Innovation Perspectives – A Contrarian View

by Mike Dalton

This is the first of several ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on ‘What do you consider the most important single development in innovation methodology?’. Here is the initial perspective in the series:

by Mike Dalton

Innovation Perspectives - A Contrarian ViewWhat if I told you there wasn’t one? Now, don’t get me wrong—there’s a list of brilliant innovation tools, theories and approaches a mile long. Open Innovation, Disruptive Innovation, Outcome Based Innovation, Customer Focused Innovation, TRIZ, Lateral Thinking, Stage-Gate…and that hardly begins to scratch the surface.

The problem with trying to choose one as the most important is that while many have widespread utility, they only make a difference if the problem they help solve is the one that is limiting your growth.

Let me explain. Innovation is a process where successful ideas move to commercial reality along a path something like this:

  1. An idea about a problem that we might be able to solve
  2. A business case and plan for developing the product or service
  3. Development of the product or service
  4. Scale-up
  5. Commercial launch
  6. Regular use in the case of internal innovation or
  7. Market acceptance in the case of external innovations

Moving an idea successfully through the process is dependent on each of the steps in the chain operating effectively, but few companies have equal capabilities in each step. That means that improving the innovation process requires strengthening the weakest length – or what Theory of Constraints calls the system constraint.

Innovation also requires dealing with another constraint. That’s the critical chain–the shortest path to complete a project. What you’ll probably find here though is that the weakest step will have a big backlog of work, so shortening the steps ahead of it won’t necessarily reduce the time to market. You may also need to take steps to reduce the backlog such as running fewer projects in parallel and limiting the entry of new projects into the development process to match the rate of completion.

The reason that understanding these constraints is so important is that innovation methodologies that address anything but more effective operation of the process constraint or shortening the critical chain simply don’t improve results. For example, who could argue with the value of training to find more unmet customer needs?

But let me show you why that might be a good argument to have. I was working with a client that was struggling to get new products through development. Their time to market had ballooned and frustrations were running high. It turned out that the real problem was that they were operating with no prioritization of opportunities. If it looked like a good idea, they worked on it. Their design engineers were juggling so many projects that few of them were making forward progress.

Can you imagine what would happened if one of the leaders there had read an article about the latest and greatest methodologies for finding opportunities and had started implementing it? Without focus and prioritization, it’s very likely that not only would the new opportunities they started have been wasted, but their project cycle time would have lengthened even further.

So I’d encourage you to look at the various innovation methodologies like prescription medications. While they might sound powerful, they only work if you have the illness they are meant to treat. Put another way, implementing them won’t result in improvements unless you are constrained in the area they address and in some cases, they might even have the unintended side effect of slowing your constraint.

August Sponsor - SpigitYou can check out all of the ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles from the different contributing authors on ‘What do you consider the most important single development in innovation methodology?’ by clicking the link in this sentence.


Mike DaltonMike Dalton is the Chief Innovation Coach for Guided Innovation Group and the author of “Simplifying Innovation” and the Simplifying Innovation Blog. Guided Innovation Group has a simple mission – helping companies turn their new product innovation into more bottom-line impact.

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  1. This is the first innovation post I’ve seen with a very well made point about innovation methodologies. It’s somewhat like when you are a psychologist or message therapist, there’s a tendency to see things through those lenses, and with that particular world view – meaning making and value system.

    Making the choices among the various innovation methodologies, now there’s a tough call. It’s the mix of science, art & experience that shows up in everything from a doctor’s diagnosis to an auto mechanic’s take on a persistent, seemingly unfixable car problem.

  2. Thanks Deb – Using a constraints management approach won’t tell you exactly which methodology to use, but it will help you rule out the ones that don’t address the constraint.

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