Sunday, 24 January 2010

Innovation Templates

How does innovation happen?   Is it a spark of magical genius that some people have, some people occasionally have and others never seem to have?   Is it a natural consequence of really listening to and understanding your customers' needs (perhaps sharing them yourself)?   (But you can't always rely on your customers to even know what they want, much less provide you with innovative ideas. Customer's ideas tend to lead to small changes to products and services which often fail to have significant impacts on the market.)  Is it a function of simply trying as many things as you can and hoping that some of them stick?   (Most businesses cannot afford the 20% of their time that Google allows its employees to experiment with new ideas.)   Or is it just luck?

A study of innovation reveals that it tends to conform to several patterns.   By studying and understanding these patterns, it may be possible to deliver innovation on a more consistent and predictable basis and to harness the creative capabilities of employees, suppliers, distributors, partners and customers.
  • Subtraction or Reduction: removing one or more elements from the product or process.   The natural tendency is to want to increase the features of a product or service.   However, this can lead to feature bloat, a product which is confusing to the end consumer and spiralling costs.   The element removed may be:
    • undesirable, such as the alcohol in beer or the caffeine in coffee, or
    • revolutionary, such as the speakers in a Sony Walkman, or
    • replaced by something already in the environment, such as removing the legs from a baby's chair and clipping it directly to the table, or
    • simply result in a more affordable product, such as the removal of travel agents, tickets, free food and drink, seat reservations and customer care from Ryanair.
  • Multiplication: adding one or more copies of an element or attribute of the product or service.   For example,
    • adding additional blades and changing the angle of the blades in the Gilette razor, or
    • adding an additional tray to a CD player to produce an automated CD changer.
  • Division: Divide the product or process into one or more separately usable, often modular, components.   This is common with electronic goods.   For example,
    • the separation of turntables, speakers and amplifiers into separate components.   This modularisation of home entertainment units has meant that new devices, such as MP3 players are more easily integrated into existing equipment.
  • Task Unification: assigning new tasks to existing elements of a product, often combining the function of one element into another.   For example,
    • getting the defrosting wires in a windshield to act as the radio antenna, or
    • using an iPhone to control other household devices.
  • Attribution Dependency Change: creating or removing dependencies between the product/process and its environment.   For example,
    • splitting unisex razors into masculine and feminine razors.
Taking an existing product or service and applying the above patterns systematically will undoubtedly lead to many spurious ideas, but may also yield valuable innovations.   Sometimes, it may take even more imagination to conceive of uses for the result - it may not have been immediately obvious that a handheld, speaker-less non-recording tape player would find a market with walkers and joggers in the form of the Sony Walkman.   But because these innovations flow from the product itself, they are likely to be aligned with the firms' existing skills, production capabilities and client bases.   Thus the process of idea generation and execution are more likely to align.

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