• John Chambers, PhD

Classes of Impossible

For those that celebrate Chanukkah, 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 light. For all we know, it is part legend, teaching and embracing, holding together a faith and a tradition. I like to imagine the Jewish elders of two millennia ago, keepers of the temple, seeing the scant availability of pure oil, making the calculation, troubled that the menorah’s candle light would last only a day. As the tradition states, however, there was a miracle. The fuel magically 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 is incredible, impossible to a time traveler from ancient Jerusalem. To us, it’s ubiquitous and needing even more improvement with 5G! Regularly fighting off disease is commonplace, unheard of in 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 are the gifts of our knowledge sharing.

Innovation is humanity’s DNA. It is our reflex against the present situation, an eschewing of limits. It is stretching a day of fuel over eight days, whether by efficiency or alternative routes. For our company to survive, we build a better experience for our customers’ lives. I see the miracle as the serendipitous side effect -- the market’s mosaic where innovation begets innovation, much like James Burke’s famous Connections television series. Hopefully those innovations are used for good.

The limits and constraints in our daily lives pertain to our businesses and our households, the route to Walmart, the battery life of our PC as we sit on a plane with no power outlet. We adapt and innovate. 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 we are allowing atrophy in our intellectual muscle. You must quantify 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. Can 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 call them three ‘classes’ of innovation – 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 in 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 it’s not about a meeting. It’s about a way of life and whether quality, in that case, was an expectation 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 his company and a mandate in the corporate values. It should have been steeped in everything the company did.

So too with 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 pressure is 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 each department reporting to your division. All managers must similarly capture and roadmap their 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 embrace across our cultures and geographies. The lasting light, eight times the duration expected, was embraced as a miracle. But its a'lso a reminder of progress, 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 managers, executives and 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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