Friday, October 24, 2014

Opening the innovation aperture

Today a brief tip of the hat to Larry Keeley and his team at Doblin Group, for their concepts of "Ten Types" of innovation.  Keeley and his team created a very nice graphic that captures many of the different types of potential outcomes of an innovation activity.  That is, innovation can result in a new product, a new service, a new business model, a new process, and so forth.

This concept is important, because when most of us think of "innovation" we think of new, tangible products.  In fact much innovation work is simply the "front end" to new product development.  Using innovation just to create new products is like using a computer to only surf the web - it's power and capabilities are limited unnecessarily.  What's more, product innovation in many cases is obvious and somewhat boring, unless the goal is "disruptive" and the team fulfills that goal.

Further, many people will argue that they have plenty of products.  What they need are new services, new channels, new customer experiences and new business models.  In fact many of the "big" innovations in the last few years are more likely to be business models (Software as a Service as an example) or customer experience innovations (anything Apple has made).  There's a pent-up demand for things that are new, valuable and unusual, not just tangible products but solutions that provide value.  Getting a company to think beyond the product is important, and Keeley and his team have presented us with a nice framework for thinking beyond product innovation.

I've surreptitiously introduced another dimension as we think about opening up the innovation aperture.  The concept of a spectrum of innovation from small tweaks to existing products (incremental innovation) to completely new products and solutions that create significant change (disruptive or breakthrough innovation).  This is another way to think about opening the innovation aperture.  Not every product or service needs incremental innovation.  In a baseball analogy, we should be good at hitting singles and doubles (incremental) but we also need to take purposeful swings at the fence (disruptive).  As we open the aperture, we give people more clarity about the desired solution - the "what" of innovation.  A disruptive new customer experience can be just as valuable as a new product, and often more difficult to copy.  But being able to describe the anticipated goal, and get the team to understand and work to that goal is what's really important.  Because our ability to communicate limits the dilation of the aperture.

I've yet to meet an executive who only wants incremental product innovation.  They all want a range of innovation outcomes, both in terms of incremental-disruptive and in terms of Keeley's range of outcomes.  But they often don't know how to state what they want, or don't do a good job defining the desired outcomes.  When communication is poor or lacking, people hear the demand for innovation but don't understand the depth or breadth, so they choose a safe set of parameters and settle for incremental product innovation.  It's no wonder that so often new "innovations" look a lot like existing products.  Without better instructions, that's what the culture will lead people to create.

We can go further with this idea of the aperture, to think about the "how" of innovation. It's often not clear how much investigation or discovery of needs should take place, or how much research is necessary.  Teams often don't understand whether they should trust in their own ideas and technologies or open up to external firms, using so called "open" innovation.  The more we set out in our "what" and "how" conversations about innovation, the better the resulting outcomes can be.  Conversely, the less said about what and how, the lower our expectations should be.

Who ultimately controls the dilation of the aperture?  It's not just executives, not just managers but it's the entire organization in thrall to a culture of risk avoidance, consistency and efficiency.  All it takes is one strong voice to demand more clarity about the potential outcomes and activities to cause the entire organization to rethink how innovation is conducted.  Until that voice - or hopefully voices - rises up, innovation is conducted through a very narrow aperture, leading to very incremental solutions.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:28 AM


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