Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mash-ups and collisions at the periphery

My good friend Paul Hobcraft encouraged a dialog from some of his friends on the idea of the innovation "mashup".  That is, good things may occur when two technologies or capabilities are connected or combined.  I want to concur and further explore his idea.

The best marketing ad ever developed for a "mash up" is for the Reese's Peanut Butter cup - one of my favorite snacks.  As many of you who may be old enough to recall, the setting was that one individual woudl be eating peanut butter, another eating plain chocolate.  Through many different machinations, the two would collide, and one would get peanut butter on his chocolate, while the other got chocolate on her peanut butter.  Both recognized a great combination.  Then the ad would cut away to the obvious - the combination already existed!  We didn't have to create it!

Anyway, as Paul notes there's a lot of talk today about "mash ups", which are interesting but I think difficult to plan for or execute.  Mash ups are easy when products or services are simple to combine.  It's not that hard for a music producer to borrow or lift one track from a song, such as a bass line or drum beat, or for a food manufacturer to add chocolate to peanut butter. These mash ups are simple, and may be found by identifying lead users who are already modifying existing products and creating new ones.  The value of easy mash ups may be to find lead users who are already creating new solutions with existing products.

However, you can't "mash up" a pharmaceutical, or an airplane.  There's too much complexity and too much at risk.  Adding peanut butter to chocolate is one thing; mashing up a new airplane wing without significant design and trials is another.  That's where innovation at the periphery may come into play.  We know that a lot of innovation occurs when technologies or capabilities are imported from other industries or solutions, or when two adjacent markets or technologies intersect or collide.  A good example here is air bladders in running shoes.  When looking for better cushioning for shoes, many different solutions were tried (and many are still being tested).  One designer happened to see air bladders used in a completely different solution and thought - why not?  The bladders were "imported" and used in soles, which was strange and unusual at first, but now commonly accepted.

How does peripheral innovation happen?
How does innovation at the periphery, or "collisions" as I like to call them, happen?  Your designers and product developers must be willing to ask themselves "how do people in other situations or industries solve a problem similar to the one I have?".  It's only when the solution set is expanded to consider how other companies (or even other industries) solve similar problems that you can begin to imagine a different solution - one that you can "import" from another industry or technology, or one that can be a "mash up" in Paul's language.  But these don't happen until we move away from very narrow definitions and scope.  Imagine if the shoe designer said to himself - one inch of foam in the sole seems to provide good cushioning - why not go for two inches.  If cushioning = foam, and one inch of cushioning is good, then eventually we'll all be running on platform running shoes, five or six inches off the ground.  Of course there are other constraints.  Height and weight being just two that might lead someone to a different alternative.  Then the question becomes - how can I get more cushioning with the same or less weight, the same or less sole height, regardless of the technology?  Now the scope expands laterally, to potentially encompass new or different technologies, and likely technologies that are from other industries.

But there arises another problem.  In the age of tight budgets, efficiency and specialization, most people don't have many insights or networks into industries or even companies other than their own.  They don't know "who" is solving a similar problem, and don't have the contacts, networks or relationships to discover who is solving the problem or how it is being done.  In fact a whole new breed of consulting firms has been spawned to do technology scouting or to create intermediary bridges between firms that need solutions and firms that have solutions.  Good innovators have broad networks that span companies and industries.  Today many people lack the ability to identify solutions in other industries and demonstrate how those alien solutions may contribute to a better product in their organization.

Complexity Problem
There's another problem with "mash-ups" and it has to do with increasing complexity and interdependence of solutions.  The more complex the solution, the less likely a simple "mash up" will be successful, but the more likely that new solutions or technologies imported from other industries or solutions may make a significant difference.  It's a strange conundrum, but one that has parallels in nature.  Overly specialized animals, like the Irish setter, have been bred for years to have specific traits, but the breeding program has relied on interbreeding, so few new genes have been introduced.  This leads to an animal that has some interesting superficial traits but many genetic weaknesses.  Our businesses are the same way - overspecialization has led to hyper efficient organizations that lack breadth and creativity.  Specialization discourages learning from other industries or importing new ideas, while at the same type reinforcing sterile internal concepts.

We need far more capability to perform "mash ups" in the creativity and design phases of innovation, and to learn and incorporate ideas and technologies from other industries, in the same way that cross-breeding for desired traits is also healthy for animal populations.  What's your organization doing to encourage you to learn more about adjacent industries and import ideas, technologies or solutions?  Or, more to the point, what cultural barriers exist to keep you from doing just that?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:39 AM


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