Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Three vital factors for innovation success

I've been thinking a lot about how innovation, both how it is done, and who does it, has changed.  Going back into history, innovators were the rare people (Newton as an example) who had time and talent to innovate.  The vast majority of the population were so occupied with simply living, or so uneducated, that they did not have time to imagine a new way of working. Innovation, whether in tangible items, processes or even new governing models, came almost exclusively from a very small handful of people.

Plus, many people did not have access to important physical tools or mental models.  Galileo and Copernicus discovered how the Earth moved, and innovated an entire way of thinking about humanity's role in the solar system.  But most people could not afford a telescope or other expensive tools.

In the earliest models, innovation was driven by very few people with access to tools and education, who had plenty of time.

Harnessing steam

It seems that the world took a great leap forward when we managed to harness the power of steam.  Then, the engines powered by steam could perform work and replace manual labor.  This also allowed organizations to grow, and created the need to create new forms of innovation - process innovation and organizational innovation.  What happened next were building large, continent spanning organizations (railroads) and production systems (mass production).  Innovation remained the same - but the people doing innovation and the methods changed to some degree.  Both became more democratized.

What many people forget about the great robber barons of the late 19th century is that many of them were born poor, and amassed great wealth during their lifetimes by cornering markets.  These individuals were not royalty or the fortunate few would could ponder gravity like Newton, but were people with an insight and the ability to build up industries around their ideas.

Gradually, what we can see over time is that the better ideas win, but through most of history it helped to be backed by wealth, or education.

Taking flight

Even the Wright brothers and their competition with Samuel Langley is a good case in point.  The Department of War in the US (later to be the Department of Defense) strongly backed Samuel Langley to build a heavier than air flying machine, while two bicycle mechanics from Dayton were the first to fly a plane and to make powered flight possible.  Even with the funding and the power of the government behind him, Langley could not do what two relatively unknown and underfunded bicycle mechanics did.  Innovation and the ability to generate ideas and convert them into reality was being democratized.

In the recent past, innovation has been democratized.  More people are working on innovation, the tools and education is more widely available, but time was increasingly scarce.

 Looking ahead

The question from here forward is:  what are the necessary tools to innovate, and who will be the people to understand and best deploy those tools?  Note that the tools are important but secondary:  other people could have done what Ford did with mass production, he just had either better insight or more luck.  There are three concepts we need to investigate to understand what innovation will be like in the near future, and these factors shape the potential of innovation.


I think as innovation becomes increasingly more democratized, consumer markets and other markets will fill with interesting but ultimately useless junk.  The innovations that matter will require far more insight into customer needs or far more vision or creativity than the average person possesses.  The innovations that win, at least in the consumer market in the near future, will require far more creativity and insight than before.

If that assumption is correct, then the name of the innovation game is trend spotting, scenario planning and customer insight and discovery, along with some tech scouting.  To win as an innovator, you need to be spotting emerging needs, emerging markets and emerging technologies and meshing all those emerging phenomenon into solutions that solve customer problems.

In the present and for the foreseeable future, tools and information will be easily accessible and virtually free.  Tools and knowledge will not be a significant barrier to more and better innovation.


Information and some tools are reasonably widely distributed.  We don't need Newtons or Einsteins to innovate future products and services.  But we do need people who are innately curious, dissatisfied with the way things work and motivated enough to want to change them.  That's what innovation is going to require.

Because most of the infrastructure to innovate exists:  we can do rapid prototyping on 3-D printers.  There is plenty of angel and venture money floating around.  You can rapidly scale a management team and the IT you need to support a product or business.

This means that what is needed for innovation is people with above average creativity, who have a real desire to change things and are comfortable taking big risks, who can use the existing infrastructure to their advantage to create products and services they are convinced that customers need, because they've done the research and discovery work.

The "people" factor is a larger challenge, for several reasons.  

  • We've become accustomed to the "great man" or "great woman" theory - that is, only a few really interesting people can generate valuable ideas, so we need to find these superstars and get them on our team.
  • We've indoctrinated our companies and employees with a focus on efficiency, and innovation runs contrary to that investment and risk model.  To gain more innovation, we have to rethink cultures and retrain and refocus our staff.
  • In some organizations, we've drunk the Kool-Aid that says "anybody" can innovate, and we are waiting for anybody to show up with a good idea.

Every business claims that people are one of, if not the most important, asset.  You'll be able to tell which of them really mean this by how they emphasize training, personnel development and new compensation models.  For those companies where people are important and are valued, innovation will be simpler and more effective.

In the near future, there will be plenty of good, creative people who are not weighed down with past experiences or emphasis on efficiency, who are smart and willing to take risks.  The "people" factor will not be a significant barrier to innovation, unless corporations or their cultures simply block the best efforts of these people.


I love the idea of Newton, waiting out the London Plague in a small village, sitting under an apple tree pondering the forces that drew the apple to the ground.  Newton was somewhat luck in that he had a sinecure, a job that did not occupy a lot of his time, and natural curiosity.  He could develop his ideas about gravity over months or years, honing the ideas with other scientists.

Contrast Newton's luxurious and slow discovery with what most people are confronted with today - life by the stopwatch.  We work in exceptionally small increments, and that narrows our scope and our thinking.  Good innovation requires (as we've noted above) discovery and exploration, which take time.  

What's rare and expensive in this list?

Of the three items on this list, I think we can say the "tools" factor has had the most significant price decrease over time.  The tools we work with to innovate were once very valuable and hard to acquire, but now many tools necessary for innovation are ubiquitous and inexpensive. 

People are more expensive than they were in Newton's day, but they also contribute on average far more value, so their cost is equaled in most cases by their output.

Time, on the other hand, has become very valuable.  The ability to deliver something, even a limited product or service today, is viewed as far more attractive than a better or more interesting or valuable product even 12 months from now.

While all three of these factors is important, time is perhaps one of the factors that stymies innovation the most.  We have all the raw material - ideas, tools and people, but we lack time and rely too much on either the "great man" theory of innovation, that is, innovation belongs to one group or requires one expert, or we attempt to democratize innovation (crowdsourcing) without any guidance or controls, both of which speed the innovation process but don't create better ideas.

The better model

The better innovation model is to find a number of creative, curious, self-motivated and slightly hungry people who want change and need a challenge, and build up their innovation skill level, and provide them with the tools and information they need, or allow them to do the exploration and discovery work necessary to obtain insights into emerging needs or opportunities.  What we need to give these people is education, information, and especially time.

After years of innovation consulting, I can say that, given the right people and allowed to build their skills, we can find the tools and the necessary data, if only you will give us the necessary time.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:10 AM


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