How to Avoid Robot-Zombie Innovation

In order to create Breakthrough Innovations, you need to abandon the corporate robot-zombie talk, says Andrew Benson. By cultivating an open and free form innovation culture organizations can avoid the idea logjams created by formal innovation processes.

There’s the right way to speak about innovation.
And there’s the robot-zombie way.
Here’s the right way, uttered by Steve Jobs:

“When we created the iTunes Music Store, we did that because we thought it would be great to be able to buy music electronically, not because we had plans to redefine the music industry.”

And here’s the robot-zombie way to speak about innovation, dug from the Coca Cola website:

“Thought leadership: to explore and develop solutions to new issues and challenges.

Collaboration and engagement with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders: to drive innovation and unlock new ideas and opportunities.

Accelerating the pace of change: by developing and harnessing innovation and technology.”

The difference between Steve Jobs and Coca-Cola

What Steve Jobs described was an organic process. Whether or not he and the people of Apple had an inkling of what they were doing to the music industry, the reason for their decision was not innovation for its own sake. Rather, iTunes was a gem of an idea that fit within Apple’s corporate goals. It also happened to be a disruptive innovation in the way people experience music. It wasn’t to be thought leaders, to force collaboration, engage with the silos in their company, or to accelerate change.

Has your innovation gone robot-zombie?

To answer that question, I’ll start by looking at two models of innovation: Incremental Innovation vs. Breakthrough Innovation.

Incremental innovation

This is the kind of innovation that successful companies do as part of their normal workday. Including include things like: changes in packaging, new materials, cost reductions and process improvements. Companies are great at these kinds of innovations because they’re micro-evolutionary. Not much is changing, and the morphing that does occur is under strict control. The exits along this yellow-brick road of micro change is known to everyone who works under the corporate radar with buzzwords such as “launch”, “commit”, and “stage gate.”

These are governed by rules that produce measurable, known results. Rules that are commonly defined by thought leadership, collaboration, engagement and accelerating change.

It’s not breakthrough change, just competitive change – like New Coke.

Why would a successful company like Coca-Cola really want to change? It tried, for the sake of market share, to undertake formal innovation with New Coke, a decision that lasted for 79 days.

The problem: real game-changing innovation is just the opposite.

Breakthrough Innovation

To create Breakthrough Innovation, you need to abandon the formal process of robot-zombie innovation. Company leaders may have high-level ideas, but they find themselves trapped in an innovation logjam; an inability to move forward with an idea, due to a lack of recognition of another style of innovative process.

No one the executive works with can properly handle an idea. That’s because real breakthrough innovation is hard work. Vague ideas are eyed by a staff born, raised and working in the formal process.

They’ll answer: “There’s no time, no budget, no ROI calculations and no policy manual to answer your innovation questions with real data, so we can’t do what you want.”

That’s because, when an innovative idea is born, it’s in the Front End phase. Also known as the Fuzzy Front End. It’s a place where one of the rules is: There aren’t yet rules.

That’s why it’s called breakthrough innovation – you’re breaking through with an idea, or with intellectual property, to an untrammeled product landscape. For this reason it bears scant likeness to what most companies call innovation:

  • You can’t be a thought leader on what you haven’t studied.
  • You can’t collaborate when there’s no official game plan.
  • You can’t engage when you don’t know what your product is.
  • You can’t change faster when you don’t know how, or even if you should.

What’s it like on the front end?

Like the front line – beyond is a no-man’s land, and you need special soldiers to power through.

The Front End is processed on right side of the brain.
The Formal Process happens on the left side of the brain.

Ideas are triggered by problems and insights; hunches born of conversations and ruminations during your commute may glitter with gems. But which are the ideas that should be mined?

Only about 20% of ideas get put into formal process for development. Just because you have a good idea doesn’t mean it aligns with your corporate strategy. And even if it does – it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got a piece of disruptive innovation.

Arbitrary dates and forced innovation is an idea killer – the opposite of innovation, which is free form and nothing like the formal process of evolving what was there before.

Because there is little structure regarding the filtration, care and tending of innovative ideas – it requires collaboration by different people with different backgrounds, experience, and expertise. There should be tools to move along, but they don’t dictate how a front-end opportunity is managed.

The lack of budget is another reason the front end is scary.

Who does front end innovation?

Few employees are on the payroll for the front end. It usually requires a one-time project team, which is often hard to come by in a tightly managed company. There are independent companies who specialize in front end innovation services.

Here is a general example of their process:

  • Preliminary Assessment of technology or a concept
  • Market Research to decide what problem it solves
  • Technology Search to find nascent technology that can be translated into the company to create an innovative product.
  • Product Concept Testing
  • Analysis of the New Product to see if it’s helping the company

And here is a more detailed list of the process:

  1. Describe the discovery or concept
  2. Improve understanding of the innovation and its potential
  3. Prioritize which ideas are best suited for additional investigation
  4. Unearth and understand enabling technologies
  5. Evaluate risks and barriers
  6. Conceptualize a solution and define the value proposition
  7. Evaluate scalability criteria and time to market
  8. Architect and plan prototypes
  9. Challenge conclusions
  10. Build consensus and support for the projects
  11. Iterate and refine the plan for insertion into the formal process – which is what everyone in the parent company is familiar.

It is very important for organizations to understand innovation processes and how to apply them instead of just talking about innovation and applying different strategies blindly.

By Andrew Benson

About the author


Andrew Benson is a Suffolk University alumnus working in retail, selling sports memorabilia. He enjoys blogging about sports, new products, technology, and business innovation. You can find Andrew on Google+.

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