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Six Innovation Insights

It’s incredible what you can find on the Internet these days. I was cruising around cyberspace the other day without any specific sense of where I was going when I stumbled upon a paper on innovation models by Professor Joe Tidd at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex (UK). Reading the report sparked off a number of ideas. Using the paper as a foundation here are some thoughts about innovation processes, tools and trends.

1. Innovation process and theory all too often focus on improvements to the scientific base or are otherwise concerned with novel technological innovation at the expense of later research and development. There are considerable barriers to adoption, especially with truly radical ideas, and attention should always be paid to how an innovation is introduced and diffused within a market. Timing is also critical. Launching too soon can kill an innovation just as fast as launching too late. As John Naisbitt once said: "If you get too far ahead of the marching band people don’t realise you’re part of the parade" (at least I think that’s what he said, it was in a bar late at night in Copenhagen and my memory is a bit hazy).

2. Innovation (as opposed to creativity) is a logical process and there are considerable gains to be made from managing it properly. Early theorists saw innovation in terms of linear (push) models involving specialist individuals or departments and it was largely the province of large well-funded firms. These days it’s more open, more networked and more fluid. Moreover, many of the traditional barriers to entry have been reduced or removed altogether allowing smaller forms to innovate alongside their larger brethren.

3. The big shift in recent years is towards open innovation and the use of networks and partnering. This has resulted in pull models whereby customers and stakeholders become active co-creators of value. However, whilst the general public can be very useful in refining ideas or suggesting incremental improvements they are less good at imagining things that do not exist. As Henry Ford once remarked: "If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse".

4. The idea that successful innovation comes about by matching technological skills and market experience to known (articulated) customer needs is too limited. Many of the most successful innovations in history have not initially addressed a known need or matched historical skills or competencies to future possibilities. Sometimes if you build it the market will come. However, it’s generally best not to try this unless you have the patience of a saint and very deep pockets.

5. Continuous incremental innovation often results in long-term business advantage. Toyota and Wal-Mart are both masters at this type of process innovation. Toyota, for example, has an employee idea suggestion system that results in over one million ideas being put forward every single year (see 40 Years, 20 Million Ideas by Yuzo Yasudain). Nevertheless, all too often incremental innovation is seen by firms (and employees) as dull and unworthy.

6. Innovations exist within a commercial and cultural context and this should not be ignored. Moreover, as ethical and social concerns become more important to customers and employees alike the social and environmental impacts of specific innovations, or innovation policies, should be thought through.