The Missing Pieces of Innovation

I realised something very important while I was a the innovation event organised by EditorEye at the General Assembly recently. It became clearer to me why, despite spending a lot of time and effort on innovation and hiring some excellent people, organisations are still struggling to get the results out of innovation. The speakers at the event, by the way, were all very good and were all covered the topic extensively. But there are some aspects of innovation which are simply not talked about, while others get a lot of focus, as I’ll show you later in this piece.


But the problem, I believe starts at the root. What is innovation? You can get as many definitions as there are people in the room. Is it new product development? Is it new ideas? Is it creativity? Is it bringing ideas to market? My definition is simple – it’s doing more with less. If it takes 100 units of resources to solve a problem, and you figure out a way of doing it with 80, that’s innovation. We can debate this later, but let me ask you a different question. Is all product development innovation?

Let’s suppose you are an insurance company and you figure out that increasingly there are older people whose lives depend extensively on technology. You survey the market, and you create a new product which looks at a comprehensive technology devices cover for this audience. You create an app and website for it, which is designed to be used by older people – simpler interfaces, larger fonts, etc. You spend time with prospective customers to understand their specific behaviour and problems and design your product to deliver their key unarticulated needs. Your product is a success. Was this an example of innovation? Let’s assume this product was prototyped in your ‘innovation lab’ which has been set up for bringing such new products to market. Still, is it innovation? Which part of this is innovative, given that all these processes are now standard practice for product development? It may be an excellent example of product development, but I repeat, is it really innovation?

Similarly, you might argue, is every successful advertising campaign ‘innovative’? Is every market research that delivers customer insight an act of innovation? What about a new business, or start up? The reality is that you’re perfectly justified in saying yes to all of these questions. And if your innovation lab delivers successful products, then surely it’s justified, irrespective of what you call it. And I’m not disagreeing with that.

However, to miss the point of innovation is also to walk away from a lot of value. Let’s suppose the typical new insurance product costs £2m to develop and test and £10m to market, hypothetically speaking. Let’s say that the numbers here represent the comprehensive resource cost, and not just actual cash outflows. Now if your new product took about the same, and was averagely successful, you’re at par. But what if you could deliver similar success with 20% investment? Or much better returns? And what if you could build a methodology for doing this consistently? That’s innovation! That means you can deliver more for less and on a consistent basis.

Most organisations look at innovation as a way of delivering new products, or new businesses. It’s also common to look at it as a process that follows a standard path: brainstorm ideas, prototype in a lab and then scale through the organisation. I challenge both of these premises. First, looking at innovation as an idea to market process limits our thinking. Innovation needs to be seen as a problem solving methodology. And specifically, a methodology that looks to improve on the expected resource requirement for solving the problem. And to the second, if everybody is replicating this model, then it stops being innovative. Not that it becomes less valuable if the new products work. But the reality is that most innovation initiatives in most companies don’t lead to success. And wouldn’t it be great if we could increase the success rate?

My model of innovation therefore starts earlier, with Problem Definition. If you’re thinking of a new product, why? Is it to ensure coverage of the market? is it opportunistic? Do you believe that there will decline in current products & revenues? Is it a strategic response to competition? Do you feel you underserve the market? Is the problem financial – your return on capital is too low and you’d like to improve this? Are you missing out on more profitable customers or a growing segment? As you can see there are many, many ways of framing your new product development effort and the problem you’re trying to solve may vary significantly. 3M for example, has a commitment to drive 30% of revenues from ‘new products’ – i.e. those built in the last 4 years. For a pharmaceutical company a new product that better addresses a disease or a family of problems, is a protectable revenue stream that can run for over a decade, even as older revenues decline through patent expiration. Whereas Google (Alphabet) just wants to solve bigger problems. That allows it to be mission driven but even there, for example there are specific problems. Arthur Levinson, ex CEO of Genentech leads a platform in Alphabet to combat ageing. Whereas in the new famous example of British Cycling, the marginal innovations are aimed at driving higher performance, and nothing to do with a product at all. This is where we step away from product development and recognise that innovation is a methodology for solving any problem in a ‘do more for less’ way, not just product development. To do this well, try approaching this problem as at least two out of a CFO, a CEO and a head of Operations, or Marketing. Or apply design thinking principles to see how the people impacted by this problem think about it. This award winning redesign of the ambulance started by looking at the ambulance as an extension of the hospital, and the start of the medical process, rather than just a form of transportation to the hospital. Kees Dorst’s book ‘Frame Innovation’ is a good starting point for thinking about problem framing.

The next step is the Research and Baselining phase, so we know what benchmark we’re trying to beat. It is likely that your ambitions are not at the same scale as Google’s (or Alphabet’s), Amazon or Elon Musk’s. In fact you may just be looking to solve an punctuality problem in your department in a way that nobody in your company has done yet. If you define your context as your company, department, industry or the world, you can accordingly set your benchmarks. This is critical because what’s innovative for a government agency (say agile development) could be very old hat for a Silicon Valley company. But this my second key point. Innovation is surely about being different, and not replicating a tried and tested method. So you need to clearly set out what you’re going to do differently (better!) from other similar efforts, before you start. It’s worth noting that of the 5 stages, this gets the least amount of attention because it’s probably the least sexy part of innovation. But it could save you a lot of effort and also dramatically sharpen the subsequent phases. In fact, often, you will be able to find a lot of examples workable ideas in other industries and organisations. No better example of this than the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children learning from Formula 1 pit stops, about swift handovers from surgery to intensive care. This represents a huge reduction of risk, in the innovation journey.

It’s only once you’ve done stages 1 and 2 that you should then get to the Creative Spark stage. For most organisations, this equates to a brainstorming exercise. One of the biggest mistakes in the area of innovation is that people jump into brainstorming with a loosely defined problem and no benchmark. To make it worse, you then get a lot of people with very little knowledge of the context of the problem state coming up with ideas many of which clearly won’t work. I know of a company which was keen to ‘pitch’ ideas to Transport for London. They ran a competition internally, generated hundreds of ideas, evaluated them and drew up a short list of 10. But the brainstorm was run with a global team, not based in London, and consequently many of the ideas, such as mobile app based solutions for contactless ticketing did not factor in the actual challenges of rush hour volumes, or the speed of response required. Besides, many of the ideas were already at play at TFL, which hadn’t been researched well enough. Running pure-play brainstorms is also of limited use if the team doesn’t have enough context of the problem. You can’t brainstorm ways of improving care pathways in the NHS, or supply chains for broadcast equipment, if you don’t know much about them, or the problems they face. There are, however, plenty of techniques for running more effective brainstorms and idea sessions. Additionally, there are other ways apart from brainstorming for the creative spark phase. Best results are often achieved through having creative people in the mix along with experts, or building unpredictability into the process. Tim Harford’s book ‘Messy’ suggests some excellent ways in which this happens.

Once you have ideas you want to take forward, you can then push them through the Innovation Lab stage. Of the 5 phases of this methodology, this is the one most organisations have invested in already and are doing with a lot of focus. Setting up a lab environment, running ‘Google sprints’, ensuring that small teams turn around quick prototypes, building design thinking into the mix and fusing the efforts of creative technologists with deep experts, a lot of companies are able to do a reasonably good job of taking new ideas through a laboratory process to an MVP stage. When I was working at Cognizant, in 2015 we conducted a quick research of ‘innovation labs’ and were not surprised to find that an overwhelming majority of leading banks and retailers already had an innovation lab of some kind. If you haven’t yet been exposed to or been a part of an exercise like this, grab hold of ‘Sprint’ by Jake Knap et al.

But even that is not enough because a lot of initiatives can fail even after lab success. Be they new products or internally facing solutions. Scaling innovation is fraught with risk, and even Google is famous for the number of initiative it has killed after promising starts. This is the key reason that many organisations prefer to buy in the finished product rather than try to build it in house. What the newly created and lab-tested idea needs is not just organisational support, but often a network in which to flourish. The best results are created when the new idea has a life of it’s own and is allowed to grow and morph independently, not simply scale to a larger replica of it’s initial form. The perfect baby needs to grow into a healthy human adult, not a full sized replica of the baby. Most businesses are unable to provide this kind of sustaining network. Steven Johnson’s excellent book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ beautifully elucidates this idea of a sustaining networks. When GE set up it’s fledgling IOT business in Silicon Valley, it was not just allowing it to flourish outside of the corporate headquarters, but also allowing it to sustain and nourish itself in a high tech network. In organisations such as Google and 3M, there isn’t a small and tightly defined number of ideas being pipelined to the market, there is a huge internal innovation network, where dozens or even hundreds of ideas feed off each other, combine and morph on their way to a handful becoming successful products. If it’s new product and new business development that defines innovation for you, then you could do well to keep at hand the Innovators Solution, by Clayton Christiansen.


This is just the tip of the iceberg, in a way. Innovation is hard work, and much of it is done away from the public eye, and the adulation of success. But more importantly, innovation is a methodology, which when applied, dramatically improves your ability to problem solve in a way that is ahead of the competition.


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