Beyond The Obvious by Phil McKinney–A System for Innovation

How do you innovate and create? How do you get beyond the obvious answers and assumptions that can limit you? How do you create a robust company that can withstand jolts to the system, whether natural disasters, regulatory change, or the next generation of technology? Phil McKinney, former Hewlett Packard Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, and founder and director of HP’s Innovation Program Office, answers these questions in his new book Beyond the Obvious.

McKinney’s contention is that we are transitioning from an information economy to a creative economy. It’s not enough to simply have knowledge, but now we must have creative ideas. Not only that, but we must put these ideas to good use. As McKinney says, “innovation without execution is a hobby.” So, is this book only for “creatives”? McKinney says no. He claims that creativity is the result of a system. Beyond the Obvious is that system.

Phil McKinney calls his system “FIRE,” and it is based on his Killer Questions. FIRE stands for Focus, Ideation, Ranking, and Execution. To Focus, McKinney suggests you choose among your who, what, or how. That is, your customers, your product, or your method of production. The next step, Ideation, is the heart of McKinney’s book. Here you will find the Killer Questions, and I’ll talk more about those in a bit. Once you have generated creative ideas about your who, what, or how, you Rank them, using a subsystem McKinney provides. Finally, he teaches you how to execute those ideas and overcome resistance from within the company.

McKinney provides a ton of Killer Questions for your who, what, and how. These chapters are the most valuable part of Beyond the Obvious. McKinney suggests ways for you to move beyond your assumptions and limitations, to seek new input and new information, and to look at other companies outside your industry. He helps you look at your present state and what your various futures may look like. McKinney’s Killer Questions help you search for unexpected sources of value and to prepare to potential jolts to your company. He also provides examples of how he has sought out answers to the Killer Questions.

Next, Phil McKinney provides you with a step-by-step guide to running an innovation workshop. He teaches you how to gather the right personnel and how to keep them motivated. McKinney tells you how to avoid pitfalls that will sink your workshop and destroy your chances to innovate. He also provides two examples of how both his FIRE system and his workshop technique have been adapted to very different industries.

Lastly, McKinney describes Corporate Antibodies–the gatekeepers in your company who are resistant to innovation. Whether it’s due to ego, risk-aversion, because they have been worn down by the system, or because they are comfortable with the status quo, McKinney teaches you how to get into the antibodies’ heads, overcome their objections, and make your innovation a reality.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Beyond the Obvious. I found the FIRE system and the Killer Questions to be very valuable. Not only is the system useful, but it is also adaptable. Although the book is written by someone who worked at HP, I read it from the point of view of a freelancer, noting ways I could apply the system to my clients and the services I offer. And when reading the chapter about Corporate Antibodies, I realized how these tips would be useful during a pitch meeting.

But I did have some problems with the book’s organization. I understand the value of moving beyond assumptions and the need to innovate, but I wanted to know how to do it. I was already sold. Why make me get through a quarter of the book before you get to the system? And why talk about the Antibodies and overcoming resistance to innovation before you teach me how to innovate? But all that being said, I believe the Killer Questions could help anyone look at their company in new ways and encourage them to look for information and inspiration in new places. I liked McKinney’s system, and the more I read it, the more I wanted to apply it to my own business. After all, as Phil McKinney argues, if I don’t innovate and execute, my competitors will. And I’d hate for them to take my money.

Beyond the Obvious comes out on February 7, 2012, but you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or from your local independent bookseller. You can follow Phil McKinney at @philmckinney or visit his blog here.