Thursday, August 29, 2013

The hidden trap of innovation shortcuts

I've worked with a wide range of companies to help define and build innovation capabilities - teams, processes and cultural change.  Innovation has significant promise, to create valuable new products, services and business models that can drive new revenues and profits, differentiation or the entree to a complete new market or customer segment.  But doing innovation well requires doing it thoroughly, and no matter how often we build innovation processes and coach innovation projects, inevitably we find innovation teams taking shortcuts, skipping important innovation steps, assuming they "know" something about the customer or market.  When these shortcuts are taken, the result is almost always a "me-too" product.  You must either commit completely to the work that will help you achieve your goal, or admit upfront that you'll settle for something less than your goal.

Let's consider why shortcuts are so dangerous for innovation.

The future is now!

One of the steps that many innovation teams try to skip completely, or will shortchange, is understanding current trends and what those trends say about the future their products and services will compete in.  No one wants to spend time thinking about future conditions, because they can't be predicted with absolute certainty.  Therefore, many innovation teams identify needs that exist today and build products to meet those needs, only to find that when the products are released years later the needs or conditions have changed.  Investing time now to understand the potential future and what it may mean for your new product or service is vital if you truly desire differentiation.

What we think we know about needs

Far too many firms are far too arrogant about their understanding of customers and their needs.  The longer the involvement in a market, the more paternalistic a company becomes.  Product managers and marketers begin to assert needs that customers and consumers have, rather than going out and meeting customers on their own terms, where and when they use or consume a product.  It's far too easy to skip any investigation into needs, and assert the needs that have "always" existed and still exist today.

Letting others do the work

As a consultant, it may surprise you to learn that I think far too many organizations outsource far too much of their innovation cycle.  Companies rely on third parties for market research, defining product needs, interacting with customers and channel partners, product requirements and design, market development and other tasks.  Too many innovators, product developers and product managers live in a bubble, carefully fed information by third parties about the needs of their customers.  It's become far too easy to allow others to do the work, and become removed from the real investigation and discovery necessary to innovate.

It's all about speed

Of course every firm is focused on speed and efficiency.  How quickly can we complete this project so we can move on to the next one?  Are we working at peak efficiency, which is typically defined as moving as quickly as possible with as few resources as possible.  Innovation doesn't work to a stopwatch, and may often be iterative, inefficient, uncertain and require, gulp, actual learning.

So, when you combine an ill-prepared innovation team, uncertain about the tools and roles of innovation, with the pressure to create a new innovation quickly, and compound that by placing other demands on the team and downplaying any new insights or time to learn, the teams take shortcuts.  They skip critical steps, assert industry and segment knowledge, and end up repeating the same projects over and over again, using the same people and the same data.  That's not innovation, that's insanity according to Einstein.

Innovation isn't a race to efficiency and speed

Unlike every other activity in a modern corporation, innovation shouldn't be measured by a stopwatch.  Innovation should be carefully defined, carefully considered, and approached with the requisite investment in skill development it deserves.  Rather than skipping steps and activities, asserting that we "know" data, we should have the patience and humility and sense of discovery to engage customers and prospects with an open mind.  Since many innovation projects aren't a repeat of activities or projects a company has carried out before, the projects and activities should be carefully planned and each phase completely exercised.  There really is no cookie cutter approach to innovation, and many organizations lack any institutional memory about previous innovation activities or attempts, except for the attempts that failed.

When you skip steps, assume information, ignore blindspots and speed through an innovation process you miss opportunities and narrow the range of outcomes and scope of activities.  This inevitably results in incremental, me-too innovation.  Worse, it repeats a mistake and costs money and resources that with just a bit more focus and time could have delivered a far better result.  The difference between a very mediocre innovation activity that's rushed and delivers incremental results and an incredible innovation activity full of discovery that's patient and delivers disruptive results is very small, in both time and costs.

As a company gains experience and innovation maturity, the innovation teams may be able to assert knowledge, repeat processes and skip steps, but even experienced innovators will tell you that there are opportunities to discover new needs and learn new things about consumers in every innovation activity.  Mark Twain recognized the intelligence of experience when he said about his father:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
When nascent innovators skip innovation steps, against the advice of years of innovation experience, they are like the boy of 14.  As a firm matures, it may discover that the advice was more valuable than expected.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:03 AM


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