Why Context Matters in Successful Innovation

by Jeffrey Phillips

I think we often over complicate the work of innovation, because we believe it cannot be simple and straightforward. After all, how can an activity that can disrupt an industry, create compelling new products or services and reap significant riches be simple? To drive all of this change, certainly innovation must be difficult and complex, right?

Consultants often benefit from this assumption that innovation is difficult or unusual. Unfortunately the presumption that it must be difficult also means that many people are afraid they don’t have the requisite skills.

Fear and doubt about innovation and the knowledge and skills it takes to do it well mean that far less innovation is attempted than probably should be.

In order to accelerate the pace of innovation and increase the amount of innovation that’s done, we need to simplify it, or at least remove some of the uncertainty. To do that I’m going to argue in this relatively short post that innovation has three important deliverables:

  • problem definition,
  • ideas and
  • solutions.

Between those deliverables are two very important activities that illuminate and contribute the the generation of those deliverables. Those two activities create context and content. While we focus on the deliverables it’s actually the content/context that really drives innovation value.  Let’s review the deliverables and the activities between them to understand what I mean.

Problems/Opportunities

The first real deliverable in any innovation activity should be defining and scoping an interesting problem or opportunity. To ask for innovation without defining a need or opportunity is useless – but to innovate based on a key insight, opportunity or problem is exceptionally valuable.  Your first goal is to find the right problems to solve, the right opportunities to address.  I don’t have enough pixels in this blog post to tell you how to do that, but have written about this previously.

Too many innovators and innovation teams start out without a good problem definition or opportunity, and this lack of scope dooms their work.

Ideas

Many people think an innovation activity begins with an idea, but they are wrong. An innovation activity begins with a problem or opportunity that you investigate, and learn more about, and discover needs, all of which is context, and the next deliverable is a set of viable ideas to solve the problem. Ideas are simply a waypoint in an innovation process or exercise. Unfortunately many people think they are the output.

And, even when innovation teams generate ideas, they often limit their thinking to small changes, incremental ideas, and a small handful of ideas rather than fully exploring the innovation opportunity.

Solutions

Innovation doesn’t begin or end with ideas. It ends with a valuable solution that customers can acquire and use, that makes their lives better or easier or more valuable. There really isn’t any innovation without this final value realization, so a valuable solution, well launched and well marketed, is the final deliverable of an innovation activity.

Now that we’ve identified the three deliverables of an innovation activity, let’s turn to the activities that shape and inform the deliverables: the context setting and content development that helps shape and inform ideas and solutions.

Trends and Needs:  Context/Content between problems and ideas

Once you have settled on a problem or opportunity to solve, you need to back up and gather context. What are the issues? What are the challenges?  Why does this problem or opportunity exist?  Who else is working on it? Do customers understand the need or opportunity? Is there value in solving it?  This context helps you shape the problem and begins to point at potential solutions (ideas).

We typically frame this in two activities:  trend spotting to understand the evolving nature of the world, the market, customers and technologies, and customer insight gathering, to understand the gaps and needs of customers and what they value. Without this insight, discovery and context you cannot generate meaningful ideas, and if you do manage to generate good ideas you won’t be able to describe to anyone why they matter. Too often innovators assume that they know what customers want or need, or simply believe their solutions and technologies are so valuable that they can address any needs or gaps.

Evaluation, Prototyping and Development: Context/Content between ideas and solutions

Once you have good ideas you must evaluate them against customer needs, corporate viability and competitive reality. Then you must determine how to produce them and launch them in a timely fashion. These activities too require investigation, discovery and context setting. In many cases if the ideas are very new or different, you may need to create new product or service development capabilities or develop new business models or channels. This may require new discovery and new experimentation – something your existing product development processes won’t value or understand.  You may simply need new context for new ideas to be realized as new products.

Where the real work lies

The real work of innovation lies in this context and content development, between a good problem statement, ideas and solutions. We often get far too caught up in these discrete deliverables, never realizing that the value lies in how well we understand the context and generate and evaluate the content between the deliverables. If you want to know – its in these content and context activities that the innovation magic happens.

We innovators place far too much emphasis on the deliverables of innovation, and on ideas in particular, when we should be focused on the generation and understanding of the context and content activities that must occur between the deliverables.

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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation

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