If your company does any kind of innovation, how would you describe it?
- Stoic – slow, plodding, methodical, and generally consisting of small incremental improvements (minimalist).
- Stretch – Evaluation of current as well as future needs and wants of the customer with some structured framework for achieving a future state (striving).
- Maelstrom – creative “free for all,” sky’s the limit and a “no holds barred” barrage of brainstorming and chaos (directionless).
The Common Approach to Innovation, Generally Stoic or Maelstrom
There are generally two separations around innovation in practice.
1) There is the “continuous improvement” type of “innovation” which is incremental or stoic.
2) There is the complete “free for all” type of “innovation” that relies more on being creative for creativity sake and tends to be a chaotic maelstrom.
Think about it, improvement, creativity, and innovation are distinct words with different meanings even though each can include components of the other. Innovation generally requires application of the creative process, not just the creative process in a vacuum, and it requires the incremental process of improvement. Therefore I am proposing an approach to innovation that uses an innovation narrative and early prototyping to achieve new products or services with limited risk and cost.
Stoic Innovation (This is Really Continuous Improvement)
A number of product oriented companies rely heavily on the “stoic” method to innovation. They make incremental design or usability changes to existing products and product lines. This approach has some merit as it is generally risk averse and has application in mature markets, commodities, or areas where there is little competition.
This approach is best seen in many auto manufacturers in between major model overhauls. They will make incremental changes and improvements to an existing model for roughly 8 – 10 years and then make a complete departure with a new platform or model.
Innovation Maelstrom (Much Ado About Creative Chaos)
Some academic institutions, several Fortune 1000 companies, and those who buy into unscrupulous consulting models that promote blue sky approaches to design or innovation generally adopt the maelstrom approach. Although this approach is capable of producing “blockbusters” it is very high risk, very expensive, and has little application outside of training exercises and academia. Those “blockbusters” that are produced are rarer than winning massive lotteries. The underlying problem with this approach (as anything other than a training exercise) is the deliberate disconnection of brainstorming and the creative process from constraints or limitations.
While the creative juices may flow, and even a few truly breakthrough innovations, inventions, or novel approaches may emerge, the results are rarely (if ever) cost effective. They are usually preceded by huge budget expenditures and string after string of “oddities” that have little or no useful application. Here are a few blockbuster examples of innovative design work that eventually paid off, but not until mountains of money was spent to devise and develop useful applications.
Look at the laser, invented in Bell Labs which took some 20+ years to find commercial uses for it. Or what about the original IBM tube based computer, commercial application took nearly 30+ years to begin to gain widespread business acceptance. What this points out is that innovation for innovation sake is not a productive or cost effective use of a company’s limited resources. And although both the laser and the computer had dramatic, life altering impacts later on, it took many years to realize the benefits and massive amounts of expenditures. Neither of these innovations was very effective before another invention – the transistor – was able to animate them and allow for any practical productive use.
Stretch Innovation (Striving for a Future State)
The third approach, which I personally consider the most balanced of the three between achieving great results without too much risk, and without too much cost would be the “stretch.” This approach relies heavily on the relentless pursuit of an idea or ideal. But to bring the idea or ideal to life it relies heavily on the ability to draw key information out of your customers, or from the marketplace, and then create a special “narrative” about the new state of the product or service. Think of it like an ideal state elevation, rather than a full blown blueprint, but committed to writing. Just like the artist’s rendering, or the architect’s elevation does not include all of the construction details, a good narrative of the future state should produce something that people can picture and work toward.
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