5 Ways to Make Innovations Bigger: Avoiding the innovation squeeze

by Pete Foley

Are our efforts to improve innovation efficiency killing off some of our biggest ideas?

Most of us working in innovation will be familiar with the need to constantly improve ROI (return on investment) for innovation spending.  We need to be laser focused against specific business or consumer needs, and target high percentage initiatives. Even if we don’t face a hard pressed manager demanding a breakthrough by tomorrow afternoon, most of us feel the pressure to not only be cheaper, but also faster.

While efficiency is a good thing overall, I believe it may also be time to step back and make sure the pendulum has not swung too far. One of the most common complaints I hear is that really big innovations are in increasingly short supply.

This begs a question; has our quest for efficiency unintentionally reduced the size of our ideas?  If so, are there smart ways to redirect a small fraction of the efficiencies we’ve created to bring them back?

Investing in Serendipity

Historically, serendipity has been one of the most important sources of game changing innovation.  It has given us discoveries such as penicillin, and commercial blockbusters like Coca Cola, Viagra, The Dyson Vacuum, Teflon, Post-It’s and Velcro. The latter were all either failed experiments, the result of an unplanned connection, or developed for a different purpose, with their killer application serendipitously found at a later date. In all of the above cases, the initial event may have been serendipitous, but their evolution into innovation behemoths was no accident. Louis Pasteur said, “fortune favors the prepared mind,” and these are all examples or how a surprise was turned into meaningful innovation by open, flexible, often brilliant minds.

Sir Alexander Fleming was fortunate that his experiment became contaminated with a mold that produced penicillin, but he took the time to understand the surprising result. Percy Spencer didn’t expect a chocolate bar in his pocket to melt when he walked in front of a magnatron microwave generator. But his ‘need for cognition’ drove him to understand why, and eventually create the first microwave oven.

Sir James Dyson was lucky to walk into a sawmill, and find the answer to his vacuum cleaner problem in an unexpected place, but it was his mental agility that allowed him to see the analogy between a sawmill and a vacuum cleaner. Part of what occurred in these examples can be attributed to a happy accident, much of it to bright, curious, tenacious and observant people with the ability to make non-obvious connections. But time and autonomy are also important. Even a Fleming needs time to notice, understand, and pursue an unexpected result. And then a lot more time, resources, and help from others to turn that idea into a practical innovation.

The Innovation Squeeze

Common ways to deliver innovation efficiency include narrowing the innovation funnel faster, picking winners earlier, and focusing scarce resources on bringing them to market faster.  These strategies are often supplemented by stage gate processes that allocate resources based on incremental success and milestones. These are smart approaches, but they also tend to optimize the parts rather than the whole. Each individual project is efficient, but at a systems level, there is also a risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.  It is all too easy to squeeze out the really big ideas before they have a chance to breath, or drop them because they take too long to develop. Or to slice the salami so thin in the name of speed and efficiency that big ideas become small ones.

Making More Room for game changers

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the hard earned efficiencies and improvements we’ve made to our innovation processes. We’ve learned a lot about managing the innovation timeline, and hitting the right balance between divergence and convergence. And of course, an innovation strategy that relied on serendipity would make no sense. But there are ways to take the benefits of those streamlined strategies, and still leave room to facilitate and take advantage of, or even instigate a few happy accidents, outliers, or big ideas with long gestation periods. Below are five suggestions:

1.  Look at the whole as well as the parts

A lot of our efficiency measures target ROI on individual projects. However, examining the average size of our innovations, and/or the frequency of really big ideas can tell us a lot about our innovation program. If initiatives are consistently getting smaller, it may also be a sign that we are squeezing the innovation process a little too hard, and that it is time to add some slack back into the system. There are of course lots of reasons these can drop, such as maturing markets or technologies, but it is at least worth making sure that the problem isn’t internally generated.

2.  Change our language

An innovation pipeline that is 90% breakthrough or disruptive is in pretty good shape. But what if the reality is different, and most of the ideas labeled disruptive are really incremental?  Back to point 1, if our pipeline really is mostly breakthrough, the average size of initiatives should be huge.  If it isn’t, it may be time to redefine what we call disruptive or breakthrough.

Sometimes it seems every innovation is labeled as disruptive and/or breakthrough, whereas in reality many are really incremental. This is understandable, as everybody wants to work on the breakthrough ideas. The danger with this is that we start to believe our own publicity.

3.  Give Innovators Breathing Room

Most examples of serendipity driven innovation are the result of smart, curious people noticing anomalies, and seeking first to understand them.  They can only do this if they have the autonomy, time and permission to occasionally follow up on outliers or surprising results.

There are several ways to provide this autonomy.  One is via ‘FedEx days’.  Invented by Australian software company Atlassian, and made popular by Dan Pink in his excellent book, Drive, these one day bursts of autonomy are great for ideation. However, I personally prefer the free time strategies of Google and 3M, which allow seasoned innovators room to follow their instincts.

There is some debate as to whether strategies like 20% Google time truly work in practice, or whether they really translate into 120% time.  However, simply giving people permission to spend some time pursuing outliers may be enough.  Of course, there is always some discomfort and resistance to losing control of innovators time in this way, especially in the context of closely scrutinized innovation ROI. However, giving back a fraction of the efficiencies we’ve achieved to proven innovators may ultimately generate higher ROI than we can achieve with only tightly controlled processes.

4.  Provide Resources to Develop Outliers

Big ideas often take considerable nurturing. Spencer exploded many eggs, and his early microwave prototypes were far from commercially viable. Fleming’s discovery of penicillin failed to make an impact until it was taken up and developed by his fellow Nobel Laureates Florey and Chain, and the under-appreciated Norman Heatley. Dyson famously took 5,127 prototypes to turn a sawmill into a commercial vacuum cleaner. This kind of development requires resources and funds that likely carry a higher ROI risk than pipeline projects.  This in turn needs a source of discretionary funds, resources and expertise that sit outside of the standard ‘pot’, and that are not as tightly stage gate controlled.

Many seasoned innovators will have their own networks to enable the latter, but forums that enable teams to self organize around really big ideas can also help, and even a well established network can only work if resources have some autonomy.

5. Challenge Hypothesis

Not surprisingly, a lot of research designed to support fast paced, stage gate innovation is primarily designed to confirm our hypothesis. Before we move to the next stage, we need to know if it cleans as well as we expect, provides the hair color we saw in the lab, or the feel of acceleration we measured on the track. However, the scientific method usually takes a slightly different approach, and designs experiments that challenge, rather than confirm our assumptions and hypothesis. This often requires looking at outlier scenarios, actively looking for problems, and digging deep if there is a hint of something unexpected.

This takes more time, and is likely to create more work, but comes with two big advantages. The obvious one is that it identifies weaknesses in an innovation, and allows us to choose whether to address them or not, while avoiding nasty surprises later.  However, it also creates anomalies, and these can be the catalyst for serendipity, if we have a Pasteur mindset. There is a time and place for both types of test, but challenge testing can create all sorts of unexpected opportunities.

Conclusion

In many industries, as innovation efficiency goes up, really big ideas tend to go down. You rarely hit a big win by betting on the favorite. An innovation strategy needs a significant proportion of high percentage projects, but over the long term, it also needs disruptions and breakthroughs. Processes that increase the chances of big ideas, such as Design Thinking, Fed Ex Days, and using analogy are good ways to fill the pipeline with ideas, and to systematize and democratize innovation. But allocating a proportion of resources to encourage autonomy and to catalyze and leverage serendipity, especially with seasoned and productive innovators, can help find those illusive jackpots, and put some really big ideas back into the pipeline.

Many of these ideas are already operating in many innovation cultures, but I suspect there are also many opportunities to explore one or more of them, and in so doing, maybe shift the innovation pipeline towards a bigger proportion of more disruptive, more breakthrough, although harder to execute ideas.

image credit: bigstockphoto.com

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him on twitter at @foley_pete.

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