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Anatomy of Innovation

I avoid writing about my job too often.  But, I have gotten a lot of questions recently on how the concept for Goldfire came about and its path to market innovation.  It’s an interesting case because not only is it about a technology and product innovation; it also takes us into the realm of innovating innovation.

I avoid writing about my job too often.  But, I have gotten a lot of
questions recently on how the concept for Goldfire came about and its
path to market innovation.  It’s an interesting case because not only
is it about a technology and product innovation; it also takes us into
the realm of innovating innovation.

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Birth of a concept
In
the winter of 2002, Trident Capital invested in a company called
Invention Machine.  Trident tapped Mark Atkins and me to be the
turnaround team.  (Mark and I had just been part of a successful exit
for Trident in where he was CEO and I was CTO.)  We had helped with the
investment due diligence for Trident, and we felt the company had some
interesting technologies.  However, the existing products and
positioning were not optimal but could be realigned to produce great
value.

Sitting at the Au Bon Pain across the street from the office, Mark
and I discussed the strategy for the company.  On a napkin, we mapped
out a concept to create a new software platform for innovation that
would bring together some of the company’s technology and knowhow
assets.  This new product would combine innovation methodology with
state of the art semantic technology to make is easier for knowledge
workers to innovate.  Mark asked me if would be possible to do; I told
him it would.  He asked how long it would take; I told him we would
have a deliverable product in 10 months.  Of course, identifying a
product concept is a far cry from delivering a product.  There were
some important things that needed to be understood along the way.

Assessing resources; Understanding the job
Few
things are entirely new.  All innovations build on the past.  New
products evolve from the changing needs of customers as they interact
with incumbent solutions to do today’s jobs.  For this reason, the
first issue I tackled was to understand the resources we had to work
with and the jobs that customers wanted to get done.

From the resource perspective, it begins with the people.  I
interviewed every person on the product team to understand the scope of
skills and the depth of the team.  Fortunately, we had very strong
people on the team including a world class research group.  Another
aspect of resource was the existing technology.  The company had a grab
bag of componentry from the existing products.  Some of it would be
reusable, but much was not going to contribute to the new product.  The
third internal asset of the organization was its institutional learning
about innovation best practices.  The company had been engaged in
innovation consulting for over a decade with some of the leading
innovation companies in the world and had helped these companies to
successfully build repeatable innovation practices.

The other key asset was the customer base.  Most of my first 45 days
at Invention Machine was spent on the phone interviewing clients around
the globe, learning from them what they did.  Each interview recorded
not just what the client did with our software, but also the nature of
their work, what they did outside of our software, and what they wished
they could do differently.  This interaction was the key to further
developing the original concept into a strategic path to delivering
value.

Moment of synthesis
There
was no aha moment.  Innovation doesn’t really happen like that. 
Rather, it was like a photographic image gradually appearing as you
watch the paper sitting in the developer bath.  The pieces were fitting
together.  Innovation is a full life cycle activity.  At each point in
the lifecycle, knowledge workers have two main challenges: indentifying
the right concept, and finding the optimal solution to the problems of
realization of the concept.  These challenges occur across and at every
level of the entire value creation chain.  Software tools provide
problem analysis frameworks for thinking about and modeling innovation
challenges.  The resulting models can be thought of as networks of
requirements and problem statements.  These statements can be mapped
into conceptual representations of solution templates and correlated
with information captured in knowledge databases to identify precise
solution concepts for the problems.  In short, we could imagine a
system where as an engineer, designer, or scientist went about their
work, the software would automatically source and deliver high
relevance information and speed the time to solution.

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Validating value
A
concept not delivered in merely a concept.  If it does not deliver
value and is not accepted by the customer, there is no innovation.  In
the fall of 2003, we delivered the first version of Goldfire Innovator
to customers.  A module called the solution manager provided a new
capability where the software figured out what question the knowledge
worker needed to ask based on the problems implied in their models and
sourced high relevance concepts without the user needing to submit
queries.  User feedback was strong; user liked the integration of best
practices and knowledge access. The new platform delivered value for
the innovation workers.

Endless innovation
Of
course, innovation is a continuous process.  As new solutions are
introduced, our vantage point and understanding evolve as do the goals
and aspirations of our customers.  Through studying what innovation
workers need to do, we have continued to evolve the product with a
number of changes.  Some of these have been incremental enhancements,
but others have been big leaps forward.  That is a familiar pattern for
most products.  There is a broad spectrum of change that occurs in the
innovation process.  It is important to swing for the fences if you are
going to find the big innovation that sets you in a class by yourself,
but the incremental innovations are important too.  Small innovations
build value and more importantly, when pursued with the same innovation
methods hone your innovation capabilities so that you are always ready
to innovate on demand.

I hope you found this recounting of one path to innovation interesting.