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Innovating Faster & Navigating Barriers to Innovation with John Carter

In the third episode of our new podcast, The Innovation Room, we had a very special guest: John Carter.

John is the founder of TCGen, and a true innovation veteran. He's, for example, invented the original Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones and advised companies like Apple and Amazon with their product development and innovation processes.

In this in-depth interview, John shares his story and some of the many lessons he's picked up along the way. We cover topics such as common innovation misconceptions, and actionable tips for innovators for navigating internal politics.

This interview is also available as an audio version on iTunes and Spotify, as well as on YouTube. I hope you'll enjoy the discussion.


Welcome to the show John, it’s great to have you with us!


Thank you.

You’ve had a very impressive career in product development and innovation. Could you share your story with our listeners?

Sure. I'm excited to be given the honor and privilege to share this with our audience here.

I think it starts early, in terms of my education. I really valued the education I got, both undergraduate as well as graduate studies at MIT.

I had an early opportunity, which I think set me in motion. I had a passion for audio and acoustics for a very, very long time. In college, I built a synthesizer, which was fairly advanced at the time, and did analyses of loudspeakers and other systems as side projects, they weren't even for credit.

I had the opportunity when I was at MIT to become a teaching assistant for Dr. Bose. He taught an acoustics class at MIT, and I was in it at the time. Unfortunately, his teaching assistant dropped out, and I volunteered for the class. It's been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.

I had not taken acoustics before as an undergraduate, so this was my first time, and I had to then be a teaching assistant, have some mastery, and be head of the students. It was a daunting task, but one that really gave me one thing, which is humility.

In other words, when you are asked a question and you don't know the answer, it's best to admit it, and not make something up. We're all on this journey together.

I had also the opportunity then to work for Dr. Bose, who had this audio company Bose, in Framingham, a suburb of Boston. I started out in research in that organization, in acoustic research, and one of our first exercises was to do a couple of projects, one was with headphones, the other was with loudspeakers.

I started making really rapid progress in the noise canceling headphone technology that Bose is known for, and I went back to Dr. Bose and said: “We have two things we could pursue. I'm making progress in loudspeakers and faster progress in headphones.” He said: “Go with what you want, but let's pick one and just do that”.

Another lesson for me was that innovation is all about choices. In other words, you can't do everything. You have to pick something, and you have to focus on it.

That experience of both shedding one task so that I could focus on the other, and the risk taking of committing to a particular technology was absolutely phenomenal.John CarterDr. Bose was a great mentor. He would typically take students from MIT who took his class and invited them to become employees in the engineering function at Bose, and I was one of those individuals.

During that time of creating the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones, I also learned that innovation is not easy, as we all know. There are some very common misperceptions on it, and I learned a couple.

One of the most powerful things that I learned is that often times, most innovators have no idea what the benefits the consumers will actually see in their ideas. It's really only when you test them in the market, that you learn.

In the case of the noise canceling headphones, we thought that the biggest benefit, and this is true, would be to provide even frequency response or tonal balance over the audio spectrum. In other words, it would be better fidelity.

Well, when we really started to test the market and develop this for different applications, we found that it wasn't at all important to consumers. It was the noise cancellation. The headphones didn't start out as noise canceling headphones. They started out as the best headphones you could possibly make.

And only when we did come in contact with the customer, did we learn what they valued, and what they valued is what is value. It doesn't matter what you think. So, I learned, a little bit about innovation there and the importance of testing it with market.

Then I had some opportunities to grow within and also outside of Bose. I decided to take my hand and become an entrepreneur and started my own business in the area of helping other companies deliver products to market more quickly.

There I also learned something that is invaluable, that most consultants and many innovators don't understand, and that is the difference between marketing and sales.

In order to be successful in my business, and in any business, you have to be able to do both, and it's like they fill a pie diagram: marketing plus sales equals the whole revenue generation system.

You can either do a lot of marketing and a little sales, or a lot of sales and little marketing, but you can't get by with only sales, or only marketing.

And so, in starting my own business, I really learned the importance of marketing and sales. Often in consulting sales has such a bad reputation that people call it marketing, but it does no one any service to do that to sales. Sales is sales. Sales is one to one, marketing is one to many. Sales is tomorrow, marketing is the future. There are fundamental differences between the two, and to master both was a great learning for me.

I had some great clients too. At Apple, we created the Apple new product process, and at Amazon I worked on the innovation process for their device category. In both cases, not only did I teach them, but I also learned a lot about leadership and management.

And then finally, I'm continuing this work in consulting and helping companies to innovate more quickly, and I'm also on the board of Cirrus Logic, a public semiconductor company.

A lesson that I learned there, that I think is very important Jesse, is that fundamentally when you're on the board, you don't have that much interaction with management, nor should you. And so, there's an expression that I learned which is: “Noses in, Fingers Out”. In other words, it’s really important for board members to know what's happening but not to meddle with management. Finding that right balance is really a tricky concept.


Those are some really great lessons that you were able to learn, and I think that wide perspective into the different facets of business is something that I'm sure a lot of innovators would benefit from!


Yes, one other thing I'd like to add is to emphasize risk taking.

If you look at my career, I took risks many, many times. I skipped over the time that I was an investment banker, or a CEO of a technology company. But in just about every case, I was willing to lose everything in order to gain new experiences and new opportunities.

And so, fortunately, I was pretty successful, but I was also willing to lose it all. I think that's another thing that’s very important in entrepreneurs. They aren't driven by the money. They're driven by really delivering something that's exciting and new.


Speaking of risk, I feel like we can’t help but address the elephant in the room in the form of COVID-19, what are your current thoughts on its impact for the work you do with your clients?

Well I have two points actually in thinking about how we deal with the Coronavirus, which is amongst us all here.

The first is that it's actually an excellent time for innovation. I think there's a very common misconception about innovation being a team sport, a team activity.

There's a very common misconception about innovation being a team sport, a team activity.

Well, I would say invention is not a team sport. Invention is always, or rather is most frequently done with either an individual or a couple of people. It is not with a big team.

And so, the times that we're in right now with the COVID virus, is a real opportunity for one to explore inventions and ideas that you hadn't had time to do that before. The way I look at this is that it’s a wonderful time to work on those things that are important but not urgent.

Our day to day activities without COVID-19 are that we always do the urgent. Whether it's important or not important, we do them. The problem is it leaves some really important things undone. And so, I think the COVID virus has given us some time to really invent. So that's one thing I think is important for everybody.

The second thing is really for leaders, and that is that it's really important for leaders to also recognize that this virtual work situation, remote work or distributed teams, whatever you might want to call it, is different in a couple ways that are really, really important.

In order to be effective in remote work, leaders of these teams have to really talk about and communicate two things.

The first is the product vision. In other words, what we're trying to achieve in our activities, and I'm speaking about product development activities. It's really important to make sure each and every team member understands the product vision and what is going to make this company really successful.

The reason that's important in the distributed work environment is that you don't have constant cues and reminders of things that really relate you and the culture. So, you're really divorced from the culture. Leaders of teams have to really make sure that they communicate the vision around what's important regarding the culture and product development.

The second thing is, leaders need to communicate ground rules. Ground rules are really important and make virtual work much more effective. In other words, when you've got a remote team that's working at distance for the first time, it's really, really important to establish ground rules.

For example, how long is your workday? And if you're working, let's say with partners in Europe or in Asia, to be mindful of their home schedule. There's not a dictum about what's right or wrong, but it is very important to establish ground rules with respect to how work is going to be conducted.

The second thing and one of the biggest failures in these kinds of situations is that people and teams don't make the work progress visible to management. It's really important to agree on metrics or other ways of transparency that can communicate the progress of the team.

You may know that Google has studied this aspect of remote work intensely, and they have discovered that the productivity is no different between intact teams in a given environment versus a distributed team, but it's really important to have these ground rules and product vision communicated to all to get to your most efficiency.

The second is, since you may have a few minutes of spare time a week, take that time and really funnel that into new ideas and concepts, pet projects and ideas that have been on the shelf because you've been too busy to work on them.

So, I think the best thing about COVID-19 is: “let's make lemonade out of these lemons”.

We often see companies have a vision of where the organization could be in the future, but then really struggle in turning that into a concrete roadmap. Could you share your thoughts on how these companies could better bridge that gap?

Yes, I think one of the most common problems that we have seen, fundamentally, is that the managers and executives think that since the strategy has been out there, everybody understands the strategy. They're often either upset or irritated when people, their workers, come back and say, well, we don't understand the strategy. The problem is with the executives, not with the people.

Most organizations that we work with, and this may be true with you, Jesse as well, is that you don't see strategies that are communicated frequently and reinforced constantly. In fact, in many companies their strategy is “so secret that they can't let just everybody see it”. So, it's locked in a drawer.

Well, you can't act on a strategy you don't know about, it makes no sense to do this! Yes, you don't want to get this into competitors’ hands, but if you don't have a strategy that is written, communicated and reinforced, you're not going to have a pervasive alignment of the various activities that companies can have.

So, if you look at what's really beneficial about a strategy, I would sum it up into its communication. There's a real failure on most management teams to really communicate what the strategy is.

And also, there's a difference between strategy and product vision. This is a common problem that many teams have to face. The strategy is a broad statement around True North: where the company is headed, and what are some goals that we would achieve along the way. A strategy might include investments in capital equipment. It might include new spends in advertising and promotion. It might include mergers and acquisitions emanated by a company, and then obviously it will include an element of new products because that's the way we grow revenue. But don't confuse a strategy for product vision.

Product vision is something that could be applied to any innovation team to make sure that they are eventually going to be aligned with the overall objectives of the organization. I'll give you some examples of product vision since there are many out there. I think they are best used in terms of what fits your company best.

Some common product visions are “It's like this, only better”, and a statement of who the customer is, the benefits, and how you're going to reach market with this new product. The important thing here is simply to communicate a product vision.

I'll give you an example from Bose where I learned a great deal about this.

Dr. Bose was really good about product visions. One of the things that every engineer and every product developer knew is that we would do great sound out of small sizes. So, if you weren't able to get behind that and produce some terrific sound quality out of a terrifically small sized unit, you weren't really aligned with the company's vision: great sound in small packages.


Now that may sound really constraining, but on the other hand, good product visions are constraining. They provide you with the constraint to invent, still leaving plenty of inventions possible to go after. There's plenty of landscape there to use and to test.

The other thing that's really important in product vision is trying to communicate what you're really after in terms of how you measure teams and how you actually deliver the product. So, process is also very important. That's part of the culture and the infrastructure that organizations can support.

And then finally, I would say one of the impediments that I see to getting innovation to happen is that better is confused with different.

And the fact of the matter is that if something is different, that doesn't make it better. On the other hand, in order to be better, you're going to have to have some demonstrable difference.

If something is different, that doesn't make it better. On the other hand, in order to be better, you're going to have to have some demonstrable difference.

So, innovation just isn't taking an idea and slapping a logo on it, but in fact, really understanding what's differential about your new idea, why it's compelling to customers, and what the unique selling proposition is. All these things need to line up, otherwise, you are confusing movement and motion.

If you're just trying to innovate by doing something that's different, you're playing a losing game because you're relying on brand power, and brand power will be eroded by introducing products that are different, but not better. 

One of the core premises of your work at TCGen is to help your clients “innovate products faster”. What would you say are the key things for being able to do that?

Yeah, that's a terrific question, and it's difficult to answer because every situation is different. But Jesse, I can talk about a couple of things that we see being barriers that prevent companies from innovating better and faster.

One has to do with clarity around product vision. It's really important to communicate what the target is to your teams to allow them to innovate.

The second thing that's really important here is to not overload teams. We find this is a very, very common situation because who doesn't want to have it all

Because the product development organization is of a finite size, you can only work on so many things and there's some really great rule of thumbs that come back to that and can help you right-size the priority list with the number of projects.

I just mentioned a priority list that's also very important. So right sizing and organization and communicating clear product priorities are really very helpful and speeding up both innovation and reducing time to market.

If you look at the rules of thumb that I look at in terms of overload, one that I look at is how many project managers and scrum masters do you have? The optimum situation for most product development organizations is that a program or project manager should have two projects: a big one and a little one.

If a project manager is trying to manage more than two projects, they begin to basically wear down and can’t give each individual programmer enough attention. So, one of the things you might look at is just look at the ratio between the number of project managers and the number of projects you're working on. If that ratio is a lot higher than two, you know you’ve got an overload situation.

The other one that's a really useful rule of thumb is to have one product manager, who, if you will, brings the voice of the customer in per product family.

A product manager might deal with, let's say, if you're talking about a particular solution, a handful of projects and products that are all related. But when you start stretching a product manager too thinly, what happens is you don't do the most important thing that really needs to be done. And this is the third thing that's important besides product vision and having a right number of programs in your portfolio, is really establishing a clear sense of leadership and direction from product management because they really are the translators that bring the voice of the customer in.

The number one cause for delays in new product development is product definition. So, if you don't have a product manager or a product owner out collecting input from their customers, translating that for the team, taking market requirements and converting them into product specs, you're going to have all sorts of problems.

About 3/4 of projects that are delayed are delayed because of inadequate product definition, and most of the time it's because product managers are spread too thin and can't devote the time.An example product teamThe issue with teams is that if they've got 12 individuals working on a new product effort, that's a lot of cash burn every day. And so, if you don't have the right product definition, you're going to waste that time because the team is going to be sitting around waiting for an answer on a critical requirement that you haven't given to them. It's absolutely death to teams.

So, I would say having clear product definition and also having sufficient number of project managers and product owners or product marketing people is really important.

The other thing that's important is really this notion of priorities and the fact that you can only do so many things. There's a really nice linkage that I see in companies that work effectively. You have the strategy, the portfolio vision, let's say where you want to be in the future.

So, like I've said there’s a True North in the early days of the planning cycle and the end of the planning cycle results in a budget and priorities.

Effective organizations linked the strategy to the budgets and to the priorities. So, there's a very clear line of sight between what you're working on, the amount of funding you have for it, and the overall strategy of the company.

So that linkage, that line of sight between strategy and priorities and budget is really important. And often roadmaps are used to communicate, or to link the strategy and the budget because you understand the key developments that need to take place, the efforts on platforms and derivatives are made clear by roadmaps. So, roadmaps provide a very good example of connective tissue between the strategy and the teams. So, that's another thing that I would say is really critical.

Let's now turn the organizational things that are important for innovating faster. One that's very important is, do you have a team culture in your organization? Where is the power, is it with the functional managers such as engineering, marketing, quality, and operations? Or is the power given to the teams?

In successful organizations that we've seen, the real decision-making is pushed down in the organization to the team level. Winning organizations that really do innovate products faster have this clear delineation about decision-making, and also about the bounds that a team has.

In successful organizations that we've seen, the real decision-making is pushed down in the organization to the team level.

For example, if we look at an agile process, you've got a product owner, you've got product backlogs, you've got a process for delivering story points, and you're working on essentially completing all the features the project.

Well, sometimes you encounter barriers that are fundamental. For example, you're relying on another team for a critical dependency, but they're late, or they've been canceled. Or you might have a situation where one of your lead people left, or you might have a situation where a competitor just announced a product right in your space.

These sorts of problems don't fit within the agile system. The agile system can adapt, but you're going to need clear guidance from management to either increase your budget significantly, to change the product requirements to reflect a reaction to the competitive launch or do some other changes that are really outside the realm of the team’s decision-making. That whole process needs to be very clean.

In other words, when you have a project, you have boundaries for it. A boundary might be time to minimum viable product or market, or it might be a key feature that you need to deliver, a quality level that you're trying to achieve and program spend, or it could be any number of these, and probably all of them.

When the project team is going across one of these boundaries, you need a decision-making process that is fast, that works in hours or days, not in weeks and months.

You need a decision-making process that is fast, that works in hours or days, not in weeks and months.

So, not only do you need this team empowerment, but also you need the system for exception management, so that the team isn't waiting for decisions, but in fact proposes a new direction and then management can either accept that and move the goalposts, or the management can come up with a better idea. But after this event happens, we need a clear reset with boundaries in order to ensure that the program team is successful with the new realities they've discovered.

And the last thing that I'd like to mention, that is on the organizational continuum as well, is the quality of people.

Specifically, the two roles that I tend to think that are critically important, and of course your mileage may vary, but in my experience the two most important functions are product marketing and development, the engineering function. Those two functions really need to be at the top of their game.

They need to also understand what their roles are, but without superior people leading the product activities from a technical standpoint, and from a product marketing standpoint, you're not going to be able to really be successful.

And by the way, management is not going to empower and trust teams unless the people are trustworthy themselves. So, it's a two-way street.

In order to get this kind of freedom to innovate faster, the teams really have to demonstrate the trust that management has placed in them and deliver on what's been asked of them. If you have that kind of situation, you're really going to go fast.

So, I'd recommend really looking at this as a multiple element situation. I haven't even talked about process, that's another element, but I think these organizational aspects and the strategy are the most important things to help companies innovate.


Yeah, absolutely. I really like how you touched on both trust and constraints there. I think that a lot of the challenges we see many of our customers have also relate to management not being comfortable in providing that freedom for their teams to move quickly. Would you agree that teams focusing on winning that trust by delivering results and also asking for these constraints to guide their work could be a part of the solution there?


Yes, I think what's really important is that the management team is going to trust the product team with the notification that they’re going to cross a boundary. In other words, it's transparent.

And, management shouldn’t micromanage, “Fingers Out, Noses In“, if you will. But on the other hand, they've got to trust the team to notify management if there's a change in their set of assumptions from the program.

What are some of the key misconceptions you think most would-be innovators have? What do you wish you’d known when you first started working on trying to bring new products to market?

Well, some I’ve already touched on, but I'd like to really emphasize this whole notion that invention is not a team sport.

I think this is a very bad assumption that many people have that you can't innovate without a team, and that's just not true.

Now you're going to need a team to turn that vetted idea into a scalable product, that's for sure. But on the other hand, in the very front end, assigning innovation to a team is not the best way to get the best outcome.

There's very interesting research about what the best innovation model is, and what's really emerged is to have a hybrid where the initial ideation comes from an individual, or a couple people.

Then that idea is tested, vetted, massaged and enhanced by contact with the larger team. But the real process of getting started, the innovation process, is not a team sport, and I think that's a very common misunderstanding.

The second thing, and this is really a message for both management as well as the team itself, is this notion of what is truly beneficial for a given invention and that is really only tested at the marketplace by what I just mentioned. The market will tell you what the key benefit is.

If you look at another invention that Bose had, they had an invention that would basically create bass out of a very small package that could be hidden behind a sofa or whatever. In other words, great sound in small packages. In this case, it's a larger package, but it's one you can get out of the living room and not affect the decor.

Well, the in that innovation process, the inventor thought that what they were trying to do is get better bass frequencies out. So, it’s a special design of an enclosure to give greater bass output.

Well, it turned out that in this particular innovation, the invention was not greater bass out of a small package, but the fact that the enclosure provided some filtering for the sound. And this was really important because you localize on high frequencies and high frequency content helps you discriminate whether sound is coming from the right or the left.

This particular enclosure design allowed the creation of only one loudspeaker, the bass, which is common for both left and right in a stereo pair, and this single bass unit then could be hidden in a convenient location, and you won't need two large speakers, but rather you can have two very small speakers and one medium size speaker that's hidden.

The inventor had no idea that this was going to be the value of the invention, which was to filter the sound so that you can hear stereo and not just a mono source.

He thought it was for more bass. But the fact of the matter is, it was for placement so he could put the speaker in a given location. Inventors don't really understand what's truly of merit until contact with the customer.

I think another really important thing or misconception is that managers will support innovations. That's not true.

You would think as an inventor that management would instantly see the merits of your idea. Well, the fact is that most organizations, even if well run, are political.

So, you've got this new idea that probably has not been budgeted, and so you're trying to pitch it to management which would result in taking resources away from one project and giving it to your new innovative project. That's not going to be easy.

There are winners and there are losers. And the fact of the matter is that some managers will really try and hinder the movement of resources from their team over to your team.

And so, you've got to really understand that doing something that's really different, could be very painful for an organization and lack managerial support for some time.

Don't believe that your managers, in fact, see the merits of your innovation. It's going to take time in order to do that, and you've got to be able to play the game.

I think another really common misconception is “where does innovation come from?” And in all my work that I have seen, it doesn't come from the top, it comes from people doing the work. It doesn't come from middle managers, it comes from individual contributors who are able to fundamentally see what is out there, what is possible because they're on the ground working on this on a daily basis. They distinctly understand what can make this idea turn out to be really meritorious, whereas the managers are too far removed from it.

Innovation doesn't come from the top, it comes from people doing the work.

Now there is a role for management in the invention process, but it's not in the act of invention.

It's in in two things, two ways. One is providing funding, and the other is basically providing support or ground cover.

So, I mentioned that new ideas will often be threatening to a company. Managers need to protect this fragile idea from the antibodies that most companies have that attack foreign ideas and bodies.

The other thing is the new ideas need budget. They need funding. So, having an executive sponsor is really, really important.

Again, they're not going to do the work. But they're going to give you essentially the jet fuel that's going to carry your idea to the moon, and you're going to need the jet fuel to really have a successful launch. And here's where managers can play their best role.

And then, finally, the management can really help by removing obstacles from a team, so being proactive about what a team needs, seeing around the corners and anticipating resistance and working with the team to quickly solve problems.

Management should be removing chairs from someone's path, not putting chairs in your way.Management should be removing chairs from your wayAnother common misconception is that management has no role in innovation. That's not true. They have a defined role around funding, around permission, and around protection. They're incredibly important.

These are some of the misconceptions that I think many teams have.

Now, I'm a believer in that invention or innovation can come from any part of the company. It comes from focus, as opposed to just working on dribs or drabs here and there. So, another thing that's really important here is dedicated time for inventions.

Yes, there's a notion that Google has popularized this, but it's been around for much longer than Google, which is people should have 20% of free time to work on projects of their own interests.

Well, as a practical matter, that's very hard to do, but nevertheless, if and when something is identified in the 20% time, we need to get that to 100% time because invention is a difficult process.

And maybe the last misconception I'd like to talk about, is that innovation is really hard work.

Innovation is really hard work. There’s more hard work to realizing an invention than anyone can ever anticipate because there’s a reason why no one has done it before.

I think there is a myth around someone having a great idea, writing it on a cocktail napkin, and be done with it. But the fact is that there's more hard work in the realization of the invention than just about anyone can ever anticipate because there's a reason why no one has done it before and you're trying to do something new, something that hasn't been done before.

Well, there are lots of practical limitations that get in the way of you being successful with your new idea, and therefore really having a focus on this and really putting time into it to do these difficult steps are really important.

It's not the romantic Hollywood version of suddenly there's a great idea, and you're done. Yes, there's that at the very beginning. But then most the work is protecting and nurturing that small idea and working out all the kinks so that you can scale it to customers.

And, I guess I'll put in one more misconception and that is the role of customers in the innovation process.

Some view that people like Steve Jobs at Apple would just divine what people want, and Dr. Bose had some of those qualities as well.

I think rare individuals can really anticipate solutions that really don't exist before and come up with great ideas without doing a lot of market testing. But in the real world, and for most of us, it's important not to delay the contact with customers too much. So, try and prototype it quickly and get some feedback from customers as quickly as you can as early as you can.

You don't want the customers telling you what to do because you understand solutions that are way beyond their imagination. But on the other hand, if you don't test the idea, you're very possibly going to run into big problems after you have invested a lot of money.

I guess there's one last thing that I'd like to mention. It's usually the management's problem, but sometimes it's the team that is scaling too quickly.

I believe in a portfolio approach where an organization is working on a dozen different product ideas, let's say, for a team of a couple hundred. Well, you've got some big projects, and some small projects. You've got some that are really risky and some that are just incremental improvements. You've got this portfolio approach, that depending on your risk tolerance, your organization may have a lot of risky programs in your portfolio, or you may just have a very few.

Well, the challenge is scaling, and not scaling too early.

So, let's say you've got some initial progress, an idea that you think shows promise and that you’ve shown to some customers, and they've given you feedback, and you know you're on the right path.

But to get there, you're going to need X, Y, and Z in terms of resources and typically the team leader will go and ask for these resources, especially after getting positive feedback from customers.

I view product development as the reduction of risk over time of a given product idea.

I view product development as the reduction of risk over time of a given product idea. In other words, at the beginning, there's lots of unknowns, lots of uncertainty, lots of risk, and then, by hard work, the team basically pushes that concept forward and reduces risk as they come upon each problem, kind of knocking things down one after the other.

Well, there's a tendency to scale the team before you've actually done all the homework and knocked off those things.

I've seen some organizations they might scale, believe it or not, a team to a hundred and still have fundamental questions about the market, or the viability.

So, when you think about ramping a team and supporting innovation, one of the mistakes that managers do often is they bulk up the teams too early, and then it becomes very expensive and the clock is ticking.

A smarter approach is to address resources gradually to solve the next problem. And then as you solve that problem, you may need some more resources to attack the next problem, but it's not a good strategy to really load the team up and scale too early and the reason for that is twofold.

One is with inventions. There's risk. You want to manage the capital invested in the risky idea. Another important limitation is that because you’ve funded some projects so heavily, you don't have room to fund other projects. And so, it crowds out the portfolio with just a few “swing for the fences” type and that will definitely impede your ability to take lots of small bets.

Many innovators are often quite frustrated at trying to navigate the complex politics and decision-making structures of large organizations. What advice would you give these people?

Obviously, politics ranges in terms of its intensity over the huge spectrum of firms that are out there.

One of the things that I think is really important in politics, and this is why we touched on the whole notion of a strategy, and a product vision, and having roadmaps, is that politics is a set of unwritten rules that you need to understand.

The teams that are very, very effective understand what the True North of the organization is so that they can defensively say that they're working on something that's aligned with strategy, and to be informed by the political factors in the organization.

The leaders of these teams have to be aware of the unstated rules that are part of the myths that make the company's culture the way it is, and you're not going to break the culture. So, trying to fight it is a losing game.

Rather, what you need to do is use the highest-level person that is your sponsor to help you fight the political battles.

One little technique that I think is very important for neutralizing politics, and you should do this at the beginning of any invention, project, or innovative idea where you're forming a team, is to do something that I call an Attitude-Influence Diagram, or Attitude-Influence Map.

Attitude-Influence Map

You basically, probably together with the product owner and possibly the lead technical person, but no more than two people, would sit down and make a list of all the people that are important to the success of your project in upper management.

Then, what you do is to take each individual and put them on this grid where they have either a low attitude or a positive attitude. And you also plot how important they are in terms of power. Power is organizational power, knowledge power, experience power, it's all of the above.

And what you do is you create this little chart. You might have eight managers that are important for this project, and you plot them on this chart it. Of course, it's kind of a relative thing, and it's very easy to do pairwise comparison. So, you look at Manager A versus Manager B, which one has more power? Which one is more favorable to the project?

You put this on a two-by-two matrix from high power to average power to low power, and then attitude from very negative to neutral and very positive.

What you then do is look at the quadrant of important people that are negative, and you list them by name, and then you figure out a plan to neutralize each one. And, you know, there are many ways to neutralize them.

One is that you could have a one-on-one with this person and describe, remember, this goes back to strategy, why your new idea fits the strategy and you need their support to be successful. You can try that argument.

If you know the culture and you know who this individual's relationships are and who this blocking individual trusts, you can have a high-power person who has a good relationship with the blocker to walk them through how they see your project, and to try and convince them that they should provide a more favorable outcome for this team.

The last thing that you might do is talk to their boss. But that's something I would really resist till the very last moment. I try and appeal to them one-on-one. I try and have one of the people that they respect try and convince them to support your program. And if neither of those work, you can essentially go over their head, talk to their manager and see if their manager is sympathetic to what you're trying to do.

You do that for each person that is high influence and negative.

So, this whole idea of either fighting the culture, that's not going to work. Ignoring the culture, that's not going to work.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. So, the fact of the matter is, culture really is the thing that you need to, basically, follow. You use the Attitude-Influence Map as a way of acknowledging what the culture is, acknowledging who's in power, and figuring out rationally how to go after each person to satisfy their issues.

It could be they have misperceptions. It could be that they don't understand what your invention is about. It could be that they don't understand the resource requirements, whatever.

But the fact of the matter is that when you have politics, you can't ignore it. You can't go against it. That means you have to work within it. And one of the best methods for working in it is finding out who's potentially blocking your project and turning them around.

When you have politics, you can't ignore it. You can't go against it. That means you have to work within it.

I would suggest that this is a way in which you can really fight the politics of an organization like judo, because you actually use the politics to affect how you're going to want to go forward.

I don't think that hiding things is a good idea. That will often result in a worse position than you started with. I don't believe that trying to sabotage other projects is a good idea at all. You do need to know who has the power, and how you can lean into it.

Any closing thoughts?

I'd like to convince each and every person that they've got a great idea inside them.

But bringing a great idea to market is really the hard part of innovation. If you've got a great idea, stick to your guns and pursue it as long as you think is possible.

And know that it's not going to be an easy process, or a quick process. But in the long run, the world will be a better place if you're able to succeed.


That’s a great place to wrap up on. Thank you for your time, John! It’s been a real pleasure.


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