Useful innovation framework: 7 Levels of Change

In April I attended a seminar given by Rolf Smith, innovation guru and author of the 7 Levels of Change. We covered a lot of ground in a single day but the part that resonated most for me was the one that focused on those seven levels.


(Yes, he spelled "Diffferently" that way on purpose!)

The seven levels describe the various stages you go through as you walk up the "innovation" ladder. Here's Rolf with the list.

Here's how his model works:
  1. Do the right things: Rolf defines innovation to include implementation so level 1 focuses on clarifying what key tasks to carry out
  2. Do things right: Next up is basic execution. Block and tackle
  3. Do things better: Now we're up to continuous improvement
  4. Do away with things: This is the pivotal level. Once you reach this point, you're likely saturated. All your time is allocated to carrying out those tasks and trying to get better at them. If you want to keep progressing, you need to make time. This means applying Pareto to focus on the 20% of tasks that generate 80% of the value and ruthlessly cutting out the rest. This gives you time back to explore higher levels
  5. Do things other people are doing: Look around you for great ideas and copy, extend, and incorporate them
  6. Do things no one else is doing: Here you're truly creating something new, or "diffferent" as Rolf would put it
  7. Do things that can't be done: Do the impossible! Break the mold!

While it seems simple at first blush, I've shared the model with co-workers and it's given us a very useful vocabulary around key areas of focus:
  • "We're spending all our time at level 3 here"
  • "I don't think we're past level 1 for this project, we really need to understand it better"
  • "Yup, that's level 6 alright, now... how do we do it?"

You can apply this model to individuals, teams, and even corporations. Some people are more convergent, i.e. execution/solution focused, and they tend to inhabit levels 1 to 3. Others are divergent, i.e. creative / idea generators, and they like to live at levels 5 to 7. What about you?

I've come to think of this model as more of a seesaw with levels 1-3 on one side, 4 at the pivot point, and 5-7 on the other side. While individuals may favor one side or another, really successful organizations are able, in fact need, to balance both.

(Execution or idea heavy? :-) Source)

For example:
  • I'd peg Apple as a level 6-7 company but they wouldn't be successful without their excellent ability to execute on those ideas
  • Microsoft? Mostly level 3 I think though parts are level 5 (e.g. Windows 7 Phone), and level 6 (e.g. Project Natal / Kinect for Xbox 360). The famous quip of it taking Microsoft three releases to get a product right may be due to moving from level 1 to 3 :-)
  • Google? Again it varies by team but a good deal of levels 5, 6, and even 7 once in a while
  • Dell, HP, Lenovo? Solid at levels 2 to 3, some level 5 happening
  • Toyota? The Prius was a huge level 6 success but given recent quality problems it seems they neglected levels 2 and 3
  • GE? Pioneers of level 3 6-sigma but innovation is far down the list when you think of this company

How can you use these levels? Here are some ideas:
  • Reflect on your own natural level. Are you operating at the right level to solve the problems you're working on?
  • Dip into level 4 and change / replace / eliminate some of your habits, esp. the most ingrained ones. Does this free you up to move up or down the levels?
  • Next time you're brainstorming, ask people for ideas at each level to force them to think across the change spectrum

Rolf's book is full of tools and ideas of how to get the most out of each level.
His site also offers a fuller explanation of the levels.

In Our Time

In Our Time is an excellent weekly radio program from the BBC. The really cool aspect is that the beeb is making it available as a podcast (here's the RSS feed).

The host invites well known scientists, philosophers, historians, etc. to debate and discuss a central question or theme. Recently we've had topics such as prime numbers, Geoffrey Chaucer, human evolution, and Catherine the Great. Fascinating stuff.

Warning: only the latest podcast is available, and then only for seven days. So make sure you run your podcast client regularly!

China rules

I was on Alexa today and looked at their top sites, i.e. the most traffic'ed sites on the net. In the top 10, four sites were Chinese and one Japanese. Very impressive. Obviously internet growth mirrors economic growth.

When I was in China a year ago I was impressed by the amount of construction going on. Huge cranes congregate in large numbers in cities. Four to eight lane roads run through the countryside with comparitively little traffic, awaiting the future onrush of cars (parking lots are for some reason still way too small though). We were even overtaken by a Lamborghini one day!

I expect most websites will have a "Made in China" logo in their footers before long :-)