Innovation is not a Linear Phenomenon: The Faraday FF Zero 1 Example

Innovation ‘R’ Us

Every company is trying to “innovate” these days… no matter how large or small. Some of the bigger ones are virtually pleading with their multinational workforce through challenges, awards and incentives to come up with the magic pill that will help the company sail through stormy waters (As Alf Rehn summarized it [1], “in April we innovate, in May we fire people”) .

The smaller ones… well, there are companies based entirely on nothing else but “an innovative solution” to do something you could already do before (but this time in a Javascript framework). Looking at it from the Lean Startup perspective, I find it a bit weak when a whole business is based on the USP of “innovative”. Your solution could be based on quality attributes [2] that make it faster, scalable, interoperable, customizable, streamlined, or really 100 other ways that could maximize value… the means to achieve these better be innovative, because that’s the very least your customer expects from you!

Have you ever heard a Formula 1 driver call himself fast? Or a firefighter call him/herself brave? Or a surgeon boast about how precise she is? No, because these are attributes that are inherently expected of them. If they weren’t fast or brave or precise, they wouldn’t last very long in their line of work. Similarly, today all technology companies are expected to be innovative in order to survive. You know who boosts their own ego publicly? Pop stars:


Innovation is… Not Where You Think it is

Now, about Faraday. Earlier this year at CES I picked up this leaflet from the Faraday FF Zero 1 booth. Since then, I have thought often of the part marked in red below:


“SVP of R&D … spotted a drawing of a racecar on a designer’s desk and thought …”

BOOM. Innovation happened. Did the designer have a mandate to come up with a supercar? No. Was the SVP in an in offsite innovation workshop, brainstorming with other employees? No. Was there an innovation competition or challenge going on in the company, with an award at the end of it? Probably not. This is possibly the best example that innovation does not happen in an institutionalized manner. When successful innovation happens, it comes from the most unexpected places, more often than not driven by synergy, and it opens up a non-linear value proposition:


Original image credit: [3]


An Indicator of Innovation

These days some people are solving more problems with a Raspberry Pi over a weekend, than during a whole week of work in front of a corporate laptop. What can leaders do to harness this immense creative potential? I think the answer is to build an organization conducive to innovation, geared up to quickly change course when an innovation potential appears on the horizon, and… basically get out of the way. Easier said than done, you say… there are risks, budgets, stakeholders, possibly even (shudder) committees… no way this is going to work.

Which brings me to the final point: how deeply is trust rooted in the company’s culture? In Faraday’s example, the SVP trusted that something produced by one of his designers was potentially a big deal. It did not come up through a chain of committees and approvals. It happened through synergy. And while structure can stifle synergy, trust can help it thrive.

I therefore argue that the amount of trust in a company is a solid indicator of innovation potential. How much employees trust the leadership’s direction, how much coworkers trust each other (even across borders and timezones) and how much the leadership believes in the people they hired: these factors determine how likely synergistic events will be recognized, and nurtured into products or solutions that are called “innovative” by customers and competition, not just by the companies themselves.

[1] Alf Rehn, “How to Save Innovation From Itself”. Craft Conf 2016 talk.

[2] George Fairbanks, “Just Enough Software Architecture: A Risk-Driven Approach”. InfoQ interview and excerpt.

[3] MintViz.