Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Innovation Building Block #3: Discovery, exploration and novelty

I'm writing a series of posts about what I consider to be the fundamental building blocks of innovation.  The building blocks I'm writing about are core to doing innovation well over a period of time.  The first building block I wrote about was creating a bias for innovation in your culture.  The second was on gaining the context for innovation - identifying an emerging opportunity or a problem.  Today I am writing about the third building block:  introducing discovery, exploration and novelty to your innovation work.  For many businesses, discovery and exploration belong in the R&D group, if anywhere, and novelty is rarely embraced.

Let's examine some of the challenges to discovery, exploration and novelty.

Experts at doing more with less

As I've said many times, over the last 30 years, large corporations have become experts at doing more with less.  Generating more productivity from fewer inputs.  Gaining more output from fewer hours of work.  Outsourcing and right-sizing businesses.  And this is to the good - it means that businesses are more efficient.  But it comes at the expense of discovery, exploration and novelty.

To gain more efficiency, companies have to curtail discovery and variance.  There becomes "one way" to do a particular job, and the methods are fairly constrained.  If the job is to build a good product in the same way each time, then a lack of variation is valuable.  However, these factors create real hurdles to creating interesting new products and services.

Blame it on the people

One of the first arguments we'll hear in this case is that the people simply aren't that innovative or creative.  More likely, the reason your teams fail to explore or discover new opportunities is that they can read their evaluation forms and compensation models.  Most companies recognize and reward efficient operations over interesting exploration and discovery.  It's not that you lack interesting or creative people, it's that the processes, evaluation and risk models all keep them under wraps.

Discovery and novelty stand out

Beyond the cultural imperatives, it takes a pretty confident individual or team to commit to new research or exploration.  Innovation savants like Steve Jobs may be able to conduct research or talk about beginner's mind, but few people have the chutzpah to actually try it at work.

Yet this is what businesses need most - people and teams willing and able to explore, discover new needs and new technologies, to look at business problems and opportunities with a sense of wonder and novelty.

Not just a technology

What's important to note here is that exploration, discovery and novelty don't belong exclusively to the R&D team.  Good innovators should be seeking and solving problems and opportunities and exploring the means to create new products, services, experiences and business models far beyond the realm of physical products.  In fact, with digital transformation emerging, it's more likely that really creative new ideas and solutions will be intangible.

This means that it is becoming increasingly important for discovery and exploration to happen in the non-technical, service and business model oriented parts of your business.

The three horizons aren't dead

I read occasionally that the three horizons model of innovation is "dead" - that the format or framework of three horizons doesn't work anymore.  What I'd like to know is if any business doesn't think about or consider three timelines:  today, tomorrow and the future. Because that's one way to think about the three horizons.  Exploration and discovery will deliver for tomorrow and the future, but they have to begin today.

To understand the future, you've got to explore and discover today, act with a sense of novelty and openness to unfolding or future trends.  You've got to establish the right to do this kind of thinking, find the people who are willing and able to do it well, and ensure that they do it in the right context, for the right reasons, and that the work generates insights the company can use.

Discovery, exploration and novelty are vital to the mid term and longer term health of your business.  Identifying teams to conduct exploration and discovery, in R&D but also across the organization, will ensure that your teams are constantly identifying meaningful opportunities and identifying emerging needs and technologies.  Ignoring this important component and skill set, or simply delaying discovery and exploration will simply lock you in to the existing products, business models and industry competition that you have today.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:45 AM


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