?

Even for the most rigorous stalwart of consistency -- your operations director -- innovation should be on her agenda and cultivated in the operations team, with transformative innovation as important as continuous improvement.

For those celebrating the festival of lights, I wish you well. The tradition of resilience, hope and peaceful endurance is one we should all embrace across our cultures and geographies.

The lasting light, eight times the duration expected, was embraced as a miracle. But it is also a reminder of progress, of sustenance, and extension through innovation. It’s a reminder that the miraculous is happening daily, thanks to our connectedness.

Our firm survival depends on pushing extremes, finding new ways to create and operate, and to instill innovative passions throughout the corporate culture. Daily conversation among managers and professionals demand a formal clustering of innovation – from the incremental and immediately achievable to the transformative. If Dr. Kaku can categorize the far out, then we professionals can certainly categorize our own innovation plans.

Possibilities are in front of our eyes, everywhere in our environment and universe.

Remember that innovation is not an objective. It is constant reflection, a culture -- one of tradition, hope, and endurance, like making a day’s worth of oil last a week.

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