Watch Out for the Innovation Boogeyman

by Brad Barbera

Watch Out for the Innovation BoogeymanThis is Finalist #3 of 3 in the Business Innovation Factory (BIF-5) Ticket Contest

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“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
– Arthur Ashe

Picture this. You’re in a large, dark basement. You need to find your way out before the boogeyman gets you. You’ve watched this boogeyman get people you know, people like you. The threat is real, and imminent. While fumbling around for a light switch that you can’t find, you stumble upon a pack of matches. You know that a match will not possibly light the entire basement. It may just light up a corridor that looks promising, but leads to a dead end. It may serve as no more than a signal to the boogeyman of where you are. But sitting in the total dark doesn’t seem like the best of options, either. Your heart pounds, almost audibly. What do you do? Do you light the match and see where it can lead you? Or do you remain in the dark until you find the light switch?

If you are operating under tight resource constraints (and these days, who isn’t?), you may recognize that this is the innovation world you face every day. You desperately want to – need to – innovate, but you are in the dark about emerging technologies, consumer trends, and competitive movements. Optimally, you’d like to throw on the light switch and see clearly into all of those areas, but the costs of market research studies, consumer testing, innovation management software, and outside consultants are beyond your reach. You can study innovation best practices, but how do you implement processes that come from the perspective of an organization that has more global R&D centers than you have employees?

Before trying to answer that, let’s evaluate if this is really a general problem worth worrying about. Here are some statistics from the US Small Business Administration:

  • Small businesses represent 99.7% of all US employer firms.
  • Those small businesses employ about half of the US private sector workforce, and 40% of the high-tech scientists, engineers and computer workers.
  • Small businesses generate over 50% of the innovations that come from US companies

According to research by the National Federation of Independent Business, the top concerns among independent business owners are business costs – particularly those such as health insurance, energy and inflation. Those things must get paid before any investments in innovation. This really is a crucial dilemma faced by the majority of the business world.

History has much to teach us about situations in which an individual or group must battle against bigger, better-equipped adversaries. Think David vs. Goliath. Leonidas vs. Xerxes. William Wallace vs. Edward Longshanks. Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed, Mr. T, and Drago the Soviet Giant.

On the political battlefield, it’s called guerrilla warfare. Translated to the innovation space, this viable and important strategy is “Guerrilla Product Development.” Adapting the lessons of guerrilla warfare to innovation leads to a number of important tactics:

  • Arming your personnel with the resource of time.
  • Learning astute anthropological observation and online survey tools.
  • Leveraging available online information.
  • Engaging actively in online social networks.
  • Listening to and using customer feedback.
  • Building a network of thought leaders and experts can advise you.
  • Conducting ideation and concept development by training internal facilitators.
  • Enhancing rapid decision-making and adaptability.
  • Attacking niches that bigger players overlook or avoid.

While space does not permit a full exposition of such tactics, let me offer some true success stories of such guerrilla NPD.

While developing innovative ergonomic products, a business team wanted to get into the minds of ergonomists and purchasers of ergonomic products. Taking the standard research approach was going to cost tens of thousands of dollars, which was tens of thousands more than was in the budget.

Time for guerrilla tactics! An ergonomics convention was taking place in Las Vegas. After the team developed a questionnaire, a team member flew out to the convention. Armed with $250 in poker chips, this guerrilla operative stood outside the event and offered a $5 token to anyone willing to spend ten minutes on a survey. During the two-day event, over fifty professional ergonomists, consultants, and corporate representatives were interviewed, often volunteering far more than the requested ten minutes of their time. The interviewer, having both subject matter and specific business expertise, was able to probe deeply on questions that arose during the interview process. The total cost was less than $1,000 in expenses, while the information was worth tens of times that.

When resource constraints prohibited the use of outside market research, a business team became their own ethnographers. Forming pairs of cross-functional colleagues, including engineers, designers, marketers, and supply chain professionals, the group networked with local businesses, suppliers, and customers. At the cost of a few business lunches, some personal car mileage, and $100 in digital voice recorders, critical information was gathered, synthesized it into key unmet needs, and translated into unique new products that you will see in the market in the not-too-distant future.

When purchasing relevant market data was cost prohibitive, another business team conducted internal online research. The hard work was not in collecting the information, but rather in piecing the information together into a cohesive whole. The results of that research led to a successful entry into one profitable and growing business category, while wisely avoiding another category that started out with promise, but went quickly into decline.

These guerilla tactics are like matches in the dark. They are not intended to replace the light switch, but rather to provide whatever light is available when that switch is not an option. Please note that any financial cost savings don’t come for free! The financial costs are replaced by opportunity costs. For example, when engineers are engaged in market research, it is at the expense of their engineering time, for which they are presumably better trained and inclined. These suggestions are not intended to replace traditional methods, but are rather meant to supplement them.


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Brad Barbera is the founder of KAB Business Research, a consultancy focusing on Innovation Training, Ideation Facilitation and Management, and Business Intelligence.

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