Why the front end of innovation is different
If the innovation need is really just continuous improvement or slight improvements to existing products, you are in luck, because that work simply requires that you extend your existing deep body of knowledge. If, on the other hand, you need radical or disruptive innovation, your existing body of knowledge, your scope and frameworks, even your tools and insights may become barriers to innovation rather than accelerators. That's because true innovation is about discovery, learning and analysis rather than building on past knowledge and success. True innovation is unusual, and requires a different approach. Innovation is the only activity in a business where the people involved are amateurs, because we spend so little time in most businesses working on discovering new needs, learning about customers and markets, and thinking deeply about the implications from discovery and learning.
Let's consider three factors that make the "Front End" of innovation so different from the rest.
Most of us in businesses spend our days perfecting what we already know. The processes that drive a business are evident and well-understood, and may need a few tweaks to perfect them. There's little to discover about the day to day operations, as most of it has been understood and perfected for years. Deep expertise and constant repetition mean that discovery is rarely needed. Tools and capabilities that aren't exercised become moribund and stale. We lose a sense of discovery when that sense isn't effectively or even periodically applied.
When innovators talk about the method of innovation, they usually describe it as a "divergent - convergent" process. This means that the first activity is about "diverging" - enlarging the scope, enlarging the number of possible outcomes, discovering new possibilities. Most of us are very good at converging - eliminating even the reasonable alternatives to quickly arrive at one specific solution. Divergence is often one of the most difficult aspects of innovation for many corporate executives to grasp, because it feels like unnecessary effort. Further, divergence is uncomfortable because it requires discovery and exploring areas where the level of expertise is much lower, or non-existent.
Discovery requires people who are comfortable going beyond what they know, who are interesting in discovering something new which has relevance to their organization. It requires those people to look in unexpected places for new and unanticipated things. In other words, a surprise. And you know how managers and executives love surprises.
If innovation creates something new to your market, or new to the world, then by definition someone has to partake in a learning exercise. We may have to learn about needs, or new capabilities, or new channels, or new customer segments, but there is little innovation that isn't preceded by learning. Yet learning, especially learning beyond the tools and activities that enable existing products and services is almost unheard of in modern corporations. We spend countless thousands of hours learning about personality differences, tolerance, communication, and other workplace factors that reinforce the existing frameworks, and spend virtually no time learning about emerging needs, emerging technologies and adjacent markets. For most organizations, learning stops at the edge of the corporation or at best the industry, and looks no further than 12 months in advance. External issues and needs are scarcely considered, and adjacent markets, nimble new entrants and emerging customer needs are ignored. Many product managers have never met a customer who actually uses their product, and never meet prospects or segments that actively refuse to use the product.
As noted previously, discovery is given short shrift. If there is no discovery, there's little need for learning about the wants and needs of the discovered market, segment or opportunity. Even when discovery is possible, little time is left for learning. It is expected that we have all the education and learning we need to make important decisions about markets, needs and trends that we know almost nothing about. It begs to be said again: there's no innovation without learning.
You may have heard that experts are often the biggest barriers to innovation. That's often because they don't believe that any further discovery is possible, and that they know or have learned all that is important to know or learn in a field. It's hard enough to spend time learning in your chosen field. Trying to obtain the time and resources to learn in a new area, new market or about a new opportunity is difficult if not impossible. But without learning, you cannot create interesting innovations.
Analysis and Synthesis
If you are lucky enough to have the time to discover and learn, the final activity is perhaps the most important and the most difficult to justify. Because discovery and learning are active tasks, in which you can be seen to be doing something. But the most important task - analysis and synthesis - looks a lot like contemplation and, worse, thinking. And often we don't value these activities because they aren't quantifiable and don't appear to contribute to the bottom line. In a knowledge based economy, we've placed a maximum amount of emphasis on activity and a minimal amount of emphasis on what creates knowledge - thinking!
Analysis and synthesis is the capstone to discovery and learning. If you can take what you discovered, add to it what you learned, and then think deeply about what it means and the implications to your market, industry, customers and business, then you are innovating. Understanding a need or opportunity, learning more about its importance and relevance, and deciding how to respond is a virtuous circle of activity for innovation, but one that happens far too infrequently.
Analysis and synthesis are suspect because they require careful consideration by people who were immersed in the discovery and the learning. These activities seem somewhat passive from an outside observer's perspective and are subject to ridicule because the solutions are not quantifiable. In this activity we are drawing insights and conclusions, interpreting the discovery and what we learned, and using our instincts and insights to define new products, services and solutions. Far too often the scope is defined in advance, and may powerful new insights and opportunities are ignored or shut out of scope before the discovery and learning could take place.
Putting it all into context
If you want to innovate, to create truly new ideas, you need to be willing to discover new needs, new markets or new opportunities. Once you have discovered those opportunities, you need to learn more about the emerging market or need. Why does it exist? Why is it unsatisfied with existing solutions? Once your discovery and learning are complete, you can then begin to interpret, analyze and understand what the true needs and wants are. Only then are you ready to generate ideas, which will really be solutions.
Most organizations don't appreciate the amount of discovery, learning and thinking that are necessary for true innovation. They don't allocate the time, don't assign the right people for these tasks and don't establish the corporate expectations and culture to define a framework in which people can succeed. Since discovery, learning and thinking aren't active and don't seem to produce a quantifiable product, they are discounted and often skipped in the innovation process. This is another reason why so many firms do incremental innovation and continuous improvement so well, and have such a difficult time creating truly new ideas. They don't take the time to discover new opportunities or needs, they fail to engage in any learning, and resist deep thinking and interpretation if they managed to do any discovery or learning along the way.
What's interesting is to see "innovation" initiatives that have completely skipped the discovery, learning and thinking activities. They move directly to idea generation. When you hear people say "brainstorming" doesn't work, they are correct if and when businesses skip the preceding steps. How can you generate interesting ideas or solutions when you haven't discovered new opportunities or needs, and learned more about their causes and relevance?
Not unknowable just different
The Front End of innovation is not unknowable or undefinable, it is simply different from much of what your organization does regularly, and must be understood in that context. If you'll place more emphasis on discovery and what it takes to discover new needs and opportunities, learning and the commitments of time and resources to truly understand what you've discovered, and analysis to place into context the discovery and the learning, you'll have a much more capable Front End.