Monday, December 07, 2009

Innovation and the "chip away" theory

I'm a sports fan, and as such I've managed to learn a number of theories about winning and  losing.  One of my favorite theories is the "chip away" concept.  This is the hallowed method for a team on the wrong side of the score to catch up and win the game.  The concept the coach focuses on is that his or her team musn't try to catch up too quickly.  Rather, they should carefully and methodically "chip away" the other team's lead until they are within striking distance.  In this manner the team can break down the opposing team's lead over the remainder of the game and slowly, methodically pull closer and then pull ahead.

I'd like to submit to you that most organizations have a "chip away" theory about innovation and new product development as well, and that chip away theory is in large part why 1) your team needs to consider wild ideas and 2) why most of the "innovation" your company manages to accomplish seems so mundane.

The corporate chip away theory works very differently than the sports analogy.  In most organizations, if a really interesting or insightful idea is created, the "chip away" process begins to remove the rough edges, the interesting concepts and radical thoughts by imposing corporate expectations, safety considerations, brand requirements, channel restrictions, and so forth.  Eventually, what was an interesting, insightful idea has been chipped away to become a safe, sensible idea that seems pretty much the same as all the other existing products or services.  Unlike our sports analogy, there's no coach advocating the chip away methodology - this process occurs naturally in any organization as turf is defended, existing products protected and change is avoided.  It is in the nature of the bureaucracy to chip away and normalize any new idea, which is why really radical innovation is such a hothouse flower.  Anyone, from any team or business function, is usually welcome to chip away at ideas.  This is also why many truly innovative ideas come from skunkworks, which defend the team and the ideas from the corporate antibodies.

There's really two points to my diatribe about the corporate chip away of interesting ideas.  The first is - you may as well generate radical ideas, because the chip away theory guarantees that any idea will be significantly downgraded by the time it is commercialized.  Starting with an incremental idea, that idea will be rapidly transformed into a safe, standard product or service.  Starting with a more radical idea, you may find that some of the innovative features or concepts remain after the chip away has occurred.  The second point is that anything your innovation team can do to moderate or eliminate the chip away philosophy, the better for your innovations and for your long term viability.  No one intentionally chips away at ideas - the actions are just part of the corporate culture and environment.  Changing the culture from an inherently careful, cautious model to one that embraces change and innovation can reduce the chip away process.  To accomplish that you'll need involved management, consistent communication and a new risk/reward mentality.

The cartoon below says it much better than I can - perhaps proving that a picture is worth a thousand words.


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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:10 AM

2 Comments:

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