Beyond The Obvious: Killer questions that spark game-changing innovation

Reviewed by: 
Phil McKinney
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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Because we have a section on the Extensor website containing book reviews I am occasionally contacted by publishers to see if we would like to review their latest publications.  On most occasions I turn them down, but when Hyperion called me regarding Phil McKinney’s book ‘Beyond the Obvious’ I was intrigued for two reasons; the first was that the author was such a successful innovator during his time at Hewlett Packard, and secondly, because innovation is one of the most difficult goals for many businesses.

At HP McKinney had been the Chief Technology Officer for their Personal Systems Group with responsibility for the strategic planning and long-range R&D programmes for all of the company’s PC and notebook products.  He also was the founder of the Innovations Programme Office at HP and has regularly been profiled and written about as a key though-leader in the IT industry.

His objective in writing the book was to share his ideas on innovation, to show how companies can innovate by moving beyond the usual incremental and ‘obvious’ approach and by applying the techniques he has used to uncover new ideas and opportunities.

The book avoids the trap that so many management books fall into of trying to oversimplify what is an inherently complex process.  This makes it less easy to read and follow but far more valuable for someone with a genuine interest in the subject.

McKinney also acknowledges that the main barrier to innovation for most companies is both their culture and the fact that they start with the wrong premise.  He writes:

"The first step to freeing yourself to find innovations is to recognize that the knowledge you currently have is insufficient, and that you need to go out and discover new information that will lead you to new products or concepts.  Many organizations want to start from a position of certainty.  They make statements rather than ask questions.  Good innovators are naturally curious and willing to learn more.  The best way to do this is to explore and ask questions.  Yet asking questions is not in our corporate nature, unless we already know the answer.”

McKinney then tackles the barriers people pose to innovation through their desire for the status quo and their resistance to change.  He describes these people as ‘corporate antibodies’, drawing an analogy with antibodies in our immune systems that seek out and destroy foreign objects.  He describes four kinds of corporate antibodies for innovation:

  1. Ego (“I already thought of that”)
  2. Fatigue (“We tried that before”)
  3. No risk (“Insufficient ROI” or “We can’t afford it”)
  4. Comfort (“Don't rock the boat”)

In the next section of the book McKinney describes his FIRE methodology:  Focus, Ideation, Ranking and Execution - basically a high level innovation methodology. 

  • Focus – Identifying the areas (e.g. customers, products etc.) where you need/want to innovate.
  • Ideation – Generating great ideas by asking killer questions.
  • Ranking – Ranking your ideas using five simple questions to identify the best.
  • Execution – Turn your best ideas into killer innovation through a question-based stage-gate process.

Having introduced the FIRE methodology, McKinney shows how each step of the process is managed and governed by asking good questions.  Who is your customer?  What criteria do they use to select your product?  Who is using it in unanticipated ways?  What is your offering? etc. 

At the end of the book McKinney provides practical examples of how the process comes together using case studies based on his own experiences.

My conclusion is that the book is not for everyone, but that for people with a genuine interest in innovation or a burning need to innovate, the book provides valuable insights into approaches a person can use to truly challenge established conventions and see the world from an alternative perspective.

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